Profile: On a flight of fancy: Linus Roache

Matthew Sweet meets the 'Wings of the Dove' star for whom Hollywod beckons

At A lunch to celebrate the opening of Iain Softley's film of Henry James's The Wings Of The Dove, Helena Bonham Carter is explaining the secret of good costume-drama performance. "The corsetry can be a bit tight at first, but after you've been wearing it for a week the sweat makes it

soften. Disgusting, isn't it?"

As James's dark heroine Kate Croy, Bonham Carter has been the focus of media interest in the movie - she's been interviewed on The Tonight Show, and received both a Los Angeles Film Critics' Association Award and Golden Globe nomination. She's such a hot Oscar contender that the Daily Mail's film critic offered to bet his house on her chances of winning. But for my money, the most accomplished work in Softley's striking film is by the young British actor and costume drama debutant Linus Roache, whose performance as the troubled young journalist Merton Densher confirms him as a world-class talent. Though Hollywood has courted him in the past, he's always declined their attentions. Now, however, he's ready to go.

Roache, 33, has a clear gaze, an infectiously snorty laugh and cheek bones for which any man would murder. He chats unselfconsciously, he laughs at your jokes, he answers your questions like you're his best mate. This openness also extends to his performances, and it's partly a matter of background; Roache has none of that quasi-aristocratic air that sometimes constipates the acting of British male leads like Ralph Fiennes or Daniel Day-Lewis. "He's very easy-going, very straightforward, unfussy, unaffected," says Ms Bonham Carter, who was already a film star while Roache was at drama school. "And he's not at all methody," she adds. "Which is fine by me."

"Fine by me too," says Iain Softley.

For The Wings Of The Dove, Roache has tried a slightly dangerous experiment: he has played Densher as himself. "It was a risky choice. I put myself in the situation and responded. Merton Densher is a trapped man. He doesn't know what to do, he doesn't know the outcome of his situation, he doesn't know what he really wants. I didn't want to fill it with mannerisms, I wanted to do it straight, almost empty." The experience seems to have unnerved him a little. "I don't know if I'd do it again."

For an actor of his age, Roache's career has been unusually varied. After his training at the Central School of Speech and Drama, he found work with the Cambridge Theatre Company. He then joined the RSC, a period that culminated in the title role in Nick Dear's The Last Days Of Don Juan. This was followed by a highly acclaimed performance in Jonathan Kent's revival of Terence Rattigan's The Deep Blue Sea, a notable Richard II at the Manchester Royal Exchange, and an Edward II in Paris. In James MacDonald's 1993 production of Love's Labours Lost, he was the finest Berowne of recent times (despite his modest insistence that he "just copied what Ralph Fiennes had done at Stratford"). Next year sees the release of his Sarajevo-set drama, Shot Through The Heart, and in April Katie Mitchell will direct him as Astrov in an RSC/Young Vic production of Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

British audiences know him best for two roles he played in 1994; the closeted gay cleric in Antonia Bird's film Priest, and anti-hero Bob Longworth in the BBC's epic wartime drama Seaforth. A critical and financial success, Priest cost pounds 1.25m to make and took pounds 3.4m in the US and UK alone. Suddenly bankable, Roache found himself besieged by agents and producers, but chose to reject their advances. "I felt intimidated by the whole shebang," he explained. "I felt pulled and pushed and nervous. So I kept things simple and just stopped working for about 18 months." During a long holiday in India, the reluctant film star considered giving up acting altogether.

The Sunday People alleged that he spent this time under the influence of a questionable religious cult, though the fact that his cat is called Shakti is the most reliable piece of evidence for this. There had been a long build-up to this period of abstinence; 1994 was a frantically busy year for Roache. Driven by an ambition he now describes as "neurotic" he had only five days' holiday between finishing Priest and beginning nine solid months of work on Seaforth. Hyped by the BBC as a "Forsyte Saga for the 90s" it was the 1994 autumn season's most lavish production, and projected to run for at least three years. Though his performance as the flawed Longworth was consistently praised, Roache found Seaforth a decidedly ambiguous experience and declined to renew his contract while the first series was still being transmitted.

"I took the job on the condition that I wasn't tied in for a second series. You never know how things are going to work out. I read the scripts for the first four episodes and a rough outline of where the story was going to go. I liked the idea of a dynastic journey with this Maxwellian figure going from rags to riches. But we were against the clock and the later scripts weren't so good. By the end if had turned into Falcon Crest."

The BBC has already spent pounds 200,000 on the development of the second series. "They were planning to take the story up to 1990, but we were still in 1947 by the end of episode 10. I was hoping to do the whole Pacino thing in The Godfather, getting older and fatter, but it didn't happen. So I offered them my services for a two-hour special so that they could have bridged the gap, finished off this Bob Longworth and brought in the next one. They said they were going to ask Albert Finney but I don't think he'd have done it." Faced with the prospect of going on without the star, BBC1 controller Alan Yentob decided to pull the series - much to the chagrin of the independent production company commissioned to make it.

Born in 1964, Roache is the son of actors Anna Cropper and William Roache. For the past 37 years his father has been known to millions as Ken Barlow, longest-serving inmate of Coronation Street. The marriage was a difficult one; after numerous extra-marital affairs - for which he offered his repentance in a 1994 autobiography, Ken And Me - Roache senior left the family home in 1974.

With nearly four decades in the soap, William Roache has occupied a prominent - and peculiar - position in British culture. He has a strong interest in Druidism and astrology. In 1991 he took the Sun to court when they named him "the world's most boring man", and a bizarre libel trial ensued in which Roache was forced to establish his autonomy from the Ken Barlow character. The case - which Roache won - highlighted the curious elision that had taken place in the popular imagination between actor and fictional alter ego.

Coronation Street has remained an influence on Linus Roache; aged nine, he made his TV debut as Ken's son Peter Barlow. His long-time partner, actress Rosalind Bennett, also spent a year in the series. Though he's often asked the question, Roache denies that his swift movement between projects and media has anything to do with his father's record-breaking tenure in Coronation Street. "Most actors do what I do," argues Roache junior, but, though this is true, the variety of projects on his CV is remarkable.

At the moment, he is considering a move to America. "There's so much cynicism around in Britain, especially in the press. The American press might be naive, but at least you feel as if they're on your side." In the States, he concedes, it is possible to escape the Barlovian influence. "It's refreshing because nobody knows. Over here I've just had to put up with this constant connection with my dad, because he's such a celebrity. It irritated the life out of me at school, being singled out as Ken Barlow's son. When I went to drama school I thought that everybody would think I was only there because my dad was on TV. Then I realised that this was a load of old bollocks. You might get one job for having a famous parent, but you won't get your second unless you're good."

At this point I have to confess that I went on a school trip to see Roache in his second job - playing a communist activist in Di Trevis's 1985 adaptation of Mother Courage at the Contact Theatre, Manchester. I admit that we were interested in him mainly because of his Son-of-Ken status. "Seriously?" he asks.

"Yes, yes, of course."

"Oh dear."

"We were all waiting for you to come on because of that."

"Oh God..." he giggles, shaking his head in disbelief. Who knows, if Martin Scorcese is a Ken Barlow fan, the association may prove to be an advantage.

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