Simon Russell Beale has played Napoleon, Churchill, Stalin, the King of Hearts, the Prince of Wales, Galileo, Engels, Schubert Hamlet, Iago, Ariel, Lear and others.
What’s your earliest memory?
My earliest memories are a mixture of images from Libya, where my parents were stationed for a short while [his father was an army medic], and Worcester Park on the outskirts of London, where they bought their first house. So, a white camel delivering vegetables, a Roman amphitheatre, and sitting on a suburban garden wall, eating cheesecake.
Who are your heroes?
I’d have to choose men and women from that great line of actors in the British theatre: Paul Scofield, Peggy Ashcroft, Alec Guinness and Charles Laughton, for instance.
What was the last book you couldn’t put down?
I have always wanted to write and think like Simon Schama. His history of the French Revolution is one of the best works of popular history I have read. Recently I became addicted to Elena Ferrante’s series of Neapolitan novels.
What politician, past or present, do you look up to?
I like the look of Emmanuel Macron! So, let’s see what he comes up with.
Which time and place, other than your own, would you like to live in?
Late-18th-century France. It must have been so exciting, though perhaps I wouldn’t have done particularly well during the revolution. Late-18th-century America for the same reason. Frankly, though, I don’t think I would have coped with any period that didn’t have general anaesthetic!
What TV show could you not live without?
I don’t watch much TV, as I often work in the evenings, but I’ll watch anything if it comes in a box: the Scandinavian stuff, for instance. And The Tudors, Suits and Veep.
Who would paint your portrait?
Could I be a figure in Velázquez’s Las Meninas? It’s such a mysterious, haughty, melancholic picture. But my vanity would probably make me plump for John Singer Sargent.
What’s your theme tune?
The first bars of Brahms’s Schicksalslied. (It gets a bit boring in the middle, but the first and last sections are absolutely beautiful.)
What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever received? And have you followed it?
Juliet Stevenson said to me very early on that I shouldn’t think about the effect I was trying to achieve when I acted – just try to be truthful. I don’t think I have followed that rigorously enough.
What’s currently bugging you?
Where do I start? I don’t find sleeping very easy at the moment because of the heat, and there is too much to worry about.
What single thing would make your life better?
Being able to play a single piano piece, however simple, without stopping and without swearing. And a bigger flat.
When were you happiest?
In Avebury, where my parents bought their final home, when I was a teenager. It’s particularly beautiful during the winter.
If you weren’t an actor, what would you be?
Are we all doomed?
The awful truth is that I think we are. But let’s hope that future generations will be less selfish than we’ve been.
“The Tempest”, starring Simon Russell Beale as Prospero, is at the Barbican Theatre, London EC2, until 18 August 2017
This article appears in the 12 Jul 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Maybot malfunctions