Thursday 22 March 2018

Not a household name, a Northern star - Ralph Ineson

Ralph Ineson is probably best remembered as Finchy from 'The Office', but he's currently wowing audiences in a new horror film. He speaks to Donal Lynch

Preparation: Ralph Ineson lost two stone for 'The Witch'.
Preparation: Ralph Ineson lost two stone for 'The Witch'.

It's not often that a low-budget horror film wows the festival circuit but The Witch, a tense New England folk tale, has already built up a remarkable head of steam before it opens here this week. It earned first-time auteur Robert Eggers a director's prize at Sundance last year and the Washington Post placed it in the horror pantheon alongside classics such as The Omen, The Exorcist and Rosemary's Baby.

It's a subtle, slow-burning and intensely psychological kind of horror film, with some unlikely break-out stars: a devilish goat, a pair of preternaturally gifted children and the brooding Canadian landscape where it was filmed.

While presumably peering through their fingers at the unfolding grimness, some fans on Twitter were also quick to note another startling debut: Ralph Ineson's abs. The Yorkshire-born leading man's washboard stomach makes several dramatic appearances in the film, presenting the possibility that "16th-century banishment and starvation" might possibly surpass crossfit or pilates as the Hollywood exercise regime of 2016.

"Actually it was yoga and wood-chopping," the actor tells me. "The film is set in a time and a place when people were genuinely starving, so we had to reflect that in how we looked. I lost over two stone. I would go down to Wimbledon Common rangers' station and chop up these massive logs."

The weight loss was in fact the least of Ineson's physical trials for The Witch. He had a run-in with the aforementioned goat, which resulted in the tendons from two of his ribs becoming detached. Overall, he ended up casualty three times. "That was very painful, you seem to use your ribs no matter what kind of moving you do." Did he get compensated? "Ha! It's an indie movie, that's all I'll say."

Ineson is one of those actors everyone recognises even if his name is hardly at household level. He's best known as Dagmer Cleftjaw in Game of Thrones and Amycus Carrow in Harry Potter, and his distinctively gravelly voice has been put to work in a ton of voiceover projects. But, as he acknowledges himself, it is still the splendidly awkward character of Chris 'Finchy' Finch in The Office that tends to follow him around.

"I suppose it is bittersweet in a way, because it was of course an honour to be involved in something that has obviously really stood the test of time," he tells me. "But at the same time you'd hope it doesn't overshadow the other body of work. If people shout stuff from cars it tends to be something to do with The Office and Chris. I'll probably always be a bit synonymous with him."

That body of work has tended to feature doughty northern characters and Ineson's roots are in Yorkshire. He grew up in Leeds where his father was a career civil servant. When Ineson was a teenager his father broke his back in a car crash and was confined to a wheelchair. Then, a few years ago he was diagnosed with cancer, which would eventually claim his life. "I found it incredibly hard," Ralph tells me. "He lived in York and I lived in London. Suddenly once he was gone there was a certain foundation that goes. He died very quickly [after] he was diagnosed with cancer. The grief was terrible and in some ways it's always with you. But, I think I am quite a stoic person, it's a matter of what you have got to live for. I have two amazing children. The thought of them would drag me through, I think."

Growing up, Ineson never considered acting as a possibility. "I mean it seemed like a bit of a fantasy profession - riding horses and fighting with swords, who does that?" He went to boarding school before going on to study drama at Lancaster University. "Even then I didn't really consider being a professional actor though," he says.

Although he dabbled in local theatre, it was not until two years later that he was persuaded to take it up full-time. He acted in the York Mystery Plays, alongside Robson Green, who encouraged him to try to make a go of it. "He'd done Soldier Soldier at that point and he had something of a name, he was very good to me. He even lent me money - I did pay him back!"

Over the coming decade Ineson would build up an impressive body of work, but Spender, in which he appeared alongside fellow Northern titan Jimmy Nail, was his most meaningful early break. "Once I won the roles in Spender and First Knight it was much easier for everyone, me included, to get their heads around the idea of me being an actor."

He met his future wife, Ali, through mutual friends but they were together for a decade, he tells me, before they married. Why did they wait so long? "I was always very besotted with her but she wanted a particular kind of wedding. We had children (Luc, 16, and Becky, 12) and expenses and so between one thing and another we just decided to wait." Ali, who looks sort of like a young Debbie Harry, edits the make-up artistry magazine Warpaint.

Ineson is notably sporty, having played and coached cricket and having been interviewed at length on his die-hard Leeds United fandom. In the days before we speak he tweets about the controversy surrounding Manny Pacquiao's comments about gay people (the boxer compared them to animals). Given the similar tone of Tyson Fury's recent comments (he equated homosexuality with "the devil") I wonder if Ineson has an opinion on why Pacquiao has faced such massive condemnation, whereas Fury, world heavyweight champion, seems to have emerged unscathed. "Well I think there is a kind of reverse racism going on there," he tells me. "There is a certain amount of guilt in the mainstream about how traveller culture has been appropriated and mimed and sold and therefore when Tyson Fury did that I think many people kind of gave him a free pass. Personally I don't like his work, his style. I went to his fight against [Derek] Chisora and he was showboating."

Ineson says he loves being an actor, but adds: "Absolutely, it's hard on your mental health - the amount of rejection, comparing yourself to other actors and dealing with how that impacts on self-worth. I think it's fair to say that most [actors] are slightly flakier than the rest the population. We convey emotions for a living, of course we're going to be emotional."

Memorably - in that one rarely (if ever) sees it in his other performances - Ineson cries in The Witch. "I often get asked to play these macho man's man-type characters, but I very rarely get asked to turn on the waterworks, and that was something I was quite worried about before we started filming this. I was sort of wondering, 'Is that something I'm going to be able to just do on set?' But because of the nature of the work, the cast, the director's approach, and everything, it was just so easy to do all those things."

The Witch is in cinemas nationwide from March 11

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