“Yeah, I am playing a lot of dodgy blokes,” says Ben Chaplin of his recent trio of roles, and he’s right. The sometime Hollywood heartthrob, 47, began 2017 playing Mark Costley, the mysterious stranger who had a passionate affair with Emily Watson’s married scientist in BBC1’s Apple Tree Yard and became what he calls “every housewife’s guilty fantasy”.
Then came the unfaithful barrister in Nina Raine’s superbly murky Consent at the National Theatre, boasting about getting a rapist set free before being accused of rape by his own wife. And now he is Bernard, a successful but ageing, twice-divorced pop music producer clashing viciously with a talented but naïvely fragile Irish singer-songwriter (newcomer Seana Kerslake) in Joe Penhall’s Mood Music at The Old Vic.
“It’s a play about the creative process, ego and narcissism,” says Chaplin, “and their respective backgrounds are ripe for potential abuse of power.” Penhall began writing the play before allegations of sexual or autocratic impropriety rose up to engulf a host of powerful figures in the entertainment industry, but in the rehearsal room it’s become clear the play is about that too. So The Old Vic, which first opened in May 1818, is in the odd position of celebrating its bicentennial with a play that echoes the alleged behaviour that brought down its former artistic director, Kevin Spacey. “I’m sure that’s one reason they wanted to do it,” says Chaplin.
Mood Music is a complex project, with the two main characters making music together and engaged in overlapping dialogue with each other, their lawyers and their respective therapists. Director Roger Michell asked Chaplin to join the production late in the day. “I wasn’t originally available when this play was conceived,” he says. “Rhys Ifans was going to do it but had to pull out of it for personal reasons.”
“I got less warning than normal, which is always a bit frightening,” says Chaplin, “and I had a terror of the musical aspect of the play because I don’t think I have any musical ability, until I was reassured by Roger that I would either get good enough or we would find ways around it.” Fortunately, he didn’t need to immerse himself in the music business to find the key to Bernard’s character. “You don’t have to do a ton of research about egotistical bosses if you have done a bit of acting, although I have been relatively lucky,” he says. Actors who have the power to get something made are a particular problem, he adds, because “they are more powerful than their boss”.
Chaplin knows whereof he speaks because he has experienced the full gamut of the acting world and its different kinds of fame. Born in Windsor, his father a civil engineer and his mother a teacher (he took her surname as his stage name and is not related to Charlie Chaplin), he started acting at the Princess Margaret Royal Free School and after training at Guildhall did a Burger King commercial that went viral. “‘Advert fame’ is weird,” he says. “People feel they own you and want to abuse you.” A cosier, small-screen stardom followed in Return of the Borrowers and the 1995 sitcom Game On, but then he was cast opposite Uma Thurman and Janeane Garofalo in the romcom The Truth About Cats and Dogs. It was a hit and Chaplin was touted as the next Hugh Grant.
On his previous film Feast of July he had fallen for the American actress Embeth Davidtz, Harvey Keitel’s ex, so he moved to LA. “I went out there for a woman, who I am still really good friends with, so there are no regrets, but when we split up I found myself in a life I didn’t really recognise as my own,” he says.
He was being advised to do projects he didn’t respect in order to boost or maintain his profile, and if he didn’t work found himself prone to the paranoia typical of Hollywood. “It’s a mining town: everyone works for the mine,” he says. “I do feel for young actors it happens to because it is very challenging to your sense of identity.” He did make some good friends in the industry, such as indie directors Terence Malick and Richard Linklater, and speaks particularly highly of Nicole Kidman, with whom he appeared in Jez Butterworth’s Birthday Girl, but after seven years in LA he moved back to England.
“I took an income hit when I stopped doing big American films, and if I had my time again I might have a go at doing another one or two things that had potential to be commercial,” he says. “But I am not really attracted to commercial things as a consumer or as an actor. And I like to live as normal a life as possible.” He doesn’t do social media or go to red-carpet events and had a day off for his mum’s 80th birthday written into his contract when he played Lily James’s dad in Kenneth Branagh’s live-action Cinderella for Disney. He doesn’t like talking about his private life but says rumours he has married long-term girlfriend Rocio Oliver are false, and that he’s currently single.
Moving back to England enabled him to reconnect with the theatre, which he loves “although every time I finish a play I don’t want to do another one because it takes it out of you”. And the hardening of his youthful good looks into something more vulpine has opened up more interesting parts, like Apple Tree Yard, which brought him yet another kind of fame, “among late middle-aged women who are excited to meet you regardless of what your character did”.
I ask Chaplin what his ambitions are for the future and he says: “God, I don’t really know. I feel a bit like a cab driver: that I won’t turn down a fare because it’s not somewhere I want to go. But I have really, genuinely always wanted to be in a Western as I have been able to ride since I was tiny. I met the Coen brothers, who have a new western coming out with an English character in it, and I was really gutted not to get it. So I am thinking, maybe I have to create one…”
Mood Music is at The Old Vic, SE1 (0844 871 7628, oldvictheatre.com) from Saturday until June 16.