'This place", says Elliott Levey, looking out of the window at the Thames shimmering in the summer heat. "It's just been fantastic to me." But it's not the river that has been good to Levey. It is the cubist concrete construction that sits on its south bank known as the National Theatre. It is here that he is about to play his biggest role, the French revolutionary Robespierre, in Danton's Death.
Howard Brenton's new version of Georg Buchner's 1835 play marks the keenly awaited National Theatre debut of the Donmar's hugely successful artistic director Michael Grandage. Toby Stephens plays the heart-throb libertine Danton, while Levey is the stony-hearted and much less likeable "incorruptible" figure who presided over the revolutions reign of terror.
Levey rarely plays likeable for that matter. There was a time when he was British television's off-the-shelf Jew. He was a Jewish doctor in
EastEnders, a Jewish patient in Holby City and in the throwback episode of Casualty set in 1906 he was a Yiddish-speaking anarchist. But for the last few years, the Leeds-born actor has been carving out an acting career that has seen him escape the pigeon-hole in which TV casting directors put him.
The most obvious sign that theatre was a less blinkered industry came three years ago at the Young Vic when he played the sinister role of the Swedish Customer in Brecht's anti-war How Much Is Your Iron? The play points an accusing finger at those who profited from the rise of Nazi Germany. Levey's character was a fascist, and nobody complained that the actor looked too Jewish for the part.
Of course, that does not mean he has not played Jews on-stage - he was the headmaster in 3 Sisters on Hope Street, the Jewish version of the Chekhov classic. Then there was Tom, the Jewish atheist-turned-frummer in On Religion.
We have quite an extreme family gathering. The mix is wonderful
But ever since his National Theatre debut in the stonking hit, His Dark Materials, Levey has continued to be cast in ever more conspicuously untypical roles. In Richard Bean's hilariously mischievous take on East End immigration, England People very Nice, Levey took on the role of a Palestinian asylum seeker and, for the second time in his career a Jewish anarchist. "Oh, I also played Super Jew," he recalls, referring to the nameless, kvetching Chasid character also featured in the play. "I came on, bearded and wearing Chasidic dress, at the point where someone had just thrown a one-eyed Irish baby out of a window. This Jewish immigrant who had just arrived from Poland says: "Oy, and you think it's hard being Jewish?'"
You can see what directors see in Levey when it comes to casting him as Jew or, for that matter, Palestinian. The olive complexion, the dark, curly hair - he has that sought-after 'sensitive Semite' look.
He has just been screaming at the masses - rehearsing his first terrifying speech in Danton's Death. "I've had ages to research this part," he says. "I've spent weeks in the British Library being an inky swot and reading just about everything that was ever written on Robespierre. It's my first historical role and the first one I've had preconceptions about. I had always thought that Robespierre was a dark character and after I read every book about him I thought: 'He's a wonderful guy. Why is history so down about him?' But half-way through screaming at the citizens of France today, I thought: Yeah, he might be quite dark'."
It is tempting to draw a connection between the zeal of Robespierre's revolutionary conviction and the single-minded certainty with which Levey embraced Orthodox Judaism as a child.
"It was bizarre because my parents are secular," says Levey. "But for one reason or another I did have an intensely Jewish upbringing, even to the extent that when I went to Clifton College at 13, I found myself leading services at the Jewish house, Polack's."
Before he left Leeds to go to the boarding school in Bristol, Levey went to a "very, very, Orthodox cheder".
"I had the kind of Jewish education that people of a much older generation had," he recalls. "I don't know of anyone else of my generation who had such an education. I was taught by Yiddish speakers. Yet my mother couldn't be more secular. How I had this bizarre education you will have to ask my parents. I think they thought of it as something a bit like French lessons.."
The experience left some powerful memories with the 38-year-old actor. "I remember being locked in a room at the age of seven," he says. "This was the cheder's punishment room. It was in the roof where the hot water tank was in this terribly Dickensian house in Moortown, Leeds - all because the rabbi discovered my Mars bar."
After Clifton College, came Oxford where he read philosophy and met Emma Loach, the mother of his three boys. Loach is a documentary film-maker and the daughter of director and critic of Israel Ken Loach. She and Elliott married a couple of months ago. A non-Jewish wife and a self-declared atheist, Levey , it is fair to say, has put Jewishness behind him. Or so it would seems until you hear the names of his boys - Samuel, Jacob and Benjamin Levey. .
"Pretty Jewish," agrees Levey. "They could be a law firm. They have two grandfathers, one is now married to a Hebrew teacher and the other is Ken Loach. It makes for quite an extreme family gathering. I think it's sort of wonderful that they have this mix."
Rehearsal beckons again. Time to re-inhabit the role of a fundamentalist. Wouldn't he rather be in Toby Stephens's shoes playing the charming Danton? His answer suggests he has reached a watershed in his career. "Actors spend most of their careers wanting to be liked," he observes. "There is something truly liberating about deciding that you don't want to be liked."