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Quite famous sci-fi slash Shakespearean actor WLTM tall, sardonic writer with a taste for the surreal. GSOH vital. Stephen Armstrong sets up Will Self and David Tennant on a rather successful first date..
 

Will Self and David Tennant have much in common: a love of sci-fi, an artful embracing of the English language and a dyspeptic dislike of fools. When Sky Arts cast Tennant as the lead in The Minor Character, Self’s screenwriting debut about a riled artist observing the decay of an uncomfortable social circle, it seemed the inevitable result of a long friendship forged in some celebrity lounge somewhere.

So we were shocked to hear that the two of them had barely spoken before. We decided to play matchmaker, gathering them in the basement of the Fitzroy Tavern on Charlotte Street. This proved a partial success – see their comments on drinking, overleaf – but as we left we felt safe in the knowledge that a new creative friendship had been forged. Their first date was obviously the start of a very beautiful thing and we are looking forward to their version of Lolita, adapted by Self, also starring Tennant. At least, that’s how we understood the conversation…

ON WRITING AND ACTING

ES So you worked on The Minor Character together but you didn’t meet?

DT We only met on the last day of the shoot.

WS Yeah, I just popped in to say hello and to thank David for doing it because nobody has ever made anything I’ve written before.

ES It seems odd you’ve never met; don’t you like each other’s work?

WS I’ve seen David on stage and he’s a tremendously lucid actor. Particularly in his Shakespeare acting and that is enormously appealing. It helps to look so fantastically clean-cut and have crystal-clear diction, but it also helps to be, dare I say it, an intelligent actor. Because, with the best will in the world, did you see Michael Fassbender playing Jung in A Dangerous Method?

DT [carefully] I know the film you mean.

WS Well, quite clearly he’s never even read the Wikipedia stuff on Jung. So he’s playing the founding father of psychoanalysis and he clearly doesn’t know anything about it… just ‘mumble mumble’. Dave is not that kind of actor. [Both burst into laughter.]

ES Which Shakespeare did you see?

WS I’ve seen your Omelet. What a lot of people don’t appreciate with Omelet is how tricky it is.

DT How many eggs it takes…

WS I have to say, I’ve seen a few Omelets in my time and some Omelets you really don’t want to be going near, particularly the fourth act.

DT [batting the compliment away] What I’ve always loved about Will is I’m a sucker for when language takes flight and I love his choice of extraordinary words and the poetry of that. It’s very rare to have a writer whose voice is so recognisable, in modern times.

WS Most people hate that, of course. Review after review will say, ‘He’s incapable of writing anything that doesn’t have his voice in it.’

DT Why would you…?

WS People like prose to be technical. They like it to do a job. They don’t want to be confronted.

ON DINNER PARTIES

ES What’s The Minor Character about?

WS It is a satire on middle-class, middle-aged urbanites and on the alienation I basically live in the whole time. This world where you don’t see old friends for a year but you go on this round of dinner parties where you see somebody at a lunch party and then you might see them at a bigger party and then suddenly they’re part of your circle and, in fact, you don’t know anything about them.

ES Do you feel alienated at dinner parties, too, or is that yet to come?

DT I mean, there are things I can identify with whether or not it’s quite the version of events I recognise – you know, the collection of friends overlapping and coming and going. But I quite like to cook – although I like the time and space and the solitude to be able to get it right and I will follow a recipe sort of religiously so that I know it will be OK. Do you cook?

WS I can cook, but I don’t tend to because my perfectionism gets in the way. It’s stressful for me. Because I don’t drink I get really bored at dinner parties. I don’t mind people drinking as long as they aren’t falling over, otherwise I’m off.

DT You want to go to bed at half ten.

WS When my wife and her friends get dug in they’ll be there until one in the morning. I’m like, “What the f*** have you got to talk about?” They’ve known each other for years.

DT Do you leave them to it?

WS I go to bed.

DT Yeah. Good.

WS Go read a book about people at dinner parties.

DT Or write about them.

WS Dinner parties should be 90 minutes [laughter]. Lunch: 25 minutes. Coffee: five minutes. I don’t really like food much.

DT That’s sort of the point of the dinner party.

WS I don’t dislike it but the sort of the fetishisation around it...

ES to DT Do you drink? I don’t mean, are you an alcoholic, but...

DT I’m not a teetotaller but I’m quite a cheap date.

WS [possibly now that we’re talking about alcohol] Are your folks still in Paisley?

DT My dad is, yeah. And my sister.

WS I’m married to a Scot.

DT Where from?

WS Motherwell.

DT Oh Jesus. Is she quite hard?

WS She’s f***ing hard! She’s seriously tough. You don’t argue with her. [They both laugh.]

ON FANTASY

ES You’re both into sci-fi, aren’t you?

WS Almost every time I publish a book there’s quite a well-known sci-fi website that puts up a thing saying, ‘Finally, it no longer can be denied that Will Self is a science-fiction writer.’ As if I’ve been...

DT Raging against it!

WS What’s interesting about genre writing is that – I mean, this is not to claim this of my own work – but if it’s any good, it kind of transcends the genre.

ES Why I asked is Mark Gatiss says there’s a lot of crossover with gay people and science fiction because it’s about a place to go that’s other when you’re feeling very complex about yourself, particularly as a child and adolescent.

WS Is he gay, Mark Gatiss?

ES Famously so. I’m not outing him.

WS Sherlock is absolutely to die for but I never got on with The League of Gentlemen.

DT Oh, I loved it.

WS What am I missing? Do you have to be brought up in the sticks? [More laughter.]

DT You have to be a little bit normal...

ES But I was wondering if – because you both like sci-fi – either of you recognise that outsider thing.

WS I’m sure that’s right and I think his theory is pretty good. I think it needn’t necessarily be gayness. I’m pretty gay.

DT It’s true that science-fiction kids are not usually the football-playing kids, are they? Probably there’s a pie chart with gay kids in there somewhere – I don’t know how that would divide up. I was certainly not one of the football-playing kids and I enjoyed fantasy worlds, but I don’t know which comes first.

WS I really wanted to be a football kid and when I failed at football, sci-fi really took off. This kid called Andy Bruff in my class could do anything: run 400 metres in 40 seconds, do a backflip; he was a natural. I thought, “OK, if I work really, really hard at this, I could just about be better than average. What’s the point when that arsehole can do everything without trying?”

DT Yeah, so you end up chasing a slightly different world view, don’t you? I realised fairly early on that I wasn’t naturally sporty. I was quite happy being a bit of a clown or enjoying being slightly off-the-wall. I was better at that than playing football or being rough and tough, having fights in the playground.

WS But sci-fi also seems obvious. Its naturalism has always seemed really odd to me.

DT Everyone – well, viewers, actors, writers – we’re all less hung up on naturalism these days. Over the past ten or 15 years, maybe it began with magic realism but we’re now much more ready to accept non-linear storytelling, fantasy, sci-fi and all sorts as mainstream.

WS True. I think television’s going back to Dennis Potter – there was the guy who really began to break the mould with Pennies from Heaven and Blue Remembered Hills, saying you can have people breaking into song, you can have adults playing children. Brilliant.

DT The Singing Detective’s been on again, hasn’t it? On BBC Four.

WS That’ll be the 25th anniversary. God, middle-age time… I think almost his finest work was his final brilliant interview that he did with Melvyn Bragg.

DT That was glorious. When he was dying and said he looked out of his window and the blossom looked like the whitest, frothiest blossomiest blossom. Funnily enough, there was a Doctor Who episode, ‘The Time Monster’, back in the 1970s, where he talked about the daisiest daisy.

ON REJECTION

WS So what are your other influences, Dave?

DT I think you have acting influences and then you can have more broad artistic influences, I suppose. As an actor it’s people like Mark Rylance. And I saw Derek Jacobi on stage many years ago and was very affected by him.

WS Did you ever see Albert Finney on stage?

DT Yes, I saw him in Art.

WS He would’ve been getting on a bit then.

DT Probably past his best… I mean, he was very good, but I never saw his glory days.

WS Because I see some Finney in you.

DT [baffled] Ah, interesting.

WS I saw him in The Cherry Orchard, years and years ago, a classic production. I started out wanting to be an actor.

DT Did you ever do any?

WS I did some sort of semi-professional stuff and I was very keen indeed. Auditioned for the National Youth Theatre; I didn’t get in. It was a big blow. I was really pissed off about that because I don’t like failure. I actually can’t cope with it at all. And then when I got to university I was doing university productions and suddenly thought, “This isn’t me.” A guy I knew was directing and I thought, “Actually, I want to be directing this, I don’t want this guy telling me what to do. I can’t accept that.” And then I thought, “Actually, I want to be writing this shit.”

ES to DT Did you want to be a writer?

DT I’d like to have those skills. I’ve dabbled from time to time but I don’t feel confident enough to show my homework.

WS What sort of dabbling?

DT Oh, you know, I’ve written bits and pieces. There’s a weird thing when you have a certain level of… oh God, I might have to use the word ‘celebrity’, but you know what I mean, you suddenly get asked to write things simply because people know your name. You get asked to write introductions to books or even your own book, and I find that all slightly curious because I wouldn’t want to inflict that on anyone. I write the occasional forward for something that means a lot to me but not because I think I’ve got any great literary gift.

WS Even Nabokov said a literary style is an unpardonable error. I mean, he was joking, of course, about himself. There’s not a more stylistic and voicey writer than Nabokov. You ever wanted to play Humbert Humbert, the anti-hero in Lolita?

DT Well, it’s a fascinating role, isn’t it? Yeah, I think…

WS You’d be bloody good at it. You could do it.

DT We need to do an adaptation.

ON REVIEWS

DT If you ran away from acting for fear of failure, do you read reviews or does fear of failure keep you away?

WS As long as some are savagely bad and some are good, then you know you’re hitting the spot. If they’re all bad or all good, you’re in trouble. [Laughter.] Because I’ve published a lot. I mean, this year will be my 20th book, I’ve been through the mill a lot and I don’t tend to read them immediately. Not because it affects what I do, because it quite clearly doesn’t, I just do what I want to do, but emotionally I can be quite vulnerable.

DT Well, of course, I’m the same. Something I’ve learned to do is not to read them, just because it’s not nice if somebody says you’re shit.

WS Yeah, your professional persona is different from your emotional persona, but it’s just like they called you, personally, shit. And if you get a good review, you have a swollen, big-headed, narcissistic day. Fortunately, I’ve never walked into my local newsagent’s and had someone say, “I saw you had a shit review in The Times yesterday.”

DT Oh God, that happened to me today… I was doing an interview for something else entirely and this gentleman – he was very nice and we’d had a really good, proper chat – but I had another film just out and he mentioned the reviews. I said I don’t read them. He said, “They say it’s dross.” I was feeling quite good about it until then. I think people do love to serve them up to you. I never quite understand what that impulse is.

WS Because they hate you and they want you to feel bad.

DT Yeah. [Laughter.]

ON THE POSSIBILITY OF A SECOND DATE

ES So are you both happy with what you did with The Minor Character?

DT There’s nothing greater than being the cleverest person in the room, so to have that all done for you by Will Self is something I particularly enjoyed. And I think the fact that the main character’s called Will is…

WS That’s coincidental.

DT It can’t be coincidental, you made that choice. I mean, I never asked you this, but…

WS Well, OK, it’s not coincidental. It’s a trick, really, to shortcut the character so people know he’s a writer. But you’re way too young to play me. I mean, I just went to a tobacconist and asked for a brand of cigarettes that had been discontinued four years ago. [Laughter.]

DT But I’m an actor so we feel middle-aged quicker. You suddenly find yourself playing a father of grown-up children and you think, “Hang on, I used to be the juvenile, what’s going on here?” [Laughter.]

ES Maybe it’s time for you to write and Will to act.

DT There you go. That’s Sky’s next project. [Laughter.]

WS And then we’re going to get married. 

Playhouse Presents... The Minor Character is on 12 April at 9pm on Sky Arts 1 (sky.com/arts)

Source: The Evening Standard, April 2012

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