Eccleston bares all
MOST actors would understandably be nervous about portraying one of their icons stark naked.
Yet when Christopher Eccleston was approached about stripping off in a one-off TV drama about John Lennon, he had no such qualms. Instead, he dived right in, quite literally, as BBC Four’s Lennon Naked opens with a shot of a long-haired Eccleston swimming, albeit fully clothed, in Lennon’s indoor pool.
“I think you have to just look at him as a human being, as a character and not worry too much about the fact that he’s a godhead,” says Eccleston matter-of-factly, about tackling the role.
The 90-minute film covers the height of Beatlemania in the 1960s and meeting Yoko Ono, to the band’s break up and John and Yoko finally leaving the UK for New York in September 1971.
Much has been written about the anti-Yoko sentiment in the UK, and the fans who blamed her for breaking up the band, but the film looks sympathetically on her plight as a Japanese woman in post-war UK, and shows the natural love between her and John.
It also recreates the naked photo shoot they did for the infamous Two Virgins picture which became the cover of their 1968 experimental album.
While John and Yoko shot the pictures themselves in private, Eccleston and his co-star Naoko Mori had no such luxury, with a camera crew up close and extremely personal. The fact that the pair had worked together on an episode of Doctor Who back when Eccleston was the Time Lord must have eased the tension...
“Yeah it did... well we weren’t naked in Doctor Who,” says the 46-year-old, grinning.
“We are preparing a version for the late night audience and I will be taking my sonic screwdriver,” he jokes.
“No, we had a good rapport. When I met Robert [Jones, the writer] and the director Ed [Coulthard] and they asked me about Yoko, she was my first idea. They had other ideas for her, but I said Naoko. She’s pretty extraordinary.
“With nudity, actors always watch each others’ backs... literally, so you’re not looking anywhere else,” he quips. “You always look after each other because it’s not a normal job.”
As part of the BBC’s Fatherhood season, the film also lays bare the relationship Lennon had with his absentee dad Alfred, who asked his son to choose between him and his mother Julia when Lennon was only five. Although he picked his father, Lennon ended up following his mother, who handed him over to her sister Mimi, and he didn’t see his dad again for another 17 years.
In the drama, the scene where a young Lennon has to choose between his parents on a day out in Blackpool, is shown as a flashback, and juxtaposed against his indifferent treatment of his own son Julian, by his first wife Cynthia.
“Having to do the scene and to dwell on the fact of what happened to him as a five-year-old with his mother and father, when they said, ‘You choose’, I felt sympathetic for him,” says Eccleston.
“That really hit home and it was an insight because I felt that that incident drove him on both in good ways and bad ways.”
Although the film shows Lennon’s darker side - the drugs, erratic behaviour and choosing Yoko over Cynthia and Julian - Eccleston maintains he’s always stuck up for John and Yoko.
“I remember having one family set-to, where I was confronting somebody about the fact that a lot of the vitriol towards Yoko was racially based, and as an 18-year-old I thought that was wrong. I had an instinctive empathy for her because she was an outsider and I did pick up that they loved each other.
“I think what’s interesting is that John has been taken on as a lad icon and I think he probably struggled with that all his life. He was constrained by that macho culture and he was such a feminine man in the way he expressed himself and in his music.”
He admits that filming the drama has confirmed what he felt was Lennon’s “contradictory nature”.
“The first time I remember Lennon registering with me was the press conference that he gave in defence of [saying], ‘We’re bigger than Jesus’. For a pop star to be talking about issues like that and not kow-towing to the press... He was offered endless opportunities to apologise and it wasn’t an apology. But at the time he was mortified that he’d spoilt it for the other three, one rumour is that he was in tears because he’d ruined it for [them].”
The actor, dressed today in a simple black jumper and jeans which reflect his downto-earth personality, was keen to play Lennon, but only if the script was right.
“Because I was interested in John, I certainly wasn’t going to do [a drama] that I thought didn’t do him credit or Yoko credit or the Beatles. It would be such a mistake,” he says.
“Any old poxy writer who wants to get some attention, will write something about John Lennon, so the important thing was the script. I thought it was very original the way Robert captured John’s voice. I think John would love it. There’s all these versions of him running around, he’d love it, it’s like performance art. ‘Oh there’s another me’,” he says, in Lennon’s nasal Liverpudlian twang.
So how did Eccleston begin to play someone he admired so much?
“At the beginning,” he jokes. “You’ve got all this resource of how he walked and talked and it’s mindless repetition in terms of watching video, listening to audio tape, reading books. And you begin by relying on Robert’s talent and imagination. In the end it wasn’t those videos and tapes that got me through, they were a side issue to what he’d given me to say.”
At the end of a hard day’s work pretending to be Lennon, Eccleston admits he found it difficult to leave him behind.
“I don’t method out. If you play a character like that, any character and you’re dealing with very dark episodes of their life, which this script does, I think you carry a bit of it with you. Not intentionally.
“The night before we shot the final day, I happened to read a fantastic interview with Paul McCartney where he talks about never intentionally sitting down to write a song about John’s death and he said if a song came he would write it.
“He mentioned this song, Here Today, and I was in the pub on my day off having something to eat, reading this article. I went home, downloaded Here Today and cried my eyes out. I think that was because I was finishing and I was not going to be able to be him anymore. But in between takes you have to have a laugh because it’s a bit too dark not to have a laugh.”