Anton Lesser has pulled off a fairly neat trick: Despite having supporting roles on no fewer than three current shows (Qyburn on “Game of Thrones,” Harold Macmillan on “The Crown,” and Superintendent Bright on “Endeavor”), he’s never actually shot a project in the U.S. in his nearly 40 years in the business. But you can rest assured when he’s on screen that any project he’s in is in good hands, thanks to his ability to play complex men who exist in sometimes extreme gray areas. The Envelope spoke with him from his home in London about Shakespeare, his “Breaking Bad” fandom and that lady at the delicatessen.
It must be nice at 66 to be getting as much work, if not more, than you’ve ever had, right?
I’m always surprised that I get any work at all. I’ve been very lucky — I came out of drama school and went straight into a job with the Royal Shakespeare Company, and there always seems to be something for me to do.
You recently attended your first comic book fan convention. Did you have any strange fan encounters?
I thought there might be sad people turning up dressed as characters, spending a lot of their lives vicariously enjoying these things. But I was completely converted because the people were so charming, so appreciative that you’d turned up. I felt very moved and humbled by it. And because there are actors from all sorts of different shows there, I was able to spot some of my favorites — like the man from “Breaking Bad.”
No, the evil one who runs the chicken stand.
Yes, him! In the end, I queued up for his autograph.
Do you think there a common thread between your current trio of characters — Qyburn, Macmillan and Bright?
I’ve been fortunate not to have been typecast. They’re all of a certain age. They’re complicated characters, quite sort of damaged people. You can’t write them off as only bad or evil or dodgy. I love playing characters that are very equivocal and difficult to pin down.
You have a strong Shakespearean background; what was it that plunged you into theater in the first place?
When I was overseas doing voluntary service in Nigeria between my terms at university — I was studying to be an architect — I saw this British Council film about the Royal Shakespeare Company. It starred this actor, Ian Richardson, as Prospero (from “The Tempest”), and that triggered the whole thing. That lit the torch. I had no inclination at all before that moment. I’m blessed that it happened, because I don’t know that I would have had the courage to make that 180 turn away from a secure profession as an architect. It was thrust upon me.
You’ve appeared on TV shows nearly as long as you’ve been acting on stage, starting in 1979 in an adaptation of George Eliot’s “Mill on the Floss.” How has TV changed since then?
We get paid less. I make less in television than I did 35 years ago. But the quality — there’s so much wonderful drama. My frustration with television is it’s such a director-producer medium. I counted eight really beautiful scenes I filmed as Macmillan that didn’t make it to the final cut.
You starred opposite Mark Rylance in 2015’s “Wolf Hall,” and both you and he have a similar understated, underplayed style. Are you ever confused for one another?
Well, there was this one particular experience. In my local delicatessen in Warwickshire, I was paying and the lady said to me, “Congratulations.” She said, “Don’t worry, I know who you are.” And I was about to have this nice little glow of being recognized and affirmed and she said, “I know you’re Mark Rylance.” And I said, “Ah, no, I’m not.” And she had this look on her face of being almost affronted. But I’m delighted that it’s him and not somebody I don’t like.
Are there roles out there you’re dying to play?
I suppose most actors my age would say, “Oh, I have to do Lear.” But I take what comes along. I think I’ve been spoiled by things appearing and saying, do you fancy doing this, and me saying, well, OK. I think I’d be interested [in doing] Prospero, but I’d also love to do something funny.
So if you got a call from the “Better Call Saul” folks, you’d be up for it?
Oh, yes! I’d love to do that. I’ve never worked in America, and I’d be thrilled to be asked to do that. He’s brilliant.
Giancarlo Esposito, you mean.
No, the other fellow: Bob Odenkirk!