Kevin McNally is an actor best known to Who fans from The Twin Dilemma, but to people outside our cognoscenti he is probably most famous as Joshamee Gibbs from the Pirates of the Caribbean series. We caught up with him in Edinburgh before he went onstage.
EL: It’s hard to belive, but The Twin Dilemma was thirty-one years ago now…so what can you remember about your time on Who?
KM: I can remember going to the quarry where we shot the exteriors, which was quite exciting because it was the same quarry I’d watched when I was a kid that all the baddies came from. I remember very well getting on with Colin and Nicola and the wonderful Maurice Denham, of course, they were really enjoyable people to work with. And I enjoyed the recording of it. I can also remember feeling very ill after it, because we had such a good time and it was Colin’s first show, we all went out to celebrate that night and I made myself into a very nasty heap.
EL: So you were aware it was Colin’s first story?
KM: Of course! It was not quite the news it is today, but it was big news when someone would take over, so I was very pleased to be in at the first. Even though I am fully aware that it is voted the worst episode of Doctor Who ever. Which I can’t quite agree with, but it’s been voted the worst so it’s true. And then, unfortunately, I lost touch for many years with Colin, but since then we’ve met at conventions, which I do quite a lot, and we always have a wonderful reminisce. He’s a lovely fellow, Colin.
EL: He’s our Honorary President.
KM: I’m sure he’s a great supporter of it all, yes.
EL: Do you enjoy doing conventions?
KM: I do, yes. I think there are two types of actors: there are people who are people people, who should go to conventions, and people who aren’t people people who shouldn’t go to conventions. You know, the ones who sit there very belligerently and just sign and scowl at people, which I see quite a lot of. But I actually enjoy going to conventions and meeting people. Quite often Who fans, of course, who remember back to The Twin Dilemma, but mainly Pirates of the Caribbean. And in America I get quite a lot of people who saw me in a show called Supernatural, so I get a lot of that. And I was very briefly in a James Bond film, so I’ve sort of got all bases covered as far as the conventions go.
EL: Looking at your CV, you’ve done so much. You were in I, Claudius…what was it like working in that, because that had everyone in?
KM: It was great. I’d just left drama school, and the only thing I really remember is that they would put everyone’s call on the next day up on a big blackboard, and I just used to ignore it. Because I’d come in when they started rehearsing, and I would sit and watch people work, and it was like a postgraduate course. You had the likes of Derek Jacobi, John Hurt, Brian Blessed…amazing characters. And they tell me it still stands the test of time. We had a twentieth anniversary viewing, about twenty years ago now, and it was definitely the best of television at the time. There were these amazing long takes in one shot…there’s an incredible scene between George Baker and John Carson, it’s about a seven-minute scene, and they’re playing squash at the same time. You just love the mastery of it.
EL: So did you audition for Doctor Who, or were you invited?
KM: I have no idea! I know I auditioned for I, Claudius…but I was getting a bit known at that point, so it might just have been an offer. I can’t honestly remember.
EL: I must admit you’re the first movie star I’ve ever interviewed, so I’m a bit nervous here…
KM: Am I really? I don’t know whether I could be called a movie star, you might call me a movie supporting character actor…that’s what I’m known as.
EL: So tell me about Pirates of the Caribbean…there’s another coming up, I believe.
KM: Yes, I’ve just spent five months in Australia making the next one. It was really good, because it’s the longest gap there’s been between making them – it’s been five years since the last movie – so it was a pleasure to meet up with everyone again. There was Johnny Depp, and Geoffrey Rush, and a lot of the heads of department were the same people, and the producers and Jerry Bruckheimer and so on. It was quite a fraught shoot, actually, for a number of reasons…Johnny had an accident, and there was the pandemonium with his dogs – the War against Terror, as it became known – but also we had been led to believe that winter in Australia is very dry and sunny. Well, it’s neither of those things. So we had a very disrupted schedule, but we managed to get the film shot and done, and looking great I think.
EL: What’s Johnny Depp like to work with? He seems like such a nice guy.
KM: He’s a nice guy, and he’s down to earth…as down to earth as a multimillionaire film star can be. I’ve played his henchman for five films now, so we pretty much have a second language. On this one, I don’t know if it’s because we’re so used to it now, the directors tended not to shout ‘cut’ when we were finished, and we’d just do some stuff at the end of the takes…hopefully they’ll keep some of that in, because it was very funny.
EL: Have you been watching the new series of Doctor Who? Are you a fan?
KM: I am a fan, and of course Peter Capaldi’s an old friend of mine. I was in England when his first series started, so I managed to watch that, but…I think his second season’s just started?
EL: It starts in September.
KM: Oh, well in that case I haven’t watched it yet. But his first season is wonderful, and of course he takes me back to the first Doctor Whos, when they were much more patriarchal figures than they have been of late.
EL: So did you watch it in the sixties when it was first broadcast?
KM: Oh, absolutely! I remember the very first episode, I must have been seven, and I used to watch a show at 51.5 called the Telegoons, based on the Goon Show, the puppet version. And I remember turning on the TV and it not being the Telegoons, they were saying “and now a new show called Doctor Who”, and I was absolutely furious. Crying in my mother’s arms. And she said, “Well, let’s watch it anyway”, and I was taken from the very first.
EL: Did you watch it right the way through?
KM: As a child, religiously, yes. I never missed an episode; you never missed an episode of Doctor Who. So William Hartnell, Patrick Troughton, and then a little bit of Jon Pertwee, but by then I was a teenager going to drama school, leaving home and stuff, so then television wasn’t so much on my agenda. I watched a little bit of Tom Baker in the seventies, but then eased off the actual watching of it, although I was aware of it culturally of course.
EL: What made you want to be an actor?
KM: I remember the start of it. I was in class one day doing a maths class, and I was really bad at maths at school and my mind used to wander a lot. And during this class the teacher wrote this couplet on the blackboard which I can remember to this day. It said, “My sunbeams are dancing in the meadow below, where tulips and daisies and buttercups grow”. Well, I thought she’d gone mad. And then she did an even madder thing, she rubbed it out. Then she called the whole class to attention and said, “Who can tell me what I just wrote on the board?” So I told her what it was, and she said, right, you’ve got the lead in the school play. Then I did this play, I was the son in the Harvest Festival, and my mother was so pleased with my performance that she gave me a chocolate bar and a copy of the Dandy. So to me, acting was a reward for having no attention span and a complete lack of concentration, which suited my personality.
EL: And you went to RADA. Do you value drama schools? A lot of actors say you get your education doing it…
KM: Well, you do get your education from doing it. But I think what any training does is allows you to make the most of that education when you start working, so I say it’s invaluable. If you want to cross over all the types of media, particularly if you want to theatre, there are certain physical skills you must learn…I think even for film, the important thing about drama school is learning how to build a character if you want to be a character actor, and I am not particularly of the school of actor who likes playing myself; I like to find other voices, and for me that’s the joy of acting.
EL: You actually had the best of both worlds in that respect, didn’t you? Because you were in rep as well as drama school.
KM: I actually did rep before I went to drama school, so that was very good because I wasn’t just a blank page in drama school. And that helped me because I was very young, I went to drama school at seventeen, which on the whole I wouldn’t advise. I think it’s much better to have a little life experience before you go, so you’ve got something to work with.
EL: And I believe that, although you’re not particularly known as a science fiction genre actor, you’re a fan of the genre yourself?
KM: Oh, very much so. I’d love to be known as a science fiction actor, and every convention I do I always tell people that. Producers must be inundated with letters from people asking me to be in Star Trek and Star Wars. I’ll give you an example of why I like it; I wanted to write a science fiction book, so about five years ago I decided I was going to try and write every great science fiction novel there was. And if you just go into a bookshop and pick up a science fiction novel, chances are it’s going to be crap. So I was fortunate because that year Gollancz, I think it was, decided to produce the hundred greatest science fiction books of the twentieth century. So I read as many as I could, and the best book was The Forever War, by Joe Haldeman. And I thought, this book is brilliant. It’s about a guy who travels across the solar system to fight in a war, but when he comes back, due to the relativistic time dilation, the world is four hundred years older. So he loses contact with humanity. I wondered what it was about book that was so wonderful, and then I researched it and of course Joe Haldeman was a Vietnam veteran. So I realised that the book was actually about something, it’s just disguised in the form of science fiction. And I think that when science fiction is at its best, that’s what it’s about: it’s about being human, but in a really broad and interesting narrative. That’s what I like about it.
EL: You actually collect space-flown objects, is that right?
KM: I do. It’s a very small collection at the moment; it seems like I got into this just at the moment when the rest of the world did, and my chances of getting pencils that were flown in Gemini missions for $800, those days are gone. But it’s something I want to do…fortunately, so to speak, I’ve been too busy working in the last few years to follow any of my interests. But it’s something I’ll come to again.
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Men Tell No Tales is currently in post-production.