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

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Arts and Entertainment
'Girl with a Pearl Earring' by Johannes Vermeer, c. 1665
artWhat is it about the period that so enthrals novelists?
Arts and Entertainment
Into the woods: The Merry Wives of Windsor at Petersfield
theatreOpen-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Arts and Entertainment
James singer Tim Booth
latitude 2014
Arts and Entertainment
Lee says: 'I never, ever set out to offend, but it can be an accidental by-product'
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
tvThe judges were wowed by the actress' individual cooking style
Arts and Entertainment
Nicholas says that he still feels lucky to be able to do what he loves, but that there is much about being in a band he hates
musicThere is much about being in a band that he hates, but his debut album is suffused with regret
Arts and Entertainment
The singer, who herself is openly bisexual, praised the 19-year-old sportsman before launching into a tirade about the upcoming Winter Olympics

books
Arts and Entertainment
music
Arts and Entertainment
Jon Cryer and Ashton Kutcher in the eleventh season of Two and a Half Men

tv
Arts and Entertainment
Ben Whishaw is replacing Colin Firth as the voice of Paddington Bear

film
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
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.

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy': A land of the outright bizarre

    Noel Fielding's 'Luxury Comedy'

    A land of the outright bizarre
    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    What are the worst 'Word Crimes'?

    ‘Weird Al’ Yankovic's latest video is an ode to good grammar. But what do The Independent’s experts think he’s missed out?
    Can Secret Cinema sell 80,000 'Back to the Future' tickets?

    The worst kept secret in cinema

    A cult movie event aims to immerse audiences of 80,000 in ‘Back to the Future’. But has it lost its magic?
    Facebook: The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    The new hatched, matched and dispatched

    Family events used to be marked in the personal columns. But now Facebook has usurped the ‘Births, Deaths and Marriages’ announcements
    Why do we have blood types?

    Are you my type?

    All of us have one but probably never wondered why. Yet even now, a century after blood types were discovered, it’s a matter of debate what they’re for
    Honesty box hotels: You decide how much you pay

    Honesty box hotels

    Five hotels in Paris now allow guests to pay only what they think their stay was worth. It seems fraught with financial risk, but the honesty policy has its benefit
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Why weight of pressure rests easy on Michael Jamieson’s shoulders

    Michael Jamieson: Why weight of pressure rests easy on his shoulders

    The Scottish swimmer is ready for ‘the biggest race of my life’ at the Commonwealth Games
    Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

    The 'scroungers’ fight back

    The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
    Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

    Fireballs in space

    Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
    A Bible for billionaires

    A Bible for billionaires

    Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
    Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

    Paranoid parenting is on the rise

    And our children are suffering because of it
    For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

    Magna Carta Island goes on sale

    Yours for a cool £4m
    Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

    Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

    Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

    For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn