Tuesday, 4 January 2011

A strange kind of action hero

The actor Richard Coyle is set to lose the ‘Jeff from Coupling’ tag with a part in Hollywood blockbuster Prince of Persia

Jeff Dawson

Published: 23 May 2010, Sunday Times

Stage nerves aren’t a Richard Coyle speciality. Into the foyer of the Donmar Warehouse he strolls, 90 minutes from curtain-up, casual as you like. He’s dressed in a grungy check shirt and jeans, mixed with a business jacket, and the ensemble is topped with several days’ beard growth and a gloriously unkempt explosion of curls — a sort of fledgling white man’s afro. A few minutes late, Coyle cheerily lofts the reason, a shopping bag: “New five-a-side ball.”

“Fancy a look around?” he adds, tossing in some convivial small talk as we wend up and down stairways. Coyle dumps his purchase in his dressing room — a shared and typically dingy backstage boudoir, his area featuring assorted clothes, books, papers, a Led Zeppelin tape — then whisks me out onto the stage, one of theatreland’s most hallowed chunks of decking. He’s midway through the run of Polar Bears, his third play at this venue, following Proof, with Gwyneth Paltrow, and After Miss Julie. “I don’t know what it is about theatre,” he waxes. “I’m just completely in love with the whole thing — just a thrill to be on stage, a complete escape.”

Back in the Covent Garden sunshine, we repair to a cafe, where Coyle wolfs down a cappuccino. He has a 20-month-old daughter, Purdy, with his actress wife, Georgia Mackenzie: “I’d like to get some sleep at some point.” My old-school cassette recorder is of fascination. As a self-professed “vinyl Nazi”, he is fighting the rearguard against digitalisation. “You really do notice the sound difference. It’s much warmer. Music should be heard in that analogue way, not digitally compressed.”

For the engaging 38-year-old, these are high times. Although his CV lists a huge range of work in theatre and television, Coyle is still best known — for better or worse — as Jeff Murdock, the Kramer-esque eccentric from the early-Noughties sitcom Coupling. So this is a year, indeed a month, that will raise his profile considerably. On the big screen, there’s the sword-and-sandals epic Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time, released this week. Over the spring bank holiday, on Skyfollows the lavish two-part adaptation of Terry Pratchett’s Going Postal, a veritable tour de force from Coyle. And there is Polar Bears. Coyle plays John, a crumpled philosophy lecturer caught in a turbulent marriage with Kay (Jodhi May), a woman with bipolar disorder. It’s by Mark Haddon, author of the hit novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Some critics weren’t happy with the play’s jumbled time structure and lack of definition as to what is real and what is imagined. “I like that it leaves the audience asking questions,” Coyle muses. “I don’t always like things tied up in a bow. It’s much more interesting that way.” On this production, for the first time, he hasn’t looked at a single critical notice. “I’ve been a lot happier for not reading them.”

Coyle is in marvellously brooding form in the film, bellowing to a cast of thousands things like: 'We attack at dawn!'

Prince of Persia, set in the 6th century AD, couldn’t be more different. From the überproducer Jerry Bruckheimer, bankrolled by Disney, it’s a $150m thunderer in which Coyle appears alongside Jake Gyllenhaal, Gemma Arterton, Ben Kingsley and Alfred Molina. As Prince Tus, Coyle is in marvellously brooding form, bellowing to a cast of thousands things like: “We attack at dawn!” All thoroughly good fun. Misgivings that the film is based on a videogame are dispelled by the fact that it’s directed by Mike Newell, maker, most famously, of Four Weddings and a Funeral. “You know you’re going to get something a little bit elegant with him,” Coyle says. The director, for his part, has dashed off a testimonial, which I read out, celebrating Coyle’s status as “thinking women’s crumpet”. It causes him to go a little bashful.

In Going Postal, from Pratchett’s Discworld saga, Coyle plays Moist Von Lipwig, the lovable rogue spared the gallows so he might revive Ankh-Morpork’s doomed post office — “A gift of a part” — and running up against David Suchet’s diabolical 
media tycoon.

“Terry Pratchett is one of our sharpest satirists,” Coyle says. “He’s created a wonderful Dickens-like world, but actually he’s commenting on the state of our nation. They’ve struck gold with this, I think.”

Of the three projects, it seems to capture Coyle’s offbeat charm the best, although variety is still his calling card, a quality that has seen him cast in things as diverse as the paranormal TV series Strange, and films such as A Good Year and The Libertine, with Johnny Depp. I don’t wish to blow smoke up Coyle’s backside here, but, in advance of the interview, Depp too has jumped on the PR bandwagon, with a bespoke missive celebrating Coyle as “a man of superior talent, also a dear friend” — indicating heroic industry on the part of Coyle’s publicists or an underscoring of 
extraordinary popularity.

I literally wrote thousands of letters. Not just to actors: ICI, Paul McCartney, Richard Branson, charities

Coyle does a bit of aw-shucking again. “Ah, the Deppster... He’s in London quite a lot, and often we cross over in LA, so we always try to hook up and have dinner or drinks. Me and Johnny got on like a house on fire right from day one.” That all sounds horribly showbiz. “It really does.”

Coyle’s passage into thespianism was unorthodox. From a working-class Sheffield family, he discovered acting at York University and raised the money for theatre school (Bristol Old Vic) on the back of begging letters to the great and good. “I made a real pest out of myself, a whole package, with photos, reviews and everything. I literally wrote thousands of letters. Not just to actors: ICI, Paul McCartney, Richard Branson, 
charities, everybody.”

Anthony Hopkins was sufficiently wowed to cough up a significant contribution, as was Brian Blessed, who donated the proceeds from the Bristol instalment of his one-man show The Impossible Dream. “An amazingly magnanimous thing for him to do. People like that came good for me.” Whereas some responses were amusing (”I got a badge from the Paul McCartney Fan Club”), others were hostile. Daniel Day-Lewis’s agent got so fed up with Coyle’s persistent bombardment that she cautioned him never to darken her door again. Later, unwittingly, the same agent signed Coyle up.

“When I went in, I showed her the letter and said, ‘By the way, that was you two years ago!’ She was a bit po-faced.” The standard TV apprenticeship followed, from Hetty Wainthropp Investigates to dramas such as Greenstone and Lorna Doone. Then, in 2000, came Coupling, the “British Friends”, a comedy that picked over the relationship woes of six interlinked twentysomethings. From cult beginnings, the show became a hit for the BBC, so much so that an American version was later launched as NBC TV’s replacement for the very series Coupling had set out to imitate (albeit a shortlived outing). “It was a brilliant start for me. Some of the writing, I think, is really of the highest quality,” gushes Coyle, who made his name as the show’s oddball, a paranoid Welsh barroom philosopher prone to giant faux pas, typically involving sex and nudity.

Then, three years in, and controversially, Coyle quit. “I could have gone on very easily. It was a hard decision to make. I just felt like I’d got where I could with Jeff.” Within months, the show ended. An immediate upshot was that Coyle was bombarded with scripts, on the erroneous assumption that he did, genuinely, hail from west of Offa’s Dyke (he ended up in the Welsh-based thriller Happy Now), but the legacy continues, with public recognition for that part still.

Life seems more steady for Coyle, hoofing the bladder with his showbiz team or following the fortunes of his beloved Sheffield Wednesday

“The vast majority of times, people say the nicest things,” he says. “But sometimes people think they have the right to come up and sort of dump on you. If somebody threatens me because I made their girlfriend laugh, it’s hard to know how to deal with that. Especially if they’ve had a few drinks, brandishing a pint glass. That happened a couple of times.” Really? He nods. “I went out with Jack [Davenport] and Ben [Miles, his Coupling co-stars]. We’re still good friends. Some guy just picked on me, wanting to punch me out. Jack and Ben literally had to step in, going, ‘It’s just a TV show.’ This guy had gone, he’d got that road-rage thing, kind of ‘I want to kill you’. That’s a powerful reaction." Fortunately, of late, the intrusions have been more civilised. As a result of Polar Bears, there have come quiet “thank yous” from the loved ones of those with depression. “So that makes it all worthwhile.”

Indeed, after months abroad, filming in Morocco (Prince of Persia), Budapest (Going Postal) and Tbilisi (for the forthcoming Caucasian war thriller Georgia), life seems altogether more steady for Coyle — commuting from his house in Queen’s Park, northwest London, hoofing the bladder with his showbiz team or following the fortunes of his beloved, unfortunate Sheffield Wednesday.

It might have panned out very differently. Just recently, Coyle was in LA, filming the TV pilot for Miami Trauma, a sort of House-meets-ER concoction. Things looked good, the series was set to roll. “I was about to call friends and family, saying, ‘We’re off. Bye.’ Then my phone went. It was my agent, saying, ‘They’re picking the show up... but they don’t want you to be in it.’ I was gutted, it was a kick in the balls. But it’s a business for them, purely that — ‘No hard feelings but you’re not the guy for the job.’ Weirdly, it made complete sense. I kinda knew somewhere in the back of my mind that it wasn’t going to happen.”

He shouldn’t worry. Prince of Persia is intended as the first part of an action/adventure franchise. “If it’s a huge smash, which I’m sure it will be, it’s got everything there,” he confides. “But then you can’t expect anything, you know. You just have to get another job, find the next challenge and keep going. I’m happy. It’s a nice position to be in.”

Prince of Persia review, page 15; Going Postal, Sky 1, May 30 and 31

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