Friday, 13 April 2012

Exclusive Ralph Brown Interview (Part Two)

Welcome back to the second part of my exclusive interview with Ralph Brown (You can catch-up with part one here).
In this part we discuss Ralph's new films, sci-fi conventions and music.

Me: You split your work fairly evenly between TV and cinema. Is there a difference in working styles?

Ralph: The difference between TV and film is very little. The difference between working in the UK and America is the budget. I did a film called Sus two yeas ago, which was a 10-day shoot £50,000 budget and we shot in Elstree. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve done as an actor.  Fantastic part, brilliant script with only three actors in it:  me, Clint Dyer and Rafe Spall. It’s all set in a prison cell on one night when Thatcher gets elected.  It’s absolutely brilliant. But we all did it for nothing. We just enjoyed it and we thought it would go somewhere. Or you can do a TV series, and there’s bowls of fruit in your changing room, and cars everywhere and you are taking your time to get it right. That’s the good old days, really. TV shows now are really quite stressful. There is a way of doing things over here [in the UK], whether it’s for TV or a film, sometimes they want it to be a film or for the telly, or both, but it’s just about the budget really.

Me: You have four films coming out this year!
Ralph: I did one of them in 2010 - Dark Tide—a shark film with Halle Berry—and I did five last year. Jack the Giant Killer was in the middle of last year (2011), and that was brilliant. That was me and Ian McShane on horseback in Surrey on some incredible estate with [director] Bryan Singer helicoptering in every morning from Battersea, I think. Thousands of extras. Thousands. All dressed up like medieval England. Almost everybody I knew in the British film industry was there.  It was unbelievable. One morning I saw seven make-up ladies that I’d worked with over the years! Similarly, every department was like that. So it was like my career was spread out over this film! I started wondering if there was someone on this film from everything I’ve done, and I started ticking them off! It was that lovely outside, organised, English countryside, sitting on a horse, vibe. It’s quite nice sitting on a horse.

Me: Are you a bit of a equestrian?

Ralph: No! That’s just the second time I’ve done it. I learnt to ride for Ivanhoe [TV series], which I also had brilliant, brilliant fun on. But getting in and out of amour… You’d get into the basic costume, get down to the set and they’d say “We’re going for a take” and we’d start getting all the gear on and it’d take them half an hour to get you ready on that horse, with everything on! It was a real bloody palaver! Once you were in, they’d leave you in it for two hours, but then they’d have to get you out. You couldn’t just be in this. You couldn’t piss in it, or anything like that; you couldn’t sit down in it, really. It was very odd. Very heavy hat. It looked amazing, but was quite uncomfortable!
Above: The Jack the Giant Killer trailer. Ralph in on horse on the far left at 0:49 in the monocle and huge moustache!

Me: What’s your role in the film?

Ralph: I play the General, General Entin. Ian is the King, so most of my scenes were with him. It’s sort of Twilight, with the young prince and the young princess—the young teens who fall in love and then all the old guys from British Equity in the background! [Laughs] Ewan McGregor, Euan Bremner, Stanley Tucci—who I hadn’t seen for 20 years—Bill Nighy.  That’s the first time I’d done 3D.

Me: Is there a different way of acting for 3D?

Ralph: If you have a prop, they’re going to go for the prop, a sword or a telescope—they like that. Your arm’s length is quite important.  It does change what you do a bit, and it takes so long to set up. They give us half an hour to set up for a take, but it takes half an hour for them to set up the cameras. You have to have a lot of patience. You have to have a lot of patience anyway, to be honest… Sitting around getting cold, being sprayed with water, or crawling around in mud, or sitting in a dirty room that was an office two weeks ago and now they’re filming in it, because it’s a cheap place to film.  It’s full of gunk and it’s dusty and nasty.

Me: That debunks the “glamorous” aspect of moviemaking! How do you kill time on set?

Ralph: I’m a bit of a faddist. I get into things for a short period of time and then get bored of them.  I was doing Soduko in The Times every day and there was a competition and I won it, because I’d being doing it so much!  But then I get bored and move on to the next thing. Currently doing Scrabble and/or word games on the phone. I do like to read and listen to music.  If I’ve got space and time, I’ll take a keyboard into a dressing room. If I can find a buddy, like Ian [McShane] who’s really into his music, we would sit around in our caravans and play iPod DJs, going “Yeah, but what about this one?!” “Oh you haven’t got that? Listen to this…” and having a puff. That’s a pleasure. Or, these days, you’re online and I’m on Twitter!  Twitter’s the thing that hooked me last year, big time.  Because depending on who you follow you can have a different type of day.  You can follow loads of comedians or you can follow loads politicians, or news, or the weather… And just loads of ordinary people talk shit about what’s on telly!  You can create the flow. You don’t have to get stuck with the same people, that can get boring. It’s very of-the-minute, it’s very shallow, it suits people like me!  I’m a future-eater always wondering what’s next.

Me: Another film you have coming out this year is Tower Block.

Ralph: That’s a British film. That’s in the genre of “And-then-they-died-one-at-a-time” and I hadn’t done one of those before and I liked the concept of a bunch of people stuck on a tower block getting snipered. Good character, liked the script and good people, including Sheridan Smith.  It was a lead role and that’s always attractive, as I’ve done so much character work or “doing a twirl” as I call it.  I come in for a few days, spin around.  Some people misunderstand that, but I know what I’m doing... I’ve always tried to avoid the niche, that’s why I've almost never repeated the same performance.  Apart from anything else I would have found it boring.  To be a TV series or a soap that ran for years, the main problem with that would be doing the same character all the time, because I do like a bit of variety!  Just to keep myself amused mainly, but also it was just to say “Look I can act! If you want me to act, I can.  I can put a silly moustache on, wear a different pair of trousers…” And that, I suppose, is the point of it all, for me.  But that does mean that you end up number four or five in the cast list because the top three people are going to be the people who always play the same thing.  It’s not quite that simple, but there’s “The movie stars” and there’s “The actors” and they’re not necessarily the same career.  Some people try to move between those, like Daniel Day-Lewis.  Character actors aren’t necessarily asked to do leads.  If I was American I’d have done loads of leads by now, because there’s so much more work over there and character actors eventually get treated as leading actors.  I think that’s starting to happen with me already… That’s partly me forcing it and partly things happening.

Me: You mentioned another film you’ve got coming out this year, Dark Tide. You’ve got third billing in that.

Ralph: Yeah. And there are only five of us in it, and I’m the bad guy, playing opposite Halle Berry through the whole film, along with Olivier Martinez.

Me: Changing tack, you’ve been to a few sci-fi conventions?

Ralph: I’ve done a fair bit.  I’d done an Alien one, then I did a big Star Wars convention… this huge one in Indianapolis [Celebration III in 2005]  that went on for four days at the behest of the Foundation, and they paid for flights, hotel and I got paid, and got a cut of what we were doing.  And from that there are all these other agenty-type people buzzing around.  I’ve done one in Wembley, one in Ghent [Belgium].  I’ve done pretty much everything I’ve been asked to.  I remember I said to Lucas on set once, “George, do you think Ric Olie should be called ‘Bravo Leader, Ric Olie’? Because no one calls me Ric Olie in the film, so how are people going to know which character I am?”  “Ralph,” he said,  “Everyone’s going to know everything about you.  There’ll be websites dedicated to you, don’t worry about it.”   Alec Guinness ruined it for everybody really, by getting that deal [infamously Guinness negotiated 2.5% of the Star Wars merchandise’s net profits, for a reduced acting fee, and eventually earned him over $6 million].  So, basically George thinks we’re all doing that.  Therefore we’re the lucky ones, milking his teat!  [Laughs]  It’s funny and is just so not the case.  Some people do the convention circuit and make a lot of money.  You meet these guys and their career is doing that.  And then you feel slightly snobbish, because you don’t want to become one of them, and look down your nose at those guys, because they’re not acting, they’re doing conventions.  So therefore they’re not doing “it.”  So, if I can fit the odd one in, I don’t mind doing it.  But I don’t want to suddenly be “on the circuit,” I’m slightly aware of that, but I quite enjoy them.  One of my mates did one in Japan about 10 years ago, he was in Star Wars as well, and he was asked to do the lines in the film.  They showed the film on the screen and showed his scene.  Then they’d ask him to stand up and do the same scene again.  They’d watch it and go wild!  Manic!  He said it was absolutely brilliant!  Those conventions are not what you think, especially the Star Wars ones.  I had this image of what the typical Star Wars conventioneer would be like, not being a particular fan, myself.  But you can’t possible generalise them like that.  They’re gay people, straight people, Mexicans, Japanese people, black people, old people, young people, kids, families, fat people, thin people, literally everybody!

Me: Have you got any action figures of you?

Ralph: I got a couple of those on a shelf in a cupboard.

Me: Were you happy with the likeness?

Ralph: It’s absolutely amazing!  It really is.  Really looks like me, they got the chin, the forehead.  I should have it on display really!  Someone at a convention gave me one;  they’d designed the box themselves.  This 10-year-old kid said “I made this for you!"

Me: Despite his jokey moniker, “Captain Obvious,”—because he points out everything that’s happening on screen—there’s an inordinate amount of fondness for Ric Olie, the man who taught Anakin Skywalker to fly.

Ralph: I wouldn’t know how to measure that really.  I think that everyone in that film, and the other films, gets at least the same level of attention as I do.  I don’t think the character’s particularly popular.  You’re just in it.

Me: You’ve done a fair bit of green screen acting in your career, how do you find it?

Ralph: It is difficult, but no more difficult than standing in a rehearsal room at the BBC or doing a play.  And even when you’re on stage, you’re just standing in a room.  Or even a film set, it’s just a room.   When I first did Alien3’s ADR— Automated Dialogue Replacement (or dubbing)—the mystique is gone.  I’m not in costume, I’ve not got the same haircut, I’m not in character, really, I’ve just turned up here in a studio in Hollywood and there’s a microphone and a screen and it’s “beep, beep, beep, say the line.”  Totally technical!  Utterly and completely a craft.  Nothing to do with getting into the role.  OK, if you are crying you might get something going, but you’re matching something you’ve already done, so you can’t run away with it.  You can’t perform it.  And you have to do ADR on every single job.  Always.  With Alien3 there were two days of it.  With Withnail & I I had to re-do the entire performance, for America, because they couldn’t understand what I was saying.  Not to claim any special treatment, so did Michael Caine for Alfie and so did Bob Hoskins for The Long Good Friday and any Cockney accent.  But we have to put up with Sly Stallone slurring like that!   So you can’t get too precious.   And you are being paid to use your imagination on some level.    And the green screen is just another part of that.

Me: This year is the 30th anniversary of the death of cult sci-fi author Philip K Dick [2 March 2012]. You’ve stated in previous interviews that you are a big fan. What first attracted you to his work?

Ralph: Just the ideas. The ideas are astounding. My favourite is Ubik. It’s so good. It’s just out there. I suppose it’s a bit acid-casualty paranoid. The really simple ones, where he just describes a simple routine and he does this and he does that, and then he goes to the door and he realises the door’s handle going the wrong way against the way it always went.   And he realises that one small detail, and you realise he’s fucking with reality here. And suddenly the bottom of the floor opens out and you don’t know where you are. His key thing is what is real and what isn’t. Through a Scanner Darkly was a masterpiece of writing. It’s unfilmable! But in a cartoon it’s actually correct [Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation was a rotoscoped animated movie], because there’s this scramble suit, which would have been impossible to portray. Very nice.

Me: So a dream job would be working on a Philip K Dick adaptation?

Ralph: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The dream project for me would be to write one. I think all the rights have gone, but I always had a fantasy about writing Ubik for the screen, or the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, or any of those. I surprised that more haven’t been made because there are 90 novels and 100s of short stories.  And only 7-8 have been made into movies. [Note: Director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry, is supposedly working on a Ubik adaptation, while Ridley Scott has been developing The Man in the High Castle as a miniseries for the BBC since 2010, although there’s a concern that this is languishing in “Development Hell”.]

Me: What did you have the most fun on?

Ralph: Not Dark Tide.

Me: That was a hard shoot?

Ralph: Yeah. Just the physical conditions were so tough. Just being on a boat [makes swaying motion] doing that all day.  You just want to get off for a few minutes.

Me: Many real sharks?

Ralph: All the time. We were completely surrounded. That’s why we were there. We were baiting and chumming them.  There were a couple of spectacular days where we saw whales, but those sorts of shoots are hard. I really enjoyed Cape Wrath and Ivanhoe.

Me: Tell me about Ivanhoe.

Ralph: I played Prince John, who was to become King John. Everyone remembers him as this bad king (he wasn’t)—and Richard The Lionheart who was the hero—and John's had all this bad press, and he’s the baddie in Ivanhoe, because he has to be.  But I did all this research into him and I thought, what would it be like to a) be born into royalty and b) he took a lot of church land, and it was the churches that wrote a lot of the history back then, so the first draft of history is written by the Catholic Church. So, of course they hated him!  He was against them, they were totally corrupt. He signed Magna Carta once he was King, which was a good thing, but it’s always considered that he had his arm twisted, but in fact he was a good governor.  Whereas, Richard the Lion Heart was a shit governor who collected tax, went off on these fucking crusades, like George Bush, and was considered to be the hero.  Wasted the country’s money on these madcap, anti-Muslim raids into the Holy Land.  Whereas, John was actually sorting out the country, and making sure everything’s all right is considered the villain. I enjoyed it because it was a fantastic character and we were filming in all the great Norman castles and cathedrals of England for quite a long time, that summer, back in the days of creating 6 hours of TV for the Beeb at a million quid an episode. And we had a lovely director, Stuart Orme, who was just wonderful. I’ve worked with him four or five times since then. He had this lovely habit of saying “OK, Action” you’d do the scene and he’d be “Cut! OK, we got it there, let’s just do one more… just for us.”  Or he’d go “OK that’s good, we’re not going to cut, we’re going to go back to the top and do it again” so you’d just keep rolling on.  Really positive man.

Me: It sounds like you research your characters quite deeply.

Ralph: I try to. It gives me something to do, rather than just learn the lines. Sometimes I just learn them and just do it .  Sometimes I annoy myself and go “why are you doing all the research for? It’s not there! Why bother, it’s not on the page?  Depends where you’re at  at the time.  Instinctively when you read a script you know whether you wanna know stuff, or whether you gotta imagine more stuff about it, if it’s a fictional character. Or you might avoid putting too deeper roots into it until you meet who you’re playing opposite, as they may take it here or there.  Accents are where I put quite a lot of work into.  Hiring a voice coach and paying someone to go through the scenes with me.  I take a lot of pride in getting that right.  I hate hearing actors who can’t do that sort of thing. Anyone not getting it right. It’s like making a chair, you don’t want to make one that wobbles, do you? Also, people might ask you about the character, that’s why I do the research, not just for the filming. Because later it comes out,
“You’ll know this, you played [Prince] John.”
“Er…I just did the scene!”

Me: So is there a secret to good acting?

Ralph: You don’t have to be intelligent to be an actor, you really don’t. It’s not necessary. You don’t have be an intellect, in fact it gets in the way. Just not doing the simple, instinctive emotional things that come out of the screen. Last year I actually “retired”. I said I’m not doing it anymore, fuck it I’m tired of it.  Bored.  But then I got offered Dark Tide. So I might give it up, but it’s not going to give me up.

Me: So if the acting job dried up tomorrow you wouldn’t be too worried?

Ralph: [Shakes head] No. I’d probably stay in the business, I’d write or direct. Or I could just turn my back on it all, I really could. I could go into debt relief, politics, I nearly ran for the [Brighton & Hove City] council last year.

Me: Tell me about your writing.

Ralph: I like writing, and it is quite nice that I can be unobserved in a group of people, as that’s the raw material of life.  That’s the great stuff.  It’s always much more dramatic and unbelievable than anything in a movie.  Real life is just ridiculous!  You listen to how transparent and repetitive people are... I’ve been missing writing for a few years, about the same period I haven’t been in L.A.  I haven’t written anything.  For the last three years I’ve just been acting and playing music. So this year I’m looking for that slight change of emphasis. When you write, it’s like having a funnel on top of your head and everything you’re experiencing is going into it. Every conversation you have, everything you over hear, everything that’s on the news appears to be to do with what you’re writing suddenly in this really weird way, it’s kinda magic! That’s the creative experience and I miss it. And I think I need it to be there, otherwise I’d go a bit mad and send all bloody day on Twitter!  It’s easily done! I’m very undisciplined about my Internet use!

Me: So are you still writing a lot?

Ralph: I am. Film scripts and plays. I thought about, shall I write a novel? Shall I paint a picture? And I thought, no, it’s time to start focussing. I don’t want to be quite good at lots of things. But I want to be really good at just a few things… I want to write something next year, but you can’t have acting plans… And I’ve got a sci-fi project that I’ve had brewing for a long time… So that maybe means less music for the time being. [Ralph has been in numerous bands, most famously The Brighton Beach Boys for the last 10 years].

Me: How long have you been playing music?

Ralph: Since I was a teenager. I’ve always played saxophone, and I taught myself piano when I was quite young.  It’s joy, pure joy.  So I didn’t need to put that energy back into that. I want to write a play, because I haven’t written a play in a long time, and I’ve got quite a good idea bubbling around. I’ve directed on stage a few times and I’ve directed three short films.  One of which was a film about the starlings on the West Pier called The Mumuration, and it’s like a 12-minute ballet to Debussy.  That is the best thing I’ve every done, bar none.  All the acting and performances—everything.  That one film is very simple and pure.  They’re my favourite birds and just got mesmerised watching them roosting when they migrate.  We keep meaning to put it online. As for directing a feature, I think I will do it, when it’s right.

I’d just like to thank Ralph for being such a lovely, down-to-earth, unpretentious bloke, and for giving up his time; and to Jane Bom-Bane for supplying the venue. Go eat there!

[UPDATE: Jack the Giant KIller has had its release date postponed to March 2013]

Monday, 9 April 2012

Exclusive Ralph Brown Interview (Part One)

In this second of my intermittent “Heroes” interviews where chat to writers, artists, actors, directors, designers and creatives of all sorts that have entertained and/or inspired me over the years. You can catch up with the first one with graphic novelist Rick Vietch, here.

Ralph Brown is one of Britain’s greatest character actors and yet—despite appearing in numerous Hollywood blockbusters—remains one of the least recognised. When I mentioned to friends I’d be interviewing him the majority went “Who?” However, his impressive CV includes massive flicks like Alien3Star Wars: The Phantom MenaceWayne’s World 2, and The Boat That Rocked. Plus major TV roles in The BillLife on MarsLexx, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Cape Wrath. He’s been one of my favourite actors since I first saw him in his most memorable role, as Danny in Withnail & I (1987). Mention that and suddenly people go “Ahhh! I know who you mean!”

We met in the basement of our mutual friend, Jane’s Brighton cafĂ©, Bom-Bane’s on a freezing January afternoon in 2012. We chatted about everything from science fiction, politics, Twitter, Philip K Dick and sharks to amateur, stoned DJing with Ian McShane. What follows is part one of a two-part edited transcript of possibly one of the most in-depth, personal and candid interviews you’ll find with Ralph anywhere!
Above: Ralph's 2009 Showreel.

Me: You were born in Cambridge in 1957, but raised in Lewes, East Sussex...

Ralph: Actually, we moved to Selmeston, which is a few miles down the road, towards Alfriston, when I was 7. But I went to school in Lewes [at Lewes Priory] from the age of 11-18, and then lived in Chiddingly, Ringmer, Hailsham, Kingston and Lewes, then Brighton. So this is my neck of the woods really. I moved to Brighton in 1995, after we got back from L.A.

Me: How did you get into acting? You were studying law…
Ralph: It was the summer holidays.  End of my first year and it was the inaugural season for the National Student Theatre. They put posters up saying, “If you want to do something in the summer why don’t you be in a play [The Death of Private Kowalski] at the Edinburgh Festival?”  I thought, “It sounds as good as anything else.”  All the other people in the play were drama students.  So I had to audition, we rehearsed in London and we all went up, and were billeted in an old church, and were all probably shagging each other – I can’t really remember! I was playing an American, and I went downstairs after the show to use the toilet, which the cast shared with the public, and this guy goes [adopts an American accent]  “So what part of America are you from, son?” I said,  “Actually, I’m from Brighton, Sussex, England.”  He was really surprised.  And that was the first time I thought, “I can do this!”  And I was enjoying myself a lot.  I got it.

Me: So you dropped your course and went straight into acting?

Ralph: No, I finished my degree.

Me: So technically you could practise law?

Ralph: No, I’d need to do another year… I do have days when I think “Hmmm… I really should have been a lawyer!”  It would have been so much fun, a lot more satisfying.  But I’ve kinda burnt my bridges, ‘cos it’d cost £9,000 to go back to study.  I have thought about going back and doing that, but it’s looking less and less likely now.

Me: Despite having professionally acted since 1982, [including a year’s stint on The Bill as PC Muswell] you first came to prominence as Danny aka “Headhunter… the purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals…” in 1987’s cult film Withnail & I. You’ve since become inextricably linked to the character of Danny.  Has that been more of a help than a hindrance?

Ralph: [Emphatically] Help.  No question about it.  If I hadn’t done that, I’d just be another bloke playing coppers.  Lots of people in America, especially directors, love that movie.  People who work in the industry love that movie.  So it’s not just about Danny, but being in that film as well, it’s a double-hitter.  Definitely a good thing.

Me: Mike Myers created a role specifically for you in Wayne’s World 2, based on your performance of Danny.  Did you have any qualms at going back to play a similar character in Del Preston?

Ralph: I did.  I was thinking it wasn’t my role to do, it was Bruce’s [Bruce Robinson the writer/director of Withnail & I], and I had to call him up and talk to him about it.  He said, “It’s not mine, it’s yours.”  I was trying to put it into context and I couldn’t think of another actor who was asked to do the same performance in a different role in a different film, especially one that specific.

Me: Was there much adlibbing in Wayne’s World 2?

Ralph: I did change a few words in the script, there was a line [adopts Del/Danny voice], “I did think it a trifle unnecessary to see the crack in the Indian’s bottom.” Del wouldn’t say, “butt” which was in the script.  It was so clearly written for me.  But they were like, “No, no we just wrote it…”  And that [role] still wasn’t a hindrance.
Above: Ralph as Del Preston in Wayne's World 2

Me: Yet things weren’t completely smooth?
Ralph: I did Wayne’s World 2 and it came out pretty quickly for some reason. It was one of those films that they shot, edited; it came out, and got absolutely amazing reviews.  It was the best gig I ever had, for loads of reasons.  And then... nothing happened.  Tumbleweed.  That year I went up for every single film they made in Hollywood.  True RomanceSe7enThings to Do in Denver When You’re DeadThe Usual Suspects, etc.  Went up for all of them, and could have done all of them!  But didn’t do a single thing that year.  At the end of that year, the money wasn’t that great, but the brain was really fried!  It was doing my head in. “Does not compute!” Know what I mean? I couldn’t work out why.  So then we came back to Brighton.  L.A. is lovely, it’s open, it’s got this thing that London doesn’t really have.  And coming back to London was just [makes crushing gesture with hands].  So we came down here.  But it was more for Jenny, my wife, as it was good for her asthma. Brighton also had that New Age/ Venice Beach feel about it.  It has got a Californian thing.  It’s nice, and we’re very happy here.

Me: Would you subscribe to Danny’s point of view that bald men are uptight?

Ralph: Yes. I’m pretty uptight. And I’m bald!

Me: You don’t come across as uptight.
Ralph: Well that’s good! I’m less uptight when I think about it.  But I’m not uptight in the way Danny means it.  Danny is talking Rasta, and his misinterpretation of Rastafarian theology, that people without dreadlocks [baldhead in Jamaican] are uptight, and Danny’s taken that to mean bald people, which is amusing.  And probably quite common in those days for people to hang around black guys in the Sixties, who didn’t really “get it” all the time… Withnail & I was pretty fun, but it was only three days.  I did two weeks of rehearsal and three days filming.

Me: You seem to be incredibly prolific, and almost constantly on our screens.

Ralph: Two people said to me today “Oh, you’re always busy, aren’t you?”  And I’m so not!  I can go months and months without doing anything at all.  Other people think you’ve “arrived,” but from the other side of the coin you’re still looking for that one gig that’s going to make everything all right.  Weird, innit?

Me: Your range is incredibly diverse. Is there a character or a role that you haven’t played that you’d like to do?

Ralph: I’ve never played a woman… But I don’t really hanker after anything in particular.

Me: How do you pick roles? Is it that you see a really great character and think, “I’d really like to play that!”?

Ralph: Sometimes.  My fantasy, when I was young, was:  I’ll know when I’ve “made it” because there’ll be scripts coming through the letter box that I’ll be undoing, getting them out and there’ll be three or four of them and I’ll have to go through them and find the one I really like and that’s the one I’ll decide to do.  And that never happens, unless you’re really above the line properly and they need you to make the film.  Then someone else is reading your scripts for you.
What happens is, I get sent stuff and one of three things has to apply:
A)    I’ve gotta really want to do the part.
B)   I really want to be in the thing, and I’m not that really interested in the part, but the thing is a good thing, working with good people.
C)  You pay me a lot of money.
So even if I hate it, I still might do it, if it pays a lot of money.  Having said that, I’ve turned down so many things.  Not that they were offered, but I hadn’t even gone for the meeting.  And I managed to piss a few people off.  They don’t like it when you do that.  So I had to start to rebuild bridges over the last 20 years.  And they remember.  And it’s the same people still in the biz as when I started.  The directors, the producers, casting directors, etc.  Everyone’s the same!  And you make these relationships early on and people remember you from that play you were in, or that thing you said at a party, something somebody said about you, that carries on.  Year after year after year after year [Laughs]!  And you don’t think about it when you’re young, but as you get older you realise you’ve been making networks, and you’ve also been pissing people off!  It’s quite a small community, really.  It’s a tricky one.  Sometimes your agent can say you’re busy, so you can say no.  But actually, I’m quite picky, in other words.  Unless I’m broke and then I suddenly become terribly available!

Me: You’ve worked with some huge names in the industry such as George Lucas (Phantom Menace), Stephen Spielberg (Amistad), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), David Fincher (Alien3). Is there anyone in particular that you’d really like to work with, whether it’s a director, writer, fellow actor…?

Ralph: Loads.  Absolutely loads.  Always wanted to work with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall—Just the integrity of their performances.  For me, acting is about only one thing, believability.  And that’s the only way I judge any performance.  If you can see them acting then I’m not interested.  I don’t like that type of acting.  I like people who disappear into the part.  Which is what I’ve always tried to do.

Me: You’ve said, in the past, that you don’t get recognised in the street…

Ralph: Bonus!  If you do get recognised in the street—and obviously I know lots of people who do—you have to enjoy it.  You can’t fight that happening.  It doesn’t not happen just because you don’t want it to, so you have to embrace it.  It’s a different way of life.  It means you can’t go on the Tube and things like that.  Suddenly the world is in your face, which I don’t have usually… I’m still quite a good hidden secret, “cult hero” “underground…” whatever.  Which I was very happy with when it happened.  I’m not unhappy about it at all, as it’s been a real blessing all the way through.  And I’ve been really lucky.  I know loads of people who think they’d like to be me!  An actor said to me “Next time round can I have your career, Ralph?!”  So I can’t sit around being bitter about it or whingey.  I do get a bit annoyed with the
“Where do I know you from? You’ve been on telly! You’re on the telly aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m an actor.”
“Go on then, what you been in?”
And I go “Er… Withnail & I?”
“Wot? Woss that?”
Let’s start with the obvious one, please!  The basic one where most people go; “Oh, I remember that.”
“Nah, which one was you in that?  Nah, don’t remember that.”
It’s terribly dispiriting!  So that’s when you wish you were recognisable, so you didn’t have to go through all that.  You’d still have to have a stupid conversation ‘cos your with some bloke who wants to have one of those stupid conversations! Even if I wasn’t an actor I’m sure I’d still be going “Fuckin’ ‘ell”  It’s not my particular cross to bear.  I’m a human being and I have to go through the same thing as everyone else. Being John Malkovich has the classic scene when he gets into the taxi. The taxi driver goes “I know you don’t I?  Where have I seen you?  Come on!  Give me a few names.  COME ON!”

Me: You’ve done a fair amount of genre work (fantasy/horror/sci-fi). Is that serendipitous, or out of choice?

Ralph: No it’s out of choice. I think I’m attracted to sci-fi in particular, because I love it. I love sci-fi movies and I like Philip K. Dick very much. I like all sci-fi. I devoured it avidly, when I was young. Him and Kurt Vonnegut. I did read a bit of Michael Moorcock, and then Doris Lessing’s five-volume sci-fi series [Canopus in Argos: Archives 1979-1983], which was completely mind-blowing. So when Alien3 came up, I was like “I’ve got to” I loved the first Alien film, I really wanted to be in that. Similarly, Star Wars. Even though I’m not a fan of Star Wars, when it was offered I thought, “That’s got to be done.” I have a fairly ambiguous relationship with Star Wars now, for various reasons. I don’t actually think the last three films are that…I’d like to be more proud of it really. If I had another chance to do another Star Trek-type series, playing the captain or the science officer, or whatever, I’d be like, “Yeah, man.” That is up my street.
Me: Let’s talk about Alien 3. It was a notoriously difficult shoot, with constant changes of scripts, directors…

Ralph: When I was cast, David Fincher was already on board as the director. I know Vincent Ward was on board before that, but Fincher wanted this prison to feel alien to the Americans so they deliberately chose English actors instead of American ones… A number of people did get fired, as is the case with any big movie, but with horror films there seems to be an overwhelming paranoia and it becomes a paranoid experience.

Me: What’s the longest film shoot you’ve had to do?

Ralph: Probably was Alien3.  That was 5 months.  My average is about 2-3 months.
Above: Ralph with Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3

Me: You’ve done another horror film, Dominion: The Exorcist…

Ralph: That was fun.  As an example of how unparanoid I was on that, we’d just done three months filming in Marrakech and then we all went to Rome and we booked into the Hotel Excelsior, which featured in the first Exorcist  [It’s where Regan’s dad is staying]  and they gave me the key to room 666!  [Laughs]  I said, “There must be some mistake.  Are you having a joke?”  So I checked in, and that night I said to all the lads, OK, we’ll have a little puff in my room tonight and then we’ll go out for a meal afterwards.  Gabriel Mann, who was playing the priest, said “I’m sorry Ralph, I won’t be able to come to your room tonight.”  Because he was method acting!  [Laughs].  He was the priest and he was walking around with a Bible for three months in Morocco.  So that film wasn’t so paranoid, but really good fun.

Me: But that film was notoriously hacked to death by the studio after filming was completed?

Ralph: [Paul] Schrader delivered his film, before they added the special effects, and Warner Brothers saw that cut and they said “No, we don’t like it” threw loads of money at it, gave it to another director [Renny Harlin] and said reshoot it and make another one.  So Paul was essentially sacked, but they let him have his film.  But then he was cast adrift and had to finish it himself.  So he had to pay for these special effects, which weren’t very good and that came out as Exorcist: Dominion and the Renny Harlin one came out as Exorcist IV: The Beginning.  So some of the cast went back and did reshoots, and some, like me, didn’t.  I never followed it through because I couldn’t be bothered.  I’ve only ever seen Paul’s one.

Me: Does that happen a lot? Studio’s hacking work apart in the final edit?

Ralph: With Eragon, which I did in Hungary in 2003/2004, I was completely cut out, and I was playing the twins in that.  Which was quite a good gig, but I got cut out of that.  All these dramas happen after you’ve finished.  If a film’s a paranoid shoot, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—and in a horror film it might be a good thing.  But it’s bloody intense every time.  Every time.  Different people react in different ways to that.

Come back soon for part 2!