Former RADA boy, Sir Tom Courtenay, took to the stage at the small 150-seater RADA Screen cinema for a Q&A after a screening of Quartet.
Sir Tom appears not to like answering questions about himself. Then, he doesn’t appear to like answering questions about any one else in the Quartet cast either. But he does seem to like talking about Dustin Hoffman, Quartet’s director, and some of the other luminary actors he has appeared with over the years – Sir Alec Guinness, Peter O’Toole, Michael Williams – and some of his early mentors at RADA.
There are four sides to this confounding and complex actor.
1. Impersonator par excellence
During the course of the chat, he manages to bring to life on stage the spirits of Sir Laurence Olivier, Sir Alec Guinness, Michael Williams and Dustin Hoffman.
A chance question about method acting raised a hilarious story about Dustin Hoffman dealing with Sir Larry on the set of Marathon Man. According to Hoffman, director John Schlesinger was unsure of how to approach ‘the world’s greatest living actor’ to tell him to tone down his performance a notch. Hoffman stepped in to coerce Sir Larry with some fleet of foot flattery which had the desired effect.
You feel that if someone could structure a one-man show around the characters Courtenay has met and worked with across the years, it would be a warm and funny way to spend a couple of hours. Highly entertaining and enlightening. But, you get the feeling that Courtenay would never allow it.
When advising the young Tom on how to survive the humiliation of working with actors who may be more popular and successful but who you think is not up to your standard, you feel that Sir Tom would heed the sage words of Sir Alec who said: ‘One learns to keep one’s trap shut!’
2. Grumpy old luvvie
When asked by a young RADA student what advice he has for young actors starting out: ‘Think again. Really.’ He spoke about the gaps in between jobs and then the disappointment when a pet project falls flat – as his one-man show did in New York. He obviously has not forgiven the Americans for not ‘getting’ his show.
3. Bright young brat
While Courtenay is an old RADA boy, he seemed highly uncomfortable with the whole episode of being back at his old school, and the nearby College where he started out, enrolling only to be near to RADA anyway and spent all his time at the Drama Society keeping a check on the competition in RADA’s halls before being accepted himself a few years later. He said he’d spent five years all told at both educational establishments. And he didn’t seem to enthuse over much learning he’d done there – most of the stage techniques fell by the wayside as the tide turned and parts ‘for Northern boys like me’ started turning up in films.
His lack of similar success to contemporaries like Finney, Bates and Caine is said to be of his own choosing. Instead of tackling London’s West End, Courtenay went to Manchester and worked in small theatres like the Royal Exchange. He never courted Hollywood either.
While he feels guilty at his success, he envies those who have taken the Hollywood parts and made a success of it – something he tried but didn’t like. ‘I couldn’t get on in LA,’ he said, ‘You can’t walk there. You go for a walk, you get arrested.’ But then he revealed the envy when talking about a part he’d recently turned down. ‘I just didn’t think the part was real enough. Someone else took it. I think they were nominated for an Academy Award. Ha! I don’t know why I’m laughing.’
And, like most actors, with his excess of self-confessed arrogance comes a good helping of insecurity. He still feels like he has not achieved success as an actor. A young girl asked him if there was a performance where he feels he has achieved that success. He said it was on stage in ‘Moscow Stations’ as the drunken Venichka Yerofeev en route to Moscow. In that character’s despair Courtenay said he found the truth.
And getting to the truth seems to be the key to his idea of successful acting. He felt he didn’t do it in his early film roles, including Billy Liar and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner. I can only shake my head incredulously. Perhaps Sir Tom should let his audience, or his directors, decide when those moments have been reached. I’m sure we could sit down with Dustin Hoffman and agree on several moments in Quartet alone.
4. Artist ready to retire
Someone asks a sensible question about the renewed popularity of films featuring older actors and whether he thinks this is an optimistic trend. He flinches at the mention of the Marigold Hotel saying ‘I didn’t like it. I didn’t feel it was real.’ And, ‘well, it’s not up to me to say really. I hope so, I’d like to be optimistic.’ Nevertheless, he tried to explain the recent trend for stories about older characters. ‘When I finished drama school and was looking for work, all the Northern and working class writers were coming up and the same for the actors. Now all the writers are older, that is what they are writing about. That’s just what happens.’
An audience member commented that Pauline Collins character was her favourite and the only one who addressed the realities of growing old. Tom was dumbfounded: ‘Well, what do you want me to say? She is very good. It was my idea to cast her in that role.’
He enjoyed talking about the process of making the movie. ‘When I was younger I used to hate all the sitting around on a film set. I thought it was a waste of time. Now it’s my favourite part.’
He was on much more comfortable ground talking about the director, Dustin Hoffman. ‘Dustin is the real hero of the piece. He made it happen.’ And his Hoffman impersonation is superb, capturing the energy of the man and his ‘pocket dynamo’ personality. How did Hoffman deal with the many real musicians and singers who are extras in the cast?
Courtenay holds his arms up at right angles and makes a screen that frames his head and neck. ‘Dustin said to them: See this – this is all there is. Be still and say the words.’ Great screen acting advice for those of a dramatic persuasion who have never acted on screen before.
‘Can we finish?’ he squirms signalling his wish. And so, the session ends.
Cheers for now, Beth