Friday, 13 April 2012

Exclusive Ralph Brown Interview (Part Two)

Welcome back to the second part of my exclusive interview with Ralph Brown (You can catch-up with part one here).
In this part we discuss Ralph's new films, sci-fi conventions and music.

Me: You split your work fairly evenly between TV and cinema. Is there a difference in working styles?

Ralph: The difference between TV and film is very little. The difference between working in the UK and America is the budget. I did a film called Sus two yeas ago, which was a 10-day shoot £50,000 budget and we shot in Elstree. It’s the culmination of everything I’ve done as an actor.  Fantastic part, brilliant script with only three actors in it:  me, Clint Dyer and Rafe Spall. It’s all set in a prison cell on one night when Thatcher gets elected.  It’s absolutely brilliant. But we all did it for nothing. We just enjoyed it and we thought it would go somewhere. Or you can do a TV series, and there’s bowls of fruit in your changing room, and cars everywhere and you are taking your time to get it right. That’s the good old days, really. TV shows now are really quite stressful. There is a way of doing things over here [in the UK], whether it’s for TV or a film, sometimes they want it to be a film or for the telly, or both, but it’s just about the budget really.

Me: You have four films coming out this year!
Ralph: I did one of them in 2010 - Dark Tide—a shark film with Halle Berry—and I did five last year. Jack the Giant Killer was in the middle of last year (2011), and that was brilliant. That was me and Ian McShane on horseback in Surrey on some incredible estate with [director] Bryan Singer helicoptering in every morning from Battersea, I think. Thousands of extras. Thousands. All dressed up like medieval England. Almost everybody I knew in the British film industry was there.  It was unbelievable. One morning I saw seven make-up ladies that I’d worked with over the years! Similarly, every department was like that. So it was like my career was spread out over this film! I started wondering if there was someone on this film from everything I’ve done, and I started ticking them off! It was that lovely outside, organised, English countryside, sitting on a horse, vibe. It’s quite nice sitting on a horse.

Me: Are you a bit of a equestrian?

Ralph: No! That’s just the second time I’ve done it. I learnt to ride for Ivanhoe [TV series], which I also had brilliant, brilliant fun on. But getting in and out of amour… You’d get into the basic costume, get down to the set and they’d say “We’re going for a take” and we’d start getting all the gear on and it’d take them half an hour to get you ready on that horse, with everything on! It was a real bloody palaver! Once you were in, they’d leave you in it for two hours, but then they’d have to get you out. You couldn’t just be in this. You couldn’t piss in it, or anything like that; you couldn’t sit down in it, really. It was very odd. Very heavy hat. It looked amazing, but was quite uncomfortable!
Above: The Jack the Giant Killer trailer. Ralph in on horse on the far left at 0:49 in the monocle and huge moustache!

Me: What’s your role in the film?

Ralph: I play the General, General Entin. Ian is the King, so most of my scenes were with him. It’s sort of Twilight, with the young prince and the young princess—the young teens who fall in love and then all the old guys from British Equity in the background! [Laughs] Ewan McGregor, Euan Bremner, Stanley Tucci—who I hadn’t seen for 20 years—Bill Nighy.  That’s the first time I’d done 3D.

Me: Is there a different way of acting for 3D?

Ralph: If you have a prop, they’re going to go for the prop, a sword or a telescope—they like that. Your arm’s length is quite important.  It does change what you do a bit, and it takes so long to set up. They give us half an hour to set up for a take, but it takes half an hour for them to set up the cameras. You have to have a lot of patience. You have to have a lot of patience anyway, to be honest… Sitting around getting cold, being sprayed with water, or crawling around in mud, or sitting in a dirty room that was an office two weeks ago and now they’re filming in it, because it’s a cheap place to film.  It’s full of gunk and it’s dusty and nasty.

Me: That debunks the “glamorous” aspect of moviemaking! How do you kill time on set?

Ralph: I’m a bit of a faddist. I get into things for a short period of time and then get bored of them.  I was doing Soduko in The Times every day and there was a competition and I won it, because I’d being doing it so much!  But then I get bored and move on to the next thing. Currently doing Scrabble and/or word games on the phone. I do like to read and listen to music.  If I’ve got space and time, I’ll take a keyboard into a dressing room. If I can find a buddy, like Ian [McShane] who’s really into his music, we would sit around in our caravans and play iPod DJs, going “Yeah, but what about this one?!” “Oh you haven’t got that? Listen to this…” and having a puff. That’s a pleasure. Or, these days, you’re online and I’m on Twitter!  Twitter’s the thing that hooked me last year, big time.  Because depending on who you follow you can have a different type of day.  You can follow loads of comedians or you can follow loads politicians, or news, or the weather… And just loads of ordinary people talk shit about what’s on telly!  You can create the flow. You don’t have to get stuck with the same people, that can get boring. It’s very of-the-minute, it’s very shallow, it suits people like me!  I’m a future-eater always wondering what’s next.

Me: Another film you have coming out this year is Tower Block.

Ralph: That’s a British film. That’s in the genre of “And-then-they-died-one-at-a-time” and I hadn’t done one of those before and I liked the concept of a bunch of people stuck on a tower block getting snipered. Good character, liked the script and good people, including Sheridan Smith.  It was a lead role and that’s always attractive, as I’ve done so much character work or “doing a twirl” as I call it.  I come in for a few days, spin around.  Some people misunderstand that, but I know what I’m doing... I’ve always tried to avoid the niche, that’s why I've almost never repeated the same performance.  Apart from anything else I would have found it boring.  To be a TV series or a soap that ran for years, the main problem with that would be doing the same character all the time, because I do like a bit of variety!  Just to keep myself amused mainly, but also it was just to say “Look I can act! If you want me to act, I can.  I can put a silly moustache on, wear a different pair of trousers…” And that, I suppose, is the point of it all, for me.  But that does mean that you end up number four or five in the cast list because the top three people are going to be the people who always play the same thing.  It’s not quite that simple, but there’s “The movie stars” and there’s “The actors” and they’re not necessarily the same career.  Some people try to move between those, like Daniel Day-Lewis.  Character actors aren’t necessarily asked to do leads.  If I was American I’d have done loads of leads by now, because there’s so much more work over there and character actors eventually get treated as leading actors.  I think that’s starting to happen with me already… That’s partly me forcing it and partly things happening.

Me: You mentioned another film you’ve got coming out this year, Dark Tide. You’ve got third billing in that.

Ralph: Yeah. And there are only five of us in it, and I’m the bad guy, playing opposite Halle Berry through the whole film, along with Olivier Martinez.

Me: Changing tack, you’ve been to a few sci-fi conventions?

Ralph: I’ve done a fair bit.  I’d done an Alien one, then I did a big Star Wars convention… this huge one in Indianapolis [Celebration III in 2005]  that went on for four days at the behest of the Foundation, and they paid for flights, hotel and I got paid, and got a cut of what we were doing.  And from that there are all these other agenty-type people buzzing around.  I’ve done one in Wembley, one in Ghent [Belgium].  I’ve done pretty much everything I’ve been asked to.  I remember I said to Lucas on set once, “George, do you think Ric Olie should be called ‘Bravo Leader, Ric Olie’? Because no one calls me Ric Olie in the film, so how are people going to know which character I am?”  “Ralph,” he said,  “Everyone’s going to know everything about you.  There’ll be websites dedicated to you, don’t worry about it.”   Alec Guinness ruined it for everybody really, by getting that deal [infamously Guinness negotiated 2.5% of the Star Wars merchandise’s net profits, for a reduced acting fee, and eventually earned him over $6 million].  So, basically George thinks we’re all doing that.  Therefore we’re the lucky ones, milking his teat!  [Laughs]  It’s funny and is just so not the case.  Some people do the convention circuit and make a lot of money.  You meet these guys and their career is doing that.  And then you feel slightly snobbish, because you don’t want to become one of them, and look down your nose at those guys, because they’re not acting, they’re doing conventions.  So therefore they’re not doing “it.”  So, if I can fit the odd one in, I don’t mind doing it.  But I don’t want to suddenly be “on the circuit,” I’m slightly aware of that, but I quite enjoy them.  One of my mates did one in Japan about 10 years ago, he was in Star Wars as well, and he was asked to do the lines in the film.  They showed the film on the screen and showed his scene.  Then they’d ask him to stand up and do the same scene again.  They’d watch it and go wild!  Manic!  He said it was absolutely brilliant!  Those conventions are not what you think, especially the Star Wars ones.  I had this image of what the typical Star Wars conventioneer would be like, not being a particular fan, myself.  But you can’t possible generalise them like that.  They’re gay people, straight people, Mexicans, Japanese people, black people, old people, young people, kids, families, fat people, thin people, literally everybody!

Me: Have you got any action figures of you?

Ralph: I got a couple of those on a shelf in a cupboard.

Me: Were you happy with the likeness?

Ralph: It’s absolutely amazing!  It really is.  Really looks like me, they got the chin, the forehead.  I should have it on display really!  Someone at a convention gave me one;  they’d designed the box themselves.  This 10-year-old kid said “I made this for you!"

Me: Despite his jokey moniker, “Captain Obvious,”—because he points out everything that’s happening on screen—there’s an inordinate amount of fondness for Ric Olie, the man who taught Anakin Skywalker to fly.

Ralph: I wouldn’t know how to measure that really.  I think that everyone in that film, and the other films, gets at least the same level of attention as I do.  I don’t think the character’s particularly popular.  You’re just in it.

Me: You’ve done a fair bit of green screen acting in your career, how do you find it?

Ralph: It is difficult, but no more difficult than standing in a rehearsal room at the BBC or doing a play.  And even when you’re on stage, you’re just standing in a room.  Or even a film set, it’s just a room.   When I first did Alien3’s ADR— Automated Dialogue Replacement (or dubbing)—the mystique is gone.  I’m not in costume, I’ve not got the same haircut, I’m not in character, really, I’ve just turned up here in a studio in Hollywood and there’s a microphone and a screen and it’s “beep, beep, beep, say the line.”  Totally technical!  Utterly and completely a craft.  Nothing to do with getting into the role.  OK, if you are crying you might get something going, but you’re matching something you’ve already done, so you can’t run away with it.  You can’t perform it.  And you have to do ADR on every single job.  Always.  With Alien3 there were two days of it.  With Withnail & I I had to re-do the entire performance, for America, because they couldn’t understand what I was saying.  Not to claim any special treatment, so did Michael Caine for Alfie and so did Bob Hoskins for The Long Good Friday and any Cockney accent.  But we have to put up with Sly Stallone slurring like that!   So you can’t get too precious.   And you are being paid to use your imagination on some level.    And the green screen is just another part of that.

Me: This year is the 30th anniversary of the death of cult sci-fi author Philip K Dick [2 March 2012]. You’ve stated in previous interviews that you are a big fan. What first attracted you to his work?

Ralph: Just the ideas. The ideas are astounding. My favourite is Ubik. It’s so good. It’s just out there. I suppose it’s a bit acid-casualty paranoid. The really simple ones, where he just describes a simple routine and he does this and he does that, and then he goes to the door and he realises the door’s handle going the wrong way against the way it always went.   And he realises that one small detail, and you realise he’s fucking with reality here. And suddenly the bottom of the floor opens out and you don’t know where you are. His key thing is what is real and what isn’t. Through a Scanner Darkly was a masterpiece of writing. It’s unfilmable! But in a cartoon it’s actually correct [Richard Linklater’s 2006 adaptation was a rotoscoped animated movie], because there’s this scramble suit, which would have been impossible to portray. Very nice.

Me: So a dream job would be working on a Philip K Dick adaptation?

Ralph: Oh, yeah, absolutely. The dream project for me would be to write one. I think all the rights have gone, but I always had a fantasy about writing Ubik for the screen, or the Transmigration of Timothy Archer, or any of those. I surprised that more haven’t been made because there are 90 novels and 100s of short stories.  And only 7-8 have been made into movies. [Note: Director of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, Michel Gondry, is supposedly working on a Ubik adaptation, while Ridley Scott has been developing The Man in the High Castle as a miniseries for the BBC since 2010, although there’s a concern that this is languishing in “Development Hell”.]

Me: What did you have the most fun on?

Ralph: Not Dark Tide.

Me: That was a hard shoot?

Ralph: Yeah. Just the physical conditions were so tough. Just being on a boat [makes swaying motion] doing that all day.  You just want to get off for a few minutes.

Me: Many real sharks?

Ralph: All the time. We were completely surrounded. That’s why we were there. We were baiting and chumming them.  There were a couple of spectacular days where we saw whales, but those sorts of shoots are hard. I really enjoyed Cape Wrath and Ivanhoe.

Me: Tell me about Ivanhoe.

Ralph: I played Prince John, who was to become King John. Everyone remembers him as this bad king (he wasn’t)—and Richard The Lionheart who was the hero—and John's had all this bad press, and he’s the baddie in Ivanhoe, because he has to be.  But I did all this research into him and I thought, what would it be like to a) be born into royalty and b) he took a lot of church land, and it was the churches that wrote a lot of the history back then, so the first draft of history is written by the Catholic Church. So, of course they hated him!  He was against them, they were totally corrupt. He signed Magna Carta once he was King, which was a good thing, but it’s always considered that he had his arm twisted, but in fact he was a good governor.  Whereas, Richard the Lion Heart was a shit governor who collected tax, went off on these fucking crusades, like George Bush, and was considered to be the hero.  Wasted the country’s money on these madcap, anti-Muslim raids into the Holy Land.  Whereas, John was actually sorting out the country, and making sure everything’s all right is considered the villain. I enjoyed it because it was a fantastic character and we were filming in all the great Norman castles and cathedrals of England for quite a long time, that summer, back in the days of creating 6 hours of TV for the Beeb at a million quid an episode. And we had a lovely director, Stuart Orme, who was just wonderful. I’ve worked with him four or five times since then. He had this lovely habit of saying “OK, Action” you’d do the scene and he’d be “Cut! OK, we got it there, let’s just do one more… just for us.”  Or he’d go “OK that’s good, we’re not going to cut, we’re going to go back to the top and do it again” so you’d just keep rolling on.  Really positive man.

Me: It sounds like you research your characters quite deeply.

Ralph: I try to. It gives me something to do, rather than just learn the lines. Sometimes I just learn them and just do it .  Sometimes I annoy myself and go “why are you doing all the research for? It’s not there! Why bother, it’s not on the page?  Depends where you’re at  at the time.  Instinctively when you read a script you know whether you wanna know stuff, or whether you gotta imagine more stuff about it, if it’s a fictional character. Or you might avoid putting too deeper roots into it until you meet who you’re playing opposite, as they may take it here or there.  Accents are where I put quite a lot of work into.  Hiring a voice coach and paying someone to go through the scenes with me.  I take a lot of pride in getting that right.  I hate hearing actors who can’t do that sort of thing. Anyone not getting it right. It’s like making a chair, you don’t want to make one that wobbles, do you? Also, people might ask you about the character, that’s why I do the research, not just for the filming. Because later it comes out,
“You’ll know this, you played [Prince] John.”
“Er…I just did the scene!”

Me: So is there a secret to good acting?

Ralph: You don’t have to be intelligent to be an actor, you really don’t. It’s not necessary. You don’t have be an intellect, in fact it gets in the way. Just not doing the simple, instinctive emotional things that come out of the screen. Last year I actually “retired”. I said I’m not doing it anymore, fuck it I’m tired of it.  Bored.  But then I got offered Dark Tide. So I might give it up, but it’s not going to give me up.

Me: So if the acting job dried up tomorrow you wouldn’t be too worried?

Ralph: [Shakes head] No. I’d probably stay in the business, I’d write or direct. Or I could just turn my back on it all, I really could. I could go into debt relief, politics, I nearly ran for the [Brighton & Hove City] council last year.

Me: Tell me about your writing.

Ralph: I like writing, and it is quite nice that I can be unobserved in a group of people, as that’s the raw material of life.  That’s the great stuff.  It’s always much more dramatic and unbelievable than anything in a movie.  Real life is just ridiculous!  You listen to how transparent and repetitive people are... I’ve been missing writing for a few years, about the same period I haven’t been in L.A.  I haven’t written anything.  For the last three years I’ve just been acting and playing music. So this year I’m looking for that slight change of emphasis. When you write, it’s like having a funnel on top of your head and everything you’re experiencing is going into it. Every conversation you have, everything you over hear, everything that’s on the news appears to be to do with what you’re writing suddenly in this really weird way, it’s kinda magic! That’s the creative experience and I miss it. And I think I need it to be there, otherwise I’d go a bit mad and send all bloody day on Twitter!  It’s easily done! I’m very undisciplined about my Internet use!

Me: So are you still writing a lot?

Ralph: I am. Film scripts and plays. I thought about, shall I write a novel? Shall I paint a picture? And I thought, no, it’s time to start focussing. I don’t want to be quite good at lots of things. But I want to be really good at just a few things… I want to write something next year, but you can’t have acting plans… And I’ve got a sci-fi project that I’ve had brewing for a long time… So that maybe means less music for the time being. [Ralph has been in numerous bands, most famously The Brighton Beach Boys for the last 10 years].

Me: How long have you been playing music?

Ralph: Since I was a teenager. I’ve always played saxophone, and I taught myself piano when I was quite young.  It’s joy, pure joy.  So I didn’t need to put that energy back into that. I want to write a play, because I haven’t written a play in a long time, and I’ve got quite a good idea bubbling around. I’ve directed on stage a few times and I’ve directed three short films.  One of which was a film about the starlings on the West Pier called The Mumuration, and it’s like a 12-minute ballet to Debussy.  That is the best thing I’ve every done, bar none.  All the acting and performances—everything.  That one film is very simple and pure.  They’re my favourite birds and just got mesmerised watching them roosting when they migrate.  We keep meaning to put it online. As for directing a feature, I think I will do it, when it’s right.

I’d just like to thank Ralph for being such a lovely, down-to-earth, unpretentious bloke, and for giving up his time; and to Jane Bom-Bane for supplying the venue. Go eat there!

[UPDATE: Jack the Giant KIller has had its release date postponed to March 2013]

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