UNEASY LIES THE HEAD THAT wears a crown—especially on Academy Awards night. Haif a world from L.A., Nigel Hawthorne, 65, a Best Actor nominee for his intense performance as the addled 18th-century English monarch in The Madness of King George, merrily holds court in his own small kingdom—an isolated 16th-century farmhouse 30 miles north of London that he shares with writer Trevor Bentham, his companion of 16 years, and their dogs Twitch and Havoc. Here, serenity reigns. But agitation clouds Hawthorne's face when he's asked about the March 27 Oscar ceremonies. It's not the competition (from the likes of Tom Hanks and John Travolta) that worries him—"No one seriously believes I'll win it," says the admitted dark horse—it's all the attention. "I suppose I'll get quite nervous," he says. "When it's over, win or lose, I'll be greatly relieved."
After 45 years on stage, screen and Ty most notably to American audiences as pompous bureaucrat Humphrey Appleby on the BBC sitcom Yes, Minister, Hawthorne is that rarity: an actor who's uncomfortable with applause. "I hate the curtain call," he says. "To this day, I am easily embarrassed. The only time I really feel assured is when I'm in character."
His colleagues attest to that peculiarly confined self-assurance. "There is a streak of professional toughness to Nigel," says Nicholas Hytner, who directed Hawthorne in both the stage and film versions of Madness. "He will work tirelessly to get a performance right. And he can get impatient if those around him are not working as hard."
The road, for him, hasn't been easy. Born in Coventry, England, he grew up in Cape Town, South Africa, where his father, Charles, a physician, had moved the family in 1932, when Nigel was four. His mother, Rosemary, spent her days raising him, his two sisters and his brother—and tending to the needs of a husband 20 years her senior. Strict and stodgy, Charles bristled when his son decided, at 21, to withdraw from the University of Cape Town and become an actor. "Acting is an escape. That's why I went into it," Hawthorne says. "My father was personally affronted. He thought I should join the civil service, the Masons—do the proper things."
Instead, for the next two decades Hawthorne knocked about in theaters in South Africa and Britain, struggling to get any parts at all. "I think of them as my wilderness years," Hawthorne says. "I was never a good-looking boy, so I was fighting my looks as well as my South African background. People found it too difficult to cast me."
Success came with wrinkles. "When I got into my 40s, my face started to get character," Hawthorne says. "And I started to show my vulnerabilities." Hawthorne got his big break in 1980, with Yes, Minister. Though the series lasted for years, "I always had to plead with Nigel to do one more season," says his costar Paul Eddington. "He is restless, ambitious and wants to get on."
When he did move on, he concentrated again on the stage. He scored his first smash as a leading man playing author C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands in London and later on Broadway. Hawthorne won raves and a 1991 Tony Award. But Hollywood chose Anthony Hopkins for the 1993 film version.
When King George became a stage hit in London in 1991, Hawthorne determined his role wouldn't be usurped again. To raise his Hollywood profile, he played a villain in the 1993 Sylvester Stallone blow-'em-up, Demolition Man. "The experience was not a happy one," he says. "Stallone seemed affable, but I came from the theater and he didn't—there was this cultural gap." Yo! indeed.
Fortunately, King George playwright Alan Bennett fought hard to cast Hawthorne. Now the actor chuckles at his newfound acclaim in the States, since in England he hobnobs with the royal family. "I'm particularly fond of Princess Diana," he says. But, playing no favorites, he'll dine with Prince Charles shortly before heading to L.A.
Not that those connections will help him with a pesky zoning problem in Hertfordshire, though. After losing a three-year, $50,000 legal fight to keep a gas station from being built on adjoining land, he and Bentham will soon be uprooting to another 16th-century farmhouse a few miles away. "My priority is to have more time to myself," he says. "I'd like to do, say, one film a year."
But first he has to sweat out the Oscars. No matter that couturier Gianni Versace has given him a suit to wear. "I'm wondering," frets Hawthorne, with undue humility, "if I've got the style to carry it off."
TERRY SMITH in London
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