Not just a pretty odd face

Serial killer, sinister fixer, brutal father ... Pete Postlethwaite's looks have won the actor some juicy roles. But, says Jasper Rees, there's more to him than stunning cheekbones

There are certain tell-tale signs that Pete Postlethwaite doesn't do a lot of theatre these days. For a start, the names of several quite illustrious people he worked with have slipped his memory. Take the RSC's Midsummer Night's Dream from a few years back, where our conversation leads us first. Postlethwaite, with a knobbly head that could have been specifically designed for the addition of ass's ears, was a marvellously bucolic Bottom. "It was with Gerard Murphy and the tall girl, the governess, what's her name?" Janet McTeer?

"Lofty McTeer. And the director... what's Bill's second name? Bill Alexander."

Postlethwaite has been chauffeured up through London's dense traffic from Twickenham Studios, where he is filming a psychological thriller called Crimetime. It's about an actor (played by Stephen Baldwin) who identifies too closely with his role when he re-enacts a murder for a crime show. "I'm playing the serial killer," says Postlethwaite. "He turns into one, just by chance. This girl he's walking home with happens to get something in her eye and he says, `I'll have it out in a minute,' and he does." He chuckles wholesomely at his own thumbnail sketch.

He's never played normal people, has Postlethwaite. Like a lot of middle- aged British thespians, he has ben pigeonholed by Hollywood as a lugubrious baddie. That was his role in Aliens 3, in Crimetime and in The Usual Suspects, a devilishly clever thriller that opens later this month, in which he has a medium-sized role as a sinister fixer of Oriental extraction.

You can see Hollywood's point, though. His greying, itinerant preacher's hair flails behind him wildly. His green irises blaze bright around pupils the size of pinpricks. And then there are the cheekbones jutting beneath them. "They are quite whopping, aren't they?" volunteers their owner. "Who was it said, `He looks like he's got a clavicle stuck in his mouth?'" He can't recall, nor does he know where they come from. Neither of his parents were so well endowed. "It's a face, that's for sure."

In deference to the stifling heat, Postlethwaite is wearing a white T-shirt fanfaring the Dragonheart stunt team. A winged green monster is fringed by flags representing the nationalities of all those who worked on the latest Spielberg-Lucas myth-meddling extravaganza. The British flag denotes, among others, the involvement of David Thewlis, Julie Christie and Sean Connery, whose voice was hired to speak out of the creature's mouth.

Dragonheart, a medieval romp in which Postlethwaite plays a wandering mendicant of poetical bent, was shot in Slovakia last year. Spielberg's previous visit to the eastern half of Europe yielded something rather weightier. Postlethwaite should know, because he can date his own international bankability to the same Oscar ceremony in which Schindler's List bagged all the gongs. Was it really necessary to cash in on In The Name of the Father by accepting a role opposite a dragon with a Scottish accent?

"I thought the character was quite witty, and a bit of relief for me. There's also the financial consideration: you think, all right, if you do that, that leaves you free to do films that don't have any budget as well." Suite 16, directed by Dominique Deruddere, fits that description perfectly. It has a minuscule cast and is set largely in the suite of a ritzy hotel in Nice, and intentionally presents itself as a piece for theatre that just happens to have strayed on to the screen.

The script, by Charles Higson and Lise Mayer, both of whom have a track record in British TV comedy, is a dark intellectual puzzle about the power games played on each other by two characters trapped together in the hotel suite. One is a rich invalid, the other a penniless gigolo on the run, but both are psychological nobodies,defined by the moves they make rather than any governing moral core. To bring to life the stilted dialogue requires rare skill, but while the young man, played by pretty Dutch soap star Antonie Kamerling, gets to swig, snort, shag and maim, the dice are loaded against Postlethwaite, whose character is confined to a wheelchair. For an actor frequently called upon to play grotesques and extravagant gesticulators - Bottom and Captain Bobadil for the RSC in the Eighties, the glorious Montague Tigg in the BBC's Martin Chuzzlewit, the brutal father in Terence Davies's Distant Voices, Still Lives - it must have been like a prison sentence.

"It's a difficult one, because you can't fall back on the normal little tricks ingrained in you. You can't even use body language and gestures you instinctively use. It's like somebody saying you've only got so many colours to paint with. We're playing ciphers in an extraordinary ritual haiku."

Postlethwaite was drawn to Suite 16 because, after playing Giuseppe Conlon in In The Name of the Father, his instinct was not just to "do the Hollywood thing" as expected, but also to put his weight behind European projects. Also, one suspects, the scale of the piece takes him close to theatrical experience without requiring him to leave his home in Shropshire and take up residence on a London stage. It was precisely because of a clause forcing the cast to sign up for a stint in the West End before the first rehearsal that he passed up the chance to play Bossola in the recent production of The Duchess of Malfi, starring Juliet Stevenson and Simon Russell Beale.

The first 20 years of Postlethwaite's career were spent almost entirely in the theatre. He trained at the Bristol Old Vic and worked at the Liverpool Everyman in the boom years of Willie Russell and Alan Bleasdale, when fellow company members included Julie Walters, Antony Sher and Bill Nighy. He returned to Bristol, worked with the then-unknown Adrian Noble and designer Bob Crowley, and, when the Colston Hall theatre was closed, led a group of actors, among them the young Daniel Day Lewis, that peeled off from the Old Vic to form the Little Theatre Company. "It was a great spirit. You were responsible for your own work, your own errors, your own successes. It went on for six years after that. I was there for the first year. After that, I couldn't keep going really. I burned out."

I put it to Postlethwaite that he seems to have abandoned the stage, that he is precisely the sort of actor the RSC needs to entice back to play Lear or Richard III. From the fondness with which he recalls the sense of community fostered by working in a company, and the passion with which he rages against the closure of regional theatres, it's clear he misses the stage.

"I think it's something I should look at. I obviously don't do that very much until in a position like this - talking about it." He says that he doesn't get a lot of offers, and certainly not from the RSC. It turns out that he very nearly mounted his own production of Macbeth this summer with a couple of cronies from the Little Theatre Company, but screen work somehow intervened. Maybe next year. In the interim, he seems both modest and content enough to play the role for which Oscar nominated him - best supporting actor.

n `Suite 16' opens on 18 August

n `The Usual Suspects' opens on 25 August

Arts and Entertainment
Russell Tovey, Myanna Buring and Julian Rhind Tutt star in Banished

TV reviewGrace Dent: Jimmy McGovern's new drama sheds light on sex slavery in the colonies

Arts and Entertainment
Australia's Eurovision contestant and former Australian Idol winner Guy Sebastian

Eurovision 2015Australian Idol winner unveiled as representative Down Under

Arts and Entertainment
Larry David and Rosie Perez in ‘Fish in the Dark’
theatreReview: Had Fish in the Dark been penned by a civilian it would have barely got a reading, let alone £10m advance sales
Arts and Entertainment
Victoria Wood, Kayvan Novak, Alexa Chung, Chris Moyles
tvReview: No soggy bottoms, but plenty of other baking disasters on The Great Comic Relief Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
80s trailblazer: comedian Tracey Ullman
tv
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Attenborough with the primates
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Former Communards frontman Jimmy Somerville
music
Arts and Entertainment
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl
filmFirst look at Oscar winner as transgender artist
Arts and Entertainment
Season three of 'House of Cards' will be returning later this month
TV reviewHouse of Cards returns to Netflix
Arts and Entertainment
Harrison Ford will play Rick Deckard once again for the Blade Runner sequel
film review
Arts and Entertainment
The modern Thunderbirds: L-R, Scott, Virgil, Alan, Gordon and John in front of their home, the exotic Tracy Island
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Natural beauty: Aidan Turner stars in the new series of Poldark
TV
Arts and Entertainment
Taylor Swift won Best International Solo Female (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Shining star: Maika Monroe, with Jake Weary, in ‘It Follows’
film review
Arts and Entertainment

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith arrives at the Brit Awards (Getty)

Brits 2015
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn's beheading in BBC Two's Wolf Hall

TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Follow every rainbow: Julie Andrews in 'The Sound of Music'
film Elizabeth Von Trapp reveals why the musical is so timeless
Arts and Entertainment
Bytes, camera, action: Leehom Wang in ‘Blackhat’
film
Arts and Entertainment
The Libertines will headline this year's festival
music
Arts and Entertainment
Richard Dean Anderson in the original TV series, which ran for seven seasons from 1985-1992
tv
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Homeless Veterans campaign: Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after £300,000 gift from Lloyds Bank

    Homeless Veterans campaign

    Donations hit record-breaking £1m target after huge gift from Lloyds Bank
    Flight MH370 a year on: Lost without a trace – but the search goes on

    Lost without a trace

    But, a year on, the search continues for Flight MH370
    Germany's spymasters left red-faced after thieves break into brand new secret service HQ and steal taps

    Germany's spy HQ springs a leak

    Thieves break into new €1.5bn complex... to steal taps
    International Women's Day 2015: Celebrating the whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Whirlwind wit of Simone de Beauvoir

    Simone de Beauvoir's seminal feminist polemic, 'The Second Sex', has been published in short-form for International Women's Day
    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Mark Zuckerberg’s hiring policy might suit him – but it wouldn’t work for me

    Why would I want to employ someone I’d be happy to have as my boss, asks Simon Kelner
    Confessions of a planespotter: With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent

    Confessions of a planespotter

    With three Britons under arrest in the UAE, the perils have never been more apparent. Sam Masters explains the appeal
    Russia's gulag museum 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities

    Russia's gulag museum

    Ministry of Culture-run site 'makes no mention' of Stalin's atrocities
    The big fresh food con: Alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay

    The big fresh food con

    Joanna Blythman reveals the alarming truth behind the chocolate muffin that won't decay
    Virginia Ironside was my landlady: What is it like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7?

    Virginia Ironside was my landlady

    Tim Willis reveals what it's like to live with an agony aunt on call 24/7
    Paris Fashion Week 2015: The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp

    Paris Fashion Week 2015

    The wit and wisdom of Manish Arora's exercise in high camp
    8 best workout DVDs

    8 best workout DVDs

    If your 'New Year new you' regime hasn’t lasted beyond February, why not try working out from home?
    Paul Scholes column: I don't believe Jonny Evans was spitting at Papiss Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible

    Paul Scholes column

    I don't believe Evans was spitting at Cissé. It was a reflex. But what the Newcastle striker did next was horrible
    Miguel Layun interview: From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    From the Azteca to Vicarage Road with a million followers

    Miguel Layun is a star in Mexico where he was criticised for leaving to join Watford. But he says he sees the bigger picture
    Frank Warren column: Amir Khan ready to meet winner of Floyd Mayweather v Manny Pacquiao

    Khan ready to meet winner of Mayweather v Pacquiao

    The Bolton fighter is unlikely to take on Kell Brook with two superstar opponents on the horizon, says Frank Warren
    War with Isis: Iraq's government fights to win back Tikrit from militants - but then what?

    Baghdad fights to win back Tikrit from Isis – but then what?

    Patrick Cockburn reports from Kirkuk on a conflict which sectarianism has made intractable