One of Ireland’s greatest acting exports has revealed that he’d hate to be starting over on the Hollywood hamster wheel.
At 74, Michael Gambon has been directed by everyone from Altman to Anderson and starred alongside such legends as Pacino and De Niro, scooping three BAFTAs and four Olivier Awards along the way.
However, the Cabra-born star of stage and screen, who left school at 16 — doing an apprenticeship in toolmaking before he got his big break in Othello at Dublin’s Gate Theatre in 1962 — says he couldn’t do it again.
“When I was 22, it wasn’t like it is now,” says Gambon, who moved to London with his family when aged five, becoming a British citizen. “I got parts without even trying, but lots of kids want to act now and I worry about them, because there aren’t enough jobs for them all.
“There are so many drama schools these days, but hardly anybody will be able to get work,” he says. “If you wanted to spend your life doing this now, you wouldn’t stand a chance.”
Gambon famously began his career over five decades ago under the tutelage of Laurence Olivier at the National Theatre Company.
Iconic BBC drama The Singing Detective transformed him into a household name in 1986, though Millennials are sure to know him best as Professor Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter films.
“Looking back, I had quite a big start,” admits the seamstress’s son. “I was at the National for four years when I was a kid, with all these world-famous people, but I was so thick, I didn’t know who they were.
“When that job finished, I went on to the next and I haven’t been out of work since. Life carries on and the past gets bigger without you fully realising it, and now I’m sitting here, 98 years old or something, and it went, poof, like that.
“I’ve been lucky. I’ve worked with everyone: Brando, De Niro, Pacino, all those American stars and all lovely blokes. I never imagined I would have the career I’ve had.”
Most recently, the Tinseltown thespian returned to the small screen in Sky Atlantic’s ‘Nordic noir’ crime drama, Fortitude, and The Casual Vacancy, based on JK Rowling’s novel of the same name, on BBC One.
The Commander of the Order of the British Empire insists he’s not too posh to appear on the telly.
“Television is completely different now. It’s as good as film — it’s beating film. There is some great TV being made at the moment and it’s nice to be a part of it. It’s intelligent and well shot, so it’s no concession for an actor to work in TV,” says Gambon, who’s just been snapped up to play Winston Churchill in Churchill’s Secret, a new ITV drama about the former British prime minister’s final years in office, which will also air on US television.
“It’s a different sort of process,” he explains. “Fundamentally, it’s just acting, but in the theatre you know that you have to be heard at the back of the stalls, so you have to play it big. “Whereas on television, you have microphones, so you can speak in whispers. If you acted for television the way you would in the theatre, you’d look like an idiot.”
Earlier this year, barnstorming Gambon confessed he had decided to exit the theatre after struggling to remember his lines.
“It’s a horrible thing to admit, but I can’t do it,” says the dad-of-three, who was twice rushed to hospital in 2009 after suffering panic attacks when he missed his cue. “It’s when the script’s in front of me and it takes forever to learn. It’s frightening.”
After more than 50 years treading the boards, however, he says there are some gigs he wishes he could forget.
“I’ve never failed to get a part, but there are parts I wish I hadn’t had because it didn’t go well or something went very wrong. I remember being in a play in the West End, which I hated, because it wasn’t very good. The set was so badly designed that we could barely get on or off the stage.
“Things like that stick in your mind but, generally speaking, I’ve forgotten a lot of the jobs I’ve had. There are TV plays I did 40 years ago that I know I was in, but I can’t remember being in them or what they were called.”
Despite his illustrious career, Gambon warns would-be troupers there is no glamour in acting, just “sweat and swearing”.
“There’s no glamour,” insists the acclaimed actor, next set to appear as Private Godfrey in the big screen version of Dad’s Army, out next year. “A lot of the time, it’s hard work, sweat, swearing and wishing you hadn’t done it.
“I’d just say be truthful when you’re acting,” he advises. “Keep happy and keep trying and, if you can’t do that, become an airline pilot or something.”
Fortitude is available on Blu-ray and DVD now, The Casual Vacancy is available on Blu-ray and DVD on 15th June