Rupert Penry-Jones, alias Adam Carter, the unflappable spy from Spooks, alias Richard Hannay, the unflappable and bounderish spy from last Christmas's 39 Steps remake, alias Donald Maclean, the unflappable, bounderish and real-life spy from the BBC drama Cambridge Spies – in short, television's most conspicuous undercover agent – is sitting stiffly in the Royal Court's bar trying not to be seen or heard by the gaggle of female pensioners having a pre-matinee lunch on the next table. He looks uncharacteristically unheroic today, in an outfit which subtly screams "rehearsing actor" – floppy tracksuit bottoms, innumerable, indefinable woolly layers and one of those heated, lavender-scented neck warmers draped delicately around his shoulders. He's about to open in The Priory, his first play since landing the career-rocket of a role in Spooks seven years ago, and his back has gone. "It always happens," he sighs. I nod sympathetically. A tricky on-set stunt? A hardcore gym session? "Stress," he winces and turns, painfully, pitifully even, to ask what the soup of the day is. "But it's nice not to be carrying a gun and chasing a bad guy, you know?"
In The Priory, Penry-Jones will not be playing a spy, nor one of the closely affiliated roles of policeman, detective, RAF pilot or naval officer – all of which he has also played, several times. Instead, in Michael Wynne's new comedy thriller about a group of thirty-somethings going to the country for New Year he plays Carl, an actor, which, while not exactly a casting curveball, makes a nice change. Still, you get the impression that if Carl had been a spy/policeman, Penry-Jones, who comes across as a fairly relaxed and unpretentious chap, would have been equally content. "Christ! If you're going to get typecast it's one of the best ones to get typecast as. It's great." The only niggle is the annoying speculation as to whether he might, one day, play 007. He's still smarting from a Radio Times cover last year with the headline, "The name's Jones. Penry-Jones. I want to be Bond." "It was just humiliating," he broods. "I mean, I know Dan Craig from when we did National Youth Theatre together..."
On the whole, Penry-Jones is not really very precious about his career. You won't draw him on his method or the visceral joys of smelly greasepaint and roaring crowds. He's down to earth, albeit in quite a posh way. "Working hard as an actor means you're doing what you want to do," he says through a mouthful of cheese and pickle sandwich. "What I'm getting paid for this, I might as well be doing it for nothing. I pay our nanny more than I'm earning." He has the manners to blush when he realises that this sounds a touch vulgar. There was talk of him doing Hamlet this year, with Gail Edwards, who last directed him in Don Carlos at the RSC. "But at that point there were three others [Jude Law, David Tennant and Rory Kinnear] who were going to do it and they were all really good. I just thought, why put myself under that kind of pressure?"
Why, indeed. He likes playing spies – and he's tailor-made for the job. Like the best (fictional) secret agents, Penry-Jones is dashing, smoothly inscrutable, with a whiff of arrogance and a silky public-school murmur of a voice. He has a taste for the finer things in life – Ede and Ravenscroft bespoke suits, Panerai watches and days out at the polo – and a thirst for adventure. His passions include downhill mountain biking and kite surfing. He has an eye for a beautiful woman, too, from a brief fling with Kylie in 1999 to his wife of two years, the Irish actress Dervla Kirwan. The 39 Steps was his favourite job to date, involving much swimming in lochs, wearing of tweed and being chased across the heather by bi-planes. "Just wonderful." Spooks, too, had its moments. "There were always a few days where you thought, 'bloody hell, this is amazing' – going down the Thames on a speed-boat, flying a helicopter, filming in the Thames barrier..."
Penry-Jones left the MI5 drama last year in, if not the most gruesome departure the grid has seen (that honour goes to Lisa Faulkner, plunged head-first into a deep-fat fryer), then certainly its most heroic. On discovering a ticking car bomb, Adam slid in behind the wheel and drove the car away from the crowds, dying in booming slow motion. It was a very good death. "You get that lovely montage of the other characters looking sad," he nods. "I Sky Plus-ed it and showed it to my kids. They've seen it 20 times now." Does he still watch? "No! Not now I'm not in it..." Penry-Jones looks peeved. "I'm annoyed, actually. I wanted it to end when I left." He'd been told they were going to end the show and decided to see it through. When they recommissioned it again, he couldn't stay. "I was no longer enjoying it. I was able to do it standing on my head. We were just churning it out and I was getting very lazy. I didn't like how I was behaving." Hissy fits? "Yeah when there was no coffee on set, that kind of thing. Most people used to find it quite funny – I would lose it and then spend the next 20 minutes apologising to everyone."
Since leaving, the actor has had a busy, if occasionally bruising time. After The 39 Steps and ITV's gory Whitechapel, in which he played a white-collar cop on the trail of a Jack the Ripper copycat killer, he had his first, disastrous brush with LA. He was called up ("begged") to film a pilot for Jerry Bruckheimer's ABC cop drama The Forgotten, but when the series was picked up, the studio dropped him and gave his part to Christian Slater. Having watched a clip that has Penry-Jones striding about in a leather jacket, saying, "Without 'who is it?' there's no 'whodunit'", I think this may be no bad thing. Penry-Jones, though, is fuming.
To make matters worse, his father, the actor Peter Penry-Jones, became seriously ill as Rupert flew out for the screen test. He arrived home just 10 minutes before his father slipped into a coma and died. The Priory will be the first time that his father won't be in the audience. Usually he'd come three or four times a run, and, afterwards, gently offer his son tips about things such as the right way to put one's arms around a woman on stage. "Small things," says Penry-Jones. "That end up making a massive difference."
His parents didn't want him to act. "But I didn't want to do anything else." It's in his blood after all. His mother is the To the Manor Born actress Angela Thorne and his younger brother Laurence is also an actor, who lives in LA with his wife, the Rome star Polly Walker. An academically disinterested and sporty pupil at Dulwich College, it was, improbably, his casting as Caliban, aged 13, that turned him on to acting. That, and the fact that girls did drama too. "You didn't get girls in the cricket team." His holidays were spent with the NYT, where his cohort included Daniel Craig, director Matthew Warchus and his Priory co-star Jessica Hynes. "My friends couldn't understand it. They'd all be going to Cyprus for two weeks for a piss-up and I'd say, 'No, I'm going to do The Rivals at the NYT.'"
His Doctor Faustus, aged 17, finally persuaded his parents that he was serious and he enrolled at Bristol Old Vic, only to be booted out after the second year for being a bad influence. He had a broken heart and became "a bit disruptive". By the time he left he'd only played Mary's donkey and D'Artagnan's horse. "I felt a bit robbed. The third year is when you do all the plays," he says. "They don't invite me to any of the reunions. I'm completely cut out."
He paid his way through two years of being an unemployed actor by modelling, having been scouted by Storm in a café when he was a sixth former. He did the Paris and Milan shows and was also, briefly, the face (lips?) of Lypsyl lip balm. "I was not very good," he says, ruefully. "But I had a ball. It wasn't like Zoolander back then. It was a bunch of lads who couldn't believe their luck, running around London going wild." Is he vain? "No. I used to be," he says. "I'm worried about losing my hair. I think if I lost my hair, I'd lose a lot of parts. And I don't want to get fat. I'm always worried about that."
Much has been written about Penry-Jones' looks. Women swoon. Male TV critics grudgingly dub him a "male Audrey Hepburn", there to prettify a story rather than power it. Even his wife calls him "Torso of the Week" after a feted appearance in Heat. Does he ever feel he's taken less seriously than he'd like? "It's always nice to have people say you're good-looking. But I do get told I'm not right for parts because I'm too good-looking." That must be tough. "It's a real bind to wake up every morning and go to work and worry that you're not actually looking as good as you should be. It's fine if you're playing a hunchback but not if you're supposed to be playing someone attractive. But I don't think I've got parts just off the back of my looks. I've earned my spurs."
He has – after an unpromising start playing "wild-looking young man" in the film of Black Beauty. He made his stage debut as Fortinbras , understudying for Ralph Fiennes' Hamlet at Hackney Empire in 1995, which transferred to Broadway. In 2000, he won the prestigious Ian Charleson Award for his Don Carlos. "I knew I was doing something special, something I might not ever reach again", he says. "I don't think I've ever been better on stage."
He met Kirwan when they starred together in A Dangerous Corner in 2001. They married in 2007 and have two children, Florence, 5 and Peter, 3. Two years ago they moved from South London to leafy Hampshire."My career would have been very different had I not got married and had children. But there is more to life than my acting career now. Before, it was everything. You have to be quite selfish as an actor to be really successful." Still, fatherhood has had its challenges. "I still wanted to have a social life. I didn't want to sit in a room with other parents talking about children. I'm not interested in other people's children whatsoever. There's nothing more boring."
He used to be something of a man about town, though he doesn't like to talk about his Kylie-squiring days. "I've gone out with a few girls before Dervla who were more successful than me. And I really enjoyed it – I got nice presents." When he met his wife, he was unknown and she was a Ballykissangel sweetheart. Now, he says, they "bounce around the same level", taking jobs on a "first come, first served basis".
There's an air of contentment about Penry-Jones today. Sure, there's not as much television work to go round as he'd like and he'd love to do a movie. "It's just typical, as soon as I start to take off, just at the point where I should be really nailing it, the work dries up." He's about to film a second series of Whitechapel and possibly a supernatural BBC drama where he'd play, yes, a policeman. But he's good at policemen, and he knows to complain would be churlish. "I'm incredibly lucky," he says. "I'm way more successful than I ever thought I would be."
The Priory, to 9 Jan, Royal Court Theatre, London SW1 (020-7565 5000)Reuse content