The Scottish actor opens up about his serendipitous rise to fame, the perils of fatherhood in the 21st century, and his latest sci-fi film, Genesis
"I kind of felt like the nuclear war would be a better option." John Hannah, 56, shudders as he recounts the cold days he recently spent crammed in a nuclear bunker in Essex. He was shooting for his latest project, apocalyptic sci-fi flick Genesis, in which he plays the charismatic Paul Brooks, leader of an increasingly desperate group of nuclear war survivors.
“The location had an effect on everyone. The shelter was operational until the mid-Nineties and it still had a lot of the original artefacts. It’s open to the public now; boy scouts go and spend the night in the bunks. It’s all very depressing, to be honest…”
"We’re in exactly the same position now—look at these muppets in charge who are taking us over the edge of a cliff"
That trademark scottish lilt trails off. John is clearly an actor who takes his work home with him.
After his break-out role as the grieving, WH Auden-poetry-reading Matthew in 1994’s Four Weddings and a Funeral, John Hannah’s rise through Hollywood was fast. It was perhaps his turn as romantic lead opposite Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors four years later, however, that really propelled him to global fame. In Sliding Doors, two parallel realities unfold in tandem, to show how a minute decision altered the path of the heroine’s life. John’s own Sliding Doors moment was the very thing that launched his career.
“I wanted to go to college because I was a bit lost. I didn’t know what to do and the day of the audition [for the prestigious Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama] I happened to be off work. So, I decided I would go in and do it and I was accepted. I wasn’t trying to be an actor, I thought I’d be a student for a while and work out what I wanted to do while I was there. I suppose that was one of those moments. I could have walked into the audition, or I could have said, ‘Ah, nah, forget it.’ It changed my life.”
I ponder for a moment if John would fare as well as his Genesis character in a real-life Armageddon, but he’s quick to laugh off the idea. “[I wouldn’t cope] well! I like my comforts! There’s not a lot to be said for surviving a nuclear detonation, I’d just want to get it over with.”
John Hannah with Viva Bianca at Comic-Con 2010
If he can’t relate to his character, he can see parallels in the threats of irresponsible leadership that drive much of the film’s action.
John’s character in Genesis is the father to a somewhat wayward daughter (Amrita Acharia), embroiled in her own personal battle against the raging nuclear war outside and the intense politics of the surviving humans inside. Does John see himself as a protective father? He has twins, Gabriel and Astrid (14) with his wife, actress Joanna Roth.
“I think having children changes your perspective on any kind of situation. Obviously, it’s heightened by an end of the world scenario,” he laughs, “but in any kind of situation you want to be able to help your children make the right choices. Though, of course, they’ll always want to make their own choices regardless, that’s sort of the only way they can really learn. I’m learning how to cope with being ignored,” he chuckles.
"There’s nothing worse than having a dream that gets deflated by a director who doesn’t know what they’re doing"
As it turns out, being a world-renowned actor doesn’t win John any more cool-points with his kids than the rest of us. “They find me just as embarrassing as everybody else does.”
“From a teenage perspective [my job is] just not that interesting. They don’t really sit there and watch old films and television, they’re on their laptops instead streaming Netflix or looking at YouTube and surfing on Instagram. They integrate with life totally differently from how we did. In terms of sitting together and watching a show on TV and talking about it, they just don’t do that.”
Although he’s known for making diverse career choices—from the comedic relief as The Mummy’s Jonathan Carnahan, to the psychotic Batiatus in Spartacus—John insists that it’s never been deliberate.
“I think I basically just get bored of doing one thing and want to do something else. I’ve done quite a lot of sci-fi recently so I’m kind of feeling like maybe I’d like to do something a bit more real, you know, people talking to each other and going through some s**t and stuff.”
Are there any other roles he still longs to play?
“There’s a lot of stuff [I’d like to do] but I don’t really long for it in that way because if you spend a lot of time longing then when it does happen it will be disappointing. There’s nothing worse than having a dream that gets deflated by a director who doesn’t know what they’re doing or whose opinion you disagree with, so I just take things as they come.”
“I have a very busy life at the moment with two kids and schools and all of that. I’ve been doing this long enough that I can pick and choose a little bit and do things because I want to do them and I’m happy with that. I don’t have any unfulfilled ambitions to play Hamlet or any of that stuff.”
It was in the aforementioned role in The Mummy that John met the actor whose process he most admires—the film’s lead, Brendan Fraser. Formerly one of Hollywood’s brightest stars, Brendan dropped off the map shortly after the success of the franchise. In the past year it’s come to light that this was at least in part down to his experiences as a victim of sexual assault, something he opened up about in February of this year, encouraged by the increasingly vocal #MeToo movement.
“Brendan is incredibly free,” John enthuses. “He has no self-censoring button, he offers everything. And I think that’s a really good way to work because you’re giving the director the material with which to then weave their canvas and they can then make choices in the edit. I think that’s the important thing about [making a film], it’s a journey and if you’re basically just doing what you thought you were doing on the first day then I think you’ve lost the point of the journey. We all set off on this journey and ideally, we want to get somewhere we didn’t know we were going. Brendan does that really, really well.”
"Most actors I know are emotional and romantic, generally pretty sensitive and easily hurt"
Despite different approaches to their craft, one thing John considers himself to have in common with his fellow actors is a romantic disposition.
“Everybody’s different but actors do tend to be [romantics]. Whether they have their emotions nearer to the surface because they’re actors, or that’s why they become actors I’m not really sure. But most actors I know are emotional and romantic, and they’re generally pretty sensitive and easily hurt.”
“I think you do get better at ignoring criticism or not going looking for it but there are times when you can’t help seeing or being aware of what they’re saying about your film. I remember the director Michael Caton-Jones saying, ‘No one sets out to make a bad film,’ and that’s really true.”
“Sometimes for whatever reason, things just don’t come together. You can take exactly the same formula for last year’s out-of-the-box huge hit and put it all together and it still doesn’t work. It takes something special. It’s intangible…”
He takes a pause, perhaps reflecting on that strange alchemy that forged his own unforgettable hits and occasional critical misses.
“It’s all very well to say, ‘I don’t read the criticism’, or ‘It doesn’t bother me’, but of course it does. If you see something that’s painful, criticism stings.”