Peter Capaldi on life after The Thick of It

Peter Capaldi as Leonardo Da Vinci in Sky Arts' new show. Picture: Ellis O'Brien/ Contributed
Peter Capaldi as Leonardo Da Vinci in Sky Arts' new show. Picture: Ellis O'Brien/ Contributed
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HE found a new level of fame as foul-mouthed Malcolm Tucker in The Thick of It, but Peter Capaldi is happy to see the back of it as he focuses on a more enigmatic character - Leonardo Da Vinci.

PETER Capaldi has a solemn announcement to make: Malcolm is no more. The 54-year-old Scottish actor reveals that he will no longer be playing Malcolm Tucker in BBC2’s much garlanded politi-com The Thick of It. Whisper it, the sweary-est, angriest, most charismatic character in television comedy has uttered his final baroque curse.

The character is so widely adored he has won the actor a mantelpiece-endangering number of awards. To underline Tucker’s popularity, total strangers often stop Capaldi in the street and ask him to abuse them. However, the actor says that, after the fictional spin doctor was seen being arrested at the end of the last series, he will not re-emerge on our screens. “Of course I love Malcolm,” says the Glasgow-born actor. “He is great. And I’m very grateful that he is so popular.

“Why do people like him so much? Is it because bad guys get all the best lines? Maybe he just has really good material. You can always rely on him to come up with great gags.”

But, he adds, “You can’t go on yelling and shouting forever. It was time for me to stop because it was difficult for me to know where to go with Malcolm next. I felt I would rather end it now than see him wind up as a diminished character. It’s best to go out at the top.

“It’s always difficult. It was a wonderful experience playing Malcolm, and I was very happy on the set of The Think of It. I really liked working with everyone. But in the end, things have a natural life to them.”

Capaldi, who also played Tucker in In the Loop, the hit movie directed by his fellow Italian-Glaswegian Armando Iannucci, is aware of the limitations of the genre. “Sitcoms have this recurring problem, which is that people get to like a character and want him to stay like that forever. But one of the reasons the character is interesting in the first place is that he has some substance and that he evolves. He deserves more than the endless repetition of the same tropes. So while The Think of It may return, I don’t think Malcolm will come back.”

All the same, I suggest, Tucker will be remembered fondly. “If ‘fondly’ is the right word,” says Capaldi.

Tucker may be a thing of the past, but his influence lives on. The magnetic role has catapulted Capaldi to a new level of recognition. It has also enabled him to take parts that are light years away from the shouty spin doctor – such as his latest role as Leonardo da Vinci, the painter, sculptor, architect, musician, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, geologist, cartographer, botanist and writer.

In Inside the Mind of Leonardo, which goes out tonight on Sky, Capaldi plays the artist who may as well be the dictionary definition of ‘renaissance man’. Every word of this feature-length, dramatised documentary is taken from the artist’s private journals, which stretch to more than 30,000 pages. The programme employs 3D technology to conjure up the mindscape and inventiveness of the greatest polymath the world has ever seen.

Inside the Mind of Leonardo also portrays a deeply insecure artist propelled by an overwhelming desire for enduring fame. “What’s the point of passing from the earth unnoticed?” he asks. “The man who doesn’t become famous is no more than wood smoke in the wind or foam upon the sea. But I intend to leave the memory of myself in the minds of others.” He certainly achieved that aim.

The programme plays into our current fixation with da Vinci. In the Beginning Was the End, a theatrical production inspired by the mesmerising da Vinci sketch A Cloudburst of Material Possessions, has just closed at Somerset House in London, and an epic new dramatisation of his life story, Da Vinci’s Demons, begins on Fox on 19 April.

So why, nearly 500 years after da Vinci’s death, in 1519, do we remain so drawn to the artist? “You don’t get many of them to the dozen,” says Capaldi. “The word ‘genius’ is very much devalued in this day and age, when Simon Cowell is a genius and someone who designs handbags is a genius. But Leonardo really was a genius. He was the real thing.

“To make anatomical studies that are still used today, to understand the function of the heart and lungs, to figure out the realities of childbirth from the inside and also to be one of the greatest painters who has ever lived – that’s a very special skill set. It’s really compelling.”

He continues, “There is always a mystery at the heart of great artists that pulls us towards them. People make a non-verbal connection to their work. They have a subconscious link to paintings such as The Mona Lisa or The Last Supper. These works speak to them and live with them. It’s a power that is not easily defined, but it’s certainly there.”

For all that, da Vinci, who was thought to be bisexual and was accused of sodomy, was certainly haunted by demons. His mind worked overtime, and he found it impossible ever to switch off. “Was he tormented?” Capaldi wonders. “He was definitely in danger of opening himself up to constant stimulation. But I suspect his problems didn’t stem from his creativity or curiosity. It’s as if those became his tools for dealing with his life and avenging himself and rebelling and making his mark.”

What really drove da Vinci, believes Capaldi, was being an outsider. “He came from a very humble background, and was paranoid about that. It was very difficult to move on in society, and the only way for him to do it was by pursuing his gifts. That was how he was able to impress people. I don’t know how big a problem it was that he was gay. I have a sense that in the end he was just not someone who felt like he belonged.”

The documentary aims to present all sides of the artist, from the profound to the everyday. In it, the painter discusses his sexual desires, cracks bawdy jokes, shares his health tips and even runs through a shopping list.

Capaldi, who has also starred in such memorable work as Local Hero, Dangerous Liaisons, Torchwood, Skins, The Devil’s Whore, Field of Blood and The Hour, believes da Vinci is like Shakespeare. “Despite the fact that we have thousands and thousands of words by him, it is difficult to grasp the real person behind that because he never goes into his personal life in any great detail. Like Shakespeare, he remains a stranger to us. Leonardo is so revered and so taken for granted as an immense talent that people don’t think about him much any more.

“They don’t have an image other than the late self-portrait where he looks like God. They simply think of him as a remote, godlike figure. But in this programme, we hope to look beyond that and to show that he is also someone who struggled to be recognised and to get a gig.”

In some ways, da Vinci’s quest for recognition has a very contemporary feel. But Capaldi points out, “To be celebrated in the 15th century is not the equivalent of what we have today. For Leonardo, it was about respect and admiration for his skill. Now those qualities have been demeaned.

“There are certainly fabulously gifted people in the world today. But they tend to be put in the same box as all this other noise. They are bracketed with people who are much more mediocre. They are all tarred with the same brush of celebrity.”

Unlike many people in showbiz, Capaldi is far too sensible ever to have chased fame for its own sake. The actor, who leads a quiet life in north London with his TV producer wife Elaine and daughter, knows where his boundaries are. “I’ve never wanted to play the fame game – anyway, I’m not very good at it. I don’t know what it does. Was I ever tempted to pose for the paparazzi? Not really.

“It’s good to have the occasional night out, but that doesn’t have to involve paparazzi. I can sense that my own position has shifted slightly in terms of how often I’m recognised. That’s very nice, but I’m not sure I’d like it to go any further. I can see that it would be difficult if that was increased 100-fold. That’s not something I would want to be part of.”

The difficulty is, the actor reckons, that our value system is now totally out of kilter and that fame is viewed as the only yardstick for success. Capaldi, who is also an accomplished director and won the 1995 Oscar for Best Short Film for making Franz Kafka’s It’s a Wonderful Life, adds, “The trouble for anyone coming into acting now is that it is difficult to know what route to take in order to get on. Unfortunately, at the moment, if you’re seen in that world of flashbulbs and red carpets, you’re regarded as successful. The measure of success is how much time you spend there. It’s very confusing for young actors to work out what to do.”

Inside the Mind of Leonardo is a perfect vehicle for Capaldi. He studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and has been passionate about painting all his life. However, he has one bugbear about the art world: that its very popularity is threatening to stifle it. “I was at the Manet exhibition at the Royal Academy in London yesterday and I found it really frustrating. I couldn’t get near the pictures without wading through a crowd of people you would like to take a baseball bat to. It’s crucial you get the chance to spend time with the pictures because that’s where the connection is made.

“I was in New York for some time doing a play,” he says, “and was able to go to galleries when no-one was around. That was fantastic because you could just stand in front of a picture for a long time and commune with it.”

Capaldi adds, “That’s what paintings are for. Going to an exhibition should not be about standing in a huge queue trying to look over other people’s heads while you listen to them prattling on about how the hands in the picture look too big. I’m delighted these exhibitions are so popular. But I’m getting less and less from them, and they are becoming less and less viable as a means of making a meaningful connection with pictures.”

Not that Capaldi will have much time for visiting art exhibitions in the near future. He is about to start work as the dastardly Cardinal Richelieu in BBC1’s big new period drama, The Musketeers. “It’s going to be great fun,” he says. “I’m going to be the evil cardinal and spend my time torturing people and putting them on the rack. It’s a big costume piece for BBC1 on a Saturday night, and it’s going be really enjoyable to make.

“Do I relish playing baddies? I start tomorrow, and it’s a little bit worrying because there are a lot of traps which I may or may not fall into. I’m attempting to bring something more to the role than the moustache-twirling I’ve just been alluding to.”

Capaldi will also be seen as Guardian editor Alan Rusbridger in The Fifth Estate, a forthcoming movie about Julian Assange and the WikiLeaks story, and opposite Angelina Jolie in Maleficent, a reworking of the Sleeping Beauty myth. The actor discloses, “I play the king of the fairies. Insert your own joke here.”

The actor returns once more to the subject of Inside the Mind of Leonardo and what he would like viewers to gain from it. “I hope people will take away a sense of the real man behind this industry, this image that we have come to accept. Beyond that, there was a real person who had real struggles – which only made his achievements greater.”

Finally, I wonder which of Leonardo da Vinci’s 15 world-famous paintings Capaldi would choose to take to a desert island. “The Mona Lisa is rather haunting and strange,” he muses. “That might be a nice companion.

“But even on a desert island, no doubt I would still have to batter my way through a massive crowd to see it.” n

• Inside the Mind of Leonardo airs tonight, 9pm, on Sky Arts 2 HD and Sky 3D