Bertie Carvel: 'I like playing characters who are massively chipped'

The star of Doctor Foster and The Pale Horse on how becoming a father changed his life, and why he relishes roles that come with a “deliberate flaw”

Over the past few months, Bertie Carvel’s life has changed completely, and not for the obvious reasons. The 43-year-old actor welcomed his first child with his wife, Sally Scott, during lockdown – and he says the experience has transformed him.

“It’s not that priorities have changed; more that the sort of centre of gravity has shifted instantly,” he says. “It’s amazing to actually feel that the nexus, the source of my joy is not entirely with work any more. I think I’d forgotten how easy it is to be happy but I wake up now and as soon as I remember that he’s in the world then I feel happy.”

Not, he is keen to stress, that he was “massively depressed”: “But my happiness was, for a very long time, contingent on what I strive to do and the goals I’ve set myself. Now I just wake up and I think Ernest is here and I feel happy. And, once you have that feeling, then you just sort of want to make sure that it stays that way because it’s amazing, absolutely amazing.”

The scion of a journalism dynasty (his father and grandfather were political columnists while his mother was a psychiatrist), Carvel has long said he feels uncomfortable in interviews: “Of course it’s gratifying to be given the opportunity to talk about yourself, but I can’t help feeling that you almost always reduce the work.” But the man I meet over Zoom is relaxed, witty and seemingly at peace with the world, even though he has tested positive for Covid-19 and is worried that he may have passed it to his wife and son: “The flat we live in is so tiny it would be impossible not to have.”

Instead, a wide-ranging conversation touches on everything from Islamic art and the 1976 film Network to Greek mythology. All of which could sound overwhelming but the reality is that Carvel is so charming and thoughtful that the experience of talking to him is rather like hanging out in an incredibly well-stocked library, where every shelf might contain an interesting curiosity or two.

‘I like the contradictions’: Bertie Carvel plays an unsettling ‘paranormal expert’ in The Sister.
‘I like the contradictions’: Bertie Carvel plays an unsettling ‘paranormal expert’ in The Sister. Photograph: Euston Films/ITV

We are here nominally to talk about ITV’s The Sister, a spooky Halloween spine-tingler written by Luther’s Neil Cross and starring Russell Tovey as an ordinary man whose dark past comes back to haunt him after the return to his life of Carvel’s Bob, an unsettling paranormal expert with whom he shares a terrible secret.

Getting Carvel to talk about that show, however, is an interesting experience. Does he believe in ghosts and the supernatural? “Um, I think I’ll take the fifth,” he says with an awkward smile, adding that he was interested in the part because “I like the contradictions”. “The fact that Bob is supposedly the supernatural expert but in reality he’s a nihilist who wants to believe but feels in his bones that this shit is all there is,” he says. “Meanwhile Nathan [Tovey’s character] desperately wants to believe that ghosts don’t exist but his experiences keep telling him otherwise …”

His last three roles – Bob, creepy chemist Zachariah in the BBC’s adaptation of Agatha Christie’s The Pale Horse and Baghdad Central’s morality-free military police officer – have all been particularly grimy parts, the sort of men who grub around life’s edges seeing what nastiness they might turn up while his biggest television role remains Doctor Foster’s slimy cheat of a husband, Simon. Does he feel drawn towards characters whom it is difficult to like?

He looks pleased. “Yes, not unlikeable but difficult to like – I do lean into that, because I think what excites me is that they might be hard to like but by God I’m going to have a damn good try making you like them anyway. I like the challenge of making a character three-dimensional enough, humane enough, that you may not be predisposed to like them or draw close to them but by the end of it you understand them and you recognise them and maybe, just maybe, you do even like them.”

He has long been fascinated by the idea of the “deliberate flaw”. “Someone once told me that there is always a deliberate flaw in Islamic art because only God is perfect and I really liked the idea of that. I like the idea of playing characters who are massively chipped because it’s easier to find the gnarly bits that make them feel satisfyingly real.”

Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel in Doctor Foster.
Suranne Jones and Bertie Carvel in Doctor Foster. Photograph: Des Willie/Drama Republic

Having played the Byronic magician Jonathan Strange with swagger and style in the fantasy adaptation Jonathan Strange & Mr Norrell, does he ever think of a world where he could have become a romantic hero? He laughs. “Well, what I always say about that character was that he starts out in Henry IV Part 1 and ends up in King Lear … I don’t say yes to those sorts of parts really because they don’t exactly come my way. I’m not the person people think of when they’re looking for boring, good-looking chaps. I don’t really have the looks.”

So he wouldn’t take the Hollywood career then? Another laugh. “I didn’t say that. Of course, I’ll take the Hollywood career if it’s on offer thanks very much.” In fact, he has just returned from the US where he was finishing up interrupted filming on Joel Coen’s much-anticipated take on Macbeth starring Denzel Washington as Macbeth and Frances McDormand as Lady Macbeth. Carvel plays Banquo and says the whole experience has been “wonderful … It’s a fabulous cast. I think it’s going to be a very beautiful, special film.” He looks downcast for a second. “And I don’t know if there will be any cinemas left to show it.”

Carvel, who was privately educated, has always been an outspoken advocate for more diversity within the arts, sitting on the board for Equity and lobbying for greater funding and support. How does he feel about the government’s levels of support, or lack thereof?

“I do worry that the drawbridge is going to be pulled up and there will be fewer opportunities and that will make a bad situation worse,” he says. “At the same time I’m hopeful that people will say ‘I’m mad as hell and I’m not going to take it any more’. I feel as though that is happening both across our sector and also across the world. Whether it produces deep and lasting change is anybody’s guess – I don’t pretend to have answers.”

In June, he put his money where his mouth is and created the Lockdown Theatre festival, which aired on BBC Radio 3 and Radio 4, as part of the BBC Culture in Quarantine initiative. Back then he was firm that British theatre was under threat and that “we need a really grownup conversation and money from the exchequer to pull together some serious investment”.

Since the birth of his son, however, he says he has stepped back from activism, stopping his social media activity at the same time. “I thought I was using social media as a news-gathering thing and way of staying in touch but I realised that it’s just making me feel angry and anxious all the time. I did the Lockdown Theatre festival as a piece of activism but then I began to feel as though as I was reaching peak activist.

“I’d just had this new little boy and I thought something’s got to give and it can’t be my son. So I just decided to step away. It does feel kind of irresponsible but in a way it’s the right thing to do because other people will have better, fresher ideas and once the conversation has started, then voices like mine don’t need to be heard. It’s also the case that my social media use was making me unhappy. I feel much, much better for having decided to leave it alone.”

After a tough year – his mother, Patricia, died last November after a stroke and complications from surgery – he now clearly feels as though he is moving into a new, more positive time.

“It’s hard to know how to feel but I feel well. I’m determined to feel hopeful,” he says. “I was thinking this morning as I got up, and the sun was streaming through, how much I love this time of year and how odd it is that autumn, when everything is withering and dying, can feel like such a life-affirming time.

“I feel as though right now we’re in an autumn phase and things are going to get worse before they get better but I’m very hopeful of the spring. I’m an optimist at heart.” He smiles. “I do try to remember that, when everything seems at its worst.”

The Sister is on ITV from Monday to Thursday at 9pm


Sarah Hughes

The GuardianTramp

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