The Brit Pack
By Elissa Van Poznak
It was Gore Vidal who said, while ruminating on the subject of Britain's decline, "What are you going to do with a country who only real export over the past 30 years has been actors?" Step up production, might have been the reply. The Face took six of the best from the class of '86 and arranged a summit . . .
The idea was simple but a real pig to arrange. Get six of the fine young turks of British acting, put them in a room together, roll the tapes and cameras. Unfortunately, Daniel Day Lewis was too busy filming The Unbearable Lightness of Being to make it over from Paris and Gary Oldman was rehearsing The Country Wife at Manchester's Royal Exchange, though he turned up a few days later for a session of his own.
Nevertheless, on a late November morning, Tim Roth, Bruce Payne, Paul McGann, Spencer Leigh and Colin Firth all appeared -- at Robert Erdmann's East London studio. On offer, the two things actors reportedly love best: free lunch and gratis publicity. Make that three things. Actors love to 'network' and, of the above, virtually all had met one or two (or in the ubiquitous Payne's case, three) of the others either socially or professionally.
Individually they know they're good but collectively -- putting egos aside for a minute -- they know they're unbeatable. "Better than Estevez and all those tossers," as one of them graciously put it (we won't say which). And with a certain 'cred' cachet that equals the corporate power to enrich British film and theatre production. Even though Roth, ever critical, insists that "at the moment, European actors are better than us . . . Betty Blue, the performances, the joy in that."
"The cancelling of egos," is how it's best put by Payne, already a Face cover who, at least until the group gets going, whence he mugs like Machiavelli, has cancelled his.
Catholic in taste, to say the least, the topics for todays discussion include famous mavericks Robert Duvall, Bob Hoskins, John Malkovich and Don Johnson. DON JOHNSON?????
"Fucking brilliant," they answer almost to a man.
Berkoff, Frears, Jarmon, directors with whom most have worked, also come in for high praise, though it's official -- "the director as God no longer exists!" After a heated debate on the state of theatre ("a politically sterile dungheap") and the function of criticism during which The Face is taken to task ("Where's the coverage? You're the difference between a full and empty house") Payne and Roth depart promising to put their typewriters where their mouths are. But not before Roth, with unerring timing, puts his mouth where the typewriter is.
"You gonna call me a thesp thug then?" queries the bellicose 24-year-old, the first to stalk across the photographer's virgin white backdrop. He then plops down on the sofa having spent the early hours reading to his two-year-old son. A serious prole, Roth used to be in shelf-stacking (Tesco's cereals), completely bypassing drama school with his first break, five years ago, in David Leland's TV watershed Made in Britain (in which Payne also figured).
He was then cast is Mike Leigh's unforgettable Meantime (Gary Oldman was the skinhead in a barrel). Leigh told him to go away and come back as someone else, a method Roth's employed with uncanny accuracy ever since.
"What Olivier said about taking your makeup off and going home, and the RSC ethic of acting from the neck up, is bollocks. Bruce feels the same way, acting affects your sex life, how you take a shit, it's 100%. In America they pay you to research your roles."
Last seen testing the outer limits of Kafka in Berkoff's Metamorphosis, which may yet be filmed (a role offered after Berkoff reviewed Roth's work in King of the Ghetto and one Payne says he turned down due to overwork), Roth is currently writing his own film treatment with another actor. "All you need is an idea on a fag packet, it's a purely selfish exercise -- I'm not gonna sit around waiting for offers."
Neither is Payne, whose swaggering entrance with a Heathcliff-type portmanteau has not gone unmissed -- he's currently writing a treatment about an 18th Century "gutter Macbeth" with Don Macpherson.
"Yo, clotheshorse!" jibes Roth, safe in an ideologically-sound leather jacket. "We're service industry; we entertain." In which case, Payne must be unit publicist to Roth's shop steward.
"I've just been to see how my shares are doing," quips the only actor to walk out of Absolute Beginners with his reputation not only intact but enhanced (Payne's Flikker was a headbutt of reality in a fantasmagoria of overkill).
"They'll be floating Bruce Payne next," laughs Roth.
Where Roth is aggressive, Payne, according to one observer, is "a total psychopath" with a demonic energy for group and self promotion.
Already the first to Hollywood and back with a Brooksfilm, Solar Babies, out in the New Year (it's a futuristic kid's thriller co-starring Alexei Sayle), Payne has been busy juggling around other commitments, notably the Belfast-set drama Lost Belongings and his own plans to form the Payne Corporation.
The youngest at 23, Spencer Leigh lacks Payne's assurance and probably his bank balance, claiming to be "skint and destitute" and arriving with what looks like the entire contents of his life packed into his brother's despatch riders bag. Despite being in constant work since his TV debut three years ago in the acclaimed drama One Summer, money is a bit of a sore point with the Liverpudlian; perhaps a hangover from his two years on the dole or the knock-on effect of working with Derek Jarman on Carvaggio and his recent six minute segment for Don Boyd's Aria.
He's telling Roth, their previous contact restricted to "moody looks across crowded parties", about his micro walk-on part in Frears' new Orton pic Prick Up Your Ears, starring the missing Oldman. "Yer, Alan Bennet said 'V (Vanessa Redgrave) will love working with you -- a working class lad from Liverpool' but I got all moody with her. Had to do an eye-line and when I got back my lunch, for which I paid, was freezing cold."
Yet of all those present, Leigh seems most aware of his good fortune. "The important thing is all of us here are having a go. Really, I feel privileged, honoured to be here doing this because there's millions out there not doing it and it's not their fault." It is, he says, a difficult business.
And precarious -- as Paul McGann, the other Scouser would attest. Before jetting to Switzerland to meet Yello's Dieter Meier about a possible film project, McGann reveals that he was originally turned down, then auditioned five times for the role which suddenly, after years of hard graft, has made him famous; Percy Toplis in the controversial series The Monocled Mutineer.
"See, Alan Bleasdale usually writes with a specific person in mind and he just didn't like me but, God love him, he told me after that he'd been wrong."
Accommodating where Roth is private, McGann, according to Payne, who's known him since RADA, is a "professional". The actor, who has just completed Withnail and I, Bruce Robinson's scathingly funny, "implicitly political" acting memoirs, "gets his priorities right". Accordingly, this film made on a £1.5m shoestring for Handmade Films offers "no women, no sex, no car chases or stock violence, just pure performance". This in Britain is known as a risk; in Hollywood it would be called suicide.
When he finally enters late in the day (Chaka Khan having given way to Anita Baker, the brie all but crawling off the table), Colin Firth, a tall, duffel-coated figure, is immediately co-opted into the group photo backline without the benefit of makeup or warmup. Despite having met Roth two years ago under similar circumstances, Firth is clearly the outsider. He's still wondering exactly what Hollywood is, having been treated to the whole 'go West young actor' routine following his debut in Another Country.
Hollywood, however, doesn't really interest the diffident, beautifully-spoken Londoner who has unintentionally "cornered the market in wet, sensitive, naive young chaps" and has just emerged "blinking in the light, like a refugee" from a solid year's work on just-screened Grenada TV epic Lost Empires. This distance has caused Firth to question the very essence of acting, "putting on a frock and chasing around one's ego". He's not sure he wants to be doing it when he's 45.
"I don't think any of the people here can do exactly what Tim or I do and I don't feel competitive, but I don't feel intimidated either. Now Anthony Hopkins, that's genius."
That's also the challenge.