“DID you hear about the woman who went into the cocktail bar? The barman says, ‘What will you have?’ She says, ‘I think I’ll have a Double Entendre.’ So he gave her one.”
Robbie Coltrane is cracking jokes. He’s always cracking jokes. He’s a cracker. Sometimes, quite blatantly, he’ll say something funny if he feels the line of questioning is getting too serious. Sometimes he just wants to hear you laugh. The double entendre gag comes midway through lunch at the Loch Fyne Oyster Bar, which Coltrane has chosen as the venue for our interview.
One to one interviews with the actor are now so rare that I expected the menu to feature poached phoenix eggs with a garnish of hen’s teeth. The Harry Potter movies mean he is so successful he really doesn’t need to pimp himself around the press; no doubt he is especially keen to avoid questions about the end of his marriage.
He has granted this audience because he wants to set the record straight about some comments he made earlier this year at the New York press junket for Harry Potter and The Prisoner of Azkaban. Asked about being approached by members of the public, it was reported that he replied, “The worst thing about doing telly is that the people who come up to you are almost invariably arseholes. They are arseholes at their work, they’re arseholes in the pub, they’re probably the arsehole of the family. If you’re related to them you think, ‘Oh God, here’s Uncle Jim, and he’s an arsehole.'”
The quote immediately zoomed its way around the globe. “The tabloids picked up on it, then the bitch gossip people picked up on it, and said I was an ungrateful bastard who should appreciate his fans because they put me here,” Coltrane says now. “But I’m well aware of that. I sign 5000 photographs a week for people who write to me. I send off tons of stuff and sign things for kids. I do a lot of all that. So even if I did think that, I would be the arsehole if I said it in front of a journalist. It was a kind of jokey offhand remark.”
We will return to this subject later. But for now, let’s back up a bit. Coltrane and I drove to the the Oyster Bar in one of his vintage cars, a mustard 1972 Buick. He picked me up in the car park of a pub near his home in the countryside outside Glasgow. “Hop in,” he said, leaning over to open the door. I shook his hand and off we went.
Coltrane has had vintage cars all his life. His first was a 1936 Austin 7 which he rescued in 1968, the same year he started at Glasgow School of Art. “Somebody had left it on the beach at St Andrews. I found out who the owner was, and they said, ‘You can have it if you always call it Bumble.’ It was painted to look like Noddy’s car. So that had to go. I had it for years but then some bastard stole it.”
Six years ago, he spotted the Buick parked on a side street in Pasadena, and bought it for $3000. He has since spent a couple of thousand on repairs, and although he describes it as “a trashmobile”, seems as goofily well-disposed towards it as any proud parent.
I nervously asked where the seatbelt was. I hadn’t been able to find it, having been somewhat distracted by Coltrane’s selection of tapes: Van Halen, Thin Lizzy, Charlie Parker, Ella Fitzgerald and Dr Angus MacDonald – Music Played On The Great Highland Bagpipe. Thankfully, there was a lapbelt, which Coltrane pointed out. “You’ll be alright, kid,” he said, cheerfully. “I’ll be the one with the steering wheel through my chest. You can write the obituary.”
I have interviewed Coltrane once before. It was Hallowe’en, 2001, shortly before the first Harry Potter film came out. On that occasion I was astonished by his ability to wheel around a vast range of different subjects, making frequent diversions, exploring conversational sideroads; because interviews with film stars are usually strictly limited in terms of time, they tend to be linear affairs, with journalist and subject choosing the fastest way from A to B, but a journey into the mind of Coltrane means always taking the scenic route. He does this, in part, as a way of avoiding revealing too much about himself, but also because he has so much stuff in his brain that if he didn’t leave the chatter valve open, his head might explode. “Why is it trivia?” he demands. “People call it trivia because they know nothing and they are embarrassed about it.”
Within one minute after setting off from the car park, he was holding forth on the history of a certain hut. In the hour that it took us to drive to the restaurant, he discussed – among other subjects – geology, memory loss (his mother, who is 87, has such good recall that she is occasionally visited by “young men from Cambridge University” desperate to understand why), the difficulties facing farmers, the link between Donald Rumsfeld and the artificial sweetener Aspartame, the life and work of Elliott Gould, the decline of the British Labour Party, the history of the British pub as influenced by the construction of cathedrals, the evil that is conifer trees, his daughter, my son, Le Mans, the internet, primitive cave paintings, the Battle of Agincourt, and the erotic misadventures of Leslie Grantham.
Inevitably, there were jokes – “Have you ever been up Glen Douglas?” he asked with a sly grin – but there were less silly accents than there were three years ago. Coltrane is a gifted mimic, and I think the less he knows someone, the more he puts on voices as a way of keeping his distance, which can be fun but frustrating. That said, he did treat me to a beautiful Marlon-Brando-watching-Benny-Hill that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.
PULLING up outside the Oyster Bar, Coltrane kills the engine, unleashes a tsunami of grey-black waves from beneath his Cadillac baseball cap, and heads inside. He’s dressed down in a blue check shirt and black jeans, but you can see the heads turn when he enters the room. Some children having lunch with their parents look particularly delighted – Rubeus Hagrid in the flesh! – but we are shown to a booth without being approached. He’s limping a little, the result of a fall in his garage while carrying a box of car bits, and has a sore-looking graze on his chin. Still, he has undeniable presence. It’s those look-at-me-but-stay-away pheromones that stars secrete whether they mean to or not.
We order lunch. He rhapsodises over a lobster, I have a symphony in fish. “Kippers as a starter?” he asks, channelling Terry Thomas. “Ding-dong!” During the Eighties, his party trick in restaurants was to bite chunks out of a wineglass and chew it round his mouth. Today, mercifully, he settles for sips of fizzy water.
The last time I interviewed him, he mentioned that he had been preparing to direct a film by reading Cameron Crowe’s book of interviews with Billy Wilder, so as an experiment, and because I thought it might keep him interested, I have lifted some of my questions from that book. Gamely, he agrees to answer these.
But first, Harry Potter. “It has been quite peculiar because it has been a worldwide phenomenon, as the Americans say,” he smiles, pushing at his fringe. “When the last film premiered in New York, we got out of the cars and 5000 girls started screaming. It was like the fucking Beatles. It was really unbelievable.”
Pottermania has taken Coltrane by surprise. “I knew it was going to be enormous because of the number of people who bought the books, but, to be honest, I never thought it would be bigger than Bond (Coltrane appeared as Valentin Zukovsky in both 1995’s Goldeneye and 1999’s The World Is Not Enough). Never in a million years.” It has, he says, been quite overwhelming.
This brings us neatly back to what Coltrane is happy to refer to as “Arseholegate”. He explains the incident which inspired the comment came when he was flying to New York. Someone woke him up halfway across the Atlantic so they could have their picture taken together. He thinks this is just plain rude. Most of the time, he says, kids are enchanted to see him, and want to know what Harry is really like. That’s fine, but he sometimes has a problem with adults. “The person who comes up to you and makes the most noise and is the most intrusive is invariably the person in the room who has no respect for you at all, and it’s really all about them. That can be a pain in the arse sometimes. When you’re out in public, it’s fine, but not when you are in your more private moments, like sitting on the beach with your children. People don’t seem to realise that this is always like this for me. I know this is the only time they are going to meet me but I have done this 20 times in the last hour.
“So what happens is you start protecting yourself and you start having the kind of life you didn’t want. You start finding yourself being a bit isolated and not able to do the things you used to enjoy doing. That is a bit of a shame. Also, it depends on what kind of mood you’re in. If you’re in a crap mood and somebody comes up to you, you are still going to be in a crap mood. It’s not like you’re the Royal Family and have to smile and shake hands with everybody.”
One could listen to this and say, well, lack of privacy is the price you pay for wealth and fame, so quit whining, but I think that would be uncharitable. It must have been particularly difficult, for example, to handle public attention during his split early last year from his wife Rhona, who he met in the late Eighties and married in 1999. No one would feel at their best, at their most confident and outgoing, at a time like that; being asked to sign autographs or smile for the cameras must have seemed like a grim joke.
He is trying, however. The other day, he was in Lidl, buying this incredible bratwurst, when a child came up and asked, “Are you Hagrid?” The boy’s mother came over and dragged him away. “No!” she said. “He doesn’t like that.” Coltrane felt terrible and called the boy back over. He doesn’t like the idea that the public thinks he resents them. “I mean,” he says. “I have all sorts of disgusting habits, but that’s not one of them.”
Later in the day, I have the opportunity to see for myself the difficulties he has with being recognised. When we leave the restaurant, several people come up to him at once, asking for autographs. He signs them. One man shouts to his friend, “Look! Robbie Coltrane’s over here!” We get in the car and discover an envelope sitting on the dash addressed to ‘Bobby Coltrain’. As we reverse out of the parking space, a camera flash goes off. Later, when the car is stopped at a junction, someone peeps and shouts “Hiya, Robbie!” Later still, some workies say hello as he drives past. “At least they didn’t ask me to get my kit off,” he notes, stoically.
No doubt the public attention engendered by playing Hagrid will influence his decision whether to continue with the Harry Potter franchise. He is contracted to make four, and is currently filming the fourth, The Goblet of Fire. He has been able to fit this interview in because production has been halted while the computer graphics wonks work their magic. Each film takes about nine months to make; it is, he says, more like a pregnancy than a production.
While on set, Coltrane makes use of a fabulous Forties ‘Silver Streak’ trailer which he has restored. He sits in it between scenes, chatting with co-stars Robert Hardy and Michael Gambon. The conversation is highly technical. Hardy is an authority on medieval longbows, and hand-crafts them himself. Gambon, meanwhile, is an enthusiastic restorer of antique rifles. Coltrane talks cars. I like to think of the three of them, droning on like three Walter Matthaus, while, in a modern trailer nearby, Daniel Radcliffe develops PlayStation thumb.
I ask whether he will sign on for the final three films. “I don’t know. I really don’t know what the circumstances will be for the last three. I don’t know if I should be saying this, although if anyone has got any brains they’ll have worked it out, but if Jo Rowling hasn’t finished books six and seven within the next two years, the kids we’ve got at the moment will be too old to play the parts. And they may not even want to. So it depends on the variables. In some ways I would rather get on with something else, but I don’t want to say that because it sounds so fucking ungrateful.”
He pauses, and cocks his head like an owl listening for a mouse in a cornfield. He has heard a motorbike zoom past outside and is enjoying the sound of the engine.
“So, no, I don’t know if I’m going to do any more,” he continues. “They will, of course, to enchant me back, offer me frightening amounts of money.”
“And is that hard to resist?” I ask.
“Of course it is. I’ve got two young kids. I don’t know what the future holds.”
Just then, the waitress comes over. She’s nervous in the presence of a celebrity and Coltrane senses it. He tries to put her at ease with jokes, but it just makes everyone uncomfortable. He has a perverse knack for turning something as simple as the serving of lunch into a Joe Orton play:
Waitress: “Who’s having the lobster?”
Coltrane: “I’m having the lobster.”
Waitress: “Here are your crushing implements.”
Coltrane (as a camp doctor): ” Thank you nurse. The screens!”
Waitress (exiting quickly): “Oh God!”
The last few years have been extraordinarily busy and successful for Coltrane. There has been Harry Potter, From Hell, in which he co-starred with Johnny Depp, TV drama The Planman, and Van Helsing. He also appeared in the final episode of Frasier, which was partly filmed on the same studio lot as Citizen Kane (“I was on the ground, sniffing the floor”) and has a scene in the forthcoming Ocean’s 12. He waxes lyrical about hanging out in Amsterdam with George Clooney, Brad Pitt et al, and gets quite flustered when talking about Catherine Zeta Jones’s pencil skirt.
In Ocean’s 12, he plays a “crime guru” called Matsui, who tests Matt Damon’s character to see whether he is ready for more responsibility. “The next day, the producer Jerry Weintraub said to me, ‘I’ve seen the scene. It’s very, very, very funny, Robbie. I’m gonna give you a treat. What do you wanna do on your day off?’ I said, ‘Well, I suppose I could go and shag a lot of women dressed in leather.’ He says, ‘That’s a possibility.’ ‘Or,’ I said, ‘I’ve always wanted to go round Amsterdam, on all the wee canals you never see, on an old boat.’ He said, ‘That will happen.’ So the next day, nine o’clock in the morning, a 1917 motor launch turns up. I step out of the hotel on to the boat and spend two hours going round all these tiny canals. Did you know that Amsterdam is mainly below sea level? I was astonished. These fucking great barricades hold the sea back.”
That’s a very Coltraney anecdote. It has it all: the suggestion that he’s attracted to the dark side of hedonism, the revelation that his interests are somewhat nerdier, and the paging-Dr-Freud image of repression in the sea barriers.
He does hold a lot back. When you have worked as an interviewer for a while, each fresh subject makes you feel like a sculptor facing a rough block of marble – you begin to get an instinct for which questions will reveal the true form underneath, the human core of the interviewee. But with Coltrane, it’s more like you’re a coroner on a vast moor – you’re pretty sure there’s a body in there somewhere, but it’s hard to know where to start digging. The best you can do is make a few random excavations and hope to get lucky. That’s where the Billy Wilder questions come in. Here are the first few:
If someone was to look back over all your work, what would be the most personal?
“Tutti Frutti. That was the nearest to me. And I learned so much from Emma Thompson. She really taught me how to be a professional, to stop fucking about and thinking it was all rock and roll. ”
In what way was the character Danny closest to you? “He thought he was an arty, existential hero, but really he wasn’t. He really wanted to be part of the tribe but didn’t know how to do it.”
Does that still apply to you? “Not any more. Harry Gibson, who produced a film I did, said ‘Robbie, any pretensions you have to be an existential hero disappear with the birth of your first child. When you’ve got a baby, you’re in the tribe whether you like it or not.’ And that’s true. Did Jean-Paul Sartre ever change a fucking nappy? I somehow don’t think so.”
COLTRANE has two children, Spencer, who is 11, and Alice, six. People who know him say that fatherhood has mellowed him, and having seen him around his children, I’d say that’s probably true. His rake’s-progress years seem well in the past. He probably hasn’t eaten a wine glass in over a decade.
Colin Gilbert, head of TV production company The Comedy Unit, and credited by Coltrane as the man who discovered him, believes that any bad behaviour was prompted by the sudden onset of fame and money that came in the mid-Eighties when he started appearing in programmes like Laugh? I Nearly Paid My License Fee, A Kick Up The Eighties and especially the Comic Strip films. “I remember he and Rik Mayall used to say they were interested in the idea of excess,” says Gilbert. “They used to talk about it in an intellectual way. Excess probably just means going out and drinking too much and indulging in all sorts of other activities that come into that category. I think for a time that did happen. It was ‘Who can be the most outrageous?’ It was all a bit Rat Packy, and they were very hot at the time.”
The writer Liz Lochhead, who was at art school at the same time as Coltrane, remembers that even in the late Seventies, when he was appearing in productions at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre, “He had a kind of bad boy quality. It was just a feeling. He would come in to a room and make his presence felt. He attracted trouble a bit at those times. Other men would take a pop at him. He was never aggressive, but it was just a feeling of ‘Woah, he’s coming in, the night could get wild.’ I think there is an excitement with Robbie, and I still feel that when I see him. It’s like ‘Woooahh, what could happen now?'”
His friend, the actor John Sessions has said in the past that rage was Coltrane’s engine. He is certainly a sweetie that has lost none of its nip. In our time together, Coca-Cola is dismissed as “fucking sugary nonsense”, an unauthorised biography as “Mince! Absolute mince!”, and Big Brother gets a prolonged verbal kicking. But I sense more sadness than anger about him. Liz Lochhead says that what makes him so great a comedian is “that you feel edges of darkness”. I’d say that’s true.
“Melancholic?” he says, when I ask him about this. “I think everyone becomes melancholy when they start to think. Intuitively, we’re quite optimistic, but the more we think, the more melancholy we become. No, I don’t think I’m melancholic, it’s just that if you live your life trying to find the meaning in things, you very often find life slightly disappointing. But it’s worth the effort. The alternative is to go through life as if it were a series of unconnected events, which I would find unbelievably dull. It’s fine when you’re five, but not when you’re 54.”
Recent stories in the newspapers have claimed Coltrane has been going through a period of depression that started around the end of 2002 and is related to his marital difficulties. He won’t talk about his marriage other than to confirm that he and Rhona, a sculptor, are separated but not divorced. However, the newspaper stories say that his friends are worried, so I asked John Sessions about it. “We all want to know he’s fine,” he replied. “We want him to get his show back on the road. He has done wonderfully well in the last year and a half. We’re all just very, very sad. We all loved Rhona too. He’s doing surprisingly well at keeping everything together. Their love for their children, of course, is a big factor.”
I ask Coltrane directly: “Have you been depressed in the last few years?”
“Well, you know,” he says, somewhat uncomfortable. “I’m up and down like most creative people. A bit more up and down than most people, but the tabloids just make these things up. I had the mid-life crisis, I suppose. It was that thing where ten years ago I could still pass myself off as being a bit of a dude, but in ten years time I’ll be getting my bus pass.”
“So are you saying you have been through the mid-life crisis and out the other side?”
“I don’t know if I have yet. See, what you’re meant to do when you have a mid-life crisis is buy a fast car, aren’t you? Well, I’ve always had fast cars. It’s not that. It’s the fear that you’re past your best. It’s the fear that the stuff you’ve done in the past is your best work. It’s like when someone dies and they say ‘He’ll always be remembered for that television show he did in 1972.’ But he’d been working for 30 years after that.”
When Marlon Brando passed away last month, it hit Coltrane hard. “I was really upset. It was like someone I knew. I never met the guy, but it honestly felt like someone I really cared for had died. It sounds so stupid. The papers all said ‘Probably the best film actor of his generation,’ and then they say ‘But then he got fat.’ He got disillusioned is what he got.”
When Coltrane was a boy trying to work out what to do with his life, the Brando of On The Waterfront – released in 1954, when he was four – was a lighthouse showing the way. “I thought, ‘That’s me! I could be beautiful and sensitive though tough on the outside.'”
His mother was a film fan. She would call him over and they would sit together and watch old movies on TV. He saw The Third Man that way when he was 11. You can picture them watching the famous scene where Orson Welles as Harry Lime steps out of the shadows and the light from a window falls on his upturned face. Imagine that white glare being reflected on to Coltrane’s astonished young face like a sign, an epiphany.
The movies that made him high were, and still are, film noir thrillers. The attraction, he says, is “all that speed and brutality. I love films where the world seems to be going a bit faster and everything’s a bit brighter and more in focus.” He also loved screwball comedies such as Bringing Up Baby and His Girl Friday, and I can’t help but think he learned some life lessons from them. “What I love about those,” he says, “is the great American tradition of the wise-cracker who you know underneath is a much nicer person but who has been hurt and their defence mechanisms have become incredibly attractive.”
I ask if he is up for some more Wilder questions. He nods. “Go on.”
What are the images that come to mind when I mention your mother? “Images? Oh, God. I remember she used to put her pinky behind my ear to make me go to sleep. I do it with my own children now. I had the most extraordinary memory of her the other day. I was getting off the bed. I’d just been reading my daughter a story, and I was easing myself off the bed, trying not to make a noise, and I heard the bed creak. As soon as I heard that, I remembered my mother putting me to bed, and me wanting to say something but being too far away. It was exactly the same as Alice was feeling, because her eyes kind of flickered and then she went away. You never hear that noise unless you are the child or the parent, and I suddenly remembered my mother reading me The Sword And The Stone.”
What’s the key image of your father? “My dad? I have lots of them. He died when I was 19, which is a bad time for your dad to die, because there’s an awful lot of things you have to resolve with your parents past your teens if you’ve been a difficult teenager. I have lots of images of my father. One of them is cooking a tin of ravioli in the boat hut when we’d been fishing. I don’t know why. And also, he did a fantastic soft shoe shuffle, which he would do in front of the fridge when the day’s work was finished. He was very dapper, very smart, always very well turned out. And seriously funny.”
When did you first realise you had the facility for being funny? “Well, just in life, really. When I was quite young. My son’s the same, he’s terribly funny. It’s a wonderful power to have. It’s also fantastically disarming. Women find it unbelievably disarming. You can say the most astonishing things if you’re funny. You can tell a woman that she’s irresistibly attractive, but do it in such a funny way that if she says ‘Fuck off’ you can make out it was a joke.”
It’s a defence mechanism? “It’s not defensive if it’s funny enough. If you end up in bed with them, it’s not funny at all. It’s strategic.”
When you first started going out with women and having girlfriends, what was your approach? Were you mysterious? “I had no chance of being mysterious at all. I used to put on accents. I pretended to be American because I thought they’d be impressed. I was always terribly, terribly aware of how clichéd the whole ritual between men and women is. This was 1964, 1965. The girls all stood on one side of the room, the boys stood on the other, and you had the long walk. ‘Would … you … like … to … dance … with … me?’ ‘Aye, if sumdae hud a gun tae ma head.’
“I refused to go through that shite, so I pretended to be American: ‘I just parked my plane in the car park.’ ‘You’re pullin’ ma leg.’ ‘Maybe I am, maybe I’m not. Wanna dance, gorgeous?’ ‘You’re mad! Aye, okay.’ Whereas if I had gone up and said ‘By the way, darlin’, heaven must be missin’ an angel,’ she’d have told me to fuck off, and she’d have been right.”
The ease with which Coltrane slipped into accents and personae was soon converted from a simple pulling technique into an educational achievement. At Glenalmond private school, he won both the acting cup and the art cup . Much to the chagrin of his father Ian, a doctor who had “spent the entire war pulling bits of metal out of wee boys’ heads”, he decided to become a painter, and enrolled at Glasgow School of Art.
“It was very slightly different,” says Coltrane, raising his eyebrows at this understatement. “There weren’t a lot of girls smoking dope and asking you back to their place to listen to an album at Glenalmond. It took me a while to adjust. It was ironic, really. I went to Glenalmond and got the piss taken out of me for my Glasgow accent. Then I spent five years at this very posh school, came out sounding like Prince Charles, which you have to do in order to survive, and then I got called Lord Fauntleroy for the first six months at art school.”
Art school was an education, although not in the obvious way. He grew his hair, went to see a lot of pretentious foreign movies, and experimented with drugs. “I had a very bad time with acid. I did that classic thing of looking in the mirror by mistake and seeing the devil. But I took it several times because you always think that next time you might have the wonderful time that everyone else is having.”
He joined the drama group. Liz Lochhead remembers seeing him in a production of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, and finding him “fantastic … bloody terrifying”. His ambitions to become a painter, like his elder sister Annie, began to fall away when “I realised that the distance between what was in my head and what ended up on the canvas was irredeemably large.”
There was a culture of distrust of the written word at the art school at that time, but his interest in acting and writing was fostered by the poet Stephen Mulrine, then head of the liberal studies class. “Language was seen as having to do with power and the ruling classes. Painting was seen as being about freedom and self-expression,” says Coltrane. “I never fucking believed that. I didn’t see why a well chosen word was any less powerful than a well painted picture.”
The waitress comes over with the bill. Coltrane addresses her in the voice of a pervert from a non-specific area from the West of Scotland. Possibly Paisley. “Would ye like a sweetie? Ye can huv two sweeties if ye come and sit next to us.” I tip heavily and we leave.
THE journey back takes less time. Coltrane clearly loves driving, but he has a very low tolerance threshold for the foibles of other motorists and the unpredictability of his own car. “Fucking windows aren’t going up and down,” he moans, stabbing a button. “That’s interesting. That’s a new one. Fucking electrics are shit.”
It’s tempting to regard his interest in cars as opposite to his acting but I see them as being welded together. Both spring from his interest in construction, in how things work. His acting, for example, looks very naturalistic; he appears to be simply being himself, but a bit more so. However, his performances are painstakingly put together. Speeches are learned, in sections, with the help of a MiniDisc. Thus acting, which seems a fairly poetic and emotional thing, has its mechanical side. Similarly, for Coltrane, mechanics are poetic. I have seen him look lovingly at a car engine and purr “Isn’t she beautiful?”, his face seemingly lit with Third Man light. You can see the two sides in the professions of his parents, his forensic surgeon father and pianist mother, one using his fingers to examine the stilled workings of dead bodies, the other to strum the human soul.
At times in his life, cars and stars have entered perfect alignment. In the mid Seventies, aware that Martin Scorsese was to spend time at the Edinburgh Film Festival, Coltrane offered his services as a chauffeur. He spent a couple of weeks ferrying the director, then at his most brilliantly intense, around the city. They went to see the then-unreleased Mean Streets together four times.
Coltrane’s interest in engineering is well known, thanks mostly to the two TV series Coltrane In A Cadillac (1993) and Coltrane’s Planes and Automobiles (1997). He wrote books to tie in with both. At a wedding he attended some years ago, the latter book caused a horrible argument with an enraged guest, who said “You talk all about this triple expansion engine, and how important it is not to abuse the pressure, but you never mentioned the problem of evaporation and cooling.”
This, one assumes, is not the sort of conversation that, say, George Clooney finds himself having at parties. “George is hilarious about that stuff,” Coltrane laughs. “I said, ‘So, George, I hear you’re into bikes. What have you got?’ And he went, ‘Oh, Robbie, I dunno, it’s big and silvery and it goes like shit!'”
Right now, that’s exactly how we are not going. We are stuck behind a Sunday driver. Pity it’s a Tuesday. “Now we’re doing 40,” Coltrane grumbles. “Go on, you pisshead!” He has a terrific way of throwing himself into a rant, getting angrier and angrier as a sentence goes on. “See,” he says at one point, glaring at a car which has suddenly emerged from a junction ahead, “that’s one of the most dangerous procedures you can do, just to pull out without fucking looking, you silly CUNT!”
Apart from this, he seems in rather a good mood, if somewhat preoccupied with sex. “Is it just me, or is the world full of beautiful women?” he asks as we pass a pretty pedestrian. Next he mentions that when he met Brad Pitt he couldn’t help but think that he and Jennifer Aniston had just been “at it like knives”. Even the topography of the countryside assumes a sexual dimension. Glancing at an area of cleared forest, he notes, “It reminds you of a shaven fanny that’s growing in again, dunnit?” and has the good grace to laugh at how filthy that is. Later, over a drink, he will observe that “There are women you want to fuck and women you want to make pregnant. Nigella you want to make pregnant.” He pauses for effect. “Whereas Cameron Diaz you want to take to Acapulco.”
Journalists writing about Coltrane often take their cue from his physical appearance and describe him as a man of gargantuan appetites – for sex, for food, for drink. His size matters, they insist, and will often wax analytical about how it must symbolise a great unhappiness, a self-destructiveness and longing. I’m not so sure about that. In fact, I’d say the opposite is true. What Coltrane loves is minutiae, little pleasures. Bemoaning the plan to replace the Twin Towers with the tallest building in the world, he pleads, “Why can’t they just make something small and exquisite?”
There’s a key in there somewhere that might unlock his whole personality. Small and exquisite; the tooth on a cog in an engine, a neat line in an old movie, the creak of a bed, the gappy smile of his daughter – these are things in which he finds meaning. He also says, “I sometimes worry that all the beautiful things have been made,” and that’s another key. He is terribly nostalgic. The old cars, the black and white films, they both indicate the same thing – a lack of faith in the present. John Sessions says that Coltrane is “overcome by one’s impotence in the face of the world’s stupidity”, which seems to ring true.
This is all linked, I think, to his decision to become an actor. Life lets you down, so why not live the life of art? Thus the boy who came out of James Bond movies and walked down the Rutherglen streets, pretending to be a spy, would one day go on to appear in two 007 films. The world, for Coltrane, is not enough. He’s not Walter Mitty, though; he can tell the difference between fantasy and reality, it’s just that he happens to prefer the former.
In a 1995 lecture to drama students in Glasgow, Coltrane opined that comedy lies between the way we like to think of ourselves and the way we really are. For people who commit suicide, he said, that distance is unbearable (his younger sister, Jane, killed herself in 1976). Little wonder, if he believes that, that he would dedicate his life to narrowing the distance, practising wish fulfilment as a profession.
Even his name is made up. His real name is Anthony Robin McMillan, and he still refers to himself as Robin. The Coltrane bit is from John Coltrane, the jazz saxophonist. Take a cool name and people will think of you differently; perhaps you will think differently of yourself.
Towards the end of our interview, I ask Coltrane whether he feels he has made a success of his life. “Not quite at the moment, no,” he says. “Not with the separation and stuff. You don’t feel a success when something like that happens.”
You can see the attraction, I suppose, when life is being harder than usual, in sticking on the false beard and padded suit and Pottering around. You might call it the consolations of the Philosopher’s Stone.
SOME days after our interview, I accompany Kirsty, the photographer, to Coltrane’s home. He wants to be photographed in front of some panelling from the Olympic, the Titanic’s sister ship, which he bought at auction and has mounted on a wall. While Kirsty sets up her lights, and Spencer plays Purple Haze on his guitar, we talk a little more. As it is Saturday morning, the subject, naturally, is the meaning of life.
“It’s part of a western man’s upbringing, especially if it cost a lot of money, to get your intellect developed,” he says over coffee. “You are brought up to believe that if you are smart enough and read enough books you will find the meaning in things. But actually, in many ways, that’s a curse. All the things that happen to you in life that make you happy or excited or fulfilled have nothing to do with finding the meaning in things at all; having children, for example, falling in love. If you’re asking me if I have found the meaning in life, the answer is no, but part of getting on with your life is realising that perhaps there isn’t any meaning.”
He certainly doesn’t find any meaning in God. Coltrane is vehemently anti-religious. He can’t stand the idea of faith because that means blind acceptance that you will never know how or why things work. Not that he wants the universe to come with a manual. As he has grown older, he has become content to not always be looking for the big answers. “I think fatherhood might have helped with that,” he says, “and also things that have happened to friends that didn’t make any sense.”
“Did your sister’s death have an impact on your thinking?” I ask.
“Um, yeah, it must have done,” he says. “It’s certainly a short, sharp way to realise the randomness of things, that’s for sure.”
Coltrane has a busy time ahead. The day after the photoshoot, he is heading back to the Harry Potter set. He also hopes to read from Roald Dahl’s The Minpins on stage at the Barbican.Then there are plans for a new one-off Cracker, the Jimmy McGovern drama for which he has won a clutch of Best Actor Baftas. But right now, he seems slightly more enthused by a script, which he has been sent, and which he is trying to persuade Stephen Frears to direct; Coltrane intends to play the lead and he hopes that Johnny Depp might come on board.
With all that going on, there isn’t a lot of time for existential crises, but Coltrane is nothing if not a multi-tasked. Between our interview and the photos, he visited friends on the island of Harris, and it had quite an impact. “You do feel closer to God, if there is one, than anywhere else,” he says. “There’s a three-mile beach there, covered in sand. And what it actually is is thousands and millions and billions of shells that have been blown in from the Atlantic. How many billions of lives is that? And here we are sitting on that beach. What would the purpose of that be? One line only. Answers to this address.”
I like that image of him, a lonely dot on an expanse of white, pondering the intricacies of the shells beneath his feet and the mysteries of the heavens above. I wish I had an answer for Robbie Coltrane. If I thought it would make him happy, I’d give him one.