Ralph, what a pleasure to be meeting a fellow Ralph. How does it feel?
Bit weird, innit?
You’ve got a shedload of stuff coming out soon. What are you most excited about?
Ready Player One, the Spielberg one. I think that’s going to be immense, awesome, huge. It’s a gag that you make for 20-odd years as an actor: “Yes, of course I’ll do that, darling, as long as I don’t get the call from Spielberg.” But then I actually genuinely got the call from Spielberg.
You do an American accent in a few of these projects. How much of that is instinct and how much is someone training you?
I’d say about 50/50. In the past few years things have broadened out a bit for me and I’ve gained a lot of confidence from some of the work I’ve done. Now I find that I enjoy doing accent work. Years ago, the first time I went out to LA for some castings, I was very nervous, trying to work on the US accent. I walked into Sony Pictures’ reception and I said, “Can you tell me where the lift is?” Not ‘elevator’. Got that completely wrong.
What’s been your worst audition?
I used to do a lot of commercial castings. So many of those, you really have to desperately try to wipe the experience from your mind, otherwise you’d go fucking mad. A long time ago, when I was still playing a lot of northern thugs, drug dealers and gangsters, I got a part as a hospital consultant. How exciting. So I put on a really nice tweed three-piece suit, polished up the RP [received pronunciation], walked in there, did the whole thing. And they looked at me really weirdly. I’d prepared completely the wrong part. I was supposed to be auditioning for the abusive father of a patient.
Your voice is your calling card. One voiceover website describes you as ‘Yorkshire’s Barry White’. Has it helped romantically?
Ooh, I don’t know. I’ve been with my wife for 24 years. But no, I think it did, in the old days of being single. And I think my wife likes my voice.
Do you turn it on and off?
I don’t smoke any more. I used to smoke, and after a heavy night of drinking whisky and smoking cigars it would drop a couple of octaves. There was a voiceover client I used to do work for and they always used to try to book me between nine and ten in the morning. But it was slightly below normal human hearing range. I can’t take any credit for it. It’s completely genetic. I get it from my grandma, who was a big Scouse woman. She had a right deep voice. She sounded like Lily Savage.
Well, do whatever you can to retain it.
I was worried when I gave up smoking. I thought, “Shit, what if I suddenly start talking like Aled Jones?”
You’re a big dog fan and you own a great dane. What makes a good dog?
Oh, just character, really. I’ve always had working dogs. I’ve got a 10-year-old labrador as well as the great dane. This is the first time I’ve had a great dane. But I always wanted one; I was a big Scooby-Doo fan as a kid. And I lost a 13-year-old labrador last year, on my first day of filming with Spielberg. I got the news and I had to ring the vet to put it down. I thought, “Not today. I’ve really got to be in the zone today.”
Hopefully it was a very traumatic first scene. Now – be honest: to what extent do you get tired of being asked about Chris Finch and The Office?
There was a point when I did. But then this recent boost I’ve had in my career can actually be traced back to that character, so I kind of like him a bit more now.
Speaking of which, let’s talk about 2015’s The Witch. What was it like filming with a goat? I read that there were going to be more scenes with him but he was badly behaved?
Badly trained. “To what extent can you train a goat?” is an interesting question because they are weird fucking animals. Since that experience, the trauma of it has taken me down some weird internet rabbit holes with goats.
Yeah. And if you look at some of those videos, there’s something really wrong. I love animals, I have dogs, I ride horses. But I can’t get on with goats. I just can’t get my head around them at all. He [the goat in the film] turned up not having been trained for anything. Amazing-looking thing, just not trained to do anything. So I had to anger it, wind it up, play with it, to get it to move the fuck around. Obviously that went wrong a few times and I ended up in A&E three times.
Yeah. Thankfully he never gored me, but the outside of the horn is serrated. He managed to detach a tendon off my rib at one point. It was a proper suffering-for-your-art thing.
Absentia starts streaming on Amazon Prime Video on 2 February.