American theatergoers will know Douglas Hodge best as a musical-theater actor who won a Tony Award for his turn in the 2010 Broadway revival of “La Cage aux Folles,” and U.S. TV watchers will recognize him as Scotland Yard inspector Bartholomew Rusk from Showtime’s “Penny Dreadful.” But he’s also a director, currently staging the Roundabout Theater Company’s Broadway revival of Harold Pinter’s “Old Times,” working with a cast led by Clive Owen. And he comes to the show, which opens Oct. 6, with a personal connection to Pinter and his work.
You have a long history with Pinter that a lot of Americans might not know much about.
I worked with him almost exclusively for 10 years, almost to the detriment of my career. When I was being offered TV and films and things and I probably should have done them, and my contemporaries were doing them, I was just endlessly working with him.
How did you meet him?
He starred in a production of his own play, “No Man’s Land,” at the Almeida in 1993, and I was cast in it with him. I was in my mid 20s. We shared a dressing room. He was a pretty volatile, daunting person, as you can imagine, and the first week I met him we almost had this terrible fight. He kept attacking the stage managers about various things. Slowly it got worse and worse, and then one night I said, “You don’t need to have a go at them, it’s not their fault,” and he said [growling], “Don’t tell me what I f—ing need!” He started to take his jacket off and I thought, Oh Christ, I’m going to get in a fight with Harold Pinter on my first job with him. But someone broke it up, and then we became just best friends. When that production went into the West End we all elected to share dressing rooms again, because it was such a laugh.
Was he writing much new work at that time?
He hadn’t written for 18 years, but one night just before the end of “No Man’s Land” he said, “This is ‘Moonlight.’ It’s my brand new play. There’s a part for you. I hope you like it.” And I went home on the tube thinking, “Oh Christ, I hope I understand it. I hope it’s good.” And it was magnificent, of course. So I then immediately did “Moonlight” back at the Almerida with Ian Holm, and then I went to the West End to do that, and then I did “The Lover” with Trevor Nunn, and I did “Betrayal” with Trevor Nunn, and then I did “The Caretaker” with Michael Gambon on we went. I directed a short film of his, “Victoria Station.” I was just constantly working with him.
How does your time with Pinter affect your take on “Old Times”?
I miss him. I miss his vernacular and his rhythms. I miss the music of it, really. It’s been wonderful to have him on my shoulder in the rehearsal room, but also wonderful not to have him screaming at stage management or shouting about the noise in the street.
What kind of insight into his plays did you take away?
I know that he wasn’t as literal as the critics have been. Really he felt that if you discussed one interpretation too much you diminished the other possible reverberations. Someone might say, “Well clearly this person is dead,” or, “They’re all dead,” or “They’re in limbo,” or somebody might say, “The two women are the same character.” He would say, “Maybe.” Like it was poetry or a dance or something. Whatever you think it’s about isn’t wrong. He just wasn’t as literal or as limited.
Is that hard for the actors to get their heads around?
Clive arrived with a whole theory, and I just pooh-poohed it. I said, “You’re not wrong, it’s about that, but it’s also about this and about this.” Pinter actually believed that what you remember is truer than the facts, because the memories are present.
Do American audiences react differenty to Pinter than audiences in the U.K.?
I think they’re a little bit scared that they won’t understand it. We’re not as daunted by the language or the turn of phrase. There’s a way he speaks. When I was in the dressing room with Harold, his friends would arrive from school and none of them ever said what they meant. They always said the opposite. So they would arrive after the show and say, “Well that was sh–. You were terrible. I’ve never seen such wooden acting.”
Do you enjoy going back and forth between acting and directing?
I think directing does teach me about acting. Certainly about the whole business of it, how you behave, how collaborative it is. You’re not just looking at it from an entirely subjective point of view. And as an actor, I see endless directors. I’ve been directed by Sam Mendes and Trevor Nunn and Michael Grandage, and they’ve never seen any of those people direct. I can cherry pick the things I like and put them into my own rehearsals.