Simon Callow, Actor Without Walls : The versatile Englishman returns to LATC to direct Eduardo Machado’s jazz-based ‘Stevie Wants to Play the Blues’
“The newspapers in England have called me a ‘triple thre” Simon Callow said, pausing with amusement at what he thought was journalistic excess.
“Can you imagine?”
Well, yes. An American newspaper called the Englishman “the multi-active actor.” Not exactly a phrase that rolls off the tongue, but fairly accurate when it comes to Simon Callow.
For as lovingly as he holds the acting profession, Callow is not content to corral himself within any particular artistic role. The English stage is replete with people of many talents (the Oliviers of the past, the Kenneth Branaghs of the present), so Callow is following in a hallowed tradition. But he is held in unusually high regard by his peers: When playwright-director Alan Bennett was preparing his 1988 double-bill of one-acts, “Single Spies,” he cast Callow as Guy Burgess in “An Englishman Abroad,” and also had Callow direct its companion, “A Question of Attribution.”
It’s not enough for Callow to convey his passion under the guise of a character (he has played everything from the title role in the original production of “Amadeus” to the title role in Goethe’s seven-hour “Faust”). He also writes books about it. Two, so far: “Being An Actor,” an eloquent, shamelessly personal tour through an actor’s existence, and “Charles Laughton: A Difficult Actor,” an equally personal biography, an actor writing about another actor. He’ll focus on Orson Welles next.
Impressive. But Callow likes to tackle plays, so he directs, and if a play he wants to stage happens not to be in English, he translates it. First, in 1986, was Jean Cocteau’s “The Infernal Machine,” at London’s Lyric, Hammersmith Theatre, where he directed an idol of his, Maggie Smith. Then, in his first visit to the Los Angeles Theatre Center in 1987, Milan Kundera’s wry comedy, “Jacques and His Master.”
Now he has returned to LATC to tackle something completely different, as director only: “Stevie Wants to Play the Blues,” a jazz-based play-with-music by Eduardo Machado (who co-wrote the lyrics with composer Frederic Myrow). It opens Saturday.
In his New Yorker review of “A Difficult Actor,” David Thomson remarked that this “headstrong outsider . . . is ready to go over the top, eager to be carried away . . . He is that rarity in the theater, a passionate enthusiast ready to challenge the institution--no friend to the cult of directors, no meek member of the company.”
In person, whiffs of that passion come off him like a breeze cutting through a canyon. At the appointed time for an interview, he was still intensely in rehearsal for a few more minutes. It wasn’t a matter of not letting the actors go for their evening break, but getting points across.
Finally, the LATC rehearsal room emptied and Callow, sitting erect at a table, almost shed adrenaline during an interview. Between his keen, quick responses, he puffed his way through several cigarettes. When he was done with them, he placed the butts on end and in a row, like miniature Roman columns. This seemed to be a man who wants to get somewhere fast, and on the mark.
“I suppose I like being extended and stretched. I first became an actor in order to escape from myself and to explore as many sides of myself as possible.” After 20 years of acting, the 40-year-old Callow recognizes that his lack of matinee-idol looks--an expressive face that can range from a bullying cad to a tortured poet--has placed him in the character-actor slot for movies.
He’s down the credit list, for instance, in Mike Nichols’ upcoming summer release, “Postcards From the Edge,” which stars Meryl Streep, Shirley MacLaine, Gene Hackman, Richard Dreyfuss and Dennis Quaid. Past films include “The Good Father,” “Manifesto,” and, most memorably, two Merchant/Ivory films, “A Room With a View” and “Maurice.”
“If I had been of a physical type or in the proverbial right place at the right time,” Callow said, “I might have just acted. The desire to write was in me before the desire to act. I didn’t realize that I needed to live a life before I could really write.”
The impulse to stretch out was also complicated by another experience some actors can’t avoid--playing a role that spoils you for any other role. “It happened to me five years ago, when I played the gay character in (Manuel Puig’s) ‘Kiss of the Spider Woman.’ It depicted love in the most unlikely situation (a prison cell), and enabled me to draw upon my own homosexuality as I never had.”
It was about this time that Callow moved into directing. “It was very daunting, at first, facing Maggie Smith for ‘Infernal Machine,’ but she wanted to be directed.” That’s a far cry from the anecdote Callow relates in “Being an Actor,” in which he quotes Ralph Richardson: “My idea of a director is a chap who puts me in the middle of a stage, and shines a bright light on me.”
“I’m really a novice as a director,” Callow insisted, “but I know a lot about how it works. The first thing one has to do is create a collaboration. It seems that because I’ve written about these things, American actors tend to treat me like an expert. They have a weakness for experts. They might hear me as one, but I try to break that kind of barrier down right away.”
He reported with a little astonishment how his “Stevie” cast “has approached the play as an entire piece, rather than looking for any personal advantage. They’ve even volunteered to cut lines if they don’t think they serve the play.”
Callow came across sterner in his assessment of British actors. “It’s not all their fault that there isn’t the across-the-board quality in a cast that was once typical. It used to be that a young actor learned his craft slowly; now, the British repertory system is dying. We’re full of young firebrands now.” Including the most fiery of them all, Kenneth Branagh, who is now at the Mark Taper Forum--just a few downtown blocks away from Callow--with his Renaissance Theatre Company’s productions of “King Lear” and “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.”
Callow acknowledged Branagh’s “confidence and managerial flair.” He granted that, for a Thatcher-era actor-manager forced to turn to corporate support when the government well has dried, “Branagh’s instincts are very good, better than the Royal Shakespeare Company’s, mine, anyone’s. He reaches young audiences with lively, young productions.” But Branagh reminds Callow of John Gielgud’s dictum that “it takes 25 years to make an actor. He’s not there yet. (Because of that,) he presents a dangerous model for the future.”
When the obscure jazz pianist Billy Tipton died last year, playwright Machado took notice, for Tipton had posed professionally as a man while concealing his real identity as a woman for more than 30 years. It was a good idea for a play, which nevertheless wouldn’t be “The Billy Tipton Story.” In February of last year, Machado and Callow began collaborating.
In Machado’s music-driven drama, Stevie (played by Amy Madigan) wants to play in a big-time jazz band, led by a Billie Holiday-type singer named Ruth (Paula Kelly). “Stevie is becoming someone else in order to become an artist,” Callow noted, “while Ruth is living in order to be an artist. Stevie is the classicist, adopting the proper persona, and Ruth is the romantic, whose art cannot be separated from life.
“Without Ruth, the band is nothing--a fact she knows but that the rest refuse to acknowledge. The play is about jazz, and at the same time, is jazz. It’s structurally built-in,” said the director, who has written of his propensity to think in musical terms. His LATC staging is taking the jazz performance concept to the hilt: The actors will play their instruments, live.
“Jazz players take off so freely from the tune,” Callow said admiringly, “that it becomes a very powerful attraction and metaphor for the actor.” The creative team for “Stevie,” Callow revealed, has drawn not only from jazz, but from the film noir style of the ‘40s and ‘50s and the work of a film noir devotee, the late German director Rainer Werner Fassbinder.
“So we have this very curious mix going on: A Cuban-American playwright and a British director working with American actors, all of us influenced by a German tone and style.”
Callow couldn’t explain how he navigates through such mixed waters, but the rush he exuded just talking about it said enough.
He also knew that the rush can’t go on forever. After a London West End production (“Carmen Jones”) and a film with Vanessa Redgrave (“The Ballad of the Sad Cafe”), he’s taking a year off.
“Everything. I have a private life, and a relationship I want to build and take care of.” Even a “triple threat” has his limits.