It’s a little awkward, standing nose to nose with strangers. Here, inside a lift the size of a train loo, are two young actresses, a PR man, one actor on the brink of proper stardom (Rory Kinnear) and me, all inching down through the body of the bustling, gossipy National Theatre. We’ve been silent for two floors and there’s a hint of desperation in the air, so Rory, being a pro, steps into the breach. ‘Did you hear about the reading they sent me to last week?’ he asks. PR man says no. ‘I was told to bring along my favourite book to read a chapter to an audience, but when I got there all I could see were children. There was literally no one over ten. And as I waited for the kids to leave, I gradually realised that this was my audience. No one had told me! So I got out my copy of Ulysses…’ Rory pauses. There’s a lift-full of laughs. Rory says, ‘Actually, it was OK. I found a chapter with a cat in it, and I got the children to miaow every time the cat was mentioned. They loved it!’
More silence between floors 2 and G in which I consider what a versatile and unpredictable chap Rory is. He can turn up all prepared to quote James Joyce, then turn on a dime and become a children’s entertainer.
Sitting opposite him an hour earlier in a sun-filled, glass-walled corner of the NT, I learnt quite quickly that it’s a mistake to pigeon-hole Kinnear. He’s mercurial: one minute Jack the lad, the next a thoughtful academic; sometimes very handsome, sometimes normal-looking; cheerful and upbeat but with an occasional sudden look of sadness.
When I first arrive he looks anxious, so I ask if rehearsals (for a new play Burnt by the Sun) are going all right, and if he suffers from nerves. ‘No,’ he grins. ‘Never! I’ve always just really enjoyed it.’ So I mention Hamlet, which 30-year-old Rory is set to star in next year. That’s got to phase him. He doesn’t turn a hair: ‘I’m excited about it, not nervous! I hope it happens. I remember someone saying, when they heard I might play Hamlet: “Oh, what a terrible burden!” But I hadn’t even thought about that at all. I just thought what a fabulous opportunity! Look — the enjoyable thing about it is that it will probably be done again after me. Do you see what I mean? I don’t think everyone will pack up their bags and say, “By Jove he’s done it!”’
Rory’s ease with the whole business of show business must stem partly from the fact he grew up in theatreland. He’s the son of the late Roy Kinnear, star of That Was The Week That Was, who was so unbeatably brilliant as Verucca Salt’s father in Mel Stuart’s Willy Wonka, and his mother, Carmel Cryan, was an actress as well. So performing came naturally to young Rory. ‘I acted right through school and loved it.’ And though his mum always said, ‘You’re too bright to become an actor’, after Oxford, back he flapped, moth-like, to the limelight.
‘I went to Lamda because I loved acting but I needed to know whether there was more to it than showing-off,’ he says. ‘Just liking being praised wasn’t enough — and it wasn’t healthy either!’ And what did you find out? ‘What I learnt was that acting’s as interesting as you make it and therefore it can be endlessly fascinating. So I decided to give it a go.’
That proved an excellent decision. Since he left Lamda he’s had terrific reviews for almost everything he’s done: for his Sir Fopling Flutter in The Man of Mode; for his vicious Vindice in The Revenger’s Tragedy directed by Melly Still. He’s acted alongside his godmother, Dame Judi Dench, in Quantum of Solace, which I’m afraid I daren’t ask about for fear of boring on about Daniel Craig.
He may seem young to play such twisted characters, but though he’s a golden boy in some ways there’s an undercurrent of tragedy to his life. His father, Roy, died when Kinnear was ten, falling from a horse while shooting The Return of the Musketeers in Spain, and it must be difficult to tread the same boards, though ‘becoming an actor was a way of getting to know my father better’, he’s said. His oldest sister, Karina, is severely disabled. So, though he’s a natural clown, there’s a gravity about him, too.
And he takes his profession seriously. On the subject of Oxford and acting, he’s suddenly full of revolutionary zeal: ‘Oxford’s still slow on the uptake about the merits of performance. A friend of mine has been trying to get a Shakespearean module in performance going there but it’s difficult. They think doing plays is a distraction from studying, but one line can have a hundred different meanings depending on how and when it’s performed.’
When I ask what it’s like to be the main man with the whole National Theatre machine revolving around you he looks shocked. ‘It’s not like that, it’s a group effort,’ he says. ‘Plays only really work if there’s a synergy between everybody, from the design team to the director and actors. Sometimes you can see one particular strand dominate, and even if they get praised more by the critics as a result it’s a shame if it’s at the expense of the whole.
‘Anyway, critics aren’t the final arbiters of a performance,’ he says. ‘They’re more part of the publicity machine, getting an audience into the theatre.’ Wise words for an actor with a new play? Maybe not, so I change the subject and ask how he gets inside the mind of his crazier characters: ‘One of the things that helped me most with the character of Vindice [Thomas Middleton’s grief-maddened, vengeful murderer] was the memoirs of Mark Everett,’ he says. ‘You remember he was the frontman for the EELS?’ I don’t. I nod. ‘He lost his mother to cancer and a week after his sister died and then his cousin or something like that, and this memoir was about how he funnelled his grief into his music. This was the only thing that mattered to him. So I thought that the thing about Vindice, driven nuts by the murder of his lover, was that he did the same but, instead of music, he channelled his grief into the perfection of his revenge.’
And the next play, Burnt by the Sun? What has inspired you? ‘It’s set in Stalin’s Russia, so I’ve been reading around the subject, history books, and just coming to terms with what an insane time it was. For instance [Rory’s animated now, gesticulating], Stalin had banned most music, but then they started to bring out these state-approved dances, tangos and so on. And there was one that ended up being known as the “Suicide Waltz” because it was the one that was always on the record player when they found the young men slumped over their desks with a revolver.’
A few minutes to go, and I wonder whether acting will be enough for Rory Kinnear. He’s clever, curious, he’s already won two major awards (the Olivier and the Ian Charleson) and is quite clearly not the type to rest on his laurels. Have you considered writing yourself? I ask. ‘Yes, actually, I have,’ he says, as we walk out, down the corridor to the lift. ‘I’ve destroyed almost all of it but I think a lot about stuff in terms of outside acting. I’d like to write plays and to direct. Acting’s giving me enough at the moment not to feel too ansty, but who knows for how long?’
Burnt by the Sun previews at the Lyttelton Theatre from 24 February.