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Interview: Simon Callow

This interview was originally written for Cherwell

I am sitting in a swelteringly hot café on Charing Cross Road, anxiously stirring the coffee in front of me. The sickly smell of sugared delicacies hangs in the air. Nervous excitement dances with my fingers.

I am about to meet one of the most prominent British actors of the last forty years: a man who has acted opposite Paul Scofield, Sir Alan Bennett and Sir Ian McKellen; a man who starred in one of the most critically successful films of all time; a man who penned one of the most controversial theatrical publications of the 20th Century; a man who is waving at me jovially from the door of the café, now striding over and warmly shaking my hand.

Simon Callow has one of the richest voices you are ever likely to hear. It is deep and resonant, rising and falling with the inexorable power of a swelling wave. Listening to him speak is like wallowing in a bath of melted chocolate, like being wrapped up in a fifty tog duvet. As we chat, I realise his is a voice of pure theatricality, a voice perfected for performance.

Yet Callow did not enter the world of theatre as a performer. His first job was in the box office of The National in the late sixties when, according to Callow, it was the “most admired theatre in the English speaking world”. I ask him how this experience of the day-to-day life of theatre prepared him for a career as an actor.

“Working at The National ensured I entered the profession without any illusions”, he tells me. “It was there that I discovered what an incredible enterprise theatre is. I met actors, stage managers, people from wardrobe, lighting technicians and I began to form an idea, which has stuck with me over the years, of theatre as a human pyramid. If one person falters, the whole thing shudders. That imbues a great sense of democracy.”

“Unlike a lot of people, I was inspired by the process of theatre rather than the end result. I saw this wonderful, sweaty job of trying to make plays work and realised that, above all else, that was an actor’s job. And I just loved it.”

The passion that Callow has for the blood, toil, tears, and sweat of acting is evident, palpable almost. He speaks with infectious enthusiasm of sneaking into rehearsals, of observing great actors work through a scene from the back of an empty auditorium.

“I would have quite happily stayed at The National for a long time,” he confesses. “But once I had decided I wanted to become an actor, I needed to find out if I was any good at acting or not.”

His pursuit of an answer took him first to Queen’s University in Belfast, where he joined the drama society and found out how “crap” — his words not mine — he was, then to London’s Drama Centre, a breakaway of the Central School of Speech and Drama that has taught Colin Firth, Tom Hardy and Michael Fassbender, amongst many others.

Callow left the Drama Centre in 1973. British theatre in the early seventies was, according to Callow, “an estate of many dwellings”. Predominant though The National and the RSC were, there was nevertheless a thriving fringe scene, a plethora of regional repertory theatres (though these were a dying breed), a burgeoning taste for socio-political performances, and much more besides. I ask Callow how much he benefited from beginning his career when British theatre was in such rude health.

“I don’t see how it can do anyone anything but good, to experience maximum variety in life. And I did. I just had the most unbelievable good luck for the next seven, ten, fifteen years. I just never, ever stopped working. I gorged myself on stage acting — part after part after part after part.”

It was in June 1979, just after his 30th birthday, that Callow’s luck, if that’s what it was, finally ran out. Unemployment had reared its long-abated head and he began to seriously contemplate alternative employment. As seems to happen so often with actors, however, his biggest break arrived at his lowest ebb.

“I went to a friend’s birthday party and invested my last five pounds in a dinner jacket and thought, “That’s it. I have to start thinking about another profession.””

“It was literally the following Monday morning that the National phoned my agent and said “We’d like to offer Simon Callow the part of Mozart in a new play called Amadeus.”

“My agent didn’t know how it was pronounced at first. “Amadeuce? Amardeus?” It was a fantastic turning point. I’d had success before, but doing a new play by Peter Schaffer at the National with Paul Scofield was…”

He trails off into silence. Understandably, words cannot do justice to the myriad emotions that such an opportunity instilled in him.

Amadeus was the springboard from which Callow’s career leapt into semi-stardom. He played Emmanuel Schikaneder in the 1984 film version of the play, which won eight academy awards including best picture. He starred in a Channel 4 sitcom, Chance In A Million, alongside Brenda Blethyn. And he wrote his first book, Being An Actor, in 1985.

Being An Actor has earned a certain degree of notoriety for two reasons. Firstly, Callow made no secret of his homosexuality, one of the first prominent actors to do so. Secondly, he seized his opportunity to attack the prevailing structure of British theatre, to bemoan ‘directocracy’, as he called it.

We talk about the former controversy first, and whether he realized he was taking a momentous step in publicizing his sexuality.

“Oh yes”, he admits, “because everybody tried to stop me doing it. I was told it would be the end of my career. But I didn’t want to pretend, because I am a terrible liar anyway, so I put it in the book.”

I ask how he thought such suppressive attitudes regarding homosexuality had changed since the mid-eighties.

“I think there has been a great change in England, both in the theatre and in society, and in America but not as completely.  I think it’s extraordinary”, he adds, voice dripping with sarcasm, “that the city in which there are more actors than anywhere else, Los Angeles, apparently has no gay actors at all.”

Callow pauses to accept the green tea a waiter has brought. “No milk, thanks.” He turns to me. “Who on earth has milk in green tea?” I smile uneasily. That’s exactly what I do.

“Of course”, he continues, “there are pockets of homophobia, and pockets of anti-Semitism, and pockets of all kinds of phobias of one sort or another, but in general I think the population both in America and in England are perfectly okay about homosexuality. It is now just seen as part of life. It’s one of the infinite varieties of nature. There’s nothing particularly extraordinary about being gay at all.”

“If some homophobic right-wing government came to power in this country, I think they would find enormous resistance. No-one will go quietly. I hope this isn’t a pious thought, but I really don’t think Britain will tolerate an extreme right-wing government.”

The openness with which Callow addressed his homosexuality in Being An Actor was somewhat overshadowed at the time by his more sensational assault on directors. Michael Billington, a prominent arts critic then and now, lambasted Callow for his “catastrophically myopic” view of theatre. Callow stood his ground, however, and by his own admission became a “rallying point” for actors.

“Of course, my perspective changed somewhat when I began directing, but I stood by what I said. The whole structure of theatre, this directocracy, was doing actors a great disservice. They had come to believe that they depended entirely on directors, not only for work but for inspiration. It was a disastrous state of affairs because what is the point of acting if you are not expressing your own ideas?”

What, indeed? Callow is a man that truly understands the multifaceted, multifarious art of acting. He has witnessed closely some of the finest actors of the last century and worked with many of them. Talk turns to his influences and I am struck by how physical he immediately becomes when describing his various inspirations. His hands are constantly on the move, conducting an invisible orchestra.

“To begin with, I was most inspired by Laurence Olivier, not that I could ever be the sort of actor he was. He was all about escaping from yourself into other people through putting on noses, make up, or particular kinds of costumes, or through making certain kinds of physical shapes.”

“I also drew great inspiration from Charles Laughton. Laughton profoundly indentified with his characters, digging down into their bowels and creating epic, artistic creations. He wanted to represent in his own acting what Rembrandt represented in a portrait: an extraordinary richness and delicacy”

We discuss the various approaches of a few other actors (John Gielgud: “so mercurial and beautiful”, Paul Scofield: “Paul brought a force field of energies and personalities with him”). All the while Callow’s hands are twirling and spiraling, clenching and grasping. Words are not enough to convey exactly how nuanced and emotive the art of acting can be.

He is observably less enthusiastic when discussing contemporary actors. His voice is noticeably less expressive and hands cease their entertaining paroxysms.

“The actors who are becoming famous now, Cumberbatch and his generation, are concerned solely with the conscious. They just want to act from some position of great mastery and skill and deftness whereas I think one should dig into something deeper, so that when you see an actor on stage, all sorts of memories, dreams and mystical understandings start to stir inside you. I think you can, and should be extremely shaken by an actor.”

“I like to cry in the theatre but it’s never something unhappy that makes me cry. It’s when I’m taken to those places and begin to feel like I have not felt for a long time. Poetry – that’s another way of putting it.”

In his most recent show, which ended its tour at the Oxford Playhouse this Tuesday, Callow’s acting expertise was tested to the limit. A one-man show in which he plays a number of characters that featured in Jesus’ life, The Man Jesus was the manifestation of Callow’s interest in the son of God.

“I’m not religious, my view being essentially that religion is one of the greatest, and also one of the most dangerous inventions of the human spirit, but I don’t think you can say, à la Dawkins, that it is all crap.”

“This man [Jesus] was a great thinker and massively influential teacher, and one really does want to have a chance to listen to what he has to say. I think a lot of people have a very lazy, hazy perception of what Christianity is, and what Christ said. My show’s real aim was to reintroduce the shock of Jesus’ originality.”

“So we approached Jesus through the eyes of people who met him. Simon succumbed completely to his charisma. Herod Antipas saw him just as an annoying phenomenon. Pontius Pilate came to be very disturbed by him.”

“Judas sees him as an extremely subtle political thinker and then is bitterly disappointed when it turns out he isn’t. He becomes angry with him for throwing everything away that was extraordinary – his teaching in exchange for a horrible symbol of a man on a cross. It’s always striking to me that there is no other religion, that I’m aware of, in which the central figure is represented in excruciating agony.”

“Above all, it is a feat of storytelling. It helps of course that the material is so wonderfully rich. It is a story. A great story. The greatest ever told.”

Callow finishes his second pot of green tea and stands to leave. Another firm handshake, a whisk of coat-tails, and he is gone. I miss that incomparable voice already.

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