Why Robbie Coltrane has great expectations for his first Dickens role
Can you believe that in a career that spans three decades and nearly 50 films, straddles mainstream comedy and art house independents, two Bond movies and a recurring part as a half-giant in one of the biggest movie franchises of all time,
Robbie Coltrane has never acted in a Dickens adaptation? How very odd. How has an actor who’s worked with aplomb on the big and small screens for decades avoided playing a perfect Mr Bumble in Oliver Twist? Or a gin-swilling, avaricious Krook in Bleak House?
“I was offered Mr Micawber years ago but I couldn’t do it,” Coltrane says, in a voice that’s probably best described as a rumble. “That’s a great part.”
Indeed, I can well imagine Coltrane as the permanently impoverished yet generous David Copperfield character, leading his long-suffering wife through one repossession after another. Alas, we’ll never know what he would have made of it. Happily, we do get to see what Coltrane does with another of Dickens’ creations. At the grand age of 62, Coltrane is breaking his Dickens duck in Mike Newell’s much-anticipated big-screen adaptation of Great Expectations. Alongside Ralph Fiennes as Magwitch and Helena Bonham Carter as Miss Havisham, Coltrane is Mr Jaggers, the lawyer whose job it is to ladle out Pip’s newfound fortune, while keeping schtum about where the money comes from. He is a man as inscrutable as a champion poker player and as morally ambivalent as an arms dealer.
“Jaggers is a great character,” Coltrane says. “He’s a heartless bastard and it’s very nice to get a part like that to play, I must say.” It’s true that you couldn’t get much more of a contrast to Rubeus Hagrid, now the role Coltrane is best known for, the steadfast friend of the world’s most famous boy wizard, a role for which writer JK Rowling handpicked the Scots actor.
It’s funny though, because it strikes me that Coltrane is one of those actors that no matter whether he’s Eddie “Fitz” Fitzgerald, the razor sharp criminal psychologist with addiction issues, or Valentin Zukovsky, a Russian mafia boss double-crossing 007, he’s always Robbie Coltrane. I don’t mean that as a criticism, it’s just that there’s something so indelibly, undeniably Coltrane about Coltrane that even while you believe him to be a corrupt Vatican cleric, as he was in Derek Jarman’s Caravaggio, or a gangster trying to escape a habit as in Nuns on the Run, he’s still somehow Robbie Coltrane. Perhaps it’s the voice, deep and sinewy. Perhaps it’s that shock of black hair, that always looks slightly bequiffed, a toned-down version of Danny McGlone in John Byrne’s Tutti Frutti. Coltrane is all of these characters and yet he’s also always himself.
Coltrane says he was nervous watching Great Expectations for the first time at the Leicester Square premiere because, “on a narcissistic level you’re looking for your own performance”. It seems he was pleased though, which is good news, not least because Mr Jaggers is the character who gets to deliver the iconic line about young Pip having “great expectations”.
“Yes, well, that was the big worry,” says Coltrane. “I thought, bloody hell, this is going to be in the trailer, I’ve got to get this one right.” He says the line with different intonations – trying it out, always sounding exactly like Robbie Coltrane. He laughs. “I mean, how would you do it so that it doesn’t sound like the title line for the film?” Several takes went into getting the line just right, after much rehearsing with director Mike Newell and scriptwriter David Nicholls.
“The main thing we had to decide was how posh he was. He’s not an aristocrat, he’s not the kind of guy who’s inherited anything. He worked his way up, probably from being a clerk in a lawyer’s office. So we wondered about playing him a little bit Estuary, with an Estuary twang.” He delivers the last bit in an accent that makes him sound vaguely like Dick Van Dyke in Mary Poppins. “But we thought that slightly undermined him and he’s got to be in charge.” The search went on until one day Coltrane was chatting to Newell, who directed him in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire. “Suddenly I thought, I’ll do Mike. Mike Newell is absolutely perfect.” He laughs. “He said, you cheeky bastard, but no, no, he’s got the perfect voice.”
Dickens was fascinated by class, of course, and Coltrane is intrigued too – unsurprisingly. His own story is interesting when considered in such terms. Born Anthony Robert McMillan in Rutherglen, the son of police surgeon Dr Ian Baxter McMillan, Coltrane attended the prestigious Glenalmond College, where he excelled academically, was head of the debating team and captained the rugby squad.
But after school Coltrane went to Glasgow School of Art and earned himself the nickname Red Robbie for his socialist convictions. It wasn’t long after, by way of the stage of the Traverse Theatre, that he found himself part of the alternative comedy scene and a member of the Comic Strip Presents ... troupe. In possibly the funniest of the group’s films, GLC, Coltrane played Charles Bronson playing Ken Livingstone opposite Jennifer Saunders playing Brigitte Nielsen playing Margaret Thatcher.
Dickens’ London was a world away from that version, but it’s Pip’s immersion in the big city, with his cash in his pocket and those expectations, that gets to the heart of who we are and how money and class change us. There’s no more poignant example than when Pip mocks his childhood guardian Joe for his lack of manners.
“He’s trying to reject his past, which is something that some people do when they find themselves with a lot of money,” says Coltrane. “It’s beautifully observed stuff.” He pauses. “It’s interesting though, when Pip has his fortune and is misbehaving in London, Jaggers makes no moral judgments about it.” He explains that when Jaggers gives Pip his money he knows what he will do with it – squander it, mainly – but gives it to him nonetheless.
“You would think that he would develop some sort of avuncular relationship with Pip and want to protect him and look after him, as any man of my age would feel about a young chap whose life he’s looking after,” says Coltrane. “He’s essentially his guardian. And yet he doesn’t do any of that at all. He makes no judgements. It’s pretty much do what you like, fall off a cliff, I don’t care. I will do as I’m instructed to do.”
Coltrane sounds genuinely perplexed by his character’s lack of interest in the young Pip. Maybe it’s impossible for him to avoid reflecting on the lawyer this way since his own son, Spencer, is 19, not far from the age Pip is when he must make his way in the world. (He also has a daughter Alice, 14.)
In the early 1990s, when Cracker was storming the TV world, picking up a slew of awards – not least three consecutive Baftas for Coltrane’s portrayal of Fitz – the offers came in thick and fast. Never knowingly original when a tried and tested formula is available, there was plenty of US interest in finding a way to replicate Fitz. Coltrane knocked it all back. He wanted his kids to grow up in the UK, not in California. Actually, to be more specific, he and wife Rhona Gemmell, from whom he’s now separated, wanted them to grow up in Scotland. So after living in London for 12 years and New York for three, a return north of the Border was made. Indeed, Coltrane still lives in a converted farmhouse in Stirlingshire. But that’s not to say he isn’t at ease in other places.
“I still feel very at home in London,” he says. “I can still give the cabbies the shortcuts.”
He laughs. “The thing about the Scots is that they’re known for working hard and not taking any nonsense and Cockneys love that because they work hard and take no nonsense, so there’s a natural affinity. It’s the same with people in Liverpool or New York. The things that hold us together are much tighter than the things that divide us, if you don’t mind me being philosophical for a moment.”
If that’s his anti-Independence statement, he doesn’t elaborate, but I get the impression that “being philosophical” is something that Coltrane is fond of, though not necessarily with journalists. He has the kind of languid Scottish voice that would be best listened to with the accompaniment of a fine dram and no recording device. He’s perfectly friendly, but there’s a distinct sound in his voice of something held back. The work stuff is dealt with professionally and politely, but it’s only at the mention of his love of cars that he really loosens up, eager to tell me the story of his latest acquisition, a 1939 Chevy Yankee.
“There are very few left,” he says. “People cut the top off them and put silly tyres on the back.” His was rescued from a heinous customisation job about to be committed by a Mexican rock star, he tells me, sounding genuinely proud. I ask what car he drives at the moment – is it a constantly changing selection or does he stick with just one favourite?
“It’s a constantly changing selection.” He laughs. “That sounds like something to do with sweeties – caramels on Monday, hard nuts on Tuesdays... But it is a constantly changing selection. I’ve just sold a few. I buy them pretty cheaply. It’s about having a big enough shed and knowing what you’re doing, really. Unless you’re buying mint cars that cost half a million quid, particularly American cars, you can buy pretty cheaply if you’re willing to do the work.”
Cars and trucks and all things engine-driven are a life-long passion, fuelled by growing up in Rutherglen near the River Clyde. His father used to take him down to the water and they’d watch the boats – ships and paddle-steamers – passing along the city river. He asks me if I saw the 8,000-tonne mid-section of the aircraft carrier HMS Queen Elizabeth being manoeuvred recently? I didn’t. He doesn’t say he’s disappointed, but I can tell that he is. “It was enormous,” he says. “Thousands of tonnes in weight. They had to move it in pieces because it’s so huge.”
Outwith his acting career, Coltrane has fronted two documentaries, Coltrane’s Planes, Trains and Automobiles and B-Road Britain, in which he toured the country in a vintage Jaguar XK150. As to why a movie star would bother being squished into a tiny sports car to drive around the country’s trunk roads, it’s clear it wasn’t just a job but something he genuinely wanted to do.
“It’s important to me because if you’ve got outside interests, particularly machinery and that stuff, to be asked to do a six-part series on the six engines that made the 20th century, it’s not something that you’re going to turn down. The wonderful thing about doing a documentary is that you can say, I’d really like to see someone build an RV2 11 engine and Rolls Royce say, absolutely not. And then you say, it’s Robbie Coltrane and we’re doing a documentary and suddenly you’re having a cup of tea in the middle of the engine shed. They gave me a simulator to play with for four hours, which would cost just so much money, a year of income at least. It’s such a privilege.”
Coltrane may have racked up nearly 50 films but he’s adamant that nothing has changed in how he chooses projects or how keen he is to keep on working.
“People always imagine that once you get to a certain place in your career that you spend your life turning down scripts. If only. You very often don’t have the choice, but I’ve been very lucky in the last few years, since I finished Potter I’ve done Yes Prime Minister and Effie for Emma Thompson [due out in spring 2013] and I did Brave, of course. I’ve been very busy.”
Indeed he has. And, truthfully, the purple patch in Coltrane’s career has lasted more years than many actors might ever dream of. Having been in two Bond films (“I was very flattered to be asked back for a second time. That was very nice. Very few people get asked back, I think only two of us have ever done it.”) I wonder if he’s enjoyed watching the frenzy surrounding the 50th anniversary and James Bond’s latest outing. There’s nothing quite like a new Bond movie I say – tactlessly, given that Coltrane isn’t in this one.
“Well, the Potters were kind of like that,” he says. “The great thing about the Bond movies is that when they send you the script it’s got ‘007’ written all over it. Then you go and you get fitted for your gun and for your suit. It’s very exciting. There’s nothing more sexy, really, than being in a Bond movie.”
Coltrane is at that stage in his career when there must be a temptation to look back, but he tells me there are still plenty of new projects to be explored. With The Comic Strip Presents... having just returned with its first outing in years, I’m reminded that comedy was once Coltrane’s staple. And funnily enough, he says, a sitcom has been mentioned as a future project. And there’s always those fine American TV dramas, maybe now is his time. He laughs. I’m not sure what that means.
“I realised on Great Expectations that the last time I’d worked with John Mathieson [the cinematographer] was on Caravaggio. That was 25 years ago. Cheeky bugger, he said, we really must do this every 25 years”. He laughs. “I don’t think either of us will be here for the next reunion.”
Great Expectations (12A) is on general release from 30 November.
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