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Interview with Pete Postlethwaite 2008

Chris High and Pete Postlethwaite in 2008It was in 2008 that I spent well over an hour in the company of the late, great Pete Postlethwaite whose untimely death at the age of 64 was announced today (January 3, 2011). An actor of tremendous ability, my slot with him was originally down as 15 minutes but he was more than willing - during a hectic and gruelling rehearsal schedule for the upcoming King Lear, it should be said - to spend as long as necessary to answer my questions and so provide one of the most fulfilling interviews of my writing career so far. It was then my privilige to meet him several times thereafter - and to my amazement, to be remembered by name - and always found him to be the same, warm, affable and constantly entertaining gentleman who never once forgot his roots. One of Britain's greatest ever actors, Peter's skill, personality and sheer enthusiasm for all things acting will be sorely missed. Chris High - 03 January 2011.

Listen to Chris High talk about Pete Postlethwaite on BBC Radio 5 Live.

Pete Postlethwaite collecting his OBE in 2004

Pete Postlethwaite has won many accolades and had many plaudits bestowed upon him, not least of which being, according to a certain Mister Spielberg, “the best actor in the world”. Now this sixty-two year old son of the North West returns to the theatre where his career truly began, Liverpool’s Everyman Theatre, to play one of Shakespeare’s most demanding roles, King Lear.

In a year when the theatre has already staged many memorable others, this is a production that has undergone a period of almost unprecedented anticipation since being announced at the turn of this Capital of Culture year for the city. A fact that, in no small measure, is because of its star. ‘Performing here this year is very much a double whammy for me, because the Everyman is a theatre that’s always been in my heart,’ Postlethwaite explained during a break in rehearsals. ‘The idea of doing this has been in my mind for many years and Rupert Goold is a marvellous Director who I’ve worked with before. So there’s a little touch of synchronicity and fate and all that going on, because I doubt very much that there will be a better time than this.’

Returning to the Everyman has been a long-term of aim of Postlethwaite. Such a long-term aim, in fact, the actor struggles to recall who set the original ball rolling. ‘It’s a little bit chicken and egg in a lot of ways and I’m not sure if it was Rupert who got in touch with the Everyman’s Artistic Director, Gemma Bodinetz, or where the idea actually germinated, but we’ve been talking about staging Lear here for around two years or so. It has to be like that. We only get five weeks rehearsal but can’t do Lear in five weeks and can’t begin learning your lines for this in week one, that’s for sure. But we’re at the rock face now and looking forward to it.’

Postlethwaite was born in Warrington in 1945 and followed a normal educational upbringing but despite having great love of the theatre even then, did not enroll in acting classes until he was 24. ‘When I was growing up I wanted to be a priest and even went so far as entering a seminary for four years in Ormskirk. I was completely convinced, up until the age of fourteen, that being a priest was what I wanted to be. To understand why I didn’t start acting earlier you have to go back even further and have to realize that it wasn’t the norm for young working class lads to even contemplate becoming actors so I went to Saint Mary’s College and trained to become a teacher. That’s when theatre and drama overtook me completely but even then I still didn’t think I could do it so decided to teach for a couple of years and see if I still wanted to act after that. I taught for a year in Formby and then another year in Manchester and then decided that, yes, it’s what I want to do so I applied for Drama school at twenty four, then did two years at the Bristol Old Vic theatre school before coming here to the Everyman at around twenty-nine or so and joined what was then a pretty young company.’

A company which included some pretty fine talent as it happens. Julie Walters, Matthew Kelly, Bill Nighy, Anthony Sher, Trevor Eve, Jonathan Pryce, Alison Steadman and the late Kevin Lloyd were all acting out of the Everyman by then, performing plays written by up and coming writers such as Alan Bleasdale, Willy Russell, Bill Morrison and Chris Bond. ‘It was an extraordinary period and none of us were aware of it either. We were all doing what we did blindly to a certain extent, but with such a good heart and such a positive buzz. Looking back now you’d struggle getting that amount of talent working together in one continent let alone one theatre company. It was then that I finally realized that acting was a worthwhile profession and that theatre had real place in the community which was very important because it had to make sense to the community else there was no point doing it. It took my parents awhile to get used to the idea of me being an actor and certainly my mother, who always thought I’d get a proper job one day. Then mum saw me being introduced to The Queen about sixteen years after I started out and thought it can’t be all bad if you get to meet Her Majesty.’
So, after all this time in film and on television and on stage, does the actor still get nervous before going on stage? ‘Blimey, tell me about it, but I think you need that fear. I’m not so concerned of my making a complete idiot of myself anymore but rather that we don’t do the play justice and live up to the standards we set ourselves. If we hit those standards and do whatever production to the best of our abilities as actors and the audience goes away satisfied, it’s a job well done. If somebody says this, that or the other wasn’t quite right and we look at it and agree, that’s when criticism hurts most because we’ve let ourselves down.’

The last time Postlethwaite performed in Liverpool was in 2003 during a run of the single-handed Scaramouche Jones, written by Justin Butcher and also Directed by Rupert Goold. ‘I do remember one particular performance at The Liverpool Playhouse where we had to stop halfway through because a member of the audience was taken ill and it grew obvious that something serious was going on so we stopped for about half an hour or so. This was a show that details the life of an aged clown year by year, so once I came back onstage I had to think of where it was we’d stopped and that’s another example of where knowing your audience is really important because I had a bit of banter with them, asked what year we were in and picked it up from there.’

King Lear is a very complex character filled with numerous flaws and is, at times, a brutal and exhausting role to portray so getting under the skin of such a character takes time. ‘The only way to do it is by taking one step at a time, but our first responsibility is to tell the story Shakespeare intended. That’s our duty as actors and not to impose what we think the story is about,’ the actor explained. ‘You have to look at his circumstances and ask what could he have done, what did he expect Cordelia to say or even how well does he know her, his own daughter? He’s playing a game and if he knows his youngest daughter that well, surely he must realise she’s not going to play his game? But of course he’s totally blinkered at the beginning and blind to what’s happening in so many ways but as an actor you just have to examine each little section of the character’s personae and ask what makes him the way he is. It also helps that all of the characters in Lear all have something incredibly human about them, even with all their faults, with a fabulously heady mixture of extraordinary goodness and extraordinary evil all blending together.’

And it is the overall release of destruction throughout the play that Postlethwaite believes makes the play even more pertinent today. ‘What you have essentially, once the sluice gate holding back all the poison is removed, is Civil War and anarchy and carnage and lies upon lies and brothers turning against brothers and fathers against daughters. All of which is precisely what’s happening in Iraq at the moment. Nobody is telling the truth about that situation, nobody’s winning and nobody will admit it, but what we’ve done is unleashed complete anarchy in that part of the world and what we’ve ended up with today is a situation where nobody wants to carry the can for what’s happening over there rather like with Lear, who wants all the trappings of statesmanship but none of the responsibility. I strongly believe that Shakespeare knew that what he was writing would make sense four hundred years later and it certainly does make sense with Lear.’

Pete Postlethwaite has made something of a name for himself playing working-class, up-against-it and somewhat put upon characters, from Giuseppe in In The Name Of The Father – a part for which he received an Academy Award nomination in 1993 – to Danny in Brassed Off and on to Hooch in BBC television’s recent hit five-part drama, Criminal Justice. ‘I’d agree with the working class description but I’m not sure about the put upon aspect. In fact, I saw Danny as a bit of fascist in the way he insisted that no matter what was going on around him, the band would play regardless. Hooch is a little bit different in as much as he’s compromised himself and so makes the decisions he makes. If there is a pattern it’s in the way I always try to find something in them that isn’t immediately obvious. If they are put upon I’ll find out where they’re fascist. If they’re fascist I’ll find they’re vulnerability. We are all of us composite characters and I think that all of us at some time or another have all felt varying degrees of what all of the characters I’ve played have felt.’

So which of all the parts does Postlethwaite remember most fondly? ‘They all have a special place and, something like my shirts, hang in my wardrobe next to each other. There are only two films I wouldn’t make now, one of which I can’t even think of it was that awful, and the other was set in an orphanage in Warsaw called Brute. The Director was horrible, especially to the youngsters in the cast. In theatre, I think we did a production of Henry IV Part II at The Playhouse where a critic wrote that the evening started off in magnificent style, with the most beautiful set that had all the dead kings hidden in alcoves all around. And then they let the actors on it. For all that though, I don’t think there are any parts that I’ve turned down that I wished I’d taken and I certainly wouldn’t like to be starting off today because we had a training ground where we were allowed to make mistakes. That’s not possible today. Now you’re straight out of drama school and queuing up to audition for The Bill or something simply because there’s nowhere else to go. When I started, every town had two or three theatres with companies to join and learn your craft. Not today and I feel very sorry for young actors in that respect. If I was going to give advice to a young actor thinking of going into theatre it would be to make sure that you really want to do it because if you don’t, it will find you out.’

And with that said, and despite the fact that he has seen so much success, both on stage and screen, it is nice to hear that Pete Postlethwaite has no intention of settling down in a Hollywood mansion any time soon. ‘I’ve had some fantastic times over there and I do love it, but is not for me at all. Not to live there. I do have some very good friends who are doing some incredible work, but I’m English through and through and love living here so why move?’

Chris High

 


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“Writing gets me away for a while' from this world and into one where I, alone, can make or
break the rules as I see fit.” - Chris High 2003.
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