SIMON CALLOW: MY LOST INTERVIEW WITH A RENAISSANCE MAN: Part 3
By: Samuel L. Leiter
April 20, 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.
The zest with which Simon addresses the subject of acting is startling, considering the arc represented by his writing, beginning with the exuberance of Being an Actor and ending in the sometimes painful self-analyses of Shooting the Actor, where he reveals that he has lost the “carnal lust” for acting he once held. I asked him if the lust had returned. After grappling for the right words, he declared:
It’s as if I’m having a change of life at the moment, which I feel has been going on for years. I’m sort of still floundering about, trying to breathe, possessed by myself, whatever, and everything I do. And with that, strangely enough, has come back, like a kind of middle-aged passion, a terrific desire to act, but it’s different from what it was before in so far as it was a kind of . . . a kind of, you know, like being very young and very horny, when you just [with an animal-like growl] get at it.
Simon feels, guiltily, that he is wasting “a rather strong talent for acting,” and that it is time “to do something with this talent,” especially because
Acting is so healthy. Psychically, emotionally, and physically, it’s terrifically healthy. Directing is so unhealthy, in its very nature because it’s ultimately passive. You’re watching something else, trying to make something happen outside you. The wonderful thing about acting is that it’s inside you. It’s also a trial, it’s very tough, you can’t quite locate it. Having worked now so much with other actors, I have a much, much, much clearer version of what it is that I’m trying to do as an actor and what it is that I might yet do. And so I’m trying to rearrange my life so as I can act some more.
His exposure to movie directing was an enormous learning experience, particularly with regard to the process of screen acting. Most of Simon’s film roles, he admits, have been on the order of cameo appearances, and he would love to be able to “spread a character across a whole film.” “One of the things that happens when you’re playing a cameo part is that you’ve really go to sort of cram it in during the time allotted to you. You can’t afford to let things slip by in a rather low-keyed kind of way.”
Since longer film roles are not piling up at his door [nor did they in later years], he suspects he will have to prove himself by directing a film in which he will also star (see below). Referring to the chicken and egg conundrum, he recalls having had all sorts of difficulties being cast in a film before A Room with a View, only for his work in it to be received with admiration. Before that, he’d been told, “We love you on stage but you’d never work on film. They had this kind of theory that the lens would melt or something.”
I said that I had recently seen him in the cameo of the music teacher in Howard’s End but that I could not find his name in the credits. Simon doesn’t classify this as a cameo but as “a secret appearance” because he accepted neither credit nor pay for the scene, which required half a day to shoot. He got the role serendipitously when, visiting director James Ivory (who had directed him in A Room with a View, and would use him in Maurice  and Mr. and Mrs. Bridge ), he asked him how he was doing Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony.
Ivory wasn’t sure yet, although there was a loose idea that it might be done as a lecture, and Simon simply said, “I’ll do it.” Not only did he act it, but he wrote it, too, enjoying the Wellesian sensation of speaking dialogue he had written himself. “It’s taken, actually, from the book, but I put my mother there, playing the piano, and all that kind of thing.”
Toward the end of Simon’s scathing depiction of Makavejev’s directing in Shooting the Actor, he suggests that, perhaps, in his naiveté concerning the process of directing a film, he had gone too far in his indictment. He still feels this way but he would nog agree that Makavejev had acted appropriately, remarking, with explosive laughter, that “he’s completely, barking mad. He’s absolutely impossible and intolerable but I can totally understand it.”
What he can’t justify is his own behavior. He confirms Makavejev’s description of the English actors on the international film (Eric Stoltz was the American star) as “sort of like babies waiting to be breastfed all the time.” The ordeal led him to discover that one must make one’s own life on a movie set. Ever since he bought a Toshiba laptop computer, he has become “like an angel.” Whenever a delay arises, he repairs to his trailer and writes a book!
I asked him how the Makavejev experience fed his directing experience on The Ballad of the Sad Cafe. He joshed that he was surrounded by “impossible, tetchy actors, longing for praise and admiration.” Then, with a guffaw, he recollected, “I had Rod Steiger, yes.” Shifting to a more sober tone, he admitted, “No, I adored working with Rod, I really did. I thought he was a most engaging and lovable guy. But he certainly needs a lot of attention. A lot of loving. And Vanessa [Redgrave] needs a lot of continuous input.” The actor who most impressed Simon was Keith Carradine.
Keith is an immensely regular kind of guy and a very, very, one million percent professional actor who could do it absolutely without any input from anybody. But if you have input, then he’s delighted. I cannot think of an actor I would have enjoyed working with more . . . generosity of temperament, actual knowledge about how it works.
The experience was daunting, given that Simon was a novice directing vastly experienced film stars.
It would have been absolutely out of the question for me to offer them advice about their technique as film actors. Keith knew more about the lenses than I did. He knew more about crossing the line—that famous dispute—than the cameraman. He actually was able to describe it—it’s a very thorny question, which direction you look in when you’re doing a cutaway for another actor—and he actually explained it with models, and so on, like a general explaining a battle, and it was just brilliant. He was a model beyond anything, much, much beyond the way I behaved on the other film.
This memory stirred up the embers of the Manifesto experience, with Simon wishing that Makavejev had given the film more thought and preparation in order to stimulate his actors and crew to make deeper contributions to the work.
I mean that is the other great point about directing, in whatever medium. It’s to insure that every one of the team—which obviously includes the actors, the designers, the set decorators, and so on-is giving the absolute maximum that they can give to it. Of course, sometimes you don’t want somebody to be overwhelming all the time. But, particularly in a film, because it doesn’t come round again. And I kept on saying to Dusan, this is the only time this screenplay will ever be filmed. It’s gone now. Nobody’s going to do a remake of it.
Simon’s propensity for self-revelation in his books intriguingly presents the picture of a man bursting with creative talent and intellect unable to find his niche. He conveys an image of ambivalence regarding each of his career paths: do I want to be a director? do I want to be an actor? do I want to be a writer? I inquired if he had come to any more definite conclusions about his future. His answer reflected an ongoing bout of equivocation.
I keep thinking it has and then it hasn’t. The thing I’m always going to give up is directing. That’s the one. Because the tsurris involved in that is so enormous, more that than anything else. And the writing, although writing is inherently frustrating, it also can be deeply satisfying. You can write a sentence and you’re satisfied, from time to time. And there it is. It’s printed onto a piece of paper and sold. And one can be very proud of it. It’s a simple thing. Whereas a play or a film almost always involves some sort of compromise. It’s not quite the way you saw it, or the performances have fallen apart, or whatever, whatever.
What Simon longs to do, as previously mentioned, is to take his “acting on to a completely different level to anything that I’ve done so far because what I’ve done, with two or three exceptions, I think has been very unimportant.” He then conceded, somewhat grudgingly, “that, I mean, it’s very sort of . . . okay.” He would like to work as hard on his talent as Maggie Smith does on hers so that, perhaps, he can
do something transcendent as an actor. I’ve sort of lost touch with the idea that acting can change people’s lives, and I think it can. I think it really can, I think it should. And I had a funny thought the other day that—I was listening to Kathleen Ferrier, singing Mahler’s “Das Lied von der Erde,” in 1952, when she was dying. Of course, it hadn’t impaired her voice at all but she sang it as if it were the last thing she would ever sing, and I thought, well, we should act everything as if it were the last thing we were ever going to act, and indeed it might be.
(To be continued.)