October 07, 1999



Mystery Man

From Poirot to Salieri, actor David Suchet plays the odd man out.


by Rob Kendt


The 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.


If 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.


Indeed, 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 Decision, 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 quite graciously).


This 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 December.


Back 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.

For 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.

But 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 films.


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 cheaper.


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 years?"


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.

So 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 your look?


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 European?


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, exterior approach.


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 will show.

But 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 I didn't.


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 that misconception.


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 Broadway before?


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.