Sir Michael Gambon doesn’t much enjoy interviews. “No, I don’t like them,” he says, sitting in the corner of a central London hotel with his jacket and scarf still on, as if he might get up and leave at any minute. He’s been in the acting business for more than 50 years – starting out in the 1960s at the National Theatre under the direction of Laurence Olivier – and he still hasn’t got used to the whole being-asked-questions-by-a- virtual-stranger thing.
“I remember the time when they didn’t exist,” he says, a touch nostalgically. “When I first started acting, interviews were out of the question. The only people being interviewed were famous beyond belief and there were only about three theatres in London.”
Times have changed, the 74-year-old admits, and he now appreciates the need to promote things in person for “showbiz” reasons. He’s always being asked for quotes, which is probably his fault for being so in demand. Gambon is prolific, his remit running from stage (taking on everything from Shakespeare to Alan Ayckbourn) to television (he became a household name in the title role of Dennis Potter’s The Singing Detective in 1986 and is currently appearing in Sky Atlantic’s Fortitude) and cinema (small children now recognise him in the street as Professor Albus Dumbledore in the Harry Potter movies). The last Harry Potter film was released in 2011. Does he miss it?
“No.” Pause. “I miss the money, mind you.”
Today, Gambon is here to talk about his new role in The Casual Vacancy, a BBC drama adapted from JK Rowling’s first novel for adults, which has sold more than six million copies. The cast includes Rory Kinnear, Keeley Hawes and Julia McKenzie. Gambon plays Howard Mollison, the mean-spirited owner of a village delicatessen, and had a “brilliant” time drawing out his character’s more villainous attributes.
“He’s a bit of a s***bag, isn’t he?” Gambon says with a twinkle in his eye. “He’s not very nice.” The Casual Vacancy is set in a bucolic English village but there are darker undercurrents, so it seems only natural to ask whether Gambon is a fan of Radio 4’s long-running saga of everyday country folk, The Archers. He flinches.
“No, I hate The Archers,” he says with an expression of barely disguised horror on his face, and then immediately looks rather ashamed, like a small boy who is worried he’s been caught eating a biscuit he shouldn’t have. He says that when he was cast as a spear-carrier in a production of Hamlet at the Old Vic early on in his career, some of the actors would secretly listen to The Archers through an earpiece in order to while away the time.
“You had to,” he says, “or you’d go mad.”
For someone who doesn’t like being interviewed, it must be said that Gambon is rather good at it. In person he is charming, funny and self-deprecating – he confesses in passing he was “frightened” before filming every scene in The Casual Vacancy and says he’s “always” been plagued by self-doubt. That’s surprising, I say, given that he’s something of an old hand at this acting lark. Does he really still get nervous?
“I think more so as you get older,” he nods. “You get more frightened. That applies to me, anyway. When I was an actor 50 years ago, I was quite relaxed. I don’t suppose I had as much to do. I was playing smaller parts.”