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With devastating performances in Cracker, Hearts And Minds and Our Friends In The North, Christopher Eccleston has staked his claim as the television actor of his generation. He tells Alan Morrison about his latest big screen role as Thomas Hardy’s doomed hero in Jude.

hen it comes to casting British period movies, Christopher Eccleston isn’t the first name that jumps to mind. Fellow Shallow Grave star Ewan McGregor beat him to it with Emma, while Kate Winslet with whom he shares the screen in Jude, an adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Jude The Obscure has already proved her literary pedigree in Sense And Sensibility. Eccleston’s past characters, however, are made of tougher stuff than the typical guests at a Jane Austen picnic. Then again, Hardy’s novel is not your typical British ‘classic’. A bitter depiction of one man’s struggle against social injustice, it pits an isolated but determined individual against the hypocritical institutions of the day. And that’s where Eccleston steps in.

‘Of all the novelists of that genre, Hardy’s the one for me because he’s the realist, psychologically and socially,’ enthuses the 30- year-old Mancunian. ‘I like his harsh vision and I like the faith he puts in his readers to take that on board. I like the complexity of his characters - they’re not heroes.’

No young British actor is better than Eccleston at dissecting the emotional make-up of such complex characters. In Shallow Grave, he saved accountant-tumed-murderer David from stereotype by bringing him in touch with the real world; in Hearts And Minds, he took the frustrated idealism of schoolteacher Drew and let it simmer beneath the surface; in Our Friends In The North, he carried Labour activist Nicky through a psychological landscape that spanned decades.

Jude Fawley is the perfect big screen channel for Eccleston’s talents: a working-class loner who sets his sights on getting an education, but is snubbed by Victorian society, more so when he embarks on an adulterous affair with his cousin, played by Winslet. However, it was the thought of collaborating again with director Michael Winterbottom the two first met on the debut story of the Cracker series - that really convinced the actor to tackle his first literary role.

‘The man who made Family making a period film that’s what attracted me to Jude.’ Eccleston explains, ‘bccause he might be actually interested in what the writer had to say. rather than the curtains or the teacups. What Michael tried to do with his camera and with his costumes and with his lighting and all the

aspects of the filmmaking was put the spirit of Thomas Hardy - who was a radical wn'ter on screen.’

Winterbottom’s approach gives Jude a here- and-now relevance that goes far beyond its peers, but Eccleston feels this is a point that shouldn’t be stressed too heavily. ‘It is a period film,’ he argues. ‘When I was approaching playing Jude, it was important for me to understand what his relationship was to

organised religion and the state. He believed in a way that we don’t anymore or certainly I don’t so I could only play it if I transported myself back there and got into that mindset. It is a period film because a lot of the problems that are thrown up are peculiar to the period.’

‘Television made me an actor. I think it’s very important that television starts doing quality drama again. All the doctors and vets should be buried on the moors in the middle of the 60s and lett.’

For a self-confessed Hardy fan, it’s perhaps surprising that Eccleston hadn’t read the book, even up to the point that filming stopped. ‘I’ve read it since,’ he adds, ‘and I personally would have included more of Hardy’s bleakness and the more troubled nature of Jude, his internal dialogue with himself about his relationship to drink and women.’

Eccleston’s use of the words ‘internal dialogue’ is interesting, because this actor’s strength lies in his ability to suggest that fierce debates are tearing the character apart underneath his controlled exterior. With typical modesty. Eccleston plays this down ‘I think perhaps it’s a physical thing: my eyes, or whatever, suggest that there’s a lot going on’ but there aren’t many other young British actors

who can relay such textures of surface and depth. It’s surely this sense of character believability and on-screen authority that caused him, for example, to be chosen for a forthcoming cinema road-safety campaign or convinced the producers of BBC’s Our Friends In The North that he could play a man over an age spread of 40 years.

‘It was like being paid to train again,’ he says of his experience on the epic TV series. ‘Often when I do a character, like David in Shallow Grave, I play them for probably six months of their life. With Our Friends In The North, I was playing the 52-year-old Nicky and I had memories, emotional memories, of what the lad did when he was nineteen.’

His next small screen role again has him playing someone older than himself. In Hillsborough, Jimmy McGovem’s drama-doc about the tragic events at the Sheffield football ground, Eccleston plays Trevor Hicks, who saw both his teenage daughters die in the crush, prompting him to become chairman of the Hillsborough Support Group. ‘His story,’ Eccleston explains, ‘is that he’s essentially a very establishment man who believed wholeheartedly in the public services and the British judicial system, and all of them screwed him.’

For a fervent football fan and Manchester United supporter who still lives in his home town and goes to the game every chance he gets, Hillsborough must have been an extremely emotionally charged shoot. ‘It was, yeah,’ he agrees, ‘but it was very important that you didn’t indulge yourself too much. In order to present that sort of thing, you’ve got to have a measure of detachment, otherwise you can just get in the way of the audience’s feelings.’

In town for the Drambuie Edinburgh Film Festival premiere screening of Jade - and subsequently to collect its Michael Powell Award for Best British Feature - Eccleston is still unsure of how to analyse his talents, but is more willing to enter into the publicity game than he used to be. Not that his answers are all simple promotional froth: he has clearly thought long and hard about why he does what he does (if not how he does it), and his conversation shines with an honesty and a commitment to using his acting abilities to bring serious issues to the widest possible public. And that’s why television will always remain his first love.

‘I think it’s very important that television starts doing quality drama again,’ he explains. ‘All the doctors and vets should be buried on the moors in the middle of the 605 and left. Television is the backbone of my work. My best performance was on television - Hearts And Minds. The best scripts I’ve had are in television. Film is a luxury, really. You get paid more money, you get more time to shape the performance, but with television, you get an immediate response to what you’ve done. It’s very important that all these so-called talented people who were raised on television and cut their teeth in television don’t take the cocaine opfion.

‘Television made me an actor. I never went to the theatre because you don’t go to the theatre in my background, and film you go to on your summer holiday you go to see the new James Bond. But telly’s always there in the comer.’ Jude opens in Scotland on Fri 4 Oct: Hillsborough is due for broadcast on Scottish Television in Nov.

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