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|The picture of contentment
Robert Powell avoids the trappings of fame to pursue artistic integrity, a choice that brings him to Scotland tonight
Vanity projects have never appealed to Robert Powell. Even though this most classically handsome of actors is playing a man who keeps a portrait of his real, clapped-out self in the attic while his younger, more drop-dead gorgeous visage gads about town in a new stage adaptation of Oscar Wilde's The Picture Of Dorian Gray, which arrives in Glasgow tonight, such ostentatious attention-seeking has never been his style.
Of course, ever since playing the title role in Franco Zeffirelli's epic Jesus Of Nazareth TV series put him on the international map in the late 1970s, glamour and its trappings, had he desired them, could've kept him in clover. Especially as he was married to one of Pan's People, the leggy, legendary dance troupe from Top Of The Pops. Powell, however, preferred to keep the paparazzi at bay. Not for him the endless round of micro-celebrity packed photo-ops for the glossy mag. Whether a star or not, he had work to do.
"I loathe phrases like 'telly star'," he says, "and I hate to use journalese like that when I'm talking about my own career, but it's pretty hard sometimes. Real actors, as in actors who are any good, certainly don't get into this because they want to be famous, whatever that means, like so many people working in the industry today. You do it because you have to. You do it because you complete a circle. Most actors start out slightly incomplete. It's only when they take on other roles that they fill in the gaps, as it were. That sort of thing applies to everybody, but, of course, not everyone can act. Therefore, the gift is being able to do it, and it's very useful therapy."
Powell wanted to be an actor from an early age, but instead embarked on a more pragmatic law degree in Manchester. Realising where his ambitions really lay, he attempted to switch to an academic drama course halfway through, but there was a mix-up, and it looked like he'd have to wait a year before getting stuck into his real passion. A backstage job at a theatre in Stoke came to his rescue during a time when old-time rep allowed wannabes to work their way through the ranks. The law degree was never finished, and, having landed feet first into a more hands-on form of education, the drama degree never started.
Things happened quickly, and, even before Jesus Of Nazareth came along, Powell was already a known small-screen face from lead roles in mid-sixties drama Doomwatch and the BBC film, Shelley. He'd also worked with flamboyant British director Ken Russell in the big screen version of The Who's rock opera, Tommy, and took the title role in the excessive classical music biographical romp, Mahler. That ran in London's Leicester Square for 14 weeks, unimaginable now for what was effectively an art film, and far from the blockbusters that slip off the Hollywood conveyor-belt today.
This is a road Powell has only occasionally gone down, and even the remake of The 39 Steps he starred in was notable for its old school values, for which he was obvious heartthrob material.
"My life didn't change," he says of that whole era. "It really didn't. I still went to the pub two or three nights a week and played darts with my mates. I read all this crap in the papers about the entourages and the extraordinary behaviour from the Jennifer Lopezes of the world: instead of taking a taxi from the Dorchester to the Four Seasons on Park Lane, they hire six Mercedes, just because they can, and what are they going to do if they're given $10m every time they make a film? Not for nothing," he continues, amused more than aghast, "are all these celebrity magazines filled with all these people prancing around. I don't think you'd find Ewan McGregor or Bobby Carlyle in there a lot. They're just actors doing a job, and they don't pay people to get their faces in the papers. Liz Hurley isn't so beautiful and so talented that every time she steps out there's a photographer there. They're there because she pays them to be there. Fame is a means to an end. It's not an end in itself. It gives you a greater choice, that's all, and perhaps a bit more bargaining power."
Bargaining power is something Powell has used to his advantage for some time. Unlikely as it may seem, considering a lingering handsomeness that makes one suspect that he too, has a haggard portrait hidden in the vaults, Powell will soon be celebrating his 40th anniversary as an actor.
After so long in the game, there's a calm about him that's uncommon among the habitually insecure profession he occupies - and so accurately observes. Where others might be desperate to impress, Powell veers between laidback insouciance and self-deprecating joviality. But then, as he says himself: "I've had a great career, and I've had a very quiet career in terms of all the other stuff. And thank God for that.
"Doing television for the sake of it doesn't interest me. I've done all that. I need to stretch myself in other ways, and find other challenges. There are so many more opportunities to do that, and to work with a great script, in theatre than there is in film."
With this in mind, Powell is planning to produce a small musical, as well as manoeuvre his way into "a couple of parts I'd still like to do. There's plenty of things I want to do," he says, still full of boyish enthusiasm. "Yet I don't just want to do any old rubbish. I have," he says, sounding positively Wildean, "nothing to prove."
Neil Cooper, The Herald (Glasgow) August 26th 2003
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