Douglas Hodge: 'I almost had to head-butt Harold Pinter'

He’s the musicals maestro who’s now starring in everything from Joker to Gemini Man. He reveals how he went from working men’s clubs to Hollywood – via a Pinteresque spell in theatre

There’s no escaping Douglas Hodge. Go to the cinema and he’s there in Joker, as Alfred Pennyworth, future butler to Batman; in Gemini Man, as Will Smith’s old Marine Corps buddy; and in The Report with Adam Driver, as one of the architects of post-9/11 torture techniques. On television this year, he reprised his role in Catastrophe as Ashley Jensen’s rapacious, belligerent bit on the side, and he’ll be seen next month in the second season of the Netflix adventure Lost in Space.

Add to that a brace of barnstorming theatrical ringmasters – Willy Wonka in Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and the drag queen Albin in La Cage aux Folles, for which he won a Tony and an Olivier – and it’s inarguable that the 59-year-old is one of the most versatile performers working today.

It’s easy to become blase about his range. When he casually reveals over lunch that he had a recording contract with EMI at the age of 16, or that he wrote the music and lyrics for a forthcoming stage version of 101 Dalmatians, the temptation is to say: “Well, of course you did.” At one point, I tell him that his career is absolutely nuts. “It is, isn’t it?” he says merrily.

Barnstorming theatrical ringmaster … Hodge as Albin in La Cage aux Folles.
Barnstorming theatrical ringmaster … Hodge as Albin in La Cage aux Folles. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

We are in a busy London restaurant, and Hodge, who lives in New York, is enjoying a day off from shooting a 10-part historical drama called The Great, scripted by Tony McNamara, co-writer of The Favourite. “It’s the same tone as that film,” Hodge says as he picks at his chicken salad. “Very irreverent. Elle Fanning is Catherine the Great and I’m General Velementov, head of all the armies.”

Velementov is a hefty chap, and Hodge did some people-watching in preparation. “Living in America, it’s not difficult to find fat people to observe. The sad thing was when I got into this enormous fat-suit on set and asked if they needed to do anything to my face, and they said, ‘No, your face is fine.’” He’s developed quite a thick skin. When he starred on stage in Guys and Dolls opposite Ewan McGregor and Jane Krakowski, the director Michael Grandage told him: “It’s funny. You’re very fit but you look completely unfit.” He mulls this over. “It’s true. Why is that?”

Perhaps it’s his everyman vibe, which suggests a perkier John C Reilly: the pasty face, the dark hair from which several corkscrew curls have sprung free, hanging over his brow like miniature Slinkys. He looks plain but pliable, and it’s this that has enabled him to slip between roles as varied as Richard Nixon (in Watergate) and Paul Burrell (in Diana), a police inspector in the macabre Penny Dreadful and a blood-curdling curator of atrocities in the Black Museum episode of Black Mirror.

‘I haven’t seen her since to apologise’ … Hodge with Letitia Wright in Black Mirror.
‘I haven’t seen her since to apologise’ … Hodge with Letitia Wright in Black Mirror. Photograph: Everett Collection Inc/Alamy Stock Photo

About the latter, which aired in 2017, he is still dazed with admiration. “It was as good a script as anything I’ve read in the theatre. It would warrant endless excavation.” On set, he gave his young co-star Letitia Wright the cold shoulder. “I was playing this very toxic person and I preferred to stay within that. She asked if I wanted to run the lines and I said, ‘No, not at all.’ It wasn’t going to help if we were all chummy.” He looks a bit sad. “Bless her. I haven’t seen her since to apologise.”

He draws a distinction between his behaviour and that of his Joker co-star Joaquin Phoenix. “Oh, Joaquin was deep in character. Gentle, self-effacing, but deep into it. I was only there a few days, and I was envious of how immersed he was. He is essentially fucking about with his psyche. I mean, look at him. He’s dangerously messing with his own happiness.”

In general, though, Hodge regards acting as a healthy pursuit. “Oh, fantastically so. I do think it redresses the level of barbarism in the world. You’re constantly putting yourself in other people’s shoes. What a terrific thing to do with your life. The empathy and humanism is the noblest thing about it.”

He’s not shocked that Joker, now nearing $1bn at the box office, has hit a nerve. “It’s genius, that switch in perspective. If Batman could have the money to fund the Bat Cave and to fight crime, well, of course he’d have to be part of the 1%! They live on their hill and they don’t give a flying fuck about the rest of us. I thought the movie was magnificent, though Joaquin was probably too thin.”

And the actor playing Alfred? “I just went, ‘Oh God, there I am,’” he sighs, putting a hand to his face. Still, it’s comforting to know that the effort he invested is there for ever, and it’s this that has motivated a concerted move into film and TV after decades of giving his full-blooded best to the stage. “I’ve always loved the communion of theatre but all those people I’ve played – Albin, Wonka – they don’t exist any more. They’re gone. There’s something appealing about knowing that the guy in The Report is there. Or Nixon – all that time I spent preparing to play him. I wouldn’t have a clue how to get into that now, but it’s there on screen. That’s pleasing.”

You might say film is where it began for Hodge. His first job was hanging movie titles, one letter at a time, on the cinema marquee at a fleapit in Chatham, Kent, to the jeers of the post-pub passersby. “You’d pray for something short like Jaws. I may be embellishing, but I swear we had One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich.”

His performing origins, though, are theatrical. At 15, he won a pub talent contest. “I did the usual impressions: Tommy Cooper, Harold Wilson, Ted Heath.” The prize was a tour of working men’s clubs. “The van would pick me up after school. There’d be a magician, then I’d do my impressions, then someone would drink a yard of ale. The crowds were brutal.” He also performed his own compositions, which led to that EMI contract. “I was writing 10 songs a week for them, but nothing came of it,” he shrugs. Getting into Rada temporarily halted his musical aspirations, though in the last 15 years he has released two albums: the raucous Cowley Road Songs and the ruminative, whispery Night Bus.

Early film and TV experiences didn’t amount to much, but in 1993 he found himself sharing a dressing room with Harold Pinter when they starred together in a revival of No Man’s Land. Hodge, Pinter and two other actors were all squashed into one room because the playwright insisted on keeping the other one for hospitality. “People would be made to go and stand in there and wait for Harold. He’d say, ‘I’m not bloody ready to see them. Who is it? Salman Rushdie? He can fucking wait there.’”

Hodge and Pinter didn’t get off to the best of starts. “He was having a go at the stage manager, so I said, ‘There’s no need to blame her.’ He stood up and took off his jacket and said, ‘Don’t tell me what I fucking need.’ I thought, ‘Oh no, I’m going to have to headbutt Harold Pinter.’ After that, we became really good friends.”

He has directed plenty of Pinter himself, including the acclaimed 2015 production of Old Times with Clive Owen and a score by Thom Yorke. “Probably to the detriment of the rest of my career, I spent 10 years working with Harold. It stopped me getting into film. I would just go from one Pinter to the next. But it was magnificent. Do you know what he said to me once? ‘I can take off my glasses faster than anyone else.’” He shakes his head in admiring disbelief.

Hodge has racked up his share of film parts – he was in the Deborah Moggach adaptation Tulip Fever and in Red Sparrow with Jennifer Lawrence (“She’s phenomenal! Judi Dench-level!”) – but, whenever he has complained about his movie career, his agent has reminded him that he was simply never available: La Cage alone dominated his life for 18 months. It is still theatre that he talks about with the most affection; it is, after all, where he met his wife, the American wigmaker Amanda Miller, whom he married after separating from the actor Tessa Peake-Jones, his partner of 27 years and the mother of his two adult children.

“My wife made the nose I wore to play Cyrano de Bergerac on Broadway. They had this lumbering thing that kept falling off in rehearsals, so she came up with the genius idea of making it in foam and having a new one every night.” How Freudian, I say. “Yes. And not only that, but, when she first presented me with it, she placed it on her own nose first, then put it on mine. I thought, ‘Bloody hell, that’s a bit overfamiliar!’” These days, she’s good at curbing his barmier ideas. “With Nixon, I wanted to hold a seance and try to summon him up, just me and my wife, but she put a stop to that. She said, ‘We’re not having Nixon in our home!’”

• The Report is in cinemas from 15 November. The Great will be screened on Channel 4 next year.


Ryan Gilbey

The GuardianTramp

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