Stanley Tucci on Fortitude, The Hunger Games and coping with bereavement

The American actor makes his British TV debut in Sky Atlantic's Arctic thriller

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Stanley Tucci is not late. Yet he keeps apologising profusely for the fact that he might be. “I’m so sorry to keep you waiting,” he says as he arrives in the hotel bar where we are de to meet at exactly this allotted hour. “Traffic,” he adds, by way of an unnecessary explanation. 

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He is wearing a dapper suit, complete with knitted cardigan and those recognisably owlish spectacles and he sits with precision on the upholstered banquette, smoothing down each trouser leg in order to avoid creasing. He waits, attentively, for the first question. This could be the most polite, respectful entrance by any actor to any interview ever. The overwhelming impression, after five minutes in his company, is that Tucci is… well… very, very nice.

And yet, as an actor, he possesses a versatile duality. He can play sweet as he did in The Devil Wears Prada (he was Nigel, the gay art director of a glossy fashion magazine) and he can do sinister (he was a murderous paedophile in 2009’s The Lovely Bones and, more recently, has been entertaining a new generation of cinema-goers as the oleaginous Caesar Flickerman in the Hunger Games franchise). 

“No one is all good are they?” he says, eyebrow arched. “I mean, I’ve never met one. There’s always a little bad in there.” 

His latest on-screen appearance proves no exception. Tucci, 54, is making his British television debut in Fortitude, a big budget drama series currently airing on Sky Atlantic. It’s set in an isolated Arctic community where a mysterious murder threatens the equilibrium of the local community. The cast includes The Killing star Sofie Grabol, Michael Gambon and Christopher Eccleston. Tucci is DCI Morton, a detective flown in to Fortitude to investigate, whose sudden appearance causes suspicion and mistrust.

Much of the show was filmed on location in Iceland, an experience Tucci describes as “incredible. I loved the landscape… and I ate some of the best food I’ve ever had. Great fish, lamb and reindeer…” He slips into a misty-eyed reverie. Tucci’s parents – his father, Stanley Sr, an art teacher, and his mother, Joan, a secretary – both have Italian roots and food was an important part of his upbringing in Katonah, New York. He says his mother, Joan, still cooks “like an artist” – the two of them even co-wrote a cookbook three years ago.

In fact, when Tucci played the husband of food writer Julia Child opposite Meryl Streep in the 2009 film Julie & Julia, he insisted the two actors cook a meal as part of their preparation: “I said: ‘I don’t want to be all method, but we really need to cook together just once.’”

Streep and Tucci did a blanquette de veau and it turned out all right, even though they were both “a little sidetracked, talking and drinking wine… I chop quickly. I have some scars, but let’s not mention them.”

Anyway, apart from the Icelandic culinary delights, he confesses that part of what attracted him to Fortitude was the chance to work with Sofie Grabol. He had watched all of The Killing and loved it. As a result, he confesses he was “very nervous” about meeting the actress. “And then I found out she felt the same way [about me], so we became friends.” A coffee machine whirs into action behind us as Tucci’s voice drops, so I have to lean in to hear him.

“The ice was broken talking about cancer.” Grabol recently revealed she had received treatment for breast cancer, and Tucci’s first wife, Kate, died of the disease five years ago. “So,” Tucci continues, “we spent a lot of time talking about that.”

Kate was diagnosed with Stage 4 breast cancer in 2006. She died three years later at the age of 47, leaving behind nine-year-old twins from a former marriage and a seven-year-old daughter with Tucci. The loss was devastating. A month previously, Tucci’s close friend, the actress Natasha Richardson, was killed in a skiing accident. How did he cope with such a succession of blows?

“You have a lot of people to help you,” he says quietly. “I had my parents, my father-in-law, friends. I think the kids, in a way. By helping them, it helps you get better. You’d talk to a therapist and get the same response: ‘Well, you’re grieving.’ I didn’t find it…” He breaks off. “It was only much later I could go and talk to somebody.”

Kate’s death, he says, “is always on my mind. We went through a lot, going around the world trying to find a cure.” The couple explored alternative therapies and the experience has left Tucci distrustful of what he terms “the moral corruption” of conventional cancer treatments. 

“If chemotherapy and radiotherapy really, really worked, why is everybody still dying of cancer?” he asks.

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He wasn’t sure he would find happiness again. But he later fell in love with Felicity Blunt, the older sister of the actress Emily Blunt, who was Tucci’s co-star in The Devil Wears Prada and who introduced the couple. Felicity is a literary agent for Curtis Brown but also trained as a barrister, which means Tucci can never win an argument: “Yes, it was a huge mistake marrying her,” he jokes. “She’s so smart.”