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Sir Nigel Hawthorne


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Nigel Hawthorne


A Debt to the King:
An Interview with Sir Nigel Hawthorne

June 3, 1999
by Dan Lybarger
Originally appeared in the June 3-9, 1999 issue of Pitch Weekly . ........................................................................................................
While there has been a lot of rumbling about the current "youthquake" in the film industry, one British character actor is constantly in demand after reaching the age of 70. Sir Nigel Hawthorne has been working steadily and in some of the most acclaimed U.K. and American productions. He has given memorable performances in Amistad , The Object of My Affection , Madeline and in his latest The Winslow Boy .

Speaking from his home in England, Hawthorne recalls how his work regimen affected the last Cannes Film Festival. "I had, quite surprisingly, four movies on show. It was just sort of a coincidence they converged on that particular week. They were all looking for distributors. It was like a circus. Everybody had a camera in their hand. There's something idiotic and at the same time rather exciting about Cannes. At least you know that everybody is there in the name of movies," he says.

One film the actor takes special pride in promoting is American writer-director David Mamet's ( The Spanish Prisoner ) new adaptation of Sir Terence Rattigan's ( The Browning Version ) play The Winslow Boy . In the film, Hawthorne plays a turn-of-the-century English banker who makes great sacrifices to prove that his son (Guy Edwards) is innocent of theft. Mamet has gained a reputation for his profanity-drenched plays and movies. However, Hawthorne states that there is more to Mamet than dirty words.

"He has an incisive mind, and he's not one to suffer fools at all," Hawthorne says. "He's an intellectual, and he does his homework. He's a very, if you like, obsessive man to work with. He knows exactly how he wants his film to be made, and he doesn't brook opposition to that.

"It doesn't mean the atmosphere on the set is in any way unpleasant. In fact, it's the reverse. Everyone has a really good time and likes (Mamet). He doesn't raise his voice. He knows exactly what he wants and goes for it."

While Mamet's spare approach is distinctive, Hawthorne, who has played the role before, says the line between Rattigan's and Mamet's vision is thin. He states, "David is really loyal to the Rattigan text. The only thing I would really quibble with slightly is when it says, 'Screenplay by David Mamet.' The screenplay is a sort of homage to Terence Rattigan. To tell Terence Rattigan from David Mamet is very difficult even to a trained ear. He also brought a very strong sense of family and a sense of obsession to it. (In the film) my character is more remote, autocratic and stern. He also brought a sexiness to the relationship between Sir Robert (Jeremy Northam) and Catherine (Rebecca Pidgeon) that is not explored in the original."

He adds, "What I find interesting about the text is that the boy is interviewed by the father, and he says to the boy, 'Did you steal this money?' The boy says, 'No.' That simple trust in a child's word is enough to hang everything on. It's something that really couldn't happen today."

Hawthorne has also completed work on a movie whose chief architect is no longer around to see it . The Big Brass Ring is an adaptation of one of Orson Welles' last scripts.

"It's very hard to make these sort of hypothetical judgments, but (Welles) was a man out of his time," Hawthorne says. "A lot of his writing is full of his genius, and certainly The Big Brass Ring has got all of that flair and feeling for words. I've read biographies of Welles that have said that nobody should ever do The Big Brass Ring because it was really awful. What F.X. Feeney (who also wrote Frankenstein Unbound ) did was honor what Welles had written and at the same time elaborate on it in a way in which he hoped that Welles would have approved. I would never have done the movie if I had felt it went against Welles' style. I can't say his intentions, because I don't know what they were. I hope he's looking down from above and thinking, 'That's not half bad. I'd love to have written that movie.'"

While he takes pride in interpreting the work of Mamet and Welles, Hawthorne has also been able to fulfill one of his childhood fantasies. "When I was a kid, I wanted to work for Disney," he recalls. "My first movie was Snow White . I saw it when it first came out. I was brought up on Donald Duck, Mickey Mouse and even before that Oswald the Rabbit and all those characters that people don't know anymore. I wanted to be an animator, not an actor, but I wasn't any good, and I knew it. So when I first made a cartoon with Disney, which was called The Black Cauldron , it was like a dream come true. I was standing in the Disney studios, doing those funny voices, which was my ambition."

Since then, Hawthorne has lent his voice to acclaimed animated films such as Watership Down and the new Disney version of Tarzan . "When they asked me to do Tarzan , I thought, 'I'd love to do it, but why are they dragging out that old war horse again?' But it's almost like what Mamet has done with The Winslow Boy . It has been given new life. The animators have done an extraordinary job. Tarzan could never be presented by human beings in such an extraordinary way as it is done in this picture," he says.

While he has many accomplishments, including a Tony for the play Shadowlands and his recent knighthood, Hawthorne's greatest achievement may be his sympathetic performance as England's George III in the play and the film The Madness of King George . Hawthorne's Oscar-nominated performance made audiences on both sides of the Atlantic cheer for the king who "lost the colonies."

Hawthorne was able to present the king in a far different manner than he had previously been seen. "The royal family is embarrassed by George. A lot of them have seen the film. When we did the stage version, Prince Charles came and saw it and the film version afterwards. It's a highly sympathetic account of a king who had been maltreated, who was ill when he was being treated as insane. I don't think the royal family ever felt that this would be something they wouldn't applaud.

"King George was an unpopular man, but that doesn't mean that he wasn't a good man in many respects," Hawthorne continues. "He never traveled. I don't think he ever went above a 150-mile radius outside of London in his lifetime. You can see why the American colonies pulled out because he'd never gone over there and seen what the situation was. He liked to do things on a one-to-one basis. I think he'd have sorted it out much better than all the politicians," he says.

Hawthorne is quick to state his debt to the troubled king. He says, "My career took on wings after the Academy Award nomination. Without that, I would have probably floundered around a bit."




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