PASADENA, Calif. — British actor Martin Clunes remembers being part of the Greek chorus at his special performing high school in London. But instead of providing narration to the plot, Clunes was shooting a water pistol at his fellow performers.
It was not exactly an illustrious start to a prestigious career. In fact, Clunes was acting long before he knew he wanted to. “My father was an actor, and his parents were musical entertainers. And my father died when I was quite young, I was 8,” he says.
“And I think when at that age people ask you what you want to be when you grow up. Without thinking, I said, ‘actor,’ and sort of went into it without thinking actually. It was a while before I’d sort of reconciled what it offers me and what I have to offer it.”
What he has to offer it is a series of memorable characters, from the curmudgeonly physician on the comedy series “Doc Martin” to the dogged policeman he plays in “Manhunt,” premiering on Acorn.TV next Monday.
“Manhunt” proved a unique role for Clunes. He’s playing a real-life cop, Colin Sutton, who relentlessly pursued a serial killer in the early 2000s without the use of forensics, witnesses or any discernable motive.
“There’s no ego to Colin,” says Clunes. “He’s very sweet. Looks quite chaotic, maybe not a show-off dresser, not bothered by that, but oozes decency and hard work. But he’s got a steely side, he’s a terrier. He won’t let go,” says Clunes.
“That I could relate to. But an enigmatic, well-dressed detective staring out of a window and ‘thinking’ through crimes doesn’t float my boat.”
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Clunes’ wife, Philippa Braithwaite, serves as producer on “Manhunt,” as well as “Doc Martin.” They met when Braithwaite and her brother were producing a movie, “Staggered,” and needed an actor to play the “nasty” character.
Clunes talked them into letting him portray the nice guy. “They found a director, but he wangled a huge TV project and had to leave the movie. I stepped in and starred in it and we sort of fell in love during the preproduction,” he says.
“I’d just come out of a rather bad marriage as well, that should’ve been a warning: ‘Don’t touch him!’ It’ll be 23 years in August.”
The pair has a 19-year-old daughter, Emily, who’s studying equine science at college. “Marrying Philippa and the birth of Emily, it changed everything because the word ‘family’ had been slightly a fractured thing before that,” says Clunes.
“With my father’s death and an awareness that there was — not a dysfunction, but a crinkle — not a straightforward mom and dad and two children. Dad was gone, and that was a massive thing for us. And I was sent to boarding school not long after that. And I didn’t like that at all. So there was this little fissure.
“But when Emily was born, and my wife’s family (is) extremely functional, and suddenly that word became the most important thing to me in the world, and it remains that. It means absolutely everything to me,” he says.
After his father’s death, Martin’s mom opened an antique shop in their house. “So she could be home, me and my sister, we were there. Dad was an actor, so there was no money. The mortgage got paid off on the house when he died as part of the insurance. In those days the welfare state was healthier than it is now, and she had a widow’s pension and family allowance and the little money she made from the antique shop. And my grandparents came to our rescue to pay for my education,” he says.
His grandfather had been a civil servant in India and his mom was born in Pakistan, when it was still part of India. “They sent her and her sister back to England because that’s what you did — you sent the young to go to school in England,” he explains.
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“They were overlooking the fact that England was at war with Germany at the time. So the school was immediately evacuated to the Lake District. It was quite a thing, but my real grandmother died when my mother was 3. Grandfather married her sister.”
Clunes and his wife live on a farm in Dorset, where they raise Clydesdales. “I’d like to spend more time working with my Clydesdales,” he grins. “I love grooming them.”
The entire family is fascinated with horses. He says his daughter took her first pony ride at 2 and has been entranced by them ever since. Braithwaite always wanted a pony when she was a girl. But it took a role in a television film to convince Clunes.
“I had a job in New Zealand, a TV movie, and in it I had to ride a horse. And the girls came out with me. And there was a bit before the filming started where I had to go and meet the horse, and they said, ‘We’re coming too.’ We all went down and rode together and that was the light bulb moment. I said, ‘We can do this together!”
When he’s not performing Clunes likes to keep busy. “I don’t like having spare time if I’m not near any of the things I can do,” he says, “like having a down day on location somewhere, that’s not good to me.”
Subscribers can stream “Manhunt” on Acorn.TV or via streaming devices like Roku, Apple TV and Amazon Fire Stick.