John Gordon Sinclair wasn’t yet 20 when he burst on to the screen in the 1981 Bill Forsyth film Gregory’s Girl, and the Scottish-born actor has distinguished himself on stage in the three decades since then. Winner of an Olivier Award for She Loves Me (opposite his onetime partner Ruthie Henshall), Sinclair played Leo Bloom in the West End company of The Producers and is now starring in The Ladykillers as the murderous Professor Marcus, a role created in the classic 1955 film by Alec Guinness. Broadway.com caught up with the genial, articulate actor during previews at the Vaudeville Theatre to talk films on stage, meeting Mel Brooks and his affinity for American accents.
The Ladykillers is back on the West End, where you’re following in the footsteps not only of Alec Guinness but also Peter Capaldi, who played Professor Marcus in a run 18 months ago. Did you see the play then?
I did, with no thought at all to being involved in it. What was great was that I felt like seeing the play gave me a few shortcuts [laughs]. I know some actors don’t like that, but it really doesn’t bother me. It was like when I was asked to do The Producers: I’m sure it helped that I had seen the production in New York so I knew what they were talking about when they described how certain things worked. I had an image in my head.
You must know your fellow Scotsman, Peter Capaldi.
I’ve known Peter for 30 years. Oddly enough, he’s in World War Z, which I’m in as well [as a Navy SEAL commander]. I saw him at the film premiere a couple of weeks ago just before we started rehearsals. I asked how he got on with [The Ladykillers] and he said, “Well, it’s a big learn; there’s an awful lot to take in.” And I thought, “Oh, shit! I wish you hadn’t said that.” [Laughs.]
Tell us your thoughts on the character, given his role as mastermind of a gathering of musicians (or maybe not) who set out to fleece a little old lady who may be wilier than she seems.
I think of him as a Svengali figure who sees himself as an unrecognized genius, and that’s ultimately what trips him up: his own ego. He doesn’t see himself so much as a criminal as an artist, so he’s looking to commit a crime that’s a work of art. He describes it as his masterpiece, which ultimately proves his undoing.
Both this play and The Producers began as celebrated films. How do you feel about the trend toward transferring movies to the stage?
Personally, and speaking just as a punter [member of the public], when modern movies get translated to the stage, I never feel a great urge to go and see whatever the play is. But when older movies get reinterpreted, I find it much more appealing—like The Ladykillers or The 39 Steps. I suppose with an audience there’s something quite reassuring about the fact that they know the story, but what’s great is to take that familiarity and build on it. With The Ladykillers, for instance, they’ve managed to hang on to the atmosphere of the film, which is somewhat melancholic, while ramping up the comedy side.
It’s amazing to think that Gregory’s Girl was released more than 30 years ago. Would it make a good play?
There’s been talk, but I’m not quite sure how that would work. The thing that struck me about The Ladykillers is that it all takes place in that room. With Gregory’s Girl or Local Hero, I don’t know how you would get all the situations they contain within the confines of the stage.
How does the film look to you now?
It kinds of feels even further away than that! It was on TV not so long ago and my daughters, who are five and seven, wanted to watch it, so we did, and I felt like I was looking at someone I didn’t even know. It was nice to have as a record, but it made me slightly sad.
The Producers brought you into contact with Mel Brooks. What was that like?
He was involved in the whole process, which was amazing, and he’s a real presence. The first time I met him, there was a knock on my dressing room door. I answered in my towel, and there was Mel Brooks and behind him Michelle Pfeiffer. There I was in my towel, trying my best to regain some kind of gravitas.
I can imagine!
Let’s just say that I have played that scene a million times over in my head without Mel Brooks and without the towel [laughs].
The American accent seemed to hold no hurdles for you, in that show and She Loves Me.
It’s the only one I can do! A lot of the American accent is based on Scottish and Irish immigrants. If you listen to a Belfast or a Dublin accent, in particular, they’re two bus stops away from being a full-blown American accent.
Are there any musicals you’ve had your eye on that got away?
I nearly did Matilda. I had as good as an offer to follow on from Bertie Carvel as Miss Trunchbull, but I had a stomach problem which led to an operation, so I had to say no. At this point, I kind of feel like the boat has sailed on that one.
It’s interesting that you have made such a mark on the West End in musicals, since that’s not necessarily what one might expect.
I know, but it just so happened that I had seen She Loves Me on Broadway two weeks before they came to me and said, “I don’t suppose you fancy doing a musical?” I probably would have said no, but because I had seen how fantastic it was, I thought that would be a bit of an adventure. In fact, I see everything in acting as a bit of an adventure!