In what he claimed was his first in-depth one-on-one interview with a reporter, British thespian Ian Holm spoke to Back Stage West on his first visit to Los Angeles in 40 years. Sincere, gracious, funny, complex, intelligent, and wise are just a few words that describe Holm, who humbly refers to himself as "just a jobbing actor."
A jobbing actor, indeed. In the past two years alone, Holm has appeared in five films--the delightful Big Night, Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan, The Fifth Element, A Life Less Ordinary, and most recently in Canadian filmmaker Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter, which won numerous accolades at this year's Cannes Film Festival and is currently in selected theatres.
Holm's other screen credits are too numerous to list in full here. The abbreviated list includes Chariots of Fire, for which he received an Oscar nomination, Alien, Time Bandits, Brazil, Naked Lunch, Dream Child, Dance With a Stranger, Kafka, The Madness of King George, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, Franco Zeffirelli's Hamlet, and Woody Allen's Another Woman.
In addition to his successful film career, Holm is also a venerable stage actor. He made his stage debut in Othello at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre in Stratford in 1954, and seven years later became a long-term contract artist with the Royal Shakespeare Company. In 1965, Holm began a professional association with playwright Harold Pinter, earning a Tony for his role in The Homecoming, which was adapted to film featuring Holm. The actor also performed in acclaimed productions of Pinter's Moonlight and Landscape.
Back Stage West: What attracted you to the role of Mitchell Stephens in The Sweet Hereafter?
Ian Holm: The reason, and it's a really boring reason, is I had more screen time in this movie than in any movie I had ever made. It's my first leading role in a movie, and at the age of 66 you don't turn those down. So when Atom Egoyan approached me, I said yes first, and then thought about it. Having said that, it was a difficult role and a challenge. And challenge always attracts me.
BSW: In describing why he cast you, Atom said, "Ian is able to protect himself and to inhabit characters who seem to be quite ordinary, and yet when he assumes their qualities, they just have this flicker of madness." What do you think attracts you to the characters that you portray?
Ian: I always like to bring something extra. There's no point in just simply doing the text, because that's not acting. And I guess I do have a flicker of madness in me as a human being, so that is what comes out in my work. I am who I am and I cannot fight that.
BSW: What drew you to acting initially?
Ian: I failed all my exams at school and my father said, "What are you going do?" and I said, "I don't know. I'll try acting," and he said, "Prove it." Those are the best two words he ever said to me, and I've been trying to prove it ever since. Unfortunately, he never lived to see any fruition.
I have never been obsessive about acting. It was all circumstance. I went to Royal Academy [of Dramatic Arts] and then somebody came down from Stratford and said, "Would you be interested in coming to join the company there?" And I said, "Yeah, sure." I really didn't ever think that I'd become a classical actor. I was at Stratford for nearly 13 years, starting at the bottom and slowly getting bigger and better parts.
BSW: What do you enjoy about acting?
Ian: I can switch off very easily. I don't carry my roles home. I'm happily married, thank goodness. I lead a very simple life. I have a lunatic dog and I like walking. I have to live in London, obviously, but we have a small cottage in the country about 60 miles away and we go there every weekend.
What do I get out of acting? I don't know. I have, in a way, a rather indifferent attitude toward it all. I know that sounds terrible. Of course, I enjoy what I'm doing. I've had an extraordinary two years--I've made five movies and I've been playing King Lear at the National Theatre of London.
BSW: Have you always bounced back between film and stage work?
Ian: Actually, I lost my nerve in the early 1970s. I was doing The Iceman Cometh and the iceman went--I just closed up onstage one day and left. I suddenly couldn't face a live audience. I didn't do theatre for years and I was fortunate to be gainfully employed in the other media. I was terrified that the same thing would happen in front of a camera, but it didn't.
The first thing I did when I went back was Astrov in Uncle Vanya at the end of the '70s in a small Fringe theatre. Then I carried on doing movies until I got tired of making excuses for not doing theatre. Somebody said, "What would it take to get you back on the stage again?" And I said, "I suppose if Harold Pinter wrote a new play and asked me to be in it, it would be an offer I couldn't refuse." And he did. So I did a new Pinter play, Moonlight, in 1993 at the Roundabout with Jason Robards and Blythe Danner.
BSW: You have acted in such a diverse range of cinematic genres--from Brazil to Chariots of Fire to Big Night. Do you purposely like to mix it up?
Ian: Weird, isn't it? I've just been inordinately lucky. But it wasn't something that I just chose. They chose me.
BSW: It must be refreshing for you to not be typecast.
Ian: Oh yes, absolutely. I hate labels--"classical actor" or whatever. To walk down the street and have people say, "Don't I know you from somewhere?" is nice, but it must be a nightmare to be a movie star, somebody who's famous for being them. It's much more exciting to be able to disappear into whatever character that comes up.
BSW: What has been the high point in your career?
Ian: Well, there are different high points, but I'd have to say that Lear was one of them. For me, having not done what I came into the world to do for so long and to be able to go back and find not only that I could still ride the bicycle but that I didn't fall off was very fulfilling. And I'd have to say meeting and working with Atom. That was just a wonderful, wonderful experience.
BSW: What advice would you give a young actor?
Ian: You have to above all else have an awesome passion about what you do. Now I said earlier on that I didn't have a passion, but believe me, I am very, very unusual. You're going to get hit in the gut so many times and you're going to be out of work. You have to persist. You have to believe in yourself, because if you don't, nobody else will. But I should really take my own advice even at my age and start getting some passion. Lear is supposed to be something that you do at the end of your career, you know what I mean? There is a time in an actor's life when you're supposed to give your Lear, and I've done it now. I'm not going to retire, but it is a bit difficult to know what to do now.
BSW: Are you truly afraid that no one will hire you?
Ian: Even if you're Sir John Gielgud, and he's 93, you never actually escape that fear of people not wanting you. Recognizing one's own talent is a very difficult thing to do. I amaze myself at what I do sometimes. Certainly with Lear, I really did feel like I had been taken over; I had no idea what I was doing. I could laugh and joke around right up until the very last second and go on and do, "Blow winds, and crack your cheeks!"
You know that scene in Alien where the alien comes out of John Hurt's stomach? The night before that was going to be shot, the American contingent of actors--Harry Dean Stanton, Yaphet Kotto, and others--asked John, "It's a big scene tomorrow. How are you going to do it?" And John looked at me and winked and said, "I don't know, really. I suppose I'll just bring my not inconsiderable imagination to bear and just DO IT [screams]!" That's the summation of my career: I just do it. BSW