'Ready Player One' Star Ralph Ineson on How 'The Witch' Changed Everything

Ralph Ineson - Publicity H - 2018
Credit: Leigh Keily

Robert Eggers' indie hit gave the Brit actor's career an unexpected "Indian Summer of a boost," leading to roles in 'Ready Player One,' 'Hurricane Heist' and the Coen Brothers’ upcoming Netflix anthology, 'The Ballad of Buster Scruggs.'

For a generation of Brits (and a good-sized number of people around the world), he’ll forever be Chris Finch (or Finchy!), the painfully awful and sexist bully from the original U.K. series of The Office.

Fifteen years have passed since the 2003's conclusive Christmas special (where Ricky Gervais’ David Brent triumphantly tells his supposed friend to — finally — “fuck off”), and Ralph Ineson is the first to admit his career had been “trucking on very nicely” since leaving the Wernham Hogg paper merchants. A steady lineup of roles across British film and TV (including the penultimate Harry Potter and several episodes of Game of Thrones) would follow, with the actor’s unmistakable Yorkshire baritone – his "USP” as he calls it – also deployed across several video games. 

But this all changed after Ineson’s 100th job, which turned out to be as a god-fearing 17th century Puritan settler in The Witch. Robert Eggers' period horror film — released by A24 — became one of the most successful indies of 2016, sparking what Ineson describes as an “Indian Summer” for his vocation and thrusting him into the eye-line of Hollywood casting directors.

Two years on and the impact is now beginning to bear visible fruit, with a sudden influx of major U.S. roles landing in quick succession. Ineson recently appeared in Amazon’s Absentia series (as an FBI special agent), has Rob Cohen’s bank robber thriller Hurricane Heist (as a corrupt treasury official) coming up and Steven Spielberg’s latest blockbuster Ready Player One (as the loutish boyfriend of the main character’s auntie), out Wednesday. And then there’s the Coen Brothers’ anthology series with Netflix, The Ballad of Buster Scruggs, in which he plays a mysterious horse-riding executioner called the Man in Black ("I don't think I've ever felt as cool as that").

Speaking to The Hollywood Reporter, Ineson discusses his new lease of life in the U.S. (one unhindered by a supposed working-class accent), being star-struck by Spielberg on the set of Ready Player One to the point of not actually hearing his directing notes, riding the same horse Chris Hemsworth failed to buy for $50,000, and why, despite having tried to ditch his infamous character from The Office for years, it was actually Chris Finch that proved to be the catalyst for his recent career boost across the Atlantic.

You’ve got a pretty distinctive accent. How does it go down in the U.S.?

They don’t really notice it! Not that I am hugely working class, but in the U.K. I’m always perceived, casting-wise, as being working class. And that does restrict the parts you play. But the last couple of years, since I’ve started working on American stuff, it doesn’t matter. There’s no concept of class. They see a big guy with an imposing nose and deep voice and they think OK … the head of the Boston FBI! It’s quite freeing. Nobody would ever cast me here as the big posh boss. It’s a completely different vibe in America, which is something I’ve really liked.

And is this rush of roles in U.S. projects down to The Witch?

Yeah, it’s all down to that. I’ve been trucking on very nicely, enjoying what I was doing and always working. I think The Witch was actually my 100th job. Only took me 100 jobs to get a lead! But it did change things a lot. It was a magical thing for Rob Eggers to pick me out of the all the actors he could have for that part. It was an amazing part. It’s changed my career massively.

Did you expect it to become such a breakthrough hit?

I don’t think you can predict success, but you get a feeling if something’s going to be good or bad. And as soon as I started reading the script I was like, ‘Fucking hell, this is amazing.’ The depth of research by Rob Eggers to create that world just bleeds out on the screen.

I was cast first. He heard my voice when he was writing the English dialogue. He’s this Brooklyn hipster, with a full beard and little round glasses. He’s a very cool man. But when he was writing The Witch he wanted an English voice and mine was the one he had in his head. Thankfully he managed to persuade his producers that I was the one to play him.

The film proved to be something of a breakout for both yourself and Anya Taylor-Joy.

I don’t think roles are ever going to walk away from Anya. She’s one of those ones you can point a phone camera at, and she just looks astonishing.

But yeah, I think we both had a similar experience. It was Anya’s first film, my first lead and Rob’s first feature. We were all learning new things. I’ve been around 20 years, but sitting down with press isn’t something I’ve done a lot of. So I still get excited when I go for an interview. I’m sure most actors, after a while, get a bit jaded.

Next up is Ready Player One. Tell us about your character Rick.

He’s a better character in the film than in the book. He’s the beer-drinking idiot boyfriend of Wade Watt’s aunt Alice. He’s just a dickhead. I spent most of the film, I think, wandering around scratching my nuts, swigging beer. He’s great fun — a slack-jawed trailer trash idiot.

Did you have any pinch yourself experiences with Steven Spielberg directing you?

It was just amazing. There was one moment I had to speak to Susan Lynch, who plays Alice. We warned each other to listen to each other’s notes. Because after the first morning we just realized that when Steven Spielberg is giving you a note, for the first day at least, you don’t hear it. You are looking at his mouth, but your brain’s going, “It’s fucking Steven Spielberg speaking to you. That’s fucking Spielberg. And he’s giving you a note. It’s Spielberg!" And then he finishes and walks away and you think, “I didn’t hear any of that.” So Jane then had to tell me what he said.

Was working with him everything you hoped it would be?

Yeah! My daughter was on holiday at the time and she's studying film studies and drama. She came on set with me and when I introduced her to Steven he looked at her and said, “You’ve got a great face!” And I was like, “That’s Spielberg … are you not chuffed?” And she said, “Oh, it’s alright.” And she was sat next to him on the director’s chair watching the monitor with him while I was working. I’d come off set and she’d be there having a chat.

Susan’s kid, who’s about 6, also came on set, and he’s mad on dinosaurs. So him and Spielberg, in the middle of the working day, had this full-on chat about dinosaurs. And there was a whole crowd of assistants with clipboards around him. He’s a beautiful man.

Was it a similar experience working with the Coen Brothers on The Ballad of Buster Scruggs?

When you work with these kind of people, it gives an extra bit to it all, because firstly they’re the top in the field and everyone is happy to be working with them. There’s a really good creative buzz, which is sometimes different when people are on the clock.

But I didn’t get as much time working with them, because it’s just one episode. There was a great, long extended sequence, but we shot it quite quickly. I went over to do Sante Fe to do a couple of days of rehearsals, then a couple of days shooting, and then it was done. It was like, “Oh, I’ve come all the way across from London!”

Not that much is known about the series. Can you tell us who you’re playing?

I play a guy called the man in black who’s an executioner. I don’t think I’ve ever felt as cool as that — on horseback, man in black, cowboy boots …

How are your riding skills?

Good! I love working with horses, especially if they’re good and this one was amazing. Chris Hemsworth had just used the same horse on a job before. He tried to buy it off the guy for $50,000, but he wouldn’t take it.

I can’t not ask you about Chris Finch, arguably TV’s greatest baddie …

Baddie is giving him too much credit. TV’s greatest wanker, maybe. But what a character to be given. I’m not going to deny it though, it’s not been the easiest one to live with for the past 15-16 years.

Have you been trying to get rid of him?

Not anymore. But there were a few years. Of course, it’s great to be recognized for work you’ve done in a show you’re very proud of. But after a few years you kind of go, “Can we talk about something else?”

But then it came around full circle with The Witch, because the reason Rob Eggers had my voice in his head when he was writing the script was because he was a big fan of the British The Office. And he liked my voice and he liked the accent and all that. So it came back. The reason I got that and have since had this sort of Indian Summer of a boost in my career, is directly because of Chris Finch. So I don’t mind.

Do people still shout out “Finchy!” at you? Surely they’re all a little older now, right?

That doesn’t mean they’re any more sensible. The worst one of those happened years ago, when the show was still out. My mother looks pretty young and is an attractive woman, and we were walking down the street past this really rough pub. This guy leans out and goes, “Oi, Finchy! One up the bum, no harm done! Give her one from me son.” And I just said, “It’s my mother.” And all these lads outside just went, “Oh, fucking hell." People do shout inappropriate stuff, but not usually at that inappropriate a time.

Was your mother OK with it?

I don’t know if she actually heard. I think I got away with it. But we’ve never discussed the time when somebody suggested I have anal sex with my mother. It’s not something you discuss that often.