Ben Daniels seems to thrive on contradiction. Although he’s openly gay (‘Out? I’ve never been in’) and primarily a theatre actor, he is fixed in the public mind as Finn, the ferociously heterosexual serial shagger in Debbie Horsfield’s camp-as-curlers TV drama Cutting It.
He has movie star looks but his film and TV roles, apart from Cutting It and the BBC dramaReal Men, have mostly slipped under the radar. On stage, though, he has been lauded for his tortured performances in 900 Oneonta, Tales From Hollywood and As You Like It – and won an Olivier Award for All My Sons.
Since he’s about to play Agamemnon in Euripides’ Iphigenia At Aulis at the National, I’m expecting someone driven and intense. But, ever-contradictory, the real Ben Daniels turns out to be buoyant, breezy, almost Tiggerish.
‘I don’t think of myself as being troubled as a human being,’ he beams and booms, all white teeth, blond hair and muscular self-possession. ‘But I guess I’m quite extreme, quite big and quite loud, and maybe people pick up on that when they cast me. I’m certainly not the quiet reflective type. I don’t think I’ll ever play Hamlet.’ He laughs a big, loud laugh. ‘My Hamlet would probably kill everybody.’
Agamemnon, of course, kills his daughter Iphigenia, sacrificing her to the gods in exchange for a wind that will bear his fleet to Troy, to recapture his brother Menelaus’s wife Helen. ‘He’s not a particularly nice man,’ says Daniels.
‘He’s paranoid and ambitious and greedy and selfish. It’s true that he’s boxed in by circumstance, but it’s a circumstance of his own making. So spending a day in rehearsals with him is not that pleasant.’ He took the part for one reason alone —because it was offered to him by Katie Mitchell, the director famed for the rigour and purity of her productions, with whom he worked at the National on Three Sisters in 2003.
‘I adore working with Katie, but I didn’t think I could do this play because after we finished filming the last season of Cutting It I was going to India for four weeks,’ he says. ‘The trip was my 40th birthday present from Ian [Gelder, a 55-year-old stage actor and Daniels’s partner of more than a decade] and it ate into the first week of rehearsals.
But Katie said she really wanted me to do it, and she’d give me the first week off.’ So Daniels has been immersed in Agamemnon, as Mitchell demands, not even stepping out of character during his brief moments offstage. He spent his actual 40th birthday, on 10 June, in the show’s technical rehearsal.
Enthusiastic as he is, this still sounds like a far cry from the making of Cutting It, which Daniels describes as ‘far too much fun’. He only went up for the series at his agent’s insistence that he needed more TV exposure.
‘I loathe episodic television shows, but if I was ever going to sit down and watch one it would be one by Debbie Horsfield, because of the quality of her writing,’ he says. ‘Cutting It is like Restoration drama, with these huge fop characters but a core of emotional truth. It’s unbelievably theatrical, much better than most things on television.’
Filming of each series took five and a half months, with the cast all staying in the same apartment block in Manchester and, apparently, all going out drinking and clubbing together every night. ‘Yep, it got pretty messy sometimes, but we had to stop that by the third series,’ says Daniels ruefully.
‘None of us had realised what a huge success the show would be, that we’d become public property. I had to stop going out in Manchester at weekends because people would have a go, because of Finn. When everyone recognises you, it becomes harder to slide across a dancefloor in a puddle of your own vomit.’
With fame, of course, comes tabloid interest, which only intensified when his screen wife Amanda Holden’s real-life marriage to Les Dennis broke down. ‘It was terrible for her,’ says Daniels. ‘Everyone says, “Ooh, I don’t like that Amanda Holden, what’s she like?” and I say, “You don’t f***ing know her”.
All anyone knows is that she had an affair. No matter what she does, she will always have that hanging over her head.’ Daniels had his own brush with the fourth estate when one newspaper reheated some old quotes to ‘reveal’ that he was gay.
‘I had never actually discussed being gay with my parents, just because we don’t have a very close emotional relationship,’ says Daniels. ‘I had to phone them then, to warn them not to buy the papers, not to get angry, to tell them that not all of it was true. It’s your family who get hurt by that stuff.’
Daniels grew up in Nuneaton with an older and a younger sister. His father was an engineer at Rolls Royce, and later became a grocer. His mother owned a children’s clothes shop. ‘I was quite a shy child, but quite disruptive as well,’ he recalls.
‘I was very sneaky and underhand. When we started drama lessons at O level, it gave me a voice.’ At sixthform college in Stratford-Upon-Avon, he mainlined Royal Shakespeare Company shows and applied to study drama at LAMDA. He hit London at 18. ‘It was so cosmopolitan, so liberal,’ he says. ‘Especially compared to the Midlands.’
Already sure of his sexuality in his teens, he was nonetheless ‘cautious about mentioning it when I left drama school, because Aids was terrifying everyone and there was a huge, homophobic backlash.’
He finally decided to be open about being gay at 24, while appearing in an all-star benefit performance of Martin Sherman’s Bent. ‘It was fantastic seeing people like Ian McKellen and Michael Cashman being politically gay,’ he recalls.
‘Homophobia is still shockingly prevalent in film and TV. I know I’ve lost work because of being gay, and it is always an issue. Even on a serious BBC2 drama there will be some suit in some office going, “Hmmm, isn’t he a poof?” I don’t consider myself politically gay, but whenever I catch a whiff of that now, I’m on it like a ton of bricks.’
He relates these facts in cheery tones, and takes positive delight in telling me that he and Ian Gelder got together, aptly enough, on a production of Joe Orton’s Entertaining Mr Sloane.
Our time is almost up. Just one last question: since he’s worked with children (Finn’s non-baby on Cutting It) and animals (he was mauled by a leopard on the 1997 European art film Passion In The Desert), are there now any groups he’d be afraid of acting alongside? ‘Prima donnas!’ shouts our bounciest exponent of the art of human tragedy, as he offers a matey handshake and bounds out of the room.
by Nick Curtis