Derek Jacobi on 60 Years of Loving Acting: “There Are Very Few Things I Turned Down”

     September 21, 2020

last-tango-in-halifax-derek-jacobi-sliceThe fourth season of the British drama series Last Tango in Halifax, currently airing on PBS, continues the story of Alan Buttershaw (Sir Derek Jacobi) and Celia Dawson (Anne Reid), who rekindled their love for each other 60 years after they first met and who are now in their seventh year of marriage. While they’re settling into a new home together, their clashes over life’s little dramas create tension that they must work through alongside their extended family and friends.

During this 1-on-1 phone interview with Collider, Jacobi talked about why he was so happy to be cast in this role, what he’s most enjoyed about the journey that he’s taken with the character of Alan, what makes Sally Wainwright such a great writer, how much he enjoys his castmates, and why he’d love to continue to do more episodes of the series. He also talked about playing Sir Ian McKellen’s longtime boyfriend on the sitcom Vicious, his memories from his time making Gladiator, voicing a character for The Secret of Nimh, shooting a pandemic movie in his own home, and what it’s been like to have a 60-year acting career.

Collider: When this series, Last Tango in Halifax, first came your way, what was it that most appealed to you then, and is it the same thing that you still like about it now or has that evolved, the longer you’ve been involved with it?


Image via PBS

DEREK JACOBI: I love it. The whole company loves it. It’s been such a happy time. I was first attracted to it by the fact that I didn’t expect to be cast in that part. I’ve got a reputation as being a classical posh actor and [Alan] was a very ordinary man. I just thought, “How wonderful that a casting director somewhere thought of me to play this part.” It was wonderful. It wasn’t heavily costumed. It wasn’t classical. It wasn’t Shakespeare. It was an everyman character, and that was lovely.

What have you most enjoyed about getting to play this character, going on the journey with him, and getting to do it with this cast, over these seasons?

JACOBI: It’s been a wonderful journey. Getting to know the man I was playing, who’s a northerner and a Yorkshireman, I loved that. It was interesting to examine the background of a Yorkshireman. I was surrounded by a wonderful cast. We all got on very well. It was a mutual admiration society. There were no big egos. There were no divas around. It was like a family, and that’s what we were trying to put across in the series. We were like a family, on the set and off the set. It was lovely.

Sally Wainwright certainly has a way with words. What have you most enjoyed about working with her words and helping tell her stories?

JACOBI: She’s such a wonderful writer. It’s a mixture of intelligence and emotion, and it’s beautifully written. It’s easy to deliver because it’s so good and so real. It mixes wonderful emotion with intellect. She’s very clever. She works magic with her words, she really does. The reality that she puts onto the page is quite remarkable.

Have you had conversations with Sally Wainwright between seasons or over the years, about the character and his journey, or do you just leave things in her hands because of the trust that you’ve established together?


Image via PBS

JACOBI: I think it’s the second. We leave it in her hands. There’s not a great deal of discussion between Sally and the cast, unless the cast asks for it. What she writes is so clear that we don’t need to analyze it with her. Her great gift is to write in depth but to make it simple to understand and grasp.

You’ve taken this journey with Anne Reid, who plays Celia. How has it been to go through this experiences, as castmates? What have you enjoyed about the relationship dynamic between your characters?

JACOBI: I’ve enjoyed everything. We knew of each other before Last Tango but we had never met. We hit it off immediately. We had a great rapport between us, and a great trust, which is always essential in playing a close relationship like that. We have a great deal of fun. It is a joy. We love each other’s company. We support each other, if we have any problems or difficulties. It’s a lovely relationship, on-screen and off, really. There are no complaints, at all.

Are you someone who roots for them to make it all the way to the end of the series, whenever that ends up being?

JACOBI: Oh, yes. I hope we do more. I would love to do more. I would love to grow old in service of the role because we all adore it. One of the good things about Sally is that her plots are gentle but interesting. There are no car chases or guns or bombs, and nothing sensational happens. It all happens in a very quiet way, and that’s lovely. It’s lovely to watch and it’s lovely to perform.

There was a fairly lengthy break between the last season and the newest season. As a result, was it challenging to return to the character and find him again, or is he someone that’s always pretty easy to step back into?

JACOBI: No, it wasn’t difficult to get back into his clothes, at all. I don’t think it was, for any of us. We had and Sally had established the characters so strongly, and we loved being with them and doing them. It was just a lovely, warm feeling to join up with them again. We certainly hadn’t forgotten them.

What was your experience like on the sitcom Vicious, playing Sir Ian McKellen’s longtime boyfriend?

JACOBI: Neither of us — neither Ian nor I — had done a sitcom before and we loved it. We could camp ourselves to death. It was an American writer, Gary Janetti, and it was a joy to do. It was different for us because we had five cameras and about 250 in the audience. For us, it was a completely new experience to judge whether we played to the audience or whether we played to the camera. And then, of course, you do retakes, or if a particular funny line didn’t get the response that Gary wanted, he’d rush onto the set and write another line. You’d learn that quickly, and then say that line. It was a whole different experience but it was such fun. We loved doing it.

What did you enjoy about working with Ian McKellen?

JACOBI: We go back a long time. We were at university together, over 50 years ago. We’ve known each other since 1958, so we’ve grown up together. We haven’t acted together all that much in our careers. Our careers have gone on similar but parallel lines, although Ian has gone much more into movies now than I have. We’ve been close friends for all those years, so it was lovely to do something that, for us, was new and exciting and funny. Of course, knowing each other so well, it made it so much easier. We didn’t have to get to know each other, and all that, which takes time and doesn’t always work. Hopefully, we were very generous to each other.


Image via DreamWorks/Universal

What are the memories that you have about your time making Gladiator and what does it mean to be in a movie that people still love, more than 20 years later?

JACOBI: All of my stuff was mainly in Rome in the Colosseum, which was all filmed in on the Island of Malta. I was there for about three months and it was joyous. It was a lovely part and a very exciting set up, working in the Colosseum every day with tigers and gladiators and sword fighting. It was great. I just enjoy my work, really. Fortunately, I’ve been very lucky in my career. I’ve been a professional actor for 60 years, as of the 19th of September, and for most of those years, I’ve worked, which is very lucky for an actor and I enjoy it all.

Going back a bit further, do you remember much about making The Secret of Nimh and the experience of being directed by Don Bluth?

JACOBI: Oh, gosh, yes. That’s a very old character. They did the voice work before they animated the character, which was interesting. I didn’t have to voice a character. They put the character to the voice. That was interesting. It got me to Los Angeles and Hollywood, and all of that pizzaz. It was lovely. It was a gorgeous movie.

At this point in your life and career, and you’ve talked about having had such a long career, what is it that attracts you to a project? What gets you excited about the work, these days?

JACOBI: I work. I like working. There are very few things that I turned down in my career. I just want to be doing it, all the time. It’s the focus of my life, I suppose. I’ve had the luck to carry on doing it. For me, it’s my life’s purpose. I had no talent for anything else. Absolutely no talent for anything else. The only spark of talent I have is as an actor, for theater, for tele and for film. That’s my world. That’s my life. That’s me.

That’s a very lucky thing, because not everybody gets to find the thing that they love, and you’ve found it.

JACOBI: Exactly. You are talking to one of the luckiest actors, ever, on so many levels. It’s a very precarious position. I’ve been so lucky for 60 years, and it’s still going.

When you started out on your path to being a professional actor, did you have any hopes or ideas of what that career might be? How does what you thought it could compare to the kind of career that you’ve ended up having?


Image via PBS

JACOBI: Eventually, I had the career that I suppose I’ve dreamed of. From as far back as I can remember, as a small child, and I was an only child, like a lot of only children, I leaned on the pretend and made up my own games. I always wanted to be an actor. I never wanted to do anything else. It was born out of an acting dream, and I became an actor. I had adoring parents but they knew nothing about acting or theater. It was a strange, bohemian, difficult, dangerous world, as far as they were concerned, but they gave me 200 percent encouragement and support. With that behind me, I was lucky that I had a good education. I went to university and I acted all through university. And then, toward the end of university, I got a professional job in a repertory theater. Ever since I can remember, that was what it was going to be like. I didn’t know if I would be successful. I thought, after five years in the business, if I was still living on baked beans on toast, then I might give it up. I went with history at university, so I thought I could teach history if it didn’t work but I never did that. The acting, thank goodness, worked.

Are you currently working on anything again? How are you dealing with going back to work, with everything that’s been going on?

JACOBI: I have a little place in France, and I’m out here now. I came at the beginning of July and I’m going to be here until the end of September. It’s deep in the heart of the country. It’s really beautiful and I feel very safe here. And then, a few weeks ago, I was offered two days on a film (called Alone). It’s a nice little part in a film about the Coronavirus pandemic. I said, “No, I can’t come back to London for just two days.” So, the film crew came here. I had a film crew in the house and I did all of my scenes, and then they left. I’ve also been doing some recordings. We built a little recording studio, which consists of a wardrobe and lots of duvets, and it works.

Was it a surreal and interesting experience to get a role in a film and make that film without ever leaving the house?

JACOBI: Exactly, yes. They all came here, and we fed them and watered them. We had two days and it was lovely. It was very enjoyable, really. And they paid me.

What kind of recordings are you doing in your recording studio?

JACOBI: I’ve been recording a book. There’s a gentleman here, who’s become famous in England. He’s a hundred years old and he raised £32M pounds for the NHS (National Health Service). They made him a knight and met the queen. His name is Sir Tom Moore, and I was recording his memoirs.

Last Tango in Halifax airs on Sunday nights on PBS.

Christina Radish is a Senior Reporter of Film, TV, and Theme Parks for Collider. You can follow her on Twitter @ChristinaRadish.