|Hootkins as Hitchcock|
20 Questions With...William Hootkins
Date: 28 July 2003
Actor William Hootkins, currently playing the eponymous film director in Hitchcock Blonde in the West End, chats about his Star Wars experience, why Martin Sheen should be canonised & the importance of suitable underwear on stage.
After a training of sorts at school in his native Dallas, William Hootkins went to Princeton where he joined the university's Intime Theatre group, before attending drama school in the UK.
The actor's first film role was playing Jek Porkins in George Lucas' Star Wars in 1977. More screen roles followed in two of the Pink Panther films starring Peter Sellers, The Raiders of the Lost Ark and Batman. More recent movie credits include Three Men in a Restaurant, The Magnificent Ambersons, This World Then the Fireworks, The Island of Dr Moreau and A River Runs Through It.
On the small screen, Hootkins has appeared in a host of popular programmes, amongst them: Cheers, Poirot, Cagney & Lacey, Taxi, The New Statesman, Blackadder and Tales of the Unexpected.
His British stage credits include Our Betters, Hotel Arusha and, in the West End, Dreams in an Empty City, What a Way to Run a Revolution and Orpheus Descending. For the Royal Court, Hootkins has previously appeared in Insignificance, The Dentist and The Watergate Tapes.
Written and directed by Terry Johnson, Hitchcock Blonde received its world premiere at the Royal Court in April 2003. It transferred in June to the West End's Lyric Theatre, where Hootkins plays the eponymous Hitchcock alongside the rest of the original cast - Bond girl Rosamund Pike, David Haig, Fiona Glascott and Owen McDonnell.
Date & place of birth
Born in Dallas, Texas on 5 July 1948.
I would say I trained most importantly at my school in Texas where, due to a strange series of circumstances, a truly brilliant teacher of theatre became head of the English department and turned our small Dallas school into a theatre with a school attached (Dallas schools are usually football stadiums with schools attached). Our school became the prime place to see theatre in north Texas. A vast proportion of the students who were there when he taught became interested in theatre. In the class ahead of me was a gentleman now known as Tommy Lee Jones. I made my stage debut with him, and there were several others in this small school who have gone on to work in different aspects of theatre thanks to this astonishing teacher.
I tried to reject that possibility, though, and went to Princeton. I studied astrophysics and Chinese linguistics and tried to stay away from the student theatre; I only succeeded for a few brief months. It was my near contemporary John Lithgow who told me to go to one of the great British drama schools if I was serious about acting, and I went to LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts) - at that time American drama schools were in a state of crisis. After that, I stayed in this country for five years trying to break into theatre. You might say I wasted those five years, but I did a lot of fringe theatre where I got the chance to play lots of parts I wouldn't have normally been cast for. The real education was seeing the likes of John Gielgud, Ralph Richardson and all my heroes on stage. Once my career got going, I decided to split my year between here and Los Angeles. I say I split it haaff (says in American accent) and harf (says in British accent)!
Lives now in...
I wanted to spend more time in the US and, about 15 months ago, decided to buy a house in Los Angeles. I went through the hell of the mortgage process and all the logistical difficulties and, finally, I was one day away from getting it all finished when suddenly I had to be back in the UK beginning rehearsals for Hitchcock Blonde! I was only in my house for five minutes, literally five minutes. I sat down and thought, this is crazy. I'm looking forward to going back to try out the shower that gave me so much trouble.
First big break
That's easy. My first film was directed by a very strange young man - it was called Star Wars. In a sense, my career's been downhill ever since. Fans still come to greet me at the stage door with action figures of my character and embarrassing photographs for me to sign.
Career highlights to date
If it's an important moment you're after, I learned a lot with Star Wars. Most of us who were involved thought it would be a disaster, but we were blown away at the cast screening and wewere sure it had nothing to do with the refreshing beverages and funny cigarettes we'd brought along. Yet I still didn't realise what power would come from that job until a year later I received my first fan letter. In it was a drawing of my scene by a little boy, and it was actually a clearer and more understandable version of the scene than George Lucas'! He asked if he could have an autographed photo. When I checked the return address, it was the leukaemia ward of a children's hospital. It's a blessing to me that I have any power to make even the tiniest difference in other people's lives.
Favourite productions you've ever worked on
I did a production at university which I'm still very proud of. It was Orson Welles' version of Moby Dick for the stage, and I feel that's the one production I've done where every aspect came together perfectly and added up to more than the sum of its parts. It resulted in a lifelong obsession with Melville's novel. Having worked for Penguin before, they asked me if there was anything I'd like to record. I said Moby Dick, as most people agree it's the greatest novel ever written in the English language. But I never thought it would happen. A year later, a package the size of a small washing machine arrived and it was the manuscript. So I recorded the Penguin audio book version, which I'm also very proud of.
Like a lot of people in Britain, I'm a Sergeant Bilko fanatic. He said: "The bigger they are, the more they got it here" and he slaps his chest meaning the heart. I'm happy to have discovered he was right. The greater the talent, the greater the human being. Which means that I am absolutely sure Martin Sheen is the most wonderful human being walking this planet. I continually marvel at his humanity and generosity - the things he's done that no one knows about and that only a brilliant mind could conceive. Martin understands what other human beings need. I'm proud to say he's a good friend, we've worked together on various films. Surprisingly, given his public persona, Jack Nicholson is just behind Sheen in the living saint category. That's what I mean about the bigger the talent the nicer the person. And the more they have to teach us - not as actors or as stars but as human beings - about how we should behave.
There was a director years ago at the BBC named Jimmy Cellan Jones who directed a drama I did based on a Henry James novel, The Ambassadors, with the late Lee Remick and Paul Scofield. It was an interesting rehearsal period, and he did us actors the honour of criticising not what we were doing but what we were aiming at doing. He could see ahead of you to discuss whether your goal was the perfect choice in light of the other actors' goals, but he pretended that there was no question that your powers would lead you to that goal. One of the many pleasures of doing Hitchcock Blonde is that I got to meet Sir Peter Hall, who is one of my heroes. He chatted to me for half an hour before he realised it was me whom he’d just seen playing Hitchcock. He even used the ‘t’ word that all actors dream of hearing. Transformation. It was one of the greatest moments of my life. And, of course, Terry Johnson WHO IS THE GREATEST DIRECTOR IN THE WORLD.
I have to say Harold Pinter, even though he doesn't like Americans on any level, personally or politically. His writing is the most rewarding to work on - I've done The Dumb Waiter and two productions of The Homecoming. And of course Terry Johnson WHO IS THE GREATEST PLAYWRIGHT IN THE WORLD.
What roles would you most like to play still?
This is very easy. Every actor has a role or two he's been rehearsing his entire life, but no one has offered it. For me, it's Shylock. Shakespeare is Shakespeare, his work is above all other theatrical forms, and The Merchant of Venice is a difficult and fascinating play. But I firmly believe I have found a way to play Shylock, and I'm sure my Shylock is the way Shakespeare intended it. Of course, I was interested in it originally because I'm Jewish, but I don't think he's an anti-Semitic character, which is the common the misconception. Actually the opposite, only Shakespeare could exploit the commercial need for Jew hatred in drama at that time, while simultaneously subverting the commercial need by revealing the common humanity which the character has for so long been denied.
How different is it working on stage versus screen?
I now take the radical position there is no difference. I only divide acting into good and mistaken; I think the technical differences are overestimated. Rosamund Pike is doing a terrific stage performance in every sense, but those of us who get to sit close to her can marvel that everything she's doing would also be great on close-up camera at the same moment. She's found a way to meld the two techniques together. Paul Scofield taught me the most difficult acting is not film or stage but TV. He said the video camera requires "ferocious honesty" and I think he's right.
What's the last thing you saw on stage that you really enjoyed?
At the Royal Court Upstairs a few weeks ago was Under the Whaleback. They were kind enough to have a matinee on a day we weren't, so we could see it. This production was truly a life changer and represented what I think modern theatre should be all about. Afterwards, I was so moved I found it difficult to go down and put on my makeup. I felt like I was just prancing about the stage. Another case of ferocious honesty.
What would you advise the government to secure the future of British theatre?
Give more money is the simple answer. One of the reasons I wanted to stay here was I thought the British government was more generous than the US with arts funding, but now I see they are just as tight-fisted. The arts are not an additional luxury, they are the centre of life - especially at a time when our behaviour towards each other is so worrying and under so much scrutiny. Theatre is the laboratory in which we study ourselves and we definitely need to understand ourselves better.
If you could swap places with one person (living or dead), who would it be?
My provisional answer is, as long as I'm in this production I wouldn't want to swap places with anyone! That's how much fun we're having.
Favourite holiday destinations
Never mind holidays! One of the great joys of filmmaking is travelling to all of the wonderful locations, places like Venice, the south of France and the Great Barrier Reef. But the place I'd go back to tomorrow is Namibia - I went there to film Dust Devil. It's the most astonishing place on the planet. Being alone in the middle of the Great Namib Desert really helps one understand one's place in the universe.
Moby Dick. My reading taste is so catholic, it's anything I happen to be reading at the moment. Aside from many books about Hitchcock, I love archaeology and I'm reading a book on ancient Iraq and a new book on Stonehenge. It's all part of my passion for trying to understand ourselves. We need to know where we came from and how and why. In fact, thanks to the book on ancient Iraq, I'm thinking of changing my stage name to Tiglath Pileser III.
Arts and Letters Daily. The internet is like a gold mine, and these people excavate the internet and bring you just the nuggets. I also never miss the astronomy picture of the day from NASA, and neither should you.
If you hadn't become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I'd have been an archaeologist or a linguist probably. That was what I did my degree in. As far as I'm concerned, they're both wonderfully close to acting because you're studying the human animal and its place in the universe and one hopes one can get a little closer to the meaning.
Why did you want to accept your part in Hitchcock Blonde?
Because I thought I couldn't do it. The idea terrified me. I once was the houseguest of Rod Steiger. He'd just done a job and the producer called to say Rod's rushes were brilliant and would I like to tell him how pleased they were with his performance, so I did, and Rod said, "They mistook my terror for inspiration". It's more exciting doing a part you think you can't possibly do. I wouldn't have cast me in this part, but I'm very glad the Royal Court did. I've done a lot of biographical acting. It's amazing how many people in history are short and fat. I've played Churchill in the theatre and on television, even in a musical for the RSC, and I've been Teddy Roosevelt in a film with Ian Holm. Biographical acting offers a special set of problems and rewards. It adds the special problem of methodology to the other problems of technique, observation and research. Like at drama school when they sent you to Victoria Station to watch people move, I studied the trailers from Hitchcock's movies and I always wear the correct period underwear. The way you walk is more determined by underwear than clothes.
Are you a Hitchcock fan?
I am now. I was a lukewarm fan before. Now, of course, he's my favourite director in the world and will be until I finish playing him, except of course for Terry Johnson WHO IS THE GREATEST FILM DIRECTOR IN THE WORLD.
My favourite of Hitchock's films is Foreign Correspondent - not because it's his greatest or even a great film but because it includes the German actor Albert Basserman in a secondary role. Basserman was supposedly the greatest King Lear of the last century. That's one of the great things about black and white film: the archaeology of acting. How else could we know what actors of the past were like? There's a 1930s Thin Man movie where an actor playing a small part suddenly does a famous scene from Henry VIII. I was curious when I saw it on late night TV so I did some research and discovered that the actor, Halliwell Hobbes, had been in the company at the Lyceum when Sir Henry Irving played the part for many performances. And it's clear when you see this movie that Hobbes was doing an imitation of his performance. So what we have is a glimpse of Sir Henry Irving as Cardinal Wolsey.
What are the advantages &/or disadvantages of having the playwright act as director?
The disadvantages are the advantages if you make them so. Sometimes it's a disadvantage to have the director know better than you what the line is supposed to mean. But, on the other hand, I think some of the guys in Brand would be happy to have the chance to ask Ibsen what he meant by a certain line.
What are the differences, if any, between British & American audiences?
British audiences are, as the cliché would have it, more reserved. One has to work harder to break down their natural reticence to join the actors in the evening's endeavour. When they do respond, though, they do so with a genuine interest and enthusiasm that delights both parties.
What's you favourite line from Hitchcock Blonde?
It's got so many great lines I change my mind every eight minutes. I'm delighted by a line that's not mine. For reasons I can't understand, I like to hear David Haig say "Return to your trapezium".
What's the most notable thing that's happened in the run to date?
We’ve got a million of ‘em. At the top of the list is the night real-life Hitchcock blonde Tippi Hedren came to the show. She liked it so much she demanded to come on stage and address the audience, which was unplanned. She said amazingly nice things about the play and my performance, but it was so embarrassing that I was forced to fake a swooning fit. Luckily, Owen McDonnell was there to catch me.
What are your plans for the future?
I believe Terry's script is so good I look forward to enjoying every night until it finishes.
- William Hootkins was speaking to Hannah Kennedy
Hitchcock Blonde is currently playing at the West End's Lyric Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue.