Steve Pemberton: In a league of his own

Playing Dr Bessner in a TV version of Death on the Nile gives Steve Pemberton another chance to dress up. But he'd rather go the whole hog and play a woman, he tells James Rampton
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Sitting in his north-London front room, surrounded by his young children's toys, the actor and comedian Steve Pemberton recalls his own childhood in the north-west of England. "I remember, in nursery school, heading straight for the dressing-up box in the wendy house. I loved rummaging around, finding hats and coats and playing make-believe."

Sitting in his north-London front room, surrounded by his young children's toys, the actor and comedian Steve Pemberton recalls his own childhood in the north-west of England. "I remember, in nursery school, heading straight for the dressing-up box in the wendy house. I loved rummaging around, finding hats and coats and playing make-believe."

Pemberton, who is best known as one of the four members of the splendidly offbeat comedy troupe The League of Gentlemen, took just as much pleasure from rifling through the dressing-up box when he got a part in a secondary-school play. "I played Scrooge's ageing female boss, Mrs Fezzywig. I put talcum powder in my hair, and when I hit my forehead during the performance, all the talc shot up in the air and the audience fell about laughing. I thought, 'I like that.' So on the next night, I put twice as much talc in my hair and hit my forehead twice as hard!"

It was more of the same when Pemberton went on to Bretton Hall drama college, in Wakefield, where he met his fellow Gents, Jeremy Dyson, Mark Gatiss and Reece Shearsmith. "In a production of The Taming of the Shrew, I played the Pedant," he recalls. "It's a tiny role." But he certainly made the most of it. "I wore a big floppy hat, glasses, a jacket that was too small and trousers that were too big. The shirt-tail poked out of my flies, and I carried an asthma inhaler. At the time, people said, 'He's using his bag of tricks', but I'm still doing it. It has served me well!"

It has indeed. Pemberton's "bag of tricks" has made him one of the most in-demand character actors around. We have seen him as the cuckolded husband in Shameless, an eccentric professor in Gormenghast and one of the three friends who fall out over a painting in the West End production of Art. He also appeared alongside Nicole Kidman, no less, in The Birthday Girl, a black comedy about a Russian bride.

Already tiring enough, you might think, but for Pemberton that was merely the warm-up for his forthcoming frenzy of activity. Now he has landed the role of Prosser opposite Martin Freeman, Bill Nighy and Sam Rockwell in the eagerly awaited Hollywood version of The Hitch-hiker's Guide to the Galaxy. He is also playing an accountant in Blackpool, a new BBC serial about a casino hotel in the resort, and Chester, the purser on the royal train in Churchill: The Hollywood Years, Peter Richardson's Comic Strip movie about the Second World War, which co-stars Christian Slater and Antony Sher. Perhaps most intriguing, Pemberton has also been recruited to take the part of Harry Secombe in the upcoming biopic of Peter Sellers (played by Geoffrey Rush). Phew.

"I am absolutely honoured to play Secombe," says the 35-year-old Pemberton, throwing in a trademark Neddy Seagoon chuckle for my benefit. "The Goons' influence is immense - look at the way comedy has developed from them, through Monty Python to people like The League of Gentlemen.

"But it was never a lifetime dream of mine to play Secombe. Johnny Vegas was originally offered the part, but wouldn't shave off the beard he had grown for Sex Lives of the Potato Men. So I was called in. I auditioned in the director's trailer on the Tuesday and started filming on the Saturday. I said to him: 'I can bring my own padding' [which he used to play the tubby shopkeeper Tubbs in The League of Gentlemen]. I'm sure that's what got me the part. It was not my acting ability, but the fact that I'm the only actor in Equity who has his own padding!"

All this work is, of course, supplementary to Pemberton's "day job" with the League. Over five series of the cultish show on BBC2 and Radio 4 and countless live performances, he has played several dozen characters, including the lustful, homicidal German exchange teacher Herr Lipp, the vicious, pen-obsessed Restart officer Pauline, the garrulous transsexual taxi-driver Barbara and the grotesque toad-fancier Harvey Denton. Tremendous training for a character actor, I think you'll agree. Pemberton, who, unlike many comedians, is as funny off screen as on it, laughs and says: "A lot of comics make a career out of playing one character. We've made a career out of playing 98."

However, Pemberton's most enduringly popular League of Gentlemen character is undoubtedly the marvellous Tubbs, the unhinged, inbred shopkeeper, who is terrified of outsiders and asks all her customers: "Are you local?" - before taking extreme action if they're not.

It takes Pemberton two hours in make-up to metamorphose into the piggy-faced woman, but that does not stop fans recognising him in the street. "People call out: 'Oi, Tubbs', even when I'm not in make-up - which does wonders for your self-esteem. I'm like, 'Thanks a lot!' "

Many of Pemberton's most memorable performances have been as women. The actor explains the appeal of cross-dressing - purely for professional reasons, you understand. "It's the idea of being able to take on a role so far removed from you and totally inhabit it. Changing sex and age allows you great freedom. It's more of a challenge to get as far away from your own persona as possible. Nothing can faze me now - bring on the pearls and the boobs!" There was one occasion, however, when Pemberton was nearly defeated by the task of playing a woman. "In Shameless, they couldn't find the right actress, so they asked me to play my own mother." Very Psycho. "The costume people had just 24 hours to transform me - it was just like Stars in Their Eyes. But in the end I regretted doing it, because I looked like John Prescott's wife!"

In the long run, he adds, "I'd be keen to distance myself from the tag of 'the one who always dresses up as a woman'. I don't want to be 56 and purely known as a drag act on the end of Blackpool Pier."

Well, he'll be delighted with his latest role, then: the very much male Dr Ludwig Bessner. In ITV1's lavish new Poirot whodunit Death on the Nile, which is on tonight, Pemberton plays the impeccably well-mannered Austrian physician.

But some things never change. The actor has once again clearly paid a lengthy visit to the dressing-up box for this role. He is done up in a walrus moustache that Jimmy Edwards would covet, round, bottle-bottom spectacles, a pith helmet and a US Marine-style crew cut.

It is another eye-catching, even scene-stealing, performance, but doesn't Pemberton ever yearn to be more permanently centre stage? Apparently not. Despite his exuberant performances, off stage he is a naturally modest, self-effacing man - I notice that his Bafta for The League of Gentlemen is tucked away from view on a high shelf.

"I'd rather be in the background trying to get noticed, than taking the lead," he declares. "I love character roles because it gets me back to dressing up in the wendy house. So, when the director of Death on the Nile asked me, 'Will you shave your head for the part of Dr Bessner?', I immediately said, 'Of course!' "

Pemberton obviously relishes the transformation, but is he at all concerned that viewers might compare Dr Bessner with Herr Lipp, the creepy, paedophiliac German teacher from The League of Gentlemen? "No," he asserts. "For a start, Bessner is Austrian! But also, an ITV1 audience is very different from BBC2's. Poirot might have been in danger of becoming staid, but by casting people like myself in it, they're trying to reach a different audience. It won't be a case of viewers saying, 'Oh look, Herr Lipp has got another job. He's not fooling anyone - he's still keen on innocent young boys.'

"At one point, while improvising as Dr Bessner, I found myself mouthing Lipp's catchphrase - 'Alles klar.' I had to tell myself, 'Stop it, stop it, get away!' I had to bite my Herr Lipp. Rather than the comedy Austrian, I tried to be very forensic as Dr Bessner."

Such roles will help Pemberton to establish himself as "a proper actor" rather than a comedian merely doing a turn. "I still think that casting directors wonder: 'Is he an actor?' " he sighs. "That's just a hurdle I have to get over. When the three of us from The League of Gentlemen did Art in the West End, people said, 'Really? Are you actors as well?' That sort of comment is annoying because of course we're actors, but you just have to grin and bear it.

"People imagined that in Art we'd smuggle in our brand of humour and hijack the play. But compared with some casts, we didn't mess about with it at all. We certainly didn't use it as an opportunity to create our own routines. When you perform a play that someone has toiled over for years, you take it seriously."

So what's next for this most versatile of actors, a man who might as well have the words "human chameleon" written in his passport? He and his three fellow comedians are lined up to make a League of Gentlemen movie this summer. "It begins with an ejaculating giraffe and goes downhill from there," Pemberton says. "I could tell you more about the plot, but then I'd have to kill you."

He also reveals that "ITV is going to be remaking Miss Marple. Apparently, they're going to do it in a Coen brothers-y way, because it's all about old people killing each other. So can I just say one thing to the producers? Please let me audition for Miss Marple. I've got my own padding!"