Scottish actor and film maker Peter Capaldi is best known for his performance playing the political spin doctor, Malcolm Tucker, in the BBC sitcom “The Thick of It”, and now he’s reprised the role in the film “In the Loop”.
Self-described as coming from an ‘Old Labour background’, the Glasgow-born veteran actor has tried to avoid conveying his own political opinion throughout his extremely varied career. For example during art school he served as lead singer for the punk rock band Dreamboys alongside then drummer now American talk show host Craig Ferguson.
Throughout the 80’s he scored several film roles in the likes of Stephen Frears’ “Dangerous Liaisons”, Ken Russell’s “The Lair of the White Worm”, “Local Hero”, “Smilla’s Sense of Snow,” “Bean: The Movie,” “Magicians,” “The Best Man,” “Wild Country,” “Mrs. Caldicot’s Cabbage War,” and “Max”. He’s also worked behind the scenes, directing an episode of BBC Four sitcom “Getting On” this year, writing and directing 1993 Oscar-winning short film “Franz Kafka’s It’s A Wonderful Life” and the 2001 feature “Strictly Sinatra” with Ian Hart and Brian Cox.
His TV credits are just as varied. He played an emotionally distraught transvestite in 1993’s “Prime Suspect 3”, an angel in the 1996 mini-series adaptation of Neil Gaiman’s gothic fantasy “Neverwhere”, and King Charles the First in 2008’s “The Devil’s Whore”. Other notable guest starring roles include “Minder” in 1985, “Poirot” in 1991, “Chandler & Co.” and “The Vicar of Dibley” in 1994, “Judge John Deed” and “Fortysomething” in 2003, “Foyle’s War” and “My Family” in 2004, “Midsomer Murders” and “Aftersun” in 2006, “Skins” and “Waking the Dead” in 2007, and “Midnight Man” and “Doctor Who” in 2008. Earlier this year he played the key role of civil servant John Frobisher who becomes caught up in an alien encounter in the “Torchwood” mini-series “Children of Earth”.
Recently though he’s become famous for his role as the obscenity-spewing Malcolm Tucker, a role he first played in the first season of “The Thick of It” in 2005. In 2007 he reprised the role for two specials, and this year has inhabited the character again for both a second season of ‘Thick’ currently airing in the UK, and ‘Loop’ which has become one of the best reviewed films of the year.
Capaldi recently travelled to Los Angeles to promote “In the Loop” and talked to Paul Fischer in this exclusive interview.
Question: Let me ask you – obviously, was it the character, or the idea of doing a political satire like this that appealed to you?
Capaldi: Well, it’s something more complicated than that, in the sense that the film really comes from a television show called “The Thick of It”, in which I play that character called Malcolm Tucker. So, it really was a question of… Armando wanted to do a movie on a large scale, and did I want to play that character on the big screen? And the answer, of course, was, ” Yes.” I was very happy that it was also a political satire. Because I think it’s a very – you know, it’s a comedy of a very high caliber, that talks about something truthful, and slightly dangerous, which makes it all the funnier.
Question: Was Malcolm as colourful a character on the small screen as he appeared on the big screen?
Capaldi: Was he as colourful a character? Yeah, but the big difference is, I guess when you’re doing a TV show, at the end of each episode, you have to wrap it up, so that you can come back next week. So, the things that tend to happen are not the big life-changing, world-shattering events. With this, what happened was, this was probably the biggest thing that ever happened to him in his life and he was also taken out of his comfort zone. Usually he’s the most powerful person in the room, by taking him to Washington and confronting him with these American hawks, he was up against guys who were tougher than he was. So, that was very challenging, and very exciting to play.
Question: Did you have to reinterpret Malcolm in any particular way, or add different layers to him, for the movie version of this?
Capaldi: Yeah. I decided I wanted to take him on a journey, which wasn’t necessarily in the script. I wanted to break him, in some way. I didn’t quite know when that would be, but I felt that it was important that he should have a point where he wasn’t able to handle it any more. So, I had to kind of think very carefully about how that should happen.
Question: Now, this film is as much about language as it is about character. I’m just wondering how much input did you have into the way that he speaks? I mean – and his use of language. Was there any improv at all, or was it all there on the page?
Capaldi: It’s largely all done on the page, particularly with Malcolm, because the writers take a lot of time and put a lot of labor into constructing for him, very, very baroque sentences, and ways of speaking. So, my job is to sort of do a congenial check, to make it look as if this highly-polished text is just tripping off my tongue. So – yes, there’s always a gray area. We throw in bits and pieces. How we do the show, or how we did the film, which is the same way we do the show, is that we nail the text. That’s our first responsibility. We shoot a couple of passes where we nail the text. And thereafter, we’re allowed to do sort of rougher versions, where we can loosen up and throw in our own words, if we like. And also, throughout the process, we have days when we improvise around the material. And sometimes a line or whatever comes up that works, and the writers put that into the shooting script. But I wouldn’t – you know, I would say it’s their work, largely.
Question: Even though there are very specific British elements to the film, and particularly in the way it explores the British Parliamentary system, and references to British Parliament, and terms that are used in British Parliament, how do you think it’ll go in the States? I mean, how do you think Americans are going to react to this?
Capaldi: Well, I think they quite like it, those who’ve seen it, because I don’t think it really needs that information. It’s all vaguely the same, isn’t it? They’re all democracies. And – you know, the elected members are responsible, ultimately, to the public. And so they’re always trying to make sure how they present themselves is to the public’s liking. So, I don’t think that’s an issue. I think the Americans are really quite taken to it. I don’t know quite why. I don’t know whether it’s because it is like a kind of screwball comedy. It’s a rather rare thing, now, in which the script is truly highly developed, and truly very, very witty. I mean, you have to see this film three or four times to hear all the gags.
Question: Now is Malcolm about to be put to bed? Is this the last we’ll see of him, or are you going to continue working with him again, in some other form or other, or return him to television?
Capaldi: Well, we just did a new season this year of the TV show and it started going out about four weeks ago, in Britain. And it’s moved. So it used to be on a digital channel, but it’s now on BBC2. So, it’s gotten very much bigger in the United Kingdom to the extent now, what people stop me in the street and ask me to tell them to fuck off. [LAUGHTER] And sometimes I mean it. But, a lot of stuff happens in this season which is quite dramatic, so, Malcolm may be there, he may not.
Question: Does the new series follow on from any of the experiences in the movie, or is it a stand-alone series?
Capaldi: It’s a stand-alone. I mean, we don’t make reference to the events, although they obviously happened.
Question: What about your career as an actor? How hard is it for you to escape this character, and to find characters that are very much apart from Malcolm?
Capaldi: Well, in a sense, I don’t want to escape, because it’s sort of been the other way around for me. I mean I’ve been acting for 25 years and my career’s been very healthy. But in fact, I was tending to play slightly duller characters, slightly more reliable. Certainly not incendiary, toxic creatures like Malcolm, so when he came along – it’s only about four years ago – this was a change for me, and opened many doors to other types of characters. So, I don’t know. He’s really kick-started my career, you know? Or, re-kick-started it, through his energy and aggression. So, if people see me in that light, it kind of is bringing me more interesting parts. There’s something more interesting about that to casting people, for some reason.
Question: Do you have anything else lined up after this? I mean, what’s going on next for you?
Capaldi: It looks like I may be directing.
Question: A play, or a film?
Capaldi: There’s a possibility – I did a little TV series with – well, three episodes, miniseries called Getting On, which was featuring a UK comedian, a lady called Jo Brand, which did very well. So I think the possibility is, I might do some of that. There are a lot of things flying around. I’ve got to settle on something shortly, but I’m hoping there’ll be – there are some interesting acting opportunities. particularly here in America. I’ve got to make up my mind soon, but I’m not there yet.
Question: Playing Americans, or playing a Scot?