Interview: Christopher Eccleston

© Michael Clement
Posted: Mon May 14 2012

Christopher Eccleston has reached the summit of his career at the National Theatre, he says

Actor Christopher Eccleston, the hawk-faced star of some of our best British TV dramas, was the first man to bring Northern grit to the RP BBC icon 'Doctor Who' in 2005. Now he is travelling back to 441BC at the National Theatre, in the implacably tragic vehicle of Sophocles's 'Antigone'.

He plays Creon, a politician who destroys his family in his efforts to establish order after civil war. It's great casting. Backstage, eating sarnies in his tracksuit bottoms, Eccleston still speaks like a working-class lad from Salford, but from the neck up he looks, with his big hollow eye-sockets and raw bones, like a tyrant from the ancient world .

The National is clearly a big deal. 'Playing a major role in the Olivier,' says Eccleston, in his intense and straightforward way, 'is the height of an actor's career.'

In 1983, when he moved to London to study drama, NT stars John Gielgud, Anthony Hopkins and Michael Bryant made a deep impression. 'I worked as an usher at the Olivier,' he recalls. 'Hopkins used to come on as Lambert Le Roux [in David Hare and Howard Brenton's "Pravda"] and he'd be explosive, huge, riveting - but then you'd see him in the canteen having beans on toast and he'd have disappeared again. That was very interesting to see; front and back.'

The youngest of three sons, Eccleston was raised on a council estate, where he excelled at football rather than schoolwork and discovered drama late, as a teenager at Salford Tech. Why did he become an actor? 'Wine, women and song,' he says, succinctly. 'It was running away with the circus. My parents and brothers all had jobs which were nine to five and drew great dignity from work, but I sensed frustration in all four of them.'

Instead, he fell for the romance of the knights of the theatre, devouring biographies of Richardson and Olivier. 'They were so vivid and different from the environment I was coming from,' he explains. But the classical roles he dreamed of failed to materialise after he graduated.

'I didn't work for three years,' he says. 'I'd been well cast at Central but I didn't pick up an agent. I couldn't inhabit the roles I was playing. But that unemployment was very important. When I got my chance, [playing Derek Bentley in the 1991 film “Let Him Have It”], I worked really hard.'

Becoming a TV and film actor happened by default. But in the late '80s and '90s it was easier to find roles that resonated with Eccleston's background and aspirations. 'That window is closing now,' he says, 'because TV is being eaten up by reality shows and so-called talent shows.'

Eccleston has a reputation for being outspoken and there was a lot speculation about why he left 'Doctor Who' so rapidly. Did a bad experience contribute to his frustration with the medium? 'There's no one incident in my career that dictates anything,' he says, 'But there's more money and power in film and TV so people inevitably behave worse. And I've always been a person who, if I think something's wrong, will say so.'

The proudest moments of his working life, he says, have been in Jimmy McGovern's Bafta-winning 'Hillsborough' on ITV, and playing Hamlet ten years ago at West Yorkshire Playhouse. 'Hillsborough' (in which he played Trevor Hicks, whose two teenage daughters died in the football disaster) is, he feels, 'the most important thing I've done.'. And he remains close friends with the real Hicks: 'I was best man at his wedding when he re-married. Him and his ex-wife Jenny, their bravery in surviving that loss and having their government lie about them and still be here fighting for the truth, it's an inspiration really.'

As for 'Hamlet': 'I'd not been on stage for ten years when I did it and it was not a good performance,' he admits. 'But it took a lot of balls and I was better by the end of it. The kind of naivety and nervousness I had then is absent from “Antigone”.'

His ambition now is to do more theatre in London. Compared to the can-and-cut process, rehearsing with a troupe of theatre actors is more like being with the circus. But, at the age of 48, it's no longer all about wine, women and song. 'In TV you act in a vacuum,' he says. 'Theatre is an actor's medium where you rely on each other. Now I'm older I've realised acting's just a desire to communicate with other human beings, that this is how it feels to be alive.'

He's mildly boggled when I ask him if he's concerned about his legacy: he's evidently a romantic at heart. But that's a class issue too: 'I've spoken to a number of my peers from working-class backgrounds,' he says, 'And we've wondered why we didn't assume that we could run buildings, set cultural agendas, and address some of the imbalances.'

Opportunities for working-class kids are fewer now than they were in Eccleston's youth. Most don't get anywhere near the theatre - which is one reason why he's so pleased to be doing this short, sharp 90-minute Greek tragedy in the NT's democratically priced Travelex season, which has £5 tickets for under-26-year-olds and £12 to £32 tickets for everyone else.

Personally, it has helped renew his teenage ambition to 'play clearly all of the major classical roles onstage'. But, for Eccleston, acting is more about living as fully as possible in the moment than achieving some spurious immortality: 'I think about how I'm going to live my life, not what I'll leave behind,' he says. 'If I have a go at these big theatre roles, I know I'll feel used when they put me in the box.'