Best known for his signature work as Hercule Poirot, David Suchet has had a varied and successful career beyond the beloved Belgian detective. On Masterpiece, Suchet has appeared in The Way We Live Now, Henry VIII, Dracula and in The Secret Agent. On film, Suchet has been seen in The Bank Job, The Perfect Murder and The In-Laws among others. Among his many stage roles, he has appeared (opposite Diana Rigg) in Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and in David Mamet's Oleanna. He made his Broadway debut in Amadeus playing Salieri. Suchet was recently seen on stage alongside Kevin Spacey and Richard Dreyfuss.
It's been two decades since David Suchet put on a fake mustache and a Belgian-French accent to assume the identity of Agatha Christie's Hercule Poirot. In May, 2009, Masterpiece's Richard Maurer spoke to Suchet about his similarities to Poirot (they are both perfectionists), their differences (everything else), and Suchet's plans to continue on as Poirot.
Select a topic from the list below to see Suchet's thoughts, or choose Show All to see the entire interview.
Refining the character of Poirot
Insights into the character
Becoming more like Poirot (or not)
Poirot as a major part of Suchet's life
Adapting all the Poirot stories
Poirot's peculiar walk
The distinctive voice of Poirot
Guest stars on Hercule Poirot
The balancing act of portraying Poirot
Leaving a legacy as Poirot
Even from the first Poirot mystery you did (The Adventure of the Clapham Cook), Poirot seems to have sprung fully formed from your acting psyche. He is exactly the same person as in your most recent productions. Have you added little touches to his personality to refine him over the years?
You have to remember that Agatha Christie never anticipated that Poirot would be such a success. He became a national figure overnight, rather like Harry Potter today. She continued writing him, but she never changed him. She would change little things: the stripes of his trousers became a millimeter wider, and in one story he progressed to wearing a wrist watch, instead of a fob watch. But she never actually physically aged him until the final novel, The Curtain, where we see him as a wizened old man. What Christie does is she gradually reveals his darker, more pensive side. One is aware, as her books progress, that he is genuinely lonely and wished he had married. What I've tried to do in about the last five years or so, is to introduce very gradually this darker, more pensive side. That rather goes, also, with the natural aging of myself, which I can't stop.
Now that you're closer in age to Poirot's presumed real age, has that given you new insights into his character?
He's more dug-in than I ever imagined him to be. Although I have been Poirot for a very long time, I was a much younger man when I started. I think I've made him more seated now. If I look at the very early episodes, I find him more sprightly then, because it was me as a younger man.
Have you become more like him over the years?
No, I don't think I've become more like him. By the time I started filming twenty years ago, I had spent so many months researching him that I was as near to him as I could possibly get. Where I've been fortunate is that Poirot is such an interesting character. He's not me; he doesn't have my voice; I'm not his shape; we live totally different lives; and I'm a totally different man, which means that I can have a fully fledged career outside of Poirot. I don't need Poirot to have a career, because I started becoming a professional actor in 1969, and I started doing Poirot in 1988.
When you started playing Poirot, did you ever envision that it would become such a major part of your life?
No, in fact, I had an interview with the Daily Telegraph here in England before the first episode went out in 1989. I remember telling the journalist that a lot of people might find my interpretation rather dull after such great Poirot performances by Albert Finney and Peter Ustinov. All I did with the role was go back to how the character was written by Christie, and I didn't turn him into a comedy figure. So I doubted we would do a second season. That was twenty years ago.
Christie wrote scores of Poirot novels and short stories. How many have you filmed so far? And is it your ambition to do them all?
Well, I've done 61, and I think there are ten more to go. Now that I'm of a certain age, my dream is to leave not only this country and America, but actually the rest of the world with the complete works of that little man, so that anybody may be prompted to go and read the books.
It seems Poirot's peculiar walk comes from the fact that his shoes are too tight.
Well they are. Early on, the producer called us in to test our characters. We were all very pleased with where I had got to with Poirot, but I was not happy about Poirot's walk. The producer said, no, you're walking too much as David Suchet. So I said, let me go back to the books. I don't know whether I had an angel with me, but of all the books I picked up, after about the third one I came across a passage where Christie writes, "Poirot crossed the lawn with his usual rapid, mincing gait, with his feet tightly and painfully enclosed within his shiny patent leather shoes."
An important part of your character is your very distinctive voice and accent, which hasn't changed since the beginning of the series.
Yes. That shouldn't change at all. I spent a couple of months perfecting this voice. Now as you can hear, my voice is quite low. And Poirot's voice, I determined, should be up in his head, because he's been described as a walking brain. There is nothing much of him below the neck. Then I discovered I had a problem. I knew Poirot was Belgian, but everybody he meets thinks he's French. That's the running gag: people think he's French, and he keeps saying, non, I am Belgian! So I listened to English-speaking French radio and then I listened to English-speaking Belgian radio to pick up the difference in accents. I also listened to country French. What I've done is a mixture of everything — with an emphasis on French with the odd Belgian twang.
You've had quite a few great actors make guest appearances on the shows. This must be quite flattering for you.
I'm very delighted. We have wonderful actors ringing up saying, we want to be on Poirot. It's a huge compliment. What I don't want the series to become, even in its last moments, is a walking spotlight. I don't want it to become so full of stars that we fail to believe in the characters.
In the "less is more" department, it must be quite a balancing act to play a character who is ridiculous in the eyes of many, but who is really a deeply serious, authentic person. Do you ever have trouble achieving the right balance?
The trick to that is that the character himself does not know he's like that. It may be commented on by other people, but never by Poirot himself. And that is the clue to keeping it real. [In response to the question], yes, enormous trouble. In fact, part of problem at the moment is that I haven't filmed for over a year, and I'm desperately trying to watch former Poirots that I've made to make sure that I've got the character right again. My wife and I usually watch about twelve hours in preparation.
You seem comfortable with the knowledge that you are so closely associated with this character. What would you like people to remember about your work as Hercule Poirot?
What I'd like to hear is someone say, if I were to pick up any Poirot book, the man that I was reading about is the man I saw on the screen.