Although a self-proclaimed New Yorker, where he’s made his home for most of his adult life, actor Jack Davenport epitomizes the quintessential Englishman. Polite, self-deprecating, funny and smart, all delivered in his distinct baritone voice, it’s hard not to be caught up in his passion for new adventures, the written word, his devotion to his family, and his natural lust for life.
From his idyllic first eight years living on the Balearic island of Ibiza, to the cold wake-up call of discovering his resilience at a private British boarding school, Jack has learned life lessons from bountiful sources. The son of respected actors, Maria Aitken and the late Nigel Davenport, he has built an impressive career that continues to see him successfully straddle the full gamut of the acting world; a star of films, television, radio, and theater.
Rising through the ranks of celebrated British television including the BBC’s ’This Life’ and ‘Coupling’, Jack got his first break in film playing a zookeeper attendant in the follow-up to the 1988 smash hit comedy ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, called ‘Fierce Creatures’ (which he hastens to describe as being “not as beloved as its predecessor.”) However, it was on that set that a surprise lunch with actor and Monty Python legend Michael Palin taught him the importance of learning to listen, remaining curious, and the value in asking questions of others.
Going on to appear in such films as ‘The Talented Mr Ripley’, ‘Kingsman: The Secret Service’, and portraying James Norrington alongside Johnny Depp’s Captain Jack Sparrow in the ‘Pirates of the Caribbean’ franchise, he has put those lessons to good use throughout his rich acting career.
Fresh from wrapping ‘Ten Percent’, the English version of the French hit ‘Call My Agent’ — which was binge-watched on Netflix by millions of holed-up families during lockdown — we spoke of the murky and oftentimes overly-critical world of remakes during our chat in New York. Like the original, ‘Ten Percent’, now set in London, is centered around the high-pressure scene of being a top talent agency, the ducking and diving, wheeling and dealing, with the objective of keeping their illustrious acting clients happy, working, and crucially, of not having their all-star roster poached by competing agencies. And like any good office drama, it also hilariously highlights the conflicts, relationships, and power grabs of the staff. In the French version, the audience were delighted by seeing wonderful actors playing versions of themselves as the agency’s clients, including Isabella Adjani, Juliette Binoche, and Jean Reno, whilst in the British version, stars such as Helena Bonham Carter, Dominic West, and Hamish Patel appear.
Streaming in the US on Sundance Now and AMC+, ‘Ten Percent’ is penned by famed comedy writer John Morton, known for ‘mockumentaries’ like ‘W1A’ , ‘People Like Us’ and ‘Twenty Twelve’. The show has proved highly popular across the board, winning hearts and spurring laughter, with fans comparing it to how the US version of ‘The Office’ built on the British original. ”I’ll f***ing take that!” he says, when I float the comparison.
“We shot it in London in the spring-summer of 2021, and Covid made it complicated, but in all honesty, it was a complete joy for a lot of reasons,” Jack says. “It was a great group and the scripts are fan-f***ing-tastic. In my view, John Morton is one of the best comedic writers working today. I mean, the word genius is thrown around a bit lightly, but what he’s so good at, what he’s interested in, is the stuff going on in the gaps, not what people are saying. And that’s where English people live. We say the opposite of what we mean all the time, and we’re not direct.”
We sat down with Jack at The Roxy Hotel in Tribeca, where he spoke about being a father, marriage, the importance of travel, Hollywood, and much more as our latest subject for our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile, answering the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are.
Who the f*** are you?
Right. Who am I? Who the f*** am I? The short answer is, I’m a father, I’m a husband, I’m a New Yorker. And I’m an actor who’s been around for far too long, staring down the barrel of his 50s.
How are you feeling right now?
Pretty good. It’s a beautiful day in New York City. I walked down here, which is, for me, weirdly like a trip down the memory lane of my entire adult life, from the first apartment I lived in when I was 18, and my mother and stepfather lived at 297 Church, which is literally over there. And as I was walking, the tourists are back. Normally, you resent the tourists when you live in New York, but it’s a sign of life returning, and I just had a sense of the way New York constantly reinvents itself and just moves forward. And when it’s only 68 degrees, as opposed to 90, it’s easy to love. So I’m in quite a good place right now.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
Well, the first seven years I grew up in Ibiza, long before it became the Ibiza of today. There was a minute in the late ’60s where a whole bunch of artists and writers got places out there. My dad did a film in 1967 in Ibiza which he was paid £7,000 for, and he bought a house that cost £7,000. It’s 400 years old and it had no mains water and no electricity, although it does now. My dad has passed away, but we still have it, and it’s magical. I had no context to compare it to, so that was all very lovely. But then my parents split up, not an uncommon occurrence, and I went from there to boarding school in Oxford at the age of eight, and then Cheltenham.
There’s an old joke, which is a bit unfair on my parents, that only the English hate their children enough to send them to boarding school at the age of eight. But in their defense, they were splitting up and also, it’s what happened to them [they were sent away to school]. They were of that era and, truth be told, I figured out how to survive. Many other people had it much rougher than I did. With hindsight, you get a kind of Stockholm syndrome to a degree, because what can you do? You never f***ing leave. Sometimes I’ve had quite heated discussions with people who didn’t have such a ludicrously posh schooling. And I’m like, “Yes, but you know what, if you were having a day at school, you got to go home at 3:30pm. We were in 24/7 lockdown for a decade.” It is what it is. I’m pretty resilient as a result. Did I have to have such a sharp learning curve and resiliency? It’s arguable. It was certainly quite jolting, that was how I grew up. And then as soon as I was liberated, within literally six weeks, I was on a plane to New York with no plan. When I was growing up – this is so unoriginal – but all the books, the music, all the movies that I loved, all the cool shit seemed to be happening here in NY, and I was like, “I think I need to be in the laboratory. I’m just not quite sure what the f*** I’m going to do there.” And so like a million, gajillion people before me, I came on a promise and thought “Now, what the f*** do I do?” And I figured it out.
What excites you?
Traveling with people I love. My son’s a very lucky boy, in terms of the life that he’s had thus far in terms of comfort. And in a year or two, I’m going to take him on what I can only describe as my reality tour. I’m going to show him how most people in this world actually live. The combination of new places, seeing things through your own eyes, but also seeing it through the eyes of your child, will be a great experience. My mother took me to some amazing places when I was a kid. I went halfway up the Amazon when I was 12, and I want to do the same again with my son.
So that, and the other thing I suppose that excites me is, and I hope it doesn’t come off as too pompous, but I’m a big reader, I always have been, and the way the world is now with these f***ing things [points to phone] and the rest of it, the headspace you have to be when you are lost in a book is unlike anything else in the modern world. And when I’m lost in a book and I’m reading beautiful writing, that’s about as good as it gets for me.
What scares you?
The obvious, expiring in a lengthy and painful fashion. Bad things happening to your loved ones. And then, I suppose my job sometimes scares me. And I like that. It’s part of it. Not always, thank God, but I do sometimes actively seek out things that will give me a bit of a scare. I mean, when I was much younger and I’d been doing a huge Hollywood film for about a year [Pirates of the Caribbean] and it was incredible, one of the most exciting professional experiences in my life. The kind of movie-making they don’t do anymore because of CGI. And at the end of it, I was like, “That was great.” And some of that was really scary because the scale was so massive. In the first one, every time I said anything, 300 people did what I just said, and that’s a lot of resetting, so don’t f*** it up! But that was actually kind of a buzz. Then I came back to London, and said, “I need to do the opposite.” So I don’t know what possessed me, but I ended up doing a one-man show at the Soho Theater based on Toby Young’s book ‘How to Lose Friends & Alienate People’. Before they turned it into a movie, we turned it into a one-man show. And I did it, and it was f***ing terrifying from top to bottom. And lonely, no-one tells you that. But I’m so f***ing glad I did it. Intermittently, things come up in work where I think, “Oh, f***ing hell. Have I got to do that?” And yeah, you do. One of the things that actors often have to do is learn how to do something very quickly, that people spend their entire life doing, and give the facsimile of utter effortlessness, and that interests me. I like the whole paddling fast under the surface.
What is your proudest achievement?
You can’t really achieve a family, but my wife and I have been together for 25 years. We’re both in the same game, and we’ve been through a lot together, and I’m her biggest fan. We’re partners in crime and we have an amazing son, who is the light of my life. We live here, and he’s super-American, and not a day goes by where I don’t think, ‘This could all end tomorrow.’ But we’ve taken a series of quite significant gambles, and it’s sometimes risk that’s rewarded. I’m not the person who met her, and she’s not the person that met me, so that, I think, is an achievement.
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever had to do?
Giving the impression of calm in the delivery room! It’s intense. I mean, you’re not doing anything, but having to act. The person you love most in the world is about to produce the other person you love most in the world, and will love forever more, and it’s heavy, it’s profound. And I just remembered having to talk to myself, because if ever something was not about you, Jack, this is it. Just do what’s needed. And I don’t know if I did. I wasn’t freaking out, but there were times when you want to, because it’s frightening.
Who is your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
The thing about a career in showbusiness is it’s a bit like throwing a baby in a swimming pool. It’s literally sink or swim. And people haven’t really got time to be like, “Hey kid, this is how it is…” That said, the first film I ever did was the – not as beloved as its predecessor – sequel to ‘A Fish Called Wanda’, called ‘Fierce Creatures’. It was set in a zoo, and it had all the people from ‘A Fish Called Wanda’. It was Kevin Kline, Jamie Lee Curtis, Michael Palin, Robert Lindsay, and then a few others like Ronnie Corbett. Anyway, I was in it nominally. I was a kind of glorified extra, truth be told, but I was there all the time, because there was a sort of body of young zookeepers. We were sort of like a Greek chorus, really. It’s pre-smartphone, so I would read a lot on the edge of the set, and Michael Palin noticed this. And after a few weeks, one day his driver sidled up to me, and he goes, “Michael would like to take you out for lunch. Do you want to come?” And I was like, “Okay.” We were at Pinewood Studios, and he took me to a country house hotel or something. And we sat down, just the two of us, and started having lunch. He was asking me about what I was reading, and in my head, I’m like, “I’m having lunch with a f***ing Python. What is f***ing happening?!”
He was so kind to me. And the thing that I learned was always be more interested in what the other person is doing. I thought, if Michael f***ing Palin can be like, “Hey kid, I have no idea who the f*** you are, but let me see what’s going on in there…” And it had a real effect on me. There was no hierarchy to him. You know what, you give it out, you get it back.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
In real life? I mean, I grew up in showbusiness and I’ve been in it all my life, so in that world, it’s more like colleagues. For me, I get very wobbly around athletes. Athletes do it for me. I’m so inspired by great athletes. Roger Federer, for the obvious reasons, and probably Allen Iverson, he played for the Philadelphia 76ers. Kids, look him up on YouTube. And I love him for all the opposite reasons to why I love Roger Federer. They could not be more different. Allen was a bad, bad boy. But in a very enjoyable way.
And regarding fictional heroes, there’s a character called Owen Meany in John Irving’s book ‘A Prayer for Owen Meany’. It’s such an extraordinary character that he can only really exist on the page and in your imagination, that interface between your brain and John Irving’s words. That was the first book I ever gave my wife, I think after the first night we spent in each other’s company. And she’s still got it. I’ve read a lot of wonderful things subsequently, but Owen Meany really never went away in my head. And it’s one of those books where I see it on the shelf occasionally and think, I look forward to getting back to that one day, but when it happens of course, it’ll be a completely different book.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
Actually, it’s quite new, which is unusual. It’s an Italian Boglioli overcoat that my wife gave me. It’s brown herringbone, and it looks like it’s straight out of 1958, and it’s so beautiful. And I’m not one for super-expensive clothing really, but it was not cheap. You can wear it with anything. And you put it on and it’s one of those things where it’s well-enough tailored, that you feel half an inch taller. And because my wife threw it down with a ‘Happy Birthday’, it’s got meaning.
What music did you love aged 13, and do you still love it now?
Let’s think about this. 1986. God, all right… The Cure. I don’t listen to them much anymore, but when I do, it’s like I’m literally going down a time tunnel. I did actually do Robert Smith hair for quite a while, and I wore big black sweaters and basketball shoes and tight jeans. I didn’t go with the lipstick. Also, Queen, and I still love them. Greatest frontman ever to do it. And Prince, and I’ve listened to him forever after. It was about ’87, I think, when ‘Sign o’ the Times’ came out. There’s a concert movie that he did, and I used to have it on VHS. It is the greatest concert you will ever see in your life. I wore out the VHS, then you could not get it for love nor money. Then the world became digital, and about two years ago, it’s back out there. And I watched it again and I’m like, nobody can do what he did, all of it. He’s the most entertaining, musically. It’s outrageous. Watching him do his thing, it’s like part of his tragic early demise is because he f***ed his body up so much entertaining us all. He did shit in five-inch heels, and he really broke his body. And that’s why he was in so much pain. And so there’s something so bittersweet about this, frankly, giving it all to us.
What is the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
There’s a book that came out about three or four years ago, it won the Pulitzer Prize, called ‘The Overstory’, by a man called Richard Powers. Read it. He’s 15 novels into a career and I’d, until that point, never heard of him. It’s about trees. And when you finish it, I swear to you, you will never look at the world the same way again. It’s an astonishing work of art.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
I’d have to think about my childhood. I can think of two. ‘Bugsy Malone’. I was a kid when it came out and I was younger than they were. And I was like, ‘Wait, what? This is possible?’ And I didn’t know I wanted to be an actor really when I was that young, but seeing something just entirely populated by kids. I’ve shown that to my son and even he was like, ‘That was kind of cool.’ And also Jaws just because we had it on VHS and I watched it 100 times. There were scenes with Robert Shaw where I could recite all of his lines. The scene when he’s talking to the townspeople and he’s eating ship’s biscuits. I used to stand in front of the TV with a Ritz cracker. It’s a stone-cold classic. I watched that again the other day with my son, and you know what, it f***ing holds up.
What’s your favorite word or saying?.
Collywobbles. Because I think it neutralizes your anxiety. Because if instead of saying, “Oh, I’m feeling a bit anxious”, you say, “I think I got a case of the collywobbles,” it kind of takes the edge off it. It minimizes it in a way that I think is quite useful, because it sounds so silly.
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
Wow, talk about the thing you really could not ever legislate for in your life. Talk about situations you can’t control. “He was kind and was a laugh to hang out with.” I think I can’t hope for more than that. That’ll do.
A quickfire five favorites…
Easy. 1977 Aston Martin V8 Vantage. It’s that rare thing, a classic British muscle car. I think they said it was the first British supercar. And it does 170 miles an hour. And its lines… You could stick that next to a GTO or something, and it holds its own, but it’s got that subtlety from that era of Astons. There’s just something no f***ing nonsense about it. And it’s an Aston, for f***’s sake, from the ‘70s.
I’m an Arsenal fan forever. But the truth is, I’ve lived here for so long I much prefer to watch basketball now. I didn’t used to like it and as a football fan, I was very dismissive. Because I was like, “Oh, you score, I score, you score, I score.” I was totally wrong about all that. I’m a New York Knicks fan forever, which means you are very long-suffering. They last won the championship in the year of my birth. And if they won it next year, which they won’t, we would both have a very delightful double golden jubilee together. Also, I do love American football too. I have always loved the Buffalo Bills, because they are the only team ever to have got to the Super Bowl four times consecutively. And in those four times they lost every single one. So there’s something about that degree of heartbreak I find very beguiling.
God, I love to eat. But I’m not one for fine dining, particularly. However, I did a movie called ‘Guernica’ in 2016 in the Basque Country and we were in Bilbao for six, seven weeks. And we had a surprisingly generous per diem. Every year there’s quite an authoritative 50 best restaurants in the world list that gets done, and in the top 20 there’s about five restaurants within two hours of Bilbao. And so every weekend we’d go off to these local restaurants. One place in particular I remember very well, it’s called Mugaritz, and we had a 23-course lunch which took four and a half hours. It was a journey. What I hadn’t accounted for was a degree of wit in almost all of the courses. Some of the things made you laugh before you ate them. It wasn’t all molecular gastronomy at all, but sometimes things tasted different to how they looked. They had that kind of magic. Now, do want to eat like that every day? No, but I’ll never forget it.
I’m getting on a bit now, so most of my grooming products are prescribed at this point! Kiehl’s Blue Astringent is very good for after you’ve shaved. Stops your neck bleeding. And it’s quite lively.
There was a period, very short, in my life when I had a short but unsustainable Savile Row habit. I bought off the peg, and I got one suit made bespoke. And f**, it’s sharp. The company is called Spencer Hart. It’s very late ’60s, ‘The Ipcress File’ vibe. You should have one suit made bespoke in your life.
Styling by Alfonso Fernandez Navas
Many thanks to David & Ileana Angelo & The Lab, 174 Pearl Street, Dumbo, Brooklyn
As a fan of Jack’s for the better part of (jeez) 20 years now, I’m so happy to see him getting some recognition. Always am. He deserves it. He should be a household name. Lovely and interesting actor. Ten Percent is so fun! We better get more than a few seasons.