John Hannah: What lies beneath

The cult of celebrity leaves John Hannah cold. Give him darkness and ambiguity every time. James Rampton meets him
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The Independent Online

John Hannah has known hard times as an actor. He recalls his most humiliating moment during one of those spells of "resting" that all actors endure: "I tried to get a job in Pizza Express and I was rejected because I wasn't 'career-committed' to being a waiter."

For a while in the early 1990s, Hannah's luck showed no sign of improving. He now admits that he was seriously considering giving up acting as a bad job. Then, out of the blue, a poem by WH Auden transformed his fortunes. In 1994, Hannah was - in the best A Star Is Born tradition - plucked from obscurity and given the role of Matthew in Four Weddings and a Funeral. He is the sweet gay man who reads "Funeral Blues" (which begins: "Stop all the clocks") at funeral of his boyfriend, Gareth (played by Simon Callow).

"I'm told that grown men wept when I recited the Auden poem at the funeral," he says. "Mind you, I was quite popular in certain pubs in Soho when the film was first released..."

Hannah had absolutely no idea that it would be such a popular movie. "When I first read the script, I didn't get it," he recollects. "It seemed to be about a lot of twitty types for whom I had no sympathy. I was quite politicised, and it wasn't my sort of film. On the other hand, I'd been out of work for a long time and wasn't in any position to turn it down. Then it changed my life." And how.

Hannah only realised the extent of the transformation "the first time blokes started staring at me on the underground in Glasgow and didn't want to beat me up." Now he is, of course, one of our most in-demand actors, and has followed Four Weddings and a Funeral with several more worldwide box-office successes, including The Mummy, The Mummy Returns and Sliding Doors. He has also had his pick of special guest star roles on such hit US TV shows as Frasier and Alias. Meeting Hannah face to face, it's easy to see what casting directors - and audiences - have latched on to.

He has a rare twinkle about him, and a wry sense of humour about the business. He jokes, for example, that he is holding out for a huge pay cheque before committing to any further Mummy pictures: "Either the Mummy can eat some cheaper actors or the producer can pay several million dollars and bring all of us original cast-members back together again." But there's more to him than jokes: he also exudes an enigmatic, slightly troubled quality - evident when he played the tortured Wordsworth in Pandaemonium, the unsettled pathologist in McCallum, or the dipsomaniac copper in Rebus - that draws viewers in and makes them hungry to learn more about him.

We see that same disturbed demeanour in Hannah's latest offering, Amnesia, a two-part ITV1 thriller. He plays DS Mack Stone, a detective who goes off the rails, tormented by visions of the night that his wife disappeared in mysterious circumstances.

Hannah says he was lured by the ambiguity of the central character. "The great thing about growing up is realising that all those people who you thought had it sussed are in fact faking it," he says. "That duality is within us all. The black-and-white hats of bygone days aren't relevant anymore. The character the audience identifies with in Amnesia may have murdered his wife. That's a pretty interesting dilemma for viewers to grapple with." Hannah is also soon to be seen in the dual role of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde on ITV1, and as another corrupt doctor in the movie I Accuse. "I'm fascinated by the idea of juxtaposing two aspects of the same human being and putting them in contradiction with each other," he says. "It's the concept of the split personality - you may feel responsible for one facet of your character, but the other is out of control."

This chimes with Hannah's own world view. "I don't know who I am or what I'm supposed to do. I feel very fractured. People have expectations of who I'm supposed to be, but I'm actually someone very different from that. Those sorts of thoughts inspired me to do both Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde and Amnesia. You take a character whom you think is one thing, but whom you discover may be someone else entirely."

Acting wasn't always going to be Hannah's destiny. At the age of 16 he went straight from school into a four-year apprenticeship at the Scottish Electricity Board, but he soon grew to loathe it. A friend suggested that the naturally gregarious Hannah should take up acting.

He was soon enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama in Glasgow, where his contemporaries included Robert Carlyle. He then went on to work at both the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Theatre - where he met his wife, the actress Joanna Roth, in a production of Measure for Measure - before Four Weddings and a Funeral catapulted him into the major league.

And yet Hannah has not let his success go to his head. "Some people might think my work sounds exciting, but in the end it's just a job," he sighs. "A trip to Hollywood is a pain in the neck if you just want to be at home with your wife. And hotel life can easily get tiresome. You have to wash your pants in the shower and hang them over the rail - no way am I paying a hotel $5.99 to wash my underwear!

"After 15 weeks in a hotel, all I want is beans on toast - no more lobster thermidor, please! You know what I had for lunch at home yesterday? A fishfinger sandwich. It was fantastic!"

He's even keener to stay at home now that his wife has just given birth to twins; Hannah has signed himself off work for the next few months in order to be a hands-on father. The added bonus of fatherhood is that it keeps him out of the public gaze for a while. Hannah is aghast at the shallowness of the celebrity culture gripping the nation, and he derides the "stunt casting" to which so many commissioning editors fall victim.

"The obsession with celebrity is so vacuous. You can't construct any kind of life around something as ephemeral as fame. Some people go to premieres just to get their name in the papers. But you can't have any sense of self-worth if it is based entirely on how many column inches you got this morning. That approach makes me sick."

Isn't there a contradiction, then, in Hannah doing interviews such as this? He thinks not; for him, doing publicity is merely an inescapable element of the "fame tax". "I know that, as an actor, it is my responsibility to promote projects I'm involved with. That's part of the job."

There's just one thing that's bugging Hannah now. "I'm worried about becoming a baby bore." He waits a beat, before adding, with a grin: "They're worse than people who talk about soaps all the time..."

'Amnesia' starts on ITV1 at 9pm on Monday