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Peter Capaldi

Interview with the star of In the Loop and The Thick of It

Jan 13, 2010 Web Exclusive Bookmark and Share

In the British film In the Loop, which is based on the television political satire The Thick of It, Scottish actor Peter Capaldi plays Malcolm Tucker, an intimidating, acid-tongued communications chief to the Prime Minister. The character is widely speculated to be based on Alastair Campbell, the controversial Director of Communications and Strategy for Tony Blair in the lead-up to the Iraq War in 2003. In the film, directed by The Thick of It creator Armando Iannucci, a flaky government minister claims during a radio interview that war with the Middle East is “unforeseeable,” and Tucker runs rampant amid the crisis, cussing out various government types while trying to administer damage control.

In the Loop is out this week on DVD and Blu-ray. Peter Capaldi spoke to Under the Radar about the film when he was in Los Angeles in November. At the time, The Thick of It was in its third “series,” airing on BBC Two.

When you found out that you’d be reprising the role of Malcolm Tucker for In the Loop, was it important find some consistency with what you’d done on The Thick of It, or were you looking to bring new elements to the character?

I think it was inevitable, because the story was played out on a much larger canvas, that there would be new elements, due to the American involvement and due to the stature and gravity of that particular plotline. So Malcolm had to face people who were tougher than he was and who were at least his match. But in the TV show he’s the most powerful person in the room. So this time he was taken out of his depth and dropped into Washington. And that was very exciting because you think, “Well, we’ve got to find a new way to do this. We’ve got to see how he responds to this.” And that was challenging and very interesting.

What were rehearsals like for the film? Did you have a complete script by then?

Armando works in a very individual way. I did a number of readings on a number of variations of the script. I did about three table reads, and each time the script was about 400 pages long. And it was a really good script, and it wasn’t necessarily the movie that we ended up with or the story that we ended up with. It was in there somewhere, but eventually he settled on one story, and we began to pursue that. And how that works is, he develops a highly polished script and then asks us to improvise with all the writers present. And we all play the scenes but using our own words. And if we come up with anything that’s funny, then the writers will fold that into the new version of the script, which will be the shooting script. I’m talking about the movie here, but it also applies to the TV show.

By the time you get to shoot, you have this highly polished text. Armando works in a very unusual way in that there are no rehearsals. We just start shooting. And the camera people don’t know where we’re going to stand, where we’re going to go, because we don’t block for that. The rule is, the cameras have to follow the actor, which is contrary to the way things normally work. So, the sets are lit, you can go anywhere. If I choose to walk out the door, down the corridor, out into the street, the cameras have to come with me. So this gives a certain energy to the whole thing. And, in fact, at the end of the last season, Armando very kindly and rightfully thanked our two cameramen and referred to them as the invisible members of the cast, which is what they are. They’re the same guys that shot the film. They’re right in there with us.

One of the things that strikes me about your performance is how much motion is involved. I imagine that would have been difficult to rehearse anyway.

Yeah. No, we just go where it takes us. Obviously, if you were in the United Nations, then you have to know you’re going to come in that door and probably go out that door to give everybody a chance. But it’s an enormously liberating way of working. I’ve been acting over 25 years, and I rather stupidly thought I had accumulated a technique, which is based on doing years of episodic television, where they lay tracks and change the lens, and I hear them say, “I’m going to put on a 70mm lens,” and I think, “Oh, well I’ll give them a 70mm performance,” whatever that is. I thought I could modulate my performance according to the lens we had on and various other tricks of technique. But the way we shot the film, you just forget all that because the cameras are on long, barrel zoom lenses. So, they can be at the other end of the corridor, and you can be on a tight, tight close up. But you have no idea, so it just means you concentrate on the truth, the comedy, the energy.

How easily can you turn on and shut off Malcolm before and after you leave set?

Frighteningly easy, really. It’s my family I feel sorry for. They have to listen to me shouting and swearing in the kitchen when I’m practicing my lines. But I’m also very much in the zone, then. So when they can’t find the remote control for the TV, they may get an unfortunate earful from me. But they’re very patient. And also, because my daughter’s 17, I have no authority over her whatsoever if I hear any bad language from her, which is tough.

You mentioned not having rehearsals. Is that also true of your scene with James Gandolfini?

We did some workshops in New York with James and the rest of the American cast. So we sort of played that scene and similar scenes, but not written, in the sense that I’d be told, “James is playing the General and you’re playing Malcolm, and now you’re going to argue about this,” whatever this might be. And then we’d just argue. I’m a huge, huge fan of James, so it was quite terrifying going head-to-head with him. But I felt, “I mustn’t let my fanboy take over. I’m the keeper of Malcolm’s black heart. Let Malcolm take over,” which I did. But James, he’s sensational. I just think he’s brilliant, and was so kind. Although we didn’t rehearse, he’d do my lines with me, help me practice for other scenes. He’d read in the other characters. I think he was quite interested in the whole process. But what a wonderful actor and gracious man. He was a guy I thought, “That’s the way to do it. Be like him, if you can.”

Your characters trade some outrageous insults. Did you have any trouble reciting your dialogue without breaking into laughter?

No. It really doesn’t happen very much because I’m so in a zone that everything’s very serious. Malcolm rarely makes jokes. Oh no, that’s not true. He talks in jokes. He talks in gags. But no, and also because it’s James. He’s the real deal. You’re very aware of trying to do your best work with someone like him.

On YouTube, someone has edited together a highlight reel of Malcolm cursing throughout In the Loop. Do you ever have fans come up to you and give you Malcolm impressions?

No, not as yet. But what has started happening—The show has been going on the last four weeks in the UK, and it’s become very much bigger; it’s moved to BBC Two. So what happens now is people stop me in the street and ask me to tell them to fuck off. And sometimes I mean it, and sometimes I don’t. You should feel sorry for my mother, because she gets to come to the premiere of the movie with her son in it and sees him up on screen talking about lubricated horse cocks. I’m sure she wanted me to be Jimmy Stewart or something, but instead she’s got Malcolm Tucker. But you take what you can get, right?

Have you ever met Alastair Campbell?


Did he offer any opinions on your character?

He didn’t, but his partner said, “You’re exactly like him.” It was, I think, someone’s idea of a joke at an awards ceremony dinner to place me next to him. So it was only when I got to the dinner and sat down at the table and looked at the name card next to me that said Alastair Campbell, that my heart missed a beat.

Is it true that you were in a punk band with Craig Ferguson in Glasgow?

I was. I was on his show. I think it’s going out next week. So we hadn’t seen each other for years and years. But yeah, he was a drummer and I was a singer, and he introduced me on the show as being the only guest that he had actually dropped acid with. Is that the way I want to be introduced to America? I don’t know. But that’s what he did, and boy he wouldn’t let that go.


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January 9th 2011

‘The Thick Of It’, takes obvious cues from real events (and personalities) in British politics; and cooks these ingredients into a splendidly toxic broth personified by the character of Maclolm Tucker, spin doctor extraordinaire, the man with the most inventive foulmouth on the planet. The other protagonists are slimy, incompetent, self-serving; but part of Iannucci’s genius is that even as you hate them, you almost end up feeling sorry for them as well, doomed to play their part in the political machine. “Rolex Prices

March 9th 2012

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