The man probably best known to you as Tanner cuts a quietly spoken, quintessentially British figure – easy to align with the suited roles he’s known for.
But beneath the affable tone is a dry wit perfectly reconciled with his turns in political satires The Thick Of It and Black Mirror, and a diverse emotional range that has conquered some of Shakespeare’s most complex characters. Kinnear’s Hamlet won him critical success, and he looks to reap the same gilded reviews from his imminent turn as Iago in the National Theatre’s production of Othello.
We caught him during a break in rehearsals where, between mouthfuls of a tasty-looking omelette, he told us about his journey from wannabe sportsman to jet-setting actor to futuristic thespian.
What is it you like about Shakespeare?
The fun of the language and rhetoric, and trying to make it comprehensible and accessible for the audience. Even for people who see a lot of Shakespeare, the first five minutes can be daunting before you tune in your ear.
What’s different about this version of Othello?
It’s a contemporary setting. From acts two to five, we’re in a military camp. The play is set in Cyprus. We were thinking Cyprus was no longer a volatile country with any exterior forces coming into play, and then it turned into a hotbed of political intrigue. They’re just hanging around an army base, and we see Othello, Iago and Cassio turn on each other.
What was it like working on Quantum Of Solace and Skyfall?
I had done Quantum Of Solace, and had the Bond experience of going to Panama, swanning around and being treated nicely. And then in Skyfall most of my stuff was around Waterloo and London Bridge. I live in London Bridge. I thought “Where’s my world-class jet travel?” I knew Sam [Mendes] before we started. He’s so meticulous, but affable as well. And I knew Judi [Dench], Daniel [Craig], Ben [Whishaw] and Ralph [Fiennes]. It was quite a little theatre gang of us.
Does Tanner have a place in M’s new office?
He was there at the end of Skyfall, so hopefully he’s clinging on by his fingertips. But we’ll see. You never know until the scripts are out.
How many people would have to die before he would get to be 007?
007, crikey! Not even M! [Laughs] There’d be a real shortage of men before Bill would be allowed anywhere near a gun.
Were you a big fan of Bond before? Did you remember Bill Tanner’s role?
I didn’t remember, no [laughs]. I was much more of a bank holiday-on-the-TV watcher.
Both your parents are actors – did you ever want to do something different?
I did want to be a butcher. I loved the smell. I also wanted to be a goalkeeper for Celtic, but I didn’t play in goal. This was the last job standing.
Your grandad was rugby player Roy Muir Kinnear. Did you consider the sport?
I would have loved a sporting life, were I gifted any corresponding talents to it. My dad skipped the gene, too. I played for a while, but got injured quite badly.
You often play statesmen. Was there a part of you that fancied being a politician?
No, that sounds like a lot of work for not a great deal of reward. I thought about being a lawyer, but only if I couldn’t be an actor.
You played a prime minister forced to have sex with a pig in Charlie Brooker’s Black Mirror. How did you react to the porcine love scene?
I just couldn’t stop laughing. It seemed genuinely polemical and satirical. It appeals to my sense of humour.
What were the logistics of the actual act?
Madge [the pig] was skittish. We were supposed to cut as I reached for my belt, but the director very kindly kept the cameras rolling until I had my hands on her backside. And I had to say, “By the way, I am not doing any more.”
So you didn’t have a Lolita-style cushion as a barrier between you?
I don’t think there was ever any danger of anything too improper. But she might have taken a shine.
You’ve been doing comedy recently – Graham Linehan’s TV series Count Arthur Strong and Cuban Fury starring Nick Frost– are you trying to lighten up?
I also have a four-part drama Southcliffe; that’s not so jolly. I like doing as many different things as possible. Nick Frost is brilliant and very funny, so Cuban Fury was always something I wanted to do.
You’re playing another suited statesman in Southcliffe…
My character is a journalist. He grew up in a town where a massacre occurs, and when he’s sent to report on it he uncovers things about his time growing up there. I was working with brilliant actors such as Shirley Henderson, Eddie Marsan and Sean Harris. We were filming for 10 weeks, but I only spent a day with each of them. A lot of the time I’m just wandering round a moor on my own.
Did theatre set you up for filming Count Arthur Strong in front of a studio audience?
I don’t know how it’s turned out [laughs]. I spent a lot of my childhood attending recordings – there was one sitcom that both my parents were in, and I loved it. You have an audience who can tell whether they think it’s funny straight off, which is helpful.
What type of comedy do you like?
Along with the rest of the UK and America: Girls. I mean, what an inspiration for anyone to get off their arse and write.
Do you write?
Well… [laughs] My first play is being put on at the Bush Theatre in September – Howard Davies is directing it. It’s called The Herd, and it’s a domestic family drama based around a kids’ birthday party.
If you could write a part for yourself in Girls, what would it be?
I’d love to play a transvestite [throws terrible Irish accent] from Ireland. No. Probably just a repressed Englishman. The Michael Sheen role from 30 Rock – just transplant that.
Othello is at the National Theatre from 16 April. There will be a National Theatre Live broadcast on 26 September; ntlive.com
(Image: Rex Features)