Stephen Tompkinson: ‘When I was living in London it felt soulless, but people in Ireland have a lovely way of looking at the world’
As he completes a week’s run in the play Art at Belfast’s Grand Opera House, Stephen Tompkinson tells Maggie Armstrong why he loves Ireland, how wanting to please his parents led to him becoming an actor and what he thinks of Harvey Weinstein.
Years ago, Stephen Tompkinson played the gorgeous young heart-throb English priest Father Peter Clifford in Ballykissangel. When the soap first went out to millions of viewers, he got a piece of advice he has always kept. “My dad said, ‘Now you’ve got to remember that you’ve been in all these people’s living rooms. If they say hello to you, it’s because you’ve already been an invited guest, so you be nice’,” he says.
“It was brilliant advice. It doesn’t take a moment of your time to acknowledge people — autographs, selfies now, whatever it is. If you’ve given them a happy experience, then that’s lovely and hopefully they’ll tune into the next thing.”
That was in 1996. Now, Tompkinson is back in town, riper in years — he is 52 — and putting on a very different mask. He stars alongside Nigel Havers and Denis Lawson in Yasmina Reza’s multi-award-winning hit play Art in the Gaiety. It is a comedy about the friendship between three men, and how that friendship falls apart when one of them spends a vast sum of money on a painting.
That’s all that happens really in Art. It is a play about how taste, which seems so superficial, can wreak conflict between people. Only a French playwright could write it.
“It’s difficult to pull punters in on a description of three guys and one of them buys a painting,” agrees the Yorkshire-born actor, sitting in the Gaiety bar before the show. “A dermatologist, an aeronautical engineer and a sales rep for stationery. It sounds like the beginning of a very bad joke.”
Yet Art has been translated into 30 languages and won a Tony, an Olivier, and New York Critic’s Circle, Evening Standard and Moliere awards.
“The play has an extraordinary effect on an audience,” says Tompkinson. “Modern art is a bit like extreme jazz, when people all nod very sagely and to the rest of the world it sounds like algebra. It has a polarising effect on an audience. To see a friendship dissolve over a painting is quite upsetting to people.
“Reza had a real point when she once said, ‘I find frivolousness to be very deep’.”
Tompkinson plays Ivan, the neurotic but gentle-hearted sales rep who really doesn’t give a damn about the painting and just wants everyone to be friends — a role he is reprising after nearly 20 years. No wonder he is fond of Art. It was the play that helped to launch a spectacular acting career, from the great world stages to shows like DCI Banks, Wild at Heart and Drop the Dead Donkey, and films Brassed Off and the comedy Walk Like a Panther, which comes out this year.
Tompkinson attended the starry opening night of the first English production of Art on October 15, 1996, in Wyndham’s Theatre, when the play was produced by Sean Conroy and David Pugh. Watching it, he thought to himself he would really like to play Ivan.
Eighteen months later he was cast as Ivan, which was “a little bit formidable” and made him “a little bit frightened”. He was 34, it was his West End debut and his face was plastered on taxis. “One night I was once going home in a taxi, and I saw myself on a taxi, so I waited until the lights changed and ran out and knocked on the window and shouted, ‘You’re in my taxi!’” he hoots, suggesting a more fun-loving rascal than the measured figure I meet today.
That is the thing about Tompkinson. He is courteous, funny, and reserved. He tends to divert attention from himself, making him hard to uncover. He’s very tall, with the dead-eyed stare of the top detective Banks, and dressed impeccably well — the way a more extrovert poseur might dress, in a plush woollen camel coat, polka-dot cravat and feathered trilby — it looks almost like he has borrowed the clothes from some more flamboyant friend. He wears them quietly — affably — as if he’s been caught on his way to a party. He seems like the kind who might enjoy a party? “Oh yes, even if you haven’t been invited. Especially if you haven’t — you might as well go and try and enjoy yourself.”
This slipperiness of impression is evident on his acting CV, too. He has never succumbed to typecasting, having starred in everything from heavy crime dramas to playing King Arthur in Spamalot. He had the title role in a BBC adaptation of Kingsley Amis’ tremendously funny novel Lucky Jim. The comedy shows his parents watched on TV were what drew him to acting in the first place. That, and wanting to impress his parents.
“I was very aware that when they watched people like Laurel and Hardy on the TV, they laughed in a different way to the way they laughed at us as kids (Tompkinson is the younger of two brothers). They were always very generous with their loving laughter to us as children, but when they watched professionals on this box they laughed differently, and I was quite envious of that. I sort of wanted to emulate it, in a way. Because I loved them very much and I wanted to make them laugh in the same way.”
If you ever do meet Tompkinson on the street and ask for a selfie, you should actually trust that he is nice. He isn’t just being nice. The main reason you can tell? He refers again and again to his late parents. His father, Brian, was a manager at Yorkshire Bank and his mother, Josie, was a junior school teacher. Their families came from Mayo, Monaghan and Clare, and they grew up singing Irish songs at the fireside.
His relationship with them was “joyful”. He remembers when they came to the premiere of his West End debut.
“They were picked up in the taxi with my poster on it. It was my mum’s birthday, February 15. Her name was Josephine, so she was in Row J, seat 15, an aisle seat. And yeah, it was beautiful to be able to treat your folks like that.
“They’re with me every day,” he says and, glancing at the red seats in the empty theatre before us, indicates that they both would have loved to see him in Art again. “And you imagine they do get to see it. They just become an extension of your conscience. It’s so easy to imagine what they would say in any given situation I find myself in. And in many ways they’re closer once they’ve gone, because you’re doing the conversation work for them. They just smooth things out for you; it’s very simple.” It doesn’t sound that simple, but there you go — he seems sure.
He grew up in a Catholic Yorkshire family, and he dapples his conversation with expressions (“You wouldn’t have been able to tell anyone what they looked like if they popped up in ye soup”; “Could bring a tear to a glass eye, that could”). He still has a potent Yorkshire accent, and his voice is full-bodied and gravelly, a voice you could almost eat and have a smoke after.
He was an altar boy until he was 18, but religion doesn’t float his boat any longer. “I’m just sort of more a believer now in science, I think,” he says diplomatically. “I don’t think there’s a sort of supreme being that controls everything, I just think that … you know.” Not really. Tell us. “I don’t knock anyone that has faith and I love the community aspect of getting together every week — that’s all wonderful really. I’ve not rebelled against it in any way.”
He is about to tour a play about an offending piece of art. His own take on contemporary art is versed, ready, sensible. “I never really thought Tracey Emin’s Bed was a work of art, but I can see the beauty in Damien Hirst’s Shark. The fact that it’s a moment before death. If you’re that close to that predator, that’s probably the last thing you’re about to see … so I quite like that ... I wouldn’t want it.”
Tompkinson doesn’t seem to have any urge to criticise anything or express any grievance. In fact, the worst thing I hear him say is that “Harvey Weinstein is a very unpleasant man”. That’s because after the US premiere of Brassed Off ,Weinstein invited Tompkinson with his parents to a big party, and then he uninvited them (they went anyway). He is disinclined to divulge much about himself. For instance, the question: how has he changed as a person in the 18 years since he first played in Art? This should be the crux of our interview, the philosopher’s stone that connects the greater Art story to his own boyhood quest. But no. “I’ve got older.” Really, is that all? He shifts a little on his chair.
“Well, when I was doing the play first time round, I’d just found out I was going to be a dad for the first time. Daisy is now 17 (See? Straight to Daisy). She’s in her year of A-Levels. She wants to be an actress, so everything my mum and dad invested in me, I’m doing for her.”
He describes fatherhood as “glorious”, and it sounds like he could talk about Daisy for a while. “We’re very alike. She got Monty Python very quickly, and adored Father Ted.”
Further proof of Tompkinson’s niceness is that he doesn’t like London. “When I was living there, it started to feel a bit soulless after a while, because everyone’s just very blinkered and concentrating on their own journey and they don’t interact very well, and that’s a bit soul-destroying. It’s not nice and starts to get you down after a while.”
He now lives in leafy Weybridge, Surrey. Having been twice married, he is in a relationship with diplomat Elaine Young. Sitting here in Dublin, he is keen to talk less about his very English existence than about Ronnie Drew, Luke Kelly (“People talk about soul singers — Luke was a heart and soul singer”), the Irish cricket team’s famous victories and the Irish sense of humour. Those three years he was filming Ballykissangel in Wicklow, he lived in a mews cottage in Baggot Street, and loved to stroll Baggotonia every morning and end up later on in O’Donoghue’s for the music. He is at home in Ireland.
“I think the Irish have a beautiful way of looking at the world. It comes at a slightly obtuse angle and it’s unique,” he is good enough to say.
“Once, I was coming out of the Shelbourne with Mum and Dad, and there was a guy at the traffic lights, and another car pulled up behind him, and the lights went green and the front car didn’t move. Now, in London people would be banging on the horn. The guy got out and knocked on the window and just said” — he adopts a full-on leprechaun accent — “‘Was it a particular shade of green you were waiting for?’ It’s not a knee-jerk reaction. It’s considered; it’s elegant. It’s poetic, in a way. And funny. And that sums up a lot of Ireland.”
Tompkinson believes in the vocation of an actor — to provide entertainment (rather than celebrity). “It’s part of this suspension of disbelief, of people wanting to black out the rest of the theatre and just believe they’re in that world for a few minutes. And you can pull off that illusion, and it’s glorious. And we want it to happen; it’s very much a shared thing.”
Though he has said Art might polarise people, too? Essentially, it is a play in which one man gets upset because his friend tells him this beloved thing he bought is “a piece of white s***”.
Tompkinson is eager indeed to see how audiences will react to their efforts. The play could be interesting in a fracturing post-Brexit world: it could be looked at as a microcosm of our wider cultural difference? “We are so different from country to country,” he says. The characters in the play are French, and “interested in going to the cinema and to art galleries. Frenchmen are very different to Englishmen. If it was about British fellows, there’d be umpteen mentions of sport”.
In the current climate, where women’s stories are more flavour of the month than those of middle-class white men who buy expensive things, it’s a good thing this play was written by a woman (its full cast, director, producers and translator are men). Indeed, for Tompkinson, its female perspective is what makes Art more interesting, the characters more flawed. Yasmina Reza is observing men from the outside.
“She is brilliant at observing relationships. Her play God of Carnage (which became the film Carnage by Roman Polanski, starring Kate Winslet and Jodie Foster) is brilliantly observed. You kind of laugh through the pain these people go through, because you don’t have to experience it yourself, so it’s a bit voyeuristic.”
But this laughing through the pain, this voyeurism is something we might only really get to enjoy live? Indeed, Tompkinson warms up immeasurably, talking about his first love, theatre.
“We’re the only mammals who go to the trouble of trying to elicit that response from each other. It kinda sets us apart from all the other beasts. We go to extreme lengths — we build theatres, and we put on productions, and we leave our comfortable homes and travel, to go and sit there and want to be transported in that way. And it’s beautiful. There is something magical. When you time something perfectly and all the audience are in a good mood, it’s such a joyous shared experience — there’s nothing like it.”
Art finishes it run at Belfast’s Grand Opera House with two performances today, 2.30pm and 7.30pm. See www.goh.co.uk It moves to the Gaiety Theatre, Dublin from March 19–24. See gaietytheatre.ie