MANY an actor has a tale of the role ‘that got away’, but few have been quite as unlucky as Alex Jennings. In the 19902, he was cast as the romantic lead in Four Weddings And A Funeral. ‘I was waiting to get the phone call for filming to start — and it instead came to say that all the money had fallen through,’ he recalls.
Eighteen months later, the funding was in place, but the producers’ ‘had moved on’ and then-unknown Hugh Grant was cast. ‘I’m not bitter,’ Alex adds, ‘Hugh was made to play that part. It was absolutely the right thing.’
But if Alex was denied the chance to become that quintessential cinematic toff, then in his subsequent illustrious stage and screen career, he has become well known for playing posh — despite his comparatively humble background as the son of an Essex car dealer. His latest blue-blooded role is as an Old Etonian Tory MP in marital drama Hansard, which has just started its run at the National Theatre.
In this new two-hander, written by actor-turned-playwright Simon Woods, he stars as Robin Hesketh, a junior minister in Margaret Thatcher’s government, who returns to his Cotswolds home one Saturday in 1988 where his embittered wife Diana awaits him. It would not do to reveal much more, except that a clash — both domestic and ideological — ensues, involving some brilliantly acidic bickering. Think Who’s Afraid Of Virginia Woolf? in Aga country.
The play powerfully interrogates the Conservative party and its values. However, Alex emphasises, ‘It is not a hatchet job.’ While he was no Thatcher fan, he finds it strange to look back on her tenure now ‘with a sort of nostalgia… whatever your views, there were considerable politicians then — and I don’t see those now.’
Playing out in real time over an hour and a half, it is quite a test of stamina for Alex and co-star Lindsay Duncan. ‘It’s exciting though at the same time, we’re both thinking, “My God, somebody else come on,”’ he laughs.
What helps is that he and Lindsay are old friends, who first met on the set of 1980s sitcom The Kit Curran Radio Show. But, despite enjoying countless dinners and holidays with each other, this is their first time on stage together since they played Titania and Oberon in A Midsummer Night’s Dream 23 years ago. ‘It’s really interesting because we have no secrets,’ says Alex. ‘It’s very intense, and we’re doing the work.’
Alongside his appearance in musical The Light In The Piazza this summer, Hansard marks Alex’s return to the theatre after a hiatus. Over three decades, Alex has built a reputation as one of our great classical actors, bagging three Oliviers along the way but a few years ago, he opted to concentrate on screen work. One plum role was as the Duke of Windsor in Netflix’s The Crown. He wishes he could have aged up for a further series, but in the new run, out later this year ‘I’ve morphed into Derek Jacobi. I would have loved to have done the whole thing, but you know, that’s the way they decided to do it.’
Beyond acting, a dream is to be on Desert Island Discs, though he admits he has given up wanting to appear on Strictly Come Dancing. ‘Ten years ago, I would have, but not now. I think it would kill me. Can you imagine being kicked out the first week?’
■ Hansard is at the National Theatre until November 25, nationaltheatre.org.uk and will be broadcast live to over 700 cinemas across the UK on November 7