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‘X’-Films magazine interview: 1973

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Mar. 1st, 1973 | 08:00 am

This interview appeared in ‘X’-Films Vol.3 No 1. 1973.1 While it is more accurate, and contains less that is as demonstrably fake than the ‘interview’ in the German teen magazine “Bravo”, it contains some sections which are certainly made up, and others which seem to have been taken down incorrectly or misunderstood. Also, some of the words Michael is said to have used, such as “helluva”, and “movies” are not – according to A.S., who knew him well – in his idiom. He always said "film" or "picture". He would not have said "unprofessional part", but would have used the correct term of "non-professional part", and he wouldn't have said "'cause"... he would have said “because.” Sections which should definitely be treated with scepticism are annotated.

Interview with Michael Gothard

Michael, how did you become interested in acting as a career?

I went to acting school, but before that I originally became involved because a friend was making an amateur movie, auditioning a lot of professional out-of-work actors and actresses. He couldn’t find exactly what he wanted and I happened to be at the audition, so just for a laugh I auditioned with them and got the part. It was a typical ham movie – boy and girl walking in the park, etc. I think the new wave was very popular at that time – about ten years ago. [1962]

How long have you been acting professionally?

About 8½ years. I went to a place called the Actors Workshop, which in those days was at Baker Street, being run by an American. It was quite a good scene. The first unprofessional part I played was the movie I told you about, which, like most weekend movies, didn’t get finished. Nevertheless, I got some encouragement from these people while I was working with them, so I thought perhaps I should take acting a bit more seriously. At first I thought it was just an interesting thing to do.

What were you doing before that?

I was living in Paris for about a year, just bumming around if you like, just drifting about … I came back to England and met up with these people … I just did it for a laugh – as I was doing many things for a laugh. It only became serious when people started paying me money to do it. After all, I’d been broke for a long, long time.

So you’re not working for the moment?

No. I’m not really looking for work ’cause I was away for six months working on the Arthur of the Britons series. I came back to find a lot of things in a mess, so I can’t really work at the moment anyway. I’ve got a few things to sort out.

What’s acting like in this country at the moment?

The scene here at the moment is very quiet, and has been so for about three years or so.

How are you regarded in the trade?

A lot of people tend to consider me in some way – a word they’re fond of using – established – which to me is a joke. By established they mean I earn a regular living. Well let me tell you, to get yourself in a position where you can be absolutely sure that you work a certain number of months a year is really a very unique position to be in. I found that word very funny. I think you’re really not qualified to use that word unless you’re right at the top – if you’re a Burton or a Taylor or something. The whole thing is such a precarious sort of set up and even more so now than even a few years ago – in England, anyway. The Americans withdrew their finance 3 or 4 years ago and the film industry in this country really took a dive. Suddenly all those fat, well-paid technicians who always had permanent work suddenly found themselves in the same positions as the actors and actresses. The point I’m trying to make is that the situation in this country is so bad now that the technicians, who for years had a really nice piece of the cake, are now confronted with exactly the same situation as we are. That’s how bad it’s got over here.

The section above probably includes misquotations. A.S. suspects that Michael’s criticisms were actually aimed at "the fat cats", as he really respected "the workers", (carpenters, sparks, extras etc), and would never have been so derogatory about technicians, but would have happily been derogatory about “the suits”: producers and studio executives.

And yet, strangely enough, I’ve worked pretty consistently during this time. At the time of the boom – about six or seven years ago – when I was in the early stages of my career, I just couldn’t break in at all. I spent nearly two years out of work, during which time I did all sorts of insane things. I mean, the first job I ever did for money was a film, a 2½ hour colour feature. [Herostratus] I played the lead in it and I was on the screen from start to finish, so you could say it was a big part. The film didn’t have any success. It was experimental, a very strange thing. It had many qualities about it which just didn’t seem right. I spent a long period out of work after that, so I really started with a great flourish.

It was a helluva way to enter into oblivion. I couldn’t get into TV, I couldn’t even get an audition for theatre. But eventually I broke through and got into TV. From then on it was all right. I’ve hardly stopped working since.

So how did it all start?

It sounds like such a cliché. I was walking down the King’s Road on a Saturday morning with some friends, something I very rarely do. We went somewhere for a coffee. I was with a young lady actress who was doing very well at the time. I was sitting at this table and suddenly a young guy came up to me and said, “That gentleman over there wants to talk to you. He’s Philip Saville.” I didn’t know who Philip Saville was, but it turned out he was a television director.

We went for a walk down the King’s Road, chatting away all the while and he told me about a film he was making. Apparently he wasn’t looking for actors and didn’t even know I was one, but said he was looking for a young guy to play a part in a short film he was making for TV. When he realised I was an actor, we arranged an appointment for the following day.

His office was somewhere in Shepherd’s Bush. After being out of work for two years I was very edgy and easily offendable – in as much as I was quick to take insult. Somehow we got into one of those strange interviews. He was really trying to audition me via an interview, asking me very personal questions. I got progressively more annoyed and pissed-off. I thought, ‘Here we go, another little power trip. He’s enjoying himself at the expense of another out-of-work actor.’ I’d been through that scene so many times I was really ready for battle and, well, we ended up having a flaming row – and that was that! I didn’t see him again for quite a long time and I didn’t – needless to say – get the part in that film. Then a few months later I got a phone call. It was Philip Saville.

He said he could use me for something on television with Yvonne Mitchell – a superb actress – and we ended up doing a show called The Machine Stops, which went on to win a prize in the International Festivals, and that’s more or less how I got in, how I started work again.

When I was out of work we started a lunchtime theatre group in St Martin’s Lane, in the West End. There was no money in that – we just hoped these weren’t too many in the audience, so there’d be some sandwiches left! Nevertheless, I had to stick at it, because two years out of work devastates you – you’ve go to keep your hand in. It doesn’t matter really what you do, the important thing is to work. That’s why I did a few horror films. I didn’t consider it a bum part, any more than any other part of the entertainment industry. So I tried to do that as capably as I would do anything else. I sweated over that to get it right, as I did in more serious projects, like The Devils, for instance.

Which did you prefer?

Well, the horror film was more fun – great fun, in fact – but in terms of deeper satisfaction obviously The Devils was better, but it was a much harder thing to do.

I didn’t audition for Scream & Scream Again – they asked me to be in it.

Why did they choose you?

God knows –I really can’t remember how it came about. Maybe they chose me because I was considered a new approach to the problem. The first thing that Vincent Price said to me was, “Your flies are undone.” I thought, ‘Oh, man, what a corny gag!’ They pull that on every inexperienced actor. So, that was the sole extent of my relationship with Vincent Price. The way the film was scheduled, I didn’t have to work with him. It was a very physical part, running up mountains, etc. I did most of the stunts myself. On Arthur of the Britons we did all the stunts ourselves – riding horses and fighting. It was quite a rough show. We used to take turns being in hospital. Really, we tried to schedule it so we weren’t both in at the same time. Oliver ended up with a fractured skull and was in twice for x-rays.

According to A.S., Michael moaned a fair bit about being saddle-sore while filming “Arthur of the Britons”, but never injured himself.

Strange, that I get given all these wild, extrovert parts. The part in Arthur is of a crazy, wild guy – a Saxon – who’s sometimes melancholy, sometimes explosive and violent. I play quite a few parts like that. I suppose it coincides with my natural temperament. I try not to be temperamental as an actor, but it does happen. I’ve played such a wide variety of parts.

I remember Saville with affection, because it was through him I got into this work again (I was absolutely flat broke). When I completed that show I didn’t have a penny. Normally it takes quite a few weeks before you get paid. Anyway, the night we finished recording I went into my dressing room and there was an envelope with money in it. He knew I was broke and without saying anything he arranged for me to be paid that night – as soon as I was finished. But he was a fiery bastard to work with. He shouts, screams and curses, but he’s great – tremendous energy and enthusiasm. I haven’t worked with him for many years, but I remember him as I said, with great affection. It was my big break.

You were waiting for the big break?

No, I don’t think in those terms. For me, when I work, it’s just a job, and I want to be paid for it. I don’t want promises – “This is going to bring you more work; this is going to make your career” – I’m just not interested. I’m not working for that at all. I’m working to earn a living. I enjoy it, sure I do. I’m like a man who does a job and who expects to be paid a certain rate for it. I’m not interested in promises of a great future glory. I’ve hard all that crap for years. It really doesn’t impress me very much. The only thing that impresses me is when the cheque comes in.

But you enjoy acting?

It’s a helluva profession. There are lots of good moments in it. But it’s also a very savage scene. Actors are very vulnerable. They are the most vulnerable in the whole business. For a lot of people, it’s hopeless being an actor, but not really for me. I know what it’s like to feel hopeless. There’s no guarantee. When they talk about ‘being established’ – what the hell does that mean?

But you feel a bit more secure now?

At the moment. I suppose I’ve got an image for the kids. And, judging by some of the letters we get, we’ve made some impression on the emotional life of some of the young ladies of this country! I get funny letters like “You have the most ugly beautiful face I have ever seen” or “My friends think Arthur is prettier than you, but I prefer the way you walk.”

That show was the one I got the most public notice from. I also did another TV series five years ago, called “The Three Musketeers” [The Further Adventures of the Musketeers]. I was playing the villain in that, but I used to get more fan mail than the bloody hero! So, I had an image then, but I don’t know what it was. It just depends how much you’re in the public notice.

But what about “The Devils”?

Well, I get the impression that it’s helped my reputation in the business. It was, after all, a very celebrated film. For me, it was well publicised. I got 3rd or 4th billing. I did all sorts of things in the movie – tortured Oliver Reed, ended up burning him alive and chanting Latin prayer at him. It was an exhausting film – I enjoyed doing it. The Devils was more a mental pressure, by comparison.

For the last two months of Arthur we were knee-deep in snow and rain, so physically it was a much harder part. But Russell was a very exacting man to work for – everyone jumps around. It really challenges you. You’ve really got to get yourself together and concentrate. It’s good. You really feel you’ve accomplished something. That separates the amateurs from the professionals. There’s a lot of amateurs in the business who have no right to be there, but who get away with it – people who have never really studied, who approach it in a very casual sort of way, who take up space. When you work for Russell, you feel good, ’cause you know you’re being used as a professional.

At no point in “Arthur of the Britons” does a snow scene appear. Michael may have said “mud”, because there was plenty of that.

What less challenging roles have you played?

Parts in Department S, Armchair Theatre, Thirty Minute Theatre, Out of the Unknown and Fraud Squad..

Tell me more about “The Devils.”

I played a priest on the 17th century, a fanatic. I had to speak Latin as naturally as I speak English. I had to really work on that. I spent some time in a monastery with some monks to get that whole atmosphere. I studied pages on Latin and exorcism prayers – terribly difficult things to learn. It was agony – you have to learn it like a priest would. I suggested it. Russell fixed it up for me to get into this monastery. He understands how actors work, he’s so professional. He’ll give you all the help you need. I used to get prayer books in the mail, which is incredible. Any success that man has, he deserves.

A.S. is doubtful of the monastery visit, as she thought he was a not a "method" actor. His attitude was, ‘you are an actor, so ACT! You don't need to experience it.’

Do you prefer films to TV roles?

I prefer movies. I don’t like the idea of repeating performances. You can’t compare twenty takes to doing performances every night. With a take, you can alter it. As far as I’m concerned, the more takes the better. I could go on until the sun sets. I find it a really incredible luxury.

Clearly, the question Michael is answering here is, “Do you prefer film or live theatre”, not “Do you prefer films to TV roles?” He said something similar about not repeating oneself to The Runewriter.

Tell me more about your fans.

I had a letter the other day that said, “I’m giving up David Bowie for you!” I thought, well that really must be progress. That’s not bad, is it!

Tell me about your other work.

I’ve done nude scenes. I was playing my usual wild-extrovert-killer-rapist-romantic. Raping one lady with a burning brand between my legs and being quite romantic. With another, I leap after someone with a dagger.

I did a French picture last year in New Guinea – La Valleé. I’d love to go to the States to work. I’d love someone to say, “Come over and do a picture.” That would be a lovely way to go. It’s a country that seems to be slowly torn apart by its internal problems. It’s really got to change course. I don’t think it would be easy to break in there.

What do you think about agents?

My first agent was a disaster – a bad experience. That gave me such a bad feeling about them. Two years without work. I got my own work without an agent, through Philip Saville. William Morris asked me to join them. That was the happy ending. They have a big legal department, so we try to keep the endings as happy as possible.

Do you have other interests besides acting?

Music. I play flute, jam around with other guys. I enjoy good food and travelling which is mostly in my job. I’ve worked in Czechoslovakia, France, Australia, and the New Guinea jungle for a few months.

Do you answer fan mail?

I’ve only answered two fan letters over the years. Sometimes you get one that is so very original that you feel it might just be worth an answer. We don’t usually get to see them.

According to A.S., Michael got to see most, if not all, of his fan mail, and answered it. He was lovely with fans, always giving autographs. He insisted that he only had work because of the people who wanted to see him. She remembers helping by writing out the envelopes in which he would send his replies, and signed photos.

1 The exact publication date is not known.

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