A Victorian ballroom, a crusading coincidence and daily trips to Waitrose… The actor talks to Melissa Crowther about his take on local life
I’ve always thought that if you’re going to live in a city, you might as well live in the centre of it. I used to live on Old Compton Street in Soho, which was kind of crazy. I moved to Clerkenwell 11 years ago. I wanted a lofty sort of space and realised that, in Soho, people were calling a one-bedroomed flat with a knocked-through kitchen a “loft”. I didn’t know Clerkenwell very well but started looking there, and the estate agent showed me to this amazing place, and it’s where I am now.
It’s unusual, isn’t it?
It’s an old Victorian ballroom off Clerkenwell Road, in what used to be union offices. Someone told me the building was a nit clinic at the turn of the century. And in the early Nineties, it was apparently going to become the Bosnian embassy.
How have you made it your home?
The previous owner had it rather nice. But when I picked up the keys and saw it empty, I thought, what the fuck am I supposed to do with it now! I just saw a big room, with a kitchen, two smallish bedrooms and a mezzanine gallery. It’s got very high ceilings, ornate stucco work, wooden floors. Everything I needed for it was big — I needed a big chair, a big sofa, a big table… It’s taken me years to make it cosy.
Do you miss Clerkenwell when you’re away?
Yes, I always miss it very much; I did especially so when I was living in LA. I also have a house in Windsor and whenever I come in to London from there, I get a frisson of excitement. I think it’s where I feel I really belong.
Where do you hang out?
I love Smiths of Smithfield, The Zetter, The Modern Pantry and The Jerusalem Tavern. I’ve been to the Zetter Townhouse a couple of times — it’s right up my street in terms of décor. Oh, and I visit Waitrose a lot. At least once a day. My usual route is past The Dovetail in Jerusalem Passage, which always makes me want to stop for a beer.
And what about when you’re with your daughter?
Gracie, who’s six now, loves it in Clerkenwell: all her knowledge of London is here. I like the park off Skinner Street, which has a good playground. Otherwise, we walk in to the West End, or down past St Paul’s to the river. When I’m here I walk everywhere. I did try the Boris bikes once but then my fob was stolen…
Does the area inspire you?
I wrote a novel [The Late Hector Kipling, published by Simon & Schuster] around the time I came to Clerkenwell. I realise now that I thrive off the energy of living in the city. And I had a funny experience when I was doing the Ridley Scott film Kingdom of Heaven. I played a Knight Hospitaller, one of the warrior-medics during the Crusades. I was going around all the bookshops trying to find something on them, without much luck. Then, on my way back home, I passed St John’s Gate. I looked through the door — which I’d never done before — and saw a mannequin wearing a hospitaller’s robe. I thought, are you kidding me! When I discovered it was a museum for the hospitallers, I got very excited indeed. It felt like serendipity.
Do you notice the changes around the place?
I think Clerkenwell is just getting cooler by the week. Especially with CrossRail coming in. I hope that the new station won’t be all franchised out and that it will retain some smaller, independent businesses. A bookshop it what it needs… I know there’s one on Exmouth Market but I miss having one really close by.
Are you here for the rest of the summer?
I’m going to be in London a lot more than I have been, which is great, and I’m really looking forward to it. I’ve had a good year, really — I’ve done a Spielberg film, his adaptation of War Horse; one with Luc Besson, about the Burmese leader Aung San Suu Kyi [called The Lady]; and one with Roland Emmerich, a thriller about Shakespeare [called Anonymous]. So I’m going to be taking it easy for a while, dividing my time between here and Paris, where I’ve just rented a place. I’m very seriously learning French, trying to get fluent.
Would you ever sell up?
No, never. Everyone who sees my flat says I’d be nuts to leave it. Especially with Clerkenwell going the way it’s going. It’s just come up and up and up.