Ed Stoppard: A testing inheritance

Ed Stoppard's playwright father casts a longer shadow over theatre than Old Hamlet's ghost, but that won't stop Ed playing the prince. He meets Maureen Paton
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

"Dad would be appalled at the thought of his play killing off Hamlet, because Rosencrantz And Guildenstern Are Dead is no more audacious as a concept than Hamlet itself," argues Stoppard fils. "In fact Dad is really pleased I'm playing the role, because two years ago after seeing my Konstantin in The Seagull at Chichester he told me he would like to see me doing Hamlet."

Yet his father's Beckettian fantasy, which thrust the two eponymous bit-players into the limelight and demoted the Prince of Denmark to a sit-on part in a deckchair, has haunted Ed none the less. His father is such a hero to him, it seems, that in 2001 Ed declared he would rather play Rosencrantz or Guildenstern than the prince. That rash remark has now well and truly hoist him by his own petard as he sits in a rehearsal room to talk about his English Touring Theatre debut as the prince, the ultimate theatrical outsider, in the ETT artistic director Stephen Unwin's new production of Hamlet. To his credit, he bursts out laughing at the reminder.

"At the time I probably thought I couldn't play him," he says, frankly. "I was wet behind the ears and I didn't have the life experience or the self-belief - not that I'm flooded with the stuff now, but I've got a bit more than I did four years ago. Now I'd like to play all three of them."

With his mother Miriam's eyes and his father's lowering brow and Jaggeresque, "child-bearing" lips, Stoppard Junior is an unmistakeable physical blend of his high-profile parents. Yet hero-worship can be an inhibitor as well as an enabler, and for years his famous heritage gave him stage fright.

"I did lots of plays at school and always loved the rehearsals," says Ed, who was at Stowe, "but when the first night would come along I would think 'Jesus, is it worth this gut-wrenching, bowel-loosening terror?' It was because I brought this baggage with me, which seemed to be a problem for no one but me - nobody else gave a toss. My parents were not celebrity types.

"There were isolated incidents, such as when Mick Jagger and David Bowie came round for tea at the time of Live Aid; I just remember these two skinny blokes with big hairdos. We weren't told to put on our best outfits and parade like the Von Trapps. And the only thing I can recall about a dinner we had for Princess Margaret was the fact that my brother Olly cooked it; I don't remember 'Er Indoors, down the other end of the table, demanding something or other. Or was it Princess Michael?"

Nepotism was never, therefore, on the agenda. Indeed, his father's reaction to Ed's choice of career was distinctly discouraging at first. "His response was, 'Jesus, how are you going to pay the phone bill?' Because he knows it's a fickle business. The reality is that 99.9 per cent of us are jobbing actors; people I know from my dad's plays struggle to meet their mortgage payments. The frustrating thing is that it's not purely meritocratic: you can be a fantastic actor and yet really struggle, or you can be an average one and yet have a very easy life financially. Either your hair is the wrong colour or you're a bit too short for the role. The randomness can be so insidious."

Nevertheless it was important to Stoppard to strike out in a different direction to his father; and so far he hasn't put a foot wrong in a steady rather than heady ascent up the ladder, with good notices for everything from Konstantin to his role as Adrien Brody's hotheaded younger brother Henryk in Roman Polanski's Oscar-winning film The Pianist.

"I hang on to that distinction of being an actor rather than a playwright like my father; that one degree of separation was really absolutely essential for me," he admits. "People keep asking me if I want to write, but you can only be a writer if you have no choice about it. So no, I don't write. Although one of these days I might write a very second-rate script just to get it out of my system."

Yet like any other screen actor with his wits about him, he often has his own input into a script. Even Sir Tom's screenplay for Robert Harris's Enigma was not considered sacrosanct, as Ed discovered when he met one of the producers.

"He told me that everyone in the cast from Kate Winslet downwards admitted that they would change or take out some of my father's words if they thought no one talked like that. I don't remember Dad saying anything about lines being cut from his Oscar-winning screenplay for Shakespeare in Love, but I'm sure they were. It's just natural wastage, it's what happens," he says with a shrug.

Named after the writer Edmund Gosse ("he was on the bookshelf when my mother was about to go into labour"), Stoppard is the youngest of an extended family. He grew up with his full brother William and two half-siblings, Olly and Barnaby, from Sir Tom's first marriage (to nurse Jose Ingle), who lived with their father and Miriam during the week and saw their mother at weekends.

Thanks to what he calls "a remarkably stable upbringing with two selfless parents who shielded us so much that I could hardly believe they were divorcing", he seems entirely free of Hamlettian neurosis about emotional deprivation and disinheritance. He describes the actress Felicity Kendal, for whom his father left his mother, as "wonderful - I wasn't jealous of her at all" and gets on well with his stepfather, Miriam's second husband Sir Christopher Hogg.

"If there's any scarring, it's due to the likes of Nigel Dempster," says Stoppard, who was teased at boarding school over gossip columns and headlines about his parents' divorce.

"It helps to come from a position of stability to play Hamlet. This is not going to be a Method performance where I'm drawing heavily on life experience. We didn't have a Joan Crawford or Peter Sellers childhood - none of our clothes had to be colour-coordinated in the closet and none of us was beaten around the head with wire coathangers. At 19 and 20, I was living in a bedroom at my dad's new place for a couple of years, but at that age you don't need a home - you live out of a bag, who cares?"

These days he lives in Clapham, south-west London, a father himself to a two-year-old daughter called Esme by his photographer wife, Amie, 31. They met on the set of James Dearden's film Rogue Trader, about Nick Leeson, when he was a runner and Amie, a niece of Terence Stamp, was a production assistant.

"I slightly cocked up in my wife's eyes when I said yes to Stephen's offer of Hamlet after the audition without properly consulting Amie about being away from home on tour," he says. "She flew off the handle with good reason, because you have to have that respect for each other."

But he couldn't resist the challenge of a role so massive that "it almost requires at least two Hamlets - the vulnerable, febrile boy and the mature man." As for future ambitions, he would "love to work at the National" rather than schmooze around Hollywood swimming-pools in obsessive pursuit of his own Oscar.

"Don't get me wrong: if someone offered me millions of dollars to do something that wasn't completely reprehensible and stupid, which paid my daughter's school fees - yeah, thanks very much. But it's just not important enough for me to go over there and smile and shake hands with people who won't know your name as soon as the door has shut behind you."

'Hamlet', Oxford Playhouse (01865 305305) 23 September to 1 October; then touring to Guildford, Malvern, Buxton, Richmond-on-Thames, Truro, York and Brighton to 26 November (www.englishtouringtheatre.co.uk)