Rory Kinnear is lucky to be alive. Around a decade ago, while filming the BBC period drama Women in Love, the actor had a close brush with death. “I’m not a natural Ray Mears,” he says, shaking his head. “We were near a hunting lodge in the middle of the desert in Namibia. There was a little pool with fauna around it and I was stood in my 1920s riding outfit. I don’t know what necessarily led me to do it but there was some ooze” – he stretches out the “oo” playfully – “coming out of a cactus, and I decided to put it on my finger and smell it.” Satisfied he knew what the ooze smelled like, he rubbed his finger dry on his clothes and, 45 minutes later, scratched his eye with the same finger. Over the next hour, his body started to “slowly shut down”.
The production went into panic mode. Someone claimed the ooze was what the bushmen used to poison their arrowheads when they went hunting. Another said a group of German tourists had once used the very same cactus as kindling for their barbecue, and they had all later died. Kinnear was given a “very elderly antihistamine” by his co-star Rachael Stirling, thrown into a car and taken at high speed to a hospital 50 miles away, where he made a full recovery. “I laugh about it now,” the 43-year-old says over Zoom from LA, where he’s filming a pirate comedy with Taika Waititi. “But then the next day I got attacked by some birds and I thought, maybe I’m not cut out for the adventurous life. Just keep me in the theatre.”
Kinnear is certainly more comfortable on the boards than in the sand. He has won two Olivier Awards, one for portraying Sir Fopling Flutter in a 2008 version of Restoration-era comedy The Man of Mode, and another for his turn as Shakespeare’s villain Iago in Othello at the National Theatre in 2014. Critics fell over themselves praising Kinnear for his Hamlet in 2010, a role played by so many actors before but to which he managed to bring new levels of humanity, humour and hurt. He is one of the most familiar faces in British drama – well, you would be after appearing in more than 70 television series and films. He was Bafta-nominated for his portrayal of an all-at-sea journalist in the haunting, beautiful drama Southcliffe, and has won acclaim in Black Mirror and Years and Years. He’s also been in a little-known film franchise called James Bond for the past 13 years.
People love Kinnear for his perceived ordinariness. Gentle and unassuming, he conveys the widest ranges of human emotions and behaviour in a straightforward and yet extremely compelling way – from stinging shame in dystopian anthology series Black Mirror (more on that later) to vainglorious silliness in Victorian satire Quacks. In a 2013 interview, a Telegraph journalist introduced him thus: “Some actors walk into a room and transform it with their ego or beauty, but Rory Kinnear arrives for our interview with the artlessness of a middle manager who is running a little late for a meeting about logistics.”
I think this is a bit harsh, but I read it out to Kinnear and by the time I get to the word “beauty”, his head is in his hands. He’s laughing. “What do you want from me, Ellie? My tears?” he cries. “I’ll give you my tears.” It seems as if he recognises the quote? “I couldn’t say I knew it verbatim, but it wouldn’t be the first interview that has described me as bleakly as that,” he says. “Luckily, I’m reasonably thick-skinned.”
With mock-indignation, he continues: “What I would like to say is that when I’m walking into an interview I’m actually trying to throw them off the scent by being as boring as possible, hiding my electric personality so that I’m not giving them too much!” He is shouting now. “Particularly if it’s The Telegraph!” He says that his ordinariness also helps him to convincingly morph into different characters. “I’ve said it enough about myself, my plainness is potent. Professional potent plainness!” he yells.
Kinnear is funny. Humour is in his blood, after all. His mother is the actor Carmel Cryan and his father was the comedy actor Roy Kinnear, who died in 1988 when Rory was 10, after falling from a horse during the filming of The Return of the Musketeers in Spain. He grew up with his parents and two older sisters in Twickenham, attending St Paul’s school and then Oxford University, before training at London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. But we are here to discuss Ridley Road, in which Kinnear has the opposite sort of role. He stars in the new BBC drama as Colin Jordan, the leader of the National Socialist Movement in the Sixties. Seventeen years after the end of the Second World War, on Hitler’s birthday, the far-right, neo-Nazi group established its headquarters in London.
The show’s opening scene is shocking. What appears to be a sweet family moment – sun beaming through a bedroom window, a loving mother tickling her son, daddy walking in the door – turns dark when they greet each other with the Nazi salute. “It’s startling,” agrees Kinnear. “That sense of it being a domestic and tender gesture rather than something hate-filled.”
Kinnear’s Jordan is an unsettling mixture of pathetic and predatory. He is easily flattered and duped by potential love interests, and yet genuinely frightening at times. “Far-right figureheads,” the actor says, “are small men who are seduced by the power and the authority that they weren’t afforded as kids. Growing up, they were impotent socially and now they are able to use that invisibility to say, ‘I don’t care what people think of me, so I’m going to use that as a superpower now… and not worry about getting booed or egged.’”
Access unlimited streaming of movies and TV shows with Amazon Prime Video Sign up now for a 30-day free trialSign up
In one of his fascist speeches, Jordan calls the immigration of Jewish people “the purge of the white man”, and urges Britons to “take back our country” – a slogan horribly close to the Brexit campaign’s “take back control”.
“Nothing about the views espoused by the far-right now are any different to the Sixties,” says Kinnear. “There’s been a shift in the way the message is put out there and amplified, but the central message is unchanged. What I hope this series might do is reduce the shock factor that the far-right play on today. That sense of being able to say the unsayable. If you show that it’s been said for 60 years already, it might make people think, ‘Oh well, that’s more boring than I thought it was.’ Part of the show is also saying you do need people to challenge it for it to fail, and not just rely on the cycles of history. As America saw, you do have to resist. It didn’t come too far away from democracy not holding up.”
Just as Ridley Road uses the past to encourage us to reflect on modern society, Kinnear’s other hit dramas Years and Years and Black Mirror used the future. Kinnear starred in the first ever episode of the latter, titled “The National Anthem”, in 2011. He played the fictional prime minister who is forced to have sex with a pig on live television as ransom after a member of the royal family is kidnapped. “When I read it I thought it was one of the best things I’d read up to that point,” says Kinnear. “I was incredibly excited about doing it.”
What was it like, simulating intercourse with a pig? “There was a moment where I was meant to just reach for my belt and that would be the end of the scene, but no one said cut, so I just kept on going until I touched the pig,” he says. (I can’t bring myself to ask, with what?) “I said, I’m not doing anything, this is as far as I’m going to go,’” he continues. “The rest of the time I was trying not to laugh. Maybe that reveals my own warped sense of humour.”
The episode aired years before rumours surfaced that David Cameron had placed a “private part of his anatomy” into a dead pig’s head as an initiation rite at university, an allegation the then-prime minister denied. “When I saw that, I thought how happy that was going to make Charlie [Brooker, the Black Mirror creator],” says Kinnear. “We did speak about it. I’m also pretty sure Charlie’s episode led to that rumour rather than it being a real story.”
By the time Kinnear starred in Black Mirror, he had already been in two Bond films, Casino Royale and Quantum of Solace. He has since gone on to appear in Skyfall, Spectre and Daniel Craig’s last outing as the spy, No Time to Die. Kinnear plays Tanner, the flunky to Judi Dench’s head of MI6, M. Dench’s late husband, the actor Michael Williams, was Kinnear’s godfather, so he’s known Dench his whole life. “On the first film we went to Panama for eight days,” he says, “and she worked for about three hours and I worked for about eight minutes. The rest of the time was spent playing Scrabble. But I couldn’t possibly tell you how many times I beat her. I’m too much of a gentleman.”
Kinnear also passed the downtime testing Dench on how many lines she could recall from plays she’d starred in. He was flabbergasted by her ability to reel them off. He can’t remember lines from any of his roles, including No Time to Die. “Well, we did make it 13-and-a-half years ago,” he quips.
Kinnear is vague when I ask about what he makes of the discourse surrounding the future of Bond, about it being a woman, about us having a Black 007. Having been open and amusing throughout the rest of the interview, he veers into PR-approved spiel. “As a franchise it tends to keep changing and progressing,” he says. “It’s always been white men thus far but I think Barbara [Broccoli, Bond producer] has a very strong instinct for audiences’ appetites. I have no idea what the decision will be. It’s interesting to see how much people do seem to consider it [the franchise] an important factor in cultural life.”
Acting aside, Kinnear is a wonderful writer. Last May, his sister Karina died of coronavirus and he has since written several pieces about the loss of his sibling, who had cerebral palsy. In one piece published last December, he movingly wrote: “I have always thought of the agony of grief as the love for that person not knowing where to put itself.” Kinnear says he was appealing for a greater understanding for the need of social care, “particularly in those first six months of the pandemic, when people who had been othered for their whole life for their medical conditions were then being othered to death”.
Karina had been told she had a life expectancy of 19, but she lived to the age of 48, in part thanks to Kinnear’s mother who raised money in 2000 to convert a bungalow in Strawberry Hill into a care home for severely disabled young adults. It was named Roy Kinnear House in tribute to Kinnear’s father. Karina lived there for 20 years until her death.
“I felt an incipient sense of anger before my sister got ill,” says Kinnear, “knowing that she was amongst the most vulnerable people in the country.” It was difficult, he says, “seeing a daily report suggesting that you don’t need to worry because it’s only people who lived on the edge anyway who were likely to die sooner. There was the implication that their deaths somehow mattered less. When Karina did catch it, we knew within days that it was going to prove fatal.”
Kinnear was at a complete loss of what to do, and he says the only thing he felt he could do was write. “I was very aware of the privilege of having a name that meant people might be interested in publishing it,” he says. “It also gave me and my family the sense that her death didn’t go quietly or unmarked.” He smiles hopefully, scratching his stubble. “And the lives of people who are still living in fear and worry, they won’t go unmarked either.”
Kinnear has also tried his hand at scriptwriting. His 2013 play The Herd, which ran at London’s Bush Theatre, was praised for its astute take on family friction. Soon, he will be back in the dressing room, starring in the new stage adaptation of Ruben Ostlund’s Swedish black comedy Force Majeure. And then there’s Waititi’s TV series Our Flag Means Death, in which he plays an 18th-century pirate. “It’s been very different to Ridley Road,” he says. “I get to be a silly billy.” I get the impression that suits him very well.
Ridley Road begins on Sunday 3 October at 9pm on BBC One
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies