Rory Kinnear: Interview

Rory Kinnear Rory Kinnear - © Rob Greig
Posted: Wed Sep 29 2010

'Hamlet' has been a huge draw in London in recent years, but that doesn't deter Rory Kinnear, the latest actor to take on the prince. He speaks to Sam Marlowe ahead of his run at the National Theatre. Portrait Rob Greig

You might think that, as the son of actors Carmel Cryan and the late Roy Kinnear, Rory Kinnear was always destined for the limelight. In fact, stage and screen might have lost him to a much bloodier profession.

'I always loved acting - though what I did in my teens was probably more éclat than elan. But I wasn't sure about doing it professionally. For a while I dallied with the idea of the law - I didn't really know what it was, but I thought it sounded sensible. And as a child I wanted to be a goalkeeper. Or a butcher.' Why? 'I used to go to Sheen High Street with my dad on a Saturday, and there was a butcher next door to the fishmonger. I hated the smell of the fishmonger, but I found the smell of the butcher's much more appealing. And I liked the big knives. I thought it looked like a decent job.'

Happily, the intervening years dissuaded him, though Kinnear says he wasn't convinced he wanted to act until halfway through his postgraduate course at Lamda (he'd previously read English at Oxford). His career since has been more than meaty enough to make up for it. He's played heavyweight roles at the Almeida, the Donmar and the RSC, as well as at the National Theatre, where his most notable performances have been as Vindice in Jacobean bloodbath 'The Revenger's Tragedy', and as a dazzling, Olivier-winning Sir Fopling Flutter in Nicholas Hytner's production of 'The Man of Mode'.

Now he's facing the ultimate actor's challenge: 'Hamlet', again directed by Hytner. Is he anxious? Not a bit of it. 'It's funny how people assume it will be scary - the first things friends have said is, “God, how daunting.” But if you enjoy acting and being on stage, it's the part above all that you want to play, because you're rarely off stage,' he says breezily. 'And the wildness, the twists and turns of his psyche, the quickness of thought, engages mind, body and soul. It's good to test yourself like that. I've been loving it.'

It's impossible, of course, to shut out the echoes of past Hamlets. More recently than Olivier, Redgrave and Gielgud, there have been incarnations by Kenneth Branagh and Simon Russell Beale. The last few years alone have seen Jude Law and David Tennant take on the great Dane; and Kinnear's portrayal coincides with John Simm's in Sheffield.

'There are many, many ghosts in this play - ghosts of great productions, great performances,' he admits. 'But pitting yourself against what's gone before or what's to come is fruitless. You just have to focus on what the play means to you. What's great about it is its elasticity. If you look at a painting that you love by one of the great masters, every time you go back to it you see something different, a different attitude or brushstroke. “Hamlet” is like an entire gallery of old masters. There are so many different relationships being played out on stage, and not all of them are necessarily supported by textual divulgence of how Shakespeare saw them. He just gives you what you need to say in the moment.'

It's not the first time Kinnear has appeared in the play: in 2004 he was Laertes in Trevor Nunn's production at the Old Vic, opposite Ben Whishaw's young prince. 'Having done it before, to a certain degree train tracks had been placed down in front of me already, on to which I could step if I wanted to,' he says. 'But Laertes actually doesn't have all that much do with Hamlet in the play, so I don't have an overshadowing memory of the choices that Ben made, because I wasn't on stage with him. In fact, often I wasn't even in my dressing room.'

As he lived a stone's throw from the Cut at the time, Kinnear would nip home during performances, and return for the final fight scene. There'll be no such opportunity for a cheeky break this time around. His Hamlet is, he says, 'intelligent and soulful, and on a sort of quest for purity. He's also been studying for a long time - which doesn't necessarily equate to emotional maturity - and has been a prince all his life, so to an extent he's had things his own way.' As for the world of the play, 'We're setting it in the modern age, not in a specific country, but in a state in which power might go through lineage rather than through election, and where people constantly fear that they might be being overheard or listened to.'

It is, he recognises, a milestone in a career that has developed steadily - and continues to do so. 'The first day of rehearsals you could see as being born, and then after the first night when the director leaves you, it's like leaving home. And you have to keep on growing, and finding out things, and making new discoveries. It's the most hateful and the most exciting part of this job that you don't know what's coming next - that in three months you might be off in the Seychelles, or scraping around looking for work. But so far - well, after coming to the National as a boy, being turned on by the power of theatre and acting, to be here now playing Hamlet - this feels like a very privileged position to be in.'

'Hamlet' is at the National Theatre, booking till Jan 11. See WE for details.