Iain Glen tells Terry Grimley why a time in rep is still the best education for actors...
It's difficult to believe, but it's almost 20 years since Iain Glen served a tough year-long apprenticeship at Birmingham Rep as part of the short-lived Young Rep experiment.
This was the idea of then artistic director Clive Perry to revive the much-lamented old-fashioned rep system by scooping up a company of outstanding drama graduates and working them to death in a wide variety of roles.
The company lasted for only two years, but anyone who saw any of Glen's work in productions ranging from The Snow Queen to Accidental Death of an Anarchist will have been likely to spot his star quality.
Two decades on, looking back through a career which has included playing the title role in Henry V for the RSC, winning a Best Actor award at the Berlin Film Festival and starring opposite Nicole Kidman in The Blue Room, Glen still has fond memories of that year in Birmingham.
"I loved my time there," he says. "Looking back, it was almost like an extra year at college. We went through eight or nine plays playing a whole variety of characters of all ages, which is something you don't usually get in the working world.
"It was a great opportunity in a country where the idea of rep is slowly getting whittled away."
In a sense, it also set the pattern for his subsequent career.
"I've always tried to have a great variety of parts. Certainly in theatre, and right across film as well, I've tried to keep my possibilities open, just in terms of not being necessarily perceived as a theatre actor or a film actor. I've always tried to keep that alive, because people desperately want to perceive you as something.
"The Blue Room, for example - I was really pleased to do that because I was playing five different roles."
Iain's brother Hamish - his senior by four years - is now a fixture in the West Midlands as artistic director of the Belgrade Theatre, having made a considerable name for himself at Dundee Rep in their native Scotland.
I had imagined the small Glen boys playing with toy theatres together, but in fact Iain did not start acting until he was at Aberdeen University and Hamish left it even later: having also been at Aberdeen he switched to theatre later from a career in law.
"The fact that we went to the same university was down to the fact that I was unimaginative," comments Iain.
"The social life at Aberdeen had a fantastic reputation."
Now Iain is back in the West Midlands with the RSC, playing the leading role of John Proctor in The Crucible by Arthur Miller.
It's a short, sharp engagement by RSC standards, forming a kind of prelude to the company's festival of Shakespeare's complete works.
Glen is no newcomer to Miller, having previously done Death of a Salesman and the little-known early play, The Man Who Had All the Luck - the latter having resulted in an unforgettable meeting with the great man himself.
He explains: "I was in New York on a publicity tour for a film and the director, Paul Unwin - we were doing it at the Bristol Old Vic - rang me and said he had spoken to Miller and he was willing to meet me.
"I plucked up my courage and Arthur answered the phone and he was absolutely charming and invited me to his home in Connecticut.
"I just spent a lovely, blissful day there with him and his wife Inge. They gave me a beautiful lunch and Miller seemed to have the time to show me around.
"I asked him if he would read sections of The Man Who Had All the Luck. It had all Miller's qualities - a fantastic little piece. I think Miller was pretty chuffed that the play was being revived and it brought memories back to him because it was not something that had a long history of performances.
"He came to Bristol and saw it there, and he gave me a couple of really good notes, a couple of wise words that were very helpful, and was very supportive."
Glen nominates two of Miller's plays, Death of a Salesman and The Crucible, in his top five of the 20th century.
"I've always admired him hugely as a thinker and as a writer.
"He seemed to have a clarity about the way he looked at the world. It's terrible that he is so unsupported in his own country.
"He was vilified at times. His plays have been much more appreciated on this side of the ocean, and he had a fondness for Britain partly because of that.
"You just have to say that the Americans are generally not very good at being critical of themselves or having a laugh at themselves. I think the British are good at that.
"We've always had a political theatre and the arts generally tend to have a liberal left-wing stance."
In The Crucible Miller famously wrote a play about the Salem witch trials which paralleled the then-contemporary communist hysteria personified by Senator Joe McCarthy.
Coincidentally, this era is also currently being highlighted in George Clooney's film Goodnight and Good Luck, and it is widely taken to have parallels with our own.
How far were these explored in rehearsals for The Crucible?
"We talked about it in terms of what happened in Salem, and we had people come to speak to us about the McCarthy era and how the anti-American committee got set up.
"In terms of parallels with today, it's not someting we need to reflect in the production. The play takes care of itself and I think any attempt consciously to draw parallels would do nothing but reduce its power.
"But there's one line where Judge Danforth says 'You're either with this court or you are against it'. I didn't realise that Bush took that from the play - or if he didn't, it's very close."
* The Crucible is at the Royal Shakespeare Theatre until March 18 (Box office: 0870 609 1110).