INTERVIEW: Kevin McNally on mastering the Everest of acting

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Actor Kevin McNally nearly skipped his audition for Pirates of the Caribbean, because he was enjoying a few drinks in his backyard on his birthday. “I had been going up for many years for American movies and I was sort of getting fed up,” he said.

He’d go on to deliver the first spoken words in the film as superstitious seaman Joshamee Gibbs, and play the part in all five films in one of the biggest franchises in movie history, the only actor alongside Johnny Depp and Geoffrey Rush to stay the course. In the first read-through of Pirates, he and Geoffrey Rush rapidly discovered they were using almost identical “har-har-har” accents. They have never spoken consecutively in any scene since.

That breakthrough paved the way for a string of other US screen roles, transforming the veteran actor’s career at an age many see work trickle away - and helped push him for his latest, greatest part, as King Lear on the stage of Shakespeare’s Globe in London. The unique London playhouse has partnered with event cinema specialists CinemaLive and tonight (Thursday, September 21), it will be broadcast live to Chesterfield’s Cineworld and the Pomegranate Theatre which are among 300 venues across the UK and Ireland to screen the production.

But back then McNally had just been disappointed - yet again - after trying for the Green Goblin in 2002’s Spiderman. “I go through the audition process and then of course Willem Dafoe gets the role, and I go why did I even bother, they’ve got an already established film star?”

“It was actually my birthday and I was drunk in my back garden and somebody said haven’t you got an audition today and I said ‘yeah but it’s for an American film and I’m not going to get it there’s no point’, she said, ‘no no you should go I will drive you’.

“I went to the audition a bit tipsy and did a bit of drunk pirate acting and got the job the next day which was extraordinary.”

Kevin R McNally, 61, has a rich laugh, and fine sense of humour. His career runs from writing nine episodes of classic TV crime caper Minder, to sharing the stage with Maggie Smith in the original stage play of Alan Bennett’s The Lady in the Van. He has kept in touch with the “extraordinary” Dame Maggie, through his wife the Scottish actress Phyllis Logan, who plays housekeeper Mrs Hughes in Downton Abbey, in which McNally also appeared as Horace Bryant.

For months after he landed the role of King Lear, McNally was totally immersed in mastering what’s called the Everest of acting. The CinemaLive transmission is the very first from the Globe Theatre, with its open air pit, 20 years after it opened in London. The chance of rain pouring down on the audience and the front of the stage, will add a spectacularly live element to the broadcast - but Lear, where the half-mad King wanders the moors after giving up his kingdom to his viciously cruel daughters, is famous for its stormy scenes.

Directed by Nancy Meckler, of the Shared Experience company, the production plays on the theme of the homeless king with actors breaking into the set as if it was a squat. Lear and his dressed-down entourage process about the stage in what looks like an oversized shopping trolley.

But with seven cameras and lots of close-ups it’s an energetic, fast-moving production ideally suited to the live broadcast, McNally said: “I’ve never done it, it’s as fresh to me as to the audience.” This cut of the play, to three hours, focuses firmly on the intense family drama, particularly Lear’s tragic relationship with his most beloved daughter, Cordelia, as a younger generation turn brutally upon their elders. It allows more laughter to creep in than you expect, but McNally successfully reduces you to tears.

Critics have praised the “naked emotional spontaneity in his fine performance”, and also his Captain Birdseye beard. One four-star review concluded he gave the great Sir Ian McKellen, a famed King Lear, a run for his money.

When McNally is stripped to a T-shirt on stage, it turns out he maybe the first tattooed Lear in history - and yes, they are real, though not pirate markings, but acquired in Los Angeles, with “science ink” on one arm and “family ink” on the other.

Like McNally, Anjana Vasan, playing Cordelia, has had favourable write-ups. “Anjana is great because she’s really small, which helps me carry her, We do have this cast that likes to eat cake, so I have to police Anjana, that she doesn’t eat cake,” he said.

Shakespeare’s Globe’s production of King Lear is broadcast live to over 300 cinemas around the UK and Ireland 21st September cinemalive.com