SIMON CALLOW: MY LOST INTERVIEW WITH A RENAISSANCE MAN
By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 16, 2020: In the early 1990s, I was surprised to receive a query from the increasingly prominent British actor/director/writer Simon Callow. He was writing with regard to something I’d published about Orson Welles in the 1930-1940 volume of my Encyclopedia of the New York Stage. Simon was engaged at the time in writing the first volume of what would be his massive, authoritative, in short, definitive Welles biography, whose fourth and final volume is only now nearing publication.
At the time, Simon—who played Mozart in the London premiere of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus—already had established himself as an important theatre writer, as noted in the interview. He was an increasingly distinctive presence in British plays and films, and was also carving out a directing career, on stage and screen.
In the summer of 1993, I interviewed Simon in his new home in the Camden Town section of London, to which he’d only recently moved, as witnessed by the still unsettled state of the house’s furniture and décor. Back in New York, I wrote the session up as an article I hoped to publish in one of several possible theatre magazines. The two or three to which I sent it weren’t interested and, since I was engaged in other projects and still teaching full time at Brooklyn College, I put it aside and gradually forgot about it. When I did occasionally remember it, I had no idea where it was.
As the years passed, my writing continued apace, including a book called The Great Stage Directors: 100 Distinguished Careers of the Theater, for which Simon was kind enough to write the foreword. Meanwhile, his career continued to blaze in each of his multiple fields. Today, at 71, he still impresses on every front, including his expertise on Charles Dickens, whom he often has portrayed in his one-man show and about whom he’s published a lovely book. Simon, of course, also is widely recognized as one of the earliest British stars to openly admit to being gay, which is touched in the interview.
Rather than recount his remarkably prolific achievements here, I suggest you simply visit any of the various websites that provide his biographical details. And, if you want to see him in something recent, you can watch his exquisitely plummy, wickedly sardonic turn as the foppish Lord Sandringham on Netflix’s “Outlander.” You won’t be disappointed.
So, why is this interview only now being published?
Because of the pandemic, I, like everyone else, have found myself with more time on my hands. Again, like so many others, I used some of it to put my papers and stuff in order. This led to my rediscovery of some unpublished materials I’d written. Among them were two interviews, one with the great designer John Lee Beatty, done in 1980, very early in his career, which is being run in fifteen installments on the Theater Pizzazz website. The second was my Simon Callow interview from 1993. Like the one with John Lee, it contains a great deal of fascinating commentary, all of which remains as pertinent and provocative today as it was when first articulated.
TheaterLife.com has kindly agreed to run the entire interview in only five installments. That means each is much more substantial than the briefer ones for the Beatty interview but it also means the whole thing can be posted in a much shorter period of time.
Following our interview, and his subsequent writing of the foreword to my 1994 book, Simon and I were in touch only infrequently. One involved an email exchange when he was appearing with Judi Dench and I asked him to tell her that I’d seen, and still remembered, seeing her in Franco Zeffirelli’s famous production of Romeo and Juliet when the Old Vic visited New York’s City Center in 1961, when I was in college. I’d been bragging for years about having seen her before she was a great star but, to my eternal shame, Dame Dench informed me through Simon that, while she’d played Juliet in London, she didn’t come to New York with the Old Vic, and was replaced by Joanna Dunham! I immediately dug up my souvenir program to check with my own eyes that she was right!
I met with Simon again, briefly, when he acted in the solo play, Tuesdays at Tesco’s, at 59E59 Theaters in 2015. Unfortunately, I no longer have his email address and my notes to him via his agent and Facebook Messenger (he has his own FB page) have gone unanswered. So, a few minor things I wanted to clear up will, for the time being, go unanswered. I read not long ago that the house in which I interviewed him, for example, was up for sale, but I don’t know the outcome of that transaction.
Hopefully, Simon will learn that the interview has been published and will reach out with comments or corrections. The interview, it might be mentioned, remains essentially untouched, except for an inserted note or two and some editorial cleanup
In 1984, Simon Callow, then a rising young British stage actor who had originated the role of Mozart in Peter Hall’s production of Peter Shaffer’s Amadeus, dropped a boulder into the calm waters of the British theatre establishment with his largely autobiographical book, Being an Actor (which has had multiple editions). In this often caustically hilarious work, Simon (born in 1949) argued, among other things, that actors were locked in an uneven power struggle with directors (the “directocracy”). He also said it was time to reclaim their position as creative talents in productions that shared artistic power. More ripples spread when Simon openly declared that he was gay.
Since then, Simon has added significantly to his credits. When I interviewed him in 1993, his most notable film role was the chain-smoking Reverend Beebee in A Room with a View (1984). Soon after our meeting, he played Gareth in the hit movie, Four Weddings and a Funeral. He himself has become a significant part of the directocracy, having staged many plays in England and America, including Willy Russell’s Shirley Valentine (1988, London; 1989, New York), starring Pauline Collins, and several productions for the Los Angeles Theatre Center. He had also directed, to notoriously skeptical reviews, the film version of Carson McCullers’s The Ballad of the Sad Cafe (1991), starring Vanessa Redgrave, Rod Steiger, and Keith Carradine.
But, acting and directing aside, Simon had, even by 1993, established a distinguished record as a prolific author of books and articles. Being an Actor, for example, was followed by other first-rate theatre books, among them a biography of Charles Laughton, an exegesis of Restoration comedy acting (with a brilliant accompanying video), and in Shooting the Actor, an account of his painful experiences acting under Yugoslavian film director Dusan Makavejev. These writings sparkle with a razor-sharp understanding of acting and directing, and an uncanny ability to diagnose and describe it.
When, during the summer of 1993, I interviewed this virtual dynamo of productivity, he was making a film, Four Weddings and a Funeral, under director Mike Newell; writing a multivolume biography of Orson Welles; working on a book about several famous directors, including a personal account of his staging of his own (published) translation of Cocteau’s The Infernal Machine (1986) with Dame Maggie Smith [these seem never to have come to fruition]; and gearing up to direct and star in the Haymarket Theatre, Leicester, production of Larry Kramer’s AIDS-related play, The Destiny of Me.
I spoke with Simon Callow at his home, a cozy Victorian house in the Camden Town section of London. Because he had only recently moved in, books, tapes, and framed pictures were piled everywhere. In Shooting the Actor (1990), his book about Makavejev’s 1987 film Manifesto, he confessed that he preferred hotel rooms to a permanent home but he now admits to being a changed man. He was dressed simply in a short-sleeved white shirt and dark slacks and his pepper-and-salt hair was cut short in Brechtian bangs for his latest role.
Simon is of average height and pleasant, malleable looks, but he commands your attention principally when he speaks, being the possessor of a gloriously musical baritone and juicily plummy, diamond-slicing, high-British accent. His discourse is precise, incisive, candid, witty, and animated. To capture his brio in print one would have to underline words in almost every sentence. Bursts of hearty laughter punctuate his conversation.
There is a passage in Being an Actor in which Simon comments, without further elucidation, that a major shift in his life occurred when he visited Santa Fe, New Mexico, in the early 1980s. The background to this event, he says, began in 1980, when he made his first trip to America, primarily to visit New York and observe the theatre scene. He became immediately enamored of the city but later discovered that this is “not really America at all.” This lesson was emphasized by his Santa Fe period, which came about when he joined the premiere season of a Santa Fe enterprise affiliated with Great Britain’s National Theatre. It was known as the British-American Theatre Institute (later changed to BADA or the British-American Drama Academy).
“It was specifically founded to help American actors come to England to study and for English actors to get to America to teach.” The group subsequently grew more complex and included touring presentations. It was headed by British theatre scholar John Russell Brown. The English artists and teachers were to provide instruction and direct and act in plays with the Americans as part of the educational program. Simon was “flummoxed by what kind of course I would teach. I mean, I’m not an academic, at all. Nor can I teach any special subjects in terms of drama. I don’t teach speech or any of those things.”
He was either being extremely modest or disingenuous—which I strongly doubt—as his writing and research are scholastically sound, and his teaching, witnessed on his Restoration acting tape, demonstrates a clear pedagogical gift. It would be a rare university theatre program that would fail to recognize Simon’s academic credentials despite his never having completed college.
He says he felt that he had something unique to offer through his preoccupation with “style,” by which I don’t mean, you know, elegance or how to handle a fan, but how to differentiate one play from another in its period, in its manner, its “itness,” its “selfness,” whatever, the unique element of that pay, the way in which it’s like itself and the way in which it’s like other plays what the genre is.
Simon discusses this considerably in his writing, especially in his Restoration book, whose cogent explanations he jokingly dismisses as tediously overdone. To teach his course, he set up an exploration of twenty scenes from twenty radically different kinds of plays. So we would have some [Arthur] Schnitzler, some Tennessee Williams, some Brecht, and some Shaw, and so on and so on. As much as possible. A scene from Wilde’s Salomé laid side by side with a scene from The Infernal Machine. And it proved to be immensely enlightening.
He found working with young American actors revelatory. “I got that intoxicating, wonderful experience which English directors and teachers are always thrilled by. You encounter so much eagerness, so much enthusiasm, so much willingness.” When I questioned whether the same thing was not true of English actors, Simon declared that it was nonexistent in his country because “the English theatre is by national temperament blasé, basically.” There’s a know-it-all attitude stemming from the fact that it’s an old country. It’s an old theatre. We’ve been at it for . . . you know . . . even if you just started in the business, there’s a sort of inherited feeling about it . . . And the American actors, it seems to me, which is their tragedy but also their glory, is that they have to reinvent themselves and they have to reinvent their profession, every time. And that’s extremely exhilarating.
Simon was equally moved by the unusual enthusiasm he witnessed, something he still finds whenever he works with American actors. This enthusiasm, he observes, is linked to their “longing for a wise man who would really put them right about the whole nature of acting and the theatre itself. That’s a lust which they project very strongly on you” This can be “particularly frightening” but also “very stimulating and flattering.” Ultimately, he concedes, “it’s a bad thing.”
The actors were carefully selected from applicants nationwide. Auditions were held on both coasts and in the Midwest. Scholarships allowed talent alone to determine who was chosen. Santa Fe wove its own magical spell over the enterprise.
There is something extraordinarily focused about it, partly to do with the altitude and partly to do with the ancient land, and so on. I mean, not so much now, since it does seem to have become a part of the mall that the whole of the Southwest has turned into. In those days there was a definite sense of the pioneer history and the Indian life beyond it.
The company worked in the Greer Garson Theatre, located a short distance from town. Simon was reminded of a correspondence he had been having with writer Gore Vidal which suddenly ceased but restarted when he got back to London. When he asked Vidal what had caused the stoppage, the famous writer replied (Simon now assumed Vidal’s voice), referencing Garson’s best-known screen role, “Well, I couldn’t possibly bring myself to write a letter to the Mrs. Miniver Theatre.”