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Christopher Eccleston On 'The A Word,' And Rethinking His Faith After 'The Leftovers'


This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest, actor Christopher Eccleston, co-stars in a new British TV series that's coming to the Sundance channel Wednesday. It's called "The A Word." The title refers to a word no one in the family wants to say - autistic.

This series is about a couple who finds out in the first episode that their 5-year-old son is on the autism spectrum. He has a hard time processing what people say to him. He doesn't connect emotionally, but he's obsessed with listening to music on his headphones and often sings along. The diagnosis disrupts the plans and assumptions that have been made by the parents, their teenage daughter and their extended family. Christopher Eccleston plays the young boy's grandfather. Eccleston also co-stars in the HBO series "The Leftovers" as the Reverend Matt Jamison. He was also in the films "Let Him Have It," "Shallow Grave" and "Gone In 60 Seconds" and the British TV series "Cracker." He played "Doctor Who" for one season.

Let's start with a scene from "The A Word." It's set in a small town in Northern England. Eccleston's character, the grandfather, lost his wife a year ago and is in the process of retiring. He started taking singing lessons. Here he is with his teacher taking a lesson at her house.


CHRISTOPHER ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott, singing) A movie queen to play the scene of bringing all the good things out of me. But for now, love, let's be real. I never thought I could feel this way, and I've got to say that I - bloody hell. I'm shouting again, aren't I?

POOKY QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Yes, you lost the breathing. When you're letting out the final breath of a note, think what it's like to hold in a thought and then, finally, (singing) relax and let it go.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) I've never held a thought in in my life.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Well, maybe you should start. Otherwise good, Maurice, not bad at all.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) Don't patronize me, Louise. I've not been practicing. There's been stuff at home.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Oh, sorry to hear that. Have you got a moment? I have a proposal to put to you.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) Not really, no.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) It won't take long. Sit down and make some tea.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) Before you ask, I do not want to take up the ukulele.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) This is what I'm thinking - that you're alone and I'm alone and neither of us are particularly short of commitments or company - you with your family and your business and me with the teaching and the choir and Ralph but...

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) Louise, come on.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Here's the but. I'm just going to say it. I miss sex. Do you?

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) I'm sorry?

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) I miss sex.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) I'm sorry to hear that. Have you thought about the internet?

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Oh, it's nasty out there, Maurice. So I was thinking that you and I should perhaps start a sexual relationship. It strikes me as a practical solution with neither of us are teenagers and we know our needs and we seem to like each - and I can see the thought horrifies you, so I'll say no more about it.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) Well, it's not that.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Perhaps you don't miss the sex.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) It's not that either. I don't find you - I don't think of you in that way.

QUESNEL: (As Louise Wilson) Oh.

ECCLESTON: (As Maurice Scott) I'm kind of wishing this conversation had been about a ukulele.

GROSS: Christopher Eccleston, welcome to FRESH AIR.


GROSS: So at the beginning of that scene, is that you doing your best at singing, or are you singing in character?

ECCLESTON: That's an interesting question. I had listened to it, and I thought I can sing better than that. No, I don't know, maybe I was doing my best.


GROSS: And did you...

ECCLESTON: I thought I sounded a lot better on the day.

GROSS: (Laughter) Did you...

ECCLESTON: I love that song, Gordon Lightfoot. I love - that scene was really the scene that made me desperate to play the part more than any other. I just loved him, that man singing that song.

GROSS: That song is "If You Could Read My Mind." What is it about...


GROSS: ...That song that you think is so right for that character?

ECCLESTON: Well, it's so wrong for that character, actually, I think...

GROSS: (Laughter).

ECCLESTON: "...If You Could Read My Mind" because it's so romantic and expressed and heartfelt, and he has problems with that kind of thing.

GROSS: So I figure your character is taking singing lessons for a reason. And in my mind - I haven't seen the whole...


GROSS: ...First season yet - my mind is going to lead somewhere and maybe not just to an affair with a teacher - because his grandchild is on the autistic spectrum and is obsessed with music, I'm seeing a possible bond here (laughter) between the grandchild...


GROSS: ...And the singing teacher and...

ECCLESTON: I think that's true, but I think it's unconscious. It wasn't plotted. I mean, one of the key things about Maurice is that he is in the early stages of grief for his wife, who he lost to cancer within the last two years. And he really is at sea without her. And I think he is very much a Type-A character, but he's slowly giving up his business to his young...

GROSS: His brewery.

ECCLESTON: ...Young son. Yeah, the brewery. And so he's trying to find things to do - self-improvement. And then he (laughter) accidentally stumbles on this music teacher, who - myself and Pooky Quesnel, who played the role, decided that she had been a friend of Maurice's wife. That's how the connection was made. And incidentally, myself and Pooky Quesnel were sweethearts when we were 17.

GROSS: Oh no. (Laughter).

ECCLESTON: And we've retained our friendship over a 35-year period.

GROSS: So you've already had a relationship. (Laughter).

ECCLESTON: Yeah, it was chaste. It was a chaste sweetheart relationship. But it's grown into this extraordinary friendship. And when we were given the opportunity to work together, for the second time actually in our careers because we met before we were actors, we snatched it. We really snatched it. I love her very much. And she's a - it's a fantastic performance, I think.

GROSS: As you've pointed out, your character in "The A Word" is not very expressive.

ECCLESTON: That's right. (Laughter).

GROSS: And now he's learned that his grandson is on the autistic spectrum...


GROSS: ...Which he's kind of suspected. You know, he suspected something was wrong. And he's trying so hard to relate to the grandson, but he doesn't really know how. And they're not quite connecting. What's it like acting with a 5-year-old or a 6-year-old who's playing somebody with autism? And...


GROSS: ...I may say is doing a great job at it.

ECCLESTON: Yeah. It's an extraordinary challenge for that boy, and he's done a great job. It does take patience because his - obviously his concentration levels and spans are not that of an adult and an adult-trained actor. It's his first acting performance. And it is the great challenge for the production. You know, there will be takes that he does where he's too engaged. You know, he is to - for want of a better word - normal. So the directors invented certain phrases, like go into your dream world, etc. And it was a learning experience.

GROSS: Yeah. And as a character, you're trying to get the boy to engage, and yet this young actor has to not engage with you. So it must be really tricky for you when you're trying so hard to engage him, knowing that it's the young actor's job to just disconnect and...

ECCLESTON: Yeah, to disconnect.

GROSS: ...And be in another world...

ECCLESTON: That's right, yeah.

GROSS: ...Be in another wavelength.

ECCLESTON: Yeah, I mean, Maurice is making the classic mistake, which I actually made...

GROSS: Maurice is your character, yeah.

ECCLESTON: Yes, Maurice is making the classic mistake, which I made with my father, when he began to suffer from vascular dementia, of trying to bring my father - and Maurice tries to bring the boy - into Maurice's world, where in fact, what you have to do is - you have to go into their world and play it by their rules. And that is the journey for the entire family, dealing with the individual rather than dealing with the condition because there is a very specific individual in there. But you know what? Peter Bowker, who wrote the series, is so skillfully woven in is that you could probably locate Maurice somewhere on the spectrum. Maurice definitely has a inability to understand the emotional impact on people.

ECCLESTON: of some of the things that he says and does. I think what Peter has done is he suggested that the grandfather and the boy are linked, and, indeed, throughout the whole series what the writer is highlighting is whether people are autistic or not, communication is difficult for all of these people.

GROSS: I think you put that all really well.

ECCLESTON: Thank you.

GROSS: And the series we're talking about is "The A Word," and the A is for autistic. And it's a British series that's coming to the Sundance Channel on July 13. It's a six-part series. My guest is Christopher Eccleston, and he co-stars as the grandfather of a 5-year-old boy who was diagnosed as being on the spectrum. We're going to take a short break, and we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Christopher Eccleston. And he co-stars in the new Sundance series "The A Word" in which he plays the grandfather of a 5-year-old boy, who was diagnosed on the autistic spectrum. In the HBO series "The Leftovers," he plays Reverend Matt Jamison.

"The Leftovers" is a series that starts when there is some kind of event when about 2 percent of the world's population just vanishes, and no one really knows whether this is - is this a religious event, like the rapture or is this some kind of supernatural, inexplicable event? And so, you know, people are just unhinged and, like, new religions are starting up because nobody believes in the old ones anymore. Other people are getting more committed to their older religions.

You play a minister who believes that the great departure, as it's known, isn't an act of God because bad people, people who were, you know - people who have done bad things vanish. So if it was the rapture, only good people would have been lifted up to heaven. So you've been going around trying to, like, prove to people that people have disappeared. There are some bad people there. So...

ECCLESTON: And buried in that, of course, is his own ego that, I mean - basically what he believes as if it would have been the rapture, he would have been taken because he believes himself to be such a faithful servant of the Lord.

GROSS: Right. And he's become - he's tried to become more deeply committed to his faith and to hold onto his church.


GROSS: But he's a little unhinged (laughter) - a little unhinged, too.

ECCLESTON: Yeah. He initially goes through a great spiritual crisis, but then lights upon the idea that he's Job of the Bible and the chosen one in that the Lord has chosen him to punish him in order to test his faith. So his reaction eventually after a period of bitterness and anger and railing is to restate his faith and re-entrench his faith.

And yeah, he identifies very strongly with the Job of the Bible, who, of course, we know had great many wives, great riches and was God's chosen one. And then Satan challenged the Lord and said, I can make him turn against you. So that has been a guiding idea for us throughout the series.

GROSS: Well, there's a great Job scene, and you walked us right into it. So let's hear that scene. So your character, the Reverend Matt Jamison, has gone to a town that has been spared from the great departure. Nobody in this town vanished, and it's now considered a sacred holy safe space. And so he and his wife have managed to become residents there. And she's in a kind of vegetative state. Ever since the day of the departure, she's been neither here nor there. She's been physically on Earth with her eyes open during the day, but there's absolutely nothing that registers on her.

So he has taken her in a car in a wheelchair to the doctor and had to leave this special town to do it. And on the way back, he and his wife are mugged. Their wristband which is her ID to get back into town is stolen from them, and so he's trying to get back into town with his wife who's in a wheelchair, and he can't do it. And the only way he can do it is through this smuggler who says for $500, I can smuggle you back into this town. He doesn't have the money.

But your character sees a woman standing next to a Winnebago with a big cross on it. So he decides - being a reverend, he decides to approach her and ask her for help. She's played by Brett Butler. Her name - the character's name is Sandy. Here's the scene, and my guest who you'll hear in the scene is Christopher Eccleston.


ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Sandy, I'm asking for your help. I'm calling upon your sense of community and charity Mary and I need so that I can get...

BRETT BUTLER: (As Sandy) How much?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Five-hundred dollars. I know that's an extraordinary amount of money, but I give you my word as a Christian. I will pay you back.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) What denomination?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Twenties (laughter) - whatever you can...

BUTLER: (As Sandy) No. You're a reverend. What denomination?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Episcopalian.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) Why?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) My father was a reverend. I was raised in the faith, but I welcome all beliefs into my church.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) Where'd you go to seminary?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Berkeley Divinity.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) Where is that?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Connecticut.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) What's your favorite book of the Bible? You got a favorite book?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Job.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) What's his wife's name?

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) She is in pain, and she speaks only once. Does thou still retain thine integrity? Curse God and die.

BUTLER: (As Sandy) Wait right here.

ECCLESTON: (As Matt Jamison) Good thing I didn't say Lutheran.

GROSS: That's my guest Christopher Eccleston in a scene from the...

ECCLESTON: She's just a sensational actress.

GROSS: Yeah. And later in this episode to further punish yourself in a Job-like way, you climb onto a rooftop...

ECCLESTON: (Laughter).

GROSS: ...And put yourself naked in a pillory.

ECCLESTON: On the top of a taco stand. Yeah.

GROSS: Yeah, just a kind of bizarre scene. But, anyways, I know that you're agnostic or atheist. I'm not sure which way you identify.

ECCLESTON: You know, I'm no longer sure now. I'd certainly made great play a number of years ago about my atheism. And things have changed in my life.


ECCLESTON: And I know - I'm no longer so certain. I - so I guess I would have to say agnostic now.

GROSS: Really? Can you talk about what's changed?

ECCLESTON: Oh, children. I had children. Two - I have two very beautiful and center-of-my-life children, Albert and Esme. I lost my father. I watched him suffer through his dementia. I had my own crisis earlier in the year. I don't - life has happened to me, I would say, life.

GROSS: So...

ECCLESTON: And maybe some of the issues in "The Leftovers," my relationship with Damon Lindelof, the showrunner - remember we had a - quite a discussion on faith. He claims that I said that because Matt Jamison, in the novel on which the series is originally based, only appears for two pages. So Damon was very surprised that I was pursuing that role. But I pointed out to him that, you know, it's a great, dramatic character, an Episcopalian reverend who possibly was not taken in the biblical rapture. It's just there. It's for the taking.

But he claims that I said that man's reaction to that would be to become more religious. I don't remember saying that. But that's what Damon claims. But we had a discussion about faith. And Damon said look, I - that's a very difficult question (laughter) to answer because I said - are you a believer? - you know. And I find myself there now really.

GROSS: So is having witnessed your children's birth and early development and your father's death made you feel the need to believe in something or feel the presence of something in your life?

ECCLESTON: I just feel that when I was stomping around saying I was an atheist, I was not thinking about it enough. I think I was - I mean, there is certainly a huge part of me that feels intense anger against organized religion. I mean, a real rage against some of the things organized religion has inflicted on us, both on a global and also on personal scales when you talk about the abuses, for instance, within the Catholic Church, et cetera. You know, I have huge rage at organized religion. But I do feel, at the moment, a little more spiritually open to what may be religious beliefs. I mean, if anything, Buddhism is - which is a philosophy, of course - the thing that makes the most sense to me, I would say.

GROSS: It's interesting that playing a part in "The Leftovers" is one of the contributing things that led you in that direction.

ECCLESTON: Yes. Matt's - the complexity of Matt Jamison's reactions to events in his life.

GROSS: Did reading the Book of Job also make you think about religion?

ECCLESTON: Well, I had an extraordinary experience with the Book of Job. I was invited to Westminster Cathedral to celebrate the anniversary of the publication of the King James Bible. And I was positioned in a very sacred area of Westminster Cathedral. And they asked me to read Job. And I read Job, the section where God turns on Job and says - who are you to question me? Did you create the stars? Did you create this sea? - this extraordinary dramatic moment.

And I was I was asked to read that text in front of the archbishop of Canterbury. It - now his name escapes me, but one of his distinctive features was he had very pronounced eyebrows. And when I finished it, I glanced at him, and he waggled them at me...


ECCLESTON: ...As if to say, that's got you thinking, hasn't it, son? And then about a year later, I was - I had taken my mother on holiday to Cornwall, in the southwest of England to give her a break from my father. We walked into a tiny, tiny church on the coast of the Lizard peninsula. There was just myself in my mom in there - in the 300, 400-year-old church, tiny. And the book was open.

And I - being an actor, of course - I went and stood there. And the book was open at Job, the same section I'd read two years earlier in Canterbury. And I read it. And my mom has a very strong faith. And I read it out loud. And she looked at me, and she said - well, you did that very well. I said well, I've rehearsed it, Mom.


ECCLESTON: So - and then, of course, I run into Damon Lindelof and all his crazy ideas about Job and Matt Jamison. So there's some kind of link here.

GROSS: My guest is Christopher Eccleston. He co-stars in the HBO series "The Leftovers" as Reverend Matt Jamison. He also co-stars in the BBC series "The A Word," which begins on the Sundance Channel Wednesday. I'll talk with Eccleston about the difficulties communicating with his father during the last years of his life when he had dementia after we take a short break. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with actor Christopher Eccleston. He co-stars in the BBC series "The A Word," which will be shown on the Sundance Channel starting this Wednesday. He plays the grandfather of a 5-year-old boy who's diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder. The whole family has been in denial about the boy's inability to connect emotionally. But after the diagnosis, they have to figure out how to deal with it. Eccleston also co-stars in the HBO series "The Leftovers" as the Reverend Matt Jamison.

Because I know you best from "The Leftovers," when I hear your voice in my head until saying "The A Word," I thought of you as having an American accent, which, of course, you don't (laughter).


GROSS: You're from the U.K.

ECCLESTON: That's correct, yeah.

GROSS: And now I'm hearing you on - on "The A Word." But is the accent you use on "The A Word" the same way that you're speaking to us now?

ECCLESTON: Yes, yes. I come from Salford, which is right next door to Manchester, famous, among other things, for producing Albert Finney and Mike Leigh. And so I have a Salford accent, which has been softened over the years because I moved to London. And Londoners tend to be very lazy about trying to understand thick accents, so myself and my Scottish and Liverpudlian friends slightly neutralized our accents. But yeah, I'm speaking as - I based that performance on my father. Maurice is based really on my father, Ronnie - Ronnie - Ronald Joseph Ecclestone.

GROSS: And he worked in factories, right?

ECCLESTON: He did. He worked in an American factory.

GROSS: In England.

ECCLESTON: Colgate - yes, in Trafford Park in Salford to the Colgate-Palmolive. They called it a soap works, but it did much more than soap - toothpaste, deodorant, etc., etc., shampoo, washing-up liquid. And that's where he met my mother. They met in Colgate-Palmolive.

My father came down in a lift on his forklift truck. The doors opened, and there stood my mother. And my mother said she looked at him and thought, oh, he's always a bit of all right. But I can tell he's moody.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ECCLESTON: And I said to...

GROSS: Is that an accurate diagnosis (laughter)?

ECCLESTON: Yeah, absolutely accurate. And I said to my mom, how did you know that he fancied you? How do you know that he was interested in you? And she said, well, as the lift - as he backed - he reversed into the lift after he'd done whatever he was supposed to do. And as the lift doors were closing, he never took his eyes off me. And I was surprised at how cinematic my mother's description of that was (laughter) amazing.

GROSS: So when you're playing an American, as you do on "The Leftovers..."


GROSS: ...What do you think of as being the distinctive characteristics of American speech?

ECCLESTON: American speech - a very good question. Well, first of all, you locate it very specifically. And I was - you know, I spoke to Damon about that. Damon was very funny on day one because I stay in the accent when I'm on set, you know, not because I'm a method actor, just for muscle memory, you know? And he said to me - he came on set. He was obviously very harassed, first day of shooting this huge series for HBO. He said, is that your American accent? I said, yeah. He said, it's great. But even if it hadn't been great - even if it had been [expletive], I'd have told you it was great. And then he disappeared.

GROSS: (Laughter).

ECCLESTON: I love him for that. I'll never forget that. And my accent has improved over the three seasons. It was shaky in season one. It got much more secure in season two, and it's - I believe will be even better in series 3. It was a huge challenge for a British actor to be totally surrounded by American actors who were simply speaking how they would speak and to adopt the accent.

It's taken a great deal of work and dedication, but I've loved it because I've actually - I use a different voice for Matt than I've done before, than - I've never really altered my voice for a character. But my register is lower because that helps me achieve some of the sounds. So it's been a fascinating and scary experience, I have to say, you know.

GROSS: So you've spoken in the British press about how actors with working-class accents are being shut out of certain roles. Do you feel like your accent has shut you out of roles?

ECCLESTON: Well, really it's more about over the last 10 years. The arts policies in our country has meant that people from working-class backgrounds are not getting the places at drama schools. We are not producing working-class actors anymore.

GROSS: I see.

ECCLESTON: That was what I was saying. And consequently, you know, the - our culture is is - you know, all the actors are white, male and middle class, which is not good for the culture. That's what that's about. And - yes, there is a - you know, anybody who knows Britain knows that class is the key to everything. And for some reason, this - there is this great lie that Shakespeare must be spoken in Queen's English, Received Pronunciation. There's an association with that accent.

It apparently denotes higher poetic feeling and greater intelligence, which is absolute nonsense, you know? Shakespeare, for instance, would never - Shakespeare would never have sounded like, with great respect, the queen. It would have filled with intonations from all over the country. So that's what concerns me, the class system, really and the fact that actors like me, from a working-class background, are now not being given the opportunities.

GROSS: So you said...


GROSS: ...This is something that's happened in the past 10 years. What's changed?

ECCLESTON: A conservative government does not help at all. They are overly concerned with the - with the welfare of white middle-class males. And they are not particular - they don't see culture, theater, film, television, dance - they don't see it as central to a country's identity and understanding of itself. There's a great philistinism in the Conservative Party, in my opinion.

GROSS: How do you...

ECCLESTON: And the arts are just kind of a nice diversion with a bottle of wine rather than something hugely important in understanding society and life.

GROSS: How do you think Brexit is going to affect the arts in England and in Europe in general?

ECCLESTON: It's a - Brexit was an absolute disaster, and I am deeply ashamed of my country. I am deeply shocked. But I shouldn't be because this is a country that voted in Margaret Thatcher. This is a country that voted in David Cameron, God help us. But it's a disaster. It's the isolationism. It's little Englander. You will note that Scotland, and Ireland voted to remain. You know, they're going to do their own thing now.

As for the impact on the culture, I just feel it will probably make it more white. And we are not a white country. We are a cosmopolitan, multi-faith country. And I'm sure if you are in a minority in this country, you are stuck - you're going to be worried now. We have made a huge step backwards. It's a disgrace, and I pray for a second referendum. But I can understand why people voted out. I get it. You know, they're scared, they are - basically, it comes down to this, if you've got money, like I have, you vote to remain. If you've not got money, you vote out. So we have lost to these people. Our successive governments have created a disenfranchised group of English people who want out of Europe. That was created by us, our policies.

GROSS: Yeah.

ECCLESTON: You know...

GROSS: Well, good luck to you.

ECCLESTON: Thank you.

GROSS: Let me...

ECCLESTON: Please don't - please - appeal to the rest of the world, please don't give up on us. Please.

GROSS: Yeah. If you're just joining us, my guest is actor Christopher Eccleston. He's now starring in the Sundance series "The A Word," which is a British import. And he plays the grandfather of a 5-year-old boy diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. The series premieres on Sundance July 13. He also co-stars in the HBO series "The Leftovers" as the reverend Matt Jamison. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is actor Christopher Eccleston. On the HBO series "The Leftovers," he plays Reverend Matt Jamison. In the new series coming to Sundance, "The A Word," he plays the grandfather of a 5-year-old boy diagnosed as being on the autistic spectrum. "The A Word" is a British series that premiers on the Sundance Channel July 13.

You've mentioned during this interview that your father had dementia during the last 13 years or 14 years of his life. And it was diagnosed as vascular dementia. Is that something different from Alzheimer's?

ECCLESTON: Yes, I believe it is. I think you - it manifests itself - Alzheimer's, as I understand it - and my understanding is somewhat rudimentary - Alzheimer's, what you often find with people suffering from Alzheimer's is that the past becomes the present. The memories of the past become much stronger and the memories of the present much weaker. So hence, you will find them sometimes walking down a motorway, insisting that they do not live in the house that they are currently in, that their house is somewhere else.

My father's vascular dementia was really about a profound erosion of short-term memory. We didn't have the kind - the level of confusion of past and present. He just lost his short-term memory. Basically, you forget who you are. So obviously, he would get lost. He would fly into paranoid rages. He threw myself, my two brothers out of the house because he didn't recognize us. And in his mind, he was protecting his wife, my mom. He was diagnosed in 2000.

Once they diagnosed him, we realized - suddenly, the penny drops, you know. You go - oh, so when he was doing that in 1998 - so he was really suffering from about 1997, and he died in late 2012. And for all but the last year of his life, my mom kept him at home. And the big issue around dementia is the carers, often family members, who do incredible - what my mother did for my father was incredible. And she said to me - said Chris, the worst day of my life was not when your dad died. It was when I put him in that home. But myself and my brothers had to insist, really, because it was going to kill her. The burden of care was going to kill her because she had to do absolutely everything for him, you know.

GROSS: When things happen like your father throwing you out of the house because he didn't recognize you, he didn't believe that you were his son - how did you learn to deal with things like that? Because you can't logically convince him that you are his son. I mean, if he has dementia...


GROSS: ...Logic isn't going to work. So what did you do? How did you approach that?

ECCLESTON: You make mistakes. I took my mother and father, again, to Cornwall for a break. And I was sat with my father, and we were doing a crossword, which myself and my father had done since a very young age. You know, it was one of our ways of expressing love for each other. It's something that we did. And I wrote out a clue. My dad was sat to my left. And he was pretty far on with the dimension.

And I read a clue saying - six letters, dictator. And quick as a flash, my dad said despot - quick as a flash. This is a man who could not really take himself to the toilet, to the bathroom. He said despot, and I thought wow - you know, I would have said Hitler or Stalin, you know. Just, you know - it's - so I looked at him, and I said nice one, pal - we always have this banter - I said, oh, I love that word, pal. Nice one.

And as I'm writing it down into the crossword, I felt him staring at me very fiercely. And he said to me - are you related to me? And I looked at him, and I said yeah, I'm your son. And he said - what? You're my son? Where'd you get that from? I said, well, Dad, I'm Chris. I'm your son. And my dad became extremely agitated. And he went into the room, and he said this bloke here - he said to my mom, Elsie - he said Elsie, this bloke here is telling me that I'm his father. I don't know what he's talking about. Now, what was going on was my father thought I was suggesting that he had had me out of wedlock, therefore, that would be a threat to his relationship with my mother, his carer.

Now, the great mistake I made there was that I tried to bring him back into my world for my own emotional needs. What I understood from that time - because it was - it got very distressing because we were in a cottage by the sea and he was very, very agitated. He got very, very angry at my mother in the bedroom because he felt she was going to turn against him because he'd had a child out of wedlock - I hope you're following this.


ECCLESTON: But I - from that moment on, I understood that I cannot impose reality on my father. I cannot bring him into my world. I have to go into his. So I stopped calling him dad. I would say call him mate or pal. And if he thought I was a taxi driver, then I was a taxi driver.

And I dropped all the expectation. And I became what he needed me to be, which was - you know, hello, pal. How are you? You know, I'd say it like - how are you doing, mate? You OK? How's Elsie, you know - how's Mom? I wouldn't say Mom. I'd say - how's Elsie? Is she all right? Yeah, she's fine. She's fine. You know, you have to go into their world.

There was a moment once my mom, for instance, her needs - he was sat in his chair. My mother was on the sofa. And my mom said - Ronnie, do you know who I am? And he looked at her, and he said yeah, of course I do. She said - well, who am I? And he looked at her, and he said - I don't know, but I love you. And - you know, things like that.

And there was also a sweet spot with my father's illness, which was quite early on, perhaps not long after the diagnosis, when he still knew that myself, Alan and Keith were his sons. There was a sweet spot where - this is a very, very working-class male, you know - went to work in heavy industry from the age of 14, very poor when he was growing up, tough man, not great at expressing his love physically or verbally.

He - the three of us all had experiences where we went to visit them and he insisted on walking us up the path and back to our cars. And with me in particular, he said to me - he got me to the car. And he said - hey, hey, cock. And I turned around, and he said to me - I love the bones of you, you know. Now...

GROSS: (Sigh).

ECCLESTON: Yeah. Yeah, I love the bones of you. It's a very Salford expression. He would never have said that. But there was this just this sweet spot where what the - his - what happens with dementia is - what's the word? - their inhibitions are destroyed, you know. But there was a sweet spot where those inhibitions about them being demonstrably loving and - but what I've realized because my dad was - though not very well-educated, he was a very intelligent man and really missed his way. He was saying goodbye is what he was doing. He knew.

GROSS: Well, Christopher Eccleston, I love your acting. And it's just been a real pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much. And thank you for sharing so much of your life with us.

ECCLESTON: Thank you for giving me so much time.

GROSS: Christopher Eccleston co-stars in the BBC series "The A Word," which begins on the Sundance Channel Wednesday. Eccleston also co-stars in the HBO series "The Leftovers." After we take a short break, John Powers will review two novels that are part of the literary boom in Mexico. This is FRESH AIR. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.