David Weston, the veteran English stage actor, ushers me up the stairs and into the sprawling London flat he has shared with his wife since the 1960s. The converted top floor of an old Victorian railway station across from the River Thames in Chelsea, the space is every bit as gracious and lively as the 73-year-old artist who inhabits it.
Looking spry and relaxed in a turtleneck sweater and khaki trousers, Weston offers me a cup of tea before showing me into a light-flooded study with a view of the railway bridge. On the wall behind us are photos of Weston at the height of his West End career – onstage with Richard Burton, Peter O'Toole, Kirk Douglas, Richard Harris and Vincent Price.
While hardly a household name these days, Weston is part of a generation that helped bring British theatre to the fore in the latter half of the 20th century. Not a leading man, but a great supporting actor – and diligent understudy to some of the most famous performers of his era. A true actor's actor, you might say.
Weston's new book, Covering McKellen: An Understudy's Tale (Rickshaw), offers a wonderfully candid account of the year he spent on a world tour understudying one of the world's greatest living actors in Shakespeare's greatest play. In 2007, the Royal Shakespeare Company mounted a historic production of King Lear starring Sir Ian McKellen (he was knighted for his work in 1991, before coming to wide international fame through films like X-Men and The Lord of the Rings). Weston, who had worked with McKellen several times before, was offered the nameless part of "the Gentleman," which has only a few dozen lines, as well as the role of McKellen's understudy.
The resulting book, a diary of the year Weston spent shadowing McKellen's every move, parroting his every line across Britain and the United States, offers a fascinating backstage glimpse of life for the theatre's unsung heroes: the dedicated performers who rehearse and toil for hundreds of hours on the very off chance the real star should, quite literally, break a leg.
While Weston never did get to fill in for McKellen (apart from the obligatory public understudy performance, which he thoroughly enjoyed), he knows from personal experience that it can happen. Several years ago he was the understudy for Derek Jacobi in William Congreve's Love for Love at the Chichester Festival Theatre when word came down opening night that Jacobi was in the hospital with a burst appendix. "I remember sitting in my dressing room wearing this foppish costume of Jacobi's that doesn't even fit, when it hit me I was really going to have to do it. Then the director – whom we all loathed – went onstage and told the audience, "I'm terribly sorry to tell you that tonight we will be deprived of the genius of Derek Jacobi. He is in a nearby hospital and will say a prayer for us at precisely 8 p.m. His role will be played by David Weston."
Jacobi never returned, and Weston did the entire run. The director eventually thanked him for his work, but it did not make the bitter pill any easier to swallow. "It's a thankless job. Your big moment comes and you can hear the collective sigh – because of course they all want to see McKellen or Jacobi, not you. But you just soldier on."
Don't be fooled; Weston has had an impressive career by any standard. He is a founding member of Michael Croft's National Youth Theatre, won the silver medal in his year at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art (RADA) and has acted in dozens of films and stage productions, including several season at (the original) Stratford. (He is particularly proud of his Falstaff.) But there comes a point, he says, when most jobbing actors have to make a choice. "When young actors start out, we all think we're going to be stars," he says with a laugh. "And there are some you see and immediately know they will be – Helen Mirren, for instance – and others who end up quite successful out of sheer luck. There is a point when you realize stardom may not come, and you either resolve to stay in the business and take whatever comes your way, or you move on and do something else. I chose the former."
There is no shortcut to excelling as an understudy, he says. You have to know the part inside and out – no matter how slim the chance of having to perform it. "One tends to get blasé after a while," he concedes, "but that makes it hard to sleep at night."
When McKellen found out his proxy was planning to publish a book, Weston admits their relationship did become somewhat strained – but things have now sorted themselves out (on this he does not elaborate). I can't help but suspect some of that tension must have stemmed from the oddly close-yet-adversarial relationship that exists between a star and his or her prospective stand-in.
On this point Weston is philosophical. "If the principal senses that the understudy wants to play his part, it's the kiss of death," he says. "I did think McKellen was wonderful as Lear, I admired him. But at the same time I knew I could do it too."
Stars, he adds, often tend to ignore their understudies but McKellen is a contemporary. "There was a time," he says with a smile, "when our careers weren't that far apart."