He’s been in everything from Doctor Who and Gosford Park to Vicious and Gladiator. As he celebrates his 79th birthday, though, Sir Derek Jacobi has no intention of putting his feet up, and his new film, Murder on the Orient Express, reunites him with old
In a cabinet at his home in Hampstead, Sir Derek Jacobi has a collection of trophies that would turn Meryl Streep green with envy. His accoutrement of Tony, Emmy and BAFTA awards is impressive by anybody’s standards, and when Derek speaks of them, his voice lowers to a hushed register as if he’s not quite sure what to make of them. “I suppose they’re symbols of stages of my career, in which I was very lucky to be considered good enough to be given a prize,” he tells us, “but I don’t set too much stall by them. They’re really markers of distance travelled.”
That’s some distance. With more than
140 screen credits to his name alone, plus a Golden Globe nomination, two Laurence Olivier Awards and a double knighthood, Derek has forged a formidable career from humble beginnings. Even now, such accolades are clearly a shock to this Leytonstone lad, whose mother was a secretary in a drapery, his father a sweet shop owner in Chingford, and whose scholarship to study at the University of Cambridge was just the start of what, from the outside, appears something of a charmed life.
It’s perhaps no surprise that, when he speaks of sustaining a healthy relationship with his partner Richard Clifford, Derek’s prescription of laughter above all else could also be his mantra for life. “A sense of humour is essential!” he says. “Oh gawd, yes. You stay much healthier if you can laugh. A sense of send-up and not taking things too seriously, seeing the funny side of things... It’s a great help because it makes one less pompous; it takes the pomposity out of everything.”
That could explain how, after so many successes, he remains so affably grounded. Despite a brief bout of stage fright in the
80s, he’s that rare breed of actor who’s as comfortable on the stage as he is on TV and in the movies. His grace and charm have warmed up everything from his portrayal as Ian McKellen’s partner in Vicious and Russell Crowe’s shrewd ally in Gladiator to a role as a screamingly awful thespian in an eighth season episode of Frasier.
And if you thought 60 years in the industry was enough for this newly 79-year-old actor, think again. “Good heavens no!” he shrieks at mere mention of the word “retirement”. “I’m fortunately in a profession that, unless you’re ill or you can’t speak or something falls off, you can go on forever. As long as you have the energy and the health and the stamina, and the wherewithal to learn it, you keep going. It’s rejuvenating. Acting is a rejuvenator. You have to keep one foot in the cradle throughout your life because you’ve got to remember what the child was like.”
When projects like this month’s Agatha Christie adaptation Murder on the Orient Express keep chugging his way, it’s easy to understand the continued allure of employment. It’s this film, in which Derek plays Johnny Depp’s manservant, that we’ve met to discuss today, and while he describes Johnny as “very nice”, Derek lights up when discussing reuniting with director Kenneth Branagh. “I’ve known Ken since he was 18-years-old,” he says. “He came into my dressing room at the Old Vic when I was playing Hamlet in the late 70s, and he came in to interview me for a piece in his drama school’s magazine. At the end of the interview he said, ‘One day I’m going to play Hamlet.’”
Kenneth went one better, not only essaying Hamlet on stage, but directing a canonical film version in 1996 and casting Jacobi as King Claudius. “He’s kept me in work!” chuckles Derek, whose interpretation of the character was lauded as the defining portrayal. He’s teamed up with Kenneth numerous times since, but it’s their latest project that perfectly bridges the duo’s love for both the stage and and screen.
“It’s all set on the train, so it very much felt like a theatre company,” he says of filming in the UK. “And of course it was full of stage actors, too. Myself, Judi Dench etc, who knew each other and got on well. We played a lot of games! Judi’s a big game fan and so am I. Word games, mainly, because we didn’t have cards. Very intellectual! Oh, very intellectual. It was a very jolly time for all of us. Although we were doing a murder mystery, we had lots of fun.”
Derek’s unassuming nature makes him an unusually modest interviewee. When asked about the real-life gay figures he’s played over the years, he rules out any grand sense of duty to the community. “I went into them as an actor being offered two wonderful parts,” he explains of first portraying Alan Turing in 1996’s Breaking the Code, for which he received a BAFTA nod, and then artist Francis Bacon in 1998’s Love Is the Devil.
“We love each other. We’re great friends, we support each other; whatever I’ve lacked he provides and vice versa. We just get on.”
“I wasn’t proselytising at all,” he adds.
“That wasn’t in my head. If that was a consequence of what I did, and what people saw, what people took from it, whatever it gave them, however it added to the cause of gay liberation, then that was fine, that was wonderful, but it wasn’t my prime motivation.”
Soft-spoken but unafraid to voice his thoughts (“you say these are personal questions but you keep asking them!” he gently admonishes Gay Times at one point), Derek admits he’s never been “deeply politicised” about the gay movement.
“I knew I was different,” he says of realising he was gay at a young age. “I knew that as soon as I became a thinking creature. That to me was the deck I’d been dealt. That was fine. I accepted it and carried on. I didn’t fight against it. I accepted it and took what it offered.”
He also remembers well the part decriminalisation of homosexuality in 1967. “I was... Hold on, I’m counting,” he says. “Yeah I was 29! Certainly I hoped I’d see it in my lifetime. I suppose like everybody I felt relief. I felt a sense of relaxation, of not having to be wary, a sense of acceptance of being part of the whole, which I hadn’t been before. I knew what I was and who I was. All my friends and family knew and that was it, you know. I suppose when it became legitimate, that I could join the bigger family, that was a great relief and a great comfort.”
Family, it seems, is important to him. This year marks the 40th anniversary of Derek’s relationship with Richard, whom he met in a pub on Waterloo Road in the mid-70s. “We’re quite proud of it,” he says of the anniversary. The pair quietly entered into a civil partnership in 2005, just six months after the legislature was passed through government, and now that gay marriage is also legal, they plan to tie the knot. “We’re doing it because we want to,” he says. “There’s no public reason. We love each other and we want to. We’re great friends, we support each other; whatever I’ve lacked he provides and vice versa. We just get on.”
In recent years, of course, he’s more visibly flown the flag. In 2015, Derek and long-time friend Ian McKellen were invited to grand marshall the New York Pride, in part because of the success of their TV series Vicious.
“I loved it!” Derek enthuses. “It was exhausting ‘cos it was also raining and we were sitting in an open-top car for three hours, waving furiously. It was wonderful... all the way down Fifth Avenue, all the way down to Greenwich Village.”
With retirement off the cards, Derek has a typically busy year ahead. After Murder on the Orient Express, he has a role in Hippie Hippie Shake, starring Cillian Murphy as counter-culturalist Richard Neville, and then he’s appearing opposite Rupert Everett in 18th-century drama Swords and Sceptres, about the Queen of Jhansi. “The great thing about theatre and film and television, any performing art, is that they cater for all generations, so you just grow into your age and the parts that you can play,” he says. As for today... “I’m going around to see a house into which we’re moving later this year,” he tells us, “and then I’m going to two receptions, so it’s quite a busy day!” Even when you have a cabinet full of trophies, putting his feet up is the last thing on this thespian’s mind.