Tom Conti’s still got it, those twinkling eyes and easy charm evident when we chat about his new play Rough Justice. He found a dusty copy of the play in a bookshop recently and decided to bring it to life – the right decision according to the reviews. “The good thing is people are saying they haven’t been to a play like this in years, which is great to hear because it’s so enthralling, from start to finish,” he says happily. In it, Conti plays a TV commentator, brought to court on a charge of murder. Admitting the killing but pleading manslaughter, he perversely chooses to defend himself, pushing the tolerance of the court to its limit. “The difference between this and other courtroom dramas is that this isn’t about his innocence, because this is a special killing which involves you emotionally from the start,” he explains, “but its intensity does mean it’s a challenging ride for the cast because the cross-examination means it’s relentless, and from our point of view the terminology and legality is difficult to play. So it was quite a mountain to climb, and does involve more concentration in a way,” he agrees. Not that this deterred Tom from staging the production: “I’ve always been interested, curiously, in courtroom dramas, and when I found Rough Justice I read it through and didn’t stop until the end, which is always a good sign. You just have to take an educated guess and hope things go smoothly.” he says. Recently voted the most popular actor in the West End for the last 25 years, Tom’s profile remains high. Parts in films such as The Dark Knight Rises, A Closed Book with Daryl Hannah, The Tempest with Helen Mirren, Streetdance 2, and TV sitcom Miranda means he’s kept busy over the years. “Funny how people always remember Miranda,” the 70-year-old says, “but yes the award was very nice because it was by people who went to the theatre; the punters.” To be fair, the punters have never stayed away, largely I’m sure due to his iconic role in Shirley Valentine when Costas the Greek was seared into a nation’s minds, securing him a legion of female fans. ‘So is he still besieged?’ I ask innocently enough, to which he bursts out laughing: “Groupies? I have grey-haired groupies now, granny groupies, but thank God there’s someone there,” he says, wiping the tears away. Which makes it even more absurd to imagine a world without Tom Conti, his plaudits speaking for themselves (he won an Olivier Award in the West End and a Tony Award on Broadway for his role in Whose Life is It Anyway? and was also nominated for an Oscar as best actor for his role in Reuben Reuben. And yet his acting career so nearly ended before it began. Having left Glasgow for London and put in the hours in rep, he had all but decided to quit when his dream West End role popped up, launching the Tom Conti star irrevocably “I had decided to quit and go back to Scotland and become a mature medical student and then this play Savages came to my agent and it was hot, hot, hot and a marvellous role and I knew if I got it, it’d change everything. I did and thousands of lives were saved as a result,” he laughs, “So no, success did not come to me early, I was in my 30s when it happened so I was sort of ready for it by then, ready to cope with fame, ready to grow up.” But how could he have given it all up? “Kara (his wife) got pregnant, and when the conception was verified I went into a state of utter terror,” he remembers. “I had a new life coming along, a vitally important one and I needed to look after her which precipitated my decision, and then Savages came along which is extraordinary really,” he ponders. Nina Conti, his daughter, has since become an international name on the comedy circuit, and yet Tom and his wife did their utmost to prevent her from following in their footsteps. “I always try to dissuade young people from becoming actors because they think it’s an easy ride. It’s not, it’s appallingly difficult,” Tom stresses. “So I tried to get Nina to do medicine or law or something, as all parents in the business do, so she followed a barrister for a week and came home saying she couldn’t go into law because it wasn’t fair. Then we discovered her amazing talent as a ventriloquist and she’s a world talent. She did one night in Australia last week — one night!” — he says, as if he can scarcely believe it. “She’s a wonderful actress which is why she’s so good —anyone can mimic without moving their lips but it’s the characters she portrays; that’s her art,” he says proudly. So did Tom’s parents (his father is Italian, his mother Scottish) try to dissuade him from being an actor? “Mine didn’t, curiously enough, I think they hoped I’d do what the other kids did around me: law, medicine, but they ran ladies’ hairdressers which was the last thing I wanted to do. It would have bored me rigid, you know, bringing in a picture of Gina Lollobrigida and wanting to look like her. I would go demented.
“But that’s what I mean, I think hunger has changed, we are looking for different things. People just want to be famous these days, but is the passion for their work the same?” he asks. His is.