Simon Callow, Part 2

By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 18, 2020: This continues my interview with the British stage, film, and TV star, Simon Callow, also renowned as a writer and director. It was conducted in his London home in 1993, twenty-seven years ago, but has never before been published. For background on the circumstances of the interview and why it’s first being published now, please check the introduction to Part 1. 


By: Samuel L. Leiter

April 18, 2020: This continues my interview with the British stage, film, and TV star, Simon Callow, also renowned as a writer and director. It was conducted in his London home in 1993, twenty-seven years ago, but has never before been published. For background on the circumstances of the interview and why it’s first being published now, please check the introduction to Part 1. 

Part 2

Because his students were so hungry for a guru, Simon unexpectedly found himself becoming less a teacher and more a scene director. He discovered from this directorial christening that American actors were seeking a teaching or directing genius to lead them out of the artistic wilderness, a view diametrically opposed to his conception of directorial art, as expressed provocatively in Being an Actor and elsewhere. “You know,” he told me,

I have great fondness for [Vladimir Nemirovich] Danchenko’s notion of what he calls “the vanishing regisseur.” [Danchenko was the cofounder, with Konstantin Stanislavsky, of the Moscow Art Theatre.] The director should phase himself out during the work. He should instill the principles of the work, give the basic . . . pass on everything he knows about the play and push the actors into a place where they can then start to get hold of it themselves. And then, bit by bit, he should disappear. 

And, unfortunately, I think a lot of American actors would like the director to be there all the time. And I think it’s very unhealthy and I think it’s bad for the work. I think it’s not, ultimately, a responsible attitude. I don’t, on the other hand, believe that the director should disappear totally. I just mean to say that he should disappear, as it were. He shouldn’t be the cop in the head.

The case in movie acting is quite different, Simon argued, because movies rarely permit rehearsals and, when they do, they aren’t “real rehearsals because you aren’t on the set, you have no idea what the camera angles are.” Although the actor needs the director to tell him his things precisely, it is essential for the actor to look out for himself and 

Make damn sure you know where that camera is, what’s going on with the other actors . . . There’s no time to explore, as you would in a rehearsal room, the dynamics of all the personal relationships and, indeed, the dynamics of the scene itself and discover how to focus it. You just have to make damn sure that you’ve got your performance at its absolute best, down on celluloid, by the time you leave the set that day, because it won’t come again, that’s it.

Simon disagrees with Makavejev’s remarks (in Shooting the Actor) that, in film acting, less is more. He believes that

Acting in theatre is always an art of projection, whereas acting on camera is always an art of introjection because you have to kind of swallow the camera, but you can be as big as you like. It does require a very different sort of pitch, pitching. Acting on the screen is like being in a room where there’s some friendly figure, like an old grandmother, or a dog, or something, always watching. It’s not a big audience, you know, but someone is watching.

Simon recalled that the quality of the work done in Santa Fe and the level and passion of the actors was so high that he was reprimanded by John Russell Brown for being “pedagogically unsound” because he had asked them to do too much. Their neglect of Brown’s classes in order to fulfill his own demands may have played a part in Brown’s irritation. The actors, Simon insists, were extraordinarily gifted, each with “some special quality,” and something to teach him. 

Most members of this diverse group were on the cusps of their careers and had done some, but not much, professional work. There were a couple of middle-aged actors, though, one being a woman of forty-five “who had just decided to come out as gay, and she was struggling with all this, and there were terrible scenes. And I made her do Noel Coward. I had the group play Design for Living and that was extraordinary.”

They really did rise to this tremendous challenge for American actors, which is not a normal approach with American actors, which is to try to investigate not the psychological truth of their characters—although, of course, I’m interested in that as well—not the emotional impact, nor yet the highly drilled, mechanical brilliance of the musical theatre, but this other thing, the trying to find the language, the specific language of expression of the playwright. It took us into history, it took us into sociology, into all kids of areas, and it became enormously exciting. They remade themselves as actors for each of these different scenes.

The work was shown publicly to considerable acclaim, impressing, in particular, a local millionaire and arts patron, who suggested that Simon found a local company. Serious discussions ensued about “how to create a company of young actors in Santa Fe, who would do this kind of exploratory, laboratory work and then take the shows on the road, ending up in New York, and then filming them.” 

The promise of financing such a company seemed feasible in view of the then recent appearance of cable TV, which might have been a viable outlet for the work. Simon was prepared to become an American and pursue this dream. In fact, one of his students said she couldn’t see any difficulties before them, as “Daddy was best friends with half of Congress,” and all he had to do was “say the word.”

After the group played at several West Coast venues, Simon returned to England, keeping in touch with those interested in continuing the company, but someone else “hijacked [his] millionaire” and the balloon burst. He says he shares this experience with other foreign directors who have gone to America. “It’s great as you stay on the spot. The moment you go away, then it all disappears.”

It was while he was in Santa Fe that Simon was offered the opportunity to write Being an Actor. “So I immediately came back, bought an electric typewriter, sat down, and in three weeks I wrote the book.” I asked him what sort of reaction his now well-known critique of the directing profession incited?

The very interesting thing is that a very common response was, “Oh, so you want to be a director, do you?” Which was a very peculiar thing. That was one response. The other response was a kind of great roar of approval from the acting profession. I think it became a real cause célèbre, to my complete amazement because I expected it to go from the publisher straight to the remainder bookshops without any intervening period of being sold to the public at all.  

The book’s notoriety was not harmed by its having been sent in advance to the Times of London, which appreciated its controversial ideas and published a lengthy extract, leading to a major correspondence in the newspapers’ pages. The book struck a nerve in the music profession, too, where the problem of “the controlling figures” was a sore one. Simon believes that the effect of the book was to make him

the voice of the tribe. It articulated what an awful lot of people in my profession had been thinking for a long time and they had been very, very frightened to say it. Well, you do, because you know, however amusingly people might receive your criticism, in the end they have the power.

As Simon views it, Being an Actor represented two bold political acts. The first was his admission that he was gay, “Which as far as we know,” he commented, “no English actor—at least up to that point—had done.” When I referred to Sir Ian McKellen’s similar revelation several years later, he noted that McKellen always very nicely acknowledges Simon’s precedent:

I always used to say to him that I was merely John the Baptist and that he was Jesus. Ian is a leader, naturally. I’m not a leader, at all, in that sense. And I don’t want to lead any movement. What I can sometimes be is a thorn in the flesh. It’s quite a good thing, perhaps, that I’m about to play Larry Kramer (called Ned Weeks) in his The Destiny of Me.

The second political act represented by Being an Actor was to observe “that something is happening to acting.” He was not aiming simply to say, “Mummy, aren’t directors awful?” but to sound a wake-up call to actors, to tell them that

This is happening, almost without your knowing it, you’re losing your self-determination, you’re losing your autonomy. Because I knew it, I knew that actors would come to the first read-through having done nothing because they waited for the director to put his signature on them. And what would be the point if you arrive at the rehearsal and you’ve read the play one way, you’ve read the character one way, and the director says, “Wrong, that’s not it. Do this.” The notion of the director as a kind of coordinator of all the talents and someone who’s there to draw out, to encourage, to discover, to listen to . . . was disappearing, in my opinion.

To Simon, productions in which the décor and acting carry out the specifics of a director’s vision, no matter how effectively, are “ultimately mechanical.”

I wanted Simon to address the old issue of American acting versus British acting. He does not believe either America or England is presently supplied with truly great actors, although he is willing to make an exception for one or two artists, such as Joanne Woodward and Maggie Smith. He contends, surprisingly, that America lacks really outstanding character actors. 

He views players such as Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman, among others, as brilliant technicians, masters of odd quirks and physicalizations, but not necessarily deeply in touch with their feelings. As an example, he cited Al Pacino’s performance in David Mamet’s American Buffalo. “I never, ever saw a more technical, a more edited, technical bravura performance from Laurence Olivier at his height. He was absolutely stunning, technically. I found it absolutely without any emotional contact to me at all.”

An actor must be both technically proficient and emotionally rich. Simon considers Maggie Smith a sine qua non of performance genius, noting that her brilliance derives from “a technique of mental contact so when Maggie Smith utters a word you see what she’s talking about. Because she herself is so brilliantly in contact with it.” It is this “mental contact” that he demands in directing American actors, insisting on it to the point of, “you know, insanity, really, that they become so fed up with my saying it.” The emotional component is never overlooked and is, indeed,

quite essential for an actor but it’s only the fluid in which the thing occurs. It’s not the objective. This is where I part violently with Lee Strasberg—as I part violently with Lee Strasberg on everything. Because he genuinely believed that the only thing you came to the theatre to see was emotion. And, if you got an emotion, and nothing else, that was fine. And if you got everything else and you didn’t get an emotion then that was terrible. Well, it is essential. Emotion is, of course, an essential component of the theatre. 

The thing that I’ve pointed out to students and actors that I’ve directed everywhere is that there are probably about seven emotions; there are millions of words, each one absolutely different from the other, each one filled with some new idea or image. And if you really engage with those images, the emotions will sure as hell follow behind. If you really, really engage with them.  

What Simon sees having happened in the English and American theatre of late is what he calls, with some disdain,

a new rhetorical school of acting, which is actually not so different from Victorian acting. It’s become very much to do with making shapes, making vocal patterns which are supposed to be interesting, and making strange physical shapes. People adopt the most peculiar physical attitudes, and this is supposed to be expressive or whatever. Acting is very simple. Acting is simply thinking the thoughts of another person. That’s all it is. That’s absolutely all it is. But it’s very hard. I mean the thing itself couldn’t be less complicated but doing it is very, very difficult.

I wanted to know how this thinking the thoughts of the character jibed with traditional Stanislavskian training, which asks the actor to think of his objectives, what he wants in the scene. Simon, whose ideas are reminiscent of teachers such as the late Stella Adler, believes that it is very helpful for the actor to ask such questions, although what he prefers is

Why can’t this scene be cut? Why am I here at all? Why am I, the actor, on stage? The answer is not, you know, to say these lines because they come next in the play. There must be something that is propelling the character along and if you want to use Stanislavskian terminology, that’s fine with me. 

There is an action . . . how am I getting what I want? These are very important things. That is something, verily, that we do in life. But, on the other hand, it’s the character in the situation, the character is simply the person who thinks these thoughts. The situation is what he’s dealing with. Once you’ve grasped those two things, you’re already motoring.