Former Doctor Who Christopher Eccleston returns to the small screen - and to Iceland - in Fortitude. Kate Samuelson discovers the new ‘Nordic noir’, his love of the island and why actors can’t be too picky when there’s a mortgage to pay.
It’s the premiere of Sky Atlantic’s new drama Fortitude, but Christopher Eccleston is far from excited about his first glimpse of the show.
“I don’t like watching myself back,” the actor reveals. “What happens is, you’re watching something, and you think, ‘This is great, but who’s that idiot?’ And it’s you.”
Eccleston’s attitude should not be mistaken for a lack of enthusiasm for the new ‘Nordic noir’ series, which cost a rumoured £28million to make, and also stars Michael Gambon, Sofie Grabol and Stanley Tucci.
The greying yet dapper 50-year-old, who plays a British scientist running the Arctic Biology department at the Fortitude Arctic Research Centre, clearly loved every minute of filming.
His eyes light up when asked about returning to Iceland, two years after he was there shooting fantasy action-adventure movie Thor: The Dark World.
“I did Thor Two, whatever it was called... Dark Underpants or something, but I had a much better time on Fortitude,” he says animatedly. “I much preferred the locations that we shot in, I had a much better script and I wasn’t in prosthetic make-up for eight hours every day.
“And I wasn’t a naughty elf. I was a naughty elf in the bar on Fortitude, but I wasn’t a naughty elf [on set].”
So often associated with intense, sombre roles (Eccleston played Jude the Obscure in a 1996 adaptation of the Thomas Hardy novel, a war hero in The Others, and the unusually serious ninth Doctor in Doctor Who), the actor’s jokey nature is a pleasant surprise.
He clearly likes to let his - rather impressive quantity of - hair down when the opportunity arises.
As well as the “extraordinary quality of light and air” and the Northern Lights, which Eccleston saw nearly every night and jokingly claims became rather mundane, the star seems mainly nostalgic for the bar the cast frequented.
“It had some great beers - Icelandic beers - and we all tried the local stuff.
“There are some serious drinkers in Iceland, and some serious drinkers in the cast of Fortitude, it has to be said.”
No wonder Eccleston is keen to do a second series of the drama, that’s centred around a mysterious death (“I’d love to get back out to Iceland”).
After finishing up on Fortitude, he flew straight from Iceland to Manhattan to film The Leftovers, alongside Justin Theroux, where he plays an evangelical struggling with his own humanity.
“I remember bringing a lot of the spirit of Fortitude to The Leftovers. I was very enthusiastic and relaxed - full of the wonders of the world.”
But even Iceland didn’t prepare him for a winter in New York: “It was a really tough one - New Yorkers said that. We filmed a lot of night shoots and it got really bitter.”
He tried to stay in his American accent throughout filming, even when he went out in the evenings, he says, and notes he was surprised by the “huge addiction, even among New York-hardened crew members, to Downton Abbey”.
And what about Eccleston himself - would he fancy a role in Julian Fellowes’ mega-popular period drama?
“If the script was good enough, yes,” he replies. “I think you’ve got to leave yourself open to everything, when you’ve got a mortgage...”
His children - two-year-old Albert and baby Esme - joined their father on the set in Manhattan.
“I don’t like being away from my family at all, especially when they’re this young. But it has to be done, because I have to feed them,” says the actor, whose next project is a second series of The Leftovers.
He’ll also appear in Legend, a violent thriller movie about the rise and fall of the Kray twins, and the psychological TV drama, Safe House, later this year.
He speaks fondly of his hometown, Salford, in Greater Manchester, where his mother and twin brothers still live, and remains a staunch Manchester United fan.
“I had a season ticket for 25 years... It’s genetically impossible for me not to support them.”
In a 1996 TV film entitled Hillsborough and based on the 1989 tragedy, he portrayed Trevor Hicks, the father who campaigned for safer stadiums and helped form the Hillsborough Families Support Group after his two daughters died in the disaster.
Hicks and Eccleston have remained great friends since meeting during the film’s production (Eccleston was even best man at Hicks’ wedding), and the role remains one of his proudest parts.
“When I decided to be an actor, I wanted to be of some use. Hillsborough [the film] was certainly a very small tool in pushing for the inquiry, and hopefully the families will get justice.”
Fortitude begins on Sky Atlantic on Thursday, January 29