Monday, 15 November 2004

PA - Paul McGann

Happy to be 'I' but not Who; Paul McGann tells Wil Marlow why he forgets lines but never his son's birthday.

Paul McGann has been a hard man to get hold of. Other work commitments have meant it's been difficult to tie him down for a chat about his latest TV drama, the romantic thriller Lie With Me. And, as Paul later puts it, 'real life has intervened'.

For the father of two, who lives in Bristol with his wife Annie and their sons Joe, 16, and Jake, 14, had also been making the final arrangements for Jake's impending birthday party.

'It's quite good because his birthday is fireworks night and providing you stay in Britain there's always a do,' says Paul, whose own 45th birthday was yesterday. 'We were actually able to choose, within a week, Jake's birthday for that reason.

'Both our kids were caesarean births and with Jake the consultant said, 'We can do it anytime next week, you choose.' I think that year it was a Monday, so we thought, why don't we get it over with and also it's Bonfire Night, so he'll always have a do. This is how you think as a parent.'

Paul's real life as a family man is very much at odds with the lives he usually portrays on screen. Well-known for playing brooding characters who are often hiding things under their shifty exteriors, Paul, exudes this demeanour to perfection in Lie With Me.

He plays Gerry Henson, a successful art dealer with an insatiable appetite for women that is tolerated by his long-suffering wife. But when Jo, his girlfriend of eight months, is discovered dead by her flatmate Roselyn, the mounting evidence starts to point to him.

With Roselyn's memory a blank concerning the events of the night before, the truth about Gerry's level of involvement in Jo's death remains vague. Soon he finds himself the focus of an unethical plot to implicate him. But did he actually do it?

'I was intrigued by the idea of it,' says Paul of why he took the part. 'And of course the character they wanted me to play was something I enjoy being offered and playing - people that perhaps are slightly morally ambiguous.'

Playing Gerry might have come easily for Paul, but remembering what he was supposed to say was slightly more difficult. The actor sometimes has a habit of forgetting his lines which stems from an episode of stage fright he experienced some years ago.

'It isn't funny really,' he says after laughing at the memory of it. 'It's funny now to talk about but when you're standing there, catatonic, it isn't funny at all. For a performer it's quite nightmarish and knocks your confidence.

'It took me a while to come back from that. I often wondered whether I was going to be able to learn this stuff. I'm not the best, it has to be said, even now. Even in the best conditions of keeping and retaining dialogue, I just can't.

'But, without running myself right down, it is, in my experience, a combination of my weakness and the weakness of the dialogue. I'm prepared to concede only half way,' he laughs. 'Sometimes I think, I'd rather not say that, can't we just act it? In a parallel universe I'm some silent movie star.'

In another parallel universe Paul McGann was, for a long time, Doctor Who and only gave the role up two years ago. In reality, of course, it's a very different matter with the cult sci-fi series only just having been resurrected after the failure of the joint British and American pilot which starred Paul back in 1996.

Paul had signed a six year contract with 20th Century Fox and the BBC to play the Doctor, but in the 'winner takes all' climate of pilot season in America, the Doctor Who film didn't quite garner enough ratings to justify a full series.

When the BBC started filming a new series of Doctor Who with Christopher Eccleston this year, Paul was far from surprised. Despite the low ratings of his pilot in the US, the film had shown that there was still an audience for the Doctor after the BBC had axed the programme in 1989.

'But I was never in the running to play him again,' says Paul. 'I was never called and I never rang them either. Would I have been interested? It's not easy to say - I wasn't interested in doing the pilot to start with.'

Now Paul is resigned to being what he calls 'the George Lazenby of Doctor Who'. As he's played the Doctor in audio books, he's contributed more to the legend than Lazenby did to that of James Bond, but Paul isn't too bothered by the label.

'Somebody's got to be, I suppose it might as well be me,' he says. 'I don't regret anything about the Doctor Who experience. As a professional and certainly as a family man, the things I think most about now is how close we were to moving to America, how close my kids were to going to American schools, and how close I was to millions of dollars. But I think of those things only idly because they never happened.'

Instead, the Withnail And I star continued the varied career that began at 20. He almost never became an actor at all. While he was growing up in Liverpool, he long harboured dreams of becoming an Olympic athlete.

'It didn't work out, just from my own lookout,' he says. 'I'd fallen by the wayside. And when it doesn't work out you have to lower your sights and change your view. So I became an actor, and I've loved it, but there it is. I'm on my second choice profession. Such is life.'

Paul is probably the most famous of the McGann acting dynasty, which also includes his brothers Joe, Mark, and Stephen. As yet, Paul's own sons don't look set to continue the acting tradition.

'Thankfully, no,' he says. 'I would try my damnedest to dissuade them if they did. You should always try and stop people from following acting because it's only really the people that cannot possibly be stopped or dissuaded that should be the ones doing it. It's too hard otherwise.'

Things are far from hard for Paul at the moment, however. We'll next see him in a starring role in the BBC's new adaptation of the Robert Louis Stevenson classic Kidnapped, which was filmed in New Zealand.

'I think it's going to be a good piece,' he says. 'I had a laugh. I play the nasty Englishman in pursuit of the noble Scot. Playing baddies is great. You just get on your horse and wield your sword, shout your head off, that kind of thing. I like all that.'