I grew up in a combination of suburban Catholic Ruislip and Baghdad. My mum, who is 50% Iraqi, lived in Baghdad with my three older sisters until I was born. My father, who was a doctor and 100% Iraqi, stayed in Baghdad to build a hospital, but we used to go and visit every summer. I’ve never been a typical Iraqi. My mum brought us up to think of ourselves as British.
My last memory of going to church was on Christmas Eve, when I’d had one too many advocaats and I ended up walking up the aisle with a kebab to take communion and being told to leave. That was pretty much it for me. From that point on, religion seemed a bit pointless.
My choice of occupation was a big disappointment to my parents. It was horrific enough that I’d gone to study visual arts, but when I did a drama module in the first year, that turned everything on its head. I phoned up my mum to tell her I was going to become an actor – silence and fear ensued.
My parents came to see a production I was in at the Royal Exchange Theatre in Manchester, Manchester, where I had to perform fellatio on a naked boy. My dad had brought two doctor friends from Baghdad. They were sitting at the very front – couldn’t have been closer.
Acting is a liberating experience. It unlocks the child in me. You’re totally plugged into that sense of play.
I’ve always felt like an outsider, which has been central to a lot of the work I’ve done. Being other. Being different. Being outside. Not feeling like you belong to an enormous group of which you are certain.
I used to walk on all fours off set when we were filming Lord of the Rings. I spent a lot of time in preparation for that [as Gollum]; I would go off for walks on all fours for hours. I did occasionally come into contact with other people, so I just had to pretend I was looking for something. It’s fair to say that’s pretty method.
I don’t think I could have handled the sort of fame Lord of the Rings sparked if I’d been younger. I was in my late 30s when it exploded. I’m grateful it happened when it did. It was an extraordinary time; so many things came out of that experience and whether I like it or not that role lives with me on a daily basis. It will never go away.
Apart from having a family, I release pressure through mountaineering. It’s always been a huge part of my life. I joined a mountaineering club when I was 13, and I’ve climbed all over the world, but I’m not an extreme risk taker. Having said that I have solo climbed up the Matterhorn. I feel totally at home in mountain environments. It’s when I feel happiest and if there is any ounce of spirituality in me that’s where it comes alive.
Given that I spent a lot of my childhood not having a father around, I was determined not to do that to my own children, and failed miserably because the whole Lord of the Rings thing happened when my kids were very young. I have residual levels of guilt. 100%. If you’re a creative person then it does take you away from the people who are closest to you and that’s a really complex arrangement.
SAS: Red Notice is out on Sky Cinema on 12 March