Don Johnson (The London Sunday Times Magazine, June 3, 2018)

I’m sitting at the corner banquette of a restaurant in Studio City, Los Angeles waiting for Don Johnson. It’s a perfectly pleasant, discreet Italian restaurant and I am at the quiet table that I requested.  It was waiting for me along with a basket of rosemary and garlic flatbread and sweet tomato chopped salad on the house. I’d been there about fifteen minutes when his publicist calls me. “Where are you? He’s waiting for you. He’s in the restaurant in a corner table.” 
     I look up, walk round the slightly rustic bar and find him…at another corner table. I beckon him to join me. I’m slightly over animated, nervy, foolish, but he summons me. I must join him. He has the same flatbread but untouched. He doesn’t eat bread, or carbs of any kind, or drink alcohol, although of course he used to. At a certain point in his life he decided simply “it didn’t serve me.”
     I’m still a little nervy. How could we both be sat in the same restaurant and have missed each other. He is unmissable. Charismatic, kingly and still with the same stubble as he sported as Sonny Crocket in Miami Vice, undercover cop who liked to stay out all night and take drugs and never wore socks.  The feet are under the table so I can’t see the socks but there’s a classic striped navy Tee and Bomber jacket and eyes that change colour. We talk about his eyes. Are they blue? Are they green? Are they grey? Are they yellow? He grins, amused.
     His image with the rolled up sleeved Versace jackets and lady loving, marrying Melanie Griffiths when she was 18 and he 23?, divorcing 6 months after and marrying her again 13 years later. His insouciance and shameless sexiness seemed to define the excesses of that era – the eighties. After Miami Vice he had a musical career recording with Barbra Streisand and onstage with Guys and Dolls. There were more TV series like Nash Bridges and some movies that were destined never to be household names. He was always there but not in the same kind of way.  He had a kind of renaissance when he was “rediscovered” by Quentin Tarantino and played Big Daddy in Django Unchained, although he would think he was always there. After that he was the ultimate fringe shirted cowboy in Cold in July and had a successful TV series Blood and Oil.  Last year he channelled a potty mouth Donald Trump character for the TV series Sick Note with Rupert Grint. “Sometimes you’re a big deal and sometimes you’re not,” he shrugs. He’s serene. 
     This week though, once again though he appears to be a big deal in the surprise hit with sexy sixty somethings Jane Fonda, Diane Keaton, Mary Steenbergen and Candice Bergen – Book Club. 
     Book Club has been wowing audiences and capturing a new market, so much so that there’s already a sequel planned. Johnson has his own theories on that.
     “We’re exploring a whole new area and there’s more senior dating and senior sex being had than amongst middle aged people. It used to be you got into your sixties and then it was just over but now as people get older they start to realise I’m here in this life. What are the things I’m gonna regret. I don’t think anyone’s going to look back and say I made too much love.” I’m sure he isn’t.
   Book Club is essentially a romantic comedy but it’s not in the way of the dreary Exotic Marigold Hotel with Judi Dench. Those are really old people finding love. These are women with implants, attitude, whose lives are transformed when they rediscover their sexual libido through reading the Fifty Grey of Shades trilogy, which was made into three movies, unleashing to stardom none other than Johnson’s daughter with Griffiths, Dakota Johnson.
     I venture, isn’t that interesting? That movie turned around Dakota’s life and now this movie may turn around yours? He looks at me with cold, don’t go there eyes. All the sweet banter out the window. “Let me stop you right there. If you think this is going to turn into an interview about Fifty Shades and Dakota you may as well save your time.” I yelp. The noise that comes out of me is much more like a Maltese terrier than I’d hoped for but I continue by asking him if by now he’s at least read the book as it’s in his movie?
     “No,” A pause. He has said in the past that he hadn’t read the books or seen the films because it’s not the type of film he would ever go and see. He puts it in the category of Twilight Saga or Vampire Diaries.  
     “Here’s the only thing I’m going to say about that; it’s what we call in the business the McGuffin – the reason for this movie just happens to be that the comedy comes from these ladies who read Fifty Shades of Grey. The movie is about these wonderful women and ultimately it’s a love story.”
     Fortunately his phone rings and he leaves the table to have a brief conversation. By the time he comes back, the initial tension is dissipated and we speak on neutral subjects like how he doesn’t get jet lag. He can outfox it – except for once when he took a melatonin on his way from Los Angeles to London to shoot Sick Note. He says he managed to make his quasi dream state work in his favour to more easily channel “the character of an unconscious egotist and totally self-involved person.”
     And did he love Rupert Grint? “Well I liked him. I don’t know that I love him.” I wonder if Harry Potter movies were also not on his hit list. “What – with six children? You see all of those.” He has three children with his wife of 20 years Kelley Phleger, Jasper, 16, Deacon, 12, and Grace, 18 and Jesse Johnson, 35, from his marriage to Patti D’Urbanville and of course Dakota, 28, from his marriage to Melanie Griffiths.
     He orders the grilled salmon with some green vegetables. It’s not on the menu. Of course it’s not. He says he’s on a Keto like diet. It helps with his clarity. He tells me that the phone call he took was for some humanitarian work he’s doing but he can’t announce it right now. “But it’s with a powerful global organisation that works with the UN. I’ve worked with the UN before in different capacities. I do it on a very undercover level.”
     I tell him he’s an undercover kind of guy. He laughs approvingly. “Not really. I just don’t require special notice for doing something that is intrinsically human – being of service.” He’s very busy right now. “I am. It’s a very rich time.”  
     His character in Book Club is hardcore romantic which is not how we have seen him for a while in his roles. “Yeah, but it’s not a new thing. It’s in my DNA. The role was very naturally organic to me because I have a deep, deep fondness for Jane Fonda. We’ve known each other for a long time. I joined a Peace and Justice group Jane Fonda had founded just so I could be near Jane. I was about 21 at the time and she was a little older (she is 12 years older with possibly the best facelifts in the business). I was smitten the moment I saw her in Barbarella,” he says dreamily.
     Jane Fonda has already said that she specifically requested Johnson for her love interest. In the movie he meets a woman who he was in love with forty years previously and the relationship rekindles. “Art following life or life following art or something. I’m not sure which way round. It’s a dream.”
     He’s big on dreams. Uses their signs, symbols, imagery in the creation of characters. He used to be big on cigarettes until one day he stopped and now he only vapes. He stopped a lot of things and he makes it sound simple.   
     “Everything gets easier when you question whether or not it serves you and if it doesn’t serve you in a way to make you behave in a better way, you’ve got to get rid of it.”
     I stare at my empty bread basket. I suppose the bread didn’t serve me but it was delicious. He laughs and continues. “I have found a way of simplifying my world. I don’t eat sugar or grain. I eat everything else.  I have discovered the key to controlling your moods and your weight and your health is to control your blood sugar. It’s a very efficient fuel for the body.”
     Over the course of our lunch, I learn like most people who were previously addicted to alcohol or sugar and were extreme in any way, find that control is the trade off, their comfort place.
     I’ve always seen him as a dog person. He grew up with dogs and has talked before about his ability to communicate with dogs. He corrects me. “I’m an animal person. When I had my ranch in Colorado I had a virtual petting zoo. Goats, pigs, chickens, donkeys, cows. I grew up on a farm.”
     He grew up on a farm in Missouri so living on a farm was second nature to him.  Did he eat the cows? “No, they were pets.” He got rid of the ranch twelve years ago. Does he miss it? “Oh no. I move on. Once it’s in my rearview mirror I don’t look back. My best friend Hunter Thompson lived a quarter of a mile from me and he died. Glen Frey (of the Eagles) lived there but moved away (then also died) so the charming ski town where I had bought for my ranch suddenly changed. Everything changed but that’s the one thing you know. Change for sure is coming.”
     He had owned the ranch for 25 years and worked with Hunter Thompson on Nash Bridges. In 2013 he resolved a high-profile dispute over monies owed to him by the show’s producers as he successfully claimed half ownership and was awarded around $19 million for his work.  He didn’t get rid of his 12 very fancy cars because he was broke. The cars, Lamborghini’s, Porsches etc were “completely impractical. I realise that I bought a lot of this stuff because I thought I was supposed to have them. I had an image of what you were supposed to do when you were famous and had too much money. All this conspicuous consumption. I just got rid of it all.”
     He’s very zen and I suppose this is how he copes with being a big deal or not. When did he realise he WAS a big deal? “It depends on what you want. You have to be clear about what your intentions are. My intentions were to do something I loved and I just happened to get paid for it. The better you are at doing something the more people notice. Fame is a by-product and a pretty powerful by-product. It takes a long time to get used to. Some people never recover from it.”
     At the height of his Miami Vice fame, they were shooting an outdoor scene and the women in the offices above all threw their underwear out into the street. “That’s a true story. It was very comical to me. I mean I’m still laughing about it. It’s the gift that keeps on giving.
     I don’t think I think about fame in that way anymore. I don’t have a massive social media presence. I mean I’m grateful for my followers on Instagram and everything but I don’t feed that machine like a lot of contemporaries. Actually, I shouldn’t say contemporaries because of some of my contemporaries don’t even bother. Jane (Fonda) does – I think that Instagram is in some ways a voice and sometimes it’s ego and I find that unattractive so I don’t have a large commitment to social media.”
     Social media is of course the greatest modern-day addiction and he’s probably filed that in the compartment of things that do not serve him, things to which he could get dependent. “Yeah, getting ‘likes’ is a little dopamine hit. It’s actually physical. The release of dopamine which is the pleasure centre of the brain. So when you open up the Instagram and someone has liked your picture you get a little ‘bop’. I suppose our generation did that in other ways but this seems to be shamelessly about servicing the ego.”
     I’m grateful that we’ve got over our rocky start of sitting waiting for each other in opposite corners of the restaurant and my mentioning of the D word. He’s warmed up and seems to grin a lot. I can’t tell if it’s a joyous grin or a supercilious grin but it’s definitely a charming grin. 
     His skin is extremely youthful. He says it’s because he’s been using a reverse ageing cream. He certainly looks considerably younger than his 68 years and he’s super trim. He rejects coffee today but says he does drink it sometimes. He requests more sparkling water. It arrives, no lemon, no lime. There is an attractive austerity to him because it is a complicated one. In his attempt to be simple he is of course immensely complicated and in some ways unfathomable.  When he looks at you – or rather through you – with those colour changing eyes, it feels like a dopamine hit. He shows me his Instagram. The latest one is of him having a head cast done for the HBO series Watchmen, based on the graphic novel written by Dave Gibbons and Alan Moore. He looks at my Instagram. “That’s a lot of cats. What are their names?” Slut, Roger, Lola, Mister. “Is it only cats who follow you?” I’m hoping that he doesn’t notice any egotistical looking selfies. It turns out he is a big cat fan, by this I mean a fan of big cats. 
     When his mother in law was big cat rescuer Tippi Hedren (Griffith’s mother) he “raised a bunch of them. I raised lions, tigers and leopards. It was a blast.”
     Was it a dopamine hit? “Yes it was. When you raise them as babies and bottle feed them you become a parent and they are very loving. They used to sleep with us. We would go to bed and have a couple of lions in the bed with us.” 
     Did they snore? “Yes sometimes.” And did he say shut up Melanie and find he’d just nudged a lion? “I wouldn’t put it that way but you nudge them and they go miaow (makes a whimpering sound) and then they go back to sleep.”
     Were these full sized lions who shared your bed? “Adolescents, about 9 months old. Then they start to become cumbersome and scare the neighbours, but in our world it was normal and they were very housetrained. Tippi still has the big cats on her reserve. The ones that slept with us were essentially Tippi’s but they felt all part of the family.”
     A lion for a brother in law? “Yes. They were all big cats who were rescued from zoos or people who thought they would be fun and then when they got to be 300 pounds they didn’t want them anymore.” 
     Now he has me charmed. It’s no wonder this is a man who’s been all about women. It’s no wonder this man used to be dubbed Don Juanson. He’s all about the women.  He confirms to me he lost his virginity at 12 with the babysitter who was 16. Now I get it when he says romantic is in his DNA. He started young and says “yeah, it was like checking your Instagram page.” He was everybody’s crush in the eighties and some of those same people are crushing on him now.  Part of the appeal is he’s unexpected. You might have been thinking he’d be brash and excessive when he’s all about the zen.
     You think of him as salty when he’s actually quite sweet. You wonder was he just a womanising racoon or a man who knows how to love women?  He’s purposeful, determined, well read, ordered, yet there’s certainly been a lot of crazy in his life, like marrying Melanie Griffiths twice.
    In a recent interview Griffiths, now single for the first time in years following her divorce from Antonio Banderas, seemed to come over all swoony when his name came up on her phone. She spoke of him almost breathlessly and implied they still loved each other and said that Don Johnson’s diamond engagement ring was better than Banderas’s. 
     Johnson has had four wives in five marriages, three of which were brief. His first two marriages were annulled within days. He met Griffiths as a teenager and they married when she was 18, were divorced 6 months later. In the eighties there were many affairs. He lived with the actress Patti D’Urbanville (she of the Cat Stevens song Lady D’Urbanville) for five years and they had a son Jessie.  He also had an affair with Barbra Streisand. He speaks of them all so warmly. He says Streisand is “a wonderful, wonderful woman and very funny. We are friends to this day… I stay friends with people I connect with because they are unique and extraordinary beings and the world is a better place when they’re here.”
     He has been married to Kelly Phleger for nearly 20 years. She calls him DJ. He calls her, “Fabulous Kelly. An extraordinary woman. I knew this the first time I laid eyes on her.” 
     They met at a party in San Francisco and he made it his business to meet this “statuesque brunette.” After their first conversation he told her that he was going to marry her. “I just knew. Yes… and then she ignored me for a year – she was with someone else and she is a woman of character and principle and I wasn’t idle.” I’m sure he wasn’t. Two years later they were married. Idleness has never been in his DNA, in his love life or in his career. 
     After he came out with Till I Loved You with Streisand, he played in rock bands for a while. “Although I will sing a little bit in an episode of Watchmen and I’m still very connected to all that stuff, I made a choice that I was going to enjoy life. I would do music for free and work as an actor on a commercial level. I play music with my kids. Jessie plays guitar, piano, Alexander plays everything, Deacon plays everything, Jasper now 16 is always making beats but he’s my basketball player. 6 foot four and a lovely young man. I’m very close to all of them. we might have arguments and disagreements like every family but they are my best friends.”
    He’s always managed to stay close to his ex-partners. “Look, there’s something insane about people who stop having relationships they have a child with. Insane. You loved each other once and that child is an expression of that love and if you say something unpleasant about that person that you made the child with, you’re saying something unpleasant about that child and that is essentially ridiculous.”
     When the man who never looks back reunited with Griffiths for a second marriage, he reasoned that “two old souls connected so that Dakota could be born.”  He nods. Was it just that? Pause. 
     “Melanie and I have loved each other since we were kids. Love doesn’t die, it changes in volume and intensity but it never dies and I feel the same way about life. We are energy. Energy doesn’t die it just transforms and that’s the way I feel about love.”
    So he’s saying that even if your partner cheated on you, lied to you, left you and hurt you, you should forgive them? “Yes. If you forgive everybody all your family, all your friends and lovers in your life and release all the resentments, anger, there is happiness.” “I don’t want to hold any anger towards someone because that doesn’t help you.”
     OK, I tell him that he is a much more evolved person than I am.  He says earnestly, “if you’re able to make that statement, at least you understand that there’s an option. Forgiveness, it’s happiness,” he says and he looks at me, bores a hole in my soul with those eyes. There’s another dopamine hit.
     He reaches for his sparkling water. I tell him I can see no bread might be possible. I can’t see no coffee and I can’t see forgiveness.
     “It doesn’t really cost you anything and it benefits you.” I tell him to stop being unreasonably wise and we need to talk about something trivial which is how does he maintain the perfect level of stubble? He looks at me. he’s very wary of trivial but goes for it anyway.
     “In the eighties no one walked around with 3 day stubble but I did it because of the nature of the character and then I realised there are benefits to being in the sun and not shaving because you shave a layer of skin off so you leave this baby skin exposed to really powerful sunlight so it’s the secret of no sun damage.”
   Then he corrects me and says sometimes he does shave it all off because he’s discovered the age defying skin cream called Augustinas Barder. “This doctor is the head of stem cell research at Leipzig University and he has discovered how to communicate with your own stem cells so it’s reverse ageing.”
    A bit like Book Club. Women in their sixties and seventies rediscovering themselves as a hormonal teenager when they read Fear of Flying.

Jodie Whittaker (Sunday Times Magazine, March 18, 2018)

The Sunday Times cover-20180318 When I meet Jodie Whittaker she is dressed entirely in black. A black knit rib top, black skinny jeans, black ankle boots – flat, no nonsense. We’re sitting in the library of the Charlotte Street Hotel which is all cluttery cosy with tapestried couches. She couldn’t be more at odds with the surroundings.  Her hair is in a variation of a blonde bob, her make-up understated.    Down to earth Yorkshire woman. There is a firmness to her. You don’t mess with her. There’s a strange kind of deep seated confidence and strength and that’s something that she brings to the roles she plays.  There’s very little of the vamp in her, but with her huge eyes and voluptuous lips there’s a trace of a woman who can do anything. Including take on the role of the first female Doctor Who and in the film Journeyman play the wife of a boxer who becomes brain damaged.
In Broadchurch her character was labelled the most terrorised woman on British TV (her son was murdered by a family friend), but she was never tragic, never a victim.
This is the kind of spirit that permeates her character in Journeyman. At the beginning we see a loving relationship with an important sexual connection and then we watch as her husband can no longer control himself and doesn’t understand what sex is anymore.  She deals with it, or at least her character does in a strangely fearless way. 
Someone has bought us teeny weeny little muffins on a chintzy plate. It feels like I’m taking a panther to tea in a dolls house. Not because she’s large – she’s actually tiny – and not because she’s fierce.  She’s actually warm but she takes no prisoners and has a huge presence  and I’m sure her home is not decorated in chintz. She is struggling with her newfound Doctor Who fame – people coming up to her in the supermarket and asking for selfies. Even as the most terrorised woman on TV she was never recognised – a tribute to her chameleon abilities and her decision to take boundaries seriously.  She has taken on this new fame gamely –  as long as it isn’t too invasive. She’s more than willing to make someone’s day. In fact, she does a little video message for my friend Rob – a lifelong Doctor Who fan. He almost cries when he gets it. She knew he would. That is the kind of emotion Doctor Who evokes in people. She is hugely empathic to its fans. She knows she’s taken on something that comes with heritage. She knows that the supermarket will never be the same but there are certain things she doesn’t want to share.  She’ll talk about her husband, actor/writer Christian Contreras and talk about the fact that she’s a mother but she will not say what sex her child is.
She is rather a contradiction. The more we talk, the more I see the contradiction – she’s warm and friendly, open with her opinions, yet barriers are so indelibly drawn there’s absolutely no crossing them.  
She sounds as if she’s never left Yorkshire although she’s lived in London since drama school. She’s now 35 and she’s spent a lot of time in Los Angeles. “Not for work,” she shudders. “Just because my husband is American and he often works over there. So we’ll go for 8 weeks at a time. To me 8 weeks is a long time. That’s one of the things I love about this job.  It means you can travel to different places and learn how they can become incredibly familiar quite quickly. I find it’s a certain mindset. If you’re used to having to just land somewhere and get to know it quickly you just immerse yourself in it and Google the best places. I’m good at being somewhere new. I’ve already done that with so many places in the UK.”
Broadchurch was shot in Bridport and she did three series. Journeyman was shot mostly in Sheffield and Doctor Who in Cardiff.  She filmed her first episode for Doctor Who in October 2017 – a small but integral part in the Christmas special where the previous Doctor played by Peter Capaldi regenerated into Whittaker’s 13th Doctor.
It’s interesting to think of the concept of a female Doctor Who, not because having a vision and uber-knowledge are necessarily male criteria but because there are not so many superhero female role models. She’s certainly no cat woman. She doesn’t play her as an ultra-female but she’s not exactly non-binary either. It’s an interesting mix. An 8month shoot for the entire series means she won’t be taking breaks to shoot another movie. “Basically, because I’m in every scene.”
She found the time to do Journeyman in gaps between her other work.  Although she’s the female lead she’s not in every scene. “I was in it a lot. I’m not very good at doing two things at once.” 
Is that because she’s all or nothing? “Yes but also because when I learn my lines I really need time. I think if I did try to double up stuff I’d be all over the place. Some people are amazing at it.” I tell her I wouldn’t be very good at it either. I’m not very good at writing more than one piece at a time. I get brain freeze. “I would never spend time writing anything if I didn’t have to. I’m someone that failed their GCSE’s.”
We have a long discussion about the word ‘mardy’ which is a northern word. It means grumpy. She says sometimes she is mardy and she has to remind herself, “What would 10- year old me do? They wouldn’t complain that it was freezing or whatever. They’d be a pig in shit, so stop moaning. I’m not a big complainer. If I’m annoyed I’m annoyed and people will know where they stand. If I’m upset I’ll be crying and if I’m happy I’m proper happy. I don’t have a filter or a poker face. But strangely I can do it with work. If you need me to be somebody I’m not I can manage that.”
She laughs, a proper laugh. Maybe she doesn’t want to work in her personal life. She just wants to relax. Playing all these emotionally wrought women must take its toll. Referring to her character Emma in Journeyman’s strength “it’s not like me. It’s quite a graceful strength, an elegant strength.” We dissect her character and wonder how she could have endured.  Journeyman is a boxing movie but not of the Rocky kind. It’s not triumph over tragedy. It’s a journey to survive. It’s about a boxing champion (Paddy Considine) going in for one last fight which he wins and also loses because he becomes brain damaged and he has to learn to live all over again.  How to walk, how to talk, how to have sex again, how to have relationships with his friends, his wife, his child.
“We shot it pretty much in sequence and I think that helped.  We did a lot of it on first take.” Considine not only plays Matty the boxer. It is also his directorial debut.
“It’s hard when you’re with someone who is a phenomenal actor and he’s got great banter. We would be there having a lot of laughter in between takes. No one was in character the whole time. It wasn’t method. That’s not how he or I work.” 
The film is not an obvious tearjerker but emotional it is. Be prepared to cry. There’s a very subtle manipulation of our emotions but much of it is about normalcy. “That makes it harder cinematically but there are so many scenes that are very affecting.” There are many twists and turns and shocks, emotional and otherwise and a beautiful Nick Cave song that forms the basis of the soundtrack. “What was brand new for me was being directed by someone who was in a scene with me and who had written it before. I would say when it’s my close up will you be there or behind the monitor? He was there. I was a bit worried about it. It sounds daft but actors don’t give other actors notes. It’s a respect thing so I thought it would be weird having another actor saying ‘don’t do it like that’, but he doesn’t direct like that so it was fine.”
A lot of the themes were even by Whittaker’s standard “harrowing.”  Of certain scenes she says, “I found it excruciating.”
Although it is not based on a real-life boxing legend story, Considine is an ardent boxing fan. “It comes from having that passion. And while we were shooting this it actually happened to a boxer.” 
Three years ago, Will Smith’s Concussion examined head injuries in American football players and that was based on a true story. The British story is “about what happens to a family when this kind of injury happens. She was much stronger than I could be.  I am instinctive in my acting and when someone tells you soften it, it will come over in a much stronger and more contained way. There’s a guilt and a rawness and even though it’s about something bigger it’s also about relationships. My favourite stories are all about the relationship. Even if it’s on an epic scale like Arrival it’s about relationships.”
Whittaker’s work is often about the minutiae that damages us. She is always onscreen very accessible, very human and now she is in the world of science fiction, the world of Doctor Who. I’ve no doubt she is perfect at finding the human side of the Doctor.
Part of Doctor Who’s appeal is that it has always managed to be ordinary as well as extraordinary and it knows the issues that move us, past, present and future. She reminds me how she was moved by the film Avalanche, particularly by the family dynamics.  The father runs away. His animal instinct is to run.
“You think please don’t be a f***er. Please be a good person.” Would she run or stay to protect her kid? “Ha!” she says, accusingly. “I agree that I’ve got one kid. That’s as much as you’ll get out of me about that. I’m just really funny about it. I want their life to be private for as long as that’s maintainable.”
There’s a millisecond of a pause and she continues “But would I do flight or fight? I hope I’m a fighter. You don’t know though, do you?”
At the end of last year she did a BBC series Trust Me about a nurse who takes a job as a doctor. Sinner or saviour? She likes that. “Also morally dubious. I like playing characters that are not sugar coated.” Again, it’s about survival. “I am lucky though that no one’s had one idea of me and held on to that and thought this is all I can do. I’ve got a strong accent, I’m very obvious in my personality type but I want people to believe I can do anything.” 
Her first film after drama school was Venus with Peter O’Toole. She was 24 years old. “I spent an entire press junket trying to convince people that the director hadn’t found me at a bus stop having a fight with a mate. He found me via my agent. I left drama school early because I got a part in Mark Rylance’s last season at The Globe. I finished The Globe in September and started Venus in October. I was lucky and also, I had a mindset that was naïve but helpful. The mindset was this acting lark is fun isn’t it rather than the mindset filled with trauma and rejection.”
She puts this down to her parents. “I was brought up in a household where you were celebrated for what you could do and you were never shamed for the things you struggled with. There was no part of my upbringing that suggested I needed to focus and get a proper job. There was no telling me what I wanted to do was ridiculous or unrealistic. Also, from a young age me and my brother were told if you don’t know something just ask so I’ve never been embarrassed about not knowing anything. I find gaining knowledge wonderful but I don’t mind not knowing something. I just ask.”
She grew up not knowing any actors. There was no family tradition so you wonder where this brilliant creature came from. She just seems to have landed in herself from a different Universe. Maybe that’s what she and the first female Doctor have in common.
“No acting in the family, nothing, just the love of film.” (She grew up in the 80’s where cinemas were very accessible. “I was far too young to watch Jaws but I did, I loved being exposed to Spielberg and cinematic adventure.”
Her father ran a small business and her mother was stay at home but as soon as Whittaker was old enough she went back to work as a teaching assistant at a school for children with behavioural problems. She had been a nanny, a paediatric nurse, always worked with children…
She cites Some Like It Hot as an inspirational movie growing up. “I must have watched Some Like It Hot like 500 times when I was young.” Did she want to be Marilyn Monroe?  As I ask the question but I feel I already know the answer.  Monroe is way too obvious, way too vulnerable, way too girlie. “I think I wanted to be Jack Lemon, you know I liked the journey of that character. It was phenomenal.  
And here we learn what is extraordinary about Whittaker – she is probably the only woman who could watch that movie and identify with the man who dressed up as a woman.
“Do you remember Bottom – the TV series with Rik Mayall? I watched every episode of that growing up.  And quite a few people have said I remind them of that character.” Meaning she is the joker, the tomboy, the person who can make the magic?
“If I hadn’t been an actor I would have loved to be involved in a team sport.  I have never wanted to direct because I don’t have a vision.  I have never wanted to be a writer because I don’t want to be in a room by myself.  I don’t know the answers or the bigger picture but I don’t mind someone saying ‘That doesn’t work, why don’t you do it this way?’ 
I like being part of a team.  Growing up I played squash, hockey, rounders, not netball because I couldn’t cope with standing still.  I like watching teams on the Olympics, everyone is individual but it only works because they are all in something together.  I love relationships with other actors and directors. Doctor Who is very collaborative, it is a very exciting job.”
She had a code name with her family and with her agent before her Doctor Who announcement. It’s always top secret and this time even more so. “It was The Clooney. Because to me and my husband George is an iconic guy. And we thought, what’s a really famous iconic name? It was just fitting.”  And although it felt overwhelming she also took comfort in that she was part of a team, a team that existed before she was even born.  “It’s wonderful and overwhelming and I absolutely love it. As a family we didn’t watch it except at other people’s houses.  But I was much more aware of it when it came back with Christopher Eccleston, David Tennant and Matt Smith.
Who was her favourite? “David of course, because I know him (her co-star in Broadchurch).  I think he was amazing. But there is no right or wrong, there are no rules.”
What does it feel like to be the first woman Doctor? It feels completely overwhelming; as a feminist, as a woman, as an actor, as a human, as someone who wants to continually push themselves and challenge themselves, and not be boxed in by what you’re told you can and can’t be.” I want to tell the fans not to be scared by my gender because this is a really exciting time and Doctor Who represents everything that’s exciting about change. The fans have lived through so many changes, and this is only a new, different one, not a fearful one.”
Does she play the role as a woman or simply a being from another planet who doesn’t really have a gender?  “That is a difficult question because I am a woman, I don’t ever play being a woman, I wouldn’t know how to play being a woman.  Just like a man wouldn’t know how to play being a man.  It’s me, but I am not bringing gender to my choices. I am bringing character to my choices.  I don’t mind not knowing.”
Often the Doctor becomes very close to his female companion and there’s a semi-romance. Is her companion male or female? “I’ve got three companions, two boys and a girl.  Bradley Walsh, Tosip Cole and Mandip Gill.  Everyone is a different age.”  But is there a romance? “I am only a few weeks in so I don’t know the answers to quite a lot of questions yet.”
Is she signed on for one or more series? “I am not allowed to answer that.” (Again, this is traditionally surrounded in secrecy). As female empowerment came into the news there have been a lot of questions surrounding her pay.  And the BBC gender pay gap has recently been uber criticised. The question is, is she paid the same as her predecessor Timelords? Fortunately, she was able to achieve the same pay as Peter Capaldi. “It’s an incredibly important time and equal pay is a notion that should be supported – and it’s a bit of a shock that it’s a surprise to everyone that it should be supported.”
She’s already lost her anonymity and she’s so far only been a cameo in one episode. Just before Christmas a picture of her Doctor Who costume was released. It’s quite clever. It acknowledges the heritage of previous Doctors but it is its own entity – a T shirt with a rainbow stripe echoes the multi coloured scarves of previous Doctors. Petrol coloured trousers with braces and multiple earrings that are stars and planets. Days after its release social media endlessly pondered their meaning. Did she feel daunted by it? “No,” she beams. “I went to the audition excited but I always come into the room with the attitude I sound like this, I look like this but believe me, I can do it. 
She tells me about the Journeyman audition. “I didn’t know Paddy (Considine) before we did this.  I wasn’t nervous but I really wanted to get the job and I knew every other actor reading wanted it.  I also know I am not a ‘name’ so I would probably be able to raise £2.50 in financing, so I went in thinking this was a long shot.”
Clearly, she is a name but maybe she just means she’s not a Hollywood A Lister that can attract millions in financing? “Well I am sure I bring a certain amount of finances, I’ve got skills…I would do anything if there was a script that excited me or there was a person I wanted to work with.  I have done the low budget really tough, gruelling shoots where you are huddled around a candle trying to keep warm and I would 100% do that always if I loved the script.  I think on the British Indie film level.”  Does that mean she doesn’t see herself as a Hollywood A Lister of the future? “It doesn’t mean if you say yes to one thing you say no to another.”
She’s certainly not put off Hollywood because of the current post Weinstein revelations. Has she ever been pressured in auditions to do something unpleasant or unscripted with the attitude ‘if you don’t do this another woman will and that woman will get the part?’ “It hasn’t happened to me but I am lucky,” she says seriously.
The Doctor Who auditions were brutal in a different way because they went on for such a long period of time.
And I was going, ‘Please, please tell me, please.’  I had three meetings and a self-take and then they needed more scenes so I had to take another self-take and then a final meeting.” Most auditions, even for landmark roles are a much swifter process. She tells me that the Broadchurch audition happened when she was in a dress rehearsal for the play Antigone. She was an hour late!  “Antigone itself is quite demanding.  I did my scenes like I had got nothing left to give and they were like ‘Perfect.’  So, it just shows you never know.”
Broadchurch became a crime series that was much loved and much emulated and she was known for the woman who seemed to suffer like no other.  After she left drama school she was cast in The Storm at The Globe with Mark Rylance and her first film Venus was with Peter O’Toole. She’s used to a landmark victory. “I think I have been really lucky.  Doctor Who definitely puts me on a level where if I go into a meeting I probably don’t have to say what I have been doing for the last few months.” She grimaces. She has worked hard at being the most unrecognisable recognised British star. It’s been an interesting equation. Hard to balance but she got it down.
“People have been absolutely lovely so far.  The other week in Cardiff I could see this little lad plucking up the courage to talk to me so I made it easier. “You all right mate?” So, I know it made his morning.  I’m actually fine with that.  People are lovely but I am very private. It’s hard to be private but it is possible as long as you stick to certain things.  I still get on the tube and I will continue to get on the tube but I might wear a hat.”  She laughs. Her rules for what’s private are interesting. She doesn’t consider talking about her husband as private.
“I have been with my husband for a really long time.  He is a screenwriter and an actor, he is Googleable.  I just think it’s easier for people to believe in me on the screen if they don’t know that much about me.”
She and her husband have been together since drama school. Does she consider this relationship as something that doesn’t really define her? She laughs warmly but doesn’t commit to a yes or no.
 
“A lot of this is on my Wikipedia page but my birthday is wrong on it.  It’s June 17, same day as Arthur Darvill (he played Reverend Paul Coates in Broadchurch) and we are exactly the same age.  We were on set at Broadchurch and he was in the guardian birthday’s list and I was like, ‘I can’t believe it!  Where am I?”
Somehow, I don’t think she will be missed off that list this year. “I love talking about work, politics, opinions, cinema but if you know too much about them it makes it difficult to watch them.  I know it makes me seem rude, which I don’t mean to be, it makes me seem a bit of a knobhead…That’s the way it is.” She laughs – a deep, gurgling laugh. “My mates get to know the real me, my family, but not everybody.”
She stretches out on the little couch. “I missed London when I was filming in Cardiff. When people say, ‘Where is home?’ I say London.  If you had asked me when I was fifteen I would have said Huddersfield.  I am obviously from Yorkshire but I married to an American and I live in London.  A few years ago, I remember getting on the tube. Huddersfield were playing, I think it was an FA cup semi-final and all of these people got on at Finsbury Park and I had my town scarf on and they were like, ‘Come on darling,’ and showed me how to use an Oyster card.”  
She is, indeed a contradiction.  Warm and friendly, likes to have a laugh but also impenetrable. She never even posts anything on Instagram or Twitter. “I don’t want to know what people think about me… sometimes when I am really passionate I would love to throw my voice but perhaps I am too argumentative and I will say something immediately offensive.  The problem with Twitter is we all think our opinions are facts.  I have never been able to face Facebook. I am in touch with all of my mates.  I see them.  I don’t have to see them on the internet.”
This must mean she missed all of the social media posts about the Doctor Who announcement including the one “Who needs a Tardis full of bras?’”  We laugh at this. “Well, I’ve missed that good stuff. Who does need a Tardis full of bras?  I wonder which person we could find to say, ‘See, what I really need today is a Tardis full of bras.’
Journeyman opens March 30

Anjelica Huston (January 2018)

I’m at Anjelica Huston’s Los Angeles home. It’s both cosy and luxurious, extremely artistic and totally charming, rather like the woman herself. I am greeted by a fox terrier called Oscar, a Havanese called Pootie and four cats. It’s the day after the Golden Globes. Anjelica, in dark jeans and pink cashmere wonders what I thought of the ceremony.
     She says, “I was not born a #metoo girl. It wasn’t who I wanted to be at school and it’s not what I want to be now –  a snitch. I think it’s a very idealistic idea of young women to think that we’re going to change men because we haven’t done it thus far in history. Nothing has happened since the day they were wearing bearskins and wielding clubs. Men have never changed about certain things. And by the way, you may have noticed last night there were not a lot of mea culpas (men admitting to take the blame).  As long as women go beating on the chests of men with tight little fists this thing is never going to happen.
     Seems like Huston is with the 100 eminent women French school of thought who denounced the #metoo movement as a puritan backlash that treats women as children. Intellectuals, actresses including Catherine Deneuve have come out against the Weinstein inspired scandal amid accusations that men’s careers were being ruined “When their only wrong was touching a knee or stealing a kiss.” They say “far from helping women to become independent, this in reality serves the interest of the enemies of sexual freedom and religious extremists who believe in the name of Victorian morality that women are children with the faces of adults.” They argue that the #metoo generation are chaining women down to be eternal victims. 
     Huston has been round the block with more than one caveman type. “The only way you can get round a man is to behave like you want to be in the cage with the 300-pound gorilla. That’s all. It’s just the way it is.” 
     Huston’s history involves a lot of gorilla taming or at least sitting in the cage. The men in her life have always been giants. Her father John Huston was the ultimate man’s man. He made macho epic movies, liked hunting and womanising, a powerful man who loved and admired Jack Nicholson, her first long term boyfriend. They were together 17 years. Their relationship ended in 1990. Huston was married to the sculptor Robert Graham from – a gentle but nonetheless powerful figure. 
     Huston offers me tea or white wine. It’s the afternoon and I love the old schoolness of the white wine but there’s a pot of medicinal lemon, ginger and honey tea already made and it seems more appropriate. We talk about the start of #metoo and the disgraced Harvey Weinstein and Gwyneth Paltrow’s white towelling bathrobe accusation after more than two decades of appearing on Oscar podiums and yachts with Weinstein. Perhaps #metoo should be changed to #whynow? She laughs.
    “Harvey was always a bully. I was bullied by Harvey, never sexually thank God. The idea, eww. But when his company bought The Grifters I had been living with Jack for a while and Jack never appeared on television talk shows which I thought was a really good idea. I said to Harvey “I don’t do television talk shows…” Well, I did every television talk show there was following that conversation. What can I say? I lost the fight. You shut up and that was that. 
     Of course I was bullied but big deal. For as long as I’ve known them, men have always bullied women. My father bullied me into all kinds of things but also he bullied me into some good things. He bullied me into the first movie I ever made (which he directed – A Walk with Love and Death). It should not have been a horrible thing but I felt that I had to give up my identity, my rather negative identity to do it. I thought I knew a lot better…”
    We weave back to the silent protest of #metoo – the Globes with everyone wearing black. “It was nice for once not to see everyone bathed in colour. It looked quite serious and Oprah – that waist!” She makes a gesture to replicate the tiny corset like waist of Oprah. “She looked great. She spoke very directly and was very powerful.”
     Huston herself was not at the ceremony. “I wasn’t asked to present and I didn’t have much that came out last year but it’s not something I’d want to do. Trawl the red carpet for no reason although I’m shocked at who does.” 
     She pours more tea from the white china pot with green shamrocks. Last year she did a movie called Trouble (out this year) with Theresa Rebeck who is the creator and coproducer of the TV show Smash. 
     “It actually traces back to the Golden Globes 2014. I was sitting at a table. We had been nominated and Theresa said ‘I had no idea this would be so long and boring.’ I said welcome to my world and she said ‘Let’s make some lemonade out of this and glanced across the room where my brother was siting nominated for Magic City and she said ‘How about I write a screenplay for you and your brother?’ I said it should be about a fight and she said ‘What about?’ and I said land. She went off and wrote it. I didn’t do it with Danny because he was busy with something else but I did it with Bill Pullman and David Morris. It’s coming out soon.”
     She also worked with Rashida Jones (daughter of Quincy) and appeared in a couple of episodes of Transparent. “We pluck along,” she shrugs. She is 66, looking elegant, her glossy hair in dark sheets falls past her shoulders.  She has a striking charisma. She doesn’t bemoan the world of acting is tougher for women of a certain age, she doesn’t bemoan ten deaths of close friends that happened last year. She just gets on with it.
     She was delighted when RTE came to her with the idea of presenting a show about James Joyce (Anjelica Huston on James Joyce – A Shout in the Street – BBC Four January 15)
     She grew up in Galway and her father was made an Irish citizen in 1964. Her father’s last movie was The Dead – not one she had to be bullied into doing. “I was very willing to be in that.” The Dead was adapted from Joyce’s selection of short stories The Dubliners. It was the last story and widely considered the best.
    I found the documentary about Joyce intriguing. His story was not one I knew about and I’ve never made it through Ulysses. Huston rather beautifully explains the relationship with his wife Nora, a country girl who grew up in the poor house. Joyce was middle class and broke and allergic to middle class snobbery and they were bonded for life – a bond that grew out of large sexual appetites on both parts.
    I enjoyed the clips from Irish luminaries such as Edna O’Brien.
   “I think she looks 30 years younger than me. She looks amazing. I’ve known Edna for a long time. I’m always surprised when I see her on film how youthful she is and how much she cares. I think August is a wicked month was written about her romance with my father.”
   Her father appears on screen talking about The Dead in a very direct and profound way, yet when he made the film he was in his death throes. He growls onscreen and his words are always particularly resonant for Huston. After her first effort in working with her father she vowed she’d never do it again and she didn’t for 16 years and then in 1985 she won an Oscar for Prizzi’s Honour and then two years later she played Greta in his final film The Dead which was much applauded. 
     “At first my father was the only one who wanted to work with me. I went to acting class, got my thing together and then understood more about the dynamic, that even though he was my father I didn’t have to take everything personally as an actress. We worked well together. We had a good shorthand. He still terrified me to a certain degree and I always wanted to be spot on for him and to be in a position where I would not be humiliated in front of the camera crew. I would do anything not to be so I think it improved my game a bit.
     The Dead came as he was in hospital having an eye operation. I went in every day to see him and his eyes were bandaged up and he asked me to read the script on the nightstand. I saw on the opening page ‘adapted by Tony Huston’ (her brother). I was shocked that this whole thing had gone on and I didn’t know anything about it but I read it and it was great, really good. And he said ‘What do you think? Should we do it?’ He was not only in hospital having his eyes done. He had an aneurysm operation and was having trouble breathing so he had to be on oxygen at all times.
     I remember Donal McCann (her screen husband) coming to meet him and we read a couple of scenes in the house dad was renting and then we went to a warehouse district opposite Magic Mountain in the middle of nowhere to shoot it. None of us had trailers. We had cubicles. When the Irish were waiting to work they waltzed around, they played cards and smoked and went back to their hotel which was called the Black Angus which should have been called The Black Anguish and they learnt line dancing there. It all happened pretty fast.”
     They shot very much in sequence and Huston didn’t have much to do to the last scene when it became her movie.
     “I was sat there all hyped up and nervous. My dad said, ‘honey how’s your horse?’ I said ‘My horse is fine. I was having none of it…We did the scene as a dress rehearsal and he said ‘very good honey now put it in the past’ and that was his one direction for me for that scene.” She smiles, a mixture of love, respect and nostalgia.
     Huston has always been very moved by her own father, possibly because she grew up in a fractured way, sometimes separated from him when he was making movies or had moved on to women other than her mother. There was always a sense of longing. She wrote – very well – a two volume autobiography the first called A Story Lately Told was largely about her father. Was being involved in the documentary about James Joyce a way to get back to him?
     “Oh, he’s always there. Sometimes he’ll crop up almost like a message. The other day a friend of mine was telling me about a house in Ireland that was up for sale right near where we used to live and on the same day my sister Allegra sent me a little piece on my dad becoming a naturalised Irish citizen. Two things together out of the blue… he was talking about the effect of being an Irishman and how his children were feeling about it. I was twelve and my brother was thirteen and he talks about the Irish weather and then the Irish weather (rain and mists) came today.”
     Her home with its cream woodenness, its lush green garden and wet emerald grass all seem very Irish. Huston also has a ranch above Central Valley with some ancient horses, including a brown and white one Charlie who is forty. “He barely has a tooth in his head anymore. We give him special food. All my animals live to be old. I look after them well.”
     Huston is in that way very old school. She looks after things. Her latest Innamorato died last year. The fox terrier was his dog. She was with him for nearly four years. “He was a marvellous man. I knew he was not well but I didn’t know how not well but that became apparent to me. He was also very defiant in the face of his illness. Very courageous and interesting and powerful person. He was an entrepreneur and businessman. He was partner with Norman Lear at one point and organised the Ali fights. His name was Jerry Perenchio.” Perenchio was a big deal in Hollywood. He was an original investor in Caesar’s Palace, was the money man behind Ridley Scott’s Blade Runner and Driving Miss Daisy. He was 86 when he died of lung cancer last summer.
    We’re back to the theme of powerful men. “They are so much more fun than weak. Weak is annoying and cloying and while it might be fun to rule the roost for a bit, I don’t want to be the one calling the shots. I much prefer to have the shots called and rise to the challenge if there is one. I think I was just fated to be this way because of the way my dad was. He developed in us minor contempt for people who could not carry their own weight or who were shallow or grasping. 
     When my mother died my mother and father weren’t together so he didn’t know what I was up to. He didn’t have a chance to be critical of my boyfriends. The first boyfriend he knew about was Jack and they were deeply in love.” We laugh and snuggle with the lemon, ginger, honey tea and randomly I’m reminded of a story from her book which touched me. After she and Nicholson broke up – she found out that he’d got a woman Rebecca Broussard pregnant while she had been going through IVF treatment herself. The relationship was unpalatable.  A few years later for Christmas for he sent her an exquisite piece of jewellery – a pearl and diamond bracelet that Frank Sinatra had sent to Ava Gardener and with it a note saying ‘these pearls from your swine…yr Jack’.
     She smiles at the recount of this story but is not as undone by it as she once was as she had found it devastatingly charming. “This year for Christmas he got me a scarf from Barneys, very pretty and a mug.” She goes to get it for me. The mug has a picture of Jack on it from the eighties.  It looks ridiculous. We laugh.
     “I know, the mind boggles sometimes.” One minute you’re a powerful man in Hollywood and then the next you’re somebody’s mug.

Intimacy Director (January 2018)

We are in a rehearsal space near Waterloo. The occasional train thunders and shakes our space. We are in a room where actors in yoga type outfits are howling like dogs then slapping their bodies like seals on the shiny, blonde wooden floor.  Then they growl like big cats and culminate by bouncing and shrieking like monkeys.

Intimacy coach O’Brien is guiding this workshop. Later she will instruct the participants how to incorporate these animalistic movements into simulated sex scenes – the more they are animal, the less they are human, the less post-traumatic stress will be involved.  Plus if you can slap like a seal and bounce like a monkey, you’re basically mimicking some very lively sex.

O’Brien is a woman with sad, sparkling eyes and a gentle but controlled disposition. She tells me, “it’s not about censorship. It’s about safety.” When I first heard of Ita O’Brien, Britain’s first intimacy director for stage, film and television, I thought surely she is a product of post Weinstein hysteria in the industry. Before Weinstein, former impressario and guru of The Oscar there was tacit approval that sexual predatory was just part of what went on. He did not create the culture but his downfall ended it. No one said anything about casting couches, impromptu sex scenes, on and off camera. No one mentioned the word abuse until everybody did. After Weinstein was exposed, the bigger picture was this was an industry where it was easy for the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable – a little like life itself.

After Weinstein’s behaviour was outed, many others followed.  Kevin Spacey was condemned for bullying, for paedophilia. Applauded television hosts like Charlie Rose was written off as a sex pest. Even the unlikely multi-national treasure Dustin Hoffman came under the cosh.  The abused took the stage and encouraged others to speak out and the #metoo generation was formed, urging for rules to change.

O’Brien with her background in movement and her desire for carefully choreographed safe sex scenes with no improvised surprises, seemed to be the perfect navigator to chart the unrippled waters of the new climate. But far from being a product of this climate, she’s merely seized her moment.
She has been campaigning for guiding principles for actors and directors working with simulated sex scenes and intimacy since 2015.  At this point she didn’t have an agent and only Carey Dodd would take her on. Together they campaigned to get her proposals to equity and now she is the hottest client on their list. Everyone wants her. Her plans are now catapulted into the spotlight and into Equity and into the Managers Association and into workshops in the hope they will be adopted as guidelines for best practice.

Weinstein-gate was a tsunami and suddenly O’Brien and her work is riding on the crest of that towering wave. But what exactly is her work? I feared for sure it would be censorial and it would revolve around distance, cover ups and no kissing. Or maybe that 1950s movie kissing with no tongues. Actually it’s way more intriguing.

She points out that productions always have a stunt director who helps coordinate the movements away from physical danger so intimate scenes should have the same. Her argument is if the actors feel more comfortable they will perform better.

A few of her rules for best practice are: “Intimate scenes including nudity should be identified upfront by producers and directors. Any scenes with simulated sex should be discussed before signing the contract and she argues that it’s important to “establish boundaries around areas of concern, keep the actors personal intimate expression out of the rehearsal room and focus on the role in the scene, the beats of the scene, the characters physical expression of intimacy by exploring animal mating rhythms,” and she says it should be standard practice to agree to areas of physical touch – no surprises.

As more and more of the recent abusive practices unravelled, we learned of for instance an alarming practice for the movie Traffic – where without notice actors were asked to be involved in sex abuse scenes.  Some suffered post-traumatic stress. O’Brien believes that there is a direct correlation between abuse in the audition and on set to the kind of abuse that young actors allegedly suffered from Weinstein and the like. They obviously felt threatened if they didn’t perform something unspeakable they wouldn’t get the part.

O’Brien’s workshop is about giving young actors the confidence to stand up for themselves and with those I talked to later it seems to be a valuable education.  O’Brien’s background is in dance and movement as well as acting. She recently worked as a movement director on Humans training the feet of the actors so they could move like synths. She’s moved from training people to be robots to training them to have safe sex on screen. She says, “I see helping the actors with intimacy is helping them to open out rather than close up.”

Does she mean like foreplay? Getting the connection? She laughs nervously. I overhear one of the actors talking about how much the seal movement has helped him with his upcoming sex scene. He’s demonstrating as his body flops on the floor – slap, slap. O’Brien continues and opens up about her own personal relationship with abuse.

“In 2009 I devised a play (April’s Fool) which was about sexual abuse in our society. I thought if I’m going to ask an actor to play this I want to make sure that they are safe. When abuse happens some of your voice gets cut off and I wanted to use that healthily. It’s not just that you can’t speak. It’s part of your personality gets cut out. We get stifled. So I wanted to create a container and an ensemble warm up that’s open, present and grounded.”

I notice her own voice gets quiet when she’s talking about being stifled and I sense she is talking through her own personal pain. “My story was of a girl who was abused by an uncle and the fallout from that which the family felt. It was just a Catholic family story…It was my story.”

So the abuse happened to her? “Yes. If it’s alright I’d rather not explore it further and go into the detail of what happened… but I can talk about how it affected me – that is I have a sense of and a reason to keep myself safe. And I know how abuse affects you. It has ripples through your life. I’ve done a lot of work on personal healing from that but I have an awareness and understanding to bring to this work.”

Indeed, she channels that pain into helping others. We weave back to that important correlation – being abused in a sex scene or audition and the wider aspect of abuse within the industry.

“Yes of course it is linked. That’s what I thought when I did my piece in 2009. In 2010 there was all the abuse of the Catholic priests and then Jimmy Saville. Abuse has been inherently part of our society. Things are so bad now that there is a call for change. Enough is enough… A relief in a way.
She starts to give examples of historic abuse within the industry and how the actors were not given support or guidelines.  “For instance, if you do an audition for, say, Romeo and Juliet and you know there’s going to be sexual content have the conversation with the director before you take the job about their vision about how they want the intimacy to be portrayed and then you can agree or not.

Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris was one of the worst cases. She was only 17, a minor. The details of the sex scene was not in the script. Marlon Brando and Bertolucci came up with the butter/anal scene idea themselves on the day. She initially said she didn’t want to do it. Brando said ‘it’s only a film’ and she says now ‘I felt abused and raped by them.’ The thing with sex scenes is that you are using your body intimately and that has an impact unless it’s done safely. People can have shame and emotional injury.”

She insists that this is not about tampering with the director’s vision – merely about clarifiying. Schneider never worked in a big budget international movie again. She said afterwards, “During the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci.”

More recently Nicole Kidman talks about the violent scene in Sky Atlantic’s compulsive seven part serial Big Little Lies where she is essentially raped by her husband. The relationship is one where outwardly Kidman is the powerful lawyer and her husband is addicted to sexually demeaning her. This culminates in a shocking scene where Kidman’s character who has previously seemed ambivalent to the S&M, can’t fight back anymore. There is brutal scene which leaves her unable to fight back, curled in a ball on the floor. And Kidman says she felt “exposed, vulnerable and deeply humiliated.”

Another example was in BBC’s The Night Manager. There was a scene with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki where after months of sexual tension he finally took her and had her against a wall. The scene got a lot of attention because of Hiddleston’s buttocks being exposed and he had many admirers at the time but Debicki said how she found the scene awkward. She said that they did it in one take, everyone looked around and left and we met at the tea caddy as if it never happened. According to O’Brien, that means one moment of improvisation sent Debicki into a place of shame and denial.

Basically O’Brien is saying that safe onscreen sex has to come with no surprises. Then she says, “If you have a dance scene you have a choreographer because you don’t want someone twisting their ankle. If you have a simulated sex scene there should be the same sort of guidelines. Sculpted in a safe way with agreement and consent of all involved.” But doesn’t that mean you’re censoring the director? “No. If there’s a fight scene there will be a stunt director. They’ll talk about their vision. They’ll talk about how they want it sculpted and the stunt director will choreograph it making sure the techniques are safe and the director is absolutely being served.”

I wonder about spontaneity and haven’t some of the most impactful scenes in movies come from the actors imagination and improvisation on the spot? I wonder if Daniel Day Lewis has ever been told how to sculpt a sex scene?

“When you’re asking an actor to do something that’s just improvised they don’t know personally if they’re safe so they can’t be artistically vulnerable. What you want is that the actor really serves the emotional content that’s required.  If you sculpt a scene then it allows the actor to be spontaneous within that boundary. It allows the actor to really give themselves fully to the emotional content because they know what’s happening is agreed and consented to.”

So improvisation is dangerous? “Yes because you feel not safe.” Does she think that there are actors who carry around shame because of the scenes they have been forced to do? “I have run these workshops now for over 3 years and I start by asking people to share their experiences and I would say that in a group, most people have had unpleasant experiences and only a couple would have had safe experiences. This is the proportion.”

The more O’Brien is opening up the more complexities I see. You can’t dismiss her as a censor. She is a huge fan of one of the most controversial directors of sexual content Paul Verhoeven who is renowned for his visceral sex scenes. He won last year’s Golden Globe for the sexually explicit Elle where Isabelle Huppert was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a post-feminist rape victim. O’Brien is a fan because he personally story boards all of the sex scenes in advance which is extremely rare in the industry. “He talks very pragmatically about vaginas and nipples so there’s no confusion, no titillation or infantalisation. He does detailed story boards and everyone knows what’s being asked of them.”

Verhoeven says, “All the actors knew exactly what they were going to do. All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed. There is no question of, do I lick her nipple or not? Do I go down on her? How far? And what do you see? Every movie is already clear before we start because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what would be visible, where the camera will be, and what the actions are. I do it in extreme detail, using words like ‘nipple’ and ‘vagina’ continuously to make absolutely clear to the actors how we’re going to shoot that scene, and when we shoot it we really stick to the script. I don’t come to the actors later with additional details that are perhaps unacceptable. It should be clear in the script what’s happening.”

From the actors I talk to today, this kind of clarity is indeed rare.  The very beautiful Serena Jennings graduated from drama school two years ago and was attracted to the workshop because she liked the idea of protection. Since graduating I’ve done various projects with sex scenes – one where I had to masturbate. Often you were just thrown in and expected to perform without having boundaries. There was another sex scene in the same web series about a couple having problems in the bedroom. “I knew it was there but I had no one talk to talk about it. I did carry shame from the masturbation scenes.”
On another project she had to do an improv with a director that she wasn’t comfortable with. “He said ‘take off as many clothes as you can until you feel you can’t go any further.’ And then afterwards he said ‘so, you got down to bra and pants. You won’t really understand the character because you didn’t strip fully’ and for me that was utterly haunting. That’s why I was attracted to having an intimacy coach, guidelines. It was the most uncomfortable five minutes of my life.”

As the workshop progresses the actors split up into groups and are given various intimate text to work with. Swapping the roles of actor and director to discuss the approach, after that they map it out with words like ‘I touch you here’. Then they do it just physically so you see the seals, the monkeys and the dogs panting right back in there. Once it is compartmentalised it loses its potential power as a catalyst to shame and disgust. One text being worked on is a scene from a play called Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shephard and Patti Smith. It’s about a couple who never leave their room. Eat sleep and have sex constantly.

It’s being directed by Miriam Lucia, an actor/director and actor/trainer who runs the Clerkenwell Actors Studio. She has an elegance and composure that you’d not want to mess with and was working with her actors to create a sense of trust. “I found it rather liberating to use words like roll and thrust.   We have incorporated the animal work into the scene of the play so it’s a great way in. I know that actors clam up and freeze because they are caught up in wanting to please and wanting not to make trouble and feeling ashamed.

If they don’t want to do the sex scene they feel someone else will do it and they’ll lose the part. It’s very important that you bring up this situation at casting.” I’ve heard horror stories about auditions – generally from girls but not always. They are asked ‘roll up your skirt, stick your chest out, wear higher heels. It’s shocking and a power play. Especially when the directors are saying ‘look like you really want to f**k now’ with someone who’s 17.

If the script is clear and you don’t want to do it a body double may be hired. O’Brien says, “You should also absolutely be able to agree to what scenes they use. If people are thinking that it’s your body and there’s a simulated sex scene and there’s something you’re not happy with or it doesn’t serve the work then it’s gratuitous and not good. From training people to be robots she’s moved on from training people to have safe sex. “There are many movement directors who can choreograph sex scenes but the point is there need to be clear guidelines.”

“I want to have a clear and effective code of ethical practice. At the moment there is an absence of industry guidelines and that’s what I want to fix.
“Do you know the video A Cup of Tea? It explores the concept of agreed consent – if someone comes to your house and you ask them if they want a cup of tea and they say yes, you make it and by the time you come back they say I don’t want a cup of tea now. You don’t open their mouth, pour it down their throat. You can see that this is ridiculous therefore you can’t force someone to have a sex scene. It’s using the idea of agreement and consent. For instance you agree if you’re happy to be touched and where. Regarding genitals you should never have bare genital touching. The lady should have a murkin and the gent should have a cock sock.

“Part of the guidelines is that you talk about this beforehand. Work with wardrobe to make sure that the “coverings” are available in the right size. There’s one story that an actor had to do a gay sex scene. He was given a cock sock that was too small so the wardrobe department went away and came back with another one that someone had already worn. It was the right size but this gentlemen was of colour and the previous gentleman was white.”

She says all this very demurely and it’s not a surprise to learn that her dancing career started off with Irish dancing. Not just because her heritage is Irish but it’s about keeping very still while your legs move very fast. Contained, like a duck. Everything going on underwater. “But Irish dancing has a heartbeat that releases something?”

We digress into our education with cruel nuns. She had a Sister Mary Helen who beat the girls with a stick. Another reason why safety and boundaries are important to her.

“Actors should always be able to say stop if they are not comfortable.” Isn’t it hard if an actor really wants the part and they’re told in an audition, as was the case in Traffick, they have to do a sex scene? Would a director ever give the part to the girl who walked away?

She nods. “I agree and it’s hard but with this present climate I hope things have shifted and changed.” She points out starts of these changes.
“Tom Hanks says that the industry post-Weinstein, all studios are going to have to have a code of conduct printed on their doors. The climate has changed so this is now possible. The Old Vic (Kevin Spacey’s previous domain) are coming up with a code of conduct and The National too and The Royal Court. What I’m offering to the actors is that they should take autonomy.  They should think do I want this or not? Is this serving who I am as an artist or not? And it is hard to walk away but if you’re in a situation that compromises you, you have to think. For an example, as a dancer I got sent along to be a possible body double for a star in a film who had to be a pole dancer. I was told they wanted me to be the top half and somebody else will be the bottom half. I told them no.”

Was that the thought of being half a body? “Yes and also the thought of me having to dance topless. When I thought about it I felt that I would go into shame and trauma so I said I can’t do this and that’s what I’m inviting people to do.”

She can’t remember who the star of the film was but it was back in the eighties when she could have done with the work.

O’Brien is currently teaching student producers and directors at Mountview.  “Basically educating people across the board that there should be a code of conduct.” (In the past she’s taught at the Drama centre LAMDA).

The actors from Cowboy Mouth are really getting into their seals and monkeys. Very balletic versions of them as they take over Sam Shephard and Patti Smith’s play. They are the most impressive. The other script being worked on features an incest scene from ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.’

Sculpt is one of her favourite words. She’s always talking about sculpting a scene so that everybody knows what they’re doing. What if the scene changes? “That’s when the director needs to come to the actor and re agree what they’re comfortable with. You can change the script but it’s just being aware… Say you want a breast being groped and someone’s not happy with it. Find out where that person is happy to be touched and you can still have that (she makes a sound of whimpering ecstasy)”.

“Bring solutions not problems. Actors need to equip themselves. It’s also important that the man checks where he is happy to be touched. In particular when I was exploring the dynamic of sexual abuse in our society, getting everyone to find when they were the victim and find the physicality for that and the next day everyone had to find what happens when they were the perpetrator. That was really sticky. People acknowledging when they were the ones doing the pushing, the taking. One actor said ‘I have realised all I have to do is stand with my arms out and I’m the perpetrator, yet I think of myself as a nice man. They can be equally in need of being taken care of as the victim because you’re asking them to go to a place that they find very disturbing.”

Clearly different people have different personal histories and sensitivities and what disturbs some destroys others and others may not be affected. “That is why it’s important to be upfront and honest. Yes it’s going to be hard to say certain things, that’s why I contacted Equity. Their guidelines were unfathomable and archaic and that’s why new ones need to be set in place.”

Denzel Washington (January, 2018)

Denzel Washington & Chrissy Iley 2018

We’re in a high-rise New York hotel room. Outside is bitter cold.  Denzel Washington is wearing an exquisitely tailored black suit and neatly coiffed hair. Very much the opposite to how I’ve just seen him in his new film Roman Israel Esq. It’s about a lawyer who is weirdly brilliant and also just weird. It’s about being a truth teller and how his life becomes undone. For most of the film he wears an oversized burgundy suit that seems to belong to part of the last century and sports a mini fro.

He immediately takes issue. “Burgundy? You think that was a burgundy suit…?” The eyebrows raise. “I thought it was maroon. You don’t think there’s a difference between burgundy and maroon?” He’s straight off the top, on sparkling combative form and continues, “And what do you mean mini fro? That was a fro!”

I tell him of a chance encounter with the film’s hairstylist in the lobby who said ‘it was a collaborative idea. “Huh!” said Washington affronted. “It was my idea and my hair. Mini! That was seven months of hard work. It was the full fro. It was Billy Preston.  I don’t want to talk to you now.” He theatrically folds his arms and leans back into the mock mid-century grey and teak couch.

“I did a lot of work. I should have kept it but they cut it off. Maybe it’s a black community thing. When my first son was born we cut the pieces of hair from his first year and you keep it. I guess it’s like keeping baby teeth.”

But this is adult Washington hair. He is 63 and coming into what he calls “the final quarter”. I’m not sure how his system of quarters works but turning 60 was a landmark for him. He wanted to concentrate on his physical and mental wellbeing, making sure he would explore more of the works of great American playwrights on stage and stay healthy enough for the physical demands. He doesn’t look like he’s nearing his final anything. He has a brooding and charismatic physical presence. He laughs a lot and when he laughs his eyes dart and his smile is very sparkly. He loves to chat. I’m not sure if he loves the process of the interview. Sometimes if he feels he’s being interrogated he just changes the subject completely.

We circle back to the topic of hair. Isn’t it a bit spooky to keep hair? “I didn’t but I should have.” In a way this wasn’t Washington’s hair, it was Roman’s.  The flawed lawyer savant he plays in the eponymously titled Roman Israel Esq. it was a movie written for him by director Dan Gilroy who felt Washington was the only person who could play it. It’s a nuanced and powerful performance which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Gilroy was inspired by Washington’s 2012 Award winning performance in Flight. Gilroy was excited to see Washington do vulnerable.  The scene that got him was the one at the end where the pilot with a sense of entitlement was brought down and admitted to being an alcoholic.

That kind of vulnerability sustains Washington’s portrayal of Israel throughout the film. He’s generous on the brink of crazy. Smart on the brink of broken. Compulsive about peanut butter sandwiches eaten over the sink and the contents of his old fashioned big iPod.  Somehow, he makes you root for him in the way that only Washington can do. This character is peculiar yet he is so human.

Washington is never one for analysing or at least not in public. He doesn’t so much want to sit down and talk as sit down and play. And remind me of past interviews that I’ve done with him, particularly ones that did not go so well. He looks at me with a ‘Come on what have you got for me?’ expression. He often repeats a question as if he’s been asked it for the very first time but I’m sure there’s not a question he hasn’t been asked. Still we try.

His football team is The Cowboys who were in the news recently for kneeling for the flag as a protest. Owner of The Cowboys threatened to send the kneelers home. What does he think?

He shrugs? “You gotta pay the cost to be the boss. You can take a knee but don’t complain if you go home, you know? It’s a free country. You have the right to protest. Are they being benched? I don’t think so. You can’t bench a whole team.”

Washington dances around the political issue. He’s very wary of being a spokesperson for black issues. He just won’t go there. He’ll try and change the subject but at a talk he gave at the national theatre last year he said, “look black people don’t be talking about what the white man won’t give you. I got roles.”

Washington has been married to Pauletta for 35 years – before his film career began. In public they show the kind of solidarity that comes with being together for such a long time. They have two sons and two daughters, all college graduates. His oldest daughter was a producer in the Oscar nominated Fences in which he both starred and directed.  His oldest son played in the National Football league but now has a TV career. His youngest son graduated from the American Film Institute in directing and worked with Spike Lee and his youngest daughter has made her way in both film and stage.

What advice did he give to his youngest daughter Olivia about her acting? “I actually said be the best, learn to act on stage not film. Don’t compromise, don’t be intimidated. It’s going well for her. She’s just finished the Taming of the Shrew with the Chicago Shakespeare Company. She is a working actress,” he says proudly.

As the father of a 26-year-old daughter does he worry about the entertainment industry? Does he worry about the recent revelations where the powerful have abused the vulnerable? He’s nodding sagely. Does he think that the #metoo backlash will have a significant effect on the way the industry works?

“I’m sure it already has. I’m sure there are those who thought they could get away with anything and they don’t feel that now. I mean I hope they don’t. I think it will change the industry for good. Hmm Harvey,” he reminisces. “It’s about 10 years. I haven’t talked to Harvey in about 10 years.” And with that Weinstein is dismissed.

Washington is next up in a play on Broadway – The Eugene O’Neill heartbreaker The Iceman Cometh. A play for which the now disgraced Kevin Spacey received plaudits. How does he feel about stepping into Spacey’s shoes? “Whoah,” says Washington. “I’m not!” his eyes ignite with ferocity.

But he’s playing the same character. “And?” he laughs. “I’ve played Othello and you don’t think about the other actors who have played Othello. There have been many Othello’s.”

Some people have made or at least remade their career on playing that role. I was thinking Lenny Henry. “Yes I heard about that man. In fact I heard about him doing Fences. I’m glad to hear that Othello reinvented him because he was a comedian. I met him in the eighties at one of those Nelson Mandela concerts. Lenny Henry and Ben Elton were the MC’s. it was a big concert to raise money for Mandela’s children’s fund.”

Just this morning I saw Washington on the news talking about parts that he didn’t get. He almost didn’t get Cry Freedom. Attenborough said ‘If I don’t find an African you’ll do.’ “I don’t remember it like that. It was more like a meeting but I came in prepared to audition and it was a good meeting.”

So Washington’s come a long way from maybe you’ll do to having a movie written for him. “That’s what I’m hearing now. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time.” Why? Because he would have felt too responsible? Too burdened?

“I don’t know.” (Director) Gilroy had said if Washington wouldn’t do it he would have shelved the project. “Yeah I’ve heard that.”

Washington does this often, distances himself from compliments, distances himself from responsibility – he knows deep down it really is all about him. It’s just that he doesn’t want to know.

I tell him that I was at a Bafta Q&A where Gilroy said he had an epiphany moment while watching Washington’s performance in Flight the way he balanced power and vulnerability and that’s when he wanted to play someone who was flawed.

Washington of course doesn’t know how to take this compliment but simply says “Oh really, that’s excellent. Would you like a gummy bear?” He offers me one from a jar on the coffee table separating us. He sees me poke around and asks me, “Does colour matter to you? You see I’ve been stealing all the red ones.” He arranges the pot of gummy bears out on the table so we can see the colours. “What’s your second pick if you don’t get a red one?” Orange. “Yes!” he says excitedly. “Orange is the obvious second choice, but sometimes I like to go for the yellow one. It’s kind of neutral. But look at this! A pink one.” I take the pink one. “Roman would know exactly how many were in there, the calorific intake of each one and what was the law behind the company that made them. Roman was trouble, poor guy. Just trouble.”

I would have said he was more troubled than trouble. “Mmm…” Washington savours the thought. Gilroy said Washington came up with the idea of making him obsessed with peanut butter sandwiches.

“Dan started adding jars of peanut butter everywhere. I came in one day and there were 20 jars in my kitchen so the idea must have been collaborative.”

So much peanut butter though. Can he ever eat it again? “I didn’t actually eat much of it. I like peanut butter though but peanut butter and honey. Do you know the actor Delroy Lindo? He and I went to theatre school together – The American Conservatory.  We didn’t have much money. We had bread, half a gallon of milk, peanut butter and a jar of honey and that’s what we would live off for a week.”

Didn’t he get bored with it? “That suggests I had options. I was more bored of starving. Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York. His mother was as hairdresser, his father an ordained preacher. His mother saw that he fell in with a bad crowd at school and sent him to a strict military school. He doesn’t see much of his three best friends from school anymore. At least a couple of them have ended up as bad boys. “We used to ride the trains together, jump the turnstiles, go into town and hang out. When I did Julius Caesar on Broadway one showed up at the play. He’d been in the penal system for 28 years. Another one died, the third one is a chef doing OK and I am the fourth one.” Quite a difference between four friends. Washington has a primary school in New York named after him. 10 years ago, the Columbian Gorillas insisted they were only prepared to release three hostages if Washington was the negotiator. Washington is of course more than an actor and a director and sometimes he speaks like he too has been ordained. And the rest of the time he jokes around.

Three years ago he gave up alcohol on his 60th birthday. “I just had enough. Some things you can have enough of. Not peanut butter yet but all alcohol. I gave it up on my birthday 3 years ago December 28th with the idea of putting my best foot forward I tried everything else, let’s try this.”

He wanted to make his final quarter a healthier one? “Yes, yes. That too,” he says, now studying the gummy bears that remain –  mostly green and a weird white one.

Alcohol stopped giving him pleasure. He still likes boxing. He first discovered it when he played boxer Ruben “The Hurricane” Carter in the movie Hurricane. And has made it part of his regime. He looks powerful of course – tall, strong, but at the same time there’s something very soft and endearing. He’s a music fanatic too and was advisor on the movie’s soundtrack which is a mixture of 70’s classics and cool jazz.

“My character is constantly listening to music so I just liked to use different songs so that we could build a library of what my character would listen to. We had 28,000 songs.” Does he have a vintage large iPod in real life? “I have all of the iPods pretty much.”

So just as you’ve got Washington down as this one-time bad boy who now likes to look after himself, the survivor of the friends, the one who remained the ultimate cool dude, he reminds you of a religious experience he had. I’d never thought of Washington following his father’s footsteps. I’d always had him down as more of a rebel but he is in fact there is a religious side to him and at one point he says the Holy Ghost came inside of him.

“Yes,” he says matter of factly. I ask him why is he making this sound as if it’s normal. “Well, you know, I was in church and in church at the end of the service they ask if you want to go into the prayer room and they talk about speaking in tongues and then – other than the overwhelming power of the experience what I remember is letting go. Not having any doubt. Not being cynical, just thinking OK let’s go for it and see what happens so yes I spoke in tongues.”

What exactly does this mean? He spoke in different language? “Yeah a foreign tongue and I remember calling my mother afterwards. I remember sweating and getting really emotional and I remember calling my ma and saying this is what happened and she said ‘oh yes that’s right.’ And I said my cheeks filled up and she said ‘that was a purge. Purging the bad spirits coming out of you.’ She was very, not matter of fact because this was serious but she was giving the explanations to the things I had experienced very calmly. Things I didn’t understand and she explained to me so succinctly and that seemed to be proof it was something she had seen and experienced before. She could describe it without having seen it. I think we get far away from what’s natural when some things hit us. We think they are actually supernatural but you have to allow it, be open. It’s not like I’m the expert on it cos there’s lots of things I don’t know.”

Does he think he was ready for it? “It was ready for me. It was actually a bit overwhelming. I was like wait a minute. I’m not ready for this whole commitment.”  When did this happen? Was it in the 80’s? “Actually I’m not sure. I just remember thinking does this mean I can’t go to the club? Does this mean I can’t have wine and the answer was no. I had lots of wine through most of the 80’s as I recall.”

Did it change him in any way? “It gave me concrete proof that the Holy Spirit exists and that it’s real. No question about it. I’ve gone back there and I wonder did they let some mist off in the room that gave you a funny feeling? I don’t know. I remember some people in the room not going through the experience I had but it was real for me.”

His mother had an experience in her hairdressers where one of her clients wrote in automatic writing about Washington’s future. He corrects, “Well I don’t know if it was automatic writing but she had a prophecy which was that I would preach. She said I would preach to millions of people.” Well he does, kind of. “Kind of, yes.”

His phone rings and he jokes, “ah that’ll probably be my mom now…the prophecy also said that I would travel the world and that through my work I would speak to millions of people. At this time in my life I’m now unafraid to talk about it. She said that I would have millions of followers. Maybe she meant thousands and then added too many zeros. Maybe she said I was actually going to preach to ten people ha ha ha. I try not to use the word preaching. It sounds like I know more than you. I’m just sharing my experience.”

Preacher or not, he is a kind of mentor to Ashton Sanders who was in Moonlight. He’s working with him now in The Equaliser. “I don’t know if I’d use that word but I like him and he’s very talented. He’s a good kid and I’ve been where he’s going. He’s talking about how things are changing for him. You know how his friends are changing. I’ve been down that road.”

Does he mean that he has to readjust his circle of friends and get rid of the users? “No, not anything like that.” It’s just who does he talk to? Who has walked the walk he’s walking? “Of course I don’t tell him what to do but I can share.”

We have spoken before that he might have walked a different walk had his mother not taken him out of school that time. “Yes, that’s true.  Two of those friends did jail time and the other one lost his teeth. That was a few years ago now. I got him some good teeth but I haven’t seen him recently. I have one or two old friends from my twenties not that far back. When I moved to LA I stayed friends with all the people I came up with in the 80’s.”

Are they actors? “No.” I read somewhere that said Washington is not friendly with any white actors. He looks at me with an ‘as if’. “That’s not what I said and I don’t even remember what I was asked. I might have said I wouldn’t surround myself with just acting friends and he twisted it.”

People are saying that last year was the Black Oscars because the year before it was all super white. “What do you mean the Black Oscars? What people say this? Who are these people?” I suppose media people say that there were more black nomination in 2017 to counteract the year before when there were none.  He looks at me as if I’ m mad, shrugs and says, “we’ll see what happens… None of it’s up to me. I’ve done my job.”

Does he care about awards? “Of course people care about them. First of all, it’s an opportunity for the industry to celebrate those who have achieved. I don’t know if it’s a measuring stick… I remember they all used to go to Swifty Lazar’s party at Spago’s after the awards. There used to be a parking lot and you could drive up and look down over Spago’s and I remember seeing people going in – Warren Beatty and people like that and I said to myself someday I’m going to get in there. It wasn’t so much about getting the award, it was like I wasn’t invited to the party and I needed to be.” He laughs. “One day I’ll be able to get in there I said.”

Now they don’t have parties at Spago’s. That particular Spago’s doesn’t even exist anymore but I think we can say if it did he would definitely be at the party. Does he think when he looked down he manifested his award-winning future? “No I think I was already headed that way.” Was he always driven? “Yes, driven but you know you can get bored and sometimes you have to reboot or refresh. Like going back to theatre woke me up. When I went back to Broadway I was like oh I remember now.”

He rebooted his Broadway career with Julius Caesar in 2005 and then there was Fences and A Raisin in the Sun. I saw him in a packed out short run of the latter with my mother. I think we paid $700 per ticket.

I wonder if he loved Obama as much as I did. Does he think that the US will ever recover from the loss? He looks puzzled. “What do you mean recover?”

Obama was a good guy in charge. A good President and a good man and now we have the opposite. “Well it’s early days yet…” Really? At this point the Fire and the Fury had not been released but Trump had pulled a few corkers like the flight ban from certain countries and not quite being able to explain his relationship with Russia and his potty mouth on Twitter.

“It’s not like Barack and I are old pals you know. I think he watched someone and was inspired by someone and someone will be inspired by him.”

Does he really think that the current regime is inspiring? “Is it not?” he says ambiguously. OK, politics is not an inspiring conversation point for Washington. Although he’s sat in front of me, in his head he’s already left the room.  Although he looked pretty mesmerised while watching Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. Ostensibly it was her acceptance speech for her Cecille B De Mille award but many are viewing its galvanising passion as a bid to run for the presidency in 2020. In response to the #metoo audience all wearing black she spoke about how speaking your truth is the most powerful thing to do and warned the abusers, “Time is up.” But then he comes back to explain his position on the black president followed by the orange one.

“There’s a pastor talked about this. I think his name is A R Barnard and I think it’s Daniel Chapter 10.  He says that God puts Kings in a place for a season and reason and we don’t always know the reason so this is what it is right now. There’s a reason behind it and I say to people if nothing else we should be more unified. All the more reason to work together.”  He beams, rather godlike and then laughs. And it’s one final gummy bear before he goes.