20 Questions With...Pete Postlethwaite
Date: 21 January 2002
Actor Pete Postlethwaite, opening this week in a fresh revival of The Homecoming at the Royal Exchange in Manchester, loves Harold Pinter, Greece & telling lies, both on screen & stage.
Actor Pete Postlethwaite started his career in the theatre, joining the company of Liverpool's Everyman Theatre where, amongst his peers at the time, were Jonathan Pryce, Julie Walters and Antony Sher.
Since then, he has appeared in numerous stage productions at the Royal Shakespeare Company, Royal Court and National Theatre, as well as in the West End. His credits have included The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Richard II, The Good Person of Sichuan, Funny Peculiar, Freezeblock Park and The Recruiting Officer.
But it's been Postlethwaite's many film roles that have achieved him international recognition. They include In the Name of the Father, The Last of the Mohicans, The Usual Suspects, Brassed Off, Amistad, Jurassic Park II: The Lost World, Distant Voices Still Lives and, soon to be released in the UK, The Shipping News, with Judi Dench, Kevin Spacey and Cate Blanchett.
Postlethwaite is currently in Manchester where he's starring in a new production of Pinter's The Homecoming as part of the Royal Exchange theatre's 25th anniversary season.
Date & place of birth
Born 7 February 1945 in Warrington, Cheshire.
Lives now in
Bristol Old Vic Theatre School
First big break
It was joining the Liverpool Everyman in the mid-1970s. It was such a vibrant theatre at that point. Alan Dosser was running it, playwrights like Chris Bond, Bill Morrison, Alan Bleasdale and Willy Russell were working there, and the company included Jonathan Pryce, Julie Walters, Antony Sher, Bill Nighy and George Cotigan. It was a very exciting time to be involved in the theatre. It was during that time that I came to terms with why I was an actor, and what it meant to be one: it wasn't just "anyone for tennis". We were doing plays that were relevant to the community and that meant something to those who came to see them. If it didn't relate to the audience, it was pointless to do it. So there was a marriage between what we did and why we did it.
What were some highlights during your time at the Everyman?
I went there to do John McGrath's The Bofors Gun, and stayed on for three or four years. Among the shows, we did there and then took to London were Mike Stott's Funny Peculiar and Willy Russell's Breezeblock Park.
What do you consider your other career highlights to date?
Working at Bristol Old Vic with Adrian Noble and Bob Crowley was one. Then I started to do more and more film work. It was Terrence Davies' Distant Voices Still Lives which kind of put me into another league, when people who really love film started to notice me. Then there was In the Name of the Father.
Which medium - film or stage - do you most prefer working in?
I love them both, for different and the same reasons. Effectively, we're telling lies; we're telling stories. The same process has to take place mentally and spiritually. There are, however, physical things that are different; on stage you have more control over what you do than on film which is yet to be edited and where someone else chooses which bits are used or not. On stage, it's down to you and the director. But essentially, I love what they both do.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
In the theatre, A View form the Bridge at Bristol with Adrian Noble directing; The Rise and Fall of Little Voice; and Macbeth that I did on tour two years ago for a company we set up ourselves. In the cinema, Brassed Off, because it was expressing my own views, both spiritually and politically; The Usual Suspects; and Baz Luhrmann's Romeo and Juliet.
How did you come to play Macbeth?
I was having dinner with two friends, George Costigan and Dick Penny, one night, and they asked me, "Have we lost you to the theatre now, or is because nobody has asked you to do any? If you could do anything, what would you do?" I replied, Macbeth. And the reason was because I thought I understood one of the lines: "Thou comest to use thy tongue". So together with Dick and his company, Rebbeck Penny, and the Bristol Old Vic, we set up a tour of the play.
What role would you most like to play still?
If I'm really honest, and it's an obvious choice, but it's always been in the back of my mind - Lear. He's not unlike Max in The Homecoming in fact: a decaying, power-mad dad with three children.
What advice would you give the government to secure the future of British theatre?
That it be properly funded; that theatre is cared about.
The Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell.
Favourite holiday destination
Greece. Lawrence Durrell says you don't go to Greece to discover a foreign country, you go to Greece to discover yourself. I always have a fantastic time when I go there.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I probably would have taught - I trained to be a teacher at St Mary's College in Twickenham, and I taught for two years before I went into acting. My first year was teaching drama at an approved school in Formby in Lanchaster, then the year after that I taught at a Catholic girls' grammar school here in Manchester. But I still hankered after acting, and I decided that I didn't want to spend my time in staff rooms for the rest of my life but wanted green rooms and dressing rooms instead.
Why did you want to accept your part in this production of The Homecoming?
We did it at college at St Mary's in Twickenham the year after Harold Pinter wrote it, in 1966. I was 20 years old, trying to play Max, who is 70. Now that I'm slightly nearer that age, it seemed a good idea to do it again. I also directed the play at drama school; it's a play that hit me right between the eyes, it's an extraordinary piece of writing. Having examined it quite closely early in my youth, I thought it would be a good idea to look at The Homecoming again when we were thinking about what I could do here. It was my suggestion.
Did you see Ian Holm play the role of Max in London last year?
No, I didn't, but everyone else did! I've never seen any other production of it.
What, in your opinion, distinguishes Harold Pinter from other playwrights?
Two things mainly. One is that, being an actor himself and proving even now that he is rather good at it, he comes at characters very much from what an actor can and cannot do - the characters are always very good acting parts. The other thing is that he turned theatre on its head. He sets up a situation, and he very slowly and gently makes it surreal. He was one of those extraordinary playwrights who were about in the mid-1960s that we were discovering fresh from the printers - together with Beckett, Ionesco and Arthur Miller. It was a phenomenal time, and he was part of that movement. His legacy to British theatre is massive, as it is to the theatre generally.
This year marks the Royal Exchange's 25th anniversary. Have you appeared here before?
Yes, that's partly why the theatre approached me. They wanted to get people back who had previously worked here and for whom it therefore meant something to celebrate the anniversary. I was here 20 years ago in The Duchess of Malfi, with Helen Mirren and Bob Hoskins, in a production that transferred to the Roundhouse in London.
What, if anything, do you think is special about the Royal Exchange?
It's the paradox of the building itself that gives it its dynamic. It's in this massive Victorian building, yet the stage itself is like a lunar module in the middle of it. Also, not too many theatres in England are in-the-round. It's a dynamic space, and it makes for an extraordinarily different way of seeing theatre, both for the audience and the actors. As opposed to the altar of the proscenium arch, in which the audience become like a congregation, I thought it would be incredibly risky and dangerous to do a play like this, written for a proscenium, in-the-round, and hopefully to capture the extraordinary claustrophobic tension of the piece.
What's your favourite Harold Pinter play?
What's your favourite line from The Homecoming?
A line by Teddy, Max's son who returns from America with his wife: "It was loveplay.... I suppose....That's all I suppose it was."
What are your plans for the future?
I'd like to do more work on stage. Prior to this, I'd been to the Dublin Theatre Festival with a new one-man play called Scaramouche Jones, written by Justin Butcher. It's about a clown whom we meet on 10.30pm on Millennium Eve, as 1999 turns into 2000. He was born on New Year's Eve, 1899, and will be 100 years old in an hour and a half's time. The play takes you on this extraordinary journey through his life, as he has a go at the gods. We've now set up a tour of it that will kick off in Bristol in March, and go on to Belfast, Leeds and Guildford.
- Pete Postlethwaite was speaking to Mark Shenton
The Homecoming, directed by Gregory Hersov, runs at Manchester's Royal Exchange from 23 January to 2 March 2002.