Adam Godley On ... Portraying AutismDate: 9 October 2008
British actor Adam Godley stars opposite Hollywood’s Josh Hartnett in the world premiere stage adaptation of the 1988 Oscar-winning film Rain Man. Godley plays Raymond Babbitt, the autistic savant brother of Hartnett’s Charlie, the role taken on screen by Dustin Hoffman. Godley’s previous stage credits include Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick and Mouth to Mouth, both of which earned him Olivier nominations, as well as, more recently, Private Lives, Paul, Two Thousand Years and The Pillowman. His film credits include Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and Elizabeth: The Golden Age.
When Adam Godley was first asked to play Raymond in Dan Gordon’s adaptation of Rain Man, he leapt at the opportunity: "It’s such a great idea to put the film on stage." In fact Charlie Babbitt, played by Josh Hartnett in the production at the Apollo Theatre, and Raymond, the autistic brother he becomes reunited with, are both stage acting roles worth leaping for.
But did Godley feel daunted by the inevitable comparisons with Dustin Hoffman, who captured the essential oddness of Raymond's autism in Barry Levinson's original film, but without a trace of stereotyping or sentimentality? "They were both fantastic. Dustin Hoffman is one of my great acting heroes. I haven’t seen the film since it came out 20 years ago, so I only have an impressionist memory of his Raymond, which is lucky because I want to do something new and special. My job as an actor is to find the Raymond who is in me."
Now approaching his mid-forties, Godley has been acting since he was nine years old and has played many varied roles on stage, film and TV, including a memorable turn as Kenneth Williams in Cor, Blimey! on television, a character he reprised from Cleo, Camping, Emmanuelle and Dick at the National Theatre, for which he was nominated for a Best Supporting Performance Olivier Award.
Even so, Raymond is probably the biggest challenging of his career so far he says, although it is acting territory he has strayed into once before on stage when he gave a memorable portrayal of the brain-damaged brother in Martin McDonagh’s The Pillowman in 2004, again at the National. But creating Raymond, he emphasises, requires a different level of understanding as an actor, because unlike the brother in The Pillowman, his autism isn’t the fault of anybody and he’s certainly not "retarded", but autistic savant – ‘savant’, coming from the French and meaning smart or wise.
"In rehearsal with Josh and our director Terry Johnson, I had to find a way of entering the mind of a person who is locked in and seemingly emotionally flat. Autistic people often find eye contact impossible and physical contact can be overwhelming and invasive, but it doesn’t mean to say they’re not feeling – so it’s getting inside that persona. And you have to get your head around the whole notion that you’re on a genius level at one thing, but maybe can’t tie you own shoelaces.”
It’s a fascinating prospect for any actor. Raymond might not be able to make much "normal" conversation, but he can turn himself into a human calculator and remember every single name in a telephone directory after one reading or recite the entire Abbott and Costello “Who’s on First?” routine. Taking on the role, Godley says, made him realise how little he knew about autism or its many and varied levels. He made up for it with three months of research before rehearsals began, even spending time at the National Autistic Society's residential facility in Godalming in Surrey.
"I have a friend whose child has recently been diagnosed as being autistic but I wasn’t aware of the right terminology. I didn’t really know about the many different grades along the autistic spectrum and that there is Asperger Syndrome, which is another variant. I read everything I could, talked to experts, watched documentaries and met people with different levels of autism. In the end, as an actor, you store all the research in a kind of box in your head and then take out the things that are useful and allow the character to emerge.
"I do feel a big responsibility to make sure that I don’t feed into people’s stereotype views and prejudices about autism and disability. All I can say is that Josh and I slogged our guts out to ensure that the audience gets the best possible experience as they go on the journey with Charlie and Raymond and enter the mind of this man. I hope I do it justice."
- Adam Godley was speaking to Roger Foss
Rain Man opened on 19 September 2008 (previews from 28 August) at the West End’s Apollo Theatre, where it’s booking for a limited season until 20 December 2008. A version of this interview appeared in the September issue of our sister print title, What’s On Stage magazine. To guarantee your copy of future print editions - and also get all the benefits of our Theatre Club - click here to subscribe now!!