20 Questions With…David Suchet

Actor David Suchet – who, now at the NT in Once in a Lifetime, is reprising a role he first played 26 years ago – recalls myriad highlights, the legacy of Poirot & how Laurence Olivier & Sigmund Freud influenced his career.

David Suchet is probably best known to TV murder mystery fans as Hercule Poirot in the drama adaptations of the famous Agatha Christie detective books. However, he is also an award-winning stage actor who has performed extensively with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

His more recent stage credits include West End productions: of Man and Boy at the Duchess Theatre (and on tour); Amadeus at the Old Vic, on Broadway (where he was nominated for a Tony Award for Best Actor) and in Los Angeles; Oleanna at the Royal Court and Duke of York’s, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? (for which he won a Critics’ Circle Award) at the Almeida and Aldwych; and Timon of Athens (for which he won the Evening Standard Best Actor Award) at the Young Vic.

Previously, Suchet has starred in productions of Othello, Measure for Measure, The Merchant of Venice, The Tempest, Romeo and Juliet, Richard II and many others with the RSC, as well as myriad productions in regional repertory theatre.

On television, in addition to Poirot, Suchet has starred in Blot on the Landscape (for which he won the Best Actor BAFTA), The Life of Freud (winning Best Actor at the RTS Awards), Henry VIII as Cardinal Wolsey alongside Ray Winstone, and the title role in George Carman QC, and has also appeared in series such as Murder in Mind, Victoria and Albert, The Way We Live Now, Secret Agents, Separation, Bingo, Ulysses and A Bear Named Winnie.

Suchet’s recent film credits include Foolproof, The In-Laws, Live From Baghdad, Sabotage, Wing Commander, A Perfect Murder, Sunday, Deadly Voyage and Executive Decision.

In 2003, the Queen’s Jubilee year, the actor was awarded an OBE.

Suchet is currently appearing in Edward Hall’s new National Theatre production of George S Kaufman and Moss Hart’s farce 1930 Broadway comedy about Hollywood, Once in a Lifetime. He plays ruthless studio boss Herman Glogauer, a part he first played for the RSC in the West End (at first the Aldwych and then the Piccadilly theatres) in 1979.

Date & place of birth
Born 2 May 1946 in London.

Lives now in

LAMDA (London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts).

What made you want to be an actor?
I was playing Macbeth at school, and my English teacher Joe Storr recommended that I might enjoy being part of the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. It was about 1962 or 1963, Michael Croft was running it and it was a wonderful time. I remember being on the stage when they were bringing down the set of Bartholomew Fair when I was about 16 or 17. I think that was the first thing that did it, the magic of that, and that whole world, I wanted to be a part of it. But when I really look back and think about it, I was always amazed at writers who gave their work away to other people to interpret. It’s that desire to serve writers who give their work away to directors and actors that made me want to say I would really like to be in the world of entertainment.

First big break
In terms of theatre, my first big break came in my first year with the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973, when a dear friend of mine called Bernard Lloyd was rehearsing Orland. Just before the opening of As You Like It, in which I was playing Oliver, the evil brother, Bernard got a back injury and I went into full rehearsals as his understudy, and I opened to the press. So someone else’s misfortune led me to jump from dressing room 12 right through to 1A, and I never moved from there in all the years I was with the RSC. I was there on and off from 1973 to 1986, so that was my classical apprenticeship. I ended up playing big major roles – Iago, Bolingbroke, Shylock etc. If that was my theatrical break, my real television break was Blot on the Landscape, which led to a lot of other things.

Career highlights to date on stage
Shylock appears twice. I hold the record of being the youngest professional Shylock ever in Great Britain, at least in the 20th century. I was just 23 when I first played him at the Gateway Theatre, Chester in 1969. I would also say playing Petruchio was a highlight as a young actor, at the Northcott Theatre in Exeter. At the RSC, taking over as Orlando, but the big highlight for me there actually came later, with Caliban. We played it in a way that made him totally human. That was exciting. So was Iago and Shylock again for the RSC in 1981 – I was still fairly young, but nearer the right age! Other highlights for me in the theatre I would say include Oleanna – the European premiere of David Mamet’s play at the Royal Court and the Duke of York’s – it was a wonderful, wonderful opportunity to be part of that event, especially at that stage in my career. After that, they’re all highlights! Timon of Athens was terrific with Trevor Nunn, which we did at the Young Vic; Separation, a wonderful play by Tom Kempinski with Saskia Reeves; Amadeus, playing Salieri, that went to New York, and I got nominated for a Tony.

Recently, a big highlight for me was Man and Boy, a Rattigan play seen for the first time since 1964. It was wonderful. If I turn around and look at the patterns in the spider’s web of my career, I think that will be a big piece of the web. I did it for no other reason than the reason why I became an actor: solely, for Terence Rattigan, my writer, I wanted to give his play, which he considered possibly his most important, another chance. Having read Geoffrey Wansell’s book about Rattigan’s suffering over how the play was received and not cast as he wanted it, I wanted to do it. I had been offered the play four times in my career and turned it down, but now was the time to do it. I was really ready to play the S-H-I-T that I need to play. It’s a part that many have turned down. Nobody wants to be disliked, and when I was a younger actor, maybe I didn’t either. But I’ve come to a stage in my career now when all that baggage is gone. I knew that I was ready to play that monster and not worry, because I was playing it for Terence. Nobody was more surprised and delighted at the success of that play than me. I wasn’t even sure I wanted to come into the West End, but I was persuaded to, and even in a short run there, thanks to the Duchess and the way we came in and were looked after, it actually made money. Sometimes if you do things for the right reasons, they pay off.

And on television

I’ve also had a wonderful TV career that started way back really with a series called Oppenheimer, about the creation of the A-bomb, in which I played Edward Teller, a scientist. Then I had a wonderful part, Sigmund Freud, playing him from a young man to when he died at 83; and then came the big break, which was Blot on the Landscape, and that led directly to Poirot, and the rest is history. But what’s been so lovely is that I’ve got in my bag now another telly film that is nothing to do with Poirot. I came to Poirot in my early 40s, when my career was already, dare I say it, established – although I don’t think I dare, because it wasn’t fully established but enough people knew my character work both on stage and on television to continue offering me work different from Poirot. What a lucky actor I’ve been, not to be typecast – as far as the business is concerned – as Poirot and yet to have that part! If I do manage to do the next 12, I will be able to leave behind me the complete works of that character, in what has been the best part of 20 years’ work. That’s the first time in television history that anyone has done that. I will have done over 50 or 55 films, whether they be short stories or longer ones.

Favourite co-stars
It’s difficult to actually quantify that – you become so fond of your co-stars, so I could go right back and name you 50! I don’t know if I can actually pick out one, except I will: perhaps the most unobvious one, recently, would be David Yelland in Man and Boy. He played my sidekick in such a way that he allowed me, through his self-effacing playing, the full rein of the monster. He didn’t try to undercut me, but supported that from the word go, and also created a most fantastic character for himself. It wasn’t subservient to me. It was very cunningly played, and yet he gave me everything: that’s a true co-star. I would like to play on stage with Paul Scofield, but I don’t know if that will ever happen.

Favourite directors
I would love to work with Harold Pinter again after that experience of doing Oleanna together. We got on so well, he almost knew what I was thinking and I almost knew what he was thinking. It was an extraordinary relationship. I’ve never done Pinter’s own plays in the West End, only in my early days of rep. I would also say Trevor Nunn, Howard Davies and Maria Aitken, who directed Man and Boy.

Favourite playwrights
The cliché is Shakespeare, but it’s got to be him, because that’s our heritage and where I spent my formative years, with the RSC, so there’s a very good reason for me to say that. Apart from Shakespeare, I don’t think I have a favourite. I don’t have a favourite modern playwright, and funnily enough, I’ve done very, very few modern plays.

Why do you like to return to the stage?
Because it’s where I began, and I feel that it is necessary that actors, once they make a high profile in television or the movies, should come back to the theatre. I think its beholden on us to do this, and not to then say, “Oh, I won’t do that anymore, it’s too much like hard work, I will just swan around Hollywood or stay at home in Hampstead or Highgate or wherever”. It’s beholden on the theatre actor to come back to his roots, for his audience or her audience as well. When I don’t do a play regularly, I get letters of anger and disappointment from the public who don’t necessarily want to see me as Poirot, they want to see me coming back on stage. It’s right that I should, and it’s good for me that I do, and I enjoy it. You have to work those muscles, you really do – and you have to have the adrenalin rush of knowing that it could fail at any moment. There’s that masochist trait in actors that we do need that. It’s also an amazing feeling of company when you’re working with a group of actors in the theatre, there’s a wonderful feeling of belonging that’s very special.

What’s the first thing you saw on stage that had a big impact on you? And the last?
The first thing I saw onstage was a pantomime. I’m trying to remember the name of it, but I can’t – my grandmother took me to it. It was the first time I’d ever sat in a theatre. It was in north London somewhere, maybe the Hippodrome in Golder’s Green, and it was all about St George and the Dragon. I remember most vividly the suits of armour and costumes, and thinking this was magic. I couldn’t have been more than about five, and I was completely transported. The most recent thing I saw was Coram Boy here at the National Theatre. I only saw it last week and have already recommended it to 150 people! I have to say it’s one of the purest and total pieces of theatre I’ve seen. It’s one of the very few theatre productions where I can say that it’s impossible to film it – that production would not transfer to television or movies. It’s got to be on the stage.

If you hadn’t become an actor, what would you have done professionally?
I wanted originally to be a doctor, because my father was a doctor, but I never really had the academic qualifications. There are so many things I would have liked to become. I’d have liked to have become a psychiatrist. I’m very interested in the mind and states of mind and how our psyches work. I think that psychoanalysis and doing Freud has helped my career as well.

What roles would you most like to play still?
That’s very difficult for me to answer. I’m never an actor who has been able to say, “that’s a part I really want to play”. I come from the old tradition of rep where you wait for the telephone to ring and then you make up your mind. Except for one role – there is one, although I will probably never play him now. I would love to do Napoleon on film. Actually, I have played him, but only in a comedy version, which if I’m trying to be honest, was really very bad! But I’m too old for it now. Napoleon died when he was much younger than I am!

If you could swap places with one person (living or dead) for a day, who would it be?
For me, it would have to be Stanislavski at the Moscow Arts Theatre, just for one day, to see what that was like. His books made a great impression on me when I was a very young actor in the National Youth Theatre. I read all of them. The thing that really got me wasn’t necessarily his method of working, because although I was taught that, you have to move with the times and realise that was written for actors then and it’s dangerous to use it now because otherwise you stay in a time warp. What interested me was the development of naturalistic theatre and the beginnings of that with him and his relationship with Chekhov.

Favourite books
I’m not a great fiction reader. My favourite book that I often dive into is The Bible. I love it. It’s the most dramatic book I’ve ever read in my life. It’s got everything: verse, poetry, songs, wonderful stories, and I really enjoy it. I love going back into the Old Testament – the early books are so dramatic, really wonderful.

Favourite holiday destinations
I’ve had so few holidays in my life. It’s a very hard thing to ever have a holiday, especially if a job comes in and you need to work. My family will say that one thing they regret is not having many holidays! I’m not a great sun lover. But what I would like to do if I had the chance now would be to go on a cruise to Iceland. I’d like to go up where it’s nice and cool, somewhere I’d not normally go.

Favourite after-show haunts
I go home! Home is my most favourite place in the world!

Favourite websites
I use the internet mainly to collect emails, although I have now announced that I am no longer doing that! I came home one day after two weeks away and logged on – there were so many e-mails it took me about three days to reply and I thought, this is really crazy. Why should I write to people I don’t want to write to? But I do use the internet for research. I’m amazed at what is out there that you tap into which is educational and informative. That’s my pleasure.

What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
From Olivier, who said, never forget your roots.

Why did you want to revisit the role of studio boss Herman Glogauer in this production of Once in a Lifetime?
I played him with grey hair and a big fat belly originally, and I must have played him at somewhere between 55 and 60. Now that I’m 60, I wonder why I aged up so far! Apart from that, the reason I’ve come back is not necessarily just the role. I’ve played so many zonking great leads recently that, when this was offered, it was an opportunity to come back to a company and not to take on the responsibility of the show, just for once, and to re-visit a role and to reinvestigate it, without just repetition. It’s a much tougher interpretation of this character! He’s a bastard now. I’ve met the man I play, who shall remain nameless, and I know these people now, but I didn’t know them when I played him before. Before, he was just a ranting, raving angry man. I hope he will still be humorous now, but I’m also hoping that you’re going to get a danger and an explosiveness that is more real in certain areas of the play as well. It brings me to the National for the first time as a company member in 36 years. I’ve always wanted to come back, but it’s never seemed to work out. I haven’t been asked that much either! But this was a wonderful opportunity, and I’m so thrilled to be here.

What do you think about the historic relationship between film & theatre? How do you think the talkies affected stage actors at the time?
Film did affect theatre. Suddenly people were seeing faces larger than life on the screen. It’s no accident how acting has developed since the time that talkies came in, when acting was quite big. Now, it’s so naturalistic and realistic in cinema that they almost write on the scripts “NAR” – no acting required. Nine times out of ten you are cast just for you, and if you act, people won’t believe you now. That’s where we’ve come to. Talkies made a huge difference and film acting has affected theatre acting. If people go to movies, then to a theatre production and see old-fashioned ham, it’s not acceptable anymore. So theatre acting has had to become more naturalistic and more real, and we’ve had to change our style – but still reach the back of the upper circle. The technique hasn’t changed; the style has. Television requires a different style again. Olivier would say that he would never perform on television (though of course he did): “how can I act when I’m only six inches tall? And then if I stand behind a chair, I’m but three!” I would say in Poirot, though, we make them as movies. If I look at the early ones, they are far bigger in style than now. The cliché is true: less is more, on stage and on television and especially on film. On film, your eyelid can be huge, and the smallest movement of an eye is interpreted by an audience.

What are your plans for future?

The latest run of Poirot films are going out – the first one, Blue Train, is 1 January. I’ve got a script in my bag to look at today for March. I don’t know what it is, I’ve not opened it yet, but that could take me to South Africa. And I’ve got a meeting later this month for a project that may be developed for me for television. There’s another television series on the horizon as well as another series of Poirot towards the end of the year. Though I’ve not signed contracts yet, it could be theatre now, a film, more television. I hope to realise a dream of mine, if I can fit a radio in as well, to have covered all the media in one year!

Once in a Lifetime opened on 15 December 2005 (previews from 5 December) at the National’s Olivier Theatre, where it runs in repertory until 11 March 2006.