In the Company of Actors by Carole Zucker
A & C Black (Publishers) Limited, 1999 ISBN 0-878-30109-7
From Alan Bates’s Chapter
What would I call myself? Middle class, I suppose. I don’t quite know what all these denominations and categorisations mean. I was a child in the war years, so I just remember the strictness, the rations. It was a very simple life, really, that I lived. My father was a cellist and my mother was a pianist, and they were both very fine players, and had a huge love of music, so I grew up in a house where music was played and heard a great deal. That was a subtle influence of some kind, I’m sure. My brothers and I all resisted — as children wilfully and sometimes wrongly do — to follow them into it, but then my brothers were both rather gifted artistically. One is a painter now, and an art lecturer. My other brother began in art direction but gave it up, and I became an actor. We almost deliberately did something else, which sounds a bit perverse. I suppose it’s not; if that’s what we wanted to do. Hopefully, people in life do what they either want to do, or are good at.
As a child, I listened to the radio. My mother, when I was 9 or 10, started taking me to the local theatre, and I started going to the local cinema. I became infatuated; I had to go every week. I realised, about the age of 11, that the reason I was going was that I’d found out what I wanted to do, and what I thought I could do. I admired certain films, and certain actors. I wanted to be me, I didn’t want to be them, but I think actors do influence you. I will always remember James Mason, from the day I started going to see films, as absolutely one of the finest movie actors perhaps who’s ever been. He somehow resonated with me. And I think, later in my teens, I was influenced by all sorts of people: Gerard Phillipe, and then a bit later on, Mastroianni, and Swedish actors, and American actors like Spencer Tracy and Montgomery Clift, and others. You don’t want to be like them, but you like what they do, so therefore they are, to some extent, influencing you.
My parents supported my decision to become an actor. They filled me with all the warnings, you know. They said ‘If you haven’t done it by the time you’re 26, then think about stopping’, but they were basically very encouraging. My father got me into a class with a marvellous voice teacher, and my mother got me into the local Shakespeare society, so they both took a very positive stand towards me doing what I wanted to do.
I applied for RADA, just that one place, and got it. I don’t think I knew about the others. And I got it because of a brilliant teacher in Derbyshire, called Claude Gibson, who was absolutely terrific. He really knew how to get hold of somebody with talent, and draw something out of you, he knew that you had to learn how to speak first. He got you to really articulate, to breathe properly. I went really quite prepared for RADA, from this great teacher.
It was a terrifically good year; I don’t think they’ve really had a year like it. I don’t quite know how it happened, but you will know a lot of these names: Richard Briers, John Vernon, Brian Bedford, John Stride, Albert Finney, Peter Bowles, Peter O’Toole, Roy Kinnear, myself, Keith Baxter, Rosemary Leach, James Booth; it was really quite astonishing. And we were always competing with each other perhaps without knowing it. It was a real great clutch of people.
The outside world: talent and luck
But of course the world outside was waiting, was ready, and we fell into the theatre just as it was coming into a very powerful time with a lot of astonishing young writers — Wesker, Osborne and Pinter. People like Joan Littlewood at Stratford East and George Devine at the Royal Court Theatre. So they were there to grab us, you know. It was a very lucky time, quite apart from however good we all were, or not, or whatever has happened to all of us. Whatever we actually were, we were also lucky. Of course you’ve got to be able to do it, you can’t just be lucky.
At the beginning of my career, I took what job I could get, which was with the Midland Theatre Company, and it happened to be Frank Dunlop who was running it. I went into a company that he was directing in Coventry, which was a very, very strong and well-thought-of company. In a way, I was slightly better off, because if you went to Stratford, you walked on, you were the crowd, you might have a line or two, then you would graduate. It could take years, if Stratford got hold of you in those days. They would keep you for a very long time before they let you begin to emerge. In the other companies, like Liverpool, Birmingham, Coventry, Bristol, Nottingham or Dundee, all these places, you went and played big parts, or at least parts with substance, if not big ones. But friends who got into Stratford weren’t learning anything by experience. They were learning by apprenticing, but they weren’t actually functioning as well as you were if you were in one of the other regional theatres. Even at the National, in much later days, it took you a long time to get what Olivier once said to somebody, was his ‘turn’, which is an awful phrase, really: your ‘turn’, I suppose, practically speaking, that’s what it amounts to.
The American actors — like Brando and Montgomery Clift — were a huge influence; they were very much admired. I would think that the individuals that came out of the Method, what James Dean and Julie Harris, and others were doing, were all powerful images, beautiful work to go and watch. European films were very much admired, too, in those days. And also, of course, our own older actors; the whole range of people such as Olivier, and Ralph Richardson, Michael Redgrave. We had various pools of influence to respond to. And of course it was all discussed, everything was always discussed.
|Inspiration and technique: crawling up to a role
It’s very hard to explain. Acting is inexplicable, so we’re having a very weird conversation to start with, because I cannot really tell you what it’s all about. You’ve got to find your won way, you’ve got to take from what makes sense to you, what’s real to you, what applies to you, what works for you, and apply it to who you are. You can’t just suddenly be a Method actor, except that I think all good actors are. It’s such a personal thing; if you’re good you’re good, you know. You work through these things, you’re not made by these things. You fall down as an actor, if you’re not good. We all take a par, or a moment, or a time in our lives where it all comes together and we go beyond our average accomplishments. When you’re lucky, you go beyond yourself; you get a bit of inspiration, or a meeting of yourself and the part. I don’t think it’s got anything to do with any particular training. It has to do with what you’ve drawn from everybody; it’s hanging onto your own instincts, rather than being too influenced by someone else.
There really are no rules. I remember Celia Johnson, when I did Hamlet, she played Gertrude, and the director suddenly said, which wasn’t the cleverest remark, ‘I don’t think it’s moving enough’. She looked rather annoyed, and said “Oh, really?’ and she said ‘Shall we do it again?’ and he said ‘Yes, I think I’d like to do it again’. So she started the scene and everyone fell silent, and just became hypnotised by what she was doing, and completely moved and involved with her. She came to the end of the scene, and she said suddenly, ‘Do you mean like that?’ She was really saying ‘If you want me to, I could do it, and I will do it, and I can do it any way you want.’ There aren’t any rules about this thing. You can do it like that, or you can do it like Celia Johnson, you can do it like Gerard Depardieu, you know.
Staying open: ‘no decisions’
I do my own version of improvisation, to myself. I think most actors do these things. I’ve always liked acting, but I certainly haven’t been good in everything I’ve done. You can always go further. I think, there’s always more to find out, there’s always more to give a part, you can’t ever rest with it, and say ‘Oh well, that’s it’. I don’t think I’ve ever hit a moment where I’ve ever been over satisfied. I’ve been pleased with some of my work, and disappointed, at times, when I haven’t taken it as far, where two years later you think ‘Oh, I wish I could do that again, because I can see something now that I couldn’t see then’.
I think the best gift a director has is what the actor brings to a part. But I think it is up to the director to control the part, and to understand it, and to be able to tell him where to go and where to withdraw. Sometimes an actor touches something, and doesn’t know he’s touched it, and he has to know that he has. I have taken a couple of parts where I haven’t quite seen where they ought to go, because I’ve liked the project, or the script, or the director or something, and I haven’t felt right about the part. I think you should know where you want to go with a part. You should have a fairly clear vision of it before you take it on. And of course, if you find yourself floundering, you’ve got to go to your director.
But you can ask only some for help. Certainly not all. There are some directors you meet — Robert Markovitz (Nicholas’ Gift, 1997) is one of them — and you just feel a complete sympathy; he’s got an understanding of each separate actor, and each actor’s way of working. He can see when someone’s nervous or whether they’re confident; he’s brilliant with the children. Lindsay Anderson was a wonderful director with actors, because he liked them. I think a lot of directors don’t like actors. A lot of directors assume that because they’re the director, they’ve got to be the one that knows everything, whereas they haven’t. They’ve got to be the leader, yes, but they have to be open. I love a director who will actually pick up an idea from a cameraman or an actor and say, ‘Hey, I hadn’t thought of that, that’s wonderful’. That’s a director, not someone who ignores everyone else’s ideas.
Remarkable writers and outrageous characters
When I was first sent The Caretaker, my agent didn’t want me to do it, and he said ‘I can’t understand a word of it, and you’ve been offered something on television’. He said ‘The choice is obvious; you can’t do a piece of nonsense at the Arts Theatre for six pounds a week.’ And I said to him ‘I couldn’t tell you what this play is about, but I know it’s wonderful.’ And I found out what it was about — well, what it was ‘about’. When Harold (Pinter) says it’s about three men, it is about three men in a room. But you don’t have to know cause and effect in order for that to be a remarkable piece of writing. You just understand three rather isolated people in life, and understand their need to belong, and to find some kind of purpose. I find them all very moving characters, those three. I understand them, I know who they are.
The value of research
I do research until I feel that there’s no room for me; until I feel that I’ve been almost locked out of it by other people’s opinions, say, about Diaghilev. In the end you’ve got to be him yourself, you’ve got to find him for you. There’s a point at which you really have to know when to cut off, when you know enough to play him truthfully, and bring yourself to it as well. I think I can probably read too much sometimes, because you can pick up opinions, and start playing someone else’s idea rather than giving your own interpretation.
I loved playing Marcel Proust (in 102 Boulevard Haussmann). I knew that I wasn’t anything like him, but I felt that I understood that moment in his life, and that particular script. You get the odd critic who starts a review saying ‘Now, Alan Bates as Marcel Proust simply will not do’, and you think ‘Oh, come on’. It’s somebody who things they know everything, and isn’t prepared to just let someone else feel the man out themselves. It’s a beautiful piece, isn’t it? I think the whole thing was quite gentle and subtle and particular.
Working on stage and in film
I’ve always said it’s the same. I mean, it’s a different dimension, different vocal range, different sense of projection, different way of projecting. But you’ve got to be truthful, you’ve got to know what you’re doing. I think film is wonderful in its ability to pick out slices of life, and when you go between the two — theatre and film — you do have to be very careful that you’re not bringing one into the other, that you’re not being too subtle for the theatre, or too big for the screen. My views about it are very simplistic, really.
What is great film acting? Well I just know some people who’ve done it. For example, I’ve seen ten films of Mastroianni, and I suddenly thought ‘I believe this man every time, every single time’, and that’s true of Mason, and I think Depardieu’s terrific. Great film acting is about simplicity, absolute truth, and trusting yourself. Basically, you’re asking me what fine acting is, and I don’t think it matters what medium it’s in. In film, it’s knowing where that camera is and then forgetting where it is. Monroe is said to have never known where it was; that was probably half her success. You hear stories like that, they’re appealing; whether they’re true or not.
I used to go to dailies, but then I found I became self-conscious. I started acting for the camera, and I don’t like to do that. As I say, I think you have to know exactly where the camera is, and then forget where it is. It’s kind of a sixth sense. But if you’ve seen a bad angle, or something that you thought was too little or too much — I think I’ve got to a point now where I trust either myself or the director to catch it. And you have to have an idea of how to play a reaction shot. Robert (Markovitz) was wonderful; within three days, he said ‘Oh, I love what you did when you rehearsed that. We’ll shoot it like that’. So I was rather pleased that he liked what I’d done. Then he said ‘Action’, and he came up to me, and we both said it together, at the same moment, ‘Too much’. Because he’d liked it, I went slightly too far with it. But that’s lovely, when you have that with a director, when you know and he knows.
I think I made a conscious decision not to do some of the things I was asked to n Hollywood. I didn’t want to be trapped there, I didn’t want to feel that I couldn’t get out, or that I wasn’t a free agent as an actor. I did work there once, for “The Rose,” and I worked in New York, and all my other American films have been made in Europe. But that was always working on location; I don’t care where it is, the great thing is to work on location.
I felt like I did in the very early days when I first left RADA, and Rank was still going. It was in the days when those contracts were just ending, thank god, but I knew that a seven year contract with anyone was a disaster. Because there’s no choice, and you have no control, and I never wanted that; I always wanted to be a free agent and to work in every medium, and to be as selective as I knew how. But I did make a conscious decision. I certainly could have stayed in Hollywood after “The Rose,” and earlier, and I didn’t.
I think fame — film fame — is sort of false fame. What do I mean by false fame? I mean phoney fame, hyped-up fame. I like recognition for what I do. I like to be well-paid when they can afford to pay me well, but I don’t really like fame as such. But if people stop you in the street, it means they have seen what you do, and you can’t be an actor without wanting an audience. It’s quite nice, unless you’re in a very bad mood.
Playing with Shakespeare
Just occasionally it really works when you jazz up Shakespeare, occasionally it really comes off. I think you’ve got to let people do all that; people have to be free. You’ve got to see new stuff, you’ve got to see experimental ideas, you’ve got to. Theatre would die without them. But I’m also very torn, I’m sort of schizophrenic about it. I fall back, and I think ‘I really want to see “Richard III,” I want to see it in his century, I want to see it played out then’, because I find that’s what’s exciting about it. I an apply it, you can apply it, it means something to us. I’m very torn about it. I enjoyed Ian McKellen’s “Richard III” when I saw it in the theatre, I thought it was pretty exciting.
But I don’t think it altogether negates an interpretation, because even if something wasn’t intended by a playwright — it may be there. People can get much too clever, and then it becomes just a personal agenda for some directors. You say ‘Well, this isn’t actually telling me anything, except what he thinks, or she thinks, and I really want to know what the author thinks. I don’t want you to interpret the author to a stage where you obliterate or distort that.’
I’m very torn when people do the life of Wordsworth or Tchaikovsky, or whoever it might happen to be, and you think, ‘No, tell the truth,’ because the truth of these people’s lives is what you’ve set out to do, and it’s usually a phenomenal story. Why change it? Why act it, why distort it, why put something in that wasn’t there? Let’s have that person, otherwise do another story. If you’ve got a better idea, do another on, do something else.
The current state of British Theatre
It seems to me either the writer’s a god or the designer’s a god, or the director’s a god. The actor often comes fourth in all this. I mean, a design can kill a production. A design that enhances a play, that highlights it, is wonderful, but one that is just there for its own sake, and does not inform you of something… what is the point of design for design’s sake? I was in a production recently where the designer designed these huge doors. A friend of mine came to it, and he said ‘You could hardly open them; they swung you into the room’. He said ‘They didn’t tell me anything, they didn’t inform me of anything; it’s a designer’s conceit. I don’t want that.’ I mean, I understand about theatricality. But when you have to time your lines in order to cope with the set, something is wrong. I’ve been in a production like that, where you had to time your lines to get across the set. You’re not doing the play, are you?
I think there is a huge drop in what people want to see. I wish I knew the actual reason. I mean, you can point to a hundred things. Is it education that’s dropped? Standards of education, standards of appreciation, or just the hype of the easy and the popular that has taken over. On the other hand, you know, plays are failing, audiences dropping, it’s harder and harder to have a play stay on for more than two months or three months. I can have a great night at one of these musicals, but by the time I get out to the street afterwards, I’ve forgotten what I’ve seen. It doesn’t stay with me at all, it doesn’t resonate, it doesn’t give you anything. You remember perhaps some pyrotechnical stage management, or perhaps a voice, or a song appeals to you whether it’s wonderful music or not; you can enjoy a song that isn’t necessarily a great piece of music. But I don’t think you can be too elitist about this.
The era of the musical is certainly here, at the moment. I loved “Les Miserables;’ I took my two sons to see it when they were about fourteen, and we had a wonderful afternoon. I think there are different contexts in which you can see things, and enjoy them. But you’re not seeing anything that really stays with you. What stays with you from that is that it’s a great story, great characters and great writing. That’s something that pushes through; it has a core. It makes you think. Perhaps people did have higher standards before. There’s an awful lot of what’s called dumbing down going o today, certainly in the cinema. You look at some of these things and you say ‘What is that doing for anybody? What’s it giving, really? Okay, this is sort of fun, but it’s not taking people on any sort of interesting journey.’ You watch it for a rest!
The job of acting
I think there is a whole side of acting … I mean, what’s so special? I think it’s an important job; I hope it is — because I do it — it brings a bit of fun, entertainment, illumination, whatever you happen to be doing, into people’s lives. You are there to entertain, and for people to have either a thoughtful or a good night out. It reflects the lives we lead, hopefully it ‘holds the mirror up to nature’. So therefore it’s got a significant purpose.
But at the same time, people do some incredible things in medicine, they do huge explorative things in space, nurses nursing the sick, teachers teaching the next generation, hopefully! We’re not better than that. I think you just have to keep a perspective on it, and not really believe the sort of hype that goes with, I think, the West End or Hollywood. You can’t be taken in by it. You just do your job well, you hope. I think everything else that might come with it, like superstardom, if you get it, or being an icon, or a legend … you can’t go for that. That happens — if it happens, and if it doesn’t then you’re a working performer, a working actor. It’s just trying to keep things in perspective, and the whole thing of not believing your own publicity. I mean, it’s the big mistake, isn’t it? The Americans do sell their top people, and an awful lot of money goes into selling them in that way. We don’t do that, we haven’t got a big enough machine to do it. The few English people that’s happened to — Sean Connery for example — have done it in American, he hasn’t done it here. I think it’s how much money is put into it. What do you have to do, what do you have to make? What happens to just spin into orbit? If you’re in it, you’re in it, and if you’re not, you’re not.
You may have heard Judi Dench say she’s a jobbing actor; you’ve also heard Marlon Brando say this isn’t a job for a grown-up man. Isn’t that a different way of saying the same thing? Actually it is a little different, because I think he’s belittling it; here’s an extraordinary, unique, great actor saying ‘What am I doing?’ But I think it’s healthy to question what you do, and to say ‘Well, it’s just a job I do, and I’m lucky to be doing it’. Although I must say, I think English actors are not beyond being knocked out by themselves.
Something in me says it’s a little bit more than just a job. It’s a job, but it’s a very visible job, performance. It’s a job that needs an audience, which sets it a bit apart. Most jobs don’t need an audience. So I think performing is a bit different, and sport is the same. If you’re George Best, if you’re Vanessa May, or John Curry, or Pavarotti, there’s only one of you, you know? And it’s public, and for an audience — that sets it apart.
Identifying with a part: emotional effect
I don’t know whether the parts I’ve played have affected who I am or how I live, but I know when I did “The Mayor of Casterbridge,” I had a huge identification with that, identification, sympathy, empathy, whatever is appropriate. Someone who made a hideous mistake in his life, couldn’t recover from it, went through parental love, love of wife, rejection of wife, love of someone else, obsession with a protege, ambition. It’s the human condition, it’s a fantastic story of how we can’t fulfill the ideals we set up, or be this wonderful thing we want to be, or some ideas that youth gives you, and I thought ‘This is really wonderful’. How he ends up at the end of his life saying ‘I don’t want anyone to know I was ever here. Just bury me and don’t mark the grave’. I found that whole beginning and coming to that end, so moving. Because we all fail, somewhere, none of us are heroes, really. And I think that really said it. |||
© Carole Zucker, 1999