An interview with Robbie Coltrane for National Treasure
You star in Channel 4’s new drama National Treasure. You play Paul Finchley – what’s his story?
He’s been part of a double act that’s been going for 30-odd years who, in their younger days, were incredibly successful. They had their own TV show and did sketches. And they are both kind of viewed as national treasures – they’re kind of like Morecambe and Wise or any of those other double acts that people love, and they have catchphrases and stuff. And then suddenly he’s accused of a historical sexual offence. And the first episode, I think, is very interesting, because there’s no hint in it at all of whether he did it or not. And also, whether he did it or not is not what it’s about. It’s about “What would it be like if it happened to you, or anybody else.” Obviously he gets much more attention, because he’s a star and so forth, and he gets named in the papers and has his address put in the papers. And his whole life just literally falls off a cliff, whether he did it or not. I think they capture that wonderfully. And Nadine Marshall, who plays the policewoman investigating these crimes is so good. One minute she’s chatting away, and telling him how she and her family always watch his shows every Christmas, and then immediately she cuts to “So, would you say your sexual needs are normal, Mr Finchley?” God, she’s good. The one thing that I’m terribly proud of in this show is that everybody who’s in it is terrific. Everybody. Those who play the accusers, those who play the lawyers, and of course Tim McInnerny, who plays Paul’s comedy partner. It’s funny, everyone thinks we know each other, because of Blackadder, but we never appeared together in Blackadder.
It’s the same thing with Julie Walters, isn’t it? You’ve worked on the same Harry Potter films for so long, and have only ever done one scene together.
That’s right, it’s just one scene, down at the Weasleys, where the boys come in on the motorbikes.
So how did you find acting with her?
Oh, it was a delight, it really was. I have to say, as well, god bless Marc Munden [the director]. The rehearsals he had us do made so much difference. Because – I’ve done this, and I’m sure Julie has done this – you walk into a room and someone says “Right, you’ve been married for 25 years, stand back, and ‘action’.” And the best actor in the world couldn’t do that. So we had a couple of weeks to work out what their past relationship was like, what their marriage was like, did she take a back seat to his career, what did she do before she married him. But the extraordinary thing about Julie is that she’s one of the funniest people that ever lived, but also, she can do it when she has to be serious. She’s completely convincing, and very, very few people can do that. It was interesting, some of the younger people didn’t know how funny she was, because they hadn’t watched Acorn Antiques and Victoria Wood: As[i] Seen On TV or Dinnerladies. So I had them round to my room at the hotel one afternoon and showed them some of her stuff. It’s all there on YouTube. And some of them were on the floor watching things like Two Soups. But if you’re pitching that, what would you say? “Woman serves two soups, very badly.” It’s six minutes long, that. Most sketches are about three.
As you mentioned, this programme deals in part with the aspect of trial by media. It’s a dangerous road to go down, isn’t it?
It’s what the police call fishing. It’s a real dichotomy. In the programme, my character does this interview with Victoria Derbyshire, and she asks the question: “If they don’t publish your name, then it could be that just one person will come forward, the most bold person, or the one who’s least afraid. But there might be another six. But if you mention a name, then you might get another seven people coming forward. And some will be hysterics, liars, attention seekers, or it could be someone out to make a few quid. But at the same time, you could be missing a trick.” Finchley’s argument is “Why does this have to be done in public?” And she says “Well, what do you think? Should the law be protecting the wrongfully accused, or those who have actually been abused. Because that’s your choice.” And it is the choice. It’s a real moral dilemma.
One of the really clever things about the script is that your sympathies go in all sorts of different directions. It’s a really nuanced script, isn’t it?
No kidding. That’s why I wanted to work with Jack Thorne. And I’d seen Utopia, which Marc had directed, and Ole [Bratt Birkeland] had shot it, and I thought “I want to work with these guys.” And then I got this script and I thought “Oh yes!” A lot of people said “Don’t touch it, Rob, it’s poisonous, it’s not going to do you any good.” It’s pretend!
But the subject matter is pretty controversial. Did you have any misgivings about that?
No, no, no! I believe with all my soul that it’s the job of drama to deal with things that the judiciary’s not very good at, the police aren’t very good at, the politicians aren’t very good at, the civil service aren’t very good at. But drama… A lot of people said that about Cracker. “Why would you want to make an entertaining show about people getting murdered.” It’s not about entertainment, it’s about finding out how people get like that. That’s what the whole show is about.
Did you do anything in particular by way of research, or is it all there on the page?
In the case of Jack, it’s all there on the page. He was there for the first week of rehearsals, and you could ask him anything.
And Andrea Riseborough plays your daughter. Theirs is not what you’d call a straightforward relationship, is it?
No, no, no, and yet he’s the one who has the relationship. Her mother hardly has a relationship with her at all. There are little glimpses of some feeling coming through, but they’re few and far between. Andrea and Julie together are so powerful! There’s all that tension between them. Marie is very no nonsense Scottish, and her daughter is a flake, as she sees it. “Why don’t you go and get a job, why don’t you go and get a life, you’re a failure,” all that sort of thing. And her daughter is really mentally ill, so it’s quite odd that a mother, in particular, should be so insensitive to her daughter’s needs. It’s really quite shocking.
There was clearly a toxic culture prevalent in past decades, particularly around male celebrities. Do you think that comes from an inherent unhealthiness of the culture of celebrity?
I don’t know. I know a lot of famous people who have behaved extremely well. I think there is some notion of entitlement that can go with being a celebrity.
Do you think fame gets easier to deal with as you get older?
Yeah. Well, I’m not some Hollywood A-lister stud. No-one’s particularly interested in my love life or how often I work out or any of that stuff. So as you get older, it does become easier because of that.
What do you look for in roles these days?
What I do now – I’ve got it down to a fine art, actually, is I just read the script, and if I can see a video in my head of me doing it, that’s it. If I don’t see a video of me doing it, I don’t do it. It sounds childish, but it’s true. Bob Hoskins used to talk about the numb bum test. He’d get up in the morning and go and sit on the bog and have his morning constitutional, and if he kept reading until his bum was numb, he knew he was on a winner.
What ambitions of yours remain unfulfilled? Are there any people you’d like to work with or roles you’d like to play?
No, I don’t really look at it that way. Whatever turns up, turns up. Obviously I’d like to make a cowboy picture, and I’d like to work with Al Pacino and Robert De Niro! But realistically, I just look at what comes in.
To millions of kids, you’re absolutely adored as Hagrid. Does that carry a responsibility?
Well it’s delightful really, it’s very nice. I get the sweetest little letters from people. I got one a while back from Moscow, asking me to fly through the window and punch their dad if he was rotten to their mum. And often in Tescos the mum will say to her kids “Do you know who that man is?” And the kids will go “You’re not Hagrid – you’re not nearly tall enough.”
What would you like the impact to be for National Treasure?
I would like to make people think – but that makes it sound a bit worthy. There are a lot of very, very talented people in it, and I think it’s a great showcase for the talents, both of the actors and the writer, director, DoP. All of us involved in it are really proud of it. And I think it’s important to deal with these issues in some way and help people understand them. And hopefully to prevent it from happening again. Because you’re really doing it for the victims. A lot of people’s lives have been ruined by this kind of stuff. You have to do it right out of respect for them.