Acting's Just a Hoot for Hannah
Scottish actor, John Hannah, has become a romantic leading man - at the ripe old age of 36. Best known for his TV work and a supporting role in Four Weddings And A Funeral, Hannah gets to seduce Gwyneth Paltrow in the quirky new romantic drama, Sliding Doors.
The actor, whose roots are pure, working-class Glaswegian, says he never expected to become famous, and that at first, it was something of a problem.
"I had quite a difficult time with it," he confesses. "I couldn't work out why I was so unhappy. I was getting lots of work, I'd just got married.
"I went to a therapist for a bit. Then I realised I needed to grow up and accept my change of status. You have to learn to relish your happiness."
Acting was the last thing on the young Hannah's mind when he left home at 16. He trained as an electrician, but says he always felt like an outsider.
"I just never thought about acting. Someone at work suggested it. I applied to the Royal Scottish Academy of Drama because you didn't need qualifications.
"The very fact that a boy from Glasgow wasn't supposed to do things like that made me want to do it all the more," he says cheerfully.
Hannah now lives in London with his actress wife, Joanna Roth. "I've been in London for 13 years," he says. "I was quite anxious to leave Scotland, even before I became an actor."
He admits to preferring film to theatre work, although he says he found it tough to get work at first. He plays a happy, talkative charmer in Sliding Doors, which didn't come naturally to him. "It's the hardest role I've ever done," he says.
After Sliding Doors, Hannah has another film coming out in May. In The James Gang, he plays a karaoke-mad loser caught in an oddball crime caper.
But his next assignment is to join Rachel Weisz in Morocco for an Indiana Jones-type romp called The Mummy. "At least in films you get to travel a bit," he says.
"How many people get to go to Marrakech, learn to ride a camel, and get paid for it? It's just a hoot, isn't it?"
At his most disarming
Somaliland and World Media
Actor John Hannah uses celebrity to oppose the arms trade. He tells ANN DONALD of his stance
THE woman next to me says: "He's not just a pretty face. He's quite a politically motivated person, you know." The character summation is directed towards a shady looking man lurking beside a drainpipe in a long coat. Looking younger than his 35 years, East Kilbride actor John Hannah could be posing for an upmarket gent's magazine fashion shoot. Grey Crombie, sleek leather boots, silver chain, and subtle pinstripe trousers that wouldn't go amiss in a Savile Row tailor. An Edinburgh alleyway provides the perfect seedy backdrop.
However, preening and personal promotion are not on the agenda today. What is certainly up for grabs on the conversational menu is Oxfam. Specifically Hannah's part in publicising the charity's Cut Conflict Campaign. Its aim - "for restrictive international codes of conduct to stem the flow of small arms and weapons to areas where they are likely to kill civilians". The Government is being targeted in an attempt to persuade it to implement a strong Code of Conduct on arms sales as part of its much-vaunted ethical foreign policy. The campaign has struck a chord with the McCallum star which is why he is willing to play the awkward media game of talking and posing down alleyways. Upstairs in the tiny attic that doubles as Oxfam's Edinburgh base, the actor is sitting with his back to the overblown poster depicting a broken gun amid a frightening stockpile. The facts and figures of the campaign flow easily from Hannah. "You're an actor so it's easier for you to learn" comments the Oxfam woman. It's true, Hannah is obviously well-versed in the politicised and emotive language of change, and is more than eloquent in voicing his opinions. The phrases "non-specific politically motivated" and "the West's desire to profit from arms" roll easily into conversation.
But to question the actor's motives for his involvement would be peevish at least, and downright offensive at worst. 'This is no passing interest or some kind of sop for my conscience:' he asserts. Yet, his attitude to charities remains unresolved "What made a difference for me is that this campaign is pro-active:' he declares. "I think that a lot of organisations learnt a lot of lessons in the eighties where previously they perhaps threw money and aid at an emergency situation but ultimately it didn't create a framework for people to rebuild that infrastructure." Oxfam, he feels, is different.
"It is more concerned with the long-term reduction of conflict not just in Somaliland but throughout the world where there are still 30 wars going on today" His commitment to the charity began with the voice-overs for its TV ads, deploying the gravitas so moving in Four Weddings, and most recently he has just returned from a l0-day fact-finding mission to Somaliland. He is still distilling what was an "overwhelming" experience. Perched awkwardly on a chair, the actor skates over a brief history of a country which is still trying to rebuild itself after the civil war which left tens of thousands dead and poverty a fact of life. He says: "Somaliland got its independence from Britain in 1960 and joined up with Somalia, and they had nine years of secure democracy under a president who tried to decommission what was a huge stockpile of arms. This arose from the strategic importance of the country during the Cold War, with America and then Russia using it as a satellite nation. However, the president was overthrown in a coup backed by the Russians to maintain their position in relation to the Middle East"
DESTRUCTION was inevitable: an abundance of arms, civil war, and clan and political tension. An uncertain peace has in the main prevailed since 1996. Going out as an observer, Hannah felt himself overwhelmed by the sheer scale of rebuilding a country. He recalls: "You can feel quite naive about the enormity of it all — trying to rebuild the houses they used to live in, to recovering the land they used to farm — and the ineffectual nature of the journey. But at the same time you have to try and do something. If you don't make an effort then there won't be any change."
The opportunity to meet and form personal attachments with the people convinced him that a positive change was in the air.
"What impressed me most of all was the optimism, resilience and strength of the people:" he glows. "Ultimately I felt inspired by what the people were achieving there."
Though clearly ill at ease with the interview format - "a good interview is a short one" - he grins cheekily, Hannah is willing to brave the microphones and shorthand pads if it means publicity for Oxfam. How does this rest with an actor who has already gone on record as voicing his unease with the whole "fame- factor" and is about to jump into the mêlée once more with the forthcoming James Gang movie?
The narrow face sighs and his brow creases in explanation. "I'd been trying to come to terms with the way in which my life has changed" he says, encompassing a Bafta win for Four Weddings and a clutch of major BBC and ITV series in one brief swoop. "I realised that unless I gave up a job that I loved doing to go and become a fire spotter for the Forestry Commission, I'd have to accept this public profile. Once you have this baggage I thought it was better to go and do something with it rather than abuse it for personal interest," he concludes philosophically.
The mere whiff of the blasphemous devil "self-interest" and you get the impression this straight-talking actor would stamp on it mercilessly. Feisty and funny by turns Hannah seems like an actor with an in- built bullshit detector. However, the role as celebrity front for the campaign did leave him feeling a little uneasy on arrival in Somaliland. "I did feel a wee bit of a voyeur," he confesses. "We were taken to the mass graves where thousands are buried the hospitals and orphanages, and I began to feel a little confused as to why I was there. The photographers could take their pictures, the journalists could write but for me I realised that was the beginning of my role or responsibility in using my status to encourage the media to take an interest."
HAVING taken part in the recent Equity voice-over strike and given this involvement is he a politically-motivated individual? Hannah looks slightly perturbed. "I have a natural interest because I've had a working-class Scottish upbringing:" he replies. "I don't think I'm any more political than anybody should be if you read the news-papers and know what's going on in the world." So is he a Labour supporter? A deadpan grin flickers across the face. "Like I said, I'm political." The room full of friends and Oxfam workers explodes with laughter at Hannah's quip. No Luvvies for Labour membership drive here. "Labour's policies regarding the arms trade don't go far enough for me:" he adds in serious mode. "But we still hope to put the arms trade on their political agenda and make a difference." Before he rushes off to a photocall and his evening speech, Hannah expresses his personal feelings about Somaliland. "I feel richer as a person and even overwhelmed by what human beings are capable of in a positive sense:" he enthuses. "All us flabby liberals like to feel that we would make some kind of difference." Like the lady said, not just a pretty face.
John Hannah: The Flying Scotsman
by Angie Errigo
Empire Magazine, April 1998
John Hannah, who plays Gwyneth Paltrow's Mr. Right in this month's Sliding Doors -- a romcom of two alternative realities -- and an absentee husband in convivial British comedy The James Gang, has been exposing himself to sharp extremes in this reality. He has just returned from a visit to Somalia and Ethiopia on behalf of Oxfam. The night he got back, he went out to a café with his wife, Joanna Roth, but when the meal came he just started crying.
"I couldn't eat it. I had to stay in bed for a while, and that was emotional as well as physical."
Hannah is probably best known to TV fans as forensic pathologist McCallum, whose inhalations of formaldehyde in the autopsy room invariably leads him a-sleuthing. Moviewise, Hannah triggered W.H. Auden-mania with his heart rending recitation of Stop All The Clocks at the funeral in Four Weddings and a Funeral.
Four Weddings was, of course, the breakthrough for the former electrician from East Kilbride, after eight years of struggle in which at one particular low point, he was rejected for a job at Pizza Express because, he was told, he wasn't sufficiently career-motivated to wait at tables. Since then, he has trod the boards at The Young Vic, the RSC (A Clockwork Orange) and the National Theatre, become a TV star and done about a dozen films thank you very much.
Which isn't bad going for a school tearaway who was only ever any good at football.
"But not good enough, obviously," he laughs. "Hence that change of career when I got to 17."
This new direction was the Royal Scottish Academy Of Music And Drama, mainly because it "beat working".
"It was brilliant for me, being taught about what you're allowed to do as an actor," the 35-year-old elucidates. "The idea of me being a valid entity within which to work was something I'd never considered before and set the groundwork for the work I've done. It's all based on self. There may be criticism that I'm always like me. Well, of course! Who else are you going to be like? i'm not much of a one for wigs and walks."
He's not much one for funny accents either. He ws constantly told he had to shed his Scottish accent if he wanted to work.
"That was one I often questioned vehemently. It's an old school attitude, that you can't act properly without an English accent. To be honest, I couldn't understand why I was cast in Four Weddings -- a working class Glaswegian amongst all this well-off set," he says, "But that vision from Mike Newell opened things up for me. Whereas before, i'd go into interviews and people would say, 'Can you change your accent?', after Four Weddings I was going into interviews and they were saying, 'God, we love your accent'."
Hannah then became the welcome object of much meeting and greeting in America, where one remarkably fortuitous encounter resurrected Sliding Doors, whose writer-director Peter Howitt, an acting pal of Hannah's, had seen his initial financial backing evaporate. At a meeting with venerable American filmmaker Sydney Pollack, Hannah related the sad fate of Howitt's screenplay.
"I didn't think I was pitching the film to him, but he was interested enough to read the script. Once he read it, he made one phone call and we got a budget! And more, in fact, the budget went up by about 500 per cent."
His character in Sliding Doors is arguably the least intense one he's played, a man-about-town charmer minus loads of emotional baggage.
"I thought Pete's script was a brilliant idea and was something I'd never done before. Although it's similar in genre to Four Weddings, I didn't have much of the comedy to do in that movie. This was the hardest thing I've ever done. Like in life, it's much easier to be depressed than to be happy. Being happy and smiling naturally on take 18 is really tough. Give me bawling my eyes out any time."
The long lean years taught him that you're only as good as your last job, hence the decision to take three months off to get involved with Oxfam's Cut the Conflict campaign.
"It's invigorating and inspiring -- the people you meet and putting your life back where you can appreciate things more," he admits. "You can get carried away in this unreality you live in. You go with preconceptions of being horrified and what you actually feel is inspired by what human beings are capable of in a positive sense. As well as all the horrors we see, it redresses the balance and makes you feel glad to be human again. It was great."
When at home, he considers himself an avid movie goer.
"It's funny, we're got such a weird ethos about films; the work we want to do as being different from the work we go and see. You sit there and go, 'Right, we'll go and see the Kieslowski trilogy', and then you end up seeing Con Air. The ones that make me get up off the sofa are really dumb, big blockbustery type films, like anybody else."
But would he turn his nose up at appearing in such big budget fare?
"The challenge of doing some stupid big monster film is probably as much as a Hamlet, you know," he muses. "Talking to your dead father's ghost is a huge leap of faith that you have to make as an actor, and it's kind of similar. It would be interesting..."
John Hannah: Through the Sliding Doors to the big time
By Demetrios Matheou
Premiere Magazine, May 1998
From Simon Callow to Gwyneth Paltrow: as screen lovers
go, that's quite a leap, but one which John Hannah pulls off with aplomb.
The 35-year-old Scot, who shot to fame reading W.H. Auden's "Funeral Blues"
as a eulogy to Callow in Four Weddings and a Funeral, has three films out
in quick succession this year. In the best of them, Sliding Doors,
he convincingly woos Paltrow, not with the looks of a Brad Pitt, but with
a quote from Monty Python.
Marie Claire Interview
by Demetrios Matheou
Marie Claire Magazine, June 1998
My first conversation with John Hannah had been on the phone, after he cancelled our initial meeting because a sewage pipe had burst at his London home. He seemed genuinely contrite, but when a man says, 'I'm in the shit' and means it, there are clearly more pressing matters on his mind.
Despite the dodgy pipes, Hannah is a big fan of the East End, where he has lived with his actress wife, Joanna Roth, for the past 6 years. Which is why, a week later, I find myself sharing coffee and cigarettes with him in Frocks restaurant, one of his favourite local haunts.
In the flesh, Hannah is equally amiable, but also - perhaps not worrying about his pipes - more relaxed and very funny. And, as he trades banter with the staff at Frocks, who appear to know him well, they teasingly ask him whether 'you'll be needing the stretcher today'. Hannah maintains that he hasn't been drunk since a heavy session with his wife led, literally, to a watershed on a London canal route.
'We'd been up in Islington one day and were cycling home, along the canal, thinking, this is great, because we're a bit pissed, and you can get done if you're on the road, but we'll be fine on the tow path,' he recalls. 'But the next thing I knew, I was in the water. I really don't remember much about what happened - one minute I was going along fine, and the next, a couple of guys were fishing me out. They got my bike out as well, actually; they had a washing line with a big hook on the end, I don't know why - for getting shopping trolleys out of the canal, or drunken cyclists. So I came out and there was blood all over the place. I gave them a soggy tenner. I was very appreciative,' he adds' 'in that drunken fashion'.
The 35 year old Scot, famous for his cheek drenching rendition of Auden's 'Funeral Blues' in 'Four Weddings and a Funeral' and, more recently, as the womanising criminal pathologist Iain McCallum on TV, is better looking in person than onscreen, with twinkly eyes and a warm smile. He's got casually smart, or is it smart casual, down pat: dark, nicely cut, faintly pinstriped suit, no tie, dark blue short and chunky braces [suspenders]. But what is most striking about Hannah is how grounded he is. It's not often you'll get the low down on local train connections, or the relegation problems of Partick Thistle (his football team) or, frankly, such modesty, from someone who can boast, as JH can this month, the lead romantic role opposite one of the most glamorous and sought after actresses in the world.
In 'Sliding Doors', Hannah convincingly woos the beautiful Gwyneth Paltrow by being a nice, ordinary guy, a joker who endlessly quotes Monty Python and sings embarrassing pub songs in front of his mates. It's a triumph for Everyman over the process-wrapped Hollywood hunk, and the fact that the film makers and American financiers didn't feel the need to find a Brad - or an Ethan or even a Ralph - says a lot about Hannah's appeal, his innate sexiness and, crucially, his versatility as an actor: this month, he also plays a rogue and a wastrel in 'James Gang' and can still be seen as a slimy gangster in 'Resurrection Man'.
At the recent Berlin Film Festival, GP raved about the talent of her SD co-star on two occasions - despite the fact that she was supposed to be publicising another film altogether. JH is equally complimentary. 'I think we had preconceptions, like - we've got this big Hollywood star coming over and it will be a different experience,' he says. 'But, in reality, there was no sense of there being anything different about GP at all, which is quite extraordinary when you think of the kind of pressure she's under as an individual. She deals with it really well. She's a very down to earth, normal person - who just happens to be incredibly talented and successful'.
Born to a working class family in East Kilbride - his father was a toolmaker, his mother a cleaner - JH would probably never have considered being an actor were it not for the influence of one man, Tommy Byrne, under whom he trained as an apprentice electrician.
'You're brought up in a certain way, where you're going to get a trade, going to be whatever it is you can get a job at. It was never on the cards that I would go on to university and further education, so it just never really occurred to me that someone like me could become an actor,' he says. 'Tommy encouraged me away from being an electrician, and ultimately, it was Tommy who said I should be an actor. Probably because that was about the only thing that I'd shown any interest in; we used to talk about films and watch a lot of old films together. I guess I just never realised it myself'.
At 20, JH won a place at the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama and, after graduating, started getting work in TV and theatre, notably with the Royal Shakespeare Co. and the National Theatre. Sadly, some time before '4WaaF' came along and made his name, Tommy Byrne died of asbestosis. Although JH is commendably reticent to draw parallels, he admits to thinking of his friend while performing the famous funeral scene, not least because he had actually spoken at Tommy's funeral. 'I was the last of his apprentices. When I left, he was banned from having any more - the management felt he'd corrupted me. So I guess I was the last close friend that he made, and it was a huge honour to be asked to speak at his funeral. It wasn't a poem or anything, just talking about him.'
Is he tired of being associated with Auden's poem? 'No, I'm not sick of that. I'd be really sick if the only thing people remembered me for was the [VW commercial] I did that year. '4WaaF' is something I feel proud of. I haven't yet become jaded with it and I don't think you can'. So he agrees to the frequent requests for a rendition? 'Nooo! I probably can't remember it anyway. I know that for a lot of people, it was a very touching moment, but it works within the structure of the whole film. So it would be completely naff. Morning TV is always asking if I'll do it and you just think all right, sure, yeah, as if I'm going to stand up on TV and read a poem.'
JH can be impressively dour on screen - all pursed lips and sullen eyes, which is perhaps why his transition from funeral orator to mortuary habitue has worked so well. Before 'McCallum', however, it seems he was rather squeamish. 'I once fainted at the Stephen King film 'Pet Sematary'. But then, it was Sunday afternoon and I'd had a big fry up, then we'd had a couple of beers and gone back and had a spliff ... I also fainted when I was an electrician, when we were having first aid lessons. But I'm not so bad now, maybe 'McCallum's got me over it. All the gruesome stuff that we deal with in the show is so technical, you know, and we had quite a laugh doing it, taking all the organs out and things - they get quite slippery. Someone would just go to the butchers and buy a load of organs and intestines. I think with all the meat industry problems, people were quite worried - 'F- hell, this is a real calf's liver we've got here, give me those gloves!' And we were never sure how long they'd been sitting out in the props truck.
Despite his bonhomie, he admits to being 'sort of insecure, by nature'. In the early years of his career this was compounded by the classic actor's dilemma of never knowing where his next job was coming from. When he hit 30, just prior to his role in '4WaaF', his doubts and misgivings were so intense that he nearly gave up acting altogether.
Ironically, the pressures of being in demand, as he is now (shooting, eg. a series of 'McCallum' and 3 movies back to back), became just as problematic. 'I'd spent about a year and a half working non-stop because of that same insecurity. I kept saying 'I need a break. I need a break' and then I'd get offered a really interesting script, so I would say, 'Well, all right, I'll do that and then I'll have a break' and while I was doing that, I'd be offered something else, which started immediately ... By the end of 'SD', I was just fed up with acting, fed up with getting up in the morning, changing my clothes 6 times a day and being told what to do and who to be. I just completely lost any sense of myself'.
What's more, he and JR, who were married in January 1996 after about 5 years together (they met on a production of 'Measure for Measure' at the National) were finding that work was keeping them apart too much. 'It was difficult always being away filming, And then when you return, it takes a couple of weeks to get back into the routine of your real life, then you'd be away again', he admits, 'I felt like I had to reassess everything. Where I was at was terrific and a good position to be in, and yet it just wasn't making me that happy, you know. So after 'SD' I disappeared for a month.
'I went over to America - I've got some friends up in the Nevada mountains, who are not in the business at all. It was pretty good, just away from it all. I didn't really speak to my agent, didn't really speak to anybody about anything.' He also started seeing a therapist, which he describes as, 'Quite challenging. It's like, well, if you don't like it, stop doing it. So then you have to wonder how much you're just being a wee mithering minney'.
The solution was simple enough. 'Taking time out when it's there, spending more time together, having a life, and not being so obsessed, so worried about things.'
At the moment, JH seems to have a buzzy excitement about his work. '4WaaF' actually broke any sort of typecasting for me, really, and since then, the thing that is different is the thing that attracts me. You only get one life. I'm just about to start this big blockbustery-type film, 'The Mummy''. I'm this English archaeologist drop out who's living in Cairo.
JH isn't Hollywood bound. But neither does he miss home. 'East Kilbride is to Glasgow what Milton Keynes is to London, so you can understand why I don't necessarily want to go back there. No, I like living here. I kind of like cities, and I think if I was ever going to leave London, the only place I could go would be New York, because it's the only place that's faster and madder. I still see my pals. They come down and stay and I still go up and see my family and I speak to them on the phone all the time. My mum was being funny the other day. Och, she was just pretending she hadn't seen me for a while and saying she has to find out what I'm doing by reading the papers. You know, that way that your mother's just got, of making you feel bad but, at the same time, telling you that it doesn't really matter.'
'Question Time' Sidebar:
Q: Was it love at first
sight with Joanna?
Q: But you had to chase
Q: Where do you buy
Q: What's your favourite
Q: What newspapers
do you read?
Q: But you're quite
Q: Who are your favourite
Q: And favourite actresses?
Q: What's the last
film you saw?
Q: Favourite tipple?
Q: When did you last
Q: What are your hobbies?
The Reluctant Hero
by Garth Pearce
Scotland on Sunday, April 19, 1998
JH strides thru' London's Soho as the street cleaners go to work on a bright spring morning. The sex shops are already open for business, with grubby windows and fluorescent lights; girls stand alongside multi coloured drapes on unmarked doorways; a pair of plastic syringes lie unashamedly amid a pile of garbage in the gutter. Among all this, JH looks curiously at home.
This is not an insult. He can somehow carry an expression of absolute innocence, yet appear world wary at the same time. here is a man who has done the rounds and knows the score. Times can be tough and hopes blunted. They were for him when working for 4 years as an electrician in Glasgow, watching actors on the telly and wondering how on earth he could become one himself.
Now JH has achieved what looked impossible: he has established himself at the age of 35 as a name among those who produce films in Hollywood. Not a big star by any means, but one who can deliver performances which make a difference. The lean, handsome looks once admired only by housewives when he came around to repair wiring are now put up on a screen, bigger than any generator. The only currents he deals with now in his working life are those of emotion: the red of passion; the brown of earthy simplicity.
In truth, JH remains suspicious about it all. As we meet for nothing stronger than coffee and a plate of biscuits, he cautions: 'I have reinvented myself in many ways, but my family and friends in Glasgow know the reality. I have been unemployed, struggled, had doubts and sometimes wondered what the hell I've let myself in for. I had to make major changes in my life and take a lot of rejection along the way. I don't see myself as kindly as others do, that's for sure'.
Yet this, in the wake of his TV series, 'McCallum' is going to be JH's year. There is a cleverly told love story, SD, in which he co-stars opposite Hollywood's most favoured star of the moment, GP. Then comes 'The James Gang', playing the drunken, work shy father of a family from hell who move from Edinburgh to commit armed robberies thru'out England. While these films are on release, JH will be in Morocco for 3 months, starring as an archaeologist in an ambitious big budget re-make of 'The Mummy', from film giants, Universal Studios.
But, first, SD, and what is undoubtedly JH's greatest triumph. The film, written and directed by his actor friend Peter Howitt, who once found fame as the street wise Joey Boswell in the TV comedy series, 'Bread', would not have been made without him. JH had been cast in one of the 4 lead roles right from the start; as finance for the film regularly disappeared with the speed of a freak snowstorm in summer, he was prompted by his agent to take in a tour of meeting Hollywood producers in LA, including the legendary Oscar winner Sydney Pollack who has made 'The Firm', 'The Fabulous Baker Boys' and 'Out of Africa'.
'I was talking to Sydney, who is so relaxed, I didn't feel as if I was being interviewed', he says. 'He asked me, conversationally, what I was doing next? I told him about this great script that we couldn't get made. He took it off me, read it, loved it and, in one phonecall, organised the finance. Just like that'.
GP, former girlfriend of Brad Pitt, and hot after an immaculate performance as 'Emma', was signed up within days. Another American, Jeanne Tripplehorn ('Basic Instinct' and 'Waterworld') was also brought in and, suddenly, it looked as if JH, the man who had helped make it all happen, might be sidelined. 'It would have been no surprise, because they were getting bigger stars and the budget was going up all the time', he shrugs. 'It was the greatest compliment when they said I could go ahead. Then I realised that Peter Howitt had never even heard me read for the part. He's a mate and thought I'd be right for this little movie. the moment it became much bigger, I began to feel a bit on edge.
'I mean, so far as films are concerned, where do I fit in? So much of the work depends on having a 'publicity currency'. I have never had that. My dad was not famous; I did not make my name in a TV series which ran for years; I was too old to be a new discovery. '4WaaF' was all I'd got to go on and reading a poem by WH Auden at a funeral. Everyone remembers that, for some reason. But it's hardly the biggest thing going'.
JH's low key modesty - and it's certainly not false - almost got the better of him completely when he came to do the role. 'It's a brilliant script, but is the most difficult thing I've had to do,' he says. 'I have to play someone who has a lot of sex appeal and is really attractive to women without being an obvious seducer. How do you do that? It's like walking on stage as a stand up comedian, with no clothes and no script. I mean, it's bloody impossible'.
It should be obvious for someone such as JH, whose distinctive blue eyes and easy charm have given him such a following, but he seems completely oblivious. When I tell him that every women I know thinks he's got sex appeal by the truck load, he responds warily: 'I don't know the women you know'.
The producers, which include one woman, Philippa Braithwaite, showed no such restraint. The inventive story is told in 2 slightly warped time zones. In the first, executive Helen (GP) is sacked from her job and returns home early on the [tube] to find boyfriend Gerry (John Lynch) in bed with his former girlfriend, Lydia (Jeanne Tripplehorn). In the second, Helen misses her train by a split second. The sliding doors keep her at the station and, by the time she arrives home, the lover has just left. The storyline twists and turns thru'out the film: the Helen who makes the shocking discovery changes her hairstyle, gets a new job and finds romance with James, played by JH. The Helen who remains in ignorance suffers sadness and self doubt, ending up working as a waitress as her boyfriend's affair continues.
The story, with the constant question about there being a right time and place to meet the perfect partner, is crisply written and well acted. There is even a small role as a 'suspicious girl' for JH's actress wife, JR. 'Peter Howitt held a party before we started filming, so everyone could get to know each other', relates JH. 'Pete, being Pete, said 'There's a wee part in this film for you, Joanna. Do you want it?' It was like everyone in the room was an old mate of Pete and he was making a home movie, saying: 'Do you want to be in it? And you'll get paid for it, too'.
It brings us to JH's most romantic moment:
It brings us to JH's most romantic moment: 'It was when Joanna crashed into my car', he says firmly. 'It was in the days when we did not know each other very well and we went off to a picnic, in convoy, in separate cars. I was in my old Beetle and she was in a Peugeot 205. We got to a set of traffic lights, next to a bus stop, and I had to stop because the lights had turned red. She crashed her car straight into the back of mine.
'When I got over the shock, I looked up in the rear view mirror to see her slumped over the steering wheel. I thought: 'Christ - she's hurt'. I got out of the car and pulled her out, but she was more upset than hurt. We stood up and I gave her a hug and a kiss, reassuring her that everything was just fine. All those people queueing at the bus stop were amazed, thinking that I did not know her at all, and were saying to each other: 'Oh, that's really nice'. Some of them even started applauding. It made me feel like a romantic hero. It made a useful impression with Joanna, too'.
They finally married 2 years ago, after knowing each other thru'out the 90s. 'It was a case of never quite having the time, for either of us', says JH. 'Marriage is a big step, particularly for actors. We know everything about always having to prove yourself to someone new and always having such self doubts. It is how you deal with these situations that counts'.
For JH, the philosophy seems disarmingly simple. he remains down to earth and totally unimpressed by stars, unless they play for Partick Thistle. He also lives in the heart of East London, where they really do speak like the cast of 'Eastenders' and have little time for anything or anyone pretentious. He keeps in touch with his friends in Glasgow and family in EK: his retired toolmaker father, John, mother, Susan, and older sisters, Joan, who works for [Glasgow] City Council, and Elizabeth, a nurse. He's sharp and sophisticated, sitting in dark blue suit, with open neck blue shirt and smoking steadily between sips on his coffee, but there's still a laddish attitude.
When he tells me he used to work on the barrows in Glasgow market on Saturdays as a part time job, both in his days as an electrician and during the 3 years he studied at RSAMD, it's easy to imagine. 'Johnny Patterson, the guy I worked with, was a master', he recalls. 'We used to sell net curtains and he could sell like no other I've ever seen or heard. When he took his breaks, I used to have a go. It's an art, like acting. You have to imagine you are a bigger than life character'.
A fellow electrician suggested to JH that he should become an actor - 'I was always rabbiting on about something or other' - but his parents were taken aback. 'I can understand their feelings perfectly', he says. 'I was on an apprenticeship with the Electricity Board in Glasgow South and it seemed safe and secure compared with what I was attempting. It made no sense at all'.
But he has a bleak view of what he might be doing if he'd have stayed, which is best portrayed in his next film on screen, 'The James Gang', to be released nationwide on May 29. In the black comedy, his character of Spendlove mostly enjoys life looking thru' the bottom of an empty glass and avoiding work as if it is some sort of potentially fatal disease. 'That character is the closest to what I could have become had I not found some sort of purpose in life', he says, perfectly seriously. 'I had to argue most vehemently to get that part, because too many people thought that 'nice, sensitive JH' could not possibly be like that. But I could have. Easily. I honestly could have'.
He finishes the last of his cigarettes, drains his coffee and retraces his long steps thru' the streets of a cleaned up Soho. JH is handsome, talented and famous and about to become even more so. But there is a feeling that he will never forget the importance of looking backwards.
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