"Every inch a king": A Talk with Sir Ian Holm
In 1968 Eric Porter of the Royal Shakespeare Company created a sensation when as King Lear he stripped to his underwear at the climactic line: "Off, off, you lendings!" It seemed a bit much for a scene that had traditionally been played with only a gesture at disrobing. Porter set a new standard, but not until 1997 did an actor go all the way and stand fully naked in the storm. That actor was Ian Holm, whose moment of total exposure in the Royal National Theatre production (tastefully handled in the Masterpiece Theatre version) seemed just the thing that an insane old monarch would do. Shakespeare probably never intended the action to be taken so far, but Holm made it completely believable.
He did it again in The Sweet Hereafter -- spiritually, if not physically, baring all in a Canadian film that came from nowhere to land on almost everyone's list of the top ten movies of 1997. Reviewing it in The New Republic, Stanley Kauffmann captured Holm's essence: "He knows all that it is possible to know about a character he plays, and he manifests it through the personality of that character. No trickery or flash; just what every good actor achieves, reincarnation before our eyes."
Holm has been acting professionally since joining the Royal Shakespeare Company as a spear-carrier in 1954. Now 66 he has earned respect and praise for his work in theatre, television and film. He has won a BAFTA Award, a Cannes Film Festival Award, and an Oscar nomination for his performance in Chariots of Fire. In his appearances with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Holm has earned the Evening Standard Award (Best Actor) for Henry V and The Homecoming, for which he also won a Tony Award for Best Supporting Actor. His performance on stage as King Lear won him an Evening Standard Award, an Olivier Award, and the Critics Circle Award. He was nominated for a best actor Emmy Award for his performance in Masterpiece Theatre film version.
He has more than 40 films to his credit, among them The Madness of King George, Frankenstein, Henry V, Chariots of Fire, and Alien. He will be appearing on screen this summer as Bilbo Baggins in the first installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.
In 1998 he spoke to Masterpiece Theatre Online about King Lear and other aspects of his career, including a notorious bout of stage fright and an infamous scene in Alien.
How is this television production different from the stage version?
Richard Eyre [the director] did not simply photograph a play. He increased the intimacy by the use of a lot of close-up work, making it even more accessible and more a domestic tragedy than it was even on the stage. A director would normally be tempted to spread it out for television, but he brought it in. It made the impact even greater. That was to me the main difference.
The text also had to be cut for the time slot. But all of the great arias are left intact -- "Blow winds and crack your cheeks..." and so forth. "Blow winds..." was certainly more difficult on television because we had real rain and a real wind machine, which we couldn't do in the theater. We had two days of hell shooting against the backdrop of a live storm. I did actually practice in a real storm near where I live in the West Country. It's not easy to shout against real elements. The elements are big and the human voice is very small.
Was Lear a difficult role for you?
Difficult physically, because you expend an enormous amount of energy. But mentally, it is not a difficult journey compared, say, to Antony in Antony and Cleopatra. The verse structure helps you enormously. You get carried along by it.
Could you contrast your own Lear with some of the other celebrated interpretations, for example those of Laurence Olivier and Paul Scofield?
All I can say is that mine was subjectively an unfussy performance. I tried to be as clear as the text allowed. I didn't see Olivier's, except his television performance in the last days of his life. It was really rather a sad affair. It was more King Olivier than King Lear. Paul Scofield I saw, a great performance in a very different production by Peter Brook. All performances are different. I don't think it's necessary to compare one with another. I am just me playing the role of Lear. You're bound to get a Holm approach to it, whatever that may be. I just got out there and did it. I'm very much a doer in my acting.
Anyway, you cannot play the king on your own. Richard Eyre surrounded me with an absolutely brilliant cast: a magnificent Kent and wonderful performers like Michael Bryant as the Fool. Good idea to have an elderly Fool, I think -- an old guy who's been around the court all his life cracking bad jokes. It becomes a sort of gerontocracy, a story about old men. I don't think that's going against the text at all. There was one other innovative piece of staging: I think it's important that Lear is seen as naked. Not as a piece of gratuitous symbolism, but because the stage direction quite clearly describes Lear as "tearing off his clothes." There has always been the judicious loincloth in the past. But metaphorically as well as realistically, the man starts by removing his crown at the beginning of the play, and slowly divests throughout until he is naked with Poor Tom in the storm. I think it's a very important aspect of the play.
Are you the first to do this?
I think I am, yes. Albeit only for a very short period of time.
That's everyone's worst nightmare, finding themselves naked in public.
Since you've had the experience over and over, is it something you get used to?
Well, in the swing of things, it did lead to a lot of bad willy jokes. There was one specific journalist who shall be nameless, who couldn't think of anything else to say about the play, so decided to talk about my private parts in rather derogatory terms, which seemed to me kind of pointless. But yeah, it was something you got used to. Once you did it in rehearsal, that was it. And you went on and it became just part of the action.
Back to the beginning of the play: What is Lear's motivation for the who-loves-me-most contest? Is he being serious? Is he capricious?
He's all of those things. You're quite right to take the beginning of the play, because the first scene is unquestionably pivotal in the action. As Gloucester says, "All this done upon the gad," which means in the instant. You start out with a nice family meeting. He's removing his crown, he's going to divide the kingdom among his daughters, and they're going to play the game. Goneril and Regan saying, "Oh God, here we go again. Yes, we love you, we love you, we love you." Then this silly little shit Cordelia -- forgive me -- says, "No!" Which sparks an overreaction in Lear. Suddenly she's out, Kent's banished, and the whole thing falls apart in five seconds flat. As in so many of Shakespeare's tragedies, you begin with this extraordinary impetus that is unstoppable. Once the wheel starts to go downhill, that's it. You race through to the end. It's the same with Macbeth. It's the same with Othello. All these powerful emotions take over, and you are driven through. That's back to what I was saying about Shakespeare. All you have to do as an actor is go with it and trust him.
Yes, Lear is a capricious, tyrannical, impossible, lovable human being. He's like all our grandfathers. He goes through this extraordinary journey into and out of madness. I think an interesting thing is that there is no redemption. By the time he and Cordelia get together it's too late. She's killed and the tragedy ends horribly. In real life, 18th-century audiences couldn't cope with that. They changed the ending and had Cordelia marrying Edgar and living happily ever after. It's only comparatively recently that there's been a reversion to Shakespeare's original intention.
How would you describe your acting approach?
I grew up with the great Sir Laurence Olivier, and I think it's fair to say that a lot of actors of my age were influenced by his very individual vocal delivery. He was a showman who would always play to the gallery. I would tend much more toward that aspect of acting as opposed to the style of some of the great actors like Charles Laughton or Sir John Gielgud, who concentrate almost entirely on the words. Having said that, the words are of paramount importance. The verse tells the story. I try to achieve both. I try to be emotional and big, and at the same time very true to the verse. Inevitably, because I am not a man of big stature, something else is going to come out. I think the word "Napoleonic" is quite often used.
You have to come out "every inch a king." Well, the crown helps. If I started to think of myself as a small human being, then I wouldn't be a king. So when Lear says "every inch a king," you have to imagine yourself to be ten feet tall.
Your last line in the play is: "Look there, look there." Most Lears are looking at Cordelia at this point, but you are looking up.
I'm looking into the heavens. As I said, I don't think there's any redemption in this play at all. But "Look there, look there.": It's repeated. What does he see? It's a vision of Cordelia up in the clouds, and she seems happy. The final "look there" is Lear dying. He's going to heaven and Cordelia is going to be there. That seemed to me better than just doing it straight to Cordelia. Also kissing Edgar just before the end, when he says, "Pray you undo this button" -- I think it's probably the first time Lear has ever said thank you to anybody in his life.
I'm sure you've heard Kenneth Branagh's quote where he describes the Ian Holm school of acting as: "Anything you can do I can do less of." How do you interpret that?
As a huge compliment. I think he means I'm kind of subtle. I'm of a minimalist nature. Someone once said, "The greatest lesson you can learn is to do nothing." If I can do less -- I'm talking about on screen now -- if I can be subtle and use my eyes, I'm much more at home with that aspect of acting than I am with the big stuff. As I say, I regard that as an enormous compliment. It just means that I'm Mr. Subtle.
This naturally takes us to your performance in The Sweet Hereafter, which was very subtle indeed.
Difficult role. Difficult role.
Could you tell us a little about it?
It was the first time that anybody's taken a plunge and given me a leading role in a film. So from that aspect I was very pleased. Then I discovered how difficult it was. The character, Mitchell Stevens, is very much like an actor. He's a lawyer who approaches all these parents after an appalling bus crash in which their children have been killed. He approaches each incredibly delicately and from a different angle. He is a performer. I found the director, Atom Egoyan, and the Canadian cast an awesome bunch of people to work with. They're very talented. The highlight for me was winning the Best Ensemble Performance Award from the National Board of Review. Once again, you cannot play the king on your own.
An ambulance-chasing lawyer could be played as a cliché, but your Mitchell Stevens is a complex, inscrutable character.
Well he brings his own baggage, doesn't he? He has a sack full of his own demons -- the recalcitrant, drug-addicted daughter, and so on. I think it's a voyage of discovery for the character himself. That's what made it interesting. He's not just simply a guy going off to do another job. He works his own demons out through his work. A lot of us do that.
If you'll forgive me, I want to ask about your own bout with demons in 1976, when you had a notorious attack of stage fright. Stage fright is something everyone can relate to, but it must be horrible if you're a professional actor.
As you said, it's like taking your clothes off in public.
What was it like?
I wouldn't recommend it. It was very sudden. There are reasons why it happened. I wasn't domestically going through a particularly happy period at that time. I'd just done a long stint of work in a television epic called Jesus of Nazareth, directed by Franco Zeffirelli, where I was 16 weeks in the desert in Tunisia, and that's enough to drive anybody mad.
The role was Hickey in The Iceman Cometh. It's a difficult role. But oddly enough it was something I was really looking forward to tackling. I got into my first preview, which I just managed to get through. Then in the second preview, on the following night, I just walked off the stage and into the dressing room and said, "I'm not going back. I cannot go back." And they had to put the understudy on. My doctor said, "The Iceman goeth." Something just snapped. Once the concentration goes, the brain literally closes down. It's like a series of doors slamming shut in a jail. Actors dry up all the time. Well I wasn't just drying; I was stopping. My fellow actors were looking at me in amazement because I just literally stopped.
But it was righted by medication. It didn't take that long. I guess I could have gone back probably a lot sooner than I did, but fortuitously I was gainfully employed in the other two media. I started movies seriously and television, where, as we all know, if you make a mistake you can do it again.
How long was it before you went back on stage?
I did a performance of Astov in Uncle Vanya at the Hampstead Theater not that long after, in 1979. Then there was a huge gap until 1993 when I did a new Pinter play, Moonlight. I like to think that was really my return to the stage. Once I'd done it, I couldn't think what all the fuss was about. I just climbed back on the bicycle and didn't fall off and found I could peddle downhill at a great rate. It was terrific. I now have absolutely no demons left as far as performing is concerned. It's an enormous relief.
Let me end with your famous scene in Alien, where your android character gets his head knocked off. I understand that people still recognize you on the street for this. Does that bother you?
No. It's a compliment in a way. Of its genre, I think that film has become a classic, so people still send me photographs to sign. John Hurt, as you know, had an even more famous scene where an alien pops out of his stomach. I remember some of the Americans coming up to him the day before and saying, "Hey, John, it's the big scene tomorrow. Do you have ideas how you're going to approach this whole thing?" John looked at me and winked and said, "I don't know really. [Deep sigh] I suppose... I'll just... bring my not inconsiderable imagination to bear... and just... DO IT!!!" I think that's in a nutshell what I do. I just do it.
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