The Academy Award winner talks about history, the horror of naked co-stars and that wet-shirt Darcy thing
In your new movie The Railway Man, as in The King’s Speech, you play a historical figure. Is that your favorite kind of role?
Not necessarily. A good story is a good story. This one’s personal. It’s not trying to capture the whole of the fall of Singapore or the building of the “Death Railway.” It’s one man’s experience. I think a veteran’s story will probably always be interesting because it will be an experience very distant from mine. It becomes my job to understand it as best I can and hopefully relay something of it. I like my job when it’s just there for cheap laughs, but occasionally an experience like this makes you feel there’s some substance.
This movie looks like a love story. But really, it’s about a prisoner of war, Eric Lomax. Are you tricking people with your romanticism?
I think that’s what Patti Lomax felt when she met Eric. Like most people, she didn’t know much about the Thailand-Burma Railway. She met a charming, eccentric, rather brilliant individual who proved to be profoundly complicated and damaged.
Your co-star Stellan Skarsgard was in Mamma Mia! with you. Did you reprise any Abba?
I expected it to happen at any moment. It’s very hard to look at Stellan and not see him in Lycra. Actually, the last time I’d seen Stellan on a film set, he was naked. So if there was a haunted look in my eyes, it wasn’t because I was contemplating the war in Asia. It was because I’d seen horrors already beyond imagination.
Why do you always play emotionally repressed guys?
It probably comes across like that. I think there’s an immense drama in things being held back and hidden and unspoken. I’m the go-to guy when you’re doing something in that convention. But also, communication is never perfect. What you’re hearing isn’t necessarily what I’m imagining you’re hearing. That interests me more than repression.
Your parents were academics. Was that life ever tempting to you?
Certainly. I just would have had to have been better at school. I remember saying to my father in my 30s, “Should I go back to college?” He felt that it wouldn’t be as edifying as what I was already finding myself doing. I was able to discover Jane Austen by speaking the words of her character.
Speaking of which, did you keep the wet shirt from Pride and Prejudice?
No. That shirt’s been auctioned off more times than is actually feasible. For the sake of continuity it had to look like I’d been for a swim. The shirt was barely soggy or clinging or any of the things it’s mythologized to be.
Your career has been boosted by your reputation for dreaminess. Were you born dreamy, did you have to work to be dreamy or did you have dreaminess thrust upon you?
Perhaps it’s being thrust upon me now. It’s always in a context. There are so many people we thrust dreaminess upon who might not get noticed in the street. I think people will find somebody appealing in a film or story if someone else finds them appealing.
So, are you tired of being the thinking woman’s crumpet?
No. I don’t get it at home. I have a son. He might go, “Oi, thinking person’s crumpet, have a shave. We’re going to the football.” As time ticks on, it’s something I appreciate more.
Your wife’s Italian. Do you have a favorite word in Italian?
Stronzo is a wonderful word. It means “a piece of sh-t,” but it’s more specific than that. It means “a floating piece of sh-t.”
Reader question: What do you see yourself doing 10 years from now?
I always imagined I’d move beyond this rather infantile career choice. By this point I would have become a virtuoso on a musical instrument or written novels or become an astronaut. But I’ll probably be doing some version of exactly what I’m doing now.
This appears in the April 28, 2014 issue of TIME.