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Tom Courtenay, who stars in 45 Years, has acted on both stage and screen, but says acting in movies has its difficulties: ‘You can do some terrific film acting, but it’s seconds of stuff.’Chris Young/The Globe and Mail

If ever an actor should write a memoir, it would be Sir Tom Courtenay, whose domestic drama 45 Years opens next week. In his 78 years, Courtenay has embodied English acting, working on films with the likes of Albert Finney, Maggie Smith and Colin Firth. On stage, he's played everyone from Romeo to Lear, and from The Seagull's Konstantin to Uncle Vanya. He's received rafts of awards, from best newcomer in 1963 from the British Academy of Film and Television Arts through a Silver Bear (for 45 Years) at the 2015 Berlin Film Festival. He was knighted in 2001.

But when I met Courtenay at the Toronto International Film Festival this past September, he mostly wanted to talk about his dog, Stanley, a hale English pointer. He scrolled through phone photos of Stanley, dozens of them. He showed me snaps of Stanley with his wife, stage manager Isabel Crossley, and pictures of dogs who are related to Stanley. He sought out a joke photo he sent to Firth, of Stanley gazing at an issue of The Lady magazine with the actor on the cover. He even compared his character's Alsatian in 45 Years to Stanley – unfavourably.

"He was hopeless," Courtenay says about the Alsatian. "He was like an old movie star. Very handsome, terrible actor." He chuckles.

Every few minutes in the 20 we spend together, Courtenay's conversation drifts toward Stanley, and I tug him back. He's affable about it. Talking to him is akin to talking to the Queen, I imagine: He's met so many strangers in his life, he just chats, quite amiably, about whatever he wants, to whomever is in front of him.

But in between talking about his dog – and his hearing aids, which he doesn't like ("They make me go very quiet"); and the crossword puzzle book he always carries, folded, in his jacket pocket; and the Mont Blanc key ring that Charlotte Rampling, his Oscar-nominated co-star in 45 Years, gave him as a memento – Courtenay drops a few clues to how he's navigated the actor's life.

He was born in Hull, in Yorkshire; its long, flat vowels are still plain in his voice. His father was a boat painter. But when new education grants carried a wave of young talent into London's Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, including Finney, Glenda Jackson, John Hurt and Anthony Hopkins, Courtenay was among them. Days after graduating, he had an agent and a lead role in The Seagull at the Old Vic. "I left RADA on the Saturday," Courtenay remembers. "On the Monday, I was Konstantin."

The critic Penelope Gilliatt saw his performance, and called her friend, director Tony Richardson, who was developing the film The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. "I've just seen your runner," she told him. Courtenay met Richardson at the Royal Court Theatre, where he was rehearsing The Changeling with Robert Shaw. Richardson offered him the part on the spot, although they wouldn't make the film for another 18 months. "He stuck to his word," Courtenay says dryly. "They don't always."

In the meantime, Courtenay succeeded Finney on stage in Billy Liar; later, he starred in the film version. (That set up a lifelong, jovial rivalry between the two. More on that in a minute.) Two years, three films and three BAFTA nominations later, Courtenay found himself in Spain on the set of Doctor Zhivago (he played the student Pasha, who transforms into the radical Strelnikov). Although he was in stellar company, he chafed at the long hours between scenes. "You can do some terrific film acting, but it's seconds of stuff," he says.

Courtenay still has a set photo of the cast lined up in directors' chairs, looking backward so that their stencilled names are visible: Alec Guinness, Ralph Richardson, Julie Christie, Omar Sharif. Courtenay's chair was between Guinness's and Richardson's. "I saw that picture and thought: 'I don't deserve to be with them,'" Courtenay recalls now. "It was all too meteoric. I was obsessed with learning my trade, and earning my laurels. I felt it necessary to retreat. I withdrew pretty massively from filmmaking."

Hamlet and Malvolio, Peer Gynt and Raskolnikov followed, on stages from London to Manchester to Edinburgh. In 1980, Courtenay played Norman (the title character) in the play The Dresser, and reprised the role in the 1983 film, opposite Finney as the star upon whom Norman attended. Both were nominated for BAFTAs, Oscars and Golden Globes; Courtenay won the latter (tied with Robert Duvall, for Tender Mercies). He and Finney are still close. "We spoke yesterday," Courtenay says.

Hence the joke rivalry. "I had won the Volpi Cup [acting award at the Venice Film Festival] in 1964, for King & Country," Courtenay says. "Albert had won it the year before, for Tom Jones. Then Albert won the Silver Bear for The Dresser, over me. But I got the Golden Globe. So Albert sent me a telegram saying, 'The score is Manchester United, 1, Hull City, 1. The scorer for Manchester, S. Bear; for Hull City, G. Globe.'" When Courtenay won the Silver Bear last year for 45 Years, this was his speech: "My friend Al Finney won one of these in 1985. It's only taken me 30 years to catch up with him."

That line earned a laugh – something that still gratifies Courtenay. "I know directors don't like when you talk about getting laughs," he says. "But you try doing a play eight times a week and not noticing if you get them or not. You do."

With 45 Years, Courtenay is receiving the kind of attention he first stirred up 50 years ago. Written and directed by Andrew Haigh, it's about Geoff and Kate (Courtenay and Rampling). She's beautiful, if a bit smug; he's in her thrall. But on the eve of their anniversary party, he receives news of a former lover that casts a rather shattering light on their life together.

"I don't think I've had material quite this good for a long time, in a film," Courtenay says. Interestingly, for all his dotty dog talk, he is acutely aware of his screen time: Whenever I mention a moment from 45 Years, he tells me whether the camera is on him or Rampling.

In our last minutes together, I ask Courtenay how he thinks a lifetime of playing great roles – of analyzing, memorizing and repeating mankind's most profound dialogue – has affected him. Has it made him wiser, more empathic?

"I wouldn't be able to say," he replies. "Things come into you. All the stuff I've done, I hope, is in me, and will come out, if the material allows it. There's no blame. There's just what happens."

He pauses. "But the truth is," he says, "at this stage, you just sort of want to be yourself."