Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them about.
The actor: Rory Kinnear has acting in his blood. His dad, the late Roy Kinnear, is best known to American audiences as Henry Salt (father of Veruca) in Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory, while his mom, Carmel Cryan, has been a familiar face on British television for more than 50 years. While following in his parents’ footsteps wasn’t a foregone conclusion for the now-41-year-old—he originally pursued an English degree at Oxford University—it only took a taste of the family business for Kinnear (and audiences) to see that he had inherited a love of performing. In the years since, he has regularly worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company and the Royal National Theatre; played Hamlet (twice), Iago, and Macbeth; and earned two Olivier Awards for his efforts. Currently, Kinnear can be seen in Years And Years, HBO’s new family drama-cum-dystopian satire from longtime Doctor Who head honcho Russell T. Davies, which imagines what the next 15 years might look like if the whims of populist politicians remain unchecked. (Spoiler alert: It’s not good.) Later this year, Kinnear will star in Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels (minus the hours of makeup he had to endure in the original series) then reprise his role as Bill Tanner, M’s right-hand man, in Bond 25.
Years And Years (2019)—“Stephen Lyons”
The A.V. Club: In reading the script for Years And Years, was there one specific moment where you knew this was something you had to do?
Rory Kinnear: I was sent just the first episode to start with, and that was sometime around May or June last year. Obviously I’ve followed Russell [Davies]’s work over the years. I haven’t been a Doctor Who watcher, but I have lots of friends who are and who raved about his time in charge. Then I watched A Very English Scandal, and loved it. Just his great use of humor and heart as well as quite often being slyly bold and slyly political with everything he does. And making it inherently outward-looking and populist to a certain extent, but at the same time, covering things that are sometimes considered under the radar. So I read that first episode, and you could tell what he was trying to achieve in that jump of moving forward through those first five years after the first 10 minutes. I wasn’t sure I’d seen this done: something that was, for all intents and purposes, from the tropes of dystopia, but at the same time essentially very much the mundane, quotidian family life. And even as we stretch 15 years into the future, that family life remains to a certain extent unchanged.
AVC: I know you didn’t write the series, but since Russell Davies is not here, I’m going to use you as his proxy and say thank you for giving us four more years of Donald Trump in your vision of the future.
RK: Sometimes it’s best to acknowledge one’s fears head-on rather than to cower away from them. If anything, what the course of the series does is make real those projected fears, while at the same time making everyone realize their lives are still carrying on. People, for better or worse, adjust and adapt.
AVC: If acknowledging one’s fears head-on was the goal, then congratulations. You have succeeded in keeping me up at night.
RK: Good, good. It’s best not to sweep things under the carpet. Let’s keep them in full view.
AVC: The series is unique in that, as you say, it’s a story of a family at its heart, but it also has elements of political drama and dystopia and satire. Which seems like the kind of project that only Russell Davies could really pull off. But given that there’s so much to balance, and that you were only reading the first episode, was there any fear that this could go off the rails?
RK: I keep a keen eye on the overview, but I’m also quite interested in what my character is going to be doing. So I’m presuming, because it’s a drama and in that first episode things seem to be reasonably comfortable, the problems that I have are largely the problems of any parent with a teenage child—although slightly modified and changed through the prism of the future. But who knew where that character was going to be headed. I was kind of pleased to discover, as more episodes came in—we didn’t even get the last two episodes until we were well into filming—that he had plenty of twists and turns. And in some ways the idea of the series is how it doesn’t take much for normal, decent, good people to be changed.
AVC: I assume you didn’t film the series chronologically, and that there were days where you might be filming in a couple of different years. Was it challenging to keep track of where your character was in time?
RK: Yeah. Luckily, my own male pattern baldness allowed the option to age me very successfully.
AVC: You were able to reach up, touch the top of your head, and figure out, “Okay, we’re in 2019”?
RK: Yes, which is one more strength of male pattern baldness. If I was in 2024, toupee number two was required. But if we were in 2027, it was just bald old me. We then do go forward to 2034, in which I guess my character would’ve been 52, and that was probably the closest to the 41-year-old me that came to represent it.
AVC: In general, what is it that you’re most looking for in a role or a character?
RK: I’m drawn to things that are distinctive, things that I haven’t necessarily seen or done before, or things that I haven’t seen tackled before. Or, if they are common things, that they’re done in a way which feels fresh and unusual. It usually always is the script itself, and then secondary is the part. Then next you’re thinking about the director. I guess it goes in those strata of interest. But sometimes you think, “Ooh, it would be nice to go there.” So there are all kinds of considerations. But fundamentally if you don’t think the script’s worthwhile, then I’m not going to be wanting to do it.
AVC: Which role are you most often recognized for?
RK: In America, it’s certainly Black Mirror and Penny Dreadful. In Europe, it’s often Penny Dreadful and Black Mirror. But in England, it’s for quite a variety of things. And in London, it’s a lot of theater stuff as well.
Black Mirror, “The National Anthem” (2011)— “Michael Callow”
AVC: You get the script for Black Mirror, and I assume you get the whole script, and that there were no surprises later?
RK: Yes, that one was intact.
AVC: So you knew from the get-go that you’re going to be fucking a pig?
RK: Although on the day of shooting our director did just keep on shooting, and I had to say, “That’s as far as I’m going.” I think in the script it says that he reaches for his belt and that’s where we cut, but the director just didn’t say cut. So I, being the dutiful professional that I am, carried on, but I discovered I did have boundaries.
AVC: You said that you like delving into characters and doing things you’ve never done before. So you read this script and think, “Hm, barnyard animals, there’s something I haven’t done before?” What was the key thing for you in wanting to play Prime Minister Michael Callow?
RK: This was the first ever Black Mirror, so it felt entirely transgressive and satirical. It reminded me of Jonathan Swift and the treatises he wrote on the Irish eating their babies. Something where, to make your point, you have to go as extreme as possible. And the idea of a populist sleepwalking its way toward treating politics or political life as a punching bag or a game to be entered in, it felt like a call to arms to a certain extent. But I felt like it had a brutality and power, and a visceral satire to it that I hadn’t seen on TV for a long time.
AVC: Then, of course, Piggygate happened. Where it came out that David Cameron’s nether regions may have had a close encounter with a pig at some point.
RK: Yeah, I’m not so sure that story wasn’t constructed after the event just to chime in.
The Thick Of It (2009)—“Ed”
AVC: You—for one glorious episode—got Malcolm Tuckered on The Thick Of It. I believe you looked “like you shat a LEGO garage” in the scene.
RK: I was a big fan of the show and it came up that I was available and they said, “Do you want to do this little bit?” And I thought, I really would like to see how that show is made. So it was amazing just being amongst the read-through and then working with Peter Capaldi.
AVC: Was a lot of it improvised, or was it tightly scripted?
RK: Each script was 100 pages, and you’d film all of that pretty much. But then after you filmed it, you would have some free passes to do whatever you wanted to do. Which is difficult to be up to speed with when you’re on for a day. And then you might only use two or three of those improv moments per episode. The rest is all whittled down from a tightly honed script. I was surprised by how little was improvised.
Penny Dreadful (2014-2016)—“The Creature/John Clare”
AVC: How did you get involved with Penny Dreadful?
RK: [Penny Dreadful creator] John Logan and I had worked together on Skyfall. And he would come to see plays when he was over in London that I was doing. Then, sort of out of the blue, he called and said, “There’s this part I think you’d be right for and here’s the script.” And I think the scripts that I saw were the first two episodes, which I only turn up right at the end. But it’s kind of a blockbuster entrance. I was really intrigued to see how he was going to develop the stories of these iconic literary characters who I knew meant an awful lot to John as a writer and how to bring them into the world of long-form television. And I knew it was his first time writing long-form TV as well. And he’s extraordinary as a writer, not only the sheer capacity in writing I think 26 or 28 of the scripts, but also show-running and being on set all day every day. As well as writing Broadway musicals and big-budget movies at the same time. His ability to give hearts as well as the most incredible structures to these characters and their stories and to interweave them was amazing. I’ve done some writing in my time, but it’s always depressing when you have to work with someone as talented as that. You think, “Why am I bothering?”
AVC: You’ll be starring in Penny Dreadful: City Of Angels, too. Is it a sequel or a spin-off or more like an anthology setup?
RK: They’re calling it “a spiritual descendant.” It’s set in 1938 Los Angeles, and there is much of the Penny Dreadful heart to it. There’s still a supernatural element and a battle between the forces of good and evil, but it’s more historically rooted and it’s more socially rooted as well. Again, we’ve only seen the first four episodes to start with, but I’m really, really excited. It looks like it’s cooking up to be a doozy.
AVC: But you won’t be playing your earlier character, or have any link to him?
RK: Not that I know of. I think it’s a completely different part. And I don’t have to go through three and a half hours of makeup as well. So if that was the only reason you were going to be tuning into this, then you’ll be disappointed.
AVC: I’ll be honest, it sort of was.
RK: It will be my own face, I’m afraid.
The Hollow Crown (2012)—“Bolingbroke”
AVC: You’ve done a ton of theater work, and a lot of Shakespeare in particular. But with something like The Hollow Crown, you’re putting on this enormous Shakespeare production, but for television. So whereas you can tweak your performance each time on the stage, now you’ve got one take only that will be committed to film. How does that change your approach or preparation at all?
RK: Increasingly, we have sort of experience in the theater as well with these National Theatre broadcasts. At the end of the run, you have to do it for cameras and people across the world and for that one night you really have to get it right. With The Hollow Crown, I had just finished doing Hamlet at the National Theatre in a space that holds 1,200 people, and then you’re being asked to perform the same kind of language to the camera a foot away. Part of doing Shakespeare in some ways is making sure that the language is understood and comprehensible. There’s just a slightly different technique in the theater. You just didn’t know to start with—you didn’t know how much to give it or if you retreated into yourself or the character’s truth if you might leave behind the language. But essentially, that’s the same challenge on stage as it is on camera, it’s just sometimes easier to get away with it on stage. But the character and language have to exist instantaneously together. It took a week or so to not feel completely hamstrung by the fact that there was a camera there.
AVC: You had just come off of doing Hamlet, and now you’re playing Bolingbroke and having to bow down to Ben Whishaw—another Hamlet. You’ve got Andrew Scott and Iain Glen and 20 other Hamlets around.
RK: There’s always a Hamlet knocking around somewhere.
AVC: You started in theater and continue to do a lot, but you’re also doing an increasing amount of television and film. Do you have a preferred medium?
RK: The fruit bowl of it is the fun. That you get to change around your disciplines. I did two plays back-to-back recently. We did a play about a young Karl Marx, and then I went straight into doing, well, “The Scottish Play” at the National.
AVC: The Scottish Play. I’m going to say the title!
RK: Yeah, it worries people sometimes to say it. They have their own inhibitions and fears, but I don’t. So, yes, we were doing Macbeth. So you do a year of plays with big parts, and that can be quite knackering—particularly with young children. In my house, that is, not in the show. So it’s nice to give yourself a bit of a break between plays, I think.
The James Bond franchise (2008-present)—“Bill Tanner”
AVC: You’re back as Bill Tanner for Bond 25. Have you started filming yet?
RK: I have, yes. I was there last week, and it’s all jolly. I’ve worked with Ben [Whishaw] quite a few times over our careers, and it’s very much my hope that we will continue to do so over the next 40 years as well.
AVC: I interviewed Ben recently and told him I wanted Q to be the next Bond, and he seemed game for it.
RK: Oh, I see. So you’re Team Ben, are you? Because I’m very much angling for it myself.
AVC: No, I want you guys to tag-team it. I want a double 007.
RK: Ben and I, between us, probably have a similar wattage to Daniel [Craig].
AVC: But Ben does have that magical hair.
RK: It’s always about the hair with you, isn’t it?
AVC: You’re the one preaching the powers of male-pattern baldness. I’m just saying that I think his hair holds special, Samson-like powers.
RK: Yeah, it would be nice. It would be nice to run my fingers through that magical hair and have some of that rub off on me.
AVC: I assume with something as big as Bond you don’t get a lot of information in terms of what’s next, when it’s happening, or whether you’ll continue when the new Bond is brought in?
RK: No. And I think it’s probably best if we just get this one made first. It’s always been one at a time, and each one has been a surprise that I’ve been asked back. So I don’t know what the future holds on that front. So I’m doing that, but I’m also gearing up to move the whole family out to Los Angeles to start on Penny Dreadful.
Watership Down (2018)—“Cowslip”
AVC: You voiced a character in the recent remake of Watership Down. Is that the only thing you’ve ever done that your kids can watch?
RK: I sort of presumed that it was too scary for them. That one was more because my dad was a voice in the original version of Watership Down.
AVC: Coming from a family of actors, had you always planned to follow in their footsteps?
RK: No, I didn’t. I didn’t close myself off to it—I went to university and did an English degree and I did quite a lot acting there—but I didn’t assume that I could make a career out of it or that it was the career that was right for me. But at the end of university I thought, “I’m still enjoying this. I think I’d like a little time just to kind of examine it.” So that’s when I went and did two years of drama school. And I realized that the more you gave to it and the more you dug into characters and scripts, the more rewarding it was.
AVC: Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory was such a huge part of so many kids’ childhoods. Given that your dad is in it, does it lose some of its pleasure?
RK: It was the film that all my friends knew my dad from. My dad died when I was 10, so unless they were interested in his previous career, that’s what they knew him from. They knew he was famous, but didn’t necessarily know other things that he’d done. I’m now showing it to my own children—his grandchildren, who he obviously never got to meet. The first time my son watched it and saw my dad fall down the [golden egg] chute and do this silly pratfall, my son was laughing and making me play it for him over and over again. It’s incredibly rewarding to have that continuity where my dad can still make my children laugh, which is what he’d be doing if he were still alive.
We actually just showed it to my daughter for the first time this past Christmas, and she was seemingly not interested in the fact that her grandfather was in it. She just thought the orange people were carrots. That was the only comment she made afterwards. So we’ve got some work to do on her.
AVC: You’ll be nothing to them now that they know their grandfather is in Willy Wonka.
RK: Well, just wait until their children have to watch Black Mirror.
AVC: Do you have a favorite project that you’ve done?
RK: Quite often, it’s been in the theater. We did a production of Philistines, a [Maxim] Gorky play, at the National, which I absolutely loved and thought was fantastic. It may be every actor’s neurosis at large, but whenever I go back over anything I’ve done, I can’t remember a single thing that I’ve been involved in. I’m really keen that people do watch Years And Years, because I think it’s incredibly distinctive. It’s the kind of thing that, if I were a 15- or 16-year-old, it would blow my mind. That’s not to say that it can’t blow the minds of 50- and 60-year-olds as well. But I feel like it’s one of those programs—and I hope it will translate as well over there in America as here—that in 25, 30 years’ time, people will still remember it and that for some people it might be a formative piece of television watching. And those jobs are rare, so it’s a privilege to be involved in them.