Anton Lesser

Anton Lesser interview

Anton Lesser interview

As The Two Popes comes to Rose Theatre, actor Anton Lesser talks religion, RADA and a career that has spanned everything from Game of Thrones to Wolf Hall…

The Two Popes, or as it was a couple of years ago, The Pope had only a short run at the Royal & Derngate Theatre in Northampton. It was well received but hopes to bring it to a wider audience and to the West End were not to be. A poignant, provoking yet humorous two-hander with Anton Lesser and Nicholas Woodeson, it was inspired by the scandals rocking the Catholic church seen through the eyes of two popes – and poses the question, in times of crisis, should we follow the rules or our conscience?

And if it all sounds familiar, that’s because it was subsequently turned into an award winning film with Anthony Hopkins and Jonathan Pryce. But now it’s back, as a play, again with Anton and Nicholas, at Rose Theatre and touring.

The writer is Anthony McCarten, whose credits include The Theory of Everything and Bohemian Rhapsody. Some track record. Anton is delighted that the play is back. “The minute I first read the script, I thought, ‘this is really good’. I said, ‘which pope do you want me to play?’ – I wanted to do both, both characters are so good… ”

Given the divisive subject matter, it’s not easy to bring it to the stage. But the reaction from the limited run in Northampton was positive – pleasing critics, audiences – and Catholics. “We had a fantastic response. And I particularly remember one couple saying, ‘we are practising Catholics, we were dubious about coming to see this’. And they were raving about it because they said it’s inspired such a lot of debate and scrutiny.”

The film won several awards and McCarten was nominated for Best Adapted Screenplay at the Academy, Golden Globe, and BAFTA Awards. Has Anton seen it and has it changed how they have approached the play second time around? “I loved the film – two of my favourite actors are in it. Anthony Hopkins has always been one of the finest British actors of all time. And Jonathan was very influential in me wanting to pursue acting – when I was at RADA, I saw him in Comedians, which inspired me to make it for our final show!”

“But no, the film hasn’t influenced the play because I’ve got a terrible memory so at least there’s no danger of being intimidated!”

The play will get its London premiere at Rose Theatre, and then tour. Anton is looking forward to coming to the deepest, darkest depths of south west London… “My life in London was all in the north and south was where the dragons were! I did live in Clapham for a little while though.”

Speaking of dragons, we had to ask Anton about Game of Thrones, in which he played the twisted Qyburn. He made his mark on the series, even though he was a side character among many. Anton laughs: “People are like, ‘wow, Game of Thrones’ but I was only ever in it for a few days each year and didn’t have a lot to say. I joke that it was a part that required you to lurk. But what’s special is that although you don’t have a lot to say, people perceive a great deal of your character through their own imagination and they very kindly fill in the gaps. It’s a bonus when you allow the space for people to do that.”

He has also played Harold MacMillan in The Crown and another religious character as Thomas More in Wolf Hall.

Anton has an illustrious stage career, too. So what have been his favourite roles? He equates the highs in his careers to special points in his life. “I think one of the happiest times of my life was when I was doing Twelfth Night with the wonderful Richard Briers. That was just a joy and the other one is Art when I took over from Tom Courtenay. And again, it was a lovely time. I remember those days because my little boy [Harry] would come in to see me and we’d have picnics in the dressing room.”

Anton has two children. Lilit has also become an actor. Does Anton have any advice for young people entering the industry? He went to drama school, and advises young actors to get as much experience as they can through the likes of the National Youth Theatre or local drama groups. But, ultimately, be professional: “My advice is very practical. Learn your lines, be punctual and hang up your costumes after you.”’

After reading architecture at university, Anton took a year out to do voluntary service in Nigeria. It was here he received his calling to be an actor. “I saw a film about the Royal Shakespeare Company and I just knew I had to do it.. I didn’t have any doubts. And I’ve never been certain about anything before or since.”

He was clearly destined for it. He got in to RADA, and picked up his first acting gig a day after graduating. “I went to a few auditions, including one for Henry VI. They said, ‘when do you finish at RADA?’. I said April 3rd, and they said, ‘that’s lucky as we start rehearsals on the 4th.’ I’ve been very lucky…” He has pretty much worked continually ever since.

He’s also fortunate in the breadth of work he has done, on screen and off, although he had not done stage work for 10 years before The Pope. Is there anything in particular he does before going on stage? He says he prefers to ready himself rather than any physical preparation. “I trust the fact that I’ve done the work in rehearsals. I might do a little bit of a vocal warmup, otherwise I just sit quietly and try to leave space for what’s going to happen.”

Does he have any ambitions left to fulfil? “I feel very, very lucky that there seems to be always something next. I think in a way I don’t want to tamper with what seems to be a very benevolent fate. I’m too grateful to be ambitious.”

When he’s not working, he loves being out in his garden at his home in Warwickshire – it’s an added bonus if the kids come to visit. But even better is when he’s on location somewhere nice working and he can persuade one of them to join him. “I was doing a film in Malta and I had about five days off – I phoned Lilit who was free to come and join me!”

As he looks back aged 70, does he have any advice to his younger self? “That presupposes that I consider myself wiser now. I don’t necessarily think I am. I just have a lot more life experiences. I think I would just say, ‘I love you, and we’re all navigating this strange situation where we’re all human. So I would just say, like I’d say to my own kids, you’re loved and you’re going to be fine…”


Rose Theatre 

9 to 23 September and touring

Image of Anton Lesser in The Two Popes, photo by Manuel Harlan