Paul McGann: The latest twist in his tale

He's spent his career thinking on his feet, so it made sense to improvise his latest role, he tells James Mottram
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The Independent Culture

Every autumn, Paul McGann is given an annual reminder of his greatest role. Living in a university town like Bristol, "you can set your calendar by it," he says. "The new student intake has just come in, and they've drunk their first grant cheque and seen Withnail and I... and I know when they've seen it. They usually holler across the street." While Richard E Grant's flamboyant drunk Withnail was the character blessed with the lion's share of memorable quotes, McGann's more introspective "I" still had his moments. He grins at a recent reminder. "The other day, some kid had chalked on the pavement outside my house, 'Perfumed Ponce', with an arrow pointing to my front door!"

Now 46, it's refreshing to see McGann is not precious about the fact that his finest hour has just been commemorated this month with a 20th anniversary DVD. "It's actually very satisfying," he admits. "I can safely say, 'If I'd never done another movie, it would've been all right.'" Still handsome, with his Byronic brown curls, there's a sense of genuine gratitude in his soft Scouse accent. The son of a factory worker and a nursery school teacher, perhaps it's in the knowledge that a working-class childhood in Liverpool does not always lead to such a grand career as acting. The Catholic-raised McGann knows he's been fortunate: accepted into Rada, he got his big break in 1982 alongside his three brothers - Joe, Mark and Stephen - in the West End rock'n'roll musical Yakkety Yak.

"We all wanted to be movie stars," he recalls of his youthful days. "When I was a kid, about 11 or 12, we used to try and bunk into local cinemas to see X movies. Who doesn't do that at that age? This would've been 1972. Maybe an older kid would buy a ticket, then go and open the fire door and we'd watch this film until we were all thrown out. You'd see some hammy old thing, but now and again you'd see a great film - like Klute or Five Easy Pieces. I remember watching Jack Nicholson, maybe not understanding what he's up to but thinking I'd love to do that. He was engaging, charismatic - I was rapt!"

McGann was never going to be the next Nicholson, even if winning the lead in Alan Bleasdale's 1986 BBC drama The Monocled Mutineer boosted his profile. Unlike Grant, he never really made it in Hollywood. "What do they say? It's better to regret the things you have done than the things you haven't," he notes. When he did get cast in major productions, he spent most of his time on the cutting room floor. Almost entirely excised from Steven Spielberg's Empire of the Sun, he saw his part for David Fincher's Alien3 truncated to an almost unintelligible degree and then he was unfortunate enough to appear in Queen of the Damned, the ill-fated follow-up to Interview with a Vampire. "Careers are what they are," he shrugs. "They don't make any sense at all when you look back. We're not in charge of them."

Fate certainly seems to have had a hand in McGann's CV. A knee injury in 1994 forced him to cede the lead in ITV's Sharpe to Sean Bean. Two years later came his one-off turn as Doctor Who, following on from Sylvester McCoy in a US pilot that was set to resurrect the series but ultimately never picked up because the ratings weren't high enough. "We made a pilot that didn't work," he says. "And it didn't work because it wasn't good enough." But given the success of the current revamped show, does he have regrets that he's likely to be remembered - in his own words - as the "George Lazenby of Doctor Who"? "It's impossible to regret. It could've been very different. I would've been there for five or six years... and I'd have earned a shit-load of dough. Life wouldn't have been the same but it didn't happen."

If there's a suspicion that McGann is not ruthless enough to play the Hollywood game, not least because Withnail and I anointed him with a cuddly image, he has set about changing that with his latest film, Gypo. An entirely improvised piece about immigration, he plays Paul, a racist father-of-three living in Margate. Trapped in a loveless marriage, Paul is the vilest character of McGann's career, beginning the film by violently objecting to his daughter bringing home a classmate who, it emerges, is a Romany Czech refugee. "I had to be prepared for him to be irredeemable," says McGann. "He is unremittingly miserable."

Fed on a diet of tabloids and Talk Sport, McGann says his character belongs with the "huge majority of these little Englanders with their easy assumptions. At one point, he talks about Africa being a big county - that's about the level of him." He adds that he didn't want to make him like some "Alf Garnett cartoon" and he doesn't - though he confesses to the fact that director Jan Dunn only came to the set with "broad notions" for the scenes. The rest was up to him. "There wasn't a script to discuss," he says. "That brought me out in a rash, to be honest. That was one of the reasons I thought I had to do this. I couldn't think of any proper, intelligent excuse to turn this kind of challenge down."

Telling the same basic story from three separate perspectives, Gypo is officially the first British film to be registered as a Dogme movie. Given that this manifesto, devised by the Danish director Lars von Trier to purify the film-making process by using only original locations, natural light and so on, is over a decade old, it might seem rather after the fact. McGann nods. "I entered it with a mixture of open-mindedness and healthy cynicism. I mean, they're having us on aren't they? Some of that stuff... c'mon! The more dubious claims for the process about truth and nebulous ideas about authenticity. I mean, what's that about? Films are artifice. We're telling stories on film. At the same time, when it works, there is a real tough immediacy and spontaneity to it, and a punch."

Both frank and funny, McGann is the perfect pub-mate - not least because he is so self-deprecating. Noting that his short-lived time playing Doctor Who has nevertheless given him a place in the show's pantheon, he recalls meeting legendary Time Lord Tom Baker. "We were in opposite voice over studios," he says. "This guy in the sound studio told me he was in, so I went and met him. He didn't have a clue who I was! I found it rather refreshing. He was very charming. He just thought I was some kid off the street. So I thought, 'Let's just leave it at that.'"

Yet as chummy as McGann is, it's doubtful if he'd ever fully open up - at least in interview. Dubbing himself "a miserable bastard at the best of times", laying bare his soul is unlikely to make him happy. Of his brothers, he says, "We get on OK. We get on fine." The last time he worked with them was in 1995's Irish famine saga The Hanging Gale, which the quartet conceived themselves. "The biggest obstacle is getting us all together," he grunts, when asked if he'd consider working with them again. He's better on his sons: 17-year-old Joseph is musically gifted, "one of those swines that can play any instrument", while 15-year-old Jake "has been making funny noises" about following his father into acting.

Such reticence can be easily traced back to the mid-1990s, when McGann had his one uncomfortable brush with the limelight. Caught in the street kissing Catherine Zeta-Jones, his co-star from period piece Catherine the Great, by a photographer, it caused a minor scandal and the press descended upon him and his family. While Joseph and Jake "were really spooked by it" - to the point that they now hate having their photograph taken - McGann admits the gossip "rattled" his relationship with his wife Annie, a former assistant stage manager turned interior designer. "I felt like a kid who was being bullied," reflects McGann.

Since Gypo, McGann has done what he's always done, and worked steadily. He recently completed the lead in Poppies, a film about a playwright who becomes obsessed with the fact his grandfather and two great uncles were killed in the Battle of the Somme that will receive its premiere in November at the Imperial War Museum. And he is currently filming a short produced by Zoë Ball entitled Always Crashing In The Same Car, reuniting with Grant for the first time since Withnail and I. "It's good when we're together," says McGann. "We're still mates. Our kids know each other. Very occasionally we're together in the same place - and then it's difficult to pay for a drink. I like that."

'Gypo' opens today

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