Christopher Eccleston

Exclusive interview with Christopher Eccleston

by Karen Shaw

Don’t Believe Everything you Read!

The Lake District-based thriller Safe House, starring Emmy award winning actor Christopher Eccleston, was one of ITV’s biggest hits of recent years, pulling in an audience of more than 5.3 million.

This grippingly dark, atmospheric four-part series is said to be based on true events. Former detective Robert (Eccleston) and his schoolteacher wife Katy (Marsha Thomason) impulsively purchase a holiday guest house to pursue a new lifestyle, but after former colleague and friend Mark (Paterson Joseph) asks them to provide a place for people needing protection from criminals, their idyllic guest house quickly becomes a safe house.

The tension mounts when it becomes evident that nothing is what it seems, and soon it becomes apparent that it isn’t only those staying in the Safe House who have something to hide…

I’ve read many an interview with Chris and he has a reputation of being a rather tough cookie, prickly even, and on a few occasions he’s been known to slam the phone down mid-interview. This chap doesn’t suffer fools, so after a few minutes with me, I was convinced that before too long I too would be hearing the dead dialling tone.

In our phone interview he’s pleasant and forthcoming… even chatty, which goes to show you shouldn’t believe all you read, but at the same time it’s clear that his professional integrity means a
lot to him.

Chris puts the success of Safe House down to Marc Evans, the director. “I worked with him about 25 years ago, he’s from the generation of Danny Boyle and Michael Winterbottom and he’s equally talented. The cast were lucky to get him. He chose to make it visually quite gloomy and threatening, instead of a ‘chocolate box’ type of look.”

His character Robert is such a tortured soul; this is a guy whose spirit has taken a ‘pounding’.

“I didn’t want to play your typical macho, alpha male copper. I’m not interested in that kind of thing. But what did interest me was the fact that Robert had moved away from that way of living and thinking.

“He suffered from a nervous breakdown and post-traumatic stress disorder and the most important person in his life was a woman, which brought out his more feminine side and made him much more interesting on screen.

“He’s learnt a completely new way of ‘being’ which contrasts with Paterson Joseph’s character Mark, who is still living by the rules of a very masculine jungle. His character is very tricky and the opportunity to work with Paterson is one of the reasons I decided to get involved.”

At the end of the series you’re left believing that there’s unfinished business and after being deceived to the highest degree by his one-time partner Mark, you’re left with the distinct impression that there’s more to the story… so is a second series in the offing?

“That’s down to ITV and in the lap of the gods,” replies Chris, “but I’d be happy to go back if the script was right.

“I’ve built my career and reputation on working with good writers. I believe that you don’t have a chance unless the script is good. You’re only going to make great television if the script is great. It
doesn’t matter how talented the actors are or how talented the director is, the most important thing is a great script. I’m very passionate about the work that I do. I’ve wanted to be good at it, to be a craftsman.”

Chris takes his craft seriously, so much so that while filming he was adamant that he would be the one to swim in chilly depths of Coniston, refusing the offer of a body double. He spent many an hour in its murky water.

“It was very cold,” laughs Chris, “and exhilarating. And  although I’m 51, I try and keep fit and I wanted the challenge. I love the Lakes, so it was a pleasure.

“I used run over 50 miles a week. I’ve been a serious runner for around 28 years, but I’ve stopped running as much and go to a gym as I’ve got older. Running is great for you mentally. It gives you time to think and make decisions and then you also get the immediate physical benefits.”

I’ve recently started ‘running’ and get soaring pain from shin splints. Chris’s advice is simple. He casually tells me that it’s common for first time runners and orders me just to ‘get on with it and
run through them’. “You’ve got to be tough!”

His attitude is indicative of his approach to his life. He has a wealth of integrity and self-discipline; it certainly hasn’t done the lad any harm (I’ll get my running shoes on again tomorrow!).

Throughout his many years of acting, Chris has played a wide variety of roles from Dr Who to the Duke of Norfolk. I was curious to discover if he’d ever fancied leaving the acting arena for another job.

He goes onto tells me that his first dream job was to play for Manchester United, but by his own admission wasn’t good enough, and the second one was to be an actor.

“I even fancied being a rock musician,” he says, “and at one point I quite fancied being a journalist, but I didn’t get many academic qualifications. But one day I intend to do a degree in English Literature.”

With his steely blue eyes, and intense stare, Chris is fiercely proud of his northern roots, and rightly so. It was the streets of Salford that helped mould Chris into the fantastic actor he is today. He prides himself on being a Salford lad, born and bred, yet for the last few years he has called London his home. “I miss the northern people very much. It’s the people who make the North, and I miss the warmth you get from northerners.”

Before he hit the big time, Chris worked backstage at The Royal Exchange theatre in Manchester for a couple of years.

“It was really useful after leaving drama school,” says Chris. “I learned that the most truthful and best actors were always so polite to the crew. I believe that people misbehave when they’re insecure.”

It’s obvious that his working class roots have defined his dogmatic approach to work. So I’m rather shocked when after asking him how important his work ethic is, that the phone goes dead… have I upset him?

“Christopher… Chris… are you there?” I ask in a rather sombre tone. Nothing. I nervously call him back. He answers.

“Have I upset you?” I ask.

“No, I lost the signal.”

Relieved, I then go on to tell him that I’d read a previous interview with him where he’d put the phone down on the journalist and I’d initially believed him to be an ogre…

I’m relieved when he laughs saying: “Do you believe everything you read?”

Moving quickly on I return to my original question regarding his work ethic and if work defined him, his answer is concise: “No, work doesn’t define me, my children do. They’re the most important thing in the world to me. Second to that, the way I am in the world defines me, and the people around me.

Chris became a father later on in life, and is the proud dad of Albert, three, and Esme, 20 months.

I’m intrigued how he manages to work, work-out and be a father of young children, where does he find the energy?

“It’s genetic. Both my mum and dad (unfortunately his father has now passed away) had unbelievable energy. My mum is 83 years old and looks 70.”

While we’re talking about family, I chuck in a daft question: His parents Ronnie and Elsie met at the Palmolive/Colgate factory, so surely he must have been the cleanest lad at school?

“Oh, I couldn’t possible admit to that,” he laughs. “I may have received some soap and toothpaste at Christmas, but that’s as far as I’ll go!”

Chris has two older siblings, twin brothers Alan and Keith who are eight years his senior.

“At times I did feel like an only child,” says Chris. “My brothers are fantastic, but at the time, I wasn’t the right age to fit in. They were always very loving to me. They were my heroes.”

Chris recently filmed Legend based on the book The Profession of Violence: The Rise and Fall of the Kray Twins. He plays Leonard ‘Nipper’ Read, the Detective Superintendent in charge of taking down the Krays.

When I ask if the Krays had anything in common with his twin brothers, he recoils: “I’ll have you know, they are hard-working, non- criminal gentlemen.” Well that’s a relief.

As the interview unfortunately draws to an end, I ask him the most important question of all, what he prefers, is it Yorkshire pudding or Lancashire Hot Pot?

“It’d have to be both!” he laughs. This lad certainly has an appetite, better get your running shoes back on!

Safe House has been released as a two-disc set, price £14.