From Poirot to Salieri, actor David Suchet plays the odd
English term "yeoman" was once defined variously as a manservant in a
royal household and as a person who owns and cultivates a small tract of land.
The British actor David Suchet, best known for assaying the role of Agatha
Christie's Belgian gentleman detective Hercule Poirot on the long-running BBC
series Poirot, is a yeoman actor in the sense that he learned to serve the
material, not his ego, in the royal household of the Royal Shakespeare Company,
where we worked from 1972 to 1986; also in that he has cultivated within his
short, stout frame the sort of offhandedly formidable acting craft that only
years of stage time can produce.
that sounds like faint praise, it is meant instead to honor Suchet's unique
achievement in building a modestly thriving trans-Atlantic career without a
knighthood or the kind of leading-man glamour that typically bring great
British actors, from Laurence Olivier to Ewan MacGregor, international
attention. The U.S. media are full of solid, unflashy character actors like
Suchet--guys like Joe Pantoliano, Charles Dutton, John C. Reilly--but apart
from such anomalies as Ben Kingsley or Alan Cumming, the English actors we see
cross over successfully typically fit our image of the fine-boned, well-spoken
Englishman, or his ruddy-cheeked, foul-toothed Cockney cousin.
Suchet's French/Russian heritage has landed him roles not only as Poirot but as
Semitic characters--from Shylock at the RSC to the Arab terrorist in Executive
from the Arab-American cop in A Perfect Murder to the soft-spoken
Jewish American homeless man in the Sundance favorite Sunday. But, as he explained
in a recent interview at Los Angeles' Ahmanson Theatre, the roles he's played
have been about more than simply looks, or even his craft. There is a unifying solitude
and sadness in his characters, Suchet noted perceptively (doing my job for me
approach informs his current performance as the jealous Salieri in Sir Peter
Hall's new production Amadeus, which was a West End hit in London last year,
and which will begin at the Ahmanson this week prior to its Broadway opening in
Stage West: Did you see Sir Peter Hall's world premiere production of Amadeus in 1979?
David Suchet: Yes, I've seen Paul Scofield's Salieri, I've seen Frank Finlay's Salieri, I've seen Ian McKellen as Salieri, and of course F. Murray Abraham in the movie, and they were all totally different.
one thing, you can't really compare the movie with the play. The whole thing
about Salieri is his war with God; he's fighting God, really. You can't do that
in the film. The other thing in the play: Salieri confesses to you, the
audience, in direct address. So you have a very specific relationship with
Salieri, which you don't in the film, because there he confesses to a priest.
You have to do that in movies, and it changes it. But I think anybody coming to
see the play will have a far richer experience.
BSW: A lot of American
theatregoers saw Ian McKellen in the role on Broadway. I wouldn't ask you to
compare the Salieris you've seen. . .
Suchet: What I'm trying to do
with Salieri is: I think he is very different from other people. I have always
found Salieri to be a rather sad man. I don't think he is a two-dimensional
villain. This comes from my interpretation of the old man at the beginning of
the play, when I'm in desperate need for you, the audience, to come into my
room so that I can confess to you that which I feel guilty about. So there is a
need for him to make you understand what he did--not to forgive what he did,
but to understand. Everything he shows you is flashback, so that even while I'm
the young Salieri relating to you, there is this tension between doing what I'm
obsessed with doing and regretting it at the same time I'm doing it. That's
what's new about this interpretation.
BSW: So you have to both
play the moment onstage and step back from it and comment on it.
Suchet: That's the tension. You
will move, hopefully, in and out of sympathy with him.
BSW: Isn't direct address a
big acting challenge by itself, let alone switching gears from past to present
tense, as it were?
Suchet: Absolutely. Salieri is
narrating as young Salieri, but it is still old Salieri in retrospect. It's him
talking to you. That's the conceit of the play, and you never question it for
one minute. It's a very clever device. So if you play the old man needing to
confess, you can't just be the smiling two-faced or two-dimensional villain in
the story--because when he becomes the old man again, he might as well say,
"Yeah, that's what I did! Hurrah!" He won't need to confess anything.
There would be no need for a confession at all.
to compare them: Paul Scofield was very much the saturnine Salieri, as was
Frank Finlay. Ian McKellen was more of the great, entertaining Salieri;
everybody loved him. I hope to make you feel both love and hate almost from the
top, so that you are confused, which in turn hopefully will serve the play, to
make you look inside yourself. If you can say to yourself, "I understand
that and I wonder what I would have done in that situation--I have some of that
in me now," then the play's really working.
BSW: You've played a lot of
Shakespearean villains, and in American films you've often played the heavy.
When asked about such parts, a lot of actors will explain that to play hateful
characters well, you can't judge them.
Suchet: You can never judge a
character. If you take a role and you've decided to become that role,
judgmental values can't come into it. It is up to those who watch. What I will
try to do is to make sense of the character as I believe the writer wanted me
to play him. In my own case, I suppose one's own personality comes into it. I
suppose I am quite a complex personality anyway, so my characters become
complex. So in Executive Decision, where I played the terrorist on the plane--on
the page that role was terrible. It was one-dimensional, there weren't even
two. I worked very hard on my own and with the director to try and create
someone. Obviously, some of the things you can't help--he became
two-dimensional ultimately--but generally, it was received not just as the
typical heavy. I liked that. I enjoyed that. I know the writers were thrilled.
BSW: I sat in this room last
year and spoke to Ian McKellen about Enemy of the People here at the Ahmanson,
and we reflected on the tendency to cast English actors as villains in American
Suchet: There is a tendency to
do that. And you will always get different actors giving different reasons why
this is so. I have no idea myself, except that I think when the villain is some
sort of European, it's easier to get a Brit to play it. Some people have said
they get Brits to do villains because a lot of American actors don't want to be
disliked. I can't believe that's true. I don't believe that. I believe all
actors will take roles if they're worth playing. Another theory is we're much
BSW: Tell me about how your
role in the film Sunday, as a laid-off American man living in a New York men's shelter,
came about. How did you get considered for that role?
Suchet: It was quite
extraordinary. It really came about from Lisa Harrow, whom I worked with at the
RSC. She was already cast in the film, and it just so happened that the
director, Jonathan Nossiter, was a huge fan of my work, and Lisa mentioned me
to him. So he flew all the way to England to see me. We met. I said, "I
read the script. It's a wonderful role, but I'm not like that, and this guy is
another 30 pounds heavier." So he asked, "Do you think you can do
it?" I said, "I have no idea." He said, "Well, try."
BSW: So you put on some
weight, worked on your American accent. . .
Suchet: And it won Grand Prize
at the Sundance Film Festival. That was totally unexpected.
BSW: Did that change anything
for you, either in your work or in how you're considered?
Suchet: No, because it was
essentially an art house production. Most of those things don't change your
life. Let's be honest: You've got to do something like that on a big, big
movie. Tony Hopkins had to do Silence of the Lambs. It has to be big; then
you're picked up and everyone says, "Where has he been all these
BSW: Your roles at RSC
included Iago, Shylock, Caliban. . . I sense a trend.
Suchet: The typecasting is not as obvious as it might seem. What you're seeing is me playing the nasties. More importantly, if you look at almost every role I've played, they've been outsiders--including Hercule Poirot. I don't know why that's happened. The character Oliver in Sunday--he's an outsider, not part of society. But he's an outsider as a good guy.
if I say I've been typecast as anything in my career, it would certainly not be
villains; it would be outsiders. So many roles that I've played had nothing
villainous about them at all, but they've all been outsiders, including the cop
in Perfect Murder--he was a New York detective, but he was an outsider, as he
happened to be an Arab-American. Poirot is no villain; he is the most genial,
likeable, odd, quirky outsider that you could ever hope to meet. There was
another huge series I was in, Freud, which was shown here: outsider again.
It's an odd thing. I suppose living in England, looking how I look, coming very much from a Russian/French background--it's on my face. In England, I'm an outsider--though I am very British.
BSW: Then it's all about
Suchet: I don't think it's just a look. Once again, that's an obvious assumption. I think it's in the way one actually puts oneself forward--something about one's personality that people see. I don't know what it is. Maybe in my presence people feel a certain thing, or in my work they feel that something emanates from me. I don't mean better or worse; it's just odd, or oddly different.
BSW: Is it a fluke, or do you
actually feel like an outsider?
Suchet: I do, to a certain extent. When I became an actor, in the late '60s, early '70s, it was very fashionable to be a sort of druggie hippie type. I didn't like that. I didn't want to be that. I wanted to get on with the job. In those days, it was good to suffer to be an artist, to be stoned out of your head in order to work well and all that. I think that was a lot of crap. I always have. I don't think it's very clever, either. In that respect, I am an outsider in my own profession and I always have been.
BSW: Do you feel that you
work differently from other actors?
Suchet: No, not necessarily. I have worked with wonderful actors in my life; a lot of them have been Americans. I think American actors are fantastic. They are much freer than us Brits. Brits tend to work from the chest and head, whereas I think American actors are much more--and I don't include England--much more European. Much more gutsy, much more, if you like, impulsive.
BSW: What do you mean by
Suchet: Mainland Europe, where my heritage comes from, has a much more emotional and physical type of acting than the English.
BSW: McKellen, too, had only
praise for American actors.
Suchet: I've learned a lot from
American actors--Sean Pean, Tim Hutton, Kurt Russell, Michael Douglas, etc.
They really are great. There are not many actors anywhere at that level. And
I've worked with a lot of less well known American actors who are terrific,
wonderful actors. But all of the American actors I've worked with have this
strange admiration for the British. I don't quite know why; theatre is our
heritage and film is yours, but I've seen some great theatre all over America.
You should never in this country ever apologize that you're not British,
because Americans are some of the greatest in the world.
BSW: The London reviews of Amadeus talked a lot about your
technical skills in the role of Salieri. I know some actors might bristle that
people notice their technique at all--that somehow that is a superficial,
Suchet: Look, in Britain I'm a
dying breed. I am a character man; I play lots of different types of roles. I
am not a personality player. The majority of actors you see will tend to be
that, and you will go to see them. Because I can change myself and do change
myself, people talk about my technique. With Salieri, if you don't have
technique you're dead, because you have to deal with your voice, with your
timing, with the music. It is an enormous technical exercise, and the technique
I don't necessarily think that Daniel Barenboim would take it as a criticism if
you said he had the most wonderful technique. I don't think musicians would, so
why should that apply to actors? I'm actually flattered if they say my
technique is wonderful. I'm very grateful for it. Why should that be considered
derogatory? Is that because you're thinking an artist should be so impulsive
you can't see any technique?
BSW: The implication is that
it's all technical, not emotional.
Suchet: But technique takes you
to those emotional places. That criticism doesn't worry me at all.
BSW: The story of Salieri
and Mozart, as imagined by Peter Shaffer, addresses something a lot of people
feel, especially in this town, where people are competing in a creative field.
Have you drawn on any of your own feelings of artistic envy to play Salieri?
Suchet: I don't think there's a
person in this world who, having reached a certain age and status in their
career, hasn't looked over their shoulder to see what's coming up behind them.
If you are considered to be, as Salieri was, at the top of your game, and
someone comes in and you know that they're better, irrespective of what other
people think, you know that they're better, that actually is quite normal. Of
course I've felt it, and I've drawn on it. I would be a fool and a liar to say
BSW: Do you think part of
our identification with Salieri is that he plays out a revenge fantasy--he
destroys the genius he envies?
Suchet: I think it is the more
complex emotions of the play that people relate to--the deep hurt and, in a
religious sense, the deep betrayal by God. You know, God comes in and out of
fashion. When things are going well, you ignore God. You pray when things are
going bad; you ask for help. Those who believe and trust in God, their biggest
problem of all is to maintain their faith, because life is tough, life is
cruel, life is full of pain. Salieri is one of the naive ones who believes a
false theology: that by doing good works you gain favor with God. He has
completely misunderstood the teaching of the Christian faith, which is that
favor from God is a grace given to you by his love for you.
BSW: A lot of people share
Suchet: It is absolutely true
that people share that. And it is a fact that those who do believe that should
learn that it is not true.
BSW: Why has Sir Peter Hall
chosen to revisit this play now?
Suchet: It was actually put on
because Kim Poster, the producer for Peter Wilson Productions, was a student of
mine way back in the '70s when I was teaching at Northwestern. She was a huge
admirer and follower of my work and eventually she became a producer. She came
to England and we met up again, and talked about what we would like to do
together. We came up with Amadeus. Salieri was a part that I really always
would love to play, to try to get to grips what he was about. She took that to
her producers and they then approached Peter Hall.
BSW: Have you played on
Suchet: Never. I've played at
the Brooklyn Academy of Music, with the RSC in 1975--a long time ago. I've
never played on Broadway and I'm very excited. And it's wonderful to come here
and do a play. I've never done a play in L.A., either.