Pete Postlethwaite plays hardened criminal Hooch in Peter Moffat's drama
Week 27 Unplaced on BBC ONE
Pete Postlethwaite is no stranger to starring in compelling dramas, and his latest role, as hardened career criminal Hooch in Criminal Justice, Peter Moffat's gripping new five-part drama for BBC One (which plays out over five consecutive nights this week), is certainly no exception.
Oscar-nominated for his role in 1993's In The Name Of The Father, which told the story of Gerry Conlon and his dad, who were wrongly accused of being involved in an IRA bomb attack, Postlethwaite's latest role sees him playing the cell-mate of Ben (played by Ben Whishaw). Ben is a young man whose life is turned upside-down when he finds himself charged with murder following an uncharacteristically drug and drink-fuelled night out. He cannot remember a thing about the evening, although he is sure of his innocence.
Jane Dudley speaks to Postlethwaite about Hooch, who offers friendship and advice to the youngster when he arrives at the prison, and discovers just how dark the character is, how the actor is looking forward to returning to TV after an eight-year hiatus and why he believes he could never be in a sitcom.
Postlethwaite immediately draws comparisons between Ben's fight for justice and In The Name Of The Father, which told the true story of the so-called Guildford Four, a group of people wrongly convicted of the bombing of a pub in 1974. In it, Postlethwaite played Guiseppe Conlon, the father of one of the accused, who fought to clear both his and his son's names.
"There are definitely echoes of In The Name Of The Father, of course, with the prison scenes," he says. Any similarities between the two end there, though, as the outcome of In The Name Of The Father is well documented (the Guildford Four's conviction was quashed in 1989). No one, though, not even Ben, knows whether he is guilty or not.
"It's all about Ben getting involved in the criminal justice system, and how you actually defend somebody in this situation. There are complications between the different barristers and the lawyers, how they manipulate each other, how they play the game," he says of his first TV drama since 2000's The Sins, in which he played Len Green, a former getaway driver who, after yet another spell in prison, is determined to stay out of trouble.
"It's been a while – it's funny seeing myself on telly again," admits Postlethwaite, whose career on the silver screen since The Sins has included roles in The Constant Gardener (2005), Valley Of The Heart's Delight (2006) and the 2006 remake of The Omen. He says this move away from TV has not been deliberate, though: "Not at all. Either I've been doing other things or I haven't read anything – or been asked, perhaps – for TV. Whenever I get a good script I don't care whether it's telly or theatre or big screen – I'm not bothered."
And Moffat's script certainly fitted his criteria and immediately caught Postlethwaite's eye, and he didn't hesitate in accepting the role.
"It fulfils everything. I only read the first two scripts to start with and the writing was so compelling that I thought, well, if Moffat can keep this up, this is going to be something extraordinary." He continues: "I watched three episodes with my 19-year-old son last night and he can't wait to see the final two now. I don't know how the public view things like this – I'm not an expert but, for me, I think it would be something that you would be drawn into."
Hooch becomes Ben's only ally in the prison and tries to protect him from the bad influences inside, including Freddy Graham, who, it soon becomes clear, practically runs the prison wing and even has the guards turning a blind eye when he most needs it. Ben is lost and confused and trying to come to terms with his new life and, without the help, care and companionship of his cellmate, who tells him to "play the game", he would surely not have coped.
Hooch is well known as a good listener in the prison and is regularly entrusted with the welfare of new prisoners, so he is the obvious person to look after Ben, who seems like a fish out of water. "Hooch has had enough of people coming into the prison system and getting completely corrupted by it and he sees Ben as the latest one. He believes Ben hasn't done what they think he's done, although he does say it's irrelevant to him."
But, says Postlethwaite, while on the surface Hooch may seem to be a good guy, there is more to him than meets the eye: "Hooch is as complex as all the other characters, I think. That's what's great about the script – no character is linear. They're all complex human beings in their own right. The interesting thing with Hooch is that he, too, is incredibly compromised. He's in a terribly compromised position and he hates it but he feels that's the only way he can continue.
"He thinks the crap he's been going through and playing along with has got to stop, for his own good as well as everyone else's," he adds.
"He's a good man at heart," he continues, "but he's playing in a really dirty, horrible game. It's not like mental chess, or anything like that, it's life – bloody and dirty and horrible."
Postlethwaite admits that he doesn't mind whether he plays the good guy or the bad guy – he's had his fair share of both during his career, which spans more than 30 years. "Nasty pieces of work sometimes have a big heart somewhere along the line. I like playing characters that are complex, that are intriguing, that come from leftfield, that do things that are unexpected. I don't like people who just follow one line and that's it – that's why I could never be in a sitcom, I don't think. They're not intriguing enough for me."
Hooch certainly ticks all of the above boxes and, while viewers never actually find out why he is in prison, Postlethwaite has his own ideas, and they're not for the faint-hearted. "I've got a back story for him.
I think he was horrendous, absolutely the pits. He was very dark and I think he is carrying that with him. That's why he's a listener, that's why he listens to other people. He says at one point, 'Being in here and being a listener is like being a priest. People talk to me like they've never talked to anybody before in their lives,' and he feels that is a very positive thing to do.
"I think he finds redemption at the end though, and peace and atonement," he adds, although he admits that "Ben feels incredibly let down by him, eventually".
Postlethwaite is full of admiration for Ben Whishaw, who plays Ben, currently filming Jane Campion's latest movie, Bright Star, in which he stars as poet John Keats, and soon to be seen in the much-anticipated film remake of Brideshead Revisited: "He's quite an actor, quite a chameleon," he says. "He's very, very good and it's a stunning piece of casting. And he really goes through it. I know towards the end of the shoot he was like a wrung-out dishcloth, poor lad. He was physically and emotionally drained."
While Postlethwaite admits it was also a tough shoot for him, because it was filmed over a short period of time, he believes that this just adds to the drama: "In a way, it forces you to think very clearly and very quickly. There's a kind of energy that's created and I thrive in those situations."
And he's certainly been thriving since completing Criminal Justice – Postlethwaite went straight to Prague to film a new movie, Solomon Kane, and soon goes into rehearsals for King Lear: "It's on stage in Liverpool, first of all, for the Liverpool Year of Culture, so that's back to my original theatre. Then we take it to London just after Christmas."
Let's hope, though, that with a diary full of movie and theatre work, Postlethwaite will be back on TV screens again in the not-too-distant future...