Ralph Brown is one of Britain’s greatest character actors and yet—despite appearing in numerous Hollywood blockbusters—remains one of the least recognised. When I mentioned to friends I’d be interviewing him the majority went “Who?” However, his impressive CV includes massive flicks like Alien3, Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, Wayne’s World 2, and The Boat That Rocked. Plus major TV roles in The Bill, Life on Mars, Lexx, Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels, and Cape Wrath. He’s been one of my favourite actors since I first saw him in his most memorable role, as Danny in Withnail & I (1987). Mention that and suddenly people go “Ahhh! I know who you mean!”
We met in the basement of our mutual friend, Jane’s Brighton café, Bom-Bane’s on a freezing January afternoon in 2012. We chatted about everything from science fiction, politics, Twitter, Philip K Dick and sharks to amateur, stoned DJing with Ian McShane. What follows is part one of a two-part edited transcript of possibly one of the most in-depth, personal and candid interviews you’ll find with Ralph anywhere!
Above: Ralph's 2009 Showreel.
Me: You were born in Cambridge in 1957, but raised in Lewes, East Sussex...
Me: How did you get into acting? You were studying law…
Ralph: It was the summer holidays. End of my first year and it was the inaugural season for the National Student Theatre. They put posters up saying, “If you want to do something in the summer why don’t you be in a play [The Death of Private Kowalski] at the Edinburgh Festival?” I thought, “It sounds as good as anything else.” All the other people in the play were drama students. So I had to audition, we rehearsed in London and we all went up, and were billeted in an old church, and were all probably shagging each other – I can’t really remember! I was playing an American, and I went downstairs after the show to use the toilet, which the cast shared with the public, and this guy goes [adopts an American accent] “So what part of America are you from, son?” I said, “Actually, I’m from Brighton, Sussex, England.” He was really surprised. And that was the first time I thought, “I can do this!” And I was enjoying myself a lot. I got it.
Me: So you dropped your course and went straight into acting?
Ralph: No, I finished my degree.
Me: So technically you could practise law?
Ralph: No, I’d need to do another year… I do have days when I think “Hmmm… I really should have been a lawyer!” It would have been so much fun, a lot more satisfying. But I’ve kinda burnt my bridges, ‘cos it’d cost £9,000 to go back to study. I have thought about going back and doing that, but it’s looking less and less likely now.
Me: Despite having professionally acted since 1982, [including a year’s stint on The Bill as PC Muswell] you first came to prominence as Danny aka “Headhunter… the purveyor of rare herbs and prescribed chemicals…” in 1987’s cult film Withnail & I. You’ve since become inextricably linked to the character of Danny. Has that been more of a help than a hindrance?
Ralph: [Emphatically] Help. No question about it. If I hadn’t done that, I’d just be another bloke playing coppers. Lots of people in America, especially directors, love that movie. People who work in the industry love that movie. So it’s not just about Danny, but being in that film as well, it’s a double-hitter. Definitely a good thing.
Me: Mike Myers created a role specifically for you in Wayne’s World 2, based on your performance of Danny. Did you have any qualms at going back to play a similar character in Del Preston?
Ralph: I did. I was thinking it wasn’t my role to do, it was Bruce’s [Bruce Robinson the writer/director of Withnail & I], and I had to call him up and talk to him about it. He said, “It’s not mine, it’s yours.” I was trying to put it into context and I couldn’t think of another actor who was asked to do the same performance in a different role in a different film, especially one that specific.
Me: Was there much adlibbing in Wayne’s World 2?
Ralph: I did change a few words in the script, there was a line [adopts Del/Danny voice], “I did think it a trifle unnecessary to see the crack in the Indian’s bottom.” Del wouldn’t say, “butt” which was in the script. It was so clearly written for me. But they were like, “No, no we just wrote it…” And that [role] still wasn’t a hindrance.
Ralph: I did Wayne’s World 2 and it came out pretty quickly for some reason. It was one of those films that they shot, edited; it came out, and got absolutely amazing reviews. It was the best gig I ever had, for loads of reasons. And then... nothing happened. Tumbleweed. That year I went up for every single film they made in Hollywood. True Romance, Se7en, Things to Do in Denver When You’re Dead, The Usual Suspects, etc. Went up for all of them, and could have done all of them! But didn’t do a single thing that year. At the end of that year, the money wasn’t that great, but the brain was really fried! It was doing my head in. “Does not compute!” Know what I mean? I couldn’t work out why. So then we came back to Brighton. L.A. is lovely, it’s open, it’s got this thing that London doesn’t really have. And coming back to London was just [makes crushing gesture with hands]. So we came down here. But it was more for Jenny, my wife, as it was good for her asthma. Brighton also had that New Age/ Venice Beach feel about it. It has got a Californian thing. It’s nice, and we’re very happy here.
Me: Would you subscribe to Danny’s point of view that bald men are uptight?
Ralph: Yes. I’m pretty uptight. And I’m bald!
Me: You don’t come across as uptight.
Ralph: Well that’s good! I’m less uptight when I think about it. But I’m not uptight in the way Danny means it. Danny is talking Rasta, and his misinterpretation of Rastafarian theology, that people without dreadlocks [baldhead in Jamaican] are uptight, and Danny’s taken that to mean bald people, which is amusing. And probably quite common in those days for people to hang around black guys in the Sixties, who didn’t really “get it” all the time… Withnail & I was pretty fun, but it was only three days. I did two weeks of rehearsal and three days filming.
Me: You seem to be incredibly prolific, and almost constantly on our screens.
Ralph: Two people said to me today “Oh, you’re always busy, aren’t you?” And I’m so not! I can go months and months without doing anything at all. Other people think you’ve “arrived,” but from the other side of the coin you’re still looking for that one gig that’s going to make everything all right. Weird, innit?
Me: Your range is incredibly diverse. Is there a character or a role that you haven’t played that you’d like to do?
Ralph: I’ve never played a woman… But I don’t really hanker after anything in particular.
Me: How do you pick roles? Is it that you see a really great character and think, “I’d really like to play that!”?
Ralph: Sometimes. My fantasy, when I was young, was: I’ll know when I’ve “made it” because there’ll be scripts coming through the letter box that I’ll be undoing, getting them out and there’ll be three or four of them and I’ll have to go through them and find the one I really like and that’s the one I’ll decide to do. And that never happens, unless you’re really above the line properly and they need you to make the film. Then someone else is reading your scripts for you.
What happens is, I get sent stuff and one of three things has to apply:
A) I’ve gotta really want to do the part.
B) I really want to be in the thing, and I’m not that really interested in the part, but the thing is a good thing, working with good people.
C) You pay me a lot of money.
So even if I hate it, I still might do it, if it pays a lot of money. Having said that, I’ve turned down so many things. Not that they were offered, but I hadn’t even gone for the meeting. And I managed to piss a few people off. They don’t like it when you do that. So I had to start to rebuild bridges over the last 20 years. And they remember. And it’s the same people still in the biz as when I started. The directors, the producers, casting directors, etc. Everyone’s the same! And you make these relationships early on and people remember you from that play you were in, or that thing you said at a party, something somebody said about you, that carries on. Year after year after year after year [Laughs]! And you don’t think about it when you’re young, but as you get older you realise you’ve been making networks, and you’ve also been pissing people off! It’s quite a small community, really. It’s a tricky one. Sometimes your agent can say you’re busy, so you can say no. But actually, I’m quite picky, in other words. Unless I’m broke and then I suddenly become terribly available!
Me: You’ve worked with some huge names in the industry such as George Lucas (Phantom Menace), Stephen Spielberg (Amistad), Neil Jordan (The Crying Game), David Fincher (Alien3). Is there anyone in particular that you’d really like to work with, whether it’s a director, writer, fellow actor…?
Ralph: Loads. Absolutely loads. Always wanted to work with Gene Hackman and Robert Duvall—Just the integrity of their performances. For me, acting is about only one thing, believability. And that’s the only way I judge any performance. If you can see them acting then I’m not interested. I don’t like that type of acting. I like people who disappear into the part. Which is what I’ve always tried to do.
Me: You’ve said, in the past, that you don’t get recognised in the street…
Ralph: Bonus! If you do get recognised in the street—and obviously I know lots of people who do—you have to enjoy it. You can’t fight that happening. It doesn’t not happen just because you don’t want it to, so you have to embrace it. It’s a different way of life. It means you can’t go on the Tube and things like that. Suddenly the world is in your face, which I don’t have usually… I’m still quite a good hidden secret, “cult hero” “underground…” whatever. Which I was very happy with when it happened. I’m not unhappy about it at all, as it’s been a real blessing all the way through. And I’ve been really lucky. I know loads of people who think they’d like to be me! An actor said to me “Next time round can I have your career, Ralph?!” So I can’t sit around being bitter about it or whingey. I do get a bit annoyed with the
“Where do I know you from? You’ve been on telly! You’re on the telly aren’t you?”
“Yeah, I’m an actor.”
“Go on then, what you been in?”
And I go “Er… Withnail & I?”
“Wot? Woss that?”
Let’s start with the obvious one, please! The basic one where most people go; “Oh, I remember that.”
“Nah, which one was you in that? Nah, don’t remember that.”
It’s terribly dispiriting! So that’s when you wish you were recognisable, so you didn’t have to go through all that. You’d still have to have a stupid conversation ‘cos your with some bloke who wants to have one of those stupid conversations! Even if I wasn’t an actor I’m sure I’d still be going “Fuckin’ ‘ell” It’s not my particular cross to bear. I’m a human being and I have to go through the same thing as everyone else. Being John Malkovich has the classic scene when he gets into the taxi. The taxi driver goes “I know you don’t I? Where have I seen you? Come on! Give me a few names. COME ON!”
Me: You’ve done a fair amount of genre work (fantasy/horror/sci-fi). Is that serendipitous, or out of choice?
Ralph: No it’s out of choice. I think I’m attracted to sci-fi in particular, because I love it. I love sci-fi movies and I like Philip K. Dick very much. I like all sci-fi. I devoured it avidly, when I was young. Him and Kurt Vonnegut. I did read a bit of Michael Moorcock, and then Doris Lessing’s five-volume sci-fi series [Canopus in Argos: Archives 1979-1983], which was completely mind-blowing. So when Alien3 came up, I was like “I’ve got to” I loved the first Alien film, I really wanted to be in that. Similarly, Star Wars. Even though I’m not a fan of Star Wars, when it was offered I thought, “That’s got to be done.” I have a fairly ambiguous relationship with Star Wars now, for various reasons. I don’t actually think the last three films are that…I’d like to be more proud of it really. If I had another chance to do another Star Trek-type series, playing the captain or the science officer, or whatever, I’d be like, “Yeah, man.” That is up my street.
Me: Let’s talk about Alien 3. It was a notoriously difficult shoot, with constant changes of scripts, directors…
Ralph: When I was cast, David Fincher was already on board as the director. I know Vincent Ward was on board before that, but Fincher wanted this prison to feel alien to the Americans so they deliberately chose English actors instead of American ones… A number of people did get fired, as is the case with any big movie, but with horror films there seems to be an overwhelming paranoia and it becomes a paranoid experience.
Me: What’s the longest film shoot you’ve had to do?
Ralph: Probably was Alien3. That was 5 months. My average is about 2-3 months.
Above: Ralph with Sigourney Weaver in Alien 3
Me: You’ve done another horror film, Dominion: The Exorcist…
Ralph: That was fun. As an example of how unparanoid I was on that, we’d just done three months filming in Marrakech and then we all went to Rome and we booked into the Hotel Excelsior, which featured in the first Exorcist [It’s where Regan’s dad is staying] and they gave me the key to room 666! [Laughs] I said, “There must be some mistake. Are you having a joke?” So I checked in, and that night I said to all the lads, OK, we’ll have a little puff in my room tonight and then we’ll go out for a meal afterwards. Gabriel Mann, who was playing the priest, said “I’m sorry Ralph, I won’t be able to come to your room tonight.” Because he was method acting! [Laughs]. He was the priest and he was walking around with a Bible for three months in Morocco. So that film wasn’t so paranoid, but really good fun.
Me: But that film was notoriously hacked to death by the studio after filming was completed?
Ralph: [Paul] Schrader delivered his film, before they added the special effects, and Warner Brothers saw that cut and they said “No, we don’t like it” threw loads of money at it, gave it to another director [Renny Harlin] and said reshoot it and make another one. So Paul was essentially sacked, but they let him have his film. But then he was cast adrift and had to finish it himself. So he had to pay for these special effects, which weren’t very good and that came out as Exorcist: Dominion and the Renny Harlin one came out as Exorcist IV: The Beginning. So some of the cast went back and did reshoots, and some, like me, didn’t. I never followed it through because I couldn’t be bothered. I’ve only ever seen Paul’s one.
Me: Does that happen a lot? Studio’s hacking work apart in the final edit?
Ralph: With Eragon, which I did in Hungary in 2003/2004, I was completely cut out, and I was playing the twins in that. Which was quite a good gig, but I got cut out of that. All these dramas happen after you’ve finished. If a film’s a paranoid shoot, that’s not necessarily a bad thing—and in a horror film it might be a good thing. But it’s bloody intense every time. Every time. Different people react in different ways to that.
Come back soon for part 2!