A Method to the Madness

Ellen Baskin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

What’s Ian Holm’s secret?

The 68-year-old British actor admits he’s “at an age where you think you’re going to have to settle for little old cameos and being people’s grandfathers and all that.” And yet he’s never been busier.

“I’m a chameleon,” he offers by way of possible explanation, during a conversation in Los Angeles about his nearly 50-year career in theater, film and television. It’s a discursive chat punctuated with anecdotes about, and dead-on impressions of, legendary figures he’s worked alongside, including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and, most recently, Ian McKellen.

“I’m never the same twice,” he adds, “and I’m not a ‘movie star’ type, so people don’t demand that I’m always the same.”


The actor’s uncanny ability to disappear into a character is expertly on display in “Joe Gould’s Secret,” a USA Films release that opened Friday directed by and co-starring Stanley Tucci. Joe Gould is an almost mythical yet real-life character, a bohemian who inhabited the streets of Greenwich Village in the 1930s and 1940s. Unkempt, ill-mannered, always looking for a handout or cadging a free meal, he nevertheless charmed or finagled his way into friendships with some of the most notable literary figures of the time, including e.e. cummings and William Saroyan.

Gould’s claim to fame was his monumental opus-in-progress “The Oral History of Our Time,” a mysterious work whose location lies at the core of the film. “When this project came up, Ian was the only person I could think of for the role,” says Tucci, who plays Joseph Mitchell, a New York writer whose articles about Gould became the basis for the film. Tucci had earlier directed Holm in 1996’s “Big Night.” “For one thing, he resembles Gould a bit.”

Not exactly what one would consider high praise, given Gould’s wildly disheveled appearance, but Tucci quickly elaborates. “Ian is a very handsome man, but if you play around with him a little bit, you can make him look like Joe Gould. But the main thing is, Ian’s a great actor. He can do anything.”

“Who wouldn’t jump at the chance to play a nutter like Gould?” Holm asks. “He’s an extraordinary character. Certainly Gould was a madman, but he was a most intelligent madman. Nowadays, of course, homeless people like him are just sort of swept off the street. But in those days, the bums, especially bright ones like Gould, were more highly regarded, looked upon as strange, enigmatic figures.”

Gould isn’t the first true-life character Holm has portrayed. Among many others, he’s been Lewis Carroll in the film “Dreamchild,” Joseph Goebbels in the miniseries “Inside the Third Reich” and Napoleon (twice, in “Napoleon in Love” for the BBC and in Terry Gilliam’s film “Time Bandits”). The task of depicting someone who was once among the living is no more daunting for Holm than interpreting a fictional character. He relies largely on wardrobe and makeup to effect the transformation--to resemble Gould he had the top part of his head shaved and grew an unruly beard--and opts not to do a great deal of research into the subject’s life.

“I know that’s very un-American,” he remarks, “but there’s the text, and in the final analysis, that’s what you have to count on.” As far as any specific acting technique goes, “I regard myself as a minimalist,” he says, adding that “Kenneth Branagh [who directed Holm in the 1989 film of Shakespeare’s “Henry V”] said that I was of the ‘anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-less-of’ school of acting, which I’ve always regarded as a great compliment.”

“Ian really goes on instinct,” Tucci says. “He has all the lines memorized, and then he just likes to go.” The lines in “Joe Gould’s Secret” are considerable, often calling upon Holm to recite pages of dialogue at a swift pace.

“We really needed someone who had tremendous facility for the language,” Tucci adds, “and with his classical training, Ian fit the bill perfectly.”

“I think Stanley thinks I’m a bit of a madman, like Gould,” Holm says with a chuckle. Still, he says, “now I’m part of his repertory company,” referring perhaps to the photograph in Vanity Fair’s recent Hollywood 2000 issue which features Holm sitting with Tucci and others in what the magazine labels “Stanley Tucci’s Film Troupe.”

After attending the New York opening of “Joe Gould’s Secret,” Holm is looking forward to returning to the London home he shares with his wife, actress Penelope Wilton, who, he proudly relates, has been appearing in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Chekhov’s “The Seagull.” The one downside of his busy schedule, Holm admits, is that “it’s difficult for a home life.” He’s been “all over the place” over the last four years and, while there are several potential new projects pending, he welcomes the notion of some downtime back in his native land.


Holm was born in Goodmayes, England, a village in Essex, where his father was medical superintendent of a mental hospital. “I was born in a loony bin,” he says wryly. Clearly, then, Holm chose the right profession for himself. “Absolutely,” he says and laughs. “I became an actor because I didn’t do anything else, and I’ve never been able to do anything else. The lucky part,” he says, “is that I’ve never needed to do anything else. I don’t know why it’s worked out so well, because I’m short and certainly not leading man material, but it’s just been one of those weird things.”

After being trained at London’s Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts, Holm spent 13 years as part of the Royal Shakespeare Company at Stratford, where he wended his way though famous plays with sometimes even more famous co-stars. During a performance of “Coriolanus,” for example, Olivier, playing the title role, cut Holm’s finger with a prop sword. “I’ve still got the scar,” he points out with an unusual kind of pride.

The years in Stratford offered Holm a solid grounding in the theater. “And not just the theater,” he notes, “but I had quite a good go at the classics. I think that stood me in good stead when I found myself working in film. I came to film quite late in my career [he made his on-screen debut in John Frankenheimer’s “The Fixer” in 1968] and I’ve grown to love it.”

In the 1970s, the actor entered what he terms “an unfortunate period where I couldn’t appear in front of a live audience. I literally couldn’t go on a stage.” Fortunately, though, there were still other performing options. Holm appeared in dozens of films and made-for-television movies and miniseries during this time, including his Academy Award-nominated performance as the eccentric track coach in 1981’s ‘Chariots of Fire.”

Holm returned to the theater in 1994. “I ran out of excuses,” he says. “People kept asking what it would take to get me back to the theater, and I always said that if Harold Pinter wrote a new play and wanted me to be in it, I’d do it.” Holm no doubt figured he was on safe ground there, as the playwright hadn’t produced a new play since 1978.

“But then [Pinter] went and wrote ‘Moonlight’ and it was an offer I couldn’t refuse,” he says.

After the play’s London premiere, “I couldn’t think of what all the fuss was about,” Holm recalls of his long-lasting bout of stage fright.

In 1997, Holm took to the boards again, this time as King Lear, in a National Theatre production directed by Richard Eyre. Although no longer concerned about appearing on stage, Holm had other equally anxiety-provoking reservations about taking on the role of Shakespeare’s mad monarch.

“At a certain point in your career as an actor you’re supposed to do your Lear,” he says. “And I thought, ‘If I do Lear now, does that mean it’s the end?’ ” Quite the contrary. The same year he played Lear, which won him Britain’s top acting award, Holm starred in “The Sweet Hereafter,” the highly praised Atom Egoyan film. And he’s barely had a moment to catch his breath since. When it came time to portray Gould, Holm found himself glancing over his shoulder and drew a bit upon his performance as Lear, observing that “Gould’s journey through madness is quite Learian.”

The visibility of his Lear performance also played a part, Holm believes, in his being awarded a knighthood in 1998. “I’m not particularly a royalist,” he says, but when he heard about the proposed honor, Holm admittedly “began to get a bit sniffly about it, thinking of my children and how my father would have been proud of me.” He was officially dubbed Sir Ian in a formal ceremony by Queen Elizabeth II but rarely uses the title.

“Of course,” he notes with a sly grin, “it does occasionally help you get the good table in a restaurant.”

Holm had stopped off in Los Angeles to talk about “Joe Gould’s Secret” while on his way back from New Zealand, where he’d spent four weeks working on Peter Jackson’s “Lord of the Rings.” When asked about the production, Holm makes a quick “zip” gesture across his mouth, noting that he’s not permitted to talk about the trilogy of films based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic science-fiction work, which features the other Sir Ian, McKellen, in the role of Gandalf.

Holm does, however, reveal that his character, Bilbo Baggins, ages from 111 to 170 over the course of the story. “I’m in a complete face mask, and it’s the most extraordinary makeup I’ve ever, ever seen.”