The wonderful and storied Anthony Head headlines a new four-part production of Oscar Wilde’s The Canterville Ghost alongside his Ted Lasso co-star James Lance. Anthony spoke with us about Sir Simon, his history playing heroes and villains, whether he has any empathy for Rupert Mannion.
On Halloween, we brought you part one of our coverage of the BBC/BYUtv production The Canterville Ghost, which is airing as a four part series, set in the present day, over Sundays in November. Last week, actor James Lance spoke to us to promote his starring role as Hiram Otis, the new American owner of Canterville Chase, an English country house that’s decidedly haunted by a long-dead nobleman with a penchant for theatre.
Related: ‘The Canterville Ghost’ star James Lance talks Wilde, Wodehouse and learning Ted Lasso’s secret from Jason Sudeikis
This week, we’re talking to the ghost himself, Anthony Head. The Canterville Ghost episode 2, “Summer,” airs Sunday 7 November, and it sees Hiram Otis quietly funding the local church roof repair while struggling to put together a cricket team in order to participate in a traditional local match – in front of no less than the (fictional) Prince of Wales! Meanwhile, the Otis family remains totally unphased by the existence of their resident ghost, and Sir Simon becomes increasingly frustrated by the lack of terror his various performances are inciting, and Ginny learns the terms of Sir Simon’s salvation.
This new four-part adaptation of The Canterville Ghost is set in the present day. Written by Jude Tindall and directed by Paul Gibson and Suri Krishnamma, The Canterville Ghost was commissioned by BYUtv for United States broadcast, and produced by the BBC. It will be available for US viewers to stream for free on BYUtv, after the episodes air.
The legendary Anthony Head stars as Sir Simon de Canterville, and he joined us via Zoom to promote the show. He was very forthcoming in his thoughts on how this version of the Wilde short story takes the stakes much further than many other adaptations over the years. Next week, we’ll have part two of our interview with James Lance, but in part one of our Anthony Head interview, we delve into Head’s history playing heroes and villains, from Buffy’s Rupert Giles to Ted Lasso’s Rupert Mannion, and of course, where Sir Simon de Canterville fits into all of that.
I’m going to ask you the same first question that I asked James Lance, which was: in your own words, how would you describe your relationship with Oscar Wilde?
I loved Oscar Wilde, Oscar Wilde was one of my favorite writers. He had the most wonderful humor and just that beautiful dryness. He commented a lot on society – I mean, he had lots to comment on, but the interesting thing about The Canterville Ghost is that… I saw some TV version of it long ago and it just came up on my radar, and it’s fascinating because it’s just a short story. It’s just like a joke, pretty much.
It is a very heavy satire, yeah.
He does comment to a certain extent on the British culture of the late 19th, early 20th century and their their take on the American millionaire, buying up a residence and basically how someone who’s not affected by things like dark pasts and whatever – he’s basically just riffing on their attitude to talk about the fact they don’t take a ghost seriously. That’s his assumption, obviously. I think Americans probably do take ghosts quite seriously!
And I thought “That’s fun, that’s great,” – well that’s the answer to that question, I’ve got other stuff to say about adapting The Canterville Ghost – but Oscar Wilde has always been, to me, one of our literary greats. He wrote brilliant plays and I mean, his life story is tragic and just gobsmacking. The times that we live now, you think “Oh my God, how could anything like that have happened to someone so wonderfully creative,” and yet I don’t know, down the line. All sorts of things happen in people’s lives, you don’t necessarily know his full story.
My first attraction to seeing this production being made was that I hadn’t really seen a contemporary adaptation of an Oscar Wilde property before in my memory. I hadn’t really seen a modern twist and I actually think it worked really well, because what’s sort of funny about it – and obviously this is related to Ted Lasso, it’s almost even related to your position in Buffy – is that the American/British culture clash hasn’t really gotten better. It hasn’t really changed that much since Oscar Wilde’s time! The media still portrays this extreme culture and class clash with American stereotypical attitudes in Britain and vice versa.
It’s now probably more kind of a running together. I mean, our classic past – Americans do love our classics, and we love their classics. It’s fascinating, but if you put any two cultures together – English and Russian, English and French, English and German – we have different ways of expressing ourselves, we have different things to express ourselves about. The thing that I think is so clever about Jude Tindall’s writing, and this is what I was going to say before, is that the versions of The Canterville Ghost I’ve seen before don’t really take it on. The one with Charles Laughton, which was made during World War II, is quite bizarre. It’s about a squad of American soldiers in the house.
Related: James Lance on Oscar Wilde’s heroism and the culture clash that ‘Ted Lasso’ and ‘The Canterville Ghost’ have in common
But the ones since – the one that I saw with Sir John Gielgud, the one I saw with Patrick Stewart – they basically have just dealt with the story as is. What Jude has done is actually take it on. First of all, it’s now about the society that the Otises find themselves in, and that society is quite cold and closed off from anything that’s not British. British established country society where there are very, very specific opinions, and there’s hunting and shooting and stuff. And basically it’s very, very clever because there are three families – an American family, a British noble family, and a Romani family – who, their historical paths all actually intertwined, and they don’t know that.
I found that very interesting when watching, the highlighting of the fallacy of the class divide. Now, Sir Simon is a very lovable character who is sort of the villain but not really the villain, it’s a very sympathetic villain. Do you prefer playing heroic characters, nice people or villains? Obviously King Uther in Merlin was mainly a villain though, you know, there was some empathy in there… Rupert Mannion in Ted Lasso is the most hated man on television. Do you have any empathy for him?
All I can say is it’s just fun to play. No one… well, narcissists actually do enjoy winding people up and being horrible to people I think, because it’s all about them. And there are people out there in government and you think “Oh my God, how can you do the things that you do?” I mean, there are some people out there that apparently… There’s someone on the news this morning that they’re calling a psychopath, and you think “Wow, what’s the joy of living your life like that?”
But the thing that I love as an actor is it’s fascinating playing someone with whatever drives them, whatever it is that is inherent in them. Sometimes it’s more fun being a bad guy because he’s just got more going on, but playing someone like Giles in Buffy was fascinating, and at the time I remember having a conversation with Joss [Whedon] saying “You know, I’d love him to be a bit bad now and again.” There was an episode when he said “Uh yeah okay, you get to play a demon now” and I was like “Wow!” and then I read the script and it was a Fyarl demon and it was comedy!
I think the most interesting thing about Giles is that he is a pretty ruthless and dark person, but on the side of good, so I think there’s that kind of inner life for an inherently good person, but you know, it doesn’t always… Good doesn’t always mean good in the same way to everyone, so I love that.
I agree. The thing that I find fascinating as an actor is that you get to play other people who are not.. it’s not me, it’s never me. There are some actors who are basically, it’s them, or a version of them, and there are some actors who are a different person. I like to gravitate towards the latter. Both things work, absolutely, but I love the fact that you can play – you know, we’re all so different and we assume and cannot assume that we’re all the same. We all have different drives, we all have different sorts of things in our makeup, in our genes, in the way that we were brought up. Stuff that filters through. It’s not simple, it’s really complicated and so therefore to get to play someone else who’s got different drives, different motivations, different things and different ways of coming across – that’s what I love about this job.
Related: Anthony Head on punching up ‘The Canterville Ghost’ with special effects and Shakespeare
And you get to play someone like Sir Simon, who you initially – there was one point when Paul Gibson, the first director, said “Don’t be afraid, be angry, be a bit scary.” Because I’d started to get into the thing that it’s a comedy and so it’s all you know, blustering comedy villain, and he said “No, I want both,” he said “I want the undercurrent of something that is latent, that’s brewing,” and for me, great, because it just gives you different colors to play, different levels.
With The Canterville Ghost, what I found interesting was the digging to get to the truth, in terms of your character. It seems like he hasn’t really thought about the truth of his circumstance for a very long time, he hasn’t really looked back at what actually happened, no one’s ever really heard the truth of what happened and it’s actually funny because you know, the more I thought about it, the more I was comparing different elements of that to why I think Ted Lasso works.
Which is that from day one of Ted Lasso, I think the reason that the whole world is so interested in it is because you could tell that it wasn’t just people growing the characters episode by episode. It was more like they already knew all of that latent stuff inside and were putting that on there on the screen from the beginning. I think that that’s the next level in storytelling that I don’t really want us to go back from. I want all television to be as preconceived as that.
Well, one of the things that Jason [Sudeikis] told me that is actually massively important for the writers and that doesn’t happen very often is the fact that Apple commissioned the whole show, three seasons at once.
That way, not constantly doing the, you know, riding through the story arc to the end, ooh big cliffhanger, where’s it gonna go! And then so each season you have to work out how it’s gonna go – the fact that they’ve got the journey already planned and the security to make it, it makes so much difference, so much difference.
Yeah, that’s really so true. At what point with Buffy did you guys know that you weren’t going to get canceled like that? For example, Supernatural just ended after 15 years and by about their 12th season, they were told “You call it, we we know you’re not going to do it forever, we’re not going to cancel you, you say when you end the story, you tell us how many seasons you need to bring it to a close.” Did that ever happen for Buffy, where you knew you weren’t going to get canceled?
No. I mean, we went through many changes, we changed um we changed network, and part of it, I misread my contracts because up til then I’d always had TV contracts where it was five seasons long, five years, and suddenly I was having a conversation with Nicky [Brendon] and Aly [Hannigan] and I mentioned this and they said “What are you talking about, it’s seven seasons.” “What?” “Our contract is seven seasons.”
So I went to Joss and said “Um, no, I’ve been away from my family for five years, what can we do?” and that’s why I then became less present and he gave me that opportunity which was fantastic, but I think just the way it just rolled out was that seventh season was the end of everyone’s contract and Joss, he’s very much a storyteller and I think he would never have let it just roll on because he can. I mean people have always said with Merlin, why did it finish when it did?
I mean, that had a clear endpoint that was always coming.
And I was long gone.
It’s an upsetting ending but it was an inevitable ending. With Ted Lasso, the fact that they did know the three seasons – I heard that all of the leads, Jason had their ending in mind, the whole arc for the character and even James Lance’s character Trent Crimm, he told me a bit about that – not too much but he told me that he knows his landing.
The end of season 2 for Rupert was quite extreme. Do you know if your presence in season 3 is going to be increased because of that? Do you know your endpoint? Obviously you’re not going to tell me what it is if you do, but do you know your endpoint for the show?
No, which I love. I love that, because you want to try not to play where you’re headed. You want to play in the moment and how you deal with the moment. I mean one of my favorite scenes in the first season was with Hannah [Waddingham] when I told her about having a child on the way, having not let her have a child. That was such a wonderfully emotional scene and it was just so vile. just whispering in her ear.
Do you think he’s self-aware of his cruelty – do you think he knows that he’s as bad as he is?
I don’t know. It’s difficult to know. As I said, there are people out there who kill people, they are accused of killing people purely for their own kind of gratification. Do they feel better about themselves? I don’t know. Are they getting up in the morning saying “Hmm, who shall I kill today” I don’t know! I cannot imagine what that would feel like.
Rupert isn’t that. I guess in his head, in Rupert’s head, she’s done him down. She actually did. The one thing that he loved was the football club – not the only thing, but it was very special to him, and she somehow managed to manipulate it so that’s what she got from him and her wanting to destroy the club… So yeah, he would enjoy making her suffer in any way because she’s no longer on his radar, she’s no longer anything that he loves so therefore he will be very happy to destroy her.
Related: James Lance of ‘Ted Lasso’ has seen the backlash from journalists, and says Trent Crimm was ‘happy to pull the pin’ on his career
As I say, it’s fascinating playing from something like that, especially when occasionally – it doesn’t always happen, but I’m one of those actors who actually enjoys watching stuff I’ve done when I’ve gone back, because I see what works and what doesn’t. But occasionally, I’ll see something and have no recollection of shooting it, like “Wow, I don’t even know who I am, who that is, I’m not looking at me” and as I say, occasionally that’s a thing that I really enjoy.
I was going to ask if you watched the show back, whether it was your scenes or not, because I was going to ask what you thought of the Nathan arc that Rupert was a big part of. Lots of controversy over whether that was expected or not. I personally found it very – not fulfilling in a good way, but once it started happening you could see the seeds of it in the first season, very clearly. I was curious as to what you thought of that as a viewer.
I think it’s genius and also, do you notice his hair, the stress of it is turning him grey? It’s so clever, and he says earlier in the show “I’m terrified of aging,” the stress is aging him.
Well, the first time he ever meets Ted he’s got all of that venom in him immediately, and it’s an interesting show about trauma really. I’m keen to see how Rupert and Nate interact in season 3. For The Canterville Ghost, I was just very excited to see you play someone really likable again because I like you so much and I’ve liked you so much for 20 years!