Second-generation theatre veteran believes personal tragedy and grief have made him a better comic actor — as they have for many

The actor (and painter, playwright and maker of alternative theatre), Carl Bland is playing "Professor" Marcus, leader of a bunch of hopeless and hapless bank robbers, in the Auckland Theatre Company's production of The Ladykillers.

The play, a very loose adaptation of the 1955 Ealing film, opens on Thursday and it is described as "a madcap summer comedy caper".

The actor left any madcappery, any capering, in the rehearsal room. He is perhaps best known for being a comic actor which is presumably why he has been cast as "Professor" Marcus who, he said, teeters on the edge of insanity and who, by the end, "has completely lost the plot. It's fun but it's massively complicated".

It is just his sort of role, then. He is, he said, "quite a serious person, most of the time", who can be funny off stage: "With a glass of wine or two. But probably not as funny as I can be on stage. Ha."

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We talked mostly about tragedy and grief and what tragedy and grief do to people, or to him in particular. I said, gingerly, that it seemed a bit odd that he was such a good comic actor. I said: "Isn't it funny?"

He said: "There's lots of examples of serious people being funny. The old tragedy, comedy thing ... It's a very fine line. All great comedians have a sadness in them."

His father, the actor and poet and co-founder of Downstage Theatre, Peter Bland was also a very good comic actor, so the ability to be funny on a stage may be inherited, to a degree; although they are very different sorts of comic actors.

The son has sharper angles than the father, for one thing. He did inherit his father's restlessness which, in his father's case, arose from a conflict between living and working in Britain where he was born, and New Zealand, where he arrived as a young man, and in the pull of poetry over that of acting. The family (there are two older sisters) went backwards and forwards between the two countries.

Family life was impecunious - there are stories, he says, of raiding neighbours' vege patches, which may be embellished - and his dad played up a bit. He didn't know about the poverty, because kids don't, he said. He didn't know about the playing up until he read his father's 2004 memoir Sorry, I'm a Stranger Here Myself. "Ha, ha. Oh I may have hazarded a guess. It's not for me to make a judgment."

He is, I think, more interested in the stories about raiding the vege patches. He is interested in memory, and the distortion of memory and has been thinking recently about how it would be if you had to "imagine your childhood if there were no photographs of your childhood. Would you remember it as well? Are we just remembering photograph albums? Memory's a funny thing. It gets distorted".

His was a very happy childhood, not just in the photograph albums - that it was unconventional likely suited his personality - with lots of books and his mother, who died in 2009, was lovely and his father, now 80, still is. His father is much loved.

"He's very loveable. He's got a big laugh. When you read things people write about him, they write about his laugh. He has an infectious laugh."

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I was asking about his father because I wondered whether he became an actor because of him, or despite of him. But he said he actually wanted to be a painter first. He still paints and the conflict between one art form and another is another thing he has in common with his father.

His father is more of an extrovert and more sociable than his son, who doesn't have many close friends. He hasn't needed close friends, really, because he was with his partner, Peta Rutter, the actor and beautiful clown, for 20 years before she died, in 2010, of a brain tumour.

She went to the optometrist because she thought she needed new reading glasses and the optometrist "noticed she wasn't seeing colours right and two weeks later she was dead". There's nothing you can say about that, is there? "No. When something like that happens it's like a car accident or something. You're still trying to catch up with events."

They had just sold their house and she died on the day they were due to move out. "It was all a disaster." He still had to move out because that was the deal. "Real estate, eh?" I couldn't fathom what sort of people wouldn't give a period of grace under the circumstances and I said some very rude things. He merely shrugged and said: "That's just life, isn't it?"

I wondered whether acting helped, a bit, and he said: "No. I was trying to think what does help and it's a funny thing. The only thing that does help is that you live your life in fear most of the time, or a lot of the time, as an actor, or just in life generally. People have fears. We all do. But when the worst thing in the world has happened to you, that you can ever imagine - what is there to be frightened of? What's the worst that can happen on stage? That you forget your lines?"

This is a strange sort of freedom, the sort you don't want, but a freedom nonetheless. "It's a double-edged sword, the old suffering thing, isn't it? The more you suffer, the nicer the person you are." He is a nicer person now? "Yes, I am." Which is no consolation at all because obviously he'd rather have Peta than be a nicer person. "F*** yeah. You'd give up everything to have her back."

They wrote and worked together and made alternative theatre including Bed, in the early, heady days of the Watershed Theatre, and 360, in which the audience sat in seats which swivelled to follow the play taking place around them, on a circular ramp. He's one of the sole survivors of the alternative theatre movement, he said. Everyone else has "given it up or died".

He and Peta never needed many other people outside of their little family (she had a daughter, now in her late 20s, from a previous relationship, who lived with them from when she was 3 and so is his daughter too.)

When he says they were "alternative" he means they saw the world in the same way, which is not the way most people see it. This is not the easiest way to live your life and, he says, you don't choose it, and upbringing has little to do with it; it's just the way you are. "We used to say: 'We're the same species.' We had a nice analogy. Say if you walk into a forest and there are lots of animals and you bump into a lion or a bear ... and you aren't any of those things. You're a little rodent and you desperately hope that one day there's another little rodent in the forest. And one day we just happened to touch noses! There was another rodent! We stared at each other and that's such a gift, isn't it?"

This is terribly sweet and may be a little bonkers. But of course I happen to think most actors are a bit nuts and of course he thinks not. Saying so, he said, is the sort of thing "a straight person would say". I had just called him nuts, so calling me a straight person seems a fair enough riposte.

He must be an interesting actor to direct. He said: "Well, I suppose I don't see the world in a particularly straight way, so when I'm playing a character I often like to do surprising things on stage. I like to surprise myself on stage." He couldn't think of an example to give me (that would rather ruin the surprise, I suppose) but he might, he said, "suddenly decide to be an animal in the middle of a speech that hasn't any relevance to that animal".

Blimey! What do directors have to say about his little surprises? "Well, they might say, 'no, that's not a good idea!' Or they might not really know what you're doing but be fascinated by it. And the audience is being surprised too: 'Is that ...? Is that .. something going on there?' But you've got to be careful that it doesn't become too indulgent. It's got to be genuinely right."

He has never wanted to be a rich and famous sort of actor. He says he doesn't have the personality to even desire it. He is hopeless at schmoozing, for one thing. His father is good at this, he said, but he doesn't envy it in him, or anyone. "No. No, I don't at all. Because in the end you get to the age where you don't give a f*** about what people think of you. It's a young person's thing. You worry about what people are thinking of you all the time."

He is 55. When did he stop worrying about what other people thought? "Aaah. Phew. Do you know what? It was probably after Peta's death." This is another unwished for sort of freedom. As is her death having made him a better actor. "I think the more things you have thrown at you, the more you carry on to the stage. It's why I like watching older people on stage. I just find them more interesting because you can sense a life and a history that's just in the face. And that's a nice thing, isn't it?"

He not in the least bit snooty about what other, starrier actors perhaps, do - I thought he might be - or indeed about what he does.

He did the Sealord ads for some years and, for 14 years, flew twice a year to Barcelona to do an ad for floor cleaner, of all things. He played an English butler and took this ad over from his dad who had done the job for many years until he was deemed to be too old. They did update the butler's suit, but it must have been a bit confusing for people watching the ad to see the butler miraculously become a younger version of himself. "It's very surrealistic, isn't it? Well, it's quite a surrealist existence." After he got the flick, they got a male model in to be the next butler and the accompanying housewives were played by "incredibly glamorous models". I said, oh, pah, I bet sales went down. "I think they did! Of course they did!"

We had a very nice chat about how we both love Father Ted (The Ladykillers has been adapted by Graham Linehan who created Father Ted and Black Books and The IT Crowd.) His favourite character is Father Jack. "I like the drunken old man with the dirty mouth." He was sort of aspirational, wasn't he? I said. I don't know where that came from. Surrealism might be catching. He laughed like anything and said: "Ha, ha! He is, isn't he? We all want to be like that as we get older."

He was, in the end, like his character, fun but massively complicated. And who wouldn't appreciate an hour in the company of a very interesting and clever little rodent?