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

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