Jason Watkins: Secrets of an On-Screen Chameleon

Jason Watkins: Secrets of an On-Screen Chameleon

There was a period of time last year, with the world neck-deep in the pandemic, when sourdough loaves were rising in amateur bakers’ ovens; pots and pans were being rattled like cast iron clockwork each Thursday evening and The Sopranos was being queued up for the seventh rewatch on TVs and laptops across the nation, when Jason Watkins was getting a lot of messages from fans about whether he'd want to play Chris Whitty in a future dramatic adaptation of the Covid crisis.

“Everyone was telling me that I’d make a good Whitty!” says Watkins over the phone with a chuckle, “but I’m not tall enough!”

Close your eyes, turn around, touch the ground, stare directly into the sun for a bit and then look again and, yes, there is a passing resemblance between the 54-year-old actor and the inscrutable (and pretty tall) Chief Medical Officer and the public face of the UK pandemic effort. “I was also thinking of doing Farage for a bit, but I don’t want to give him the publicity.” 

During a career that has spanned several decades and 117 IMDB credits, Watkins has earned a reputation as something of a chameleon, the rare kind of actor who can play a Prime Minister (Harold Wilson in The Crown); an accused murderer (Christopher Jeffries in The Lost Honour of Christopher Jefferies, which won him that BAFTA in 2015); the biographer of a serial killer (Brian Masters in Des, opposite David Tennant) and, soon, as another Prime Minister — the most famous one of all in fact (no offence, Alec Douglas-Home). He’s also appeared in Line of Duty; alongside Tom Hardy inTaboo and even in a Bond film, 1997's Pierce Brosnan-led romp Tomorrow Never Dies.

“It’s more of a cameo really,” says Watkins of his turn as Churchill in the upcoming six-part series SAS: Rogue Heroes, about the formation of the special forces unit in the wake of WWII, which will also feature Jack O’Connell and Dominic West. “You could say that the bar has been set quite high, but I think I’ve done a good job. It required a lot of researching old footage, speeches and archival material and then it’s a good old impersonator job.”

“Churchill was very eccentric,” adds Watkins. “He was this brilliant statesman. Extremely charismatic and a great orator, but on the flip side he was an artist, almost a dandy. He was very aware of how clothes can help you and and how they can give you a certain gravitas. He had this jumpsuit for his work as an artist that he wore everywhere. It had all these sorts of pockets. They weren’t a million miles away from the chore coats at Drake’s, in fact.”

Speaking of clothes, Watkins is - when he’s not buried under prosthetics, makeup and period-appropriate wardrobe to play war-time world leaders anyway - a man who enjoys wearing a good suit. “There’s this vogue of underdressing that I don’t get,” he says. “We all make a choice when we get dressed. Even if you just stick on any old thing, you’re still making a choice.”

“Express yourself as much as you can,” he adds. "That’s why I like Drake’s. I like that sense of colour and fun, but also quality. As we come out of the pandemic I think that's important. Don’t be cowed by things. For a press junket or something I’ll stick a suit on and it immediately gives me a feeling of elegance and a gravity. I think that goes a long way.”

Over the course of nearly two years that have given us all plenty to consider, Watkins' experience has been no different. He’s spent time with his family and thought about what matters most to him. His wife, the fellow actor and fashion designer Clara Francis and his children, but also his friends.

“I’m preoccupied with friendships at the moment,” he says. “If you’re lucky enough to have a family then there’s always something to do. Time just gets swallowed up. You’re constantly running around and, in my line of work, you can go away for long periods of time and sometimes along the way it’s easy to neglect friendships. At the moment, with what we’ve been through, it’s all been quite inward looking. We’ve literally been locked indoors. I’m thinking that in my current stage of life I would like to concentrate more on the people around me and maintaining those relationships. It’s easy to let things just... drift.”

"If something is difficult, find a way of enjoying it," adds Watkins, now on a philosophical roll. "That's some advice that came from a good friend of ours who died a few years ago. I was having a really tough time on a job once and she said: "Just find a different way; a different angle to enjoy it. I think about that one a lot."

Since Farage and Whitty appear to be off the cards and Churchill has been ticked off the list, what real-world role would Watkins like to take on next? “Someone like Picasso!” He says after taking a few moments to mull. “Wouldn’t that be interesting? It would have to be a real stretch, he had such a different temperament to mine, but I’m going to say Picasso. Why not! The clothes would be good, too.”

“I like impersonating, to go on a journey with that person,” adds Watkins. “In terms of approach, there’s a combination of instinct and impersonation that you marry with the experience that you’ve gained in your own life and work over the years.”

“I like that,” he says, “to disappear into a character. To see how far I can go.”