Award-winning British actor Christopher Eccleston is highly acclaimed for his work on both stage and screen. He was BAFTA-nominated for his roles in Our Friends in the North and The Second Coming, and received an International Emmy for his work in Accused. In 2005, Eccleston became the ninth Doctor Who and, most recently, he starred in Thor: The Dark World and HBO drama The Leftovers, which also airs on Sky Atlantic. In Fortitude, Christopher Eccleston plays Professor Charlie Stoddart.
What were your first thoughts when you read the script for Fortitude?
I know Simon Donald’s theatre writing and I’ve always admired him, so I liked the detail of characterisation within his dialogue. Then, of course, the scale of the thing – it’s massive. And that cast, I wanted to work with those actors. I’d seen a lot of Richard Dormer’s stuff, and working with him was a big attraction for me, and of course to work with Michael Gambon, and then to have people from entirely different cultures and disciplines like Stanley and Sofie.
It’s an amazing cast. Did you all get along?
We got along fantastically, and I think that was helped by the fact that we were uprooted and dropped in the middle of Iceland at regular intervals, which is a beautiful and extraordinary country. The sense of wonder we all felt out there, the intensity and beauty of the place, is really present in the programme.
Had you been there before?
I had shot in Iceland before on Thor 2, but this was in an entirely different part of the country. I was very much landlocked and inland the first time, and I much preferred where we shot this time.
Did you get to see the sights?
I did. I’m a runner, so on my days off I was running out along the roads, out in these vast valleys and glaciers.
How would you describe your character? How does he fit into the story?
Charlie is a scientist of the natural world, so for me he had a real idealism and a childlike wonder to him. He makes a discovery which is every natural scientist’s dream and he’s desperate to protect it, and to a certain extent he represents the world of nature and idealism. Sofie’s character comes into conflict with him because she’s very much concerned with the world of commerce and business, and is trying to promote Fortitude as a tourist destination, whereas he knows about the impact of tourism on nature and he’s trying very much to protect that. So he’s quite childlike really, he has a huge enthusiasm and a huge imagination. It was refreshing for me to play somebody who’s, in a sense, so untroubled personally. He’s troubled by events that happen around him but as a human being he’s really upbeat, and has a great relationship with Luke Treadaway’s character, who is a young scientist. There are shades of a paternal relationship there which I enjoyed. Luke’s a great actor to work with and such a nice guy.
There’s a lot going on in the series. How would you describe the show?
It’s a crime drama with wonderful scale and ambition, and it’s also very much a human drama. Despite the locations and the crime element, it’s really an examination of character motivation, all these really quite extreme and eccentric people are drawn to this extraordinary place to live for quite idealistic reasons, and then this brutal murder happens. The series examines the impact of tragedy on a close-knit community, and it lifts the lid on how people in those very tight communities live.
It’s always nice to watch something that isn’t very obvious as well.
Exactly. I don’t think the tone of it is entirely predictable, and that was a big attraction for me. You couldn’t quite pin it down.
And, of course, you’re in The Leftovers, which is another very mysterious series.
Yes, that’s right, I was thinking that too. The tone of both shows is quite unusual, which actually makes them quite difficult to talk about really. Atmosphere is such a huge aspect of both of these series and that can only be experienced by watching it.
As you’ve already mentioned, Fortitude has attracted a stellar cast, including the Oscar nominated Stanley Tucci. Can you appreciate why, in recent years, more film stars are starting out to work in television?
Absolutely. Over the last 15 or 16 years, America has really led the way in terms of what TV can do. It’s become the long-form novel, you really get opportunities to examine a character in a way that you’re never going to get in a film where you’re just another special effect. Whereas what The Sopranos, for instance, or Breaking Bad does is appeal to real actors, and that’s what a lot of the actors get in Fortitude: an opportunity to really examine their characters in detail.
That must be so rewarding, to peel away different layers to a character. Every season in Breaking Bad and The Sopranos there are new facets, where you’re not just playing a standard character.
Yes, and it’s an indictment of what’s happening in cinema, because that’s what we used to do in films but it doesn’t happen anymore, they’re just popcorn rides. Which is why television is suddenly getting crowded with all these film stars.
What medium do you prefer to work in?
Theatre. You know, you have to do television and films to make a living. There’s not a huge amount of money in theatre, and if you’ve got a mortgage and a family…
Is there a particular type of part you’re hungry to play, or do you feel that you’ve done the lot?
I’m always looking to play something different, something lighter. I’ve played a great deal of tragedy.
You’re very good at it, though.
And if they’ll pay me I’ll do it, but I’d like to explore comedy, I’d love to do some comedy really and lighter stuff.
When you play heavier roles, do you take that home with you?
Not consciously. I would not describe myself as a method actor, but I think if you spend a day replicating what it feels like to lose your child or to murder somebody, to a certain extent that’s going to go home with you. I think that’s why I run so much, because after shooting, if I possibly can, I get my shoes on and go and burn it off for an hour, I find that very useful for me. I think you do take it home without realising it, but the more experience you get the smarter you are about handling that.
How much of a draw is the location of a project when it comes to picking a part? If a script isn’t great, could a shoot in Barbados, for instance, make it a bit more desirable?
I’m sure that is a draw. What was great about Fortitude was that you could see exactly how essential that location was to the tone of the piece, because the characters we’re examining throughout the series have been drawn to that place for very specific and personal reasons. You don’t choose to go and live in an extreme environment like that unless you’re unusual. So what Fortitude has is a number of very unusual, original characters packed together, which for a drama is perfect. None of these people are run-of-the-mill. They all have very strong back stories and mystery to them, which is the stuff of drama.
Looking back over your career, can you single out an actor or actress you’ve learned the most from?
Yes, Peter Vaughan, who played my father in Our Friends in the North. He’s the actor I’ve learned the most from in terms of performance and how to conduct yourself on a set. He was a great example to me. On Our Friends in the North, there was Gina McKee, Mark Strong, Daniel Craig and myself, but Peter Vaughan was by far and away the most intense and committed actor of all of us and he was in his 70s. That was a huge example to me. He took me under his wing and taught me a great deal.
In Fortitude, your character is an expert in all things Arctic based. Are you an expert on anything? What would your Mastermind specialist subject be?
Probably soul music. And I’m not talking Motown, I’m talking Stax soul, what we call southern soul. I’ve also got a big interest in reggae and ska. But I don’t run listening to music, I’m a purist. I run listening to my own banal thoughts.
There’s quite an eerie element to Fortitude, isn’t there? When was the last time you were properly freaked out about something or experienced something that was seemingly unexplainable?
That’s never happened to me. I’ve longed for it to happen, I’d love to experience something of that nature, but I’m a natural sceptic and it’s never happened to me. I remain open, though, as does my character.
Fortitude is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 1st June