Roger Allam: how I learnt my early lessons from Olivier

From pantos to blockbusters – and now the political dramas of Michael Frayn – Roger Allam has made a virtue of versatility. He speaks to Alice Jones

Roger Allam takes up a lot less room than you'd expect. This is no bad thing, as we are meeting in a break from rehearsals in the National Theatre's tiniest cubbyhole. Still, it's surprising, when you consider some of his larger-than-life incarnations – as a self-satisfied Casanova in Boeing-Boeing, as a droll Abanazar in Aladdin and, in the blockbuster Speed Racer, as the oleaginous fat cat villain. As he tucks himself up on the sofa, he seems a little deflated; diffident, even.

But then he opens his mouth. The 54-year-old actor is undeniably portly, but it is his voice, as rich and plummy as mature fruit cake, that lends Allam his scene-stealing heft. Even off-stage, Allam rumbles, guffaws, purrs and snorts in a way that makes it hard to imagine him doing anything but treading the boards for a living (indeed, he also considered opera for a job). Which brings us to his latest role, playing the impresario Max Reinhardt in Michael Frayn's new play, Afterlife.

Born in Vienna in 1873, Reinhardt devoted his life to the stage, directing some 340 productions and building or restoring 13 theatres across Austria and Germany. At his zenith, just before the First World War, he was said to be the third most popular personality in Germany – after the Kaiser and Count Zeppelin – attracting enormous audiences to his touring productions, which had casts of thousands and epic, acre-spanning sets. But for all the spectacle and lavish parties, Reinhardt's is a sad tale. Frayn focuses on his desperate attempts to stage his annual play, Everyman, at the Salzburg Festival in the face of the encroaching storm cloud of Nazi rule. In 1938, when Hitler absorbed Austria into the German Reich, the Jewish impresario was forced into penniless exile in America.

"There's a sense in which he didn't fully engage or even exist outside of theatre," says Allam. "Where he most fully lived was while he was rehearsing, or putting on a show, or thinking about putting on a show." Does Allam share the obsession? "It's something I recognise, certainly. As soon as you have two small children, they take up a lot of time and energy. But one of the satisfying things about performing a play is you know for that piece of time exactly what you're going to be doing. Your life has a physical pattern. There's something about the odd, repetitious nature of it that I find hugely relaxing. All the problems of life are taken care of for that bit of time."

Allam's theatre roles have ranged from the serious – Willy Brandt in Frayn's Democracy, Hitler in David Edgar's Albert Speer – to the starry – opposite Gillian Anderson in What the Night Was For – to the silly, in Aladdin. After studying drama at Manchester University, he joined the feminist troupe Monstrous Regiment, then moved to the RSC in 1981, where he created the role of Javert in Les Misérables. Another musical outing – as a shriekingly camp Captain in drag in Privates on Parade at the Donmar – earned him an Olivier Award in 2001.

He ascribes his tendency to flit between roles to one of his earliest theatrical memories, at Christ's Hospital School in Sussex. "There was a book in the library which was a series of interviews with Gielgud, Olivier and Richardson, all of that generation. For each interview, there were little pictures of them playing different parts in their early career. Beards, monocles, different noses, wigs... I thought, 'Oh god, fantastic, fabulous'." Allam made his stage debut in his last year at school, as Sir Toby Belch in Twelfth Night. "I based my look on one of those pictures of Olivier. I had a false nose, a bald wig, a wig, padding – the works."

Allam has cropped up on screen, in The Thick of It, The Wind that Shakes the Barley and The Queen, not to mention his burgeoning relationship with The Matrix siblings, Andy and Larry Wachowski. After working with him on a small role as a fascist television presenter in V for Vendetta, they gave him top billing as Royalton, the jowly face of corporate evil in Speed Racer. "They like British actors. I suppose there's a particular kind of efficiency about coming from a theatre tradition. You don't make a fuss, and you're cheap." Did he enjoy the Hollywood experience? "It was a ball. I thought the film was great. So did my son. I now can't get away from it – Speed Racer pyjamas and all that..." says Allam, who lives in south-west London with his actress wife, Rebecca Saire, and their two young sons.

The film could gain Allam the kind of fame that has thus far eluded him. Even the homepage of his website declares, "Roger Allam is one of those actors who seems to be in a lot of things but no one really seems to know who he is." He doesn't seem bothered, though. "I wouldn't enjoy the prospect of not being able to go round my local supermarket. I'd love to do more film but I've never had the willpower that someone like Tom Wilkinson had at a certain stage in his career to say, 'Right, that's it, I'm not doing any more theatre, I'm concentrating on film.' One of the great things about doing a play, repeating it over and over again, is that you can practise," he grins sardonically. "And you can get really quite good at it for a while."



'Afterlife', to 16 August, continuing in rep, National Theatre, London, SE1 (020 7452 3000)

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
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.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test