ArtsATL > Theater > Preview: Julian Sands on Harold Pinter, John Malkovich and bringing an icon’s work to life

Preview: Julian Sands on Harold Pinter, John Malkovich and bringing an icon’s work to life

Julian Sands' performance of Pinter's work began as a memorial tribute after his death. (Photo courtesy Baylin Artists Management)
Julian Sands' performance of Pinter's work began as a memorial tribute after his death. (Photo courtesy Baylin Artists Management)
Julian Sands’ performance of Pinter’s work began as a memorial tribute after his death. (Photo courtesy Baylin Artists Management)

Is there a more celebrated, influential or accomplished dramatist of his generation than Harold Pinter? Although best known for his theater work (The Caretaker, The Homecoming, No Man’s Land), the Nobel Prize–winning author also enjoyed parallel careers as an actor, director, screenwriter, political commentator and human rights activist. But there is another, lesser-known side of the man that emerges in Julian Sands: A Celebration of Harold Pinter.

The kick-off event for Theater Emory’s Pinter Fest on Monday evening at the Schwartz Center for Performing Arts, this critically acclaimed one-man show, directed by John Malkovich, weaves together personal anecdotes, interview quotes, selected prose and Pinter’s poetry to offer an intimate human portrait of the artist. His poems, in particular, may well prove to be revelatory to his admirers since those are the least-known works among his literary achievements. “Harold was incredibly protective of his poems because he knew how personal the poems were, and he was very protective of the experience of delivering his material in public,” Julian Sands says.

Since its official premiere at the Edinburgh Festival in 2011, the Sands-Malkovich collaboration has toured Europe and the United States. The Atlanta premiere provides a highly anticipated opening for Pinter Fest that includes two theatrical productions, a series of staged readings from his most famous plays, and film screenings of The Servant (1963), Accident (1967) and The French Lieutenant’s Woman (1981).

Sands, who worked closely with Pinter in 2005 on a benefit performance highlighting the writer’s poetry, is a theater-trained actor who attended the renowned Central School of Speech and Drama in London. He is probably best known to American audiences for his film and television work, which includes A Room With a View (1985), Leaving Las Vegas (1995), The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo (2011) and such hit series as 24 and Smallville

In the following phone interview with Sands, he discusses the evolution of his Pinter project and details about its presentation

ArtsATL: Can you tell me about your initial collaboration with Pinter for the 2005 benefit?

Julian Sands: Harold had committed to a recital of his poetry for a charity event about 10 years ago, but his advancing illness had left his voice impaired. He was unable to do the show but he didn’t want to cancel it, so he asked me to step in and perform and present his poetry for him, conditional on spending time with him and being tutored in exactly what he wanted. Everything went very well with that recital. Then, three years later, he died. I was in Los Angeles and there was no memorial for him, whereas there were in London and Dublin and New York. So I suggested to his widow, Antonia Fraser, that I repeat that recital as a memorial tribute and I padded it with extracts from obituaries and a few of my own stories. It was designed as a one-off experience for the Pinter lovers of Los Angeles to get together and raise a glass to him. 

Harold Pinter (Photo by Eamonn McCabe)
Harold Pinter (Photo by Eamonn McCabe)

ArtsATL: Were you a longtime admirer of his poetry?

Sands: I wasn’t familiar with his poetry at all until I worked with him, and people who came to this were experiencing this body of work for the first time. John Malkovich, who heard it, was so taken by the material he said if we work together on this, we could create a legitimate theater experience. So I continued to workshop material and we added some of Harold’s prose, some of his quotations from interviews, and people’s reminiscences to create, which, above all else, is an entertainment. That was our objective. And a lot of it is very, very funny because Harold could be an incredibly funny man. 

ArtsATL: What was the next stage of development?

Sands: We put together what we felt was a good structure for the Edinburgh festival. It was a tremendous success there, and then after a brief tour, we were honing it. We went to New York where, initially, we were to do 10 shows. We did 50. We got an extraordinary response in New York, championed foremost by the New York Times

ArtsATL: Are you continually changing and refreshing your live performance of the material?

Sands: Each performance is sort of a unique experience because I have a playlist of material and can shuffle it according to the mood and the atmosphere of the venue and the audience I am in front of. There is a very set structure now, but it does allow for organic evolution on any given performance. I think the uniqueness of each presentation is what keeps the material so interesting to me. Its extraordinary wit, its intelligence and, this may surprise some people, its love, its humanity. Those are the things which are so revelatory about this material. It would be very difficult to get a sense of who Harold Pinter is as a human being from the plays. But in the poems and some of the prose and, of course, in direct speech and some interviews, he reveals himself completely — what he thinks, what he believes, what he loves. It’s a word portrait of Harold told from my perspective, not me as Harold but someone who has worked with him and has great regard for him. 

ArtsATL: Are the poems presented chronologically in the structure of the play?

Sands: I jump around because it’s not a straightforward poetry reading. It’s a medley of poetry, prose, anecdotes, observations and insight is how I would describe it. If anything, the poems are presented thematically. It’s not really a reading at all. I hold this book in my hand but the book is there just to remind people that this is all the work of Harold Pinter. I’m not making it up. It’s like a preacher holding the Bible. It’s a great prop but I know my scripture, which I call the Gospel According to Harold. That’s what gives it fire and passion and intimacy and authenticity.

ArtsATL: Did you know John Malkovich before the Los Angeles Pinter memorial?

Sands: John Malkovich and I are old friends. We did a film together more than 30 years ago called The Killing Fields. When we first met on that film, we discovered this shared love of Harold’s plays. John had worked with Harold and done many of his plays with Steppenwolf [Theater] as an actor and a director. But he also did Old Times for the BBC and Harold, although not directing it, was very much around as a presence. That’s another reason why John is the perfect person to collaborate with. 

Sands filmed the 1993 movie "Boxing Helena" in Atlanta.
Sands filmed the 1993 movie Boxing Helena in Atlanta.

ArtsATL: What sort of directing is required for a one-man performance like this?

Sands: It’s a bit like a soloist working with a conductor. The fact is the soloist knows how to play the music, he knows how to read the music, but the conductor gives that beat, that reassurance and that structure. [To paraphrase Malkovich] “I’m the surfer, Harold’s material is the surfboard, the audience are the waves and John’s the lifeguard.” He doesn’t have too much to do except enjoy it, but he’s there just in case. That’s really his role as director — as a rudder. He’s a very powerful performer himself. He has remarkable instincts and a remarkable presence. 

ArtsATL: Had you worked with Pinter professionally before that 2005 benefit?

Sands: I had encountered him previously but I had never worked with him. I had done a film of his play The Room, which was directed by Robert Altman . . . Donald Pleasence was in it and Linda Hunt and Annie Lennox. It was a pretty grand affair and I certainly had a discussion with Harold after the fact. But working with him one to one in those sessions in his study had a depth and intimacy, which was truly one of the most profound collaborative experiences in my career. That’s why it is still resonating 10 years later. I am very mindful of its responsibility and privilege to carry this baton for this particular area of his life and work.

ArtsATL: Where does the poetry fit in with his other writings?

Sands: The interesting thing is he’s been writing poetry far longer than he was writing plays. He started writing poetry as a teenager, as a youth in the 1940s. The first play he wrote was in 1958, so the poetry was always there as a metronome in his life. The English actor Martin Jarvas, who worked with him in a number of his plays, said to me, “Working with Pinter, I always felt I was in touch with a poet.” So that literary guru aspect of him is always there.

ArtsATL: When did you first encounter Pinter’s work?

Sands: I studied his work for my high school in England in the 1970s, and that’s how I was first aware of Harold Pinter as a figure. We were reading the plays and I remembered that we performed The Dumb Waiter and The Caretaker. To us they were absolutely visceral and fresh. I remember seeing No Man’s Land with Ralph Richardson and John Gielgud and what an immense impression they made. So Harold’s been a figure of imposing continuity in my life as an actor and as a person. 

I’m very happy to be coming back to Atlanta. I made a film there 20 years ago called Boxing Helena that was shot in an area called Buckhead. I’m looking forward to revisiting the city, and in this context, it couldn’t be in happier anticipation.

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