Having the time of his life

Suddenly Ken Stott is in big demand, on primetime television and in the West End. But what took him so long? By Jasper Rees
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The Independent Culture
Once, about 10 years ago, Ken Stott inadvertently talked himself out of a role, at a time when they weren't so thick on the ground. "The director asked me what I thought of the character, and I said, 'It's great, it's very different.' And I could see the eyes glaze over, as if to say, 'I don't want you doing something different in my time. I want you to do what you do.' "

But what does Ken Stott do? For the first decade and a half of his acting life, it was more a case of what he didn't do. The actors who work most in their twenties tend to be tall, dark and handsome. A cocktail of Scottish- Sicilian genes conferred on Stott only one of the above. "I was certainly not the conventional bone structure that we adore."

But in the last couple of years, a series of immensely satisfying roles have followed bumper to bumper. For the BBC, there was Donna Franceschild's Takin' Over the Asylum, and earlier this year from the same scriptwriter, A Mug's Game. There was that scene-stealing comic turn as the sinister detective in Shallow Grave. In the theatre, his sturdy psychiatrist in Arthur Miller's Broken Glass brought him an Olivier award, while 1996 has so far found him playing Alceste in The Misanthrope at the Young Vic and, back at the National, the tragic vaudevillian Scotty Scott in The Prince's Play.

Then, last Sunday, he trotted through Kimberley in Part 1 of Rhodes as Barney Barnato, the diamond prospector brother of the empire builder, tidily mastering both a horse and a Cockney Jewish accent. It was a flavoursome taster of much more to come. Meanwhile, he's just finished filming a BBC "Screen Two" with Juliet Stevenson called Stone Scissors Paper about an unconsummated love affair between a stone mason and a divorcee. And next month he shares top billing at Wyndham's Theatre in Art, a boulevardian three-hander by Yasmina Reza which has been shipped over from Paris in a translation by Christopher Hampton. Stott's co-stars - and this is the only measure of his advancement you need take - are Albert Finney and Tom Courtenay.

This has all come to pass in his early forties. Plainly, he's one of those actors who have to kick their heels for an extra decade before they look old enough for the roles they were born to play. Hampered by youth, Stott was never going to give us his Hamlet. He did mooch around in Stratford for a season or two, but came away disillusioned by the fact that directors can swan in to mount the show, then leave the actors marooned in Warwickshire on a two-year contract. "The very town of Stratford itself drives me demented. If you want to do the gardening and stuff like that..."

Pressed to explain his sudden ascent, he says that "some men or women are sexier when they are 20 than they are when they are 40. Sometimes it's the other way round. I'm not saying that it really relies on that. But I suppose it's when you come to..." He trails off, never unhappier than when gazing into the crevices of his own navel.

We rendezvous at the French House, the venerable watering hole in Soho. No doubt he has nominated the location, and chosen to drink Ricard, because after Moliere and Victor Hugo, Art is his third French play this year. Stott enters looking as crumpled in costly threads as he does in the tattier stuff he usually gets to wear in character. A curly dangle of jet black hair nods down over his forehead. There's a certain austerity in the voice, a metallic staccato rasp, but warmth too in the crease of his occasional grin. Though he pays each question the compliment of proper thought, he is nothing like as wary as you're warned he'll be. We cover his childhood in Edinburgh, where his mother stopped off on her way to America in the late 1940s and stayed to marry his father. The quid pro quo of their church wedding was that young Ken be brought up a left-footer. "It lasted until I was six, when I outgrew my kilt and in the end, faced with 'Do we get him a new kilt for going to church?', she thought the better of it."

As a teenager, he sang with a touring band. "Nothing spectacular, we did our own stuff plus cover versions, nothing of any worth." (The highest compliment Stott can pay is to describe something as "of worth".) "The only worth that it had to me was the fact that I relished that strange feeling of power that you get when performing." In a moment of "pragmatism", he opted for acting. His father was an English teacher, his mother a lecturer in Italian, and both were "delighted - you have to bear in mind I was playing gigs for four nights a week, so to them the idea of becoming an actor was doing something responsible." He trained in London, and so began the long process of waiting to grow as old as he looked.

Rhodes and Art bring Stott his highest visibility yet. It would be slack to assume that he selected them for precisely that reason. "I sometimes take the poorer financial option if artistically it is the right decision," he says and adds, when pressed, that he can't think of ever doing otherwise. He turned down the National's revival of Guys and Dolls to do Art, in which three men re-examine their friendship when Courtenay's character invests in a piece of modern art. "It is men behaving childishly, a female view of how males behave," says Stott, whose character Yuan "gets brutalised in the crossfire of the argument, but probably makes more of a journey to a better understanding of himself".

The bait that hooks him is the juiciness of the role rather than the obesity of the cheque. Eddie, the asylum DJ he played in Takin' Over the Asylum, was the first time he encountered real succulence in a television role. From his researches into Barney Barnato, the business rival who went into cahoots with Cecil Rhodes, he brought back a portrait of similarly alluring complexity.

"Bearing in mind that they were all a bunch of megalomaniacal lying cheating sons of bitches, he was one of the least. He was a philanthropist. He married a black woman, and when everybody had black servants, he had white servants." So was he attracted to Barnato because of an underlying goodness? "That's not a reason for taking something on. I know actors who don't take a character because they are afraid of appearing ugly. I've never been afraid of appearing ugly... I'd say that the challenge of a piece of work is to create a dilemma, to turn somebody who is likeable into the possibility of him not being likeable. And vice-versa." On the thorny question of exactly what it is that Stott does, that's as close to a nutshell as we're going to get.

'Art' from 4 Oct, Wyndham's Theatre, London (0171-369 1736)

'Rhodes' continues Sundays, BBC1