When Adrian Lester answers the phone at his London home and immediately pauses to tend to his two daughters, ages 6 and 3, I feel intrusive and offer to call back later, or maybe never, thinking, “This guy has a life.” Doing an interview about a movie — even a really good one, like director Andrew Wagner’s blissfully literate drama, Starting Out in the Evening — isn’t how a father of two needs to be spending his time. As we settle into our call, I suggest as much to Lester and he agrees, his voice rising in mock panic, “I know. What am I doing? I’m going to hang up.”
The two kids in the next room are the product of Lester’s marriage to English actress Lolita Chakrabarti. When the 40-year-old actor casually mentions that the couple has been together for 20 years, I nearly drop the phone. “Yes, 20 years,” he repeats, laughing at my astonishment. “Together for 10, now married for 10. Our marriage gets its biggest reaction on the West Coast, where seven years seems to be the marker for success.” Born in Birmingham, England, Lester, whose parents are Jamaican, speaks with an accent that’s crisp and warm, although when you see him in Starting Out in the Evening, he’ll probably strike you as thoroughly American, a trick Lester pulled off most famously in 1998, when he played a thinly fictionalized George Stephanopoulos to John Travolta’s Bill Clinton in the film of Joe Klein’s White House roman á clef, Primary Colors.
It was the movie that was supposed to make Lester a hot Hollywood commodity, but which, despite great performances (including Lester’s), tanked fast. Not that the actor was around to experience the crash. “I’d left the country,” he recalls. “I tend to go the opposite way when people start talking ‘launch pad.’?” Back home, good things awaited Lester — marriage, and good roles too, including an acclaimed performance as Hamlet under the direction of Peter Brook.These days, he’s turning heads on the streets of London and beyond, thanks to his suave, witty portrayal of a con-man gang leader in the hit BBC series Hustle, which AMC has recently begun airing here. Of working in television, Lester reports, “It’s not so easy to hit your mark at 8 a.m. and look dashing at the same time.”
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In Starting Out in the Evening, Lester plays Casey, a commitment-phobic intellectual who’s back in the life of Ariel, a Manhattan yoga instructor played by Lili Taylor. The two are headed for a showdown over their old issue — she wants children, he adamantly doesn’t. But for now they’re inseparable, to the dismay of Ariel’s father, Leonard (Frank Langella), a forgotten literary lion embroiled in his own complicated relationship with a grad student (Lauren Ambrose) anxious to resurrect his career.
Casey is a great role in a classy ensemble, and one that Lester landed by accident, after walking unannounced, just to say hello, into the New York office of the film’s casting director Cindy Tolan. Tolan took one look (or so the story goes) and sent Lester across town to meet Wagner, who was on the verge of filming but had yet to find his Casey. The men talked for half an hour, then Lester headed to the airport and boarded a plane home, only to find an offer waiting for him when he landed. “Adrian really is the picture of grace,” Wagner enthuses. “He’s elegance personified. When he came back, he literally walked off the plane, into a taxi, and onto the set to shoot a major scene with Frank. In meeting him, you feel like you’re meeting one of those rare people who are lined-up internally. His acting becomes a manifestation of how he goes through life — simple, open, with no muddiness of purpose.”
That clarity of mind is especially evident in one of the film’s final sequences, in which Casey puzzles through his own uncharacteristic behavior — the very measure of a man who’s changed but doesn’t yet know it. After taking Leonard to the doctor, Casey finds himself intimately confronted by his adversary’s health needs, leading to a brief but indelible scene of helping Leonard out of the bath. Wagner describes that image as being about “the moment when one man unfamiliar with reaching out meets another man unfamiliar with extending a helping hand.” It’s a moment that has lingered vividly in my mind, and I ask Lester how he and Langella approached it. “We really didn’t prepare much,” he says, “because we wanted the awkwardness to be real. I told Frank that he had to really give me his weight because the audience will know if he’s standing on his own. And with that weight, time slowed. It became awkward, it became real. Something rough around the edges. At one point, I was afraid I was going to drop him. That ‘thank you’ Leonard says, came from Frank’s toes.”
Lester pauses, then gives a kind of exclamation, “Listen to us! Talking so intently about one moment. That’s why I did this movie. I read the script and thought, ‘Jump on this one, and enjoy it, before you have to take one where you pick up a ray gun and shoot aliens.’?” On that note of artful aspiration and working-actor practicality, Adrian Lester heads back to his children.