In a profession not famed for its shrinking violets, British actor Richard Coyle is quietly making a name for himself. Quietly because, considering what he's done and who he's worked with - John Madden, Gwyneth Paltrow, Mike Leigh, Ian Richardson, Peter Gill - he could be shouting loudly about it. And considering his boyish good looks - no less dashing than flavour of the month Orlando Bloom - he could be gracing the pages of Heat, Empire, Hello! et al.
But that's not Coyle's style. A reluctant Londoner - he's from Sheffield but his career has led him to the capital - he's happier out of the rat race ("I relax as soon as I leave town") and the celebrity party circuit clearly isn't his scene. When he starred alongside Paltrow in Proof at the Donmar Warehouse last year, he was happy to let her have the limelight (not that he had much choice: Gwynnie mania was in full swing by opening night) and even admits to feeling relief at having the scrutinous eyes of the audience diverted away from his performance. "That was one of the best things about it really," he laughs. "Bless her, but Gwyneth, she had all the... everyone was looking at her and we didn't expect anything else, obviously."
That's not to say he's unambitious. Far from it - he was shrewd enough to bow out of a fourth series of the popular TV sitcom Coupling for fear of being typecast, and has done such a studied job of mixing the sort of roles he plays, the mediums he works in and the genres he tackles, it would be impossible to put it all down to good luck. It's simply that he goes about it all in a very low-key, unobtrusive manner.
This focused, fuss-free approach has kept him in almost constant work since he left drama school six years ago: Human Traffic and Topsy-Turvy for the cinema, Lorna Doone, Coupling and cult show Strange for telly and, along with Proof, a memorable turn in Peter Gill's Royal Court hit The York Realist for the stage. Having just completed filming on Gunpowder, Treason and Plot alongside Robert Carlyle, Coyle, 31, is back at the theatre rehearsing Patrick Marber's reworking of Strindberg's classic class-and-sex-war tragedy, Miss Julie.
A very topical tale of "a compromising incident" between servant and master, Marber's version, titled After Miss Julie, sets the action in a British household on the eve of the 1945 Labour party victory. "I don't think we've ever had a time like the time in 1945 after the war. Our generation," Coyle says, indicating the two of us, "has nothing to compare with it. We can only imagine what it was like for someone of our age to have lived at that time: the end of the war, that incredible promise of new houses, new employment, welfare state, all this excitement about the future... Which is why you can allow for what happens between John and Miss Julie, because it has that incredible backdrop."
It was Coyle who made his character, the valet John, a northerner. "As soon as I read it, that's how I read him. And I think I was the only guy in the auditions who did a northern accent. But apparently they both really liked it, Patrick and Michael [Grandage, the director]." (Coyle's own northern inflections are still detectable, but only just. A posh local school apparently frighted the broader elements out of him.)
In the 1995 TV film of After Miss Julie, Phil Daniels was a cockney underling, but Coyle "saw something that was more grounded and centred and really rooted in John, something that was really earthy." Is that a northern trait, then? He's momentarily embarrassed but argues his case. "In my mind... I can get to that kind of place with my dad's accent. There's a lot of my dad in this character." Really? "Well, yeah, but that sounds awful because you think John's a shouty, malicious guy and my dad wasn't like that. But there's just some quality that my dad had that's in this character. I think that's why immediately I assumed he was northern. But it does work, it gives him a real salt of the earth..." He hesitates. "It really grounds him."
Coyle's father, a builder by trade, died a few years ago, and though he had been sceptical of his son's career choice, had come round to the idea "because he'd seen me on the box and he thought, well actually he'll be all right."
Growing up in a small mining town, acting had never been on the agenda, or, more to the point, on the radar. Coyle's first encounter with a stage was at university. Wondering how to fill his time between politics lectures, he signed up for the drama society ("it was the most colourful stand in the place") and found himself in an existential two-hander about Franz Kafka. An actor was born. After leaving York, the same local charity that had got him through school stumped up the cash for the drama course at Bristol Old Vic.
But like John, the part he's currently got his teeth stuck into, Coyle kicked against the system. "Too much dance and music hall training," he recalls. "I didn't want to be a musical theatre star. I felt like there was too much concentration on training actors to play in musicals - because that's where there's money, you know, you can make a living." Coyle, by that stage absolutely committed to carving out a career as what his dad once called "a big girl's blouse", had other ideas. "I think I always thought I knew best," he says. Presumably, that's why he doesn't feel the need to make a song and dance about it.
'After Miss Julie': Donmar Warehouse, London WC2 (0870 060 6624), previews from Thursday, opens 25 November, to 7 February 2004