Adrian Lester: And for his next trick...

As a con man in the BBC1 series Hustle, Adrian Lester elevates deception to an art form. But it's truth that he's after in every part he plays - from Henry V to a bellboy in Crossroads - he tells James Rampton
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Adrian Lester's screen-acting career did not have an auspicious start. In the 1980s, he was a regular walk-on in ITV's impossibly tacky soap Crossroads, playing everything from a bellboy to a car-thief. Already a tricky task - just how much job satisfaction can there be in providing background support for a cheesy melodrama set in a deeply depressing Birmingham motel? - the gig was made even harder by the show's legendarily wobbly set.

Lester looks back in amusement. "I remember, you did have to be very careful when opening and shutting doors, because the scenery really would shake. And they shot it so fast that the actors on reception used to have to tape their dialogue to the counter. They'd be on the phone, pretending to look for a pen while they read their next lines off a card."

From there, the only way was up - and that is very much the direction in which Lester has been travelling ever since. He may not yet be an instantly recognisable face, but he is very much on the verge of big things.

In person, the 35-year-old actor wears his success lightly. He is easy-going, the opposite of the tortured-artist image perpetuated by so many thespians. Two hours in Lester's company fly by. Dressed in a checked shirt, jeans and trainers, he laughs about one of the less distinguished moments in his career: a US sitcom called Girlfriends. Will we ever see it over here? "I sincerely hope not," he says, flashing a megawatt smile.

But Girlfriends was a rare blip, because over the past decade and a half, Lester has accumulated a string of acclaimed performances. He first enchanted audiences in 1991 with a ravishingly seductive Rosalind in Cheek by Jowl's iconoclastic all-male production of As You Like It. He went on to scoop Olivier awards for Sweeney Todd in 1993 and for Sam Mendes's 1996 interpretation of Company. Three years ago, he won a Carlton award for a mesmerising Hamlet in Peter Brook's fêted production.

He has also turned in striking screen performances opposite John Travolta and Emma Thompson in his big Hollywood break, Primary Colors, Mike Nichols's political satire loosely based on the Clintons, in Kenneth Branagh's exuberant all-singing, all-dancing version of Love's Labour's Lost, and in the lead of Storm Damage, Lennie James's searing film about children in care.

Like Simon Russell Beale, that other actor whose most memorable work has thus far been in the theatre, Lester appears to have the best of both worlds. He commands immense respect within the industry, without having to tangle with the tabloids. As one critic puts it, Lester "has sneaked up on the rails to become one of the most significant natural talents on the English stage... His acting is like an open window, drawing fresh clean air into stuffy corners... Watching Lester as he prowls about, you get the feeling this protean creature could probably play anyone: Shylock or Portia, Leontes or Mamillius, Red Riding Hood or the Big Bad Wolf."

It is true that Lester possesses remarkable versatility - after all, he is capable of playing women just as convincingly as men. But perhaps his greatest strength lies in his stillness. On stage, your eye is involuntarily drawn to him; he is the centre of attention even when he is standing there apparently doing nothing. He has presence by the shed-load.

That quality was most evident in what may be his finest performance yet - as an eerily calm and automatically authoritative Henry V. Nicholas Hytner's lauded modern-dress production at the National Theatre last year grabbed the headlines because Lester played the monarch as a charismatic, media-friendly war leader, complete with sharp suits, smooth press-conference manner and concerned televised addresses to the nation. Does that sound at all familiar?

"When we realised what was going on with Iraq, we thought it would be foolish to do the play in a medieval setting," Lester explains. "We had to do it in modern dress. The play brought great focus to the conflict we were all watching on our TV screens. I think it was fascinating for audiences to see on stage what they had read about in the papers that morning."

During rehearsals, Lester was intrigued by the news bulletins: "I saw Blair doing exactly what Henry did - campaigning for war in the hearts and minds of English people and saying whatever needed to be said to convince us that we had to go to war. We ended up saying, 'He must know something we don't,' and went along with it. The worst thing is what is coming out in the wash now.

"Henry V was giving people a feeling that their country was a 'little Britain with a mighty heart' - and he was using the media to help with his PR campaign. So, in this production, you couldn't help but use video and cameras. The comparisons were just too numerous to be ignored."

Lester's first love as he grew up in Birmingham was break-dancing. (He can still do it, and jokes: "I was the first person to body-pop with Richard and Judy.") But involvement with a youth group turned him on to the potential of drama. By the time he was 16, he had penned his first piece, an angry play based on the experiences of his cousin, who "slipped through the net of care and ended up living on the streets for a short time". Rada followed - where Lester met his fellow actor Lolita Chakrabarti. They are now married and have one child and another on the way.

Until now, the one gap in Lester's otherwise impressive CV has been a high-profile TV vehicle, but that is now being remedied with BBC1's Hustle. The ultra-slick new series centres on five confidence tricksters who specialise in the "long con", a protracted and involved scam. Lester plays Mickey "Bricks" Stone, the leader of the dodgy quintet. Hustle is produced by the makers of Spooks and has the same sassy appeal as that series. What Lester likes best about his con-man role is that it was not written with a black actor in mind. In the past, he has complained about TV casting directors offering him only stereotypical roles such as drug dealers and pimps: "If people want an actor for a role, I'm interested. If they need a black guy there to speak a line, I'm not. Simple as that.

"I'd always hoped for three-dimensional characters such as this. Some characters are written as black, and for the writer it seems the mere fact that they're black gives them an interesting character - but it doesn't! As soon as anybody ceases to see you as an individual, it's problematic, because they stop seeing you as you. Hustle is different. Whoever has Mickey's characteristics can play him - it doesn't matter who or what they are."

Lester thinks that in this day and age we should have progressed beyond a fascination with an actor's race. "When someone of colour does something out of the ordinary in this business, we hear everyone trumpeting: 'Isn't it wonderful?', but it happens so often now that it's just not newsworthy. Actors such as David Oyelowo, Paterson Joseph, David Harewood and Kwame Kwei-Armah are on our screens all the time.

"David Harewood had been co-starring in The Vice on ITV for six years. But when Ken Stott left the series, there was a big fuss about David taking over the lead - 'Oh my God, a black man is playing the lead. What is this?' You just bang your head against the wall. It's 2004 - I can't believe that's the press's angle.

"Some journalists wanted to talk to me about a black actor playing Henry V, but I thought: 'I'm not going to talk about that.' I lost a couple of interviews because of it, but we should get past that. Yes, it's interesting on a socio-political level. But it's not interesting for me to discuss - yawn! Are the words going to feel different in my mouth because of the colour of my skin?'

Lester sighs. "There is always more work to do," he continues. "For instance, when it comes to financing projects, there is a belief that you're likely to grab a greater sweep of the demographic if your leading players are white. That depresses me. Producers are too ready to second-guess an audience, and they always play it very safe."

There is a real buzz about Lester now, but the actor is savvy enough not to believe the hype. His one brush with professional disappointment, after Primary Colors, has taught him never to get too carried away. "I had a taste of the Hollywood experience doing Primary Colors," he recollects. "Constant sunshine, your own chauffeur, drop-top BMW, the life of a 'major motion-picture star'. Then I came home and did no paid work for a year." For a while, he admits, "it was all: 'Woe is me.'

"Occasionally, when you're in America promoting something, you get caught up in the hype and think: 'Oh my God, what if...?', but when you're away from the glitz and the glamour, it's back to: 'I hope someone offers me another job!' "

I don't think that's a problem Lester is likely to encounter in the foreseeable future.

'Hustle' starts at 9pm on BBC1 on Tuesday, 24 February

Stings in the tale: The screen life of the con man

THE STING (1973). The definitive con-man movie. Paul Newman and Robert Redford, reunited after their success on Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, set about fleecing the menacing Robert Shaw to avenge the death of an old friend in this effortlessly stylish caper, in which even the Scott Joplin theme music is disreputable.

HOUSE OF GAMES (1987). David Mamet made his directorial debut with this enigmatic parlour-game picture starring Lindsay Crouse, then his wife. She plays a psychiatrist confronting a gambler who has traumatised one of her patients; a card game ensues, in which the similarities between gambler and psychiatrist are drawn out, and bluff is countered by double bluff.

THE GRIFTERS (1990). Stephen Frears was an English director operating in an American milieu that was alien to him - though you never would have guessed from the easy touch he brings to this tale of rivalry between a trio of con artists that leads to a gruesome end. Anjelica Huston, John Cusack and Annette Bening star.

CHANCER (ITV, 1990-91). Clive Owen plays the business analyst and con man Stephen Crane, who is called in to keep the fading sports-car manufacturer Douglas Motors out of the hands of the receivers. Owen, in his first major role, is a brooding, ruthless presence.