Simon Russell Beale

Simon Russell Beale took up embroidery, he once told me, because everyone else at the RSC seemed to have a hobby and he thought he’d better get one too. It was a typical Russell Beale thing to do. A Clifton boy, he has a public school enthusiasm for joining in. But it also shows just how shrewd a man he is. Why choose a hobby like rowing, painting or bridge and disappear into the crowd, when you can sit in note sessions after rehearsals silently stitching your Kafe Fassett embroidery hoop being rather deliberately, yet also naively, rather eccentric?

There is no real calculation to Russell Beale yet he instinctively knows how to be a team player and at the same time stand out from the others. Underneath a kind of social unworldiness that suggests he’s never taken a bus or rung a plumber in his life, you sense the real determination to get the roles he wants. He is as internally driven, as he is externally schoolboyish and camp. People with no ambition don’t learn Ancient Greek as he put it once “in an attempt to regulate my reading”.

His rise through the ranks at the RSC between 1986 and 1992 started with the Young Shepherd in The Winter’s Tale, and moved through three garish and extravagant Restoration fops to a boil-encrusted, splutteringly funny and hilariously disgusting Thersites in Troilus and Cressida and an electrifying Edward II. His subsequent Richard III was described by one critic as looking like the “unhappy result of a one-night stand between Pere Ubu and Gertrude Stein”, his Konstantin in The Seagull had a dignity that reduced audiences to outbursts of maternal tears and, in a most unlikely piece of casting, he bleached his hair and played Ariel as cold, intelligent and distance, not as some silly little man on a trapeze. This Tempest was truly magical rather than meteorological.

His needlework also shows his extraordinary attention to detail. On stage this produces concentrated energy, every gesture and tic geared to the moment and to the meaning of the text. Off stage he is somehow rather dainty. Watch him approach his tea. He pours in the milk, gives it just one stir round the cup, replaces the spoon in the saucer and then drinks it like Miss Marple. He could be nothing other than English and far more Alistair Sim than Charles Laughton, to whom so many journalists have compared him when they have run out of ways of telling you that he is fat and apparently self-loathing.

Most of his work “has been genuinely dealing with great pieces of literature”. And he is embarking on two more this autumn. He is about to open at The National Theatre as Iago in Othello, directed by his frequent collaborator Sam Mendes, and he is finally due for his big telly break. He is centre screen in an adaptation of Anthony Powell’s vast 12-volume novel A Dance to the Music of Time, distilled for Channel Four into four two-hour films. His head once again raised above the rest of a highly talented ensemble, he plays the crass Kenneth Widmerpool, described by the narrator as “more of an adjective than a person” and whose rise to the top and final fall – a junior Labour Lord and then a slavish disciple in a cult commune – is the spinal chord of Powell’s trenchant commentary of the British social and sexual revolution of the Twentieth Century.

The two roles attract like opposites. “Widmerpool really just doesn’t understand human nature at all. Iago though has an enormous amount of self-knowledge. And he really is a nasty piece of work. He’s the most unpleasant man I’ve ever had to play. He makes Richard III look positively charming. With Widmerpool though I actually found myself growing rather fond of him. He’s not evil, he’s just a twit.” Just as Iago attempts to take control, Widmerpool makes the best of a bad job and is swept along by things. But Russell Beale’s Iago is no Machiavelli. In Mendes’ production, set in a restrictive and modern-feeling 1930’s, he is a mixture of pre-planning and improvisation. It’s as if his defining moments are those where he’s unaware what he’s going to do next, where his reaction is determined by a deep driving jealousy far beyond his hatred for the Moor. “Right at the base of Iago,” says Russell Beale, “is his wife. I didn’t realise this until last week but you can tie it all back to Emilia, to their marriage and the suspicion that she might have been unfaithful. Sam has this list of questions: ‘things I want to believe’, one of them is ‘I want to believe that Iago fancies Bianca, Cassio’s mistress’ which is a totally new one to me. I don’t know where he got that.” says Russell Beale camply, “But another of them was ‘I want to believe that Emilia wanted children’. It’s a barren marriage but she loves him. And the reason why in the end it is Emilia who exposes him to be the villain is because she is the root of the problem. It’s her. It really is her. Every time Iago looks at her she reminds him of his failure.” The guts of Russell Beale’s Iago are tied in knots by the experience of extreme jealousy himself. This is a highly passionate Iago not a cold and dispassionate one.

Russell Beale is a palpably clever actor, his intellect clearly informing his acting. As he says “there has to be a consistent argument. And discovering that idea about Emilia was a thrilling moment. Sounds pathetic, doesn’t it? But the big question about Iago is why he did it. There’s no satisfactory answer but the most satisfactory I’ve got is Emilia. And the thrill of that discovery was intellectual and emotional.”

Much has been written about Russell Beale’s attraction to the grotesque in characters, to their baseness, their self-disgust. He is not a thin man and there seemed a time, as his friend Juliet Stevenson once remarked, “you couldn’t go to a play he was in where he didn’t take off his clothes.” It’s not every Edward II who takes the scalding plunge of the lethal poker bending over, held down and totally naked. He has kept his clothes on for a while now. But if you stay the course right to the end of the tremendously entertaining Dance to The Music of Time, you will see him galumphing round a wood at midnight with only a flappy pair of Big Dad’s pants for modesty and his very ample stomach lurching in time to his abandoned dancing – his own stomach, no prosthetics. When I asked him how he felt about his body he said, “You know how I feel about it, I’m not immensely proud of it. When I saw that last sequence it’s kind of upsetting.” So why do things like that? Why subject himself to such humiliation? “I suppose I am interested in the bits of these characters that aren’t very nice”.

He is savage in his portrayal of truth in people. In his performances, there is rage at human beings, our failures, our pathetic insecurities, our potential for sheer unpleasantness, which he can make seeringly comic or, as with Iago, shudderingly vile. As you talk to him you sense contradictions. Apparently overweight and unfit he is nonetheless physically controlled and powerful. Socially he often plays the “little me with little granny specs”, as one friend described it, yet you feel that his natural state is melancholy and while he is charming company he is only playing at having fun. He is not what he seems. And you can’t help wondering what he dreams about, what sexual fantasies he has that enable him to summon up such extraordinary darkness and pour it directly onto the stage. He has, according to colleagues, a huge temper, but otherwise it would seem that all his demons are reserved for the stage. Why? I don’t know. I am not his therapist, just an audience member bewitched by the results and a lunch companion laughing heartily at his splendid self-mockery.

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Shirley Bassey

“Where’s the car?” said Shirley Bassey. “The car should be here. You shouldn’t have sent it away.” We have to walk from the Langham Hilton in Portland Place to the BBC, which is also in Portland Place. In fact if it wasn’t for the pedestrian crossing that separates the two buildings, they’d be on the same side of the road as each other. But for a moment Shirley Bassey is being “Ladies and Gentlemen… Miss Shirley Bassey”. She is accompanied by a small posse of men – me, her manager, her assistant, her PR – and also a light drizzle. But they tell her not to worry. They sent the car away because it’s only a short walk. In fact it’s much further than they thought because the reception has temporarily been moved. But with no wailing, whingeing or stamping of celebrity foot, she just gets on with it. And through the wet we walk to the BBC.

When we round the corner of Broadcasting House I spot a pick-up lorry with a two-seater cabin, a ton of rubble in the back and a huge mechanical grab. “There’s your car”. Everybody else laughs. She grimaces at me in a “ha ha” bigger sister sort of way, winks and then laughs herself. That’s the thing about Shirley Bassey. She is half tomboy, the youngest of seven children from Tiger Bay, and half Maria Callas. It is a wonderful conjuring trick. And her magic wand is that mouth. She just has to throw it open to sing, or flash a dentally perfect shimmering smile, and she becomes Shirley Bassey, the Diva, the Star, the human embodiment of diamante and, to her fans, almost Divine. And what is it about her I ask that inspires their total dedication? Without hesitation she gives the first of only two definite answers in the whole interview. “Glamour”, she says. The other unequivocal answer was “No”. The question was “Would you ever think of taking a different musical direction in the future?” Bassey knows exactly what has sustained her through 44 years of showbiz, starting at sixteen, becoming a star at 20 and now drawing two open-air crowds of 14,000 to record her 60th birthday album, which is out this week. And she’s not about to change it. “I’m not a jazz singer, I’m a ballad singer.”

Many column inches have been spent recounting her personal life. Conveniently for journalists it has been a bit of a disaster and thus has contributed neatly to their cliché that it is the suffering and agony, the Judy Garland of it all, that makes her sort of woman such a great singer. To recap this life unfairly in a hundred words or so – her father left when she was two, she never saw him again; she grew up in an all-white area of Cardiff: she got pregnant when she was 17, her sister Iris raised the little girl for nine years; her first husband and manager, Kenneth Hulme, divorced her, came back and then killed himself; her second husband also her manager, Sergio Novak, left her; her second daughter, Samantha, killed herself and Shirley subsequently, and dramatically during a concert, lost her voice; her adopted son got involved with drugs and these days refuses to make contact with her; she doesn’t see her family in Cardiff now that her mother has died and she lives alone, in Monte Carlo, without a man in her life.

There it is, summarised for instant interpretation, the torch singer’s identikit CV. It is a list of personal tragedies whose supposed gift to her has been the ability to become the country’s prima heart wrenching interpreter of the great standards. Except that she has been singing these great big drag queen ballads ever since she was 16. It’s not her life that has made her voice; it’s her voice that has made her life. “I feel an outsider,” she says, “because of this incredible voice and the situation it has put me in.” It has made her a full time celebrity and her awareness of that makes her a lone figure. “I was singing at 14, professional at 16 and I don’t know anything else.” Many times she has been quoted as saying that the men who have left her have done so because they could not cope with her fame. “Love us just a pain, it really is. I don’t want it. It doesn’t suit my life” And her family, how important are they? “I don’t know. I left town at sixteen. I don’t really have any contact with them. Also I was alone when I was a child. I never really had anything in common with my brothers and sisters.” So is she happy? “I am at the moment. The older I get the better it is. I’m on my own at a time in my life when it is wonderful. I shan’t marry again. I’m not the marrying kind. I’m a celebrity and that’s it.”

She professes disbelief at what she’s achieved. And it certainly didn’t have very auspicious beginnings. At 16 she was plucked from the Working Men’s Clubs, where she could only sing at weekends “when the women were invited”. This was after all 1953. She got cast in a show, called Hot From Harlem but swiftly she decided that she hated show business. “I was the little soubrette and I left after two months. I was the youngest in the show and there was a lot of bitchiness from the other girls. I didn’t like that. There was only one white man in the show and I had to sing a duet with him. It was a Jolson number. ‘By The Light of the Silvery Moon’, I think. All the black people were supposed to be cotton pickers. Can you imagine? The English, what do we know about slavery? Although they do say the English started it.” It’s unclear whether this last remark is ironic or not. I doubt it. Shirley doesn’t do irony. She is full on and always has been. That singing style was there from the beginning.
Despite her initial misgivings she went back into another touring show and was spotted by her first manager the late Michael Sullivan. With him she ended up getting into The West End, via the Astor Club in Mayfair, in a show called “Such Is Life”. “I was kind of pushed into show business really. Although obviously I allowed myself to be,” she says now looking back from the top of her powers. “I became my image. It’s all really been out of my control. I’ve just gone along with it. Michael Sullivan started it and it’s still going.” And the reason for that is her fans. They are remarkably loyal. And, despite not having had a chart hit since the early seventies, she has never needed to try and re-invented herself for them. She had a brief link-up with the eccentric Swiss pop duo Yello in 1983 for a record, now of some cult value, called The Rhythm Divine. But it never caught on in the way that the dramatic rescue of Tina Turner by Heaven 17 four years earlier did with ‘Let’s Stay Together’. But then Bassey never needed rescuing from the doldrums because career-wise she’s never been in them. She has just carried on being that very typically British kind of show business star you think doesn’t exist any longer – Big Hair and A Family Audience. And her fans have gone all the way with her. What they want is those iridescent anthems ‘Goldfinger’, ‘I am what I am’ and ‘This Is My Life’. They want those characteristic lyrical rushes that dive into a great swoop of a high note at the end. And that’s what they get.

At her Birthday Concert at Althrop Park the burghers of Middle England gathered to celebrate their idol and her mastery of the stylishly vulgar. With their M&S picnics and their hampers, and some of them even in Dinner Jackets, it was a middle market Glyndebourne without the opera. But most definitely with a star. Her stagecraft is supreme. As she stood swathed in sparkling white, the feathers on the hood of her cloak fluttering in the wind around the soft brown of her face, you realise that she has made an entire career out of entrances and exits. And the crowd literally worships her. They hold out flowers, champagne and soft toys to her. “They overwhelm me”, she says in the ordinary light of day. “I feel like I am…” she pauses a while, “…some Goddess and they are giving up an offering. Sometimes I go home to my hotel room after the show and these thoughts come to me. Why do they do this? Why do they reach out to me like that? Why do they give me these gifts?” She seems to have no answers herself. But, although it may seems a little silly to put it like this, they do it because she is “Shirley Bassey”. She is the creation of a life lived in public. She is their creation and, even on stage with an orchestra and in front of thousands, she is truly alone. And Goddesses derive splendour from their isolation. Her audience is in awe of her but also maybe they are offering her gifts of consolation as a hedge against their own solitude. What they get in return is her total commitment. “Their applause is thrilling, just incredible. And of course I need it, it’s what keeps me going. It’s my life.” And at 60 is she now in control of it? “I have control of it when I sing.”

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Ronnie Barker

Raid your memories of Ronnie Barker and characters will tumble through your mind as if you were rifling through the picture archive at a casting agent. Butlers, businessmen, blusterers and stammerers, lags and lushes, old farts, young letches, tramps and viscounts, lecturers on every subject from basic Swedish to milk, and spokesmen for clubs and societies that had previously lurked only in a seldom dusted corner of the civic realm of Britain like the Loyal Society for the Relief of Sufferers from Pismonunciation to the Getting your Wrongs in the Word Order Society. His hallmark was accuracy. His craft mattered more to him than anything else in his life.

Barry Cryer first met him in a pub in Leeds while on tour in 1961 and then wrote extensively for him through the sixteen years of the Two Ronnies. He describes the experience as “working for two accountants”. “I mean that in the nicest possible way”, Cryer said on the phone earlier in the week, “Everything had to be absolutely accurate, cut and dried, done and dusted, immaculate. By the time they did the material you knew it couldn’t be done better.”

The Two Ronnies were a double act. And, a very skilful performer himself, Corbett was certainly not just the straight man. But when you watch the re-runs you can see the immense admiration for Barker in his eyes. Constantly on the edge of corpsing at the comic verve of his partner, the smaller of the two – Lower-watha to Barker’s Higher-watha – he gazes in awe as Barker dots every comedy ‘I’ and crosses every ribald ‘t’. Corbett always seems to be the naughty young boy just delighted to be in the company of such a master.

When you look for the comic spark in each of Barker’s performances, whether it was an immaculate miniature in a two-minute sketch or the generous, stoical cynic Norman Stanley Fletcher, you see inside all of them a watchful stillness. You get no sense of the man himself -what did we know about him after all? But you are powerfully aware of his creative presence. It wasn’t ego. Some performers are always metaphorically winking at the audience, reminding us of the personality inside. Not Ronnie Barker. Whether he is driving home a joke in a monologue with the slightly baffled raise of an eyebrow or underlining his comic punch with absolute concentrated deadpan in Porridge, what you sense is the confidence of an observer of the world’s logic. Dick Clement and Ian LaFrenais, the writers of Porridge, describe being in his company as being with someone who always seemed as if he was thinking about something. “He gave the impression that he was always hiding something of himself. Nothing dark. Just something private.”

When he retired suddenly in 1987 no one really knew why. The story he always told was that Peter Hall had asked him to play Falstaff at the National and he refused because he thought it was too long a commute from Pinner, where he lived, to The South Bank. If he was worrying about the travel rather than being inspired by the work it was, he said, time to give up. But as Clement and LaFrenais say, no one really believed him. He had distilled his life to his priorities, which were laughter and comedy. His life had its boundaries. What he did was what he loved yet he appeared to give it up at the height of his achievement. The watcher no longer wanted to be watched. Perhaps it was his health. When he last appeared on TV, for the Two Ronnies re-union in 1999, he looked gaunt. The toll of the constant trouble with his heart seemed to be showing in the strain on his previously rounded and jolly face. Maybe he feared the loss of his comic control. His greatest skill was the absolute command he had over the use of language, playing dangerously with puns, spoonerisms and a thousand double entendres. His was not the messy genius of Tommy Cooper or the diabolic energy of Ken Dodd, the manic anger of John Cleese or the incipient chaos of Eric Morecambe’s challenge to authority and status. Rather Barker had a flair that was accurate and technically brilliant underpinned by what Clement and LaFrenais call a “catalogue of observation”.

He was an actor not a comic. But he was also a sketch and monologue writer of uncommon brilliance. It was a killer combination. Cyer says that when one of the wordplay monologues would arrive in the Two Ronnies script, he’d read it and think, “Oh there goes Ron again…” And then when you saw it, the sheer accuracy of the character he had hung on the words lifted it to another plane. His technique was unparalleled. Clement and LaFrenais liken his tongue twisting monologues to the tension of watching a tightrope walker. “One tiny mistake, one fluff, and you’re dead, the cumulative effect of the whole thing collapses”. He was part of that very English tradition of word play, nonsense and absurdity that gave us Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky, Edward Lear’s Hills of the Chankly Bore and the jumblies who went to sea in a sieve and Ogden Nash’s rhyming turtle with fertile. Barker was happiest with in the land of concealed rudeness. As he once wisely observed “the marvellous thing about a joke with a double meaning is that it can only mean one thing.”

While he presented himself as a man who was doing moderately well in chartered accountancy, and as Clement and LaFrenais say the word you would most associate with him is “decency”, his comedy was a saucy seaside postcard view of sex and sexuality in a world where men at cocktail parties still pinched women’s behinds. His love of language produced such falling comic cadences – in an impersonation of Patrick Moore – as “Here is the Sea of Tranquility – here a mountain known as the Height of Absurdity, and here, two craters, known as the Depths of Depravity.” Breasts were omni-present. In the censorious days of the seventies, the nerves of equality campaigners were frayed by their apparent sexism and the Two Ronnies were not on the approved list of those of us who leant toward a more politically correct view of life. But Barker’s personal views, no doubt pretty much in line with any other married man of a time when men had “lady wives”, were less important to him than the sheer scope for naughtiness and word play with English offered by the double-entendre. It was, as Humphrey Littleton often describes his own brand, “blue chip filth”. For Barker knockers, knickers, drawers and cocks offered unbounded opportunities for eight ball juggling with the English language in the pursuit of comic naughtiness.

For all his brilliance at word play however, what will remain in our televisual memories will be his poignant and comic understanding of an ordinary man coping under the pressure of incarceration. Bringing humanity to that least likely ‘sit’ for a ‘com’, a prison, Fletcher in Porridge will be the part that will write his lasting epitaph. In a BBC interview some time ago, he said with a curious wistfulness as if he was writing his own obituary then, that he wanted to be remembered “as one of the funniest men people have seen on television. ‘He made us laugh. He did make us laugh. God Bless him’ ”. There was a certain detached confidence and that characteristic watchfulness in his words. And he certainly achieved that ambition. Goodnight from him.

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Nick Park

Nick Park has to think how old he is. “I’m thirteeee………eight. Thirty nine soon.” He started making movies when he was “Twelve…….um no…..thirteen.” He says ‘um’ and ‘er’ and ‘kind of’ quite a lot. And for a while when you first meet him, he gives the best possible impression of still being 13 going on 39, a grown-up schoolboy. He laughs nervously never mind how deftly you try to sidle up to personal questions without frightening him, he uses words like “scary” and when he sits on the big sofa in the hotel in Bristol just down the road from Aardman studios he looks like one of the Borrowers who’s ventured above the floorboards into the human’s house. Even when he received the Freedom of the City of Preston, his birthplace, last month (under section 249 (5) of the Local Government Act 1972, if you want to suggest someone you know) he stood up in the Council Chamber to make a speech, smiled apprehensively and began “Gosh…” Oh no, we thought, there must be stink bombs in the Town Hall and a frog in his pocket. He looked like a messy and not so promising pupil sheepishly accepting a tidiness award.

And that’s how everybody writes about him. Notwithstanding his three Academy Awards and four BAFTAs, which make him the most personally decorated of British film makers, and an extraordinary national TV audience of 10.6m for Wallace and Gromit’s third adventure ‘AClose Shave’ the Christmas before last on the BBC, the world’s press has happily bought the impression of a Jennings and Derbyshire figure with ink-stained fingers and a film making hobby. But you don’t find that kind of success by wandering into a studio between Cubs and half finishing your Maths homework. It requires almost monastic dedication.

His first film ‘A Grand Day Out’, which was his graduation project from the National Film and TV School, took six years and he completed it almost single-handedly, partly on the dole. By then he was thirty. One friend says of him “all that he cares about is the work, all he wants to do is make films”. Park says, talking about the long suffering, head-in-hands Dog who has captured the nation’s heart “When I see someone else modelling Gromit I get this desire to change it. We have brilliant model makers and they ask me what was wrong with what they did and I can’t really say. It’s something I can only feel when I’ve got it in my hands. I just know and I can’t explain.” Nick Park is a very driven man. But by what?

“Even when I was very small…you know when you’re good at football or ice-skating or dancing you might dream about achieving the heights of that career… I was 11 or 12… I used to dream of one day creating characters……….once I saw a Disney film…and I used to dream that one day my characters might be up there.” He often speaks in this kind of engaging jumble, which presumably is what has created the impression of daffiness. And he stumblingly admits to “not being a very clean and ordered person”. But he goes on “…when Crackerjack was on, you know the telly or whatever, I used to think ‘I’ll never get anywhere if I just watch television’ and I used to make myself go and do some more drawings and do more with the films that I was making in my parents’ attic or in the garden shed…I would make myself go and do it.” At eleven?

He frequently harks back to his childhood. “I keep talking about when I was a kid but I think that’s where a lot of it begins for me. That’s where a lot of my reference points go back to when I am thinking of ideas.” The B-movie Englishness in his films is the Preston of his childhood, where his father wallpapered the inside of their holiday caravan just like, so his father now claims, the inside of the rocket in A Grand Day Out. Wallace and Gromit’s house is a bit of remembered Bakelite but in a contemporary world. It is not nostalgic yearning by Park, who is one of the New Labourati invited to Blair’s new Britain cocktail parties, but an old fashioned atmosphere into which he can play modern incongruities to great comic effect – space ships built of wood in the basement and books called “Electronics for Dogs”. Also it provides a cosiness into which he can inject a feeling of unease.

“Like in The Wrong Trousers with the penguin Feathers McGraw. That is something to do with B-movies, those Sunday matinees on TV, with the strange lodger in the spare room who walked in and out without saying anything. There was a kind of discord and an uncomfortable feeling and I used to love that when I was young. And that’s what I loved about Bob Baker’s script. You never knew what The Wrong Trousers was really about and you never quite know who that penguin was.” Park enjoys playing with this ambiguity. And his skill at it increases with each film. “I do like making characters who are enduring and cute… although cute is not the right word for it… but at the same time mixing it with this sort of mischevious evil.”

At this point we were talking about modelling Wallace and Gromit. They have both changed physically over the three films. And if you want to see Wallace’s defining moment you have to look at just before blast off in A Grand Day Out. Wallace says “crackers… we’ve forgotten the crackers, Gromit”. Compare and contrast with the sentence before when he says “…allotment doors….”. The latter demonstrates his original small almost pursed lips, but the former is the very first appearance of his characteristic wide mouth, his very Lancashire way of tensing up his cheeks over certain words. “There was something about Peter Sallis voice that somehow insisted I make Wallace’s mouth really wide to get it around the syllables” says Park. And then he adds, “Going back to what motivates me. I think I’ve always had a desire to make a mark. One of my biggest fears is becoming bland. It’s like an aggressive streak. A kind of kick against something… it’s something inside me that wants to do something differerent and suprise people.” And then he says, while I wonder where he’s going with this, “that’s really what’s behind Wallace’s mouth I think.”

This was confusing. How was Wallace’s mouth a statement about being different? But later on we turned to talking about religion. It is something he hasn’t talked about before, but he is a practising Catholic. He was brought up in the Catholic Preston – ‘Priest – town’ – he lapsed, but aged about twenty five he found his faith again. “I cling to the basics of Christianity. I find it is a great leveller. It keeps things in perspective for me. Because I think I have always tried to find my identity in animation. I think I’ve always had low self-esteem and animation is the one thing that has supported me”. There are only two times when we talk that he becomes absolutely focussed. He is physically quite jumpy, but when he described in some detail the evolution of Wallace’s mouth and spoke quietly about the importance of his faith, he was quite still. There is a joy about the discovery of Wallace’s mouth. It is the joy of the discovery of his essential character. And when Park talks about religion he says “I feel kind of tricky talking about this subject because I find that really deep down what matters most, I can’t explain.” This is exactly the way he talked about modelling Gromit.

He was briefly evangelical. And he is charmingly keen not to be rude about the group he joined even though they clearly sounded like a bunch of raving fanatics. He says merely that “I was dissatisfied with the evangelical side because I’ve always been quite a private person and rather than go round telling other people what to believe, I have so much to learn myself. I am more contemplative these days.” However he is the very opposite as an animator. It matters hugely to him that he makes a connection with an audience. He is thrilled by the fact that W&G are national institutions. In fact he says that what gives him the greatest pleasure is that something that is so close to him can mean something to someone else. Even a young boy in Arizona who has just written him a fan letter.

This young American may come to matter a great deal to Park in the next few years as Aardman embark on their first full-length feature film for the international market with, it is strongly rumoured, Spielberg’s DreamWorks Studio and a price tag of $25m. They start to shoot next year with an intended release in the year 2000. It is called ‘Chicken Run’ and will be co-directed by Park and one of Aardman’s founders Peter Lord.

All Park will say about it at the moment is that it is set in a dark oppressive Yorkshire Chicken Farm in the 1950’s. The main character is a chicken called Ginger and she wants to escape. “We’ve also added a turbulent romance with a cockerel called Rocky.” It is Aardman’s biggest test to date. They fought off Disney who’s every offer seemed to conceal a takeover of their studio. And they are determined to remain independent and retain artistic control in their relationship with DreamWorks. “What Hollywood loves is the Britishness of what we do.” And that means the world and style they have created. As Jack Rosenthal, who worked briefly on the script, says, “It’s a different world than I’ve ever worked in. I’ve never heard someone say at a script meeting before. ‘Now wait a minute, if the chicken then indicates to the parrot…’” Park is relishing this new world although it may not be long before he returns to the familiar twosome that have made his reputation. But his parting shot on the feature was typical. “I always seem to get these enormous feelings of doubt when I’ve done something whether it works at all. With a film you feel very vulnerable. It’s very scary, really scary”. And that’s probably what drives him.

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Matt Damon

Matt Damon smokes. A lot. And he drinks proper coffee. He’s a movie star but caffeine and Marlboro lights are not very LA. But then Damon isn’t. He is an East Coast boy, born in Cambridge Massachusetts, he studied English at Harvard (although he dropped out to become an actor) and now lives in New York. And it shows. It shows in the kind of people he hangs out with in the movie world – more with Soderberg than Spielberg. It shows in the kind of movies he chooses to do – recently The Bourne Identity directed by the indy award winner Doug Liman rather than Planet of the Apes. In fact it shows in all his movies from Good Will Hunting through Rounders to the Talented Mr Ripley, Damon always plays smart.

So when you meet him you assume his intelligence. Although he also bounces like Tigger in the Pooh stories, restlessly adjusting his jeans. It’s probably just his youthfulness and not to be taken too seriously because you also come away after a couple of hours disarmed by a sense of his directness. Straight talking, strong hand shake and good manners. Matt Damon seems to be a very well brought up boy.

Yet he doesn’t naturally fit the Hollywood leading-man role. Since his career went into orbit with GWH (as they call it), he’s made a speciality of a kind of James Cagney wise guy with the brain to take on the world but, at the end of the movie, still searching for a place for his heart, his future open and uncertain. It’s a telling combination. The clever guy who is nonetheless not a shoe-in success. Gus van Sant, to some extent his mentor and the man who launched him into the sights of a thousand flash bulbs by directing his and Ben Affleck’s Oscar winning 1998 screenplay, says “In our movie he played a smart-ass who was brilliant but emotionally unable to take on the world because he was afraid of it. Which Matt isn’t. He’s good at that.”

“To be purely heroic, you know saintly, is boring.” says Damon “You want the characters you play to be human”. But why? With your career and position, why go for complicated? Why not just make hit movies and be very, very rich? “Because they’re boring and I’d be bored. I want to look back on my life and feel that I tried and fell on my face a lot. You know, playing the unrealistic hero” he says unpretentiously, “has nothing to do with exploring the human condition. You know?” And, ‘you know’, you believe that he means it. Not for nothing was he born to a woman who once told the press “my son is being used to sell products. He’s just a cog in the capitalist system”.

Van Sant laughs, when I wonder if Damon really is as straightforward as he seems or whether he’s just good at making you think it, “That’s a very good question,” he says hinting at some ambiguity. But then he confirms the impression with a fluent list of compliments. “He really is open, funny, observant, smart, well-read. That’s the guy I talk to. He’s kind of leftist in his politics but a huge sports fan. An alternative lifestyle and mainstream hobbies.” Like most decent actors he’s a contradiction. You can write different stories on Damon’s face. He’s the poster boy with the million-kilowatt smile and also the almost simian looking fellow, when his face is in repose, who seems to be taking it all pretty studiously. Un joile laid they’d call him in France.

The immediate reason for meeting him, despite the recent high profile release of The Bourne Identity, is in fact “Gerry”, a movie that he and his best mate Casey Affleck, brother of Ben, went off and improvised in the desert with van Sent directing. The opportunity is provided by the fact that he’s been in London appearing in Kenneth Lonergan’s play This Is our Youth, with two starlets from the celebrity sibling aisle of Central Casting, again the young Affleck and his girlfriend Summer, sister of River, Phoenix. When Gerry premiered at Sundance this year, to put it as gently as possible, it divided people. To be blunter, one critic described it as “a stinking diaper to the distributors”. “Another critic said”, Damon adds, “ ‘you will only ever see this movie if you are being tortured’. It’s a pretty memorable line.” Did it annoy you? “Actually no. I’d genuinely rather make something that got that kind of reaction than just ‘uh’“. Gerry is not a Hollywood film. According to Gus van Sant “Expectations at Sundance were running pretty high. The last thing Matt and I had done together was Good Will Hunting. But there’s no way the Star Wars brigade would ever like Gerry. It’s not Spielberg, Oliver Stone or James Cameron. It’s just not playing that game.”

It certainly isn’t, although it could be. It’s the story of two young friends who get lost in the desert and one of them ends up mercy killing the other. Great raw material for a strong Hollywood drama. But it is shot very, very slowly. At moments you feel that you are actually experiencing what they’re going through. And in real time too. The difference from what Hollywood would have done with the story is put perceptively by van Sant “the story of them being lost is witnessed, rather than them being lost setting off another story. It’s like you are lost with them.”

And at times it’s agonising. My notes say things like “not so much acting as orienteering”, “Samuel Beckett used to make people do nothing but at least it meant something”, “long, long, long, long, long shots of the desert to piano music”. All of which doesn’t really phase Damon at all as he explains what inspired a film that will, despite finally getting a distribution deal from Thinkfilm for over £1m, “never get anywhere near the multiplexes”.

It started with a news story. In August 1999 two young men, Raffi Kodikan and David Coughlin, in the break between school and college, went hiking in the Carlsbad Caverns National Park in the New Mexico desert. They got lost and after four days, panicked and dehydrated, Kodikan claimed later that his friend begged him to kill him. Which he did. Damon had followed the tale in the papers. The reports coincided with a conversation one night in LA when Affleck, he and van Sant were having dinner and talking about one of Damon’s early films, All The Pretty Horses, directed by Billy Bob Thornton.

“We were talking about a shot that Billy had done that didn’t make it into the final cut. I saw it in a rough cut. An actor called Robert Patrick who played my father just walked away from the camera. And the shot was about two minutes long. The camera didn’t move. It just watched this guy and you kind of went from that point of ‘OK I understand what this shot is trying to tell me’ to ‘cut away, cut away, cut away, it’s too long. What the fuck am I doing looking at this shot?’ To then getting past that to this deeply resonant image. I had tears running down my face as he was walking and walking away. So Gus and I were talking about that phenomenon in filmmaking and whether you can get past people’s discomfort, and they can get past it, and there’s something on the other side of that, that, if done right, can be really beautiful and profound.”

Well it can be. Or it can be just bloody boring. Gerry is neither and both. At times it’s staggering. Shot entirely in natural light, the scenery often out-performs both of the perfectly fine, but nothing to write home about, performances. But at other times you just think about your shopping, the fly buzzing round the screen or the sandwich the publicist brought you to eat. Or you wonder why Damon did it? Is he trying deliberately to expand his range for the public?

“Sure. But I don’t know if it will because so few people will see it or the play I’ve been doing. It’s for me really. I think it’s a selfish thing. I want to have an expanded range. I want to be pushed. I want to try and do things that are interesting and challenging. You see these roles come along and you think ‘Yeah I could do that and yes that would probably be a big hit’ but I don’t want to do them. Like Planet of the Apes for instance. I love Tim Burton, who directed it, but I did Bourne Identity instead because I thought the role was more interesting. And I wouldn’t have done that unless Doug Liman, who did Swingers and Go, was directing it. Although I knew that the Planet of the Apes would make squillions.” And by the end of the summer it had taken $180 million. Although The Bourne Identity made a pretty respectable $89m.

To a certain extent it also lives up to his expectations. It’s about a CIA operative who is struck by amnesia while on a job. Damon makes a very credible agent, his Tai Kwando is well up to scratch and as ever, despite the boys heroics, his portrayal is subtle and gives Bourne’s quest for his identity a quizzical and sympathetic take so that you actually care. It’s also been a good money-spinner for him. When asked what he was paid he says directly “I got ten million.” So he’s in no danger of veering off into the rough towards a career in art house movies. But whatever the potential of the Bourne series, and although he only signed for one there is sequel potential, he clearly wants more than cheesecake parts.

“I don’t want to encourage a downturn in my career, but I do want to do things that keep me interested. If someone become a huge movie star they can fall into the trap where an audience won’t let them do certain things.” He’s not complaining. “There are good and bad to what I do. There’s good and bad in every career. But the good far overrides the bad. The chance to do what I want to do – Gerry and being over here and doing this play – just shows that the good so far outweighs the bad that it’s not worth whingeing about. Also I have been able to do some different stuff, so far. And it’s still early. I’m just 31. It can all still come crashing down.”

He always talks about “movie stars” in the third person. “Yes.. er … um.. It’s still hard to wrap my brain around the idea… that I’m a movie star, if you see what I mean. I don’t know. It’s just easier to think of other people in those terms. For me anyway. And it’s something that’s always changing and shifting. Tom Cruise is the only one that proves the rule that it’s not cyclical. He’s the only one for whom it hasn’t dipped. I mean it took Tom Hanks a long while to become a star.”

Damon’s parents may well be his compass through all this reflectiveness. They seem a tight family. He has a brother three years older, who is an artist and married with kids. His parents divorced after being married for only six years. But they all live reasonably within reach of each other on the East coast. “I really admire both of my parents”, he says, “I love them but they are so incredibly different from each other that my brother and I can’t imagine that they were ever married. Although I am very like both of them. I don’t think there’s a dominant one.”

The tabloids would have it that Damon and his brother grew up in a “hippy commune” in Cambridge. He laughs. “We grew up in a co-op house. Six families who got together. We all had our separate apartments, but we all owned the house so we fixed it up together. They had a community meeting every week and they discussed things to do with the house. More than anything they had similar political philosophies. Very lefty, um… group of people. Yeah they were a bit hippyish, but not really out there. It seemed very normal. Still does looking back on it.” His mother is an academic, a professor of early childhood learning. And his dad a businessman. Much has been written about her, mainly stemming form the anti-capitalist remark, which is pretty eye-catching. But not so much about him.

“My mum always said ‘don’t go for the money, do whatever it is you want to do’. My dad said the exact same thing. But they lived their lives very differently.” He went into business to support his two young sons. At one point he discovered a niche the tax laws, which enabled corporations to get tax relief if they invested in low-income housing. “It was a very rare win win situation and he just went around raising awareness about it and setting up schemes. My mother was doing what she wanted to do, but my Dad was being a businessman, which wasn’t what he wanted. But he was providing for us. He was saying the same things as her but coming from the different end of the spectrum. When he had put away enough to raise us he quit business and became a teacher. He taught fifth grade when we were 5th graders. He was always really good with kids. He went back into business and eventually started his own called Beacon Hill Capital.

This background clearly heavily influences Damon’s career choices, which seem very clear headed when he explains them. “Both my parents gave me a sense of making work something that we love to do. I could have a lot more money, if I had made different choices, those movies, the Ripley’s of the world don’t pay as well as the other things but they are much more rewarding. I couldn’t do films that I don’t feel I have any spiritual investment in.”

‘Ripley’ is generally thought to have been a big risk for Damon. Sydney Pollack who produced it said “It is so risky for a hot young leading man – the newest man in town, in some ways – to play a gay guy.” And a psychopathic one at that. But Damon disagrees. “The only risk was that it wouldn’t perform at the Box Office. But coming off the back of The English Patient everyone was interested in seeing what Anthony (Minghella) would do next. A risk? With a filmmaker of that calibre and a script that good? I’d say it was an honour.”

An honour it may have been, but didn’t he backtrack on Patricia Highsmith’s original intentions when she wrote the books? He once said in an interview that he had “tried to find the humanity in Ripley”. Isn’t that kind of thinking just a typical Hollywood ploy to soften the edges of a dangerous film? Damon politely and painstakingly disagrees. What he says is worth reading in its entirety.

“ I think Ripley has incredible beauty. In the book he’s much more of a Lecter type. And the characters he is killing are rather two-dimensional and you kind of want him to kill them. Patricia Highsmith describes someone in a letter as a ‘real Marge Sherwood type’ (the Gwyneth Paltrow role). She loathed these characters. Whereas Anthony loved them and wanted to make three-dimensional characters of them, which is why Jude and Gwyneth and Jack Davenport and Philip Seymour Hoffman were such fully fleshed out characters in the movie. So when Ripley kills them it is at a price to himself and the movie becomes a descent into purgatory.”

“It’s a much more horrible price that he has to pay that you don’t have the shot of shackles at the end. You can’t put it on some external authority figure to punish him. If he was punished you’d end with some balance, but here there‘s this terrible imbalance. And he ends up in the basement for the rest of his life and more than anything he is alone, which is exactly where he was at the beginning of the movie. This guy who has a tremendous capacity for love. And you see it with Kingsley the Jack Davenport character. He is the love of his life he has found his soul mate and he has to kill him. And he’s going to spend the rest of his life alone with the understanding of what he has done. It’s torture. It’s a terrible ending… I put forth that he’d prefer getting caught and being put in prison and someone to wrap him on the wrist and rescue him from his sexuality.”

Wow. Prosecution rests, intellectually exhausted.

Despite this ability to articulate what he wants to do on screen, Damon is wary of interviews. This I discovered by accident. Gus van Sant has said at one stage that having a particular look – he meant being a pin-up – makes certain roles harder for Damon to play. So I casually wondered whether Damon thought the public thinking he was pretty had limited his scope? “I never though of myself as pretty. I think,” he says slowly, “what limits your roles more than anything is giving interviews.” Oh? Why do them, then? “Otherwise there’s no way to get a movie out there. But Edward Norton (his co-star in Ringers) has this really good theory on it. The less you know about an actor, the less willing you are to go with him somewhere else. If you know where I was raised and what I’m like and then they see me play a role in ‘American History X’ they’re just not going to believe me. The more mystery you can maintain is the key to the different kind of roles you can play.”

But Matt you’re not a mysterious actor anyway. Some actors are. Woody Harrelson or Kevin Spacey are even though we know lots about them because they give lots of interviews. Isn’t it just to do with who you are on screen? And you’re not mysterious. You’re very open. A long pause and a rather shocked look. “Maybe…. maybe..” Pause. “Maybe…” He’s thinking and then he says rather quietly. “That would be tremendously limiting.” Another pause and then “You’re probably right. You have a better sense of how I am seen than I do. Yeah. Terribly limiting. In the long run.”

But one of the surprises about watching Damon’s movies is that he is not quite what you think in them. Sure he is a movie star. There’s glamour to him. The shaft of light that glances off his early fame illuminates his career and what someone once called “his simultaneous stargasm with his pal, Ben”. But as Affleck heads off to himbo-star territory, Damon turns out to be the subtle and committed actor. Ripley especially is a meticulous construction. The thoughts behind the eyes of this lost and damaging soul are impenetrable, understandable, ambiguous, amoral and vulnerable all at once. And yes, even mysterious. He has considerable craft. Van Sant says he first ever saw him at an audition for To Die For, which starred Nicole Kidman, and in which Joaquim Phoenix was eventually cast rather then Damon. “Matt came in and was looking for work. And I got really excited about him because he was a great actor. He could do anything I asked him, any small idea. He was almost like a machine because he wanted to work so bad, he would do anything without discussion. Laura Ziskin, who has just produced Spiderman, just said ‘that’s a movie star’”.

He certainly brings what people call “star quality” and it has helped him earn more money that he “ever dreamt I would in my whole life”. But all the way through he has wanted to do things that tickle his talent and his intellect. Some would say, though he won’t be drawn at all on the subject, unlike Ben Affleck. Together though they still have the company they started with two friends, Live Planet Productions. Last year they had a series on HBO called Project Greenlight. This, to quote Damon, was the “largest screenplay competition ever.” It was an interactive contest where in order to log your screenplay you had to agree to read and rate three others. They had 2,500 submissions, which were whittled down to 250. They were made into short videos, containing one scene from each. That took it the list down to thirty, which Damon, Affleck and their business partners and co-writers Chris Moore and Sean Bailey read. The winner Stolen Summer, by Peter Jones, became notorious because aside from the $1million prize money from Miramax, the making of it was filmed and this first time director somewhat humiliated on prime time TV. Although Damon defends exposing the guy on TV.

“We wanted it to be more of an educational tool for anyone who wanted to make a movie on shoestring budget” says Damon, “We wanted people to se the passion behind the movie. “ He is being tactful. It was embarrassing. And you get the sense that Miramax was not that happy. The runner up, possibly a better script, Speakeasy, by “a kid from Georgia called Brendan Murphy” catches Damon’s enthusiasm rather more. In fact he and Affleck are putting up half the money themselves to film it. It was shot in the summer. “We didn’t get into this thing to be moguls,” says Damon, “We got into it to work on things that we think are interesting, that we think will make good film and TV.

Their company is also developing a TV series for the ABC network called Push Nevada about, would you believe a town in Nevada called Push. They shot a pilot in the late spring and have been commissioned for a series. But that apart, Damon will maybe start working on a screenplay with both Affleck’s “if we can come up with an idea that we all like.” And he hasn’t seen a script that interested him for a long while. “I guess I won’t do a film for the rest of the year.” The next time he will be in front of the camera will be a Stephen Soderburg film in September 2003. It’s called The Informant, based on a book of the same name by a New York Times writer called Kurt Eichenwald.

Meanwhile he’ll maybe try and seek out a new play. He gets very voluble talking about Stephen Adly Guirgis, the writer of Jesus Hopped The A Train, which was just in London, directed by his friend from Ripley, Philip Seymour Hoffman. The writer’s previous work, ‘In Arabia We’ll All Be Kings’ was says Damon having seen it in New York “a beautiful play. Really well written. Really well written. Really well acted. Really moved by the play. So impressed by the actors.” You can’t stop him.
His enthusiasm is part admiration and part aspiration. He’s not on a mission so much as a on a rather quiet trail of quality. Whether Gerry will do it, I doubt. It’s a curiosity, rather than a great film. But by doing it Damon will remind anyone of the seriousness of his intent. It reminded him what he’s in it all for. “It’s so easy to forget on a movie set,” he muses about Gerry, “what the point of everything is, because there are so many people doing so many different things. You don’t need the guy to bring you cappuccino.” Even if people still insist that you’re a movie star, you just need the chance to act.

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Mary-Louise Parker

Mary-Louise Parker rarely gives interviews. And she’s never given one to a British newspaper. You might say ‘well who is she anyway, so who cares’? Well she’s one to watch that’s who she is. Although you shouldn’t conclude from that that she is some new arrival just embarking on the slippery slide up the greasy pole of showbiz success. She’s been around for a while and actually she’s THE one to watch. But her professional life has been spent much more on stage than film, which is probably why her name doesn’t dance on your lips in the way her talent demands.

At almost 40, she’s one of the very best actresses of her generation who, on and off Broadway, has been nominated for every stage award on offer; a full set of formal professional compliments that culminated in the year 2000 when she finally took home every one of them for her performance in David Auburn’s Proof.

This week she will arrive in Britain on television in The West Wing as Amy Gardner, the Women’s Rights campaigner who falls for Josh Lyman (Bradley Whitford) in a relationship redolent of the kind of Hepburn/Tracy romance, wit and sophistication to which the political drama so successfully aspires. Sex crackles through every moment of their verbal jousting. “I want a seven minute sex scene “, she says with a bit of a bad-girl glint, “Just me and Brad. And then the whole time we’re talking in perfect paragraphs.”

While she has been so lauded for her stage work, Parker has not been without some modest film success. She packed in far more than the role had room for when she played Ed Norton’s wife in the Hannibal Lecter pre-quel, Red Dragon, and people invariably remember her poignant portrait of the battered young wife in Fried Green Tomatoes At The Whistle Stop Cafe. And she gave expression to a career long commitment to the fight against AIDS by appearing uncontroversially with Whoopie Goldberg and Drew Barrymore in the slushy road movie Boys on the Side in 1995, where she played a young woman dying of AIDS, and more challengingly in 1990 in Longtime Companion the first major feature film release about AIDS, directed by her mentor Norman Rene who died in 1997. And she has just completed filming Angels in America, the Tony Kushner stage trilogy that used AIDS as the binding narrative in a sprawling and brilliant critique of contemporary America. Directed by Mike Nicholls and co-starring Meryl Streep, Al Pacino and Emma Thompson it is, she says “one of the greatest parts I have ever read. I have never got a part that I wanted so badly.”

This conversation has taken a long time to organise. Stressed publicists combined with apparently punishing schedules – changed irregularly at the whim of the West Wing producers – meant that the time and place altered day-by-day from New York to LA. Finally we’re in New York where she lives with the actor Billy Cruddup. She apologises. Very nicely. “I got back one time from LA and twenty-five minutes later I got a call saying can I come back. I hadn’t even unpacked my bags. So however frustrated you were…. “ But she concedes “Yeah I know … I will for ever be known now as the bitch who scheduled and re-scheduled.” Well, yes you will.

But even though she definitely confirms the reputation that precedes her for being a bit of a flake, the pain swiftly subsides because she’s good fun to talk to. The bits in between the often rather dreamy pauses are filled with intelligent, smart, yet often slightly vague, conversation, which is punctuated with the realisation that she is very beautiful indeed and thank goodness is wearing large actressy dark glasses. She is a beguiling combination of the discreet and un-showy with flamboyance and revelation. She barely talks about her family and upbringing, yet she’ll appear naked in Esquire. Twice. The second time she only did it on the condition that the editor did it too “so that he could get the feel of the experience. That way when he next suggests a photo or looks at one, he will have the whole other, more deeply informed point of view. Egalitarian. I’ll show you some of mine if you show me some of yours.” She’s a classy kind of tomboy.

We had to move restaurants too because the first one – an Upper East Side fashionable euro-deli – was full of thin Upper East Side un-euro women with kids who screamed. So we ended up in an unfashionable diner two blocks away. And there, instead of just paying the minimum to be able to sit at a table now we only wanted coffee, Ms Parker ordered apple sauce and a Greek salad. She then had it wrapped and given to me to take to Central Park after the interview to give to a homeless person. “You can leave it on a bench” she said helpfully. It was a genuinely nice, if rather inconvenient gesture. It seemed typical of her scatty kind of passion.

On being asked about her family she heads you off by saying, “It would cost me and them more than anyone would gain by reading it.” But what you can glean from her is that she was an army brat and she lived all over the place as a child. She went to North Carolina School of the Arts in Winston Salem – “you know where that is?” she asks helpfully – and she clearly adores her parents. She wrote of her father in Esquire that he was “a sweetheart, a warrior, a magician, and, these days, a positive happy man. He is seventy-six and he’s improving.”

She eventually ended up living with her “incredibly supportive” sister in Texas when she decided to audition for plays. There had been no life long desire to be an actress and no moment of revelation when she realised that was what she wanted to do. “I don’t ever remember wanting to be an actress before I knew what it was. I was too shy at school to do it. I was terribly unsocial. Very solitary. I oftentimes felt a real inability to communicate as a child. It was excruciating. It was funny when I started acting because it was just easy, natural. It is the one time I feel that I can fully communicate with the world and I feel completely unself-conscious, honest and present in the world in a way that it is often difficult for me to feel in life. Before I was this incredibly awkward, lonely, look-at-me-wrong-and-I’ll-cry kind of girl. It transformed me absolutely socially.”

And she believes that theatre transforms audiences too. “If you ever go to the theatre and you sit there and (in a play you’re not enjoying very much) take a moment to look around and maybe you’ll light on a face of someone who is enjoying it and for that one moment that person is relieved of whatever burden they had when they walked in. People need a moment to catch their breath. And it is where you understand empathy too. You get to put yourself in the role of someone who is totally different from you.” Then she adds, “Sometimes I think Oh God shouldn’t I be in The Peace Corps or whatever, but you know someone has to entertain the Peace Corps… though of course the people in The Peace Corps can’t afford to go to the theatre at the moment…. we’ll work on that one.”

Parker comfortably fits the kind of liberal actress stereotype so despised by the right-wing American commentators, the kind of people who call her show The Left Wing. But ask her if she’s politically aware and she responds instantly “Oh no, I am not. I am trying. The show teaches me a lot. My brother gave me two books for Christmas: the dictionary of American politics and a book of legal terms. I’m still on the phone though every two minutes to him, going ‘Jay, what’s a gag rule?’. I just love that about the show. Aaron (Sorkin, the writer) doesn’t pander to the audience. I love that I barely understand it when I watch it. I think if you raise the bar a little people will step up to it. If you keep feeding them reality TV the whole time that’s all they’ll want. And programmes like Batchelor (You don’t know it? Lucky for you!) make me feel embarrassed to be a human being and an American”.

President Bush just makes that worse for her. “I mean he’s trying to stop abortion in this country. He says he’s devoted to life or whatever his exact phrase was and now he’s about ready to bomb people. That doesn’t sound like an intelligent person.” Like so many Americans she’d rather have Martin Sheen’s fictional President than the real one. “You know I love this country, I really do. But I have a very hard time going to other countries and being faced with any kind of animosity for being an American. I feel like ‘F*** you. They don’t answer my calls in the White House.’ “ Though of course they do on TV.

She has recently taken her politics to the screen, in another way than her fictional forays into women’s rights on the West Wing. After September 11th she made a series of ads to counter Hate Crime. “Thank you for asking about that”, she says, “No-one ever asks about that. Everybody was looking for something to do. On TV I saw the story about the Sikh gentleman who was murdered at the supermarket in Arizona and I was really devastated by it. That’s terrorism too. We don’t need to be starting little wars. So we made these ads called Stop The Hate. In the ad we say ‘Remember what the flag you’re waving stands for. In America there’s either room for everyone or it’s not America’. You know there’s no such thing as someone who is more American. We’re all citizens”. The ads showed on TV, but nothing like as often as they were supposed to. “There’s something called the ad council. I’ve been trying to get an answer about that from them, but no-one seems to want to talk about it.”

I guess it’s facile to say that Amy Gardner would get an answer. But that’s what makes Parker such a great actress. She really is nothing like the women she plays. In fact she’s so good she’s barely recognisable in them. How different I think ‘Politically focussed Amy and well intentioned Mary-Louise’, as I deliver our second lunch to a bench in Central Park.

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Lucie Arnaz

It’s pretty stupid and rather unfair but, when I walked through the door of the dressing room at the Drury Lane Theatre, I expected to see the redhead, the ditsy Hattie Carnegie hat model from New York who became the funniest slapstick comedienne on American TV. I expected to fall around, get wet, end up covered in flour as, like her namesake mum, the daughter pouted and mugged and pratfalled hysterically through the afternoon. Pretty silly, I know. But Lucille Ball, with her buckled mouth and her unfeasibly eye lashed eyes constantly opened wide by the thunderbolt surprise of life, was so famous, so notable for being the first woman to do what she did on TV and so much a comedy icon that it seemed inevitable that her daughter would not just be named after her but moulded in her image. Lucy was unavoidable television. In 1951 CBS launched I Love Lucy and the whole of America immediately did. At one point 99.9% of American households said they knew who she was. And now her daughter Lucie Arnaz, who was literally born into show business as her mother was pregnant when she did the pilot for that first TV show, is in London starring in The Witches of Eastwick, Cameron Mackintosh’s new musical comedy.

But when the door does open it turns out that she’s nothing like her mother at all. With dark hair and her father, Desi Arnaz’s, smoother features she’s a natural good looker. Great bones, good skin. She’s 49. So have you had any nips and tucks then? Anything done? “No”, she says, “but thanks”. Good genes. “When my dad took care of himself, he looked damn good.” Then she adds referring to his sad alcoholism, “He just didn’t take very good care of himself for most of his life. He was one of America’s great tragedies”. In fact after a couple of hours it’s pretty clear that she’s much more her father’s daughter than her mother’s. She knows that people think of Lucy the first time they meet her and it doesn’t seem to worry her at all. “When you walked in there were two people there for the first moments – yeah?” she says later. “It’s hard when someone knows you’re related to a famous person not for them to see the famous person first.” But she never felt in competition with Lucy. “I don’t look like her. I don’t gravitate towards projects like hers and even when people send me scripts like that I think, even if I wasn’t her daughter, ‘that’s so Lucille Ball and she did it so well, if I can’t do it better why bother to do it all?’ All I could do was not to recreate her, but that has never been my instinct. I just wisely stay in my own sandbox. And that is something my mum made me feel good about. She would come and see plays and say ‘I could never do this’. “

If Lucie Arnaz wasn’t such an engaging and frank woman, you’d be tempted to spend the whole afternoon just picking away at the ‘I-was’Lucille-Ball’s-daughter’ spot, just in case the nagging suspicion that she might have been a Joan Crawford “Mommie Dearest” turns out to be true. And the less Lucie said the more you’d want to know. But it clearly wasn’t the case. She had a fine childhood not least because of her dad. And when you ask her something she just answers it, even though she’s been asked the ‘what-was-she-really-like?’ questions a million times before. So just for the record, “Lucy was completely not ditsy. She was a very responsible, serious person in real life, frightened that something would happen to her kids. It was important to her to be in control and not let things go wrong. A lot had gone wrong in her early life, death and poverty and everything, and she wasn’t going to let that happen again.” She answers fluently.

And Desi? She is less fluent. “I really loved his music… his passion”. Pause. “His passion for living in general. He understood life in its most natural romantic form. His downfall was he liked to drink his rum. If you’re not happy you can look elsewhere for things that make you feel better?” Was he not happy with Lucy then? “Oh yeah he was happy with Lucy. He was just never happy with Desi.” He was the one who in the beginning balanced the business and he knew that “she was it. Her talent was it. He never for a minute thought it was the I Love Ricky show. Once she tripped on a cable in the studio and one of the writers caught her. And Desi said after she’d gone by, ‘Be careful boys. Anything happens to her, we’re all in the shrimp business.’ “

“Little” Lucie, as she was know for years because “everyone in the house was called Lucy or Desi so when you yelled for someone it was the only way of knowing who you were after”, has got a good handle on being her parent’s daughter and even though at one stage they were the most famous people in America, she still thinks that pretty much everybody has to do that no matter who their parents were. Since her parents both died, she has become interested in genealogy. Even though it occasionally irritates her to be “their PR, their telephone operator, to be a conduit to them” and she says, “I didn’t really appreciate being an heiress, the keeper of the flame”, when she inherited reels of home movies, hundreds of photos and sheaves of diaries they began to fascinate her. And starting about a year after her mother died in 1989 she spent three years making a TV documentary out of them called Lucy & Desi – A Home Movie. It won her an Emmy in 1993. Talking of her parents, as she does often rather formally as if they belonged to the world and not just her and her brother as in fact they did, she says, “I learnt so much about these people that I got around to believing that it’s a journey that everybody should take. It’s not really genealogy because that’s the family tree and who’s related to whom and blood relatives all the way back and boogadabugadaboo. No, to me the interesting stuff is only a few generations back. What matters was what happened to my grandmother DeDe, why she raised my mother the way she did and so that’s why my mother raised me the way she did. If you understand where your parents were at a certain time, and the burdens they were carrying you can see why they made the choices they did.” Later with typical generosity she says, “It’s a non blaming kind of thing. Instead of me thinking about my mom ‘you never had time to play with me’, I think ‘oh you poor thing you were never played with when you were young’.”

Arnaz was independent from the start. She had always wanted to perform live, but aged 17 she went into her mother’s third TV show, “Here’s Lucy” as a regular, having guested occasionally on the one before, “The Lucy Show”. Her parents were divorced but Lucie and Desi jnr played her mother’s kids. But she still didn’t pursue her theatrical career until Vivian Vance, who played Ethel the neighbour in “I Love Lucy” and whom she adored as “a real tell it like it is kind of broad”, said one holidays “what are you doing in your hiatus?” “So I listed all the holiday capitals of the world, because I had just being going on vacation. “ And Vance said, “Girl, you’re a theatre person, I know you. Don’t get stuck in a TV series for the rest of your life.” So Arnaz started to audition and aged 22 ended up playing Sally Bowles in Cabaret in San Bernadino, Califormia. Her first Broadway was the Neil Simon/Marvin Hamlisch musical “They’re playing our song” co-starring with the legendary American comic Robert Klein in 1978. A couple of years later she married her second husband, Larry Luckinbill, whom she describes as “a real actors’ actor. You know he’s a great actor who’s never been a star.” And then she had her first child, which began a twenty-year balancing act between the demands of her family and those of her career.

Her mother’s life made her acutely aware of what it was to crave and work for success. “I’ve seen people who have had great riches and fame and all the above and weren’t that much happier than Alice Briddingham’s parents over the street who were in linoleum. Look at my parents, one of them was an alcoholic and the other a workingwoman, quite unique in the eyes of the public and very successful and I don’t think she ever thought she was. So it was a little bit easier for me to weigh up the options and get the balance. I thought to myself I chose to have these kids for a reason and the one thing I don’t want to do is to get old and wonder why I haven’t got a relationship with them.” So the percentage has been about 60:40 kids to work, spanning Broadway, national US tours, some less successful television including her own show and also a comedy drama that was effectively killed off by premiering the night the Gulf War started, called Sons and Daughters. And a nightclub act, which kept her going when not much was happening in the late Eighties. “I was in LA and not much was happening. In fact it was “Hello, I’m out here. Does anybody care?” I might as well having been selling ice cream and cupcakes on the moon. And an offer came through to do a solo show of Irving Berlin to celebrate his birthday.” Where? She roars with laughter “Sicilly. I thought”, she says making a Cosa Nostra nose, “whose list am I on?” But she accepted, put the act together and ten years later is still doing it with changes.

So successful, overall? “Enough,” she says phlegmatically. “I guess I am as successful as I wanted to be.” And despite her being pretty well off she feels the need to work. As a result of nosy questioning, we discuss her finances in some detail. “Mother never left $385 million or whatever it said in the papers. It was $22m. But by the time taxes came off and Gary (Lucy’s second husband) had his share and the house turned out to be worth £5m less than originally valued, I guess I was left with over a million”. I secretly assume that it’s rather more. “God I don’t know why I’m telling you all this. But I personally don’t care about these things. I inherited money and most of it I put into the house we live in Westchester.” She laughs. Then she rings the next day. “A million dollars is a lot if you’re a poor person living in the Bowery. I am not poor. I am a millionaire. But I don’t want to live off my parents’ money. I would kill myself if that were my life. I will not live off that money.” She really is at pains to say that she honestly doesn’t want people to think she was complaining. And she definitely wasn’t. She isn’t that kind of person.

When she got the role of Alexandra, the sculptress, in The Witches of Eastwick, she was without an agent mainly because of the conditions she had been putting on the work she would do. She and Larry had made a pact that they would not both leave home to work. “I wouldn’t tour, I wouldn’t go to Australia and so I had cooked my goose.” Then a casting agent she knew as a great friend rang. “Vinny called me with this glowing…… I mean, I said ‘what is it, my birthday?’ He’s going on and on about how much he likes me and how I’m the reason he stays in the business. And I m thinking this is amazing but what does he want. And he says ‘I’m buttering you up, there’s this fantastic script form Cameron Mackintosh, but you can’t meet him unless you’re prepared to go London for 15 months. I shouted at him ‘you creep’ ha ha ha.” But in the end after seeing Mackintosh once and singing for the composers she got the job and her husband persuaded her to do it. She is now installed in a flat off Sloane Square waiting for her 15-year-old daughter to arrive “with her entire life. She is not thrilled about having to come here. I told her that she’ll hate me now, but in five years time she can say she spent a fantastic year in London and she’ll be so cool.” Her other two kids will stay in The States, her oldest boy having just got into the University of Vermont and the middle one is at a boarding school in Massachusetts. “Larry will be London Bridge for a while travelling back and forth between.”

Witches of Eastwick, written by two young Americans John Dempsey and Dana P Rowe, is based on both the book and the film. Arnaz’ role is an amalgam of the Cher part in the film and the woman in the novel. In the stage show she has been married but her husband has left her for and 18 year old and she has a son of that age. “She’s very, sarcastic and artistic and motherly. She’s got a lot of layers. She’s where I was about ten or maybe five years ago as far as not necessarily knowing who I am or what my worth is or what I am supposed to be doing here. She does not feel very good about herself and I know that feeling. I may not be there right now, but I know how to play it. I certainly understand someone who doesn’t know where their best talent lies.”

“There’s a message in the show,” she says, “although it’s a musical comedy and we don’t hit people over the head with it. So the show has got lighter since we started rehearsing. But underneath all the fun and the laughter it’s about the dangers of letting darkness into your life. If you start thinking that other things outside your life can make you happy that’s when you get into trouble.” We’re talking about her parents again. Although maybe more about her father, towards whom she so obviously has a daughter ‘s devotion. She is so clear about her mother and so soft about her father, I wonder if she has a particular image of him. There’s a hiatus and suddenly she is ambushed by her own emotions and she says, “I’m going to cry. It’s hard.” And she tells a story.

“When you said that, the one that popped into my mind was being on a boat aged 15 and him in his ripped red and white chequered lucky fishing shirt, his cigarillo (she clicks her tongue) chewed, hanging out of the side of his mouth… a wet, torn fishing straw hat. Helping me hold onto my fishing rod. He wouldn’t put his weight on it but he would just show me how to hold it. He made me do it myself and helped me reel in my first couple of marlin.” She imitates his voice “One more time…. up…. reel it down, ata girl, up….. reel it down one more time… ata girl for 45 minutes. Then he’d get a big bottle of beer or seawater and pour it over my head to cool me off…. that particular sunny, hot, wonderful day was such a great fun day… him showing me, teaching me, trusting me, not doing it for me but just teaching me how. And I don’t think I could have had three kids naturally if I hadn’t caught those two marlins by myself….” She laughs, wipes her eye and says “You just don’t think you can do it and you hear him saying ‘You can do it, just one more time’ “. Odds on then it’ll be Desi she thinks about on opening night. Not Lucy.

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Kenneth Branagh

It is a hot, rather drizzly evening in London. And not much more than four years after we first agreed to do this interview, Kenneth Branagh and I finally sit down and talk together. It never seemed like it was going to take that long. At first when the interview date kept on stalling, I just thought he was busy. Branagh’s always busy. That’s what Branagh does. He stays busy. He puts Shakespeare on screen – four so far: Henry V, Much Ado About Nothing, Hamlet and Love’s Labours Lost. And he does pretty much everything on set bar making the tea and painting the scenery.

He stars, he directs, he writes the screenplays. And in between he appears on telly and stage or writes his autobiography, the breathless pace of which just makes you want to lie down for a while. He’s got artistic ants in his pants. In one year, 1992, he delivered a screenplay on New Year’s Eve – Peter’s Friends, which only a very small group of us actually like – and the film was in the can by March 24th. By September that year he had directed and starred in Much Ado About Nothing. By December he’d made a short film with John Gielgud called Swan Song, which got an Oscar nomination. Oh and by the way, before Christmas he’d played Coriolanus at the RSC. So I just thought he was busy. And clearly in need of some kind of therapy to work out why he so obsessively filled his days like that. How useful to the world does a Protestant boy from Ulster have to be?

Then I thought he was getting difficult. A bit starry. Too important to be interviewed. Because after seeing him last year in dazzling form as Richard III at The Crucible in Sheffield directed by Michael Grandage, it seemed, with him back on stage after ten years and clutching rave reviews, the perfect time to do an interview.

But no. It was on, but then it was off. He was still busy. Or something. First, with half the rest of UK thespiana, he had to go and do his bit for the export trade, as Gilderoy Lockhart in the second Harry Potter film, which turned out to be a bit of a comedic triumph as he created a witty combination of smarmy cowardice and greasy opportunism. He was also just back from a snow bound stint on a telly miniseries, playing Ernest Shackleton of The South Pole. So maybe he was just exhausted. Or cold. And I assumed that he was being precious. He just couldn’t find the time to slip off the smoking jacket and raise himself from his actor’s couch long enough for a chat. You see, if you read the wrong papers and take Branagh’s public image at face value, it’s very easy to lapse into those shallow cliché’s about him being the smug, theatrical, marrying-Emma-Thompson-at-Cliveden-and-getting-just-a-little-above-himself kind of person beloved of the mid market tabloids. It’s far too easy.

Until you meet him. Or talk to his friends about him. Or interrogate people who have worked with him. Then you realise fairly quickly that, as his great friend and the bluff-talking producer on Henry V Stephen Evans, says, “Oddly he’s not a natural extrovert at all. He really has to push himself to do all that stuff. None of what he has done is his natural habitat.”

It turns out that Branagh just doesn’t really like doing interviews at all. I think they faintly embarrass him. He’s torn between the expectation that he’s supposed to put on a performance, which he certainly can, and what he’d rather do which is talk about his work as openly as possible, which the press seems less interested in. So he puts them off because he’s not so sure about his relationship with them. But in the end he kept his word. And here we are.

Trying to make sense of Branagh is clouded by so much of the drivel that has been written about him. If you read the press cuttings here are some things you would think you know in descending order of truthfulness: he once asked Prince Charles for advice when he was the youngest ever Henry V at Stratford; he married Emma Thompson pretty much for publicity; that overlapped for a short while with going out seriously with Helena Bonham-Carter; he falls in love with all his leading ladies; the fact that his Frankenstein film flopped so badly at the box office means he’ll never work in Hollywood again; he thinks the world of himself; his whole life is a constant fur-lined Jacuzzi of celebrity. And yah boo sucks, he’s not a very good actor anyway.

Here are things that you may not know about Branagh. He’s quite shy, he meditates with a Buddhist mantra, he has a terrier mutt called Susie, he’s extremely funny; he plays the piano and the guitar very badly; he just got married to a production designer called Lindsey which was a hell of a shock to all his friends because she’d split up with him in December; the new director of the National Theatre describes him as “an actor of fantastic size and passion”; he’s got four Oscar nominations and he won an Emmy in 2001 for playing Richard Heydrich the Nazi General who pushed through the organisation of the Final Solution; and one of his more “florid” friends describes him as a man who “needs to walk the dark valleys himself in his own head”.

On the drizzly London evening, he’s actually very chatty and not walking those valleys at all. His face looks contentedly chubby and he seems happy and relaxed. Two things are pleasing him. The marriage, about which we are not supposed to talk, but of course we do, and the fact that he’s about to start rehearsals at the National Theatre for a play called Edmond, by David Mamet. It is not for the feint hearted. First produced over twenty years ago, it shows in eighty minutes and twenty three staccato scenes, an undistinguished, invisible, grey man who leaves his wife and explodes into a crazed binge of racism, homophobia and eventually a single vicious murder, all in some kind of attempt to make a primal connection with his identity and his manhood. He ends up in prison, where he is raped. The final scene after that should remain for you to discover and not be revealed here.

“I find it very thought provoking. It’s provocative and cautionary”, says Branagh revving up, “I found it very shocking to read. Yet, as Mamet says, there is a strange kind of hope, although it is won at a terrible price which Mamet doesn’t encourage anyone else to pay.” And then he heads off into the kind of gentle rhetorical swoop describing a character he is about to play, which has marked him out among actors as super-articulate. Which he is when talking about “the work”.

“This man has an awareness of his inability to have adventure. He attempts to turn over the grey man but he discovers in this case a racist and a homophobe… and neither of those things are him either…. though the transient attractions of their intoxicating power soon reveal themselves to be the source of hateful chimeras that Mamet perfectly explains.” Wow. Although it doesn’t sound as flashy when he says it. It is a curious fact about Branagh that talking to him is a far more intimate, jocular and easy going affair than it looks in print, where he can seem over wordy and, in the eyes of those who want to dislike him, probably pompous. His voice is a lot quieter and more amused than the words make it seem.

To his very core Branagh is an actor. It’s absolutely what drives his enthusiasm about life. He is steeped in it. He became completely enlivened, not talking about himself, but about John Gielgud, the only person he’s ever worked with who simply rendered him speechless with admiration. He also does a great impression of him. When Branagh talks about the theatre or the characters he’s played, his words flow in way they simply don’t when you ask him about his emotions or how he feels.

When we talk about the part of Shackleton, who he played in a miniseries in 2002, he is unfaltering and also rather revealing about the boyish enthusiasms and passions that still motivate him. “Shackleton is the kind of creature that fascinates me. I like explorers, that kind of peculiarly British strain of adventurers, those classical soldier poets – like Mallory – who can write like an angel, who can talk unpretentiously with real knowledge from a very physical man, but with great sensitivity, about a mountain and how it can be experienced like a symphony. They have a combination of massive sensitivity and imagination with tremendous physical prowess. It’s a fine combination to have. There’s a distinction made these days between those who are softy and fuzzy and those masculine climb-up-mountain types. But scratch an explorer and you’ll find a poet. The evocation of the artistic imagination in response to physical feats I find very interesting.”

But ask him about how he’s changing now he’s over forty – 42 in fact on his last birthday in December – and he finds a different rhythm. Is he more able to make commitments now he’s older? There’s a pause. “It’s impossible for me to answer …… getting married …. that’s as big a commitment you can make…… so I am very happy to have done that”. It was quite a surprise to your friends. “Life is full of good surprises.” What suddenly made you do it? “I couldn’t possibly answer that, Simon”. Yes you could. Another pause. Sweetly, “I love my wife”. Would you have made the same kind of commitment ten years ago? “For reasons… I couldn’t …in the end……ever… you don’t get married unless you love someone and you respond to that, you act on that” . Longish pause. And then he laughs, his face opening up into a delightful, creasy smile. “One of the reasons I find my self continually kind of pausing is not thinking how shall I answer this, but thinking, do you know I don’t know…. I don’t know Simon….. I don’t know….. I don’t know….. and I think I think about it less…. and a journey in my life now is to be less analytical, less, for me, analytical and more, helpfully for me, you know, following one’s instinct…. and in this case my heart …… and feeling happy to do so……privileged to do so… and being aware that there’s something more powerful at work than my ability to understand it intellectually…… “

All of which makes sense, but you want to reach for the verbal senacot and a few full stops. This is clearly why he doesn’t like interviews. He finds it difficult probably because, as he says, he feels some obligation to tell the truth.

He was born into a working class Northern Irish protestant family. Although he has only one older brother and one younger sister, theirs was a very large extended family. “Belfast”, as he said in his autobiography “seemed to be all about visiting your relatives. As well as my daily visits; the family went to see my grandparents at least twice a week. And as my folks seemed to be related to one half of Belfast and have been at school with the other half, visiting time was hectic.” It’s not too great a stretch of the imagination to see how he replicated this in his working methods, choosing to collaborate with the same people time and time again, like Patrick Doyle, the composer, the designer Tim Harvey and a series of well known British actors like Richard Briers and Judi Dench who featured large in his Renaissance Theatre company.

His family left Northern Ireland and moved to Reading when he was nine, partly because the riots were starting in Belfast and his parents wanted a safer environment for their children, and also because there was work in England for his father, who was a joiner. It was a wrench. Branagh was enormously conscious of his Irish accent and swiftly “became English at school while remaining Irish at home”. “It was”, he says now “ a dreadfully uneasy compromise about which I suffered inordinate guilt.” But it made him a great mimic.

It also set him apart at school. It wasn’t an easy time to be Irish. He was bullied, which he says affected him badly. He began to truant and he once even partly threw himself downstairs in an inept attempt to acquire a protective limp. He eventually found a survival strategy through sport. He was by his own account “a plodding workhorse” at rugby and football rather than possessed of any real sporting skill, but it eventually lead to him being cast in the school production of “Oh What A Lovely War” when the drama teacher turned in desperation to the football team to fill the gaps in his undercast show.

Branagh was completely stage struck. And his parents were quietly appalled. Firstly it meant paying for him for an extra two years through A Levels if he wanted to go to RADA. And also it meant that he was probably gay. Branagh says that they still worry about him, “but probably no more than they do about their other two kids. Although I think they do worry about the public nature of this business and how that affects me”. But his mother did say to him the other day, and he says, “it sounds sort of arrogant to repeat it, but it is funny. She said to me in a very worried way,” – he adopts her flat, working class Ulster accent, which in its own way is very comic – “ ‘Sometimes I think you might be a genius. And genius is very close to madness’. I said ‘don’t worry mum .. I really don’t think you’ve got anything to worry about on that score’ I mean.. If only that were the case”.

As he rattled through his twenties and thirties, barely pausing, according to Stephen Evans, “the early years of pushing himself and forcing his head above the parapet took its toll. The marriage went wrong and, despite it being his fault, he found it very tough. And he’s had that depression which he has always had to tackle”.

“I would call it Celtic melancholy”, Branagh says and, without over-egging the pudding, it doesn’t seem so much of a co-incidence that he spent much of his early acting life being, as he puts it, “professionally involved with Hamlet.” “Hamlet is obviously that sort of creature that is interested in the fundamental questions. Literature and drama are my way of discussing why are we here? what are we doing?, what is it all about? And what does it mean? stuff. It is a quite a powerful impetus with me to forage for information concerning all that.”

Consequently he reads a great deal. He’s a lot more solitary than you’d expect. And the melancholy he says “is linked to that same interest in what it takes to be happy and how necessary it is to refine and repeat that search because human beings are so incapable of retaining whatever it might be that allows them to appreciate everything that is there for them in life, whether it be their loved ones or a great spring morning or whatever does it for them.” He starts to laugh. Why? “I am just laughing at my own inability to retain the sense of what makes me happy.”

He talks a lot about happiness. What makes him happy is now, he says, what guides his work. “I have been a lot less of a strategist career-wise than people think. Recently I simply listen to my first reaction to those things that come my way. If my instinct is strong then I do it.” This is obviously paying dividends. There is a sense that the manic energy of the earlier years has slowed down. The time of Renaissance Theatre he describes as “having an absolute clarity about what made one happy. There was a terrific enthusiasm for what we were doing and doing Shakespeare was as about as exciting as it could get.” He was driven, according to Patrick Doyle, a fellow Celt, “by guilt – it’s a Celtic cross we all bear. It’s the Northern Ireland work ethic. If you’re not working you’re wasting time.” Now Branagh talks differently about what he is doing. He says “there’s a level of fascination in playing the kind of characters that I have for the last couple of years that goes way beyond playing the role – a chance to immerse oneself in different kind s of ideas and times in history and kinds of writing.”

“Yes there used to be a lot of guilt”, he says, “you know that one has health, that one has privilege.” He talk about himself as “one” rather a lot, which is annoying, but it’s difficult to work out whether he’s being regal or shy. Fairly quickly I realise it’s shy. “If you mean was I driven by an obligation to my talent, I feel that far less strongly than I did. No I tell a lie. I do feel it strongly, but I feel there are different ways for it to be exercised and that doesn’t always include relentless activity. It’s far easier to rest the body than the mind. I have a racing mind, an over analytical racing into the future kind of mind. So it’s fantastically helpful to meditate. I started a couple of year ago through a friend who’s in a little group.”

The turning point seems to have been the film of Love’s Labours Lost in which he paired Cole Porter’s songs with Shakespeare’s words and choreography that one critic said Branagh “danced like a builder”. It was a critical and financial flop. He got pasted and according to a well-placed studio source it cost $17.4million and took only $3.3m at the box office. Branagh’s next job was just as an actor. It paid off. And he was lavished with praise for playing a curmudgeonly playwright in the indy comedy “How To Kill Your Neighbour’s Dog”. Then, on his way to Australia to play the pivotal role of the Chief Protector of the Aborigines in the harrowing Rabbit Proof Fence, he agreed to play Heydrich in Conspiracy, which won him the Emmy. The he directed the “Morceambe & Wise show” Play What I Wrote in London and there was Shackleton. Once again he has been thriving critically and artistically. And alongside this acting he has been developing “rather more seriously than I have before” two British scripts, working as director with the writers. He has also just signed off to direct and produce but not appear in yet another Shakespeare on film, As You Like It.

His friend John Sessions says, “Kenny hasn’t found his golf yet”. He’s not a relaxer. Although he has picked up again on music. “I can’t play the guitar any better than I could when I was sixteen”, he says, “and on the piano I can play three finger chords in the major keys, but I can’t really move my left hand much. So it’s fantastically limited. But I must say I get endless, enormous pleasure into the wee small hours from playing.” Reading too plays a bigger and bigger part in his life. As he says “The pleasure in good writing just wrings all my bells”.

It’s a revealing meeting with the wunderkind because it’s enjoyable for reasons that were entirely unexpected. His wild wit – Patrick Doyle and Stephen Fry have both unprompted described him as the funniest man that they know – and his driven ambition were on my list as predictables, but “his big Celtic heart”, as he calls it at one point, wasn’t. And how hard he works to hide it, wasn’t either. Although he resists the idea that he’s not emotional. “What does one mean by that. Does expressing oneself emotionally have to fall into a number of categories? I am not trying to be contrary about this but …. so my very answer may be revealing anyway .. .. but is it the number of hugs, the amount you say ‘I love you’ to people, the ability to cry swiftly? I suppose on the whole..” and here he’s back in stumbling mode, “I kind of.. er, there’s some bit of me who sort of reckons that your tears kind of ought to be for yourself. My father’s an interesting example because he’s the most emotional and yet reserved man. I think I grew up in a culture that was faintly embarrassed for that to occur”.

His recent work has been loaded with a quiet power, when he wasn’t larking with Harry Potter. And as he reveals more and more of himself on stage and screen he seems to be moving into the most artistically interesting time in his career. The Mamet play is certainly what he calls ‘an x-ray role’. And marriage won’t be any less exposing. Almost his parting words were “These feel like exciting dangerous times.” And as Mamet says in Edmond “every fear hides a wish”.

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Judi Dench

The huskiness in Judi Dench’s voice makes her sound 16 going on Tallulah Bankhead. And her sentences lurch forward rather in the way of a car with kangaroo petrol. She talks with enthusiasm about everything, frequently getting words wrong or asking what they mean (‘humanitarian’??), and fulfils one expectation by speaking in splendidly actressy superlatives about other people she works with – the writer and director of the film about Queen Victoria and John Brown which she has just made with Billy Connolly, ‘Mrs Brown’, are both “geniuses”, acting with the Big Yin was “absolute heaven”, trying to learn her latest part in David Hare’s new play about to open at the National, ‘Amy’s View’, is “agony” and “torture” but will eventually be “thrilling”, her husband and daughter are “paramount”.

She is charmingly ‘a socking great naive’, as I wrote in my notes half way through talking to her. It was when she was describing her preparedness to ‘fight a corner’, which involved a story where she once burst into the office of the then Managing Director of the National Theatre who was in a meeting with a prominent ‘Sir’. And getting him to keep the bar open backstage for an extra half an hour so that cast could have a drink after Anthony & Cleopatra. Not exactly Spartacus’s victory of the slaves but evidence to the great Dame that “at the National everybody can get things done”. And to the rest of us, given how unsurprising it is that The South Bank’s number one turn can arrange for the spear carriers to get a half of lager after curtain down, evidence to the rest of us that

But combine this openness with very little vanity, an instinctive sense of people’s contradictions and a reluctance to judge and you begin to work out what makes her an actress of such brilliance and versatility.

In the forty years since she first performed at The Old Vic, where she will return at the beginning of next year to join Sir Peter Hall’s company, she has defied typecasting by playing Cleopatra – “why me I’m a menopausal dwarf?” – the original West End Sally Bowles in Cabaret – “like me, middle class and couldn’t sing” – Juliet in a production by Zeferrelli – “I got panned” – the Spymistress M in Goldeneye – “how lovely to be able to call Bond a ‘sexist, misogynist dinosaur and a relic of the cold war’ ” – and a brace of the kind of BBC sitcoms from that part of middle England where even Waitrose is half timbered: “A Fine Romance”, with her husband Michael Williams, and “As Time Goes By” with the ever reliable Geoffrey Palmer, which has just been decommissioned for a seventh series. Even though these tenaciously hug the middle of the road and cause the critics and smart set to bury their heads in their hands, she is as believable and real in them as she is in Chekhov, Ibsen or Shakespeare.

She will tell me nothing about David Hare’s new play – neither will he because he never does – except to say that it is about “the awkward turns that love takes, about feuding families and it’s a defence of the theatre. You’ll just have to come and see it.” But she does let on that she is having terrible trouble learning it. She says a little disarmingly “With this I shall actually have to physically look at the script and learn it.” Don’t you always? “No, before I’ve always done it by osmosis”. And not only does she never learn plays she hardly ever reads them before the first rehearsal. “When we were doing Anthony and Cleopatra, I met Tony Hopkins at a dinner party and he said, “Have you read it?” And I said “No”. And he said “Thank Christ for that”. And Peter Hall had two bummers at the read through.” Do you read just your bits before? “No I don’t do that either. I know it’s idiosyncratic, but it means that you don’t start the process before you’re actually with everybody and then you can listen to them.” You don’t think about it before hand then? “I must think inside my computer, so to speak”. You don’t intellectualise, at all? “ No I don’t do that at all. I only do instinctive.”

Esme in Amy’s View is an actress of a different kind from Dench. “I think I’m more adventurous than she is. She’s of the old school, when the West End was full of straight plays: ‘Enter through french windows with trug.” Do you like her? “I never make that decision. It’s immaterial…. any more than you approve of yourself. I do make moral judgements about myself, but I don’t think you like or dislike a person. I think you just see a jumble of all sorts of things, some good, some bad, some things you like, some you don’t and some you are bewildered about. Show me a part that’s black and white.”

One of the central arguments of the play happens between her and her daughter Amy’s boyfriend. “To him the theatre is obsolete. When a person walks into a room you know they’re going to walk across so fast forward, jump cut.” Presumably both she and Esme disagree. “Oh yes absolutely”. What is important about the theatre then? “Well it’s absolutely vital.” The car has a bad attack of kangaroo patrol now. And I remember that she only does instinctive not intellectual. But then she makes the comparison with a Quaker Meeting.

“Quaker Meetings are entirely to do with everybody else… passing things round. Communing with other people. Theatre is live communication with other people. You’ve got to think that every night there is a whole group of people there and they need to be told a story.” Dench is the living riposte to the argument by those, even given space in this paper, who prefer the individual experience of poetry and the novel, those who prefer ownership to sharing, market individuality to democracy and probably masturbation to conjugal sex and definitely the privacy of experience over an idea of society. Their intellectualisation abhors the shared and the communal. Dench makes no special pleading for the theatre. “If you’re going to say to me is the theatre as essential as getting people off the streets, I’m going to say to you it’s a different thing. People have got to be got off the streets.” But she goes on. “You cannot set one thing against another. It’s to ephemeral to say that theatre’s a spiritual thing, but that’s what it can be. It has something to do with the spirit of the people. With communication. And the audience plays a totally vital part in it. They make it different every night, not us. If that wasn’t the case I’d just stay at home.” And phone it in? “No I wouldn’t even bother to do that. I’d just read a book”.

And with her so constantly in work there’s going to be few books read in the Dench household for the foreseeable future. Nor scripts.

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Jason Priestley

You can see why in 1990 Aaron Spelling cast a 21 year old Jason Priestley as a teen idol in the TV soap (sorry, youth-oriented drama series) Beverley Hills 90210. He’s stocky in an athletic kind of way, looks usefully younger than his actual years, is very easy going and not a little handsome and clean cut in a straight forward boy-next-door kind of way. But what marks him out physically are extraordinary and noticeably beautiful eyes that are piercing light blue from a distance yet grey/green close up. He was also not just young, rich cheesecake in the series. He was really rather good, winning a Golden Globe nomination in 1992.

This month he is making his London stage debut in a play called Side Man, co-starring with Edie Falco from The Sopranos, and he is clearly having fun. He certainly laughs a lot, occasionally clicking his fingers with enjoyment or clapping slowly and rocking back in the way that American boys do. Early in the morning in a rehearsal room, the eyes are still sparkling but he looks like he’s suffering a bit from the night before. He was apologetically very late and had that fresh but not smooth enough shave – too much of a rash on the lower neck – that betrayed a good night out with too little sleep. And on being asked about fame and its accompaniments, he went off on an amusing mini-rant about growing up in full view of a nation’s media.

“These gossip columnists call to check what happened if someone saw me changing a tyre on the side of the road, but they don’t call and check when they are going to write that I was abducted by space aliens”. His voice rises in semi-outrage. Which is somewhat understandable, when you’ve spent your twenties playing the concerned one with the pin-up good looks on a worldwide hit TV series that used to make the hearts of teenage girls and gay men tremble before boy bands came along. Priestley has no soft spot for the professional gossipmongers of the American press. “In the 30’s and 40’s they used to be called snitches, stoolies..”, and very deliberately this last in the list, “..rats.”

Once when driving in his car he heard a DJ on the radio interrupt a record and solemnly announce that “Vancouver native Jason Priestley died yesterday in Montreal from a drug overdose.” He had to get out and phone his mum, who had already had several calls from the neighbours. Currently on the Internet the rumours are about cocaine and drunk driving, the latter as a result of a car accident he had in LA in December.

However in London he is well away from the Beverley Hills soap, which he left in 1998, only remaining on the team as an Executive Producer and directing the occasional episode. Side Man, an autobiographical play by Warren Leight, deservingly won the 1999 Tony Award for Best Play on Broadway, where Priestley’s role was played successively by Christian Slater, Andrew McCarthy and Scott Wolf. It is an exegetically American piece about jazz men through the 50’s to the 80’s, as Elvis, pop music and their own personal addictions drove them off the main musical highway into raddled obsolescence.

Priestley plays the central character, Clifford the son of one of them, who narrates the stories of the men, and the tale of his parents’ relationship, through the bars, the smoke, the alcoholism of his mother and the emotional blindness of his trumpet playing father, both of whom he has really looked after since he was ten. “I used to wonder”, he says touchingly at the very end, “how (my father) could sense everything while he was blowing and almost nothing when he wasn’t.”

“I play Clifford at thirty, twenty one and ten years old” says Priestley, “and he has finally got to a part in his life when he can say to his parents ‘Hey guys, I can’t look after you any more. I have to go and do some things for me. I’ve been living for you for the last twenty years.” And with American writing like this you accept that the play is a bigger story than just about the individuals. What in British work is often either didactic or simply grittily prosaic, is rendered richly metaphorical when filtered through say Tenessee William’s Deep South or Arthur Miller’s East Coast. Movies somehow make it easier to treat American stories as a series of bigger myths. Warren Leight tells a story of a generation of Americans who lived, and in these guys’ particular case played, for themselves. Not for fame or money. Or celebrity. It’s about a generational change in America, mostly brought about by television.

So is it too crass to ask Priestley – for so much of his life part of the celebrity food chain – whether moving into a serious piece of acting about a world like this is also a transition for him. Does it have echoes of his own particular journey at the moment? He laughs reassuringly, thinking about it. “No it’s not crass at all. But actually it wasn’t something that entered into my conscious decision making to come to London. I was much more concerned with being here with a bunch of great actors. Acting’s like tennis. It raises your game to be playing with really talented people.”

For a while now Priestley has been on a different tack from what we agree to call ‘TV Zipcode land’. All actors rightly fear typecasting. And soap actors fear it most of all. “Yeah. It can be very scary stepping out of your safety box. Here I don’t now what the London critics will say. I don’t even know if anyone will buy any tickets.” There is a sense of ‘can the soap star actually act?’ And at one stage his nerves get the better of him and he frankly overreacts to one paper that, after paying him a series of compliments on his previous roles, wondered out loud last week whether he will manage ‘not to be totally outclassed by Edie Falco’. “Look, she’s great,” says Priestley with genuine admiration for her but continuing with heavy sarcasm for the writer, “but this lovely individual hadn’t even seen the play. Exactly what did I do, for him not to like me that much?” Nothing, one suspects, except being in a hit global TV series where critics like that think people can’t act. Oh and probably be less good looking.

So Priestley is trying, with some success, to get away from Brandon Walsh the one character he played for eight years in 90210 – “and who didn’t develop that much”. He made his first bound for freedom with a small part (Billy Beckinridge) in Tombstone, Kurt Russell’s version of the Wyatt Earp story in 1993. But he made the bravest dash for the world outside soaps by co-starring with John Hurt in Love and Death on Long Island in 1997, an averagely good script lifted by the chemistry between the two of them. As he reported that he and Hurt had agreed at dinner the night before, “Love and Death does seem to have had an amazing life beyond the cinema. People really remember it and respond to it.” Hurt magnificently reprised his stock- in-trade dignified sadness of the sexual outsider that first dazzled the world when he made Quentin Crisp into the movie star he deserved to be. He played a middle aged British author obsessed with a teen soap star, Ronnie Bostock. It was an unrequited love story told with well-defined poignancy. And Priestley earned audience and critical plaudits by playing the pin-up and “making fun of the situation I had been unwittingly thrust into” he says in a rather odd yet typical description of his 90210 career.

Perhaps because he has been an actor since the age of four when he started in Canada, Priestley is keen to under play his fame. “It took me fifteen years to become an overnight success” he says a little defensively. “I come from a very normal place, you know, where people have normal jobs. I never wanted fame. I’m not from LA!” And then he does the ‘I’m-just-a-working-actor-and-I-just-want-to-do-interesting-work’ speech. But later on talking about the moment when they realised quite what a hit they had on their hands with Beverley Hills he says quite genuinely, in a slightly puzzled voice “I never really travelled the country making appearances in shopping malls. It scared me, made me feel weird inside, almost an out of body experience. It was strange… strange. I can’t really explain it.” And every time one of the other actors from Side Man came into the room to make tea or coffee, he stopped talking about himself or answering questions and chatted to them. He seemed to be deflecting the attention, a little embarrassed by it in front of them.

It’s safe to say that Priestley, despite the matinee status, the professional car racing, the fact that he has spent much of his early life being chased down the street by “mobs, that’s what they become”, he is a pretty regular kind of guy, keen to make it as an actor, rather than continue life constantly being voted one of “The world’s ten sexiest bachelors” or People magazine’s “50 Most Beautiful People”. And if he can pull it off, Side Man is a pretty good vehicle with which to achieve it. As long as Edie doesn’t act him off the stage, that is.

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