Written for Spoonfed. First published 14th May 2012.
The legendary Steven Berkoff, l’enfant terrible of stage and screen is now 74 years-old and I was fortunate enough to be given a whole half hour with the man, the master, the mime. But he turned out to be so damn quotable I thought I’d let him do all the talking.
On his new play, Six Actors in Search of a Director
“It’s really a study of actors and their particular goals in life, their ambitions, their ideals and how the art of the actor was once a wonderful art and a supreme art because the actor is the messenger of the great writers. It’s about how that has gradually eroded. It follows a group of actors who are working on a film and they’re deeply frustrated, so all these things about their ideals, their wants, their desires are expressed. What was an actor and what is it to be an actor?”
“Being an actor is the best basis to be a director because you not only understand, you have empathy for the actors. If you’ve not been an actor, you’ve not done your training. Now most directors, whether they’ve acted or not, they jump in. They have not really been actors, maybe once in early days but they’re not ongoing like Olivier was or John Gielgud was. So to me they are amateurs.
The people running all these major theatres, to me they are amateurs. And sometimes like a blind chicken finds a corn, sometimes they can have a little hit. But I think you have to be trained. As no boxer will take training from someone who’s not been a boxer but has only been reading about it, and no dancer would ever take training from a person who’s never been a dancer, they’d be stupid. Only in theatre has it been so eroded, only in theatre has it been so disvalued [sic], its spirit, its soul has been so worn down that virtually any pimp from Oxbridge can come and direct a play.”
“Drama reflects the best values of the civilised world, even in Greek times. We learned, we gained, now we have Homeland and basically it is shit. It is utter puerile shit but we think it’s better than what it is because it’s a guy who was captured by the Arabs and he’s been brainwashed and there’s violence and a bit of screwing in the car. Is he a sleeper? Hey Carrie we’ve gotta go….[starts imitating Claire Dane’s crying]. It’s just shit.
Years ago there was a particular respect for the arts. Maybe in your mother’s time, there was a lot of drama. Now the BBC, which used to be the conscience of the country, has become a cesspit. Now you have EastEnders on every night, they don’t care what they put on! When you have a pulpit, it is your public duty and your fundamental duty to inform and excite and to give and to instruct and to illuminate, but when you don’t do this, you don’t give a damn. They should be taken out of their offices and strung up in public because they are poisoning the waters. Culture civilises us, it makes us think, it moves us. I’ve got a thing about the Beeb but I mustn’t say too much because I’ll never work for them.”
“Sometimes I’m nervous on film but I’m always happy because film is an escapism. When you do a film someone says, “Oh we’ve got this gig in Budapest,” and you think, “Oh I’ve never been there, that’s fascinating, a new city to explore, new languages to listen to, new foods, new cultures, how amazing!” Or, “Oh we’ve got this film for you but you have to go to Miami – ooh wow Miami! Or Los Angeles, oooooh this is fantastic.” So with film you’re always in a state of happiness because it’s a lot of fun. Well, not fun for the director and not fun for the cameraman because they have to work really hard.
I remember doing one film which was hell [Prisoner of Rio, 1988], it was so much hell that I had to write it out of my system. So I wrote a book called A Prisoner In Rio. It was so hellish, I kept saying to myself I must get out, I must get out, it was just monstrous. Whereas stage is never really monstrous. You might get a director you don’t agree with, sometimes he might be a bit difficult, a bit sadistic at times, but he has to get the play on. He’s only got three or four weeks then he’s gone and you play on.”
“The theatre at least is the closest to what actors train for, to what they bend their minds to do, to what they interpret, to what fulfils them, to what they have pride in, to what they feel justifies their life. Not knocking film, god forbid, because it’s been a god-send to actors, it gives us a little bit more money and you don’t have to repeat the same play night after night and that can be quite wonderful. But in many films the actor just has to sit and wait. That’s what Michael Caine said: “you’re not paid for the acting, you’re paid for the waiting”. And sometimes you’re not even paid that much for the waiting, but that’s what you have to do.”
“Unlike most other performers, like dancers, who still have to dance everyday, singers particularly and composers obviously – these people still have to maintain the integrity of their art even if they’re in commercial situations or just doing shoddy musicals. But the actor, which is, as I say, a noble calling, now in film is reduced largely to kind of just wallpaper. They are the background for events, for dramas, crashes, rapes, voyeurism.
When an actor starts studying drama they want to be Laurence Olivier, they want to play Richard III and Macbeth and Hamlet and Othello, they want to illuminate the deepest areas of the human soul via Shakespeare or any other Elizabethan writer.
But you know, we’re employed to put on funny faces, funny masks, to be Dr Who with funny voices whizzing around the place being manipulated with technology, computer generated image and CGI effects. We’re no longer the actors that we were and eventually we end up doing action adventure movies. And if these film actors try to do stage work they often fail, they can’t do it. Or they do a stage play where they’re forced to act the idiot eight times a week! I mean, an opera singer wouldn’t sing more than twice, three times if he’s forced. But an actor is expected to routinely do eight shows, so it’s a form of slave labour now even when they get a good job, even when they beg for the job they’re in there eight times a week. Which, for the leading actor of course, is murder.”