Inglourious Basterds (more photos, videos)
Did you watch war movies when you were younger?
Oh yes. I used to watch war movies with my dad. Actually, I used to watch a lot of football (soccer) with him, too. And strangely enough, that all came back to me when I became involved with INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
In what way did it come back to you?
Well, I′m a Liverpool fan because of my dad. That was his football team, and I support them. In fact, I still play football whenever I can. I play with a team in New York at the moment. It′s great fun. I was the youngest of three boys, and dad was very, very big on making sure everybody got equal time with him and none of us were treated differently and there was no favoritism. My brothers liked soccer but I loved it, and I played for my area. I even played in a soccer tournament in Liverpool representing my area, which was one of the greatest highlights of my life when I was a kid. Oh man, it was fantastic. All my relatives came and the crowd was filled with people who had my face (laughs), including my Uncle Albert who came by bike from across town. I was 14, and it was massive. And they were like (does a British accent) “He′s a good little footballer; he′s alright.” My specialty was the cross; go to the flag, take out two guys, and try and hook it back out of the goalie′s reach. Magic.
So dad was very fair to all of you boys?
All of us, but I got special time on a Saturday because I loved watching English soccer with my dad. And after that, it would be THE WORLD AT WAR, which was just an unbelievable documentary series about World War II. We would watch that, and we would also watch a lot of old war films, which he loved and so did I. And my Dad would tell stories of being in the Royal Engineers during World War II.
Where did he serve?
He was in the second wave of Operation Market Garden (The Battle of Arnhem), so it was clearing minefields and bridge repairing. It was near Eindhoven, Nijmegen and Arnhem (in Holland), which was A BRIDGE TOO FAR. And we would watch these movies and he would tell stories, and I bonded with him. And in these movies, I always liked the very, very smart English dude that would explain the mission. So I wrote a character in AUSTIN POWERS named Basil Exposition that I was going to play, in addition to playing AUSTIN POWERS, but ultimately Michael York played him. I′ve always been obsessed with that character. And with my friends and family, we have this running joke where we′ll go (clipped British accent) “at precisely 1700 hours, we are going to have sandwiches at which point pickles will be distributed.” I love that stuff.
Did you and Quentin know each other?
No, but then I get a call from Quentin Tarantino asking, “Would you like to be in one of my movies?” And I′m like “Yeah!” And then he tells me that the character is absolutely the guy who explains the mission, that guy that I′ve loved all these years, the guy that I watched in all those movies with my dad, and I couldn′t believe it. He goes, “I′d like you to play the type of British general that explains the mission.” and I′m like “Great! Are you kidding me?” So three hours later, after we had talked about war movies, I hung up the phone.
So you traded movie knowledge with the acclaimed expert that is Tarantino?
Yes, I did. Man, this dude knows about movies. And he was like “You are the only other person I′ve spoken to that knows these movies.” And I told Quentin “This is me and my dad.” We watched all of those movies: THE LONGEST DAY, A BRIDGE TOO FAR, and a big source of pain is that I never got to see SAVING PRIVATE RYAN with my dad because he would have loved that movie, and STAIRWAY TO HEAVEN (called A MATTER IN LIFE AND DEATH in the UK) and all of those movies with David Niven where he is the platoon leader. So it was a little sad, I must say, even though it was very exciting.
Was the character all there in Tarantino′s script, or were you able to bring some stuff of your own to it?
I was able to bring some of my stuff to it. I mean, he′s a master visionary. Do you know how light is made of both particle and waves? Well, he is made of equal parts fan and maestro, and he oscillates between those two states, which is why he′s got this frenetic energy. Because he′s at once got the creative high, and at the same time he′s got the appreciative high. It′s so infectious. And I love enthusiastic people who want to make it the best they possibly can.
Because you are like that yourself perhaps?
I feel so honored to be able to do what I do. I feel like a custodian. It′s like, with AUSTIN POWERS, I felt like a custodian, and with SHREK, I feel custodial. I feel like it′s very important that it be great and that people get their money′s worth and you don′t phone it in. This isn′t a job, it′s a calling, and you have to make sure it′s good. There are a lot of eyes on it, and you have to make it great. Quentin′s like that, and it′s so infectious. And I just said, “I serve with the honor of the president - whatever you would like.” He had everything figured out; he had the movies he wanted me to watch that included APPOINTMENT IN BERLIN, a couple of Italian films, and what they call macaroni combat films with a bunch of guys behind enemy lines, that subgenre. And he sent over looks that he thought were right, and then he asked, “What are you thinking?” And I said, “Well I have a kind of actor back-story.”
You invented a back-story for the character?
Yes, I wrote in essence, in invisible ink, a back-story for each line. For example, why is Churchill in the scene? Why is this mission impossible? Why is it important and what do they stand to lose if it goes wrong? And what happened to the previous dudes? What′s his next meeting? You do all of those things just for the thrill of doing the before and after′s. Just answering these questions makes you buy the reality, and then the audience buys the reality of what you are buying. And anyway, three hours later Quentin is like “Give me more, give me more!” And so I said to him “the person that this is most like for me is Dirk Bogarde in A BRIDGE TOO FAR.” In A BRIDGE TOO FAR, he′s pained and he′s troubled. There′s a secret and there′s something going on for him, and so I made up my own back-story.
What about his accent? Was that hard to find?
Well, in terms of the dialect, it was a version of received pronunciation meeting the officer class, but mostly it′s the attitude of “I′m fed up with this war and if this dude can end it, great because my country is in ruins.” You can hear it in his voice. So that was part of my back-story. It′s like what my mum would always say, “the guy couldn′t wait for this thing to be over.”
Inglourious Basterds more photos, videos)
Your mother obviously lived through the war, too. Did you talk to her about this?
Actually, I went to the Western Approaches Museum (the Liverpool War Museum) in Liverpool with my mum, and in it they recreate one of those corrugated tin air raid shelters that people had in their gardens. My mum had one in her garden in Liverpool. She looked at it, and she wasn′t happy about it because it obviously brought it all back for her. And they had this motion sensor and an air raid siren went off in the museum, and she freaked out. She was crying and I had to lead her out, and we had to go across the street and get a cup of tea. She said, “It was just terrible, you have no idea.” Liverpool was very heavily bombed during the war; it was badly damaged, and she lived through all of that. It was just a horrible time so, for me, this has just been an amazing personal experience.
What was it like to be on a Tarantino set?
When I do an accent, I tend to stay in character all of the time because I want it to be authentic. I want it to be right because there is so much “hurry up and wait” that you don′t want to just get it on the third take. You want to offer the director an option on every take. So I stay prepared and he loved it. He was calling me “General” all the time. Every 100 mags (scenes), he has a tradition of drinking a shot of schnapps for the crew, so he called and said, “Do you want to come for this thing?” And I had my jacket off, and I gave a little speech to the guys. Later, Quentin was like “I think that was my favorite thing today. You didn′t break character. You had your tunic off, and you gave a speech as if you were giving a speech to your troops.” And I was like that′s joy. Everything′s alright with the world when I get to play all day like that. And he was like “I knew that about you,” so that was a nice feeling. This experience has been really joyous.
You took the film to the Cannes Film Festival. What was that like?
Well, I′m a shy person, and most of my friends are not in show business. I have friends who are social workers, teachers, musicians and a lot of painters. I′ve taken up painting because my friend, a great painter called Damian Loeb, gave me an oil paint set for my birthday. And just this last year I′ve been doing a lot of painting.
Did you paint as a kid?
No, I did drawings. I love it. It′s just great and very relaxing. And with my friends, that′s where I′ve always been. In my group of friends, when it′s anyone′s birthday, we have a battle of the bands, all 60 of us, breaking into six bands. We′ll take an album like (Fleetwood Mac′s) “Rumours,” and we′ll all do songs from the album. We have a “field day,” and you come with a sport and a different activity. We all get T-shirts made. Man, it′s so much fun. In that regard, it′s the anti-Cannes experience and nobody has rank. It′s like the anarchist brigade during the Spanish Civil War; nobody has rank, and everybody is cool (laughs).
And you like that, just hanging out with your mates?
It′s heavenly. But when I go to Cannes, I go “Oh, right, I do that! Oh, OK.” And that′s part of the job, and it′s a great job. It′s a small price to pay, but it′s not something I gravitate towards. I′ve had the same best friends for 35, 40 years. I′ve got friends from “Saturday Night Live” and different movies, and this group of friends in New York is my family, too. And Cannes is not our world. Game nights, dance parties, soccer every Saturday and Sunday, and hockey every second Sunday, that′s our world. But the Cannes thing was fun, and I was more than happy to be a part of it.
You′ve talked about how you used to watch these movies with your father. It must be rather poignant for you thinking about how much he would have enjoyed INGLOURIOUS BASTERDS.
Yes, he would have, and watching it in Cannes was a killer because I thought about my dad. But he′ll be seeing it somewhere. I have to figure that he is. And my mum will definitely see it, which is great.