Sitting in the Los Angeles sun in a T-shirt and a hoodie, Ben Chaplin has a coffee cup in one hand and a cigarette between two fingers of the other. He is chipper this morning, if a little wary about technology, after a mishap last year.
“My first Zoom thing was also my first ever Seder dinner,” says the 51-year-old actor. “My girlfriend is Jewish and I was feeling like this total charlatan, this goy, among all her elderly relatives.” Suddenly, the screen turned blue and a curved white line emerged, guided by an unseen hand. “This older voice asked: ‘What’s going on?’ And then you start to see the classic cartoon penis. I’m embarrassed by how funny I found it. I was thinking: ‘Are they going to draw hairs on the balls?’ But then it cut off. Apparently, a kid from one of the families was responsible. Good on him. Hahaha!”
Chaplin has a natural exuberance, although on screen he is capable of delicacy in a variety of registers – from the prickly comedy of Birthday Girl, in which he played a St Albans pen-pusher on the run, with Nicole Kidman as his mail-order bride, to the fraught suspense of the BBC One drama Apple Tree Yard, notorious for his sex scene with Emily Watson in a House of Commons broom cupboard.
In his latest role, he has adapted to a more genteel mood: he plays the archaeologist Stuart Piggott in the fact-based drama The Dig.
He isn’t the lead here: the stars are Carey Mulligan, as the widow whose Sutton Hoo estate is the site of Anglo-Saxon relics, and Ralph Fiennes, who begins excavating them as the second world war approaches. It is in Piggott’s story, though, that much of the film’s emotional urgency lies. His wife and fellow archaeologist, Peggy (Lily James), spots him making goo-goo eyes at a male colleague and intuits that ancient treasure is not the only thing that has been buried.
“The film’s beautiful,” he says. “It’s all about minutiae, isn’t it? The legacy of the individual, our imprints. You could argue it’s on the nose, but I’m glad it is. There’s a universality, a hugeness, to the themes.”
He chose not to dig too deeply into the real Piggott’s past. “I made the mistake when I was young of researching the crap out of something and then thinking: ‘Well, what did that do for me?’” he says. “Then again, I’m from the nontransformational school.”
That was the complaint at Guildhall, the drama school in London, from which he was kicked out, albeit temporarily. “The official reason was that I didn’t transform enough,” he says. “I was playing King Lear at 19 – what did they want me to do? That isn’t a stretch, that’s a rack.”
The youngest of four children, Chaplin was raised in a village near Windsor. From his mother, a teacher, he got his passion for reading. From his father, a businessman, he inherited a love of film. “The sitting room became our cinema. If I spoke, I was kicked out, so I shut up and paid attention.” His dad died 20 years ago, when Chaplin’s Hollywood career was in full swing. “I’m sure he died not worrying about me, thinking that my place was set.” He laughs. “Little did he know how choosy and awkward I would be.”
An earlier bereavement hit Chaplin especially hard. “My eldest sister. She was tough, opinionated, brilliant. She died when I’d started doing quite well. I’d just done The Remains of the Day and she never saw it. I remember thinking she’d have been proud of me for that.” He says her death altered him profoundly. “To appreciate the impermanence of life at that young age is a gift. It made me kinder, more tolerant, a better actor. But sadder. I have a darkness I didn’t have before. It’s definitely been a less gleeful life since.”
Chaplin experienced mainstream success as an agoraphobic Jack-the-lad in the BBC flatshare sitcom Game On, then left after one series. He went to LA to spend time with his then-partner, the Schindler’s List star Embeth Davidtz, whom he had met when they played lovers in the adaptation of HE Bates’s Feast of July. While there, he auditioned successfully for The Truth About Cats & Dogs, a bubbly, gender-flipped Cyrano de Bergerac starring Uma Thurman, which became a surprise hit. A year later, he was the rotter romancing Jennifer Jason Leigh in a handsome film of Henry James’s Washington Square.
It was around then that the doubts set in. “You don’t know that you don’t want to be famous until you are,” he says. “I felt embarrassed being flown business or first. You think: ‘I haven’t earned this!’ Everywhere you go, the attitude toward you changes.” It hardly helped that he was far from home. “I found myself existentially lonely, in a way.”
Theatre has always provided him with ample consolations. He was Olivier-nominated for the Donmar’s 1996 Glass Menagerie and, more recently, has been critically acclaimed for roles in Nina Raine’s Consent and Joe Penhall’s Mood Music. “When you’re in the zone, you defeat time, you defeat mortality. All you can see is the other actor’s face. Someone I was on stage with said: ‘You go to the other side, don’t you?’ I’d never heard that before. I said: ‘Yeah, I do.’”
That absorption became harder to achieve during the fragmentary process of film-making. One exception was The Thin Red Line, in which he played a grunt fighting in the battle of Guadalcanal. There was war wherever he turned – explosions, planes flying overhead – while the director, Terrence Malick, kept the cameras rolling. “We shot a million and a half feet of celluloid,” says Chaplin. “There’s about 50 films in there.”
He ended up as one of the leads in that movie, which had its share of editing-suite casualties: Mickey Rourke and Bill Pullman were among the actors excised completely. Chaplin returned for a smaller part in Malick’s next film, The New World, although his performance as an abusive father was cut from The Tree of Life.
His acting coach on The Thin Red Line was the late Penelope Allen, best known as the head bank teller in Dog Day Afternoon. I tell Chaplin what she once said about him: “Ben had such a thing with being the ‘pretty boy’, so he didn’t want people to see him as the pretty boy; he wanted people to see him as the wonderful actor that he is.”
When I look up, he is dabbing his eyes. “Oh my God,” he says. “You’re making me cry.” I apologise – I hadn’t meant to upset him. “No, it’s so nice,” he says. “I’m just so flattered she said that. I had this shame about calling myself an actor before I met Penny. I loved it, but it felt frivolous. She made me proud of it. I miss her and you just brought her back for me. Thank you. That struck me right to the heart, that one.”
Was she correct to discern a self-consciousness about his looks? “I wanted to be a serious actor, but I was often referred to as a ‘British hunk’,” he says. Then he adopts a mock-offended tone. “Quite frankly, Ryan, I felt objectified.”
How did he rate himself? “I’ve never thought of myself as a pretty boy. My brother made sure of that when we were growing up – I got loads of put-downs, which was probably good for me. But, also, I was really little until I was 14, so I was shorter than all the girls. I didn’t feel attractive. I didn’t think I was a minger, but I didn’t have any concept of being handsome.”
Any concern about his appearance arose from a fear of being typecast. “I turned a few films down. The last thing I wanted to be was the new Hugh Grant, which is what they were trying to paint me as. I wanted it to be about my acting.”
His Hollywood career didn’t pan out as many might have expected. But Chaplin is upbeat. “I’ve been ever so lucky. I’ve worked with some big ones.” Indeed: Francis Ford Coppola (who cast him as the ghost of Edgar Allan Poe in Twixt), Richard Linklater (Me and Orson Welles), Oliver Stone (Snowden). He is waiting for production to resume on The Nevers, Joss Whedon’s fantasy series for HBO, hence the temporary relocation from his home in London to LA.
“I was always ambitious about being better,” he says. “I was obsessed with that. I probably should’ve done more jobs that would have cemented me as a better-known actor, but I didn’t want that. I wanted to cruise along.” As he says that, his hand illustrates an undulating line in the air, like a schooner happy to have hit calmer waters.
The Dig is on Netflix from 29 January