Behind the scenes with a British film, theatre and TV actor
I can only do it by understanding what drives them. And it means you can play murderers, you can play psychopaths, you can play whoever. You have to have some sort of understanding of how they're brought up, where they're living at what time they're living, what's allowable within the society. That's still quite an intellectual thing. One of the interesting things I think I learned early on was I read, or someone told me is, they said, you can't, you cannot judge your character. Okay. You cannot bring your morality as an actor into the character you're playing. You can't judge them. You just have to do what's on the page. I sort of feel it and if it sounds right, coming out of my mouth, cause I'm my harshest critic. If I don't think I'm being truthful, I'll have another go. I'll have another take. Or if you're on stage go right. That didn't work well that night I've really got to try and get that working better the next night. And I think if I believe what I'm saying, then we're all right.
The great British actor on the beloved bard
We don't know a great deal about William Shakespeare. We know where he was born. We know where he died. We know when he married, we knew how many children he had. We know something about his brothers and his sisters. We know a little bit about his father who was the mayor of Stratford on Avon for a while. Um, but there are big chunks of Shakespeare's life, which we don't know anything about at all. All we know is that in the fairly early 1590s, he showed up in London as a member of one of the theater companies, uh, apparently playing quite small parts. And then very soon after that, we hear of him starting to write plays. And the first place that he wrote, which were the plays about King Henry, the sixth in three plays, part one part two and part three. Um, he told one of the stories of England English history, and it was a huge, huge success.
It was a blockbuster really, and audiences were absolutely riveted by it. The story of the fairly recent past that he was describing events of only a hundred years before, events which had shaped the England in which everybody was then living. He created fantastic parts for the actors. He gave them marvelous kind of rip roaring words to say, and there was a lot of blood and there was a lot of death on the stage. And all of that was very, very much to the taste of the Elizabethan audience. Um, Shakespeare, who, as I say, carried on playing as far as we know, smallish parts in his own plays and also in other people's plays. Sometimes his contemporary Ben Johnson, the other most famous playwright at the period wrote plays that Shakespeare appeared in, but Shakespeare just got better and better and better as he went on.
And as his plays got better, the actors got better too. And so from being quite a kind of a, knockabout sort of a playwright who could, uh, you know, get the crowd roaring, he started to become the great master of human psychology. And he started to write parts that the actors who he'd started with probably wouldn't have been good enough to play parts of tremendous complexity of deep and dark motives. And, uh, and also of course, who spoke the most extraordinary poetry. So he grew and grew and grew, his plays got more and more ambitious, more and more profound, more and more funny. And, uh, they were absolutely the most successful plays of that time, uh, plays like Henry the fifth and Hamlet and Henry the fourth part one and two, which contains the great character of, Sir John Falstaff, wonderful place, people felt that they were watching their own lives being lived out in front of them.
The actors, especially Richard Burbage, who was a, um, Shakespeare's best friend, as well as being the leading actor in the company became immensely famous for playing parts like Richard the third and Mark Antony in Julius season. And, um, Shakespeare success came to a sort of climax with his play, the Tempest. And then he seems to have slowly withdrawn from playwriting, partly because he'd made quite a lot of money and retired back home to Stratford Upon Avon, partly because the situation was getting quite difficult politically and partly because the fashion had changed. So Shakespeare had a very brief period of glory about 20 years, really in which he was the supreme writer of the English stage. And then other younger men started to take over and Shakespeare's plays were very nearly forgotten and might've been totally forgotten. Had it not been for the fact that two of his friends in the company actors by the name of Hemmings and Kondo decided to gather all his players together and publish them, which they did after his death. And really it's because of that, because of those two actors wanting to preserve their friend's work, which they thought were the best plays ever written and they were right. Uh it's thanks to them that we have these players at all. Otherwise he might just have been a footnote in the history book.
The actor remembers the books he read as a child
The first book that I read and really remember losing myself in was the book version of the film ‘Time Bandits’ which came out when I was a kid. Time Bandits is a really good film and a really good book about time travel and little people and it was funny, and it was historical and I rather like that. And the next book which I read when I was about eleven, was Animal Farm by George Orwell – I really loved that and it’s still probably my favourite book to this day. I’m lucky that I grew up as a reader. There were always books all over the house so I’ve always had books and always loved books. I don’t remember reading Roald Dahl. I don’t remember reading anything like that. I know Roald Dahl now because of my children. I think I was always interested in politics and history and stuff as a kid so I think that’s what switched me on in those days.
An audio trailer for our exciting fantasy and science fiction book, starring actors from Harry Potter and the Hobbit movies!
The first Harry Potter book went on sale in June 1997. More than 500 million Harry Potter books have since been bought and there was an absolute frenzy when the seventh and last book in the series reached bookshops in 2007.
Let's dive into the wonderful worlds created by Philip Pullman in his remarkable trilogy, His Dark Materials. The trilogy features wonderfully detailed descriptions of characters, from flying witches to armoured polar bears along with bewitching explanations of scenes and places.
Bilbo is the central character of The Hobbit. We first learn about him sitting in his comfortable home which had been built by his father, Bungo Baggins. Bilbo is a bit of a homebody. Like most hobbits he doesn’t travel much and prefers to stay in his area, known as the Shire.
Holywood star reveals behind the scenes gems
More recently in my career, I've been very fortunate to have been cast in the Harry Potter series of films. Due to the genius of the makeup artists, I was able to play several different characters throughout those films. Sometimes two different characters within the same film, they were able to transform my look as Professor Flitwick, who's a kindly teacher of charms. They make me look like a, like quite an old man and as Grip Hook, who is quite a villainous goblin, they transformed me by giving me very big ears, very long nose, even to the extent that I had teeth, uh, which were very, very sharp, almost like a shark's teeth and very large contact lenses, which completely changed the look of my eyes. And give me a very sort of, um, soulless sort of look. As a performer it's, it's wonderful to wear these makeups because they not only transform your appearance, they give you the foundation of another character. Professor Flitwick was a fairly easy character to find, whereas Grip Hook, he's a villain he's bad. So he's very far removed from who I am, but often those sorts of characters for an actor are the most fun to play, you know, and I wanted to make them very distinctively different because of course, if I'm appearing as different characters within the same film, I have to make them poles apart. So the audience don't recognize that indeed it is the same actor. So not only do I have to change appearance, I have to change the way that I stand, the way that I walk, my body language. And of course my voice has to be very different. So professor Flitwick would talk a little bit like this, whereas Grip Hook would talk more like, um, I said, I'd get you in. I didn't say anything about getting you out. So there's a very distinct difference between how the characters sound, but it was a delight to be part of those films. And again, much like Willow and Star Wars. These will be films that will be talked about and watched for many, many decades to come.
British actor talks about the Tolkien film trilogy
Well, when I played Bilbo in the Hobbit films, the day would start by my going into makeup and in the makeup chair, my makeup artist, Georgia would put on my wig, my fake big ears, my hobby ears, and my facial makeup, which although it looked fairly simple in the book had to be layered on quite carefully, partly with brushes, makeup brushes, and partly with an airbrush because that's often our makeup is put on as well. So, so you have this very faint air blowing on your face is quite nice, actually on a hot day, you kind of feel it's like someone blowing on you to call you down. The wig would take quite a while to put it off the ears, which were kind of heavy rubbery texture had to be glued onto your head, whatever hair you've got in order to put your wig on nor to fit the wig properly, whatever hair you have. And I had it quite short, but it has to be greased back with what they call gaff quit, which is a kind of glue, basically glued back to be as tight to your head as possible. So that weak fits properly. That would take about an hour and 15 minutes. Then I would go and get into my costume. And the costume would usually consist of like corduroy britches, which are kind of half knee length trousers, braces, a waistcoat or woolenl waistcoat, and usually a kind of corduroy jacket for most of the films. It was quite battered and dirty. And cause he'd been on these adventures, then I would go and get my feet put on. And so the big Hobbit feet, they take about 15 minutes to put on with the aid of two other people. So I sit down and I put my legs out. I've got no shoes or socks on I've shaved my legs. Cos the thing is, when you pull these feet up, they can catch on the leg, their hairs of your legs. So that's quite painful. I had shaved legs for all the time I was doing the Hobbit, which was kind of weird to look in the mirror and see these kinds of white plucked legs, which didn't to me look very good, but the legs would be pulled up almost like a pair of rubber tights. And I would have to fit my real foot inside this kind of skeleton of a foot inside the, uh, the rubber foot. And you could actually move your toes if you moved your toes, the toes of the rubber foot moved. And that would take, say 15 minutes. I would then get up, walk out onto set and the first time for about the first week of having these feet on, you already have to get used to holding your feet. Like, you know, walking normally is walking normally, but with the size of these feet, which were about another half foot on the size on the end of your foot, you have to lift your knees up much higher than you normally would. At first you feel a bit like you're flopping around like a duck, you know, a big sort of webbed feet on the end of your legs On set it was actually a mixture of what we call green screen. So like pretend digital backgrounds and very, very real sets. So there would be real trees, there'd be real rocks, real doors, real windows and all of that and mud and dirt and everything. And there would be some things that were not real. We also went out into the beautiful parts of New Zealand where we would be at mountains. Where would it be in Hills waterfalls like quarrys. It was, it was really beautiful. So we got to see a lot of real nature, very, very fresh air in New Zealand, which if you're from London is kind of an eye opener or nostril opener.
Oscar winner spills the beans on the best-loved TV series
Got a message from one of the members here saying thank you, Julian, for the fun that I've had with Downton Abbey. And they'd like to know where you get your ideas from and how long does each episode take to write? It's very difficult to say how long an episode takes to write, because you write a first draft. I'd send, first of all, my process is this. I write it, I then show it to my wife. She picks up the mistakes. She also says, I don't really believe this. This bit’s very boring, you know, whatever. So I do her notes. I then may show it to my son, if he's around. Then it goes to the two other producers of the show that sort of trio at the core of the show is Gareth Neame, Liz Trubridge and me. And they give me their notes and their first lot of notes are quite big. The elephant story doesn't work, you know, whatever. And then I'll rewrite it according to that. Then they will send me a second lot of smaller notes, you know, why does she say Thursday? Shouldn't it be Tuesday? And then when I've done those, but only then does it go to ITV and, and so on. So really by the time Gareth, Liz and I have finished, it's pretty close to what will be shot. But during that process, I'll be writing other episodes. I mean, I sent off one, I might not get it back for two weeks. So by this time I'm writing two, you know, and so on. So it goes over a period of probably about six or eight weeks, but they're all plaited together. So they're all happening simultaneously. So it's quite hard to say, um, as for where I get my ideas, I don't know. I mean, I, you know, you've just think of things. Sometimes you remember things. Sometimes people say something and you think, Oh, that's good. Sometimes you take a real story and you just alter it slightly, change the sex of the protagonists or whatever. So it's quite hard to recognize, but it is in fact, uh, such and such a story sometimes, you know, you just think things up in the bath and you think, well, I know I'll give them this to do. And, and then you plait them all together. I mean, the thing about Downton is that it's lots of plates spinning on the sticks at once. And you've got big stories that go right through the series and stories that right across the episode or across two episodes. But you also have little stories, you know, is Daisy going to buy a new hat or something, and that's probably only three scene. And then you have stories that you just keep in the air, but you don't do the story story until episode four. So you've primed it, but you don't deliver it. And all of that has to be woven together and you have to, at the end, make sure that all the characters turn up a reasonable amount. I mean, they don't expect to have plum stories in every episode, they want a decent story in about every three or four episodes, but then you've got to keep them in play to make those stories land. So what you do is you involve them in someone else's story that you, them part of this group, that's trying to work out how such and such so that they've got a reason to be in the room and contributing. And in that way you keep everyone in the air at once. But you know, things like search are very useful because I will go to the top of an episode when I've written the first draft and I'll put Mrs. Patmore search. And then I look at the page numbers and it says three, seven, eleven, twenty one. And you think, got to get her in somewhere around 17, you know? And then you look at those scenes and you see one that you can drop Mrs Pat in so that you keep them all on screen, a reasonable amount. That's quite tricky in a way. It's amazing. God bless the search function. And is there a character in Downton Abbey that you particularly enjoy writing for? Well, you know, they're all my babies really. I never, I mean, you know, people always expect me to say Violet Grantham because Maggie delivers all the lines you give her so well, you know, she, she is a wonderful actress to write for because you never have to say why it's funny, you know, what, what the line is supposed to do. I don't mean they're all pretty good, quite honestly. I mean, I can't think of a duff member of the Downton cast. I think they're all top notch. And so they're all fun to, to write for really, I mean, I think what does happen is an actor takes the part and it suddenly becomes rich. They, they sort of reveal the potential of a character sometimes in a way you haven't quite seen. So, um, Kevin Doyle, for instance, with, with Molesley you know, or Lesley Nicol with Mrs Patmore or, and thinner and, uh, with the dreaded O'Bryan or Rob James Collier with Thomas, as they started to play them, you start to write for the way their play. So in a sense in you, you create the character together, the actor and the writer, um, creates the character. I've never written a series before. So that's a new expense. Normally I've written shows and film or a mini-series or something so that they get the script and then they cast the script, they play the script, but a series is an ongoing thing. So you’re, you're working with them. And I find that quite an interesting part of the process actually,
A great British actress talks Shakespeare
Hello, I'm Francis De La Tour and I'm an actor. Over the centuries a number of female actors have played Hamlet. Not many I have to say, but a few Sarah Bernhardt, perhaps being the most well known. I found the role of Hamlet very challenging, not for the reason you might expect, but for the sheer breadth of the role physically and emotionally. It's true. I was playing a young man though I didn't play it in a masculine way nor as a woman, but rather as an emotionally tortured young person, a youth struggling to understand his own predicament. Hamlet has the best soliloquies in the English language. And I let the poetry speak for itself. It was particularly challenging too, because our production at the then Half Moon theatre in Tower Hamlets was a promenade production, which means we didn't have a single stage as such, but a series, three or four at the most, of platforms on which we would perform different scenes and the audience, which was not seated, they stood throughout would promenade to the different stages or platforms to watch us. At the beginning of the play, the actors were on ground level with the audience so we were almost rubbing shoulders with them. This whole interaction with the audience and proximity was both nerve wracking and very stimulating. We found out later that, far from the audience being made to feel self-conscious, they found the experience very freeing. I remember I cried after the last performance, as I knew, I would never say those wonderful words of the young Hamlet ever again.
Iconic British actor shares an insight into his craft
An actor, particularly an actor that attempts any of the great classical works, particularly the Shakespearian Malawian works has to have a voice that is capable of sounding like more than one instrument in an orchestra. If you've got an audience listening to your voice for three hours in the course of an evening, you've got to play many different instruments in order to get their attention and retain their attention, which is why I love theatre. And it's why I love classical theatre above all, because it asks of an actor to give a display of all aspects of his craft, um, and all the skills that he can control the prime one of which is vocal, which is his voice. I love radio because it depends only on voice. You have no costume to help you, you have no set to help you. I mean, it's pure really how you sound. And that can for the listener be very, very strange because I listen to people on the radio, for instance, and I get a mental picture of them. And when I meet them, if they are totally unlike what their voice conjured up. So voice is essential. The words and the voice are essential, particularly in theatre drama. Not so essential in anything to do with the camera, almost unessential in movies, because it's not always what you say. And it's very rarely about how you say it. Movies are about eyes and faces rather than voices, but from an actor's point of view, the vocal skill you need to acquire is a great thrill in itself. And it gives the, the stage actor, a great buzz. It's very important. I think it's probably the most important thing in an act as armoury, his voice.