It’s been 35 years since Tom Conti won a Tony Award for his career-defining performance in Whose Life Is It Anyway?, followed five years later by his Oscar-nominated star turn in Reuben, Reuben. Since then, the 72-year-old actor has romanced Pauline Collins on screen in Shirley Valentine and done time in Gotham City in The Dark Knight Rises, in addition to returning regularly to the London stage. This season, he can be found succeeding Martin Shaw as Juror No. 8 in the extended run of Twelve Angry Men at the Garrick Theatre, alongside Jeff Fahey and Robert Vaughn. Broadway.com caught up with the ever-charming Scotsman to talk takeovers, Tonys, and sustaining a career.
Welcome back to the West End! You’re replacing Martin Shaw in the leading role—has it been a steep learning curve?
It has been, and I’m not sure I would do it again, though I took over once before [from the late Peter O’Toole in Jeffrey Bernard is Unwell] so I know how these things work. The only reason to do it is if you really want to.
Which, presumably, you did?
Yes, our producer Bill Kenwright said I should go and see the play—I got a real rush out of it and thought it would be very good fun to be in. As I was coming out of the door of the theater, the phone rang and it was Bill saying, “Well?”, and I said, “Let’s have a go”—and opened three weeks later [laughs].
What appeals to you about Reginald Rose’s writing?
To me, what’s strange and wonderful about this is that it’s actually a feel-good play: it’s a play about heroism, in a way, and one man’s dogged resistance to apathy and hatred. Audiences always respond to the notion of one guy against the world: That’s the stuff of classic drama.
It’s Tony Award season at the moment on Broadway. Do you recall much of your own Tony experience?
I remember it very well; it was a hugely exciting night! The curious thing was that until I got to New York, I had never heard of the Tonys and then someone said, “You’ve been nominated for a Tony,” and I said, “That’s very nice, what is it?” and I was told and realized that this was really something—and didn’t expect for a moment to win.
Do you keep the trophy on display?
Funny you should mention that. My housekeeper likes to move things around, so I’m not sure what ledge it’s on at the moment; I must check.
What’s interesting about your role as a bed-ridden quadriplegic in Whose Life Is It Anyway? is that the part went on to be played by women—Mary Tyler Moore and later, Kim Cattrall.
That idea came from a conversation [London co-star] Jane Asher and I had had in London where she said, “Why don’t we swap sometimes and I can go in the bed and you can be the doctor?” And I thought, “That’s a truly wonderful idea!” Our director gave us that look of “How bloody stupid can actors be!?”
But the gender change happened nonetheless.
It did because they couldn’t get anyone to take over from me and then the idea of [the role] being a woman re-emerged. Mary [Tyler Moore] came to see it and immediately said yes she’d like to do it. She was wonderful in the part and tremendously courageous. It was terribly exciting for me to see her do it because I’d been in love with Mary Tyler Moore for years—as we all were.
Despite achieving renown in the U.S., you’ve kept London as home.
There were two points in my life where I did consider uprooting the family to the States—the first was around the time of the play in New York, but I didn’t know America well enough and I was concerned about my daughter, Nina, who was five at the time and so at the point of starting serious school.
And the other?
10 years ago, my wife and I had pretty well decided to buy a house in L.A. and get green cards and just when all that was happening, suddenly my daughter was married and pregnant, so everything just stopped. We thought, we can’t go away and leave her with a new baby coming. So in both cases, my daughter was the determining factor!
You could still do it in a few years.
We’ll see, though as I get older, I do think L.A. would be a nice place to be. I’ve always liked working in America. There always seem to be all sorts of possibilities there, especially now that your country produces some really stunningly good TV.
You got a real taste of the movie blockbuster world with The Dark Knight Rises.
That felt ginormous, no doubt about it. One doesn’t often work on movies of that size. I remember going to work in the morning thinking that this must have been what it was like in the old days of Hollywood where you had to go to an ocean to have an ocean. So much now happens via CGI, but Chris [Nolan, director] prefers to work on a huge scale that really is quite astounding.
Amid so varied a career, you haven’t done that much of the bread-and-butter of many a British actor’s life: Shakespeare.
That’s true. I was in Julie Taymor’s film of The Tempest but the truth is that every time I think I would like to do a Shakespeare, I realize that for myself I get far more pleasure from reading Shakespeare than from watching it.
That’s unusual—any idea why that might be?
It’s partly because the British do so much capital-A acting when they take on Shakespeare. It’s such a relief when you see people like Kevin Kline or Meryl Streep doing Shakespeare. They’re sensational because they can just talk whereas the British too often act Shakespeare, and I run screaming from the exit.