The surprisingly slight and - I'll come clean - disappointingly unhunky Alan Bates (the grey Spanish guitarist moustache doesn't help) sighs hugely as he flops into his deep squidgy sofa. "Mmmmm, ooowah," he grunts, with a look of only vaguely benevolent resignation about what he's putting himself through. The length and breadth of that sigh suggests something else too. At 61, Bates is almost passed caring what anybody might or might not make of him. That he doesn't care all that much may be illustrated by his letting the dishwasher rudely gurgle its way through our meeting; that he still cares a little is evident in his habit of pulling his shirt collar up to his chin, eager to hide any hint that his cheeks have begun to flop down his neck.
Bates hates being interviewed chez lui,but there's packing to be done and a plane to be caught and no time to drag me out to a nice impersonal coffee bar. So all around us are clues, including paintings, photographs of Bates's late wife Victoria and the twins - Benedick, a promising young actor, and Tristan, who died of a freak asthma attack five years ago. If you ask Bates how he is bearing up, he gives a practiced response: "You have to reckon with the mysteries of life."
Eventually he forgets he's being photographed and settles down and fidgets less, the busy-busy eyes get quite twinkly, but he remains impenetrable. The rather camp way he talks and tosses his lustrous mop of thick black floppy curls makes you glance surreptitiously behind the door for the cape and cane that he must surely have just cast off. Still, he's content to chat about playing the lead in one of the actor's greatest challenges, The Master Builder, his first Ibsen and a marvellously complex interweaving of love, guilt and fantasy for Peter Hall. "He [Solness] knows this is a relationship in which he can't be fulfilled and she [Hilde], 20 years younger, is full of euphoria and illusion about what can happen, full of that fire of youth. It's a relationship ruined by hideous timing. It's not easy but I love it. Peter lets everyone find out what their instincts are making them do [Bates is big on acting as instinct]. I do love directors who can say 'I was absolutely wrong about that, you were right' - it's very shared and you can function that way."
Hall worked with Bates once before, when it was generally agreed that his performance went some way to salvaging Peter Shaffer's ill-fated revamping of the Old Testament, Yonadab (which, in Bates's opinion was a chamber piece mistaken for an epic and swallowed up by the Olivier stage). "He's the softest hardest actor," says Hall "which makes him great for The Master Builder. It's not a self-portrait of Ibsen but it takes elements of his character - ambition, sexual guilt, guilt at being an artist, the loneliness of it, the doubt about whether you are as good as the world says you are." Elements shared by Bates, perhaps? "I'm not Solness," he says. "Acting is acting."
Alan Bates was "fascinated" by acting from the age of 11 when his mother began taking him to the Derby Little Theatre Club where John Osborne and John Dexter were the leading actors. "And much better as writer and director they proved to be," he giggles. Bates's father was a musician forced to earn his living as an insurance clerk. "I think he could have been something but he didn't push hard enough," Bates reflects. But when young Alan set his sights on RADA, his parents made sure he had the best voice coaching.
Once there his determination was sharpened by the fierce competition from fellow students. His was a phenomenal year: John Stride, Brian Bedford, Rosemary Leach, Roy Kinnear, Keith Baxter, Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Peter Bowles, Richard Briars, James Booth. Rarely do so many go so far and for so long, carried initially by the wave of new writers bringing kitchen sinks, social awareness and lot of parts for younger people to the stage.
Bates spent just six months with the Midland Theatre Company before being snapped up to join the English Stage Company as a founder member. In their fourth production he played the passive Cliff to Kenneth Haigh's vitriolic Jimmy Porter in the premiere of Look Back in Anger. ("A fresh unforced performance," wrote Kenneth Tynan.) Here Bates displayed his capacity for taut stillness, an eloquent calm, an emotional economy which has stayed with him. But as the master exponent of Simon Gray's work, Bates also found a flamboyance and a biting invective matched by fewBritish actors.
He and Gray have a developed a tremendous rapport. Gray adores Bates the man ("He's the nicest, kindest, most generous..." etc) and rates Bates the actor ("His wit is always present in his acting. He has a great sense of the comedy of life. He has the most alert, sometimes wicked, always expressive eyes - he's one of those lucky actors who constantly draws your attention"). Bates's most memorable performances have been in contemporary drama by Gray, David Storey and Harold Pinter and in some of the best television of the decade, Alan Bennett's An Englishman Abroad, Gray's Unnatural Pursuits, the adaptation of The Mayor of Casterbridge. It takes courage to do the new, untested stuff, but it offers the chance to create a role rather than tread a well-worn path (and, as in the case of The Master Builder, invite comparison with the big boys Olivier, Michael Redgrave, John Wood and Brian Cox). Bates says he enjoys the risk of the unproven. "There is often something wrong with a new play, but I like so many elements of it that I want to take a chance."
The real gaps in his c.v. are classical roles. In a career in which Bates has scarcely stopped working, he has fitted in only the odd Shakespeare, Petruchio to Susan Fleetwood's Kate in The Taming of the Shrew, Romeo when he was 19 ("I was terrific"), Benedick opposite Felicity Kendal in a rather middle-aged but excellent Much Ado. While others carried spears for the RSC and worked up to their Macbeths and Antonys, Bates was making movies, first The Entertainer, Whistle Down the Wind and A Kind of Loving, then Zorba the Greek, Women in Love and The Go-Between (all good stuff which arguably exploited rather than challenged his talents). "I'd got this other life going but I never left the theatre at all - I've never been away from it for more than 18 months." Film work jogged along - The Rose, Nijinsky, The Fixer, An Unmarried Woman - but it was never major major league. "I had lots of offers in Hollywood and I read the scripts and felt they weren't very good. I don't quite see the point except for the money. You can get trapped there and I don't think as an English actor you are ever number one."
Is it easier to be number one over here? "It's not the same thing," he says, avoiding the question and looking at his watch. "I've reached a time in my life when it's no longer about doing what you ought to do. I just do the scripts I like." So they all say.
It's been a profoundly unsatisfying meeting. But as I wander away into a St John's Wood avenue, I find myself wondering if deeply private people are the best actors because they reserve their personalities so that other characters can occupy then. Suddenly I forgive Bates's blank mask and look forward to its illumination by Solness.
n 'The Master Builder' opens tomorrow, Theatre Royal, Haymarket (0171- 930 8800)