Peter Capaldi: 'People ask me to tell them to #@*! off'

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After playing everyone’s favourite foul-mouthed spin doctor in The Thick of It, Peter Capaldi was surely destined for Hollywood. But as the actor tells Gerard Gilbert, he’s no Hugh Laurie...

Damn and blast Twitter. I had been hoping to be the bearer of good tidings – that The Thick of It, supposedly dead and buried with New Labour, is set to return. Instead, the show's creator, Armando Iannucci, has already Tweeted his followers that: "Work begins on scripts next month". I had heard the happy news from the man without whom The Thick of It would merely be a very funny political satire instead of the second greatest British sitcom of the Noughties (after Peep Show; discuss) – Malcolm Tucker himself, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi.

"Well, that's kind of you to say," says Capaldi, referring to his role in its greatness, when we meet high above a beautiful spring morning in London, in ITV's South Bank offices. I had been told that the interview might not take place because of a "family tragedy", the nature of which I had absolutely no intention of prying into, but he seems relaxed and in good humour. "The show's back for 2012 for the Olympics," he says. "We've already got Roger Allam, who's our Conservative minister, and we have Jo Scanlan, who plays the civil servant, so there'll still be a team that the audience is familiar with. But there will also be new Liberal Democratic elements, so I was very surprised that they asked me back, because I'm not very sure what role I will have."

But then The Thick of It without Malcolm Tucker would be like The Office without David Brent. A spin doctor whose inventive use of bad language (the show famously has a "swearing consultant") has given birth to a rich back-catalogue of filthy and very funny "Tuckerisms", including the following random (and printable) sample from the most recent series: (talking of a minister) "He's so dense, light bends around him", (of another MP who has just turned down the Northern Ireland Office) "Do you know that 90 per cent of house dust is made of dead human skin? That's what you are to me", as well as the horribly funny "I'll be with you in two shakes of a crying baby".

But I'm glad for more reasons than my own selfish enjoyment that The Thick of It is set to return, because frankly I was starting to get a little worried about Capaldi. He has form, you see. His career has been a succession of peaks and troughs, the high points including being plucked from obscurity in his mid-twenties to play opposite Burt Lancaster in the 1983 film Local Hero, and, 12 years later, winning an Oscar for Best Short Film, his self-penned Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life. And now I was concerned that he wasn't capitalising on the success of The Thick of It and its movie spin-off In the Loop, doubts that emerged at Christmas when I noticed him riding a camel in BBC1's Nativity. He's been over to America several times since In the Loop opened there to critical acclaim, but says: "My problem is that there's something in my character... I think it's just laziness.

"At the moment everybody wants you to go [to America] and do the pilot season – they keep saying, 'Don't you want to be Hugh Laurie?'. I mean I love Hugh Laurie but I don't want to be a guy who goes to work every day for nine months of the year in a corner of Burbank. I really don't. I like doing a bit here and a bit there and strange things, and I think that's held me back."

One of those "bits" is the reason we're meeting – to promote his role in a new ITV period drama, The Suspicions of Mr Whicher, a rather superior Victorian whodunit adapted from Kate Summerscale's novel – but it's not even as if he has the lead role (Paddy Considine plays the eponymous Mr Whicher). Capaldi plays, instead, the father of the prime suspect. "I originally thought it's not my kind of thing. This is a Sunday evening... ITV... chocolate-boxy Victorian thing, but then the director spoke to me about how he wanted to do it, which was much bleaker. And Paddy was in it as well and that signals a certain thing about it".

And frankly it's nice for Capaldi to be able to pick and choose roles, for as recently as 2005, when The Thick of It came along, he was on the verge of packing it all in. "What I've learnt being an actor is that you've got to be lucky. I got less lucky and nobody was interested. If a part came up it would be for the main corpse's friend's brother who was having problems with his marriage. Two scenes. You'd have to go up for that and then you wouldn't get it and then you'd just feel like shit.

"I suddenly got flickers of interest for two jobs and one of them was Armando's. I was called in to read for the BBC in the morning, for a part I could do standing on my head and I know I'm not going to get this part, so by the time I met Armando two hours later I'd had enough of the whole thing."

Capaldi says his heart sank when Iannucci announced that he wanted to improvise a scene. "I hated improvisation because in my early days as an actor, improvisation meant somebody had just come down from Oxford and they were doing a play above a pub in Kentish Town and the biggest ego would win. But with Malcolm Tucker, I don't quite know why, but I could feel a little click where I knew how to do this."

Perhaps the most surprising aspect of this audition was that Capaldi and Iannucci had not met earlier. Despite their age difference (Capaldi is 53, while Iannucci is 47) they not only share the same Scottish-Italian upbringing, but also hail from the same tenement blocks of the Springburn area of Glasgow. "I'm amazed that my mother never mentioned it to me before," says Capaldi. "I said to her that I'm working with Armando Iannucci and she said, 'Oh, I know Armando... he built the little cupboard we had in our scullery'. And of course she was talking about Armando's father who was also called Armando. He did a bit of joinery and stuff."

Classically for his heritage, Capaldi's parents were in the ice-cream business. "We had a café that was at the bottom of the tenement that we lived in," he says. "My childhood growing up in that part of Glasgow always sounds like some kind of sub-Catherine Cookson novel of earthy working-class immigrant life, which to some extent it was, but it wasn't really as colourful that."

His parents moved the family – including an older brother and a younger sister – to suburbia, "a Wimpy house in Bishopbriggs", where Capaldi's skill at drawing eventually led to a place at the Glasgow School of Art, his peers including the future official war artist, Peter Howson.

"It was 1976 and punk was just exploding," he says about forming a band called The Dreamboys. "The worst name for any band ever – especially a punk band. We were originally called The Bastards From Hell. The trouble was, we were always much more interested in being funny than being serious" – hardly surprising, with Craig Ferguson, the future stand-up turned US talk-show host, on drums. "We were the only band John Peel never gave a session to in Glasgow."

They did, however, support Gary Glitter one night after the real support band dropped out. But Capaldi's interest in music and art was about to be eclipsed when, returning home drunk one night from the pub, he found the Gregory's Girl film director Bill Forsyth chatting to his landlady, a costume designer. "I think I just riffed for half an hour and somewhere along the line he said, 'I'm going to get that person in my film', but I didn't know it was going to be a proper film."

Local Hero was a proper film with a proper big Hollywood movie star, Burt Lancaster, playing a Texan oil tycoon with designs on a Scottish fishing village. Its Ealing-esque charm helped turn Local Hero into a global hit, and encouraged Capaldi to seek his fortune in London. "I didn't have an agent... the world of acting was very alien. The sense I got was that everything about me was wrong: I spoke wrong, I walked wrong, I didn't have any training, so my task was to rub myself out and begin again.

"If I'd been wise I would have gone straight to America where people still to this day recognise me in the street, but then there's every chance that nothing would have happened. I'd have become an alcoholic Scotsman living bitterly in San Diego with pictures of me and Burt Lancaster on the wall of my trattoria that nobody comes to."

This last comic riff is typical of Capaldi, a colourful and naturally amusing speaker who bafflingly claims he rarely does interviews because he never knows what to say. But back to London in the mid-1980s, where our clueless ingénu finally lands a job at the Young Vic. "I absolutely loved it. I was starting to learn about acting, and gradually I was getting bits and pieces of telly – Crown Court and Minder. Times were different then. Nowadays, kids... young actors... they go straight to LA before they've even done anything."

It was around this time that Capaldi says he started becoming chippy about not being English. "It was clear that people would have preferred me to be Daniel Day Lewis," he says. "I just kept thinking there is no market for me, so I would become this other thing... a young, English, middle-class man. But that didn't work either, because there's plenty of those.

"For a long time I carried this... it's not resentment, it's fear. It was a fear of not being good enough, not being Daniel, or not being Hugh Grant or not being Colin Firth. It took me years to realise it was me bringing that stuff to the table – that when I would get into a situation if I was working with people, I'd blame them. Once I realised that it was a great eye-opener." When did that happen? "Probably not until I was about 40."

In frustration, Capaldi decided to write and direct his own short film, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, incredibly winning an Oscar for it. "That was very confusing for me and a lot of people because I won it as an actor who was having a go at directing. Luckily, I had another script, over which a bidding war exploded. That's why I've got a house in Crouch End and I'll always be grateful to Miramax for buying it.

"I thought I was going to be Ridley Scott now, or Steven Spielberg, and I flew over to New York to set up production and then they said they're not going to do it. It was over. I had to work because I'd spent all my money – on the house – and I remember the Oscars after the Oscar I won, I was standing in mud in a field in Rickmansworth directing a dog food commercial."

Capaldi shares that house in Crouch End with his wife, Elaine, an actor-turned-TV producer, and their 18-year-old daughter, Cissie. But the familiar pattern was reasserting itself, with a big break followed by Capaldi's seeming inability, or unwillingness, to capitalise on it. After The Thick of It, it seems unlikely that Capaldi will again fall into the slough of despond in which Iannucci found him in 2005. He may remain a "jobbing actor" (his words), but the jobs will be bigger, the auditions less humiliating. "It definitely changed the way people in the business perceived me," he says. And playing Malcolm Tucker changed the way viewers perceive him, too. He played a doctor recently in the Jo Brand hospital sitcom, Getting On (which he also directed) and he brought a reptilian menace to the role that has a lot to do with the baggage he now carries from Malcolm Tucker. This new persona has even affected the general public.

"Instead of asking for autographs, people ask me to tell them to 'Fuck off' ... sometimes I mean it," he says. "I saw a thing with Alastair Campbell the other day where he said exactly the same thing and I thought, hey, that's my line..."

Has he ever met Campbell? "Once, when Channel 4 thought it'd be funny to place us next to each other for a dinner. I'd always avoided him because I'd feared he'd be very charming, which he was, but it was very interesting and it did actually affect the way I played the part. Not that anybody ever said to me that Tucker was Alastair Campbell. We spoke as much about Peter Mandelson, or Bernard Ingham, but gradually the dynamic of the show begins to create its own character."

Tucker is a great comedy creation, and Capaldi is acutely aware that such characters don't grow on trees. "Maybe it's because I've been an actor for such a long time, but I think, unless you're a big star, you don't really have much control over anything. I've never been able to make any plans. The only time I've tried to make plans the cosmic sledgehammer has intervened and something else has happened. You just have to wait and see what comes your way, so that's what I do".

'The Suspicions of Mr Whicher', ITV1, Easter Monday

Peter Capaldi: a life on screen

1958 Born in Glasgow, to Scottish-Italian parents who run an ice-cream business

1976 Forms a punk band, The Dreamboys, with Craig Ferguson (now a comedian) on drums

1983 At 23, is spotted by director Bill Forsyth and cast with Burt Lancaster in Local Hero

1988 Having moved to London to work as a jobbing actor, he appears in Stephen Frears' Dangerous Liaisons

1993 Writes and stars in his first film, Soft Top Hard Shoulder

1995 The next film he writes, Franz Kafka's It's a Wonderful Life, starring Richard E Grant, wins an Oscar for Best Short Film. Off the back of this success, his script Moon Man is bought by Miramax. It never gets made

2001 His next film, Strictly Sinatra, flops at the box office and he returns to acting, with roles in Fortysomething, Judge John Deed and Foyle's War

2005 Finds fame playing a spin doctor in the TV series The Thick of It, Armando Iannucci's acclaimed political satire

2009 Stars in In The Loop, a big-screen spin-off that gets a screenplay Oscar nomination

2011 Directs Jo Brand's BBC hospital drama Getting On; appears in ITV's The Suspicions of Mr Whicher

By Holly Williams

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