“This is pineapple juice!” says actor Tim Pigott-Smith with a laugh, when asked if he is enjoying a pre-show cocktail. It’s one hour before the start of a Friday night performance of Broadway’s King Charles III, the “future history” play by Mike Bartlett, in which he stars as Prince Charles, now King, having finally ascended the throne.
And indeed, a sense of sobriety is required for the play’s wordless opening scene, depicting the candlelit requiem during the funeral of Queen Elizabeth II. But the solemnity definitely doesn’t last. A Shakespearean-style comedy, written in iambic pentameter, King Charles III soon becomes an ingenious and provocative foray into royal customs and the challenges of a man — and a nation — experiencing growing pains in their old age.
His more than 40 years of experience in movies and on TV and stage has given Pigott-Smith the unassuming familiarity of a great character actor. But if you only know him from the stern-faced authority figures and villains he’s played in the 1984 miniseries The Jewel in the Crown or Paul Greengrass’ Bloody Sunday (he also pops up in Gangs of New York and Downton Abbey and V for Vendetta), then this role as Charles will deservedly thrust the actor, at age 69, in an entirely new light. His performance captures the prince’s buffoonery while also engendering unexpected sympathy for the crisis that the play places him within.
“Oh, I have lots of time for Charles,” Pigott-Smith says, using Anglo verbiage to convey the heart he feels for the man he embodies eight times a week. Sitting comfortably with his legs stretched out on a white couch in his dressing room, the actor spoke about his attitude towards the royal family, the shared physical trait that endeared him to the prince, and the free New York City activity that he looks forward to every time he’s in town.
[Spoiler alert: This interview reveals details about the plot of King Charles III.]
ENTERTAINMENT WEEKLY: You don’t actually look like Charles, but many people coming out of the theater have commented that there’s a strong similarity.
TIM PIGOTT-SMITH: Well, that’s weird isn’t it? But that’s all Rupert Goold, my director. His idea was that we mustn’t impersonate. So I do a lot of little things. Charles talks out of the sides of his mouth. He twists his ring on his finger. When he holds his hands over his pockets, he doesn’t put his hands in them, they just hover there. And this allows the audience to place their image of Charles on me. It’s almost like I’m his shadow. You look at the shape but you get a sense of him.
A lot of Americans have affection for the royal family.
That’s funny, isn’t it, how much people here care? I think the play’s particularly challenging for those people.
Did it give you qualms about bringing it here? Especially since the production was such a huge hit in London last year.
Well, no. But I’m glad it wasn’t my first experience of Broadway, because it is overwhelming.
It’s so massive. America is very generous but it’s also a bit wacky, you know. We had the Queen’s Guard, sentries with busbies on their head, on a red carpet for the opening. And I had more stuff in my dressing room than I could imagine. If I hadn’t had the other two experiences on Broadway it might’ve knocked me off center.
Yes, you were here with Kevin Spacey when he did Iceman Cometh in 1999 and in the 1970s, you came here with a production of Sherlock Holmes, where you played Watson.
If you look at my makeup towel right there, it was given to me by the wardrobe lady on Sherlock Holmes. And it says November the 12th 1974. Forty-one years ago, my God.
What are you memories from then?
We were at the Broadhurst Theatre. I think Broadway was just at the end of that mythic age. Our opening night party was at Sardi’s and Ethel Merman was there. My wife was also in the company, which suited quite a lot of Americans. We got asked out to dinner a lot. And we did the city, really. Most of the things I do now are things I did then. I always remember to go on the Staten Island Ferry, because it’s the most amazing view of New York. And it’s free! You see Ellis Island and it conjures up something of that great moment, you know, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free. It’s staggering.
You must think it’s special, too, that right now we’re on 45th Street and if you walk a few doors down, there’s Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, which was a smash in the West End in London at around the same time as King Charles III.
Incredible, isn’t it? That’s a remarkable production. I worry that Americans might not like it, because it’s playing around with the Bible, you know — the mighty Miller. But it’s a fantastic piece of work. I can’t remember sitting in a theater where the concentration and focus was so intense throughout. Absolute stillness in the audience.
Certainly King Charles III has a lot more laughs. It is so funny.
That was the big shock to me. Reading it, I knew there was fun in it. But until we performed it in front of people, I couldn’t imagine how much audiences would laugh at some of the lines.
Is the reaction different between London and New York?
No, very much the same. We changed a few references; things that British audiences would get but generally aren’t part of American culture. GPS is mentioned here, though it was Sat Nav in London. And we had to alter the play a little to make it clear what the central story of the plot is. That a bill goes through the House of Commons and the House of Lords and then is presented to the monarch for signature.
Right, audiences here could be confused if they compare the role of the monarch to the American president, for example.
Exactly. And when we did first previews here in New York, we could tell that that part of the story was just a little bit vague to American audiences. But it’s very important to understanding the play, so during previews we spelled it out a little bit clearer.
Are there digs at the royal family that got a bigger reaction in London?
In England, anybody who was alive remembers an interview between the press and Charles and Diana, right after they became engaged. One of the press asked Charles if he loved her. And he said, “Oh, well, whatever love means.” Boy, it was a terrible answer. So in England, when I said the line in the play, “Though I once did question what love meant,” everybody in the theater responded with laughter. And here it seems to be less so. So there are those tiny areas, but the bulk of the response is identical.
What are your feelings towards him?
Well, the worst nickname I ever had was Tim Pig-ears-Smith. I had big ears. When I was younger it was more pronounced. So I felt huge sympathy towards Prince Charles over that.
On the topic of sympathy, after seeing the play I reread the transcript of the hacked phone call between Charles and Camilla in the ’80s, when he tells her that he wants to be her tampon.
Oh, no. [Laughs]
But he says to her, “My luck to be chucked down the lavatory and go on and on forever swirling round the top, never going down.” And I thought, Mike Bartlett could have written that line.
I know, absolutely. It’s like that marvelous line I have early on, “My life has been a lingering for the throne.” We all know that being in the waiting room is worse than being on the operating table. And because the queen is the longest serving monarch ever, he’s necessarily the longest-serving heir apparent ever.
And Charles has a pretty strange way of showing it, but it seems like he does have a big heart.
Oh, I think so, for sure. There’s been a huge fuss in England over what’s known as the Black Spider Memos, which is named after his scrawly handwriting. It concerns letters that he’s sent to government ministers. He does lobby people in the government over issues he feels strongly about. And it seems not right that the heir apparent should do so. But my view is that if we can’t cope with a monarchy that cares, then we have a problem. I’ve also heard that he’s been learning Arabic for the last few years, because it’s a part of the world he wants to know more about. And he’s been criticized for that, but, I mean, this is a sensitive, educated man.
It’s never mentioned in the play, but isn’t there the subtext of the Iraq War deep within it. The Queen was opposed to Tony Blair supporting the U.S. invasion. Blair just apologized, sort of.
That’s to keep himself out of the Hague, isn’t it? I mean, I do have a line which refers to “surprising shock and awe.” And that’s obviously a direct reference to Iraq, but I really don’t think the play has to do with Iraq at all.
But Charles is overcompensating for a certain force of authority that his mother never enforced as the head of state.
His mother came to the throne very suddenly. She was very young and I think she got into the habit of being advised and doing what she’s told. And it’s true what the opposition leader says in the play, “We cannot have the king rejecting and accepting laws according to his whim.” The brilliance of the play has to do with another scandal in England. Not the Iraq War but phone hacking.
It goes a very unexpected direction with that.
Yes. Of all people, Charles is defending the freedom of the press. That’s genius. That’s what brings the audience on his side. There’s my line: “Once fragile politicians can, while claiming public sensitivity, go censoring what’s writ or not, it will be easier to govern as corrupt that bother being held unto account.” It’s immediate. It’s now.
Do you agree with that? Should there be any restrictions on speech?
Well, look, we were playing at Wyndham’s in London, which is less than a mile from Buckingham Palace. I thought, “What a phenomenal privilege that we can do this royal fantasy in this country. That’s freedom of speech.” But freedom of speech is something that has to be used responsibly. I mean, Salman Rushdie got on the wrong side of freedom of speech. In my view, he courted that disaster. He’s a controversialist and he liked it. Of course the Islamic world was upset by what he had written.
But the reaction to Rushie—
The reaction was extreme, of course. But nevertheless, freedom of speech is something that has to be exercised with responsibility. You can’t just say whatever you like. And I don’t think this play does. It fantasizes about a situation, which feels plausible.
Mike Bartlett pulls so much from Shakespeare here. Hamlet, Henry IV, Macbeth, King Lear. Like those plays, what do you think the play is saying about the human condition?
That in life, we’re absolutely victims of our own character. In almost in an ancient Greek tragic way. We may not realize until very late on in life that certain corners have been turned because of something in your nature.
I’ve heard that you’re moved to tears during the final scenes.
Most nights, yeah. I plead with my sons in the play and they reject me. My own son is 39. He came here to New York for the press night and he’s just lovely. I adore him. So, yeah, I think about him as well, when my sons in the play reject me.
The ultimate validation for a British actor is to get a knighthood. Do you think this play puts you in jeopardy of ever becoming Sir Tim?
Ian McKellen said to me, “You may win an award, dear, but you can kiss the gong [for knighthood] goodbye.” [laughs] The only time I think about not having some letters after my name is when someone of 30 years old is suddenly made a dame or a sir and I think, “They haven’t done anything at all.” A lot of it is about lobbying.
So would you reject a knighthood?
No, I wouldn’t reject one. I think I’d be hugely proud of it. But its like reading reviews. I don’t read them, especially when I’m told that there are positive ones. Because I’ll go onstage that night and you know what I’ll be thinking? “Oh, look at me. I’m rather good in this, aren’t I?”