Theatre

Interview: Rory Kinnear



Today is Rory Kinnear’s birthday.

While later it’s likely he’ll be celebrating, at this current moment in time he is taking a brief break from rehearsals for the National’s production of Burnt By the Sun a stage version of Nikita Mikhalkov’s Oscar winning film.

A full run through is scheduled for the afternoon, so he’s hastily lunching on a cup of rather unappetising looking canteen soup the colour and texture of chewing tobacco after it’s been chewed.
Kinnear has landed a peach of a role, having been cast as the charismatic Dimitri Mitia, a man who, in the film, is both charming and sinister in equal measure. Mitia arrives unexpectedly at the home of Colonel Kotov, a hero of the Revolution; it is gradually revealed that, some years previously, he had an affair with Maroussia, the woman who is now Kotov’s wife. Both film and play are set on the eve of Stalin’s Great Terror, in a rural idyll that is about to be utterly and irreparably disrupted. A key image of the film is that of Stalin’s impassive face looming ominously above the horizon on a banner that is being held aloft by hot air balloons. Ciaran Hinds has been cast as Kotov while Michelle Dockery (whose note perfect Eliza Doolittle still sparkles in the memory) is to play Maroussia, the women who both men love.

Kinnear first saw the film while playing Konstantin in a production of The Seagull in Northampton, “I found the subject matter interesting and engaging. I found the way of presenting the subject matter in a domestic form very engaging.” A year and a half ago, director Howard Davies, who directed Kinnear in the National’s production of Philistines, informed him that he had acquired the rights to the film and that Peter Flannery (the man behind the justly lauded Our Friends in the North) would be adapting it for the stage.

The idea intrigued Kinnear who had previously starred in another stage adaptation of a film – David Eldridge’s Festen – an experience he had enjoyed. He points out the similarities between Festen and Burnt by the Sun: in both films the events depicted take place over a short period of time, over a matter of hours in the case of the latter. “There is something essentially theatrical about that. Also it’s not so well known as a film, so you’re not bound in by people’s expectations. Our version is quite different from the film, where events are largely seen through the eyes of the six year old daughter. In Flannery’s version the girl is nearly ten and the play is seen through Kotov’s wife’s eyes. The confrontations and dialogue that those three have is more central to our theatrical interpretation.”

He’s clearly relishing the role of Mitia. “I was quite musical a while ago and the chance to play my trumpet – which I spent twenty years of my life playing but it disappeared when I left university. to get a chance to do that, to get a chance to play the piano, to get a chance to sing, is very exciting.”

“I was quite musical a while ago and the chance to play my trumpet, to get a chance to play the piano, to get a chance to sing, is very exciting.” – Rory Kinnear on playing Mitia in Burnt By The Sun

I ask if whether playing a character that originated on film has a bearing on his choices as an actor. Kinnear last watched the film when the idea of his involvement was first raised and hasn’t watched it since. “There are a few people in the cast who haven’t seen it and have asked: should I see it? And I’ve said no, see it after we’re done. Yes, we have taken the original idea and the original shape from the film but I think you should be able to create it for yourselves. The music we’ve used is our own choice, and while there’s a lot of comedy in the film and there’s a lot of comedy in the play, we’re not trying to replicate the film.”

Kinnear has acted since he was a child though “it wasn’t something I did with any wholeheartedness until I was fifteen.” He smiles and says that when he was little he actually wanted to be a goalkeeper for Celtic. He describes himself as “reasonably academic” and he read English at Oxford, though continued to act while doing so, before going on to train at LAMDA. He describes acting as being “as rewarding as you want it to be.”

Both Kinnear’s parents were actors. His mother Carmel Cryan is an actress who has recently featured in Eastenders and his father Roy Kinnear was a popular character actor perhaps best remembered as Veruca Salt’s doting dad in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory. He died in an accident during the filming of The Return of the Musketeers while Kinnear was still young.

The main thing that having parents who acted taught him was that acting was “a viable profession in which you can support yourself and make a living.” For him it wasn’t “a leap into the unknown.” His father was rarely out of work. “If he wasn’t doing a telly series he was doing a play, if he wasn’t doing a play he was doing some voiceovers for a cartoon. I saw him as a working man.” He doesn’t think his background has opened any doors though he concedes, with a degree of resignation, that it probably “got me interviewed a lot more there’s a story to write.”

As well as starring in Festen in the West End, he has done work for the RSC and the Donmar but his career really took off with a string of memorable roles at the National, beginning with Samuel Adamson’s frothy Southwark Fair in which his performance was by far the most exciting thing. His turn as Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode won him an Olivier Award and the 2007 Ian Charleson Award and he followed this with impressive performances in Ibsen’s Philistines and Melly Still’s The Revenger’s Tragedy.

The former production gave Kinnear his first chance to work with Howard Davies, whose work he admired. He describes going with his mum and sister to see Davies’ production of All My Sons with Julie Walters. “I had to stay behind for fifteen minutes afterwards because I was just so blown away by it.” So he was incredibly pleased when the opportunity to work with Davies came about. He speaks highly of Davies’ methods. “He’s interested in what actors bring to a rehearsal; he’s a fantastic observer, acutely sensitive in his responses to what you bring to him.”

Those less familiar with Kinnear’s stage work may well still recognise him as he often crops up on screen in programmes such as Ashes to Ashes and BBC4’s The Curse of Steptoe (part of the growing sub-genre detailing the misery-steeped lives of Britain’s best loved comedians). “The nice thing about acting is you work in lots of different media. I’ve been lucky enough in the last four years to do six months of a play and six months of screen work. You don’t have to create a whole every day when doing screen work, but you do have to be aware of the whole constantly in your mind.”

I steer the conversation towards Bond, for Kinnear had a small but not insignificant role in Quantum of Solace. “Sheer amazement” is how he describes the experience, “amazement at the scale of the thing, this $240 million film.” The film was shot both in Pinewood and on location in Panama, something Kinnear describes as being like a “very well organised scout camp.”. In terms of acting “it wasn’t the hardest job, but on the third day it struck me that this was something that everybody is going to see. I’m not intrinsic to it, but everybody is going to see it.” He stretches out the word ‘everybody’ in the manner of someone still absorbing the implications.

While Kinnear doesn’t like to talk in terms of a wish list when discussing future roles, he is slated to play Hamlet at the National next year (something that has already been the subject of a little in-joke in Rupert Goold’s loose adaptation of Pirandello’s Six Characters in Search of an Author). In doing so he’ll be heading down a path recently walked by David Tennant (for the RSC) and Jude Law (later this year for the Donmar in what will be the final production of their West End season at Wyndham’s) but he isn’t daunted, as it’s not exactly a play people get bored of and “Nicholas (Hytner) is fantastic at gauging people’s appetite.” Kinnear strikes me as far too reasonable to worry overly about comparisons and having seen what he can do with material that veers towards the average, one tingles at the thought of what he could do with a part like that. Though it displays a distinct lack of objectivity to admit it, I’m excited already.

Burnt By The Sun begins previews on 24 February and opens on 3 March 2009 at the National. For further details see the National’s website: nationaltheatre.org.uk

Read the musicOMH review of Burnt by the Sun



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