Simon Russell Beale: King Luvvy pauses... for Pinter

Our greatest living stage actor is a Shakespeare specialist, but he's made an exception just so he can throw whisky in someone's face, twice. Nick Duerden meets Simon Russell Beale

You do not go to meet Simon Russell Beale without the accompaniment of a certain musical fanfare. It's not audible, this fanfare, you can't hear it in the air around you, but it's nevertheless present, subliminally, a kind of drum roll followed by trumpets that culminate, so you imagine, in a climactic ta-da! This is largely because he is routinely, if not mandatorily these days, proclaimed as our greatest living stage actor, the finest theatrical presence since Olivier. You expect him in the flesh, then, to live up to such billing with a certain grandiosity, King Luvvy in an environment already overpopulated with them.

But no, no trumpets, not today at least. When I walk into this airy Hampstead rehearsal space, where he is currently preparing for a revival of Harold Pinter's The Hothouse alongside John Simm, there is only some mellifluous piano. And this isn't merely in my head, either; it's actually provided by the man himself. There he is, in a corner of the room, playing something by Chopin, and he seems to be making a decent fist of it. But he stops abruptly now, turns around and smiles sweetly up at me. From this vantage point, there is nothing grandiose about him at all. He stands, to reveal a smallish and stocky frame, and radiates an instant unaffectedness, and all-round affability. As we relocate to a smaller room for our interview, he doesn't stop chatting. And when he asks me questions, he actually listens to the answers.

He tells me that ever since he turned 50 (he is now 52), he has been trying to revive his old passion to play the piano. "I'm taking lessons. It's a middle-aged thing, I suppose, but suddenly I want to get back to music again. You know what I would really love to do? I'd love to do a music degree. That," he sighs, "would be wonderful."

A few short months ago, Beale was staring down the barrel of what he felt was long-term unemployment. "Well, a good eight months at least." He was coming to the end of his run in the musical Privates on Parade at London's Noel Coward Theatre, and had no further bookings until November 2013, when he steps into the title role of Sam Mendes's King Lear at the National. Couldn't he, I wonder, have taken a little time off? Even workaholics need to relax from time to time.

He looks aghast, then laughs. "Theatre pays pretty well, but it doesn't pay that kind of money, I'm afraid." He suggests he could have lasted perhaps a couple of months without paying work, "before things got a little tight …."

Anyway, in the end, he was saved from temporary straits when he was offered the lead in The Hothouse, an early Pinter effort (1958) that revolves around the enigmatic, if not downright sinister, workings of an unspecified convalescent home. Beale, cast as the home's manager, wasn't familiar with the play and, when he read it for the first time, he came away confused.

"It's very puzzling," he says, running a hand through his neat silvery grey hair, before patting it back in place again. "I'm not an expert on Pinter. Are you? What I do know about him is that there is always a non-specific threat lurking, some unspecified aggression. That, to me, is the essence of Pinter. It's up to you, the actor, to decide what could trigger that aggression. Otherwise, it all becomes rather confusing."

He tells me he accepted the part not because of all the Pinteresque enigma, but because of one standout scene. "My character has to chuck a glass of whisky in somebody's face, and then do it again! I thought that was fantastic, and so exciting." That, he adds, and the fact that the play is also often uproariously funny. "Oh, it is, tremendously. I was at my sister's house at the weekend, with her three children. They range in age from 15 to 21, and they got me to do a read-through. They laughed and laughed, which I have to say was very gratifying. Relieving, too."

Simon Russell Beale was born in Malaysia in 1961, and spent his formative years trailing his Army doctor father on successive postings around the Far East before settling back in the UK. The oldest of five children, he would never follow in paternal footsteps, though his twin brothers, both now consultant radiologists, did. At school, he gravitated towards English literature, and went on to get a first at Cambridge, before transferring to the Guildhall to study music.

"Music was always something I just did, but I was never going to be a great opera singer," he says now. "I did find myself increasingly drawn to drama, however. I wanted to act."

He spent much of the 1980s at the Royal Shakespeare Company, where, he says, he was its "resident poof", and he has been a fixture of the stage ever since. If it's a mystery to some why he never made the leap from stage to screen, as so many of his peers have, to him it isn't.

"The reason was Shakespeare. I'm a bit of an anorak on him. I can sit with literary academics and bore the tits off them on anything to do with the man, and I love performing him."

He has done, consequently, an awful lot of the Bard – Othello, Julius Caesar, Much Ado..., loads more – and is a loyal defender of everything he ever wrote. "Even The Taming of the Shrew, which I think is a load of rubbish – even that would be enjoyable to do, I think."

The way he tells it, Beale's life revolves so much around the stage that it leaves precious little room for anything else. It is perhaps for this reason that he lives alone. "It isn't a particular issue in my life; a lot of my friends live alone. I suppose I used to be less happy about it, but I'm fine now. And, to be honest with you, the idea of sharing my life with someone at this point would probably terrify me. Old habits, you know."

He says that he is famous for always turning up for work several hours before anybody else, not because of an obsessive streak, particularly, but simply because he needs to get out of the house and into his "office". Which is presumably why he is here for rehearsals today at 11 o'clock in the morning, when the rest of the cast aren't due to arrive for several hours yet.

"I keep myself busy," he says. "I play the piano, I have a nap; time passes."

When he is not on stage, he's often in the audience at other theatres. Invariably, much of what he sees is Shakespeare, though he did recently go to see A Chorus Line, and loved it. Everyone always wants to know what it's like for him, someone who has repeatedly played Hamlet and Othello, to see other actors trying to breathe their own life into the parts.

"I tend not to get possessive about roles," he says, "though I admit I did feel a little proprietorial when I saw Ewan McGregor as Iago at the Donmar last year."

He rarely goes to the cinema, and doesn't bother with television. It is for this last reason that he wasn't overfamiliar with the work of his Hothouse co-star John Simm. "I had to confess I'd never seen him in Doctor Who or The Village or … what's the other one?" "Life on Mars?" "That's the one. But I have to say, he is a terrific stage actor."

So what does he do for downtime, away from the theatre?

He leans forward now, and his eyes come vividly alive. "Oh, I do love a good box set," he says. "When I finished Privates on Parade last year, I had a little time on my hands, and I finally got to see all the Scandinavian stuff – The Killing, Borgen – which I loved, and now I find myself completely obsessed with The West Wing. I'm getting up at six o'clock every morning just to squeeze in another half-hour of it before the day starts. It's wonderful stuff. Have you seen it?"

'The Hothouse' is at Trafalgar Studios, London, from 4 May

Curriculum vitae

12 January 1961 Born in Penang, Malaysia

1975 Gives his first Shakespeare performance, in a school play, taking the role of Desdemona in Othello. He is 14.

1983 Graduates from the Guildhall School of Music and Drama.

Late 1980s Makes his name as a camp, comic actor in Royal Shakespeare Company productions. It is here, at the RSC, that he becomes friends with the future James Bond director Sam Mendes.

2003 Wins an Olivier Award for his role in Chekhov's Uncle Vanya.

2008 Makes his debut as a television presenter on the BBC4 series Sacred Music, a documentary about Western church music.

2013 Opens in The Hothouse alongside John Simm, and prepares for Mendes's King Lear at the National in November.