Christopher Eccleston discusses the impact of class, capitalism, and fame on his life and shares how his struggle with an eating disorder felt like being trapped.
As a young child, around the age of seven or eight, Christopher Eccleston watched an animated adaptation of A Christmas Carol. This was his first encounter with the classic novel by Charles Dickens, and he was captivated by it. He was so enthralled, in fact, that he began to draw scenes from the story obsessively. One particular scene that stood out to him was when Scrooge returns home and passes by the Scrooge & Marley sign. But what exactly drew him in? Eccleston explains that it was the unpleasantness of Scrooge’s character that caught his attention. He believes that we all have a good and bad side, and even at a young age, he was acutely aware of this duality within himself. He often reflected on this concept during his childhood.
Eccleston is preparing to portray Ebenezer Scrooge in Jack Thorne’s version of A Christmas Carol, which was first performed at the Old Vic in 2017 and has been performed every year since. He has not watched past productions, which he is grateful for. “I think I would have been too intimidated,” he admits. We meet in a rehearsal space on the top floor of the London theater. Eccleston has a strong presence. It’s not aggressive, as he is warm and humorous, but there is a sharpness to his features and directness to his gaze. Despite his reputation for playing characters with male anger or sadness, his appearance does not always match his inner feelings. He exudes a quiet happiness that may not always come across. In 2016, he was hospitalized for severe clinical depression, but he now says he is content. “I am very pleased with my relationship with my children and satisfied with my work. I am also glad to have made it to almost 60 years old in one piece.”
Eccleston, who is 59 years old, has had a tiring day, but he is enjoying it nonetheless. Despite spending most of his professional life in television and film, he feels a bit out of his element in the world of theatre. He admits, “I always feel a bit out of place in theatre, like I’m starting over.” However, he considers this experience to be a positive one. The majority of his fellow cast members are much younger than him, in their 20s or 30s. He is impressed by their abilities to sing, dance, and act. He has nothing but admiration for their talent, without any feelings of envy.
His professional experience includes a diverse range of projects such as influential television shows (like Our Friends in the North), major Hollywood movies (such as Gone in 60 Seconds and Thor: The Dark World), prestigious theater productions, and the revival of Doctor Who. However, he has previously struggled with impostor syndrome and feeling like an outsider. Does he still struggle with these feelings? “No, I have finally come to terms with the fact that I am an actor,” he laughs. “I have managed to continue working, for the most part. It’s also about developing a sense of humor and realizing that perfection is not attainable.” Was there a specific moment when he accepted this realization? Perhaps when he was preparing to perform as Macbeth for the Royal Shakespeare Company? “Well, our performance was not very successful and I am definitely trying to forget about my Macbeth experience with this play,” he says with a smile. The 2018 production received mediocre reviews and Eccleston even fell off the stage during one performance. “But yes, I think it’s important to give ourselves credit,” he adds. He also mentions that becoming a father (he has two children, ages 11 and 10) shifted his priorities and brought a newfound lightness to his work. “It’s not a matter of life or death anymore. It used to be.”
The redemption of Scrooge offers hope to us all, particularly in a time where forgiveness is difficult to come by. Does Eccleston have faith in the idea of being redeemed? He takes a deep breath and takes a long pause before responding: “I’m not sure yet,” he finally says. “I do believe in the possibility of reinventing oneself, being reborn through personal experiences, and finding a new path after hitting rock bottom. I am certainly a changed person now and have drawn upon that for this role. But whether that equates to redemption…”
In 2020, he released his autobiography, titled I Love the Bones of You. The book boldly delves into his struggles, including his body dysmorphia, eating disorder, and eventual breakdown. It also offers a poignant glimpse into his upbringing in a working-class family in Salford, Greater Manchester during the 1970s. He reflects on the pervasive inequalities that held back countless generations of individuals, including his clever and curious parents who were forced to leave school at 14. Eccleston also notes the limited opportunities for women in his community, which instilled in him a fear of marriage and factory work. He acknowledges that this may sound exaggerated, but for him, it was a harsh reality.
According to him, his desire to become an actor stemmed from a desire to show off, drink, meet women, and wear eyeliner. He sees himself as a frustrated lead singer and believes that there should be a study on the impact of lead singers in rock bands on actors from working-class backgrounds. He also notes the theatrical elements brought into people’s homes through performances on shows like Top of the Pops, by both male and female artists. He questions the intentions of artists like Bowie and suggests that they were essentially performing theatre.
His parents were supportive of his aspirations, and he has been vocal about the lack of opportunities for individuals from similar backgrounds. He received a grant and earned a degree from the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama without any student debt. He acknowledges that his older mindset has influenced his work, particularly in regards to politics, and has delivered exceptional performances in significant roles, such as in various projects by Jimmy McGovern, including Hillsborough and Accused. He expresses dismay at the fact that future generations will not have the same chances. He regrets not being more strategic and politically active in his career to have a stronger influence on the issue.
Does he believe that only actors from the working class should be cast in working-class roles? “No, but I do think there should be some positive discrimination. It is more socially acceptable for working-class actors to play characters from a higher class than for actors from a higher class to play working-class characters. However, this mindset can ultimately harm the creative industry.” He portrays Fagin in the BBC show Dodger and recalls that when the first season aired last year, his portrayal as a Jewish character sparked some criticism. He mentions that at least one Jewish actor “noted that they don’t necessarily object to non-Jewish actors playing Jewish characters, but they would like to see more discussion surrounding it. I completely agree with this perspective. If I am limited to only playing characters similar to myself, then what is the point? As Salman Rushdie recently stated, it would be the death of art.”
He desires for a Labour government to revive the arts and the public’s access to them. “We need to remove the Tories from power, then see if Labour fulfills their promises,” he explains. Recently, Eccleston performed at the last show at the Oldham Coliseum, which had lost funding from Arts Council England and subsequently closed down. “The closure of regional theatres is detrimental to community spirit,” he laments. “Theatre is a physical space for gathering and a spiritual place for self-reflection. But now it’s becoming elitist, like opera.” He points out that even his current production, A Christmas Carol, has tickets priced at over £150. “We’re constrained, but we’ll still be collecting donations at the end,” he adds. The proceeds will go towards City Harvest London, an organization that provides food to those in need.
Eccleston has a strong and uncompromising personality, and he is not afraid to challenge authority. In his book, he wrote about how this has led to some people in the industry not wanting to work with him again, while others continue to work with him repeatedly. He has always been aware of power dynamics, including his own, and feels like he is constantly in a moral battle. He believes that as soon as someone becomes famous and receives praise, they are entering a moral territory. If he witnessed someone in a position of power being unpleasant to others, he felt it was his responsibility to speak up. This could sometimes be seen as self-sabotaging, but he stands by his decision to always speak out. He feels that he now knows how to choose his battles more wisely, but he would still make the same choices again.
Could his career have been different if he had played the game and been more agreeable? Yes, but he would also be a completely different person. He believes that if you compromise your true self in your work, it will show. Some of his integrity may be missing, some of his backbone may be gone. However, he admits to taking on jobs for money and delivering subpar performances. He has not, however, succumbed to schmoozing or taking easy advertising money. Did he ever desire fame? He concedes that he probably did and might even still hold onto the hope of winning an Oscar at 80. However, he has come to value the idea of becoming a better actor and honing his craft more than achieving fame.
Eccleston’s memoir is notable for his harsh self-criticism. He admits to regretting publicly punishing himself and questions whether he would have written the book if given the chance again. He acknowledges that he was still struggling with illness at the time and has only recently overcome it. When asked if he is more forgiving of himself now, he responds with a tentative “probably, yes.”
The end of Eccleston’s marriage triggered his mental breakdown, although he had been struggling with mental health problems for a significant period. He had developed body dysmorphia and as a young adult attending drama school in London, he had developed anorexia. In hindsight, this was partly due to not feeling confident in his own skin. He was drawn to the idea of androgyny. He explains, “I always felt too large, masculine, and noticeable, so I wanted to make myself appear smaller. This was also influenced by societal class norms.”
The individual was burdened by societal expectations based on his identity as a northern, working-class man, which prevented him from expressing his sensitivity and vulnerability. He recognized that his behavior was influenced by societal norms rather than his upbringing. His decision to leave factory work was a way of rejecting these stereotypes and showing that he did not conform to them.
What caused him to feel like he had moved on this year? According to him, it was partly due to the passing of time, as his hospitalization became a distant memory. “I may live a luxurious life, but there are still lingering effects after being hospitalized.” In addition to facing high insurance costs, there was also concern about how it would impact his career. However, Eccleston delivered exceptional performances in a variety of roles, including his work on the HBO show The Leftovers from 2014 to 2017 and the 2016 BBC series The A Word. In January, he will return to HBO to star in the fourth season of True Detective, alongside Jodie Foster.
He had given considerable thought to the famous quote from Hamlet that states, “There is nothing either good or bad, but thinking makes it so.” He also explored stoicism and the concept of accepting one’s fate. He eventually came to terms with his fear of possibly losing his children due to his mental health struggles or a potential divorce.
Sharing about his emotional well-being has been beneficial for him, according to him. “And having gone through a period of mental breakdown and overcoming it, it has given me a sense of self-worth. It has definitely made me more relatable and understanding towards others.” Did this experience improve his acting skills? “Perhaps. But above all, I believe it has made me a better caregiver, as I have become more content with myself.”
Sharing his experience with an eating disorder has been beneficial for him. He realized that feeling ashamed was hindering his progress, especially as a man. He continues to keep an eye on his body dysmorphia. Seeing himself on screen or in promotional materials can be dangerous and trigger negative thoughts. When a tabloid published photos of him shirtless while running, it was challenging for him. But now, he has learned to handle it well. He maintains a healthy diet and exercises regularly for the sake of his mental well-being, even though he may exercise more than others his age.
Is it challenging to work in an industry where one’s physical appearance is constantly judged? “It used to be more difficult, but I have come to embrace my flaws.” The world has also evolved, he notes, with a greater sense of acceptance, although he is still one of the few well-known men to openly discuss having an eating disorder. When individuals express gratitude for his openness, it is typically women who have witnessed it in their sons or partners. “But men still face stigma for admitting it.” There continues to be a stigma surrounding men acknowledging their struggles with eating disorders.
Is he happier now? “I am happy,” he says. “And excited about life. Certainly there was a lot of life-denying before. The eating disorder was imprisoning. Being in an industry and feeling like you shouldn’t be in it was imprisoning. I don’t want anybody feeling sorry for me, but it felt quite solitary.”
In the play A Christmas Carol, Eccleston portrays a man who has been given a new opportunity for enlightenment. He will share the stage with a talented group, performing songs and dances. Does he crave the attention and approval of the audience? After a brief pause, he reflects that ever since becoming a father, he no longer seeks validation from others. In fact, he may never have needed it. “I only ever wanted to release myself from my own self-inflicted punishment.”