Giles Alderson had the pleasure of talking with legendary actors Steven Berkoff & Julian Glover on the podcast this week. They shared how they got into acting, the difference between theatre and film, what they expect from a director and many anecdotes about legendary directors like Stanley Kubrick and Steven Spielberg.
Julian’s Acting Inspiration
Julian’s parents were both working journalists. But their writing was not what inspired him to go into acting. ‘I wasn’t going to be an actor until by pure chance.
I had to go to school rather late because my parents ran out of money. It was a school in South London called Alleyn’s – founded by Shakespeare, Marlowe and Edward Alleyn, for poor boys in Dulwich.
It was paid for by the government but we had all the facilities of a public school. Just came to the school was a very young man from Oxford, an English master, who decided to revive the long-neglected habit of doing Shakespeare. He decided to do an open-air production of Julius Caesar and cast me as Mark Antony. I went home after that and said I’d found what I need to do.
And so I did it and (my parents) were very encouraging, sent me to drama school but I only did one year, because we had to do national service in those days.’
How Steven Became an Actor
Steven’s family were originally from Odessa but were forced to flee. His grandfather was a cutter and a tailor, and his father who was incredibly clever was forced to leave school at 14 to also become a tailor. ‘And so it would be natural for me to become a tailor too. I went to school and unfortunately, I inherited his wit and went to grammar school’.
There was an obsession, at the time, to work with your hands; but Steven’s father wouldn’t teach him how to tailor. So Steven left school with ‘no skill and nothing to do. I thought I’d like to be somebody famous. The idea of acting, I saw in a movie. So I wrote to all the companies and said I’d like to be in the movies. And they said you’ve got to go to drama school.
And then one guy felt pity on me and said there are certain institutes in London that take on poor people called literary institutes. And there was one in Holborn called the City Literary and for five pounds a quarter, you could take that drama course.’ After doing the course, Steven auditioned for various institutions, and they often called him back, but then they didn’t want him.
‘So I thought I will make my own work. I’ll write my own plays. I’ll act in my own plays. I will do my own direction. I will be unlike anything you’ve ever seen in your life.’
Working with Stanley Kubrick
After Steven’s performance at ‘the Roundhouse, everything went dead for a while.
After the great reviews I had from Harold Hobson, I thought people might have come in or the RSC may have said come and do something experimental, but nobody did.
Then one day I had a call from a casting agent, who said Stanley Kubrick’s in town casting Clockwork Orange, and he’s looking for a copper. He didn’t want to meet me, he didn’t want to talk to me. He wanted me to go on video, which was very revolutionary then, to say a few lines, to improvise. And then suddenly I was cast by Kubrick.
He was filming somewhere in West London and I met him. I had done my own work until then, so I felt on a par with him, not intimidated. I was not put out by this man’s brilliance and got on well with him.’
From Stage to Film
‘How I started off was because Tony Richard did a lot of work with The Royal Court. And I got into The Royal Court and was just terribly excited to do it because it was a new experience, but the actual essence of acting is always the same, whatever you do.
I felt quite easy in front of the camera because it wasn’t actually anything different from what I’d been doing for the past years in the theatre.’
Working on a Bond film
Steven played General Orlov in the 1983 film Octopussy. ’It was very exciting to work on a big epic motion picture. And with the Bond films, nothing is spared, the money is somehow limitless, the sets are beyond belief, and everything is super glorious, fantastical. And the actors are usually tip-top.’
Julian said that, for him, it is really important to have a ‘director who admires his actor. He has chosen the actor because he thinks he’s good, and so only needs to nudge him this way or that way. I find there’s nothing worse than a director who shouts at you.
I don’t respond well to it at all, but John Glenn was a lovely, perfect gentleman.’
Working with Directors
‘It’s the same with all directors. We had a really gentle director on Prizefighter (Daniel Graham). He was so sympathetic and interested.
You could see every time he did a shot, he really wanted to do that shot. And that draws the actor into the scene because he sees the enthusiasm of the director.’
The Difference Between Steven Spielberg and Irvin Kershner
For Julian, ‘Kershner’s divine but he’s not as good as Steven.
The thing about Stephen is that he knows everything about cinema. He knows how to do everything on the set except act. Some directors who don’t or can’t act hate actors because they can, Stephen simply admires actors who can.
So working with him was absolute paradise, because you knew he was totally on top of the job at every point. He knew exactly what he wanted and he cast you because you were the person he wanted to play that part.’
What They Look for In Filmmakers
For Steven, ‘merely being asked is appeal enough. Never mind how good the script is. I read some actors say the scripts are coming in fast and furious. If I get one script, I don’t even read it, I do it. So if your agent says, we’ve got this script sitting here, and you’re not doing anything weird. You’re not doing anything to make your mom ashamed.
If it’s a reasonable script and you’re a reasonable human, you just take it.
For more from Steven Berkoff & Julian Glover, listen here.