Actor Kris Marshall, 41, is best known for his roles in My Family, Love Actually and the BT Retail adverts. He can currently be seen in BBC1’s Death in Paradise

I Remember...

…going for a spin in our Oldsmobile, aged three

I climbed into this enormous car, released the handbrake and it rolled down our drive in Ontario towards the road. Luckily my dad ran after me and stopped the car in time. That said, I’m not sure if I remember this or whether it’s something I was told about later. The same goes for most of my early memories. I think I once saw a bear in our garden, for instance, but I may have dreamed it. 

…Feeling very impressed when Dad came home

He was with the RAF in Canada, and when I was about four we moved to Corsham, Wiltshire, with Dad flying Hercules planes out of RAF Lyneham. He’d be away for weeks on end—he flew all over the world, including taking troops to the Falklands—and when he returned there would be this big, imposing figure in a uniform and hat filling the doorway.

He was a navigator, though he eventually became a squadron leader, so before a mission he’d spread an orange-and-white map on the diningroom
table to plot his routes. Then he’d plot them on a second map and stick it on my wall, so I’d knew where he’d be. It was great to have this vision of him flying around. I still love a good map.

…Some complicated packed lunches

All the other kids at my primary school got sandwiches, Hula Hoops and an apple, but my mum Janet, a housewife, used to give me these ornate meals. You never knew what you’d get from one day to the next—bean salad, pâté in a little jar, soup, offal. Once there was a slice of Baked Alaska in there; I’ve no idea how she managed to keep it cold. I’d often think, For God’s sake, just give me a sandwich like everyone else! But I now realise how amazing those meals were and there was a very imaginative side to Mum that she wanted to express.

I think I get my creativity from both my parents. Dad has always done a lot of amateur dramatics and used to have a Hinge and Bracket-style act with another guy in the RAF that they took around air bases. He also plays the organ—we had one at home—and the saxophone.

…Empty chairs in the classroom

Dad transferred to RAF Brize Norton when I was seven, so we moved to the nearby north-Wiltshire village of Hankerton. My new school only had about 90 pupils and was very rural. When we started term in September, there would always be a few children missing because they were helping with the harvest. Now, parents are fined for taking their kids on holiday during term time, but it was the early 1980s and Hankerton was still a gentle, farming-focused place. I was a very happy big fish in a small pond

…A rude awakening, wearing dodgy sandals

I went to board at Wells Cathedral School after primary school. It had around 1,000 pupils, was steeped in tradition and very daunting. On my first day, there was this list of items I had to bring with me, including “House shoes (not trainers)”. Mum decided to put me in a pair of Jesus Creepers, so I turned up wearing homemade burgundy trousers, socks and Biblical footwear, and everyone else was wearing trainers. It took me three years to live that down.

At first, boarding school was tough. I was bullied by older kids—we all were. But the bullies didn’t bother me for long because I learned how to hold my own with humour…and fists. Having to establish myself in a competitive environment stood me in good stead, helping me deal with rejection in my early career, for instance.

…Getting expelled

I don’t regret going to boarding school, but it didn’t end brilliantly. I did very well in my GCSEs, but then decided to rage against the public-school machine. This coincided with me getting into drama, and we did some amazing productions at Wells. I became a bit affected and took on this rebelwithout-a-Porsche attitude. 

I asked if I could go to an open day at St Mary’s College, Twickenham, then stay the night with friends at Goldsmiths College before meeting up with my classmates for a schools’ economics conference in London the next day. My teachers said that was fine, but assumed I’d be going on the train, rather than the moped I’d brought in against school rules. I rode all the way from Somerset to London on it, was initiated into the ways of the infamous Goldsmiths student union, and turned up for the conference next day not feeling great and still wearing my leathers instead of my uniform.

My maths teacher ordered me to take the bus back to school, but I jumped on the moped, broke down in Ascot and arrived back at Wells several hours later. From then on, it was a real push-shove thing between me and the teachers. I behaved like an idiot. I was frequently grounded at weekends, but would climb out of my bedroom window and sneak off to the pub. Eventually, I was asked to leave, six weeks before my A levels.

…Having a boozy time in rep

When I was 18, I went to Redroofs Theatre School in Maidenhead. After the esoteric plays at Wells, coming to a place where everyone was singing Les Misérables didn’t sit well with me. But I went on to the Colin McIntyre Production Repertory Theatre, and we’d tour murder-mystery plays round big 1,500-seat theatres. It was great fun, with plenty of alcohol. Within six months I was playing the lead role in the Ira Levin play Deathtrap, and I must have done some 30 other plays in two years—a great learning experience. But it paid equity minimum and there were people who’d been there for 20 years. I realised I had to leave for London if my career was going to happen.

…A big break in a pub

For a few years after, until my late 20s, I struggled a bit, making ends meet by delivering tax reminders and working in factories. Then I was in a production of [First World War drama] Journey’s End in a pub in Chelsea. The theatrical entrepreneur Daniel Crawford decided to take it to his King’s Head Theatre in Islington and replaced all of the cast, apart from me. The play was then a huge hit and I went on to the National Theatre, got a good agent and, within a year, had done three small films. 

…Not really wanting to do My Family

It was 2000 and I’d been doing these interesting little movies, including the lead in The Most Fertile Man in Ireland (strange title, I know). I wasn’t sure if I wanted to be a sitcom actor. But I went for it and my character Nick got bigger and bigger. The show was a massive success, pulling in 11 million viewers.

Part of the reason it did so well, was that it was the first British sitcom with an American style of writing. We’d rehearse on the Pinewood set and down the corridor there was a team of writers, working away from 10am to 2am. If you had a problem with a line, you’d just run down and tell them, and they’d gradually adapt the part to take in your ideas and strengths as an actor.

…Bringing BT to LA

I made some 40 British Telecom ads between 2005 and 2011 [Kris played the bumbling family man Adam] and they were usually shot in places such as Wimbledon or Battersea. But when it was time to do one of the later ones, I was in the US filming the comedy series Traffic Light. So the advertisers flew the whole production team out to LA and put them up in the Chateau Marmont hotel. I’ll never forget the look on the crew’s faces when I saw them amid this unexpected luxury! We filmed the ad, where I’m rummaging through a suburban UK garage, in an LA lock up.

…Having dinner with the Don

I got to work with Al Pacino in the 2004 film The Merchant of Venice. I was Gratiano, a terrible anti-Semitic character, while Al was playing Shylock. On my first day of rehearsal, I was supposed to get right up in his face and call him horrid names. But this was Al Pacino! I was far too nervous and respectful, and ended up just mumbling at him. He chewed me up, or rather his character did, and I went away with my tail between my legs. So I came back and gave it full force and everyone was like, “Easy!”

But Al is such a gracious man, with a lot of time for younger actors. Every evening, we’d all go out for a meal with him. To an Italian restaurant. Like we were having dinner with Michael Corleone in The Godfather!

…Almost getting kidnapped by Congalese soldiers

I was filming a movie called Oka! deep in the Congolese jungle. Corruption was endemic around there and the local soldiers would make up some legal reason to take away our producer one day, our make-up artist the next, and demand $1,000 before they’d give them back. They came for me once, but I’d gone swimming in a river. They’d also turn up on our set drunk, put grenades on the table and roll them around for fun. Crazy.

…The feeling of panic when my son Thomas was born in September 2012

When I first held him, he was two minutes old and screaming in my face. I thought, Oh my God, what the hell am I going to do? All the messing about and irresponsibility I’d thrown at my life was suddenly at an end and this tiny, precious little person was all encompassing.

.…Filming on the beach in Guadeloupe for Death in Paradise is a nightmare

Well, at least for the crew. They have to lug heavy cameras, lights and other equipment over sand and it’s hot, hard work. But the directors and actors love it. One director took to putting his chair in the sea, with the warm water lapping at his feet, and shouting his orders from there through a Cecil B DeMillestyle loud hailer. The crew got fed up with him in the end and smeared lipstick over the mouthpiece.

Kris appears as DI Humphrey Goodman in Death in Paradise, currently on BBC1 every Thursday at 9pm.

Read more articles by Simon Hemelryk here

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