The shift from filming Middlemarch (to be shown on BBC1 next year) to prowling around Pinter's No Man's Land would wreck the gear- box of most actors. Douglas Hodge admits that it was 'a pretty alarming transformation. They didn't, er, respond to each other in any way.' But he did it. Those who have seen the Middlemarch rushes say you can't take your eyes off Hodge's Lydgate, while director David Leveaux was so convinced by his baby-faced menace that he asked him back for Pinter's new play, Moonlight.
We meet in the theatre wine-bar between rehearsals. Hodge is enthusing about the range of the play: 'No Man's Land was an incredibly icy, vicious world. They are much more rounded human beings in this one. There's a strain of solace.' I had been told that Hodge was a charming, modest guy, but it was hard to believe that the man dubbed Heart- throb Hodge by the Sun after playing the gorgeous grinning Declan in Capital City, who raised pounds 50,000 when Cilla Black auctioned him for a dream date, would not be bent double with narcissistic baggage.
In fact, he is self-effacing. In person, you can see that the camera flatters him: he's not drop-dead handsome, although, in different circumstances, I could certainly have managed a faint. He looks like a romantic lead from the days when they were all called Kenneth: the officer who doesn't crack up in the trenches and carries the sorrow and the pity on his broad shoulders. With his face, he could be stuck with craggy Sloanes. But Hodge has the gift of making goodness interesting, as he proved last year as Gerald in Anglo-Saxon Attitudes and Adam in A Fatal Inversion, two series shown simultaneously on prime-time BBC1 and ITV. He laughs, embarrassed: 'Even my best friends were feeling quite ill.'
Hodge was born in Chatham, Kent, in 1960. Dad was a civil servant, mum a nurse. Young Doug did impersonations in his bedroom: Frank 'Ooh, Bett-ay' Spencer was a speciality. So he was a gifted mimic? 'Oh, no, I just did impersonations of Mike Yarwood's impersonations.' At 12, he won a talent contest and a few dates in working-men's clubs - 'Places I wouldn't dare go into now. But they took pity on me.' Acting was 'another world for richer, more articulate people. But I suppose I had a driving force to prove to my background that I could do it.'
At 16, he got into the National Youth Theatre, after giving a bemused panel his best Frank Spencer. 'They took pity on me.' They were variegated golden days, in which he was introduced to Shakespeare (as a churl; five years later he was Coriolanus). Then came Rada - 'hatefully insular, at that age you want to go on a few marches' - followed by eight years of pounding the boards in rep. In 1985, the Financial Times spotted Hodge and Tessa Peake-Jones ('two of our most gifted young actors') in Romeo and Juliet at Birmingham Rep: 'There is a keen sense here of young lives momentously transformed.' You could say that again. Soon Romeo and Juliet moved to the East End, where they now live with Molly, aged 21 months.
Hodge has had bad luck with films - in Salome's Last Dance, a typical Ken Russell affair, he found himself 'being painted green from head to foot and asked to simulate multiple orgasm'. Television has gone better - he was blithely adorable as Judi Dench's bisexual toy-boy in Behaving Badly, and really broke through with Capital City. Wasn't Declan an odd part for a Green voter summonsed for non-payment of poll tax? 'Well, it was interesting to have a go at playing someone amoral, the hardest parts are the nice guys. I mean Lydgate has a profound moral sense but it's very difficult to act him without seeming like an insincere bore.'
Even now Hodge remains unconvinced of his success - 'Somebody called me an ascendant actor the other day. I've been bloody ascending for years. If I ever arrive I'll be descending.' David Leveaux's only worry is that 'others will nab him - he's going to be brilliant. I want to do O'Neill with him, and O'Casey and . . .' Meanwhile, we can look forward to Hodge's acceptance speeches for the awards that await him. He will smile and explain that it is nothing to do with his talent, of course. They will have taken pity on him.