Anthony Head’s teenage obsessions: ‘The Rocky Horror Show ignited something in my core’

The Buffy and Gold Blend actor, who stars in the new film School’s Out Forever, on his love for Judi Dench, Lord of the Flies – and playing Dr Frank-N-Furter

Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus by Spirit

My parents were desperate for me to like classical music, but I just couldn’t buy into the length of the pieces. Then they played me Adagio for Strings by Samuel Barber and it was so beautiful, I cried. My school music teacher, Mr Vassal, asked for our favourite composers; I said Samuel Barber and he laughed at me. But eventually everyone caught up.

There was a Beatles versus Stones vibe at school. I was on the Beatles side. The first single I bought was Wild Thing by the Troggs and the first album was Bookends by Simon and Garfunkel. I loved Father and Son by Cat Stevens, because it made me think of me and my dad. My tastes weren’t shocking; they just needed to open up. Then, when I was 17, I went to hospital to have my tonsils out and my brother bought me some records and this mobile turntable in a suitcase.

Twelve Dreams of Dr Sardonicus by Spirit had the most amazing way of manipulating stereo. I was just blown away. I have to thank my brother; he turned me on to Joni Mitchell, Andy Pratt and Little Feat and opened up my boundaries.

Little Brother, Little Sister

My mother, Helen Shingler, was famous during my teens for playing Madame Maigret in a BBC series based on the Georges Simenon stories. My father, Seafield Head, was a producer and director at Verity Films, the documentary film company. Every year, a family friend’s mum would hire this huge barn and put on a play. I had a bit part in The Jackdaw of Rheims. The next year, I got to be the Emperor in The Emperor’s New Clothes. As I walked through the audience, all heads turned towards me and I remember thinking: “This is what I want to do for a living.”

I applied to the National Youth Theatre and the Central School of Speech and Drama, but I didn’t get in, so my father hired me as a runner and assistant editor. Working in the cutting rooms was fascinating. Then I enrolled at The Young Stagers at the Thorndike theatre in Leatherhead, run by this lovely woman called Joan MacAlpine. She directed me in an extraordinary piece called Little Brother, Little Sister, which got me into the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. My teacher said: “If anybody can make me cry, I’ll take them to the theatre.” I did my piece again and made her cry.

The Rocky Horror Show

Anthony Head in The Rocky Horror Tribute Show at the Royal Court in 2006
Anthony Head in The Rocky Horror Tribute Show at the Royal Court in 2006. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

I remember being taken to The Rocky Horror Show on Kings Road when I was at drama school in my late teens. Tim Curry was playing Dr Frank-N-Furter – the role that he repeated in the film. Watching The Rocky Horror Show ignited something in my core. I knew I had acting in my blood because of my mother. Now I couldn’t wait to finish drama school and try to make it in the real world.

I finally got to play Dr Frank-N-Furter when The Rocky Horror Show came to the Piccadilly theatre in 1990. The exciting thing about acting is that you shouldn’t know what’s coming out of the actor’s mouth next – and I didn’t hold back. I just let whatever was going on inside of me come out in the character. That was life-changing for me as an actor. It made me realise that there’s nowhere that you can’t go.

Friends would come to see me perform and later say that they hardly recognised me, I was so out of character. As an actor, that’s a huge compliment.

Judi Dench

Judi Dench and Maurice Denham in Talking to a Stranger in 1966
Judi Dench and Maurice Denham in 1966’s Talking to a Stranger. Photograph: Everett Collection/Alamy

One of Judi Dench’s early roles was this show on BBC Two called Talking to a Stranger, with Michael Bryant, Maurice Denham and Margery Mason. It’s about this family who are at odds with each other. Each of the four parts focuses on one family member’s view of what is going on around them. I thought it was beautiful, amazing and absolutely genius and I just fell in love with Judi. I thought that she was the most amazing actress – and still do. Judi taught me that acting can be at its best when it is very subtly underplayed. The core of believing an actor is buying into the fact that they’re not acting.

I got to play the rather unpleasant suitor of one of her on-screen daughters in Love in a Cold Climate on the BBC in the early 00s. I’m sure I must have said to Judi: ‘I think you’re so wonderful.’ Actors need appreciation and recognition. I suppose for me that will always be for Buffy, because Buffy was so different and so pivotal for its time. The episode called The Body, where Buffy’s mum dies, is the most extraordinary piece of writing and misdirection. I’m very grateful to have done so many evocative things that so many people have latched on to.

Paul Newman

Robert Redford and Paul Newman (right) in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid
Robert Redford and Paul Newman (right) in 1969’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Photograph: Photos 12/Alamy

I love Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid. Each act is so brilliantly put together; it’s a stunning piece of writing. Both Robert Redford and Paul Newman are phenomenal, but Newman especially I’ve always loved, because he’s so believable that he instantly transports you into the story. I also loved Henry Fonda in Once Upon a Time in the West, in which he plays the baddie, which is unusual.

I often get cast as baddies. I don’t know why. I play Rupert Mannion on [the Apple TV+ sitcom] Ted Lasso. He’s a particularly unpleasant character and a complete narcissist, but you know where he’s coming from. To make somebody believable, you have to see their point of view. You don’t need to like them, but you have to be on board with what’s driving them.

I’m also in an episode of the new series of Back with David Mitchell and Robert Webb. I get to play a totally self-absorbed character called Charismatic Mike, who was great fun to play. It’s always been my theory that actors are hugely insecure, which is why we love dressing up and being someone else, because we don’t have to be in our own heads and bodies. Then we can express things that we may feel deep down and blame it on the character.

Lord of the Flies

At drama school, I really liked the people on the stage-managing course who were studying things like costume, lighting and prop-making. People used to say: you have to behave like a star to be thought of as a star. So, traditionally, a lot of actors take stage managers for granted.

Lord of the Flies

I get very cross with actors who just throw their clothes on the floor. I said to one actor recently: “Costume are here before you, setting up your clothes, and they’re here after you’ve gone. Pick up your clothes, put them on a hanger in your cupboard. It’s not a big deal.” Teamwork is important.

At school, one of the books that blew me away was Lord of the Flies. It’s also about teamwork and not necessarily someone standing in front becoming the leader. In your teens, the world is yours to do what you want with. As you grow up, you realise you’re just part of something much bigger. Now more than ever, life should be about teamwork and for the cause of the greater good.

School’s Out Forever is available on digital from 15 February and DVD and Blu-ray from 12 April


As told to Rich Pelley

The GuardianTramp

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