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Interview with the vampire

December 6, 2000 at 8:28 am by xoanon  - 

Rigner Spy Bob sends us the entire transcript from the Christopher Lee (Saruman) interview. Enjoy!

HIS REIGN AS COUNT DRACULA IS LONG OVER, BUT CHRISTOPHER LEE STILL HAS LOTS TO GET HIS TEETH INTO. THE LORD OF THE RINGS FILM, FOR STARTERS.

It’s the beard that does it; a white, fluffy beard that softens Christopher Lee’s features and balances his grey hair and dark eyes. He’s almost cuddly. “I feel like a Shakesperian stage direction,” he says. “ ‘Enter, pursued by beard’. I grew it for purely professional reasons.” Lee’s eyes gleam with enthusiasm. He tries to be stern but underneath he’s gleeful. He may be 78 but he’s at the peak of his career. He has just finished filming the first part of the Lord of the Rings trilogy.

“You realise I can’t discuss anything about that,” he says in a hushed, excited tone. Not even the facial hair? “No. I signed a confidentiality agreement. I can tell you who I’m playing, of course, because that is public knowledge.” And so he begins by talking about the book, which he has reread every year since it first came out. “I was bowled over by it, line for line, – and I still am. It is magical.” There follows a detailed exposition in which he explains Tolkien’s genius to me in a slow sonorous voice, as though he were reading a bedtime story to a small child. Finally he gets to the character he plays in the film: Saruman, a wizard.

“He’s more than just a wizard,” Lee corrects me, a stickler for detail. “They are immortals. But they are human-shaped. They’re called the istari:I,S,T,A,R,I. They are immortal they are maiar: M,A,I,A,R.” He rolls the R with a flourish. “They are sent by the valar, who are the creators, to Middle-earth. There are three wizards to concern yourself with, and I am number one: the most powerful. The most brilliant. The one of the greatest strength: Saruman, the White.” A wizard of great importance, obviously. “Yes, and the point is, power corrupts. Absolute power corrupts absolutely, famous phrase and that’s what happens to him.” “Oh dear,” I say. “Yes. Unfortunately he gets turned. Like a double agent. He’s meant to be the white wizard, but it comes out that he’s gone to the dark side. That’s all in the book. That’s all in the film. And that’s all I can tell you.”

Lee’s loquaciousness is legendary. It’s endearing and exhausting in equal measure. He’s not afraid of the sound of his own voice. Barely has the tall, distinguished presence introduced himself when I am treated to a long discourse on alcohol. The trigger? The suggestion of a glass of wine. No, he told me, he rareky drinks. “A glass of wine perhaps, but I pratically never drink during the week. And I never, never drink when I’m working. Unless it’s incredibly cold. I’ve made several features in Stockholm in the winter, and everyone drinks aqua vitae there. I used to have it with my breakfast: one, like that” – he mimes knocking it back – “ because it was so cold. I remember making a picture at night outside Stockholm. I got shot by a police chief, fell into the snow. It burnt, it was so cold. You really need something to warm you in that kind of climate. But when it’s hot, one of the things that I can’t understand, when you work in France, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, all those hot climates, is how the crew can drinks alcohol. They’d sit down to have their lunch and they’d have one, two glasses, usually red. I suppose they’re used to it, and if you tried to give a French crew lunch without wine, there would be a riot.”

He does tend to go on rather, but this is a sore point. “I’m a good listener,” he protests. “People think I’m not, because I talk a lot, I know that, but I do listen.” Is the talkativeness a nervous habit, or a need for attention? He says he was shy as a child. “Very self-conscious. Always trying to prove something. Which was taken as a ‘look at me, look at me’ sort of attitude. It wasn’t that at all. I can still be self-conscious. I can walk in front of a camera and think, ‘My God, here I am doing this in front of all these people.’ I feel like a complete idiot sometimes.”

Lee has 54 years’ experience in the movie industry, in which he has made over 200 films, more than any other living British actor. He’s one of the last survivors of the golden age of cinema, but despite a huge cult following he never made the A-list. While actors such as John Wayne and David Niven were cast as strong, romantic leads, Lee got pigeonholed as the villain. As he dips in and out of his career to make a point, you realise this is more than fond recollection. He wants to be taken seriously. He’s stacking up evidence for the defence. The directors he has worked with: Orson Welles, John Huston, Steven Spielberg, Raoul Walsh, Nicholas Ray, Billy Wilder. The co-stars: Richard Burton, Roger Moore, Raquel Welch, Ursula Andress. Muhammad Ali, the boxer, who declared himself a fan and asked Lee to give him his best scary look. Lee’s website, he tells me, got 980,000 hits in it’s first day and now averages 1.5m hits a month. It goes without saying that Lee occupies a special place in the public’s heart. But that’s not the same as critical recognition, and he knows it.

That Lee should have become an actor was by no means likely. Born in Belgravia, London, in 1922, he was destined for great things. His father was a colonel in the 60th King’s Royal Rifle Corps; his mother was a countess, from the ancient Carandini family of Europe, and a noted Edwardian beauty. Lee could almost have been a count, but the line of succession stopped at his mother. “Even this consolation was denied me,” he wrote in his 1977 autobiography, Tall, Dark and Gruesome, which is filled with self-deprecating humour. “I was ‘a mistake’, ”he states on the first page. “My mother often told me so.

When Lee was four, his father left his mother after 16 years of marriage. Lee was left with the “idea of a father like the hero from a tale from Boy’s Own comic”. His mother had to raise two children with “literally nothing”, though she later remarried. Lee took a scholarship to Eton, but even with it’s help this proved beyond the family’s means; when the money ran out, he had to take yet another scholarship to Wellington. He was trained for life, “ I was brought up and educated in such a way that it was made clear to me what was the sensible thing to do and what wasn’t,” he says. “My father, sadly, was a gambler. He was a gallant, brave man, but he couldn’t afford to gamble. My stepfather was a drinker. They combined to put me off such things. I had to leave school at 16 because my father went bankrupt, and I went into the City as a messenger boy at £1 a week. That’s gambling, if you like, because I didn’t have anything else.”

He credits his public-school education for giving him “one very important thing, which is vital if you’re going to be an actor: self-discipline”. No doubt, to a young boy with a chaotic family life, self-discipline gave an illusion of control. But bits of the chaos leaked out. “I was a real tearaway when I was young,” says Lee, “and I’m still considered by some of my relatives to be a bit of a rebel.” With his well-bred accent, his refined tastes (his passions are opera and golf, which he plays exceptionally well, with a handicap of eight) and his top-class education, his family hoped he might have been a diplomat. But, he says, contradicting his earlier remark, he would have been disastrous: despite the discipline he finds it hard to bite his tongue. “I always say what I think. One of the most difficult things in life is not to show your true opinion of someone, isn’t it.”

His mother was appalled when he took up the suggestion of his cousin Count Niccolo Carandini that he should try acting. This cousin was the first Italian ambassador to Britain after the second world war. The rest of the Carandini’s too, were high-society high-fliers. Lee’s signet ring, which belonged to his great-grandfather on the Carandini side, bears the arms of the Holy Roman Empire. “On that side of the family there have been the most amazing achievers,” he says. “One was a cardinal, he’s buried next to Raphael the painter in the Pantheon in Rome. Another was in charge of the marriage contract between Mary of Modena and one of the kings here – James II or something like that. They’ve alldone something. It’s a lot to live up to.”

But he has done a fair bit himself, and witnessed more than most of us. As a teenager, staying with a family friend in Paris, he saw the last ever public execution by guillotine in France. At 17 he joined the RAF and learnt to fly in Rhodesia, but was grounded with an eye problem and transferred to the special forces, where he became an intelligence officer. He saw action in North Africa, and in Sicily found himself responsible for people’s lives, all before he was 20. Before promotion he spent two years in the ranks. “That taught me a lot,” he says. “How to treat people so you get the best results, whether it’s in a war or not. After the end of the war I was posted to some of the [concentration] camps. When you’ve seen that you’ve seen the worst human beings can do.”

After the war he was, in his own words, “an unemployment statisic”. Acting was make-believe, an escape from the harsh realities of life. “The pressure to get two scholarships to be educated, the struggle to stay alive as a messenger boy in the City, five years of war – lots of people have had far worse things to do, but you have to overcome it,” he says. “One of the advantages I possess as a result of this discipline is the quality that has made me an actor and is why I’m still working: determination. Show business is not a very attractive profession to be in. It’s greed and fear that are the predominant elements today.”

Lee’s attitude towards the industry is ambivalent. On one hand, it has provoded him with near-constant employment. On the other, he sees himself as the victim of narrow-mindedness. He was considered to foreign looking and to tall to play romantic leads. “If I went in now with a beard they’d say, ‘Sorry, you’re too beardy,’. People are equally stupid in the other direction: they say,’ This boy, this girl, greatest actor we’ve ever seen. How long is their shelf life? Five to 10 years?’ All right, you can make an awful of of money in that time, but what are you going to do afterwards? Stare out the window? Where are the giants today? Where are the Grants, the Coopers and the Waynes? Where’s the tremendous charisma of an Errol Flynn? Where is the panache of a Gable?”

Lee’s scorn for one-minute wonders comes, in part, from the long time it took him to get noticed. He played bit parts for 10 years, in all weathers and all over Europe, doing his own stunts, hoping for a break. He claims that he never felt resentful watching others play the lead. “I never felt jealous, but I envied them for the fact that they had the opportunity to play the part, when I knew I could play it better.” Then in 1957, in his mid-30s, the big break came: Dracula. Among enthusiasts he is still the count, with his hypnotic eyes and smooth manner. It led to a succession of Hammer horror roles, including 5 showings as the sinister oriental assassin Fu Manchu. Types are continually in work, his friend Boris Karlof had told him. “It often comes across that I’m sorry I did it,” he says. “Totally untrue. I’ve always said it was tremendously important for me because, by playing some of these roles, I made my name and my face known. What I have said is I was sorry I went on playing one particular role.

Maybe if he had made just one Dracula film for the Hammer studio, his popular image would have been less fixed. But he made six. The last was in 1972, an age ago, Lee would have you believe, but not long enough ago to be forgotten. “Of course, I’ve made the decisions that were wrong. I made films I shouldn’t have touched. After the first two Dracula films, I said I’m not going to do any more. But I used to get hysterical calls from Hammer. Begging. ‘You’ve got to. We’ve sold it to the distributor with you in the part. Think of the people you’d out of work if you don’t do it.’” He insists, though it sounds unlikely that this is the only reason he made the last four movies, but he’s wise enough to admit there have been some howlers. “We all make choices. There are plenty of films I’ve been in that have been particularly horrendous.

Aside from the blood-spattered B-movies, Lee has played a surprising variety of roles. He was the man with the Golden Gun, a sophisticated baddie with a third nipple. He was the sinister pagan leader Lord Summerisle in the creep cult flick The Wicker Man. He was a businessman by day and gay biker by night (“I can explain all this”) in Serial. He was Sherlock Holmes, three times. More recently, he appeared in the popular BBC mini-series Gormenghast, and in the Tim Burton movie Sleepy Hollow. He describes Burton as a “tremendous director to work with” and the films star, Johnny Depp, as “by far the best young actor around today, and a delightful person”. He lavishes praise, too, on Peter Jackson, the director of The Lord of the Rings. Casting directors, on the other hand, are the bane of his life. “When I began, I was told you have to be ‘on the list’. In other words, this casting director has his or her favourites, so does that one, and that one. And I’ve never been on their lists, because I haven’t taken them out for drinks, haven’t sent them Christmas cards. I refuse flatly, I will not play the luvvie game. Never have, never will.”

The supporting role in Lee’s life is his Danish wife, Gitte, whom he describes as “very strong. She’s put up with me for 39 years”. Lee was in his late 30s when they were introduced. Gitte was a successful fashion model and painter, the most elegant woman he had ever met. He proposed after two days, and she accepted two days after that. After a brief honeymoon they made their home in Switzerland, a hub around which Lee could work in European films. It was in Switzerland that their daughter, Christina, was born. Gitte nearly died in the process (“It was the biggest shock of my life”, says Lee) and they were told they couldn’t have any more children. Christina was born with twisted feet (which were rectified as she grew up) and Lee says they spoilt her, “as all parents do”. Then she was sent to a boarding school in England, “because we felt it would be more fun for her as a single child to be with other children her own age”. In the mid-1970s, tired of being typecast as the villain, Lee and Gitte went to live in LA for 10 years, during which time Lee knocked off another 40 films (“People say to me, ‘You make it look so easy’. Well it isn’t”). They tried to fit Christina into schools there, but she hated them, and ended up back at her English boarding school, commuting six times a year to the US to see her parents. “We were as close as one could be with those constant separations,” he says.

He is a strong believer in responsibility and a proud workaholic, naively astonished that there are people “who don’t want to work”, who are content to sponge off the taxpayers. But there’s a touch of Victor Meldrew about him when he gets on one his rants. “I really do feel sometimes, with all the palaver that goes on, all the lying and cheating, which they call negotiating, why am I bothering with this? I guess it’s because I don’t think there’s anything else I could do. And I’d be extremely bored if I did nothing. You see, I love to create people. Some of them existed and some are imaginary, but I try to make them believable. Sometimes you get it wrong, and a good director will tell you so.

Sometimes he gets it right. Ironically, Jinnah, the 1998 film in which Lee got it most right, has not had a general release in this country. Lee calls it “the best thing I have ever done”. He played the Muslim leader and founder of Pakistan, Mohammed Ali Jinnah. A brave casting decision by the film’s director and producer, Jamil Dehlavi. “Initially there was some opposition to Christopher because of his Dracula background,” Dehlavi says. “I had to really fight for him. Jinnah was quite aloof, quite a stern, uncompromising man. Christopher has those qualities, so my instinct told me it would work, but I took a big gamble”.

Dehlavi’s instincts were good; Lee portrays the leader with a subtle range of emotions that the skeptics wouldn’t believe possible. At the end of the film he even sheds real tears. “I’d never in my life cried in front of a camera,” says Lee. “That wasn’t just acting, I was feeling.” For the first time, his performance got a good response – he was sent advance reviews, but told he couldn’t quote from them till the film came out. “I’ve never had reviews like that in my life,” he mourns.

At least as Lee nears his 80th birthday, he has the satisfaction of knowing he is still employable. As well as the Lord of the Rings trilogy, we’ll be seeing him in the next Star Wars film, and he entertains dreams of playing Ivan the Terrible and Don Quixote. “Was it Sir Cecil Rhodes who said ‘too soon’ on his deathbed? I feel like that. I want to live long enough to see all Lord of the Rings films come out – that’s 2003, by which time I’ll be 81.” He says he doesn’t fear death. “As Woody Allen said, ‘I just don’t want to be there when it happens’”.

But he won’t go quietly – and not, if he can help it, before he has convinced the world he really is A-list material. In his eyes, he could have been great if he had been given a chance. He’s keen to point out how, whenever he was cast against type, he surprised people – doing comedy, for example, when he hosted Saturday Night Live, in 1978, with John Belushi, Dan Ackroyd and Bill Murray (it’s still the third highest-rated show of the series). “To be a real actor you have to be versatile,” he says. “And if you acquire that versatility, you can put it on the screen. I’ve spent the whole of my career proving people wrong.

Suddenly he notices the time. He is 10 minutes late for a suit-fitting for another project, which, of course, he can’t talk about. “Excuse me if I dash away,” he exclaims. And he does, his sweeping exit marred only by his having to stoop to avoid a high beam. His 6ft 4in stature is the one part of his image he can’t even try to overcome.

Posted in Old Special Reports on December 6, 2000 by

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