Russell Beale played up the tortured and ugly side of even the "sensitive" parts he was given: Konstantin in The Seagull, writhing in self-pity; Oswald in Ghosts, contorted with shame; an Edgar in King Lear whose anger erupted into violence against Oswald; a podgy and stiffly balletic Ariel who, at the moment of release, spat ungraciously in his master's face.
At around this time Russell Beale candidly but perhaps ill-advisedly admitted to an interviewer that self-loathing motivated him, and that acting was a way for a man who hated his body to gain love and respect. A few hundred column-inches about his ugliness have led him to regret that remark, though it's true that the physicality of his characters has been an important part of their potency. The irony is that while he is not classically good-looking, Russell Beale is not physically ugly at all and spiritually, some say, he is rather beautiful. Now, though, he appears to have come to terms with both his body and his talent, and it is with some relief that he is again tackling comedy: playing Mosca to Michael Gambon's Volpone.
"What was extraordinary about his comedy fops was that he rooted every bit of exhibitionism in insecurity," says Sam Mendes. "He'd reveal with absolute clarity the fact that underneath there was a fabulously insecure, sad git. And then he'd still get every laugh." Mendes was one of the directors whose imaginative, against-type casting has ensured that Russell Beale's career has been enhanced rather than limited by his looks. There are many actresses who might envy him such indulgence. Mendes intends at some point to direct him as "a very funny, very eccentric and very modern Hamlet", thereby fulfilling a long-held desire in Russell Beale. The story is that while rehearsing Richard III the actor dropped so many hints about Hamlet that in the end Mendes cracked and suggested directing him in the part. Russell Beale's career trajectory has taken many unexpected upwards turns but how much has been down to luck, and how much is the result of Mosca-like cunning?
Meeting him for the first time he seems guarded rather than cunning. He is unremarkable in appearance (he claims that he has only once been recognised on a train) and has the pleasant but slightly tense courtesy of someone ill at ease with strangers, especially journalists. On the way to a quiet office in which to talk, he quips to the press officer about his size, then stops abruptly, wise now to the dangers of making unguarded comments about his physical appearance. When he claims that his path to success has been paved with serendipity, one is inclined to believe him. Mendes corroborates this, saying that the actor would have been too "embarrassed, humiliated, afraid of being laughed at" to risk an outright request.
"Casting is as much about the spiritual as about the physical," says Mendes, who advised Russell Beale to play Edgar and not the Fool in Adrian Noble's King Lear, and then asked him to play Ariel after casting him as Caliban. "He's an aesthete - he has a very sharp intellect and he's rather withdrawn in rehearsals. During notes sessions he used to sit there doing his embroidery, and when you give him a critical note he doesn't look up, he just darns a little faster. It was because I knew him as a person that I decided to cast him as Ariel. Plus, of course, he has a beautiful singing voice."
One of five children of an army doctor (one sister, three brothers - all reputedly tall and handsome), Russell Beale was a chorister at St Paul's Cathedral in his youth, and a noted school actor. He went from Clifton College to Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, where he was a contemporary of Emma Thompson, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery et al, and got a first in English, even though his passion is for history. Mendes first met him in Stratford where they shared a flat and still laughs remembering how he tried to borrow a book from him. "It was unbelievable - there wasn't a single book which wasn't a tract about Pope Pius IX or something, not a single novel! I thought it must be a pose, but it wasn't."
His approach to acting is similarly academic, though his great skill is to unite that with the physical and the emotional. "An intellectual journey is emotionally exciting," he says. "There doesn't seem to be another way to do these great Shakespearian roles - I just hope the result isn't academic. I love the construction of an argument, but then you suddenly discover that's not the whole answer. With Ariel I was so keen to get a sense of bitterness and failure and hard edge that I didn't explore the love, redemption and grace, which is why The Tempest is one of the greatest plays ever written." This realisation came mid-way through the Stratford run, and after the hostile reaction of some critics. When the production transferred to London Russell Beale cut the final spit. But he denies that in this case, the intellectual approach obscured his understanding of the emotional truth of the play. "The two aren't in opposition, but something like that just reminds you not to be too arrogant."
It's tempting to see the actor's gradual understanding of The Tempest's "love, redemption and grace" as an indication of a new and happier dawning in the person of Simon Russell Beale. It's a vexed question whether an actor experiences the emotional journey of the character, or merely provides a conduit for emotion he or she doesn't necessarily understand. "A few years ago I would have safely said that we're all just conduits, but recently I've become confused. Doing Konstantin in The Seagull, I had to ask myself why I felt so depressed afterwards. There was none of the feeling of release that you get with plays like Lear or Richard III." Russell Beale's Konstantin left not a dry eye in the house when the portly, approval- seeking young writer seemed to mature and dignify before our eyes in the long, terrible moment before his suicide, when he stood staring at his writings in frank acceptance of their mediocrity. It is a moment which has terrible resonances for any artist.
But if a part can take an actor to previously undiscovered emotional territories, can a great part also teach a greater emotional articulacy? "No," says Russell Beale after a longish pause, and gives an embarrassed little giggle. "Funnily enough, it's in the inarticulate moments that you discover something about yourself. But they don't make it any easier to communicate that understanding."
Perhaps this is no bad thing. Various commentators have said that it is precisely Russell Beale's well of unexpressed emotion that gives his acting power. It is also the moments of inarticulate emotion that have become this actor's trademark, beloved of the critics: Ariel's spit, Konstantin's pause, Richard III's furious, silent hesitation when his young nephew, York, asks for a piggy-back.
And true to form, uncomfortable with the self-revealing turn of the conversation, Russell Beale changes the subject, saying, "I didn't really do serious parts until a few years ago. I'm gagging for a comedy now. Mosca is not the most pleasant man you've ever met but he's not one of these monsters or depressives."
Rather like the one between Prospero and Ariel, the relationship between Volpone and Mosca depends on close teamwork, and Russell Beale has no objection to playing second-lead to Michael Gambon, whom he greatly admires. "Mosca is second fiddle because he's not a life-giver. Volpone, for all his terrible greed, just wants to eat life - he loves food and wine, he craves sex. Mosca's mind is fast and intellectually capable, but limited by cynicism. He always sees the worst in people. He doesn't just want to gull people, he wants to destroy them."
As he speaks, Russell Beale's features contort into a grimace of envy and spite - those demons seem to be surfacing again. "Oh no," he laughs it off. "I'm all for the dark sides of classic comedies, but Volpone should be fairly light. It's just when Mosca's by himself that - I hope - you see the Devil come out."
! 'Volpone': Olivier, SE1 (0171 928 2252), now previewing, opens Thurs.Reuse content