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|Jan Goodey on why Oscars mean little to movie Jesus Robert Powell
How often do you get the chance to talk with Jesus? I grabbed mine with open arms - here was Robert Powell, the quintessential English actor and star of Franco Zefferelli's Jesus of Nazareth, on the other end of the line.
And it's not just the Nazarene. Powell was also Richard Hannay in The Thirty-Nine Steps, as well as Gustav Mahler in Ken Russell's revered film about the Austrian composer, Mahler. And if you're still drawing a blank there's always BBC's comedy The Detectives where he was foil to Jasper Carrot.
Powell started out in rep at Stoke on Trent, later moving on to the Royal Shakespeare Company. Not for him the debilitating trawl from pub job through to waiter as work dried up. He's always been in demand. "It's what I do best," he says. "I didn't follow anyone in particular from films - from the stage, yes, the obvious ones, the Oliviers, the Gielgud's, the Richardsons, nothing obsessive though."
That much stands out a mile. Powell is a measured man, each sentence is interspersed by heavy, pregnant pauses. Here's a man who couldn't be remotely obsessed about anything, it is not in his nature. Shortly after the award-winning Jesus of Nazareth (1977), there were invitations to go to Hollywood. He wasn't completely sold on the idea. Industry-driven, big money projects did little to inspire him and he stayed a few months, made a couple of movies of little note, then returned to Europe where he found more challenging roles.
His views on Hollywood, coloured by this earlier experience, have hardened. I put it to him that it's an actors' Holy Grail to receive an Oscar. "Shit no, just the opposite. Total nonsense they're absolutely zero to do with anything that is important. It's an industry based award that is to promote the industry. We know that - it's only people in the press who seem to think they're of any intrinsic value."
This word 'important' crops up a lot with Powell and it has that actorly connotation, reflecting on a work of substance not something trifling, easily dismissed. Just as the classically trained Gielgud had his lighter moments, starring opposite Dudley Moore in Arthur, so has Powell, notably alongside Mr Carrot who he desribes as "like a brother".
The Detectives ran for five series but if you're secretly harbouring hopes for a sixth, then sorry to disappoint but it ain't gonna happen.
So what are the parts he has most enjoyed over a career spanning 37 years? "Oh God it is very, very difficult. I don't even remember half of the things I've made. Starring in Ken Russell's Mahler was terrific, absolutely excellent. And we had fun making Pygmalion. I was reminded of that the other day with Twiggy." How about Tommy, in which he played Roger Daltry's mute father? "I'd been in Mahler the year before, so Tommy was very much a secondary part." Maybe fellow star Moon-the-Loon, Keith Moon, The Who's wildman drummer, de-bagged him once too often.
I move swiftly on to the current state of British film, which elicits only a mildly ambivalent response in stark contrast to his views on the industry of yesteryear: "In the Seventies and Eighties the film industry here was, (he pauses): absolute shit. It's alright now, not terribly exciting. They're falling into a trap of trying to repeat the last success every time. Which means you just have a whole series of gangster films getting increasingly bad. Anthony Minghella has a lot of talent, as has Guy Ritchie, but I'd like to see him tackle something other than the stuff he has. I'd like to see him do something else to see if he can really direct."
Powell's future is far from mapped out. Now living in London with wife Babs, an ex-Pan's Person, the 57-year-old Lancastrian "I was born a Schmeical's clearance from Old Trafford" holds to chance: "I just throw everything into the air and see what comes down. One thing at a time."
It's worked so far and for someone who can move betweeen stage and TV "without really thinking about it", who's to say Powell's name won't be added to the pantheon of great British actors. As he says, "I don't have any attitude whatsoever on whether I'm a stage or film actor. An actor is an actor."
Jan Goodey, The insight, Brighton August 2001
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