‘The umbrella of love and kindness carries on’: Actor Rory Kinnear on death, fairness – and playing scrabble with Judi DenchJanuary 18, 2023
In 2011, a Burnley businessman named Dave Fishwick established a lending company, Burnley Savings and Loans Limited. The 2008 financial crash had deprived the area of opportunity; small businesses were struggling to make ends meet. Fishwick, who grew up poor in Burnley, but who later set up a successful minivan business, began loaning money to locals, often people he knew by name. “It’s quite antediluvian in a way,” says the actor Rory Kinnear. “All the people he lends money to, he wants to meet them, see what they’re about.” Kinnear recently visited BSAL’s only branch, on a Burnley high street. “There’s a safe in the basement,” he says, incredulous. “Most of it is handwritten.”
Kinnear was in Burnley on a reconnaissance trip. When we meet, in a north London café that is blaring an up-tempo bossa nova playlist – an antidote to the December cold – it is to discuss his new film, Bank of Dave, in which he plays a lightly fictionalised version of Fishwick. “There was something about his tenacity of spirit and purpose,” Kinnear says, “as well as him being equally filled by rage and goodwill.” Rage at the banks, whose greed he loathed. Goodwill towards the people of Burnley, Fishwick’s people, whom he’d seen repeatedly passed over despite their promise and diligence. Fishwick’s father had worked two jobs to provide for the family. “That was Dave’s baseline,” Kinnear says. “You work really hard. But when you don’t see the benefits of that work flowing back through your community, when the success of the rest of the country doesn’t seem to trickle down, to use the phrase du jour, when you’re not treated fairly, or when you have the perception of not being treated fairly, that nobody gives a shit about you – that binds you as a community.”
Kinnear is one of our most versatile actors, a star of stage and screen. Since 2008 he has played Bill Tanner, aide to Judi Dench’s M, in four Bond films. In 2014 he won an Olivier Award for Best Actor for his portrayal of Iago, in a production of Othello at the National Theatre, where he has worked repeatedly. In Bank of Dave he brings quiet determination to a warmhearted film that celebrates the collective power of little people – NHS staff, community volunteers. BSAL became a bank in 2017 and continues to provide loans to the people of Burnley. It’s unusual in UK banking for the fact that any profit it makes is donated to local charities. While shooting the film, Kinnear thought: “Why isn’t this more possible? Why isn’t this a model other people can take on?” Big banking, centred in London, has gone haywire, is one of the film’s messages. In many ways, Bank of Dave is a reproval of The South.
Stage villain: as Iago with Adrian Lester in Othello at the National Theatre, for which Kinnear won an Olivier Award. Photograph: Robbie Jack/Corbis/Getty Images
Kinnear is of The South – he grew up comfortably middle-class in Roehampton – and community is important to him. He describes himself as “a homebody”. The five close friends he made in childhood remain his closest friends now. And though he travels for work, he never yearned to live anywhere but the city in which he grew up. “I was quite a homesick kid,” he says. “I didn’t like staying at other people’s houses.” When I ask, “Still now?” he says: “I can stay at other people’s houses now,” and chuckles. “But equally I don’t like to be away from my family too long.” Kinnear and his partner, the actor Pandora Colin, have two young children. During the pandemic he was required to work in Los Angeles. Six weeks, just him. “It made me miserable,” he recalls. “You try to remember: What do I like to do? I watched a lot of baseball.”
Earlier this year, Kinnear filmed a Netflix series called The Diplomat, in which he plays a Conservative prime minister. It’s the second time he’s led our country. The first was during the premiere of Black Mirror that ends with him penetrating a pig. “One of the few benefits of the continued Tory government is that people continue to look to me to play Tory ministers,” he says. I realise now he resembles the former Conservative MP Matt Hancock – in appearance, in his sudden guffaws, in the received pronunciation. When I invite him to chat politics he says, “Oh, the old hot potato,” in a way Hancock might.
“It’s important,” he goes on. “The impulse when one has seen as much chaos and unkindness for so many years is to turn your back on it. To say, ‘I can’t control that.’ And you have to re-engage. You have to ask, ‘Well, what can I do?’ It’s not just about people standing to become an MP or joining a party. What can I do that makes an impact? Like Dave, on a smaller level. Because it doesn’t look like it’s going to get any easier very soon for a lot of people.”
I ask, “What can we do?” a question he receives as a test.
“I’m not going to big myself up in terms of what I am and am not doing,” he says. “I just feel it’s a question we should all be asking.”
“How we might help…” I say.
“Yes,” he says. “I think the language and personalities put people off. I still think there are lots of good people involved in politics. But when you ask them what they do – it’s similar to people in finance – they try to make it sound as if we wouldn’t understand, or we wouldn’t be interested. Well, no – it’s important. If I don’t understand, explain it. It’s a deliberate tactic. This sense of, ‘We’ll take care of it, thanks very much,’ or ‘Oh, it’s complicated,’ or ‘Oh, it’s not for you.’ It’s for all of us!”
Man of the people: in Bank of Dave. Photograph: Paul Stephenson/Netflix
I suggest that Fishwick’s bank will have become even more important to Burnley during the cost-of-living crisis. Kinnear agrees. “But there’s a limited amount of cash,” he says. “So, do other people have the energy to create a similar thing? To show there’s a fairer way, rather than people just being cut off… Shows you the limitations of the capitalist system – that if you can’t pay, you’re out.” He sighs. “I don’t know what the alternative is. I don’t have the answers, nor the energy. But we need to flag this up. It will be the death of us as a race if the apogee of human existence remains to own a private jet. That’s what we’re selling. That’s what we consider success to be. And everyone who involves themselves in the selling of that formula, well, I’d ask them to reconsider. Or to at least consider…”
I ask, “Do you worry for your kids’ futures?”
“I try not to, no,” he says. “Every generation of parents is worried about what’s coming. And, yes, some elements today seem more apocalyptic compared to, like, the impacts of Street Fighter II. But I’m reasonably hopeful about young people. Lots of them are smart. Far more switched on than I was about what needs to change. And, hopefully, once the dinosaurs have crawled back under their rocks, they’ll have a go at steering the ship.”
Kinnear is 44, a middle age he describes as “right at the tipping point of becoming corroded” and world-weary, though it hasn’t happened yet – he remains broadly positive. “What do you and I want?” he asks. “I would prefer to live, and I think I’m a nicer person to be around, optimistically.”
Kinnear has called for a fairer, more accepting, more optimistic society before. In May 2020, one of his two elder sisters, Karina, who’d been disabled since birth, died of coronavirus. “We all variously FaceTimed her to tell her how much she meant to us,” he wrote in the Guardian days afterwards, “and tried to raise one more of her life-affirming laughs.” When I bring the piece up, he says, “I wrote it because there aren’t many obituaries of people as severely disabled as her,” and “I didn’t want to her to go quietly.” Since the beginning of the pandemic, Kinnear had become distressed at the othering of the disabled community, that there had been “these two columns of death” – us, the healthy, and them, the vulnerable. “It was oddly moving,” he says, “to have so many people talking about her.”
Karina’s obituary went viral. So did two further pieces Kinnear wrote about her life. In one, he highlighted that Karina’s funeral, attended by three family members, was held on the same day Conservative staffers mingled in the garden of 10 Downing Street. In the other, written several months later, he lamented losing “one of the anchors of my life for ever”. Two more pieces about grief have since followed: a review of A Heart That Works, a memoir by the comedian Rob Delaney about the experience of losing his young son. And an interview in which Kinnear discusses the anger he still feels at the loss of his father, the actor Roy Kinnear, who died while filming a stunt in 1988.
I’m always comfortable talking about grief. It’s not an inhibitor
Rory was 10 then, and his community, seven or eight close-knit local families, became immediately important. “We didn’t have to cook for three weeks,” he recalls. “Something was always left on our front door step.” During this aftermath, Kinnear’s mother, the actor Carmel Cryan, devoted her life to her children’s care, learning how to manage. “It’s just fighting,” Kinnear says, of accessing care for a disabled child. “The fighting starts as soon as they’re diagnosed and it never stops. And you have to get good at it and you have to be tenacious.” The irony is that “the more my mum proved herself to be capable – ie Karina was still alive – the more it was presumed she didn’t need funding.”
Cryan hoped to make sure each of her children had a normal childhood, though it wasn’t always possible. “Karina had this sort of uncanny ability to need to go into hospital on Christmas or New Year’s Eve,” Kinnear recalls. On three or four occasions, “my mum had to call up a neighbour on Christmas morning to ask, ‘Would you mind feeding Kirsty and Rory?’” Once, to repay their neighbours’s kindness, Cryan invited the street to spend Christmas at the Kinnear home. “They turned up Christmas morning,” Kinnear says. “Karina had gone into hospital, mum had left instructions. I must have been 13. Fucking hell, it was disgusting. Raw turkey. Sprouts like bullets. Those poor neighbours.”
I wonder why grief has become a topic of focus for Kinnear recently. He says, “It’s something I’ve always been comfortable talking about. I don’t find it an inhibitor to my life. I know other people do. I think experiencing it as young as I did…” He pauses. “You know, I have a lot of friends now who ask me, ‘What’s the process?’ And I say, ‘Well, you’re in your 40s, it’s a different thing. But this is how I feel. This is how I found it.’”
When his father died, Kinnear remembers thinking, “Oh, this could fuck everything up. And that would make him sad.”
“That’s very grownup,” I say.
“People say that,” he replies. “I suppose it’s a grownup experience. And you imagine those decisions can only be made by grownups. But if you put a child in a grownup situation, they make grownup decisions.” Partway through our conversation, which veers off for a long time into grief, Kinnear says, “I’m aware that if you end up speaking about this, people see you as Sad Man. And I’m really not.”
“What are some happy memories from your childhood?” I ask.
“In my 10 years of happiness?” he says, and smiles.
“Yes,” I say.
“It wasn’t that a black shroud came down and I was swaddled in it for the rest of my teenage years.” He pauses. “Obviously it was a central fulcrum.” Kinnear’s grandfather, a professional rugby player, died when Kinnear’s father was also young. “My dad used to fill up when he would talk about his dad. And I do the same, still. I’ve felt kinship with him as a result – it’s a cycle I’m keen to break.” Later he adds: “That’s the other thing you learn in grief, and maybe this is why I’m not scared of it, is the relationship continues. It grows and deepens in their absence. And if the relationship was a happy one, the umbrella of love and kindness, it carries on. And though you only had 10 years it was a period central to your existence. It is undeniable in your memory.”
Screen star: on the set of Skyfall with Judi Dench and Daniel Craig. Photograph: Greg Williams/August|Image R
The day before we meet, Kinnear visited a friend in hospital. “The smell of it was so familiar,” he says, recalling moments spent helping to care for Karina. “And of a time not too long ago in my life.” In hospitals he feels “completely comfortable, I don’t feel sad or stressed.” He goes on: “Funny, the things you become comfortable around that most other people wouldn’t.”
While Roy Kinnear was working at the Royal Shakespeare Company, he struck up a deep relationship with the actor Michael Williams, late husband to Judi Dench. Williams became Kinnear’s godfather. Dench remembers the Kinnear family as a caring one. When Karina was born, Dench was weeks away from giving birth to her own daughter. “When they realised Karina was disabled,” Dench told me on the phone, of Roy and Carmel, “they got in touch with their friends to tell them not to tell us, so we wouldn’t be alarmed. Such a dear thing to do. It says something about that family.”
Dench and Kinnear remain in touch. About her Kinnear jokes, “There’s not many people who give her a slagging. And I’d like to be the first…” Then he goes on, “Mike was my godfather, so it was nice, after he passed away, that we got to spend that time together, and to get on as well as we did.” He is referring to appearing with Dench in Bond. The pair played scrabble to pass time on set, as well as various other word games, “to keep ourselves amused while things were being blown up in the background”.
I ask if they still see each other.
“We write to each other,” he says.
When I tell Kinnear I invited Dench to comment on him, he says, “Oh, no, she’ll come back with something filthy,” a line that, when I reached her on the phone, made Dench howl with laughter. In fact, Rory makes Dench think of Roy. “He’s able to see the very funny side of things,” she told me, “and be very frivolous. But then he’s wonderfully able to be completely serious… And that’s so like his dad was. So like his dad.” She added: “They share that ability to find comedy in the absurd.”
This is how I find Kinnear. When our conversation becomes earnest, he suddenly punctuates it with a light joke. As he stands to leave, we are talking about his son. When he turned 10, Kinnear “refracted myself though him, realised how little I was” when Roy died. “You make decisions at the time,” he goes on, “which linger, which become the foundation stone on which you’ve based your whole life.” When Kinnear looks at his son, who is 12, he often thinks, “I don’t want you to be making decisions now that affect the rest of your life.” He smiles. “He’s still asking me to butter his bagel.”
Bank of Dave is out on Netflix on 16 January
Styling by Hope Lawrie; grooming by Graziella Cawthorne Vella at Untitled Artists using Armani Beauty; shot at Luma Studios