Actor Paul McGann enters his second act
Despire Paul McGann retaining his youthful looks he has been offered a 'grandad' role. As he prepares for a role at the Abbey, he is aware he can assume nothing about the future
From a distance of a couple of feet, Diet Coke in hand, actor Paul McGann looks about 20 years younger than his age, 53. Up close, nothing is different. He is absurdly youthful, with the kind of blue-blue eyes you normally only see in children; "I assure you I've lived all those years," he says when I remark on this, adding, "and it's not always Diet Coke either." We meet in the bar at the Abbey Theatre, where McGann is rehearsing Shaw's Major Barbara – he plays Undershaft – then wind our way through the back stairs and offices of the theatre until we end up in a kind of box on the roof. This is the casting office, and I get the couch.
"This is the seat I sat in when I came here to get the gig," McGann tells me. Is that how it works, even at his level? You still do auditions? "It's the National Theatre," he responds, with flattering emphasis. "They ask for who they want. It's a big part, I guess they would have had to have a little think about it. I didn't have to think about it; it's a great part."
We discuss the play. "It's very dense, with a lot of twists and turns and big arcs of language. It's a period thing, so we're trying to come to terms with the mores and the style. It's the kind of thing actors like," he admits with a smile.
McGann has a theatrical CV that includes Little Black Book, Sabina and A Lie of The Mind, and TV and film credits including the great Withnail and I (he plays 'I', and the name of the character is one of those pub quiz questions that will not go away; for the record, it's Peter Marwood), as well as Our Mutual Friend, Doctor Who and Alien 3. "Yeah ... yeah ... " he almost dismisses the point. It occurs to me that McGann is highly self-deprecating. He's funny, too. "There's nothing that one can take from a TV or film set that's going to help you much on the Abbey stage. But it's a relief, after the eight or nine-hour days [in theatre], to go back to lying in a caravan for six hours, waiting to work for 10 minutes."
He has a deep, slow voice, almost a drawl, created far in the back of the throat and delivered with strong hints of Liverpool still in the accent. McGann grew up there, in a small terraced house. His three brothers, Joseph, Mark and Stephen, are also actors and his sister, Clare, is a programme finance manager. The family came from Ireland originally, at the time of the Famine. "A Eugene McGann came here in 1845. His record said he was an emigration officer, we thought, 'that sounds a bit posh for a McGann, a bit useful'. So we looked into it, and it was a glorified term for anyone who worked for the shipping line."
McGann's first love was sport – "I was a useful track-and-field athlete, that's what I wanted to do with my life, but I didn't make the grade. That was tough. Sport spat me out. Acting, I sort of came into it." He auditioned for RADA; "I remember it well, it was so embarrassing," he laughs. "The experience was horrendous. I hadn't prepared properly. I chose a Stanley Holloway speech from My Fair Lady where he goes to Henry Higgins and offers his daughter for a fiver. Stupid! I was an 18-year-old boy. I did the worst Cockney accent, it was toe-curling, it was so bad, I think it was outstanding. Afterwards, I ran out of the room and down the street. RADA is round the corner from Euston station, I was going home. A kid was sent out after me, to get me back." He was told to go and learn his lines properly, and come back that afternoon when the principal would be hearing all those short-listed. "I got myself together and went and sat in the park. I learned my lines." Was that not unbelievably stressful? To be so close, to have a shot? "It's a temperament thing; you find you can do it when it's the most terrifying." And do it he did. A week later the letter of acceptance came. "That changed my life," he says.
Withnail, too, changed his life. He was 25 and just out of college in 1987 when Bruce Robinson, having seen him in The Monocled Mutineer, cast him as the foil to Richard E Grant's Withnail. "We knew it was good," he says, "but we knew, too, that it was cheap, and that it was really unusual. No stars, no women, no violence, no car chases ... " In fact, the film bombed at the box office, "It died a death," as McGann says. "It played in just a few houses for a few weeks, then disappeared."
Except that it didn't disappear, instead it slowly but surely gathered momentum, recommended by word of mouth in students' union bars and behind the counter of a thousand video shops until, by 2000, Time Out voted it 15th on a list of the 100 Best British Films. "The story of Withnail and I is tragic-comic. The tragedy is the man who wrote and directed it never made a penny from it, although other people have made millions."
So does he ever get annoyed at being hailed with lines such as "We want the finest wines available to humanity," and "We are indeed drifting into the arena of the unwell," by the film's many ardent enthusiasts? "Why?" he asks. "I think you'd have to be some strange kind of stuck-up person to hate it. A real kill-joy. If people want to talk about it, or act a scene in front of me, I'm your man. I loved the film, I loved doing it. I like talking about the work that I do."
I can see that he does. At first, he seemed tired and a bit reluctant to do the interview (he continues to be reluctant to do the photo; "I'll get one of my brothers to do it," he says with a laugh at one point), but once he hits his stride, discussing actors, acting ("you're a hired hand, so do the thing that they got you there to do"), he warms up to the point where he doesn't seem to want to stop.
Since Withnail, he has worked solidly, almost constantly.
But if life is a series of near-misses, how much more so is an actor's career? McGann has some fine examples of the kind of heartbreak that is an occupational hazard. He was the eighth Doctor in the 1996 Doctor Who TV film, the one who fell between the cracks. The film was intended to be a kind of back-door pilot, leading to a new series. Except that it didn't, and it wasn't until 2005 that the series was continued, with Christopher Eccleston in the role, and became again a massive success. However, to the many die-hard fans, McGann is still part of the glorious continuity. "Sci-fi fans in general, and Doctor Who fans in particular, are very ardent, learned, slightly proprietorial," he chuckles.
Alien 3 was another of the near-misses – McGann's part was considerably diminished in the edit, although much restored in the extended versions – and although originally cast in Sharpe's Rifles the role went to Sean Bean (and was the making of his career) when McGann injured his knee two weeks into filming. However, when it comes to what he describes as the "totem pole" of fame and celebrity, McGann isn't bothered. "I've never had that kind of exposure, I'm not one of those performers who's perpetually on the screen. But I remember going up to visit one of my brothers when he was in Emmerdale (Stephen McGann played Sean Reynolds). We couldn't even sit and eat without being interfered with. I was quite shocked by it. That night we ended up in a bar that I would never have gone into. There were footballers in there," he says in mock-horror. "England players. I looked around, and everyone was famous. And it was quiet. It made me realise why these places exist."
So, as far as fame is concerned, he's relaxed. "We all have a pretty fair idea of where we stand. It doesn't stop us from sleeping at night." But you don't sleep anyway, I say. "No, I don't sleep," he agrees. "The insomnia came out of the blue about 10 years ago. Before that I was able to sleep anywhere – on a train, in a chair, with noise going on. I also suffer depression, and I'm from a family that has a history of it. At that time, the two came together."
So how many hours of sleep are we talking, I ask? I'm looking for real war stories here. I get them. "Often I get an hour, or an hour and a half. Maybe five hours in two days. The worst period was the first year. I whinged like a baby," he laughs. "It was awful. I was asking 'Why me, Lord ... ' it was like the plague. Anyone that's ever been tired knows – you're ratty as f**k, you're bumping into stuff, you're a miserable twat. I've raised a couple of kids – I know what dog-tired is, this was worse."
The 'couple of kids' are McGann's sons, Joe and Jake, with his wife Annie Milner, from whom he is separated. More recently, he was in a relationship with actress Susannah Harker, who was Jane Bennet in the BBC adaptation of Pride and Prejudice with Colin Firth, but on his private life he is very discreet. An early brush with the tabloids taught him a couple of salutary lessons.
Back in 1995, he and Catherine Zeta Jones starred together in Catherine the Great, and were snapped on the streets, exchanging a friendly kiss and hug. The tabloids went into overdrive for a few days, following Paul to Donegal where he was filming, and stalking him and his family, harassing anyone connected to him for a comment. "You end up being photographed kissing the nation's sweetheart, you have to suffer the consequences," he says now, with a shrug. "When that system hits you, it's akin to being bullied at school – it's nothing personal, you were just in the way. It was your turn."
Despite the increasingly hysterical offers – "as the day drew towards its deadline, it got to £75,000 from one paper, offered through the letterbox" – neither Paul nor anyone close to him said a word, and so without oxygen, the fire died. But for all his shrugs, the episode has left him was a rather bitter taste.
"I've never spoken of it before, not to a journalist," he says. However, he is determined not to try to claim too much. "At the time it's horrible, if you've got to throw a blanket over your babies in the back of a car, or if your mum is being harassed. But this is the tip of the iceberg of what they are capable of. This is a world away, compared to what later happened to real people." He's talking about the events leading up to The Leveson Inquiry of course. "I followed it closely, because I've had a taste of it."
The intense focus must have been hard on his marriage. It also ruined his friendship with Zeta Jones. "It cut it completely dead," he agrees. "Said person, what did she do, emigrated? Got the hell out, did what she was meant to do and became a brilliant star."
For all his success, McGann is assuming nothing. "I never take it for granted that it's going any further than this. I've seen it happen; really good people, really good performers, for no reason that any of us can put our finger on, suddenly, it's gone, there's no work for that person. In the 30-odd years I've been working, I've never known what I might be doing even six weeks hence. I might not be doing anything. It might not happen."
And, of course, the march of a life can be measured, all too easily for an actor, in the roles being offered.
"It seems like a minute ago that you were the juvenile lead, and now you're f**king 'dad'," he says wryly. "I played my first grandfather four years ago. It's a kind of vanity buster."
That said, there is a very bright side: "For a male actor, there's loads of work over 50," he says cheerily. "That's where all the parts are, rakes of work for middle-aged blokes."
'Major Barbara' runs at the Abbey Theatre, July 31–Sept 21. www.abbeytheatre.ie
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