Craig Parkinson on Standing Tall and Finding Ecstasy on the London Stage

Craig Parkinson is mighty tall (6’4 1/2”) and also inordinately talented: a calm, bespectacled figure of kindness who appears only in the second act of the highly acclaimed revival of Mike Leigh’s Ecstasy at London’s Duchess Theatre. Inheriting a role originated in 1979 by Oscar winner Jim Broadbent (Iris), Parkinson plays Len, a gangly, gentle Northerner who reunites with friends in London, where the suggestion is that he just might strike up something anew with the play’s abject but ever-alert central character, Jean (played by Sian Brooke). Offstage, Parkinson, 34, is married to Irish actress Susan Lynch (Translations on Broadway, The Beauty Queen of Leenane in London), and the couple is expecting their first baby any day now, as he made excitedly clear to Broadway.com.

Tell us about your character in Ecstasy.
Len is solid, reliable, slightly misunderstood and he also slightly misunderstands. He’s trying to rekindle something [with Jean] that he had many years ago. He’s obviously had his heart broken, but whether he’s spoken to anybody about how he feels isn’t immediately clear, and so he seek out these old friends who were his London family.

You get such a poignant moment, sitting by the bed of Jean, a woman your character clearly adores—and yet you don’t know what will happen.
It’s a beautiful and tragic moment.

Do you think Len and Jean will have a future together?
To be honest, as soon as the play finishes, that is the end; we don’t think about it any more. Of course I have my theories, and Sian has her theories, but it’s nothing we talk about openly or think about too much. What’s so fantastic about Mike’s work is that he leaves it up to the audience to decide; we pass it over to you.

You and co-star Allen Leech aren’t in the first act at all.
Not only that, we’ve never seen it! We concern ourselves only with act two, and were never allowed in the rehearsal room even to hear act one. It’s about making sure that what happens before our characters come on doesn’t affect the way we play the parts; it’s all part of the way Mike works.

Had you met Mike Leigh before?
No, the first time I met Mike was last year when I got sent Ecstasy. I got summoned down to the headmaster’s office in Soho, as it were [laughs]. But we had a lovely chat. He’s from Manchester and I’m from Blackpool, in the northwest of England, so not a million miles apart. It was a great chat, really.

You’ve stepped into a role created by Jim Broadbent, in a cast that also included Stephen Rea and Julie Walters.
I know, and there was one night when we were at the Hampstead [where the production opened before transferring to the West End] when Mike knocked on my dressing room door and said “Jim’s in, by the way.” It was after the show, which was perfect; I don’t know how I would have felt if it had been before.

I’m sure he was extraordinarily gracious, as is his way.
He was lovely. He said to me, “I remember it being good, but I don’t remember it being this good!”

What do you make of the play’s title? Is it ironic, or does it hold out the prospect of hope?
For me, I think what the title tries to convey is the characters’ longing for that ecstasy, since it’s a quality that’s not really part of their lives, especially Jean’s. But Mike Leigh has always said that if the well-known drug of the same name had been around in 1979, he wouldn’t have called this play that [laughs].

It’s interesting how period-perfect the play is and yet how timeless, as well.
I think it’s completely timeless. You could find these people if you searched for them right now in 2011. It’s just the fact that it’s set where it was [Kilburn, northwest London, in Jean’s tiny bedsit], and that hasn’t really changed all that much. But it’s completely character-led and character-driven: That’s what Mike does so well.

Does any of it chime with your early days in London, as a Northerner who made his own pilgrimage to the big city?
Not really. I was living then in Camden and Crouch End, and my accommodation was slightly better than Jean’s bedsit [laughs]. I came down to London when I was 17 and was so excited to be getting away from the gloomy, ghostly seaside town where I grew up and to come to drama school [Mountview], full of excitement. I moved out of London four years ago to Gloucestershire, and I lived in New York for five months when my wife was doing Translations. Big cities are hard and unforgiving places; at the same time, there’s something very magical and exciting about London and any big city.

Your height seems so much part of who you are and your performance. It’s impossible to imagine a diminutive Len.
At drama school, I got given a scholarship to sort my posture out. I was walking like some 80-year-old man, always apologizing for my height [laughs]. It’s not really something I think about now; it’s just part of me.

How did you and Susan [Lynch, his actress wife] meet?
I went to see my friend John Light, who was at the National Theatre in The Night Season [in 2004]. I dragged my ass out on a Saturday night to the National and saw Susan in the play and met her in the bar afterwards; we’ve been together ever since, and now in about nine days’ time, we’re about to have our first child.

Do you know if it’s a boy a girl?
Hopefully, it will be a little human.