Alive and shocking

Antony Sher master of disguise talks to Jasper Rees
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By the time you open this newspaper, Antony Sher will have been up for several hours. Like a cowman rising to milk his herd, he's setting the alarm for four in the morning at the moment, to work on a novel - his fourth. He's at the obsessive first-draft stage where the book's the boss, commanding its author to empty the words swilling in his head on to hard disk. When we met in the early evening in an Islington wine bar, Sher had been milking his imagination for 14 hours.

Tomorrow there's a break in the schedule. He and his partner Gregory Doran are in Hay-on-Wye to read from Woza Shakespeare!, the book they wrote about mounting Titus Andronicus in Sher's native South Africa, then bringing it to England. It has a page-turning inter-continental plot, but what makes it stand out from the genre is the book's domestic intimacy: Doran and Sher have lived together for 10 years - no theatrical couple is further out of the closet - but this was their first professional collaboration. Director and star got along just fine, but husband and wife hadn't worked out how to leave the job at the office. One hilarious flying crockery scene narrated by Doran segues into Sher's account of contritely combing the lawn for shards of china. "That goes down very well with an audience," he says.

Clearly they came through it intact, because they're going to do Cyrano de Bergerac for the RSC later this year. Hence Sher's latest beard (Sher and Doran are also theatre's most facially hairy couple). This time they've agreed not to talk shop outside work. "It was really daft to be working in that kind of an intensity and then take it home. It's not like a blanket rule that you can't breathe a word about it but we'll really be quite strict about it. I think it's important.''

Of course, if he weren't in Hay, Sher would have no excuse not to be in Manhattan. Tomorrow night they dish out the Tony awards, New York's Oliviers, and he has been nominated as best actor for his performance as Stanley Spencer. The Tonys will be almost indistinguishable from a British awards ceremony, because Broadway seems to be importing most of its decent theatre from here these days. Sher is up against Michael Gambon, whose Fool he once played in King Lear. But he won't be there. "Luckily,'' he says. Why luckily? "I find all that very difficult. I don't know how people cope with it, and I don't cope with it. I missed the Oliviers [where he won best actor for Stanley] because we were in New York and felt very pleased about missing them."

The other thing Sher may be pleased about is the film career he may finally be on the verge of enjoying. For 15 years, he has been perhaps the most consistently thrilling actor on the British stage, its most daring Shakespearean (although actually he's only played four of the Bard's roles: the Fool, Richard III, Shylock and Titus). But nobody has successfully harnessed his box-office appeal to the screen. There was a very weird low-budget thing called Shadey about a man who performs a sex-change operation on himself. He's been in a couple of silly capers by Terry Jones - Erik the Viking and last year's fairly dreadful The Wind in the Willows. But now he's in Mrs Brown, the new film about Queen Victoria's relationship with her kilted below-stairs confidant, which has just been well received at Cannes. He plays Disraeli (another Jewish novelist). And then there's the film Alive and Kicking, in which Sher takes a plum role as an Aids counsellor who has an affair with a ballet dancer diagnosed as HIV-positive. It opens next week.

It's not hard to theorise about Sher's failure to break into film. His own guarded suggestion is that he's "fairly busy all the time with long commitments at the National and the RSC". And the writing career has been increasingly time-consuming. "I would never do what some actors do, which is sit out of work and wait for something to drop from the sky." There's more to it than mere availability, though. Sher's acting style is so volatile, so expansive, so technically adapted for the theatrical space that the camera struggles to contain it. In much of his screen work, like his recent performance as Sergeant Cuff in The Moonstone for the BBC, you get the oddity of a Jewish actor playing ham.

But there's still more to it. His first significant role on television was as the voraciously heterosexual Howard Kirk in Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. That was in 1980, ancient history in television terms but remembered for the nudity it pioneeringly crammed on to the screen. The women were all undressed by Sher's Lothario. "Would I be cast in that role today, one wonders? Probably not.''

Sher came out in 1989 at the same time as Characters, a book of his portraits and sketches."That was the point where it was absurd to not be out, because there were so many pictures in the book of Jim, the guy I lived with at the time before Greg. People said, `If you come out publicly you don't get to go to Hollywood' and I said, `Well then you don't.' It had been so uncomfortable beforehand: you'd have come to interview me for Torch Song Trilogy [in which he played a transvestite nightclub singer] and would have been told `He doesn't talk about his private life'. This is completely the opposite. Alive and Kicking - I'm proud of that film, and we'll talk about why.''

There's a homiletic element to Martin Sherman's script which seeks to be positive about HIV. Keep on dancing, it shouts. At the start of the film a ravishing and gloriously camp dancer called Tonio buries his (equally beautiful) lover. In full health, he wouldn't have gone for Jack, Sher's paunchy, much older, almost alcoholic counsellor, but the virus makes him less picky, and more inclined to monogamy. "It's very important to see that he can still have a very active sex life,'' says Sher. What flows from that is perhaps the frankest depiction of homosexual love-making yet filmed. Anyone curious to know what a great classical actor looks like naked with his knees behind his ears need wonder no more. It looks quite a brave thing to put yourself through."It was incredibly brave of me!'' So brave that you can hear the exclamation mark in his otherwise diffident interview voice. "I find that kind of stuff very difficult. The combined terror of that day, with Jason [Flemyng, who plays Tonio] being straight and having to play a gay love scene and me just being extremely unhappy about doing a nude love scene anyway. It's going beyond the normal call of actorly duty. We were both very relieved when the day was over.''

While it is simplistic to assume that most homosexual actors have lost friends to Aids, it does come as a surprise that Sher has "been very spared of that so far''. He's militant on gay rights, so missionary that, uniquely, he talks much less defensively about his private life than his work. He is always going on marches and generally combating the prejudice that persists even within a largely liberal profession. When the late Derek Jarman harangued Ian McKellen for accepting a knighthood from a homophobic government, Sherman and Sher wrote a letter to the Guardian in support of McKellen. "We needed signatures from prominent people in the arts who were gay but we had great difficulty getting women, lesbians, to sign. I spoke to several who said, `We simply can't be out because it's harder to get jobs for actresses than for actors and so you can't put our names down.' And you have to respect that, but it's frustrating because if they could have put their names on the list, the situation starts changing like it's changing in American TV land.'' And yet he knows exactly how they feel, because if he'd been asked to sign a similar letter 10 years ago, "I would probably have said no.''

Antony Sher was born in Cape Town in 1949. He is of Lithuanian Jewish stock, from a family with not an artistic cell in its veins. His late father was in business (exporting hides), as are his two brothers and sister. He first knew he was homosexual at four, the same age he started painting. In the shadow of Table Mountain, those two preferences practically amounted to the same thing. There is a hint of envy at his birthplace's mutation into "the San Francisco of Africa. It's so gay it's unbelievable.'' He was a reticent child, and was sent to elocution class (nobody dared call it acting class) "to draw me out of myself. I was so withdrawn everyone was starting to get worried that they had this peculiar person on their hands.'' By the time he was 18, his parents were researching drama courses in London.

"They found that Central School was the top school at the time and, naively, they found digs for me at Swiss Cottage before we left and then we did the audition and it was all over in 10 minutes. They had different grades of letters. Mine was the worst you could get because it said, `Absolutely find another profession.' And then the problems began. My parents found me somewhere else but then they had to go back and I wasn't in a drama school at the time and then it all became quite scary. London is quite a frightening place if you don't know anybody. I was very alone. I went to the theatre a lot.''

After six months he got into Webber-Douglas, then went on to Manchester to do a postgraduate course where he made the curious decision to marry. "Never mind about coming out publicly. The very first stage is coming out to yourself, and that was something I, like most people I guess, struggled with a lot and kept telling myself this is just a phase.'' His own sister took a longer stroll down an identical route, coming out after a 25-year marriage. Sher - another exclamation mark - found this "astonishing!''. And delightful, "because we clashed as kids, we didn't get on, and in this recent development, she and I have become very close.'' Sher and Doran return to South Africa frequently, though after playing to quarter- full houses at the Market Theatre in Titus, it's unlikely they'll work there again soon.

Sher's professional connection with his homeland is confined to fiction. He was encouraged to write the first by Andrew Motion, who had edited Year of the King, Sher's diary of playing Richard III as an Kafkaesque arachnid, and "said there was something in the style of it that suggested a novel and would I like to try.'' His three novels all have a South African theme (although in Middlepost he presumably based his young Lithuanian Jewish hero's lonely introduction to Cape Town on his equivalent arrival in London). He'll also admit to an African theme for the novel that's getting him up at four. There will be no fiction, one suspects, springing from the comfort of his adoptive Islington. "You've got to write what you feel strongly about. It's where my heart is, I guess.''

It doesn't take much expertise in cod psychology to see why Sher has played so many outsiders - starting, you could argue, with his West End debut as Ringo in a Willy Russell play about the Beatles ("my first false nose''). In adulthood, it took him as much effort to own up to his nationality - he purgatorially destroyed his old South African passport - as his sexuality. His first act on entering drama school was to suppress his accent, so that he now speaks with a faint nasal blockage that hints at something underneath fighting to get out. And he encouraged an obsession with losing himself inside his own virtuosity. He has an extraordinarily malleable appearance: the only constants are his height (smallish) and teeth (babyish), but he has no trouble looking young, old, tubby, thin, ordinary, insane.

"I began by just being very interested in disguise on stage. That was a very important thing, that I was kind of hidden. I discovered I could be other people. I still like that idea, but now I'm more interested in the other side of it. In something like Stanley, people said I look like him; well fine, but I was much more interested, and am now, in what's inside these people. I think it started with things that were personally very important to me, with Torch Song Trilogy, Merchant of Venice. You know, Richard III is not personally important to me. Alive and Kicking was very refreshing in that there was almost no disguise at all. The guy was very close to me. No strange voice, the look - I sometimes could have that look. It's good for me to prove to myself that I can do that. A lot of my life has been about taking away those disguises.''