An Interview with Michael Attenborough CBE: Part 2

Domenique Fragale trained at Arts Educational Schools and recently moved to the United States to work in Los Angeles. She interviewed director Michael Attenborough about what he looks for when casting productions, his methods in the rehearsal room, and his advice to actors within the industry today. 

Some actors are anxious to approach Shakespeare...

Absolutely, because it is tough! Everything I have been speaking about is difficult. That is why I stress ownership of the language. If you own it, it’s not your enemy; you’re fearful of the language – do I understand it? Can I act it? Will the audience understand it? The moment you decide it's the character's language, not Shakespeare's, you have to commit to it and get your heart and soul behind it.

I think the end of the sixteenth century was the beginning of modern drama as we know it, because they set about answering Hamlet’s question “what a piece of work is a man”. What is human nature? The individual occupied the centre of the stage.

Theatre stage door

I think for Shakespeare, Man is the unity of opposites. If I look at King Lear and I ask myself what is Lear about? I say it's about power: power as a King, power as a father and power over his mind, his sanity. So what happens if it is about the polar opposite as well; the loss of power as a King, the loss of power as a father and the loss of power over one’s own sanity? Suddenly you have yourself a drama. What is Othello about? Jealousy. What is it also about? Trust. We display our weaknesses at the very point of exposing our strengths - their interplay, their unity. If I had to convey one thing that I would want actors in Shakespeare to understand, it's antithesis. I challenge you to open a Complete Work Of Shakespeare on any page and I will find a line that is antithetical; a line that contains complete opposites, that reveals the unity of those opposites, their interdependence, their conflict. Juliet asks of the night, “Learn me how to lose a winning match played for a pair of stainless maidenheads.” The sexual act between her and Romeo is a loss of virginity, but also the winning of the match, thus the synthesis of those two opposites unifies them. “Till strange love grown bold, think true love acted simple modesty.” Stress the opposites – ‘strange and true love’ and ‘bold and modesty’. When you stress the opposites, you find the dilemma and you find the drama. Sometimes within a character, rather than between characters. For example...

"To be or not to be..." 

Coming from such an artistic family, surrounded by creativity, did you know you always wanted to venture into directing? Did your father influence you?

I think that’s a really hard question to answer because how do we know what is nature and what is nurture. There is no doubt that I was surrounded by the arts; my parents played music, my father worked in the theatre and the movies – so creativity was at the centre of our lives. When I went to university I thought I wanted to be an actor. I came to a different conclusion, however, because of two of my best friends at Sussex, who were and are marvellous actors, Jim Carter and Nick Woodeson. I loved and cursed them because I knew they were better than me. It’s to do with a stimulus that comes over an audience. I don’t think I ever ‘dropped the ball’, but I never grasped that indefinable quality. (It would also have been very difficult to be an indifferent actor, inconspicuously, with the name Attenborough!!) I then started to direct. Like my two sons, Tom who is a director and William who is an actor, who is to say we nurtured them to take those paths? In all honesty, when they were young, we encouraged them to explore all kinds of different paths. They’re furiously intelligent young men, much brighter than me! But in the end you must let them do what they want.

Unfortunately we don’t centre stage the arts in this country, which is a cruel shame, because we are one of, if not the leading country in the world in the creative arts. I do have confidence in my ability to communicate and I think if a director isn’t confident in their ability to communicate, then they should choose another profession. Without wishing to sound pompous, there is a real danger facing us at the moment, whereby language is being devalued. If you rob people of the opportunity to express themselves and speak their mind and be listened to, the consequences can be very serious. As Thomas Kyd said 400 years ago, "Where words prevail not, violence prevails". Violence is so prominent today. British society will reap the harvest of this; we have a generation that is lost and angry and that is a serious educational issue. The more the arts are relegated and taken off the National curriculum, the more likely it is there will be a negative outcome. We are neglecting our inner landscapes, our emotional, psychological and spiritual selves. This fuels my desire to connect with and to help young people to communicate. 

Has there been a piece of prominent advice you have been told that has shaped how you look at your work?

I don’t think it has come as advice, but come as experience. I felt hugely liberated as a director when I discovered that I didn’t need to know everything or that I had to be right!! I don’t get embarrassed any more in rehearsals, replying 'I don’t know’ or ‘maybe, let’s try it.’ I’m much more open now than I was when I started and thought ‘Oh my God, I’m the director, I'd better know the answers’. I am sure there may be people in the rehearsal room more knowledgeable than me, but I’m there as a director for my judgement, my ability to communicate and my inner 'truthometer'. When an actor is rehearsing, my truthometer will respond as to whether I believe them or not. I don’t always know why I don’t believe them, I just know I don’t. It can be a hundred and one reasons - you’re trying too hard or you’re stressing the wrong word, whatever - but my job is to make sure that by the time it hits the stage, every single moment is specific and believable. All directors are different, but I feel I need to provide a world that actors can flourish in, where they feel safe and can take risks. That is what my job is. When it comes to Shakespeare, the majority of the reviews tend say it was fantastically clear, and what they mean is, it was truly specific. I'm not there to explain the text, but to provide a world for the actors and the audience, which brings it to thrilling, vivid life.

Emoting and Over-acting

One of the problems I tend to encounter, certainly at times in drama schools, is related to emotion. Playing emotion is not hard, but what is hard is playing thought and objective. Don’t start shouting or emoting because you ‘think it’s right’; for, in doing so, you flatten out the specifics. On the whole, emotion muddies intention. If an actor is fantastically focused and they know that the emotion is inside them, it is enough to trust that it will fuel that focus in order to achieve their objective. Emotion is not helpful if it takes over. The thought needs to lead you to the emotion, not the other way round.  

When you cast actors, what are the key aspects you look for most?

You look for several things at the same time:

  • Do I want to spend six weeks in close proximity to this person? If by chance I don't take to someone, why on earth would I want to spend concentrated, pressured time with them? Overall, I can tell within half an hour, if an actor is truly listening to and working with me. Or if they didn’t leave their ego at the door!
  • Are they right for the role? Are they suitable? Do they correspond to the fixture of the character? One can tell almost immediately, but the idea is to try and rid oneself of those pre-fixed beliefs and see what the actor can bring to it. I like to listen for those gearshifts of a character's personality and see if the actor can grasp them. From there I like to offer some notes about what qualities they may have missed and see if they can then bring them out.
  • So, can they take direction? Some actors bring in a polished, performance but when asked to have fun with it or play, they can't take direction and end up with an immovably fixed performance, that can't grow.
  • Indications that they can go on a journey; one of the key skills for an actor is whether they can take their character and the audience on a journey. After all, we speak in order to change the situation. If we’re not looking to change the situation, we keep our mouths closed and our thoughts to ourselves. So you want actors to be able to go on a journey.

I try to get to know actors that come through the door and share humour with them, making it clear that I’m not some executioner! I want to take care of actors; I’m married to an actress, Karen Lewis, so I know how they feel on the other side of the casting table. I want to make sure actors are at their most comfortable, in a safe environment where they can give their best. It’s important to remember that an actor and a director are going through a journey of discovery together.

Michael’s next venture will be directing a film adaptation of The Herbal Bed by Peter Whelan, written by hugely successful screenwriter and playwright James Duff (whose credits include 'The War At Home', ‘The Closer’ and ‘Major Crimes'.)

Photo credit: Billy Sheahan ©