Photo by James Mollison
Alcoholism and ambition fuelled the actor’s rise to the top. He talks masculinity, fame – and why he’s finally ready to play Lear
26 May 2018
At the National, he met the actors Ernest Milton, Donald Wolfit and Paul Scofield, and he drew on these memories to play Sir (Harwood had been Wolfit’s dresser). He surprised himself by how much he enjoyed making The Dresser. It was a sort of revelation. “When I was at the National all those years ago, I knew I had something in me,” he says, “but I didn’t have the discipline. I had a Welsh temperament and didn’t have that ‘fitting in’ mechanism. Derek Jacobi, who is wonderful, had it, but I didn’t. I would fight, I would rebel. I thought, ‘Well, I don’t belong here.’ And for almost 50 years afterwards, I felt that edge of, ‘I don’t belong anywhere, I’m a loner.’ I don’t have any friends who are actors at all. But in The Dresser, when Ian [McKellen] responded, it was wonderful. We got on so well and I suddenly felt at home, as though that lack of belonging was all in my imagination, all in my vanity.”
He’s always called himself a loner – “alone, loner, solitary”, he says to me – and in past interviews his outsiderdom has become almost his headline characteristic. But he and McKellen bonded, regaling each other with old stories instead of rehearsing. Having felt, for all those years, unwanted by the establishment, the establishment was making him welcome. He also realised that he wanted to do Lear for real.