Sunday Times, Aug 25, 1990
Submitted by Adrien
Dance With A Stranger
Hollywood has a vacancy for a matinee idol. Barbara Amiel met Charles Dance and discovered that he has already put in his application.
Regular customers of the Royal Shakespeare Company will probably heave a sigh of relief next Saturday when the production of Coriolanus finishes its run. Once more seats will be filled by, well, the right sort of people. Not the sort of American teenager I sat next to a couple of Friday nights ago, dressed in shorts and with her big plastic sunglasses on top of her head. As Charles Dance made his entrance, fully kitted up in black tights, high leather boots and shirt to match she clutched her boyfriends arm; I swear her bosom quivered and her face glowed. Alas, the young couple, well-mannered and attentive though they were, found themselves in utter confusion as the play unfolded. In spite of Mr. Dance�s most competent performance in one of Shakespeare�s most compelling plays. Their two seats were empty after the interval. Though Shakespeare knows everything there is to know about suspense, they did not wait to see what happens.
I needn�t tell readers what happens to poor old Coriolanus, that noble mass of hubris. At the end of his gruelling three-hour performance, our hero, actor Charles Dance, bloodied and dead, torn to bits by the vengeful Volscians, takes his curtain call. His green-blue eyes scan the audience. He bows. He straightens all 6ft 3in of himself. Bows again, deeply, his legs astride, as they have been all performance, in those high, soft black leather boots. What, as he looks left anf right, quickly scanning the audience, does he see? He sees women, that�s what. Women.
"Whether the majority of people who go to see the films I am in are women," he tells me, "I don�t know. But at Coriolanus it�s pretty apparent. I look out at that audience at the curtain call and I sort of think, 70 per cent of the house is female, 99.99 per cent of the people who come round to the stage door after the show are women and 99.9 per cent of my fan mail is from women, so I�m aware (pause and slight embarrassment) that I�m appealing to women."
Well, of course. It is not his fault, and it�s more of a blessing than a handicap, he knows; but all the same, such extremely striking good looks can limit an actor. Directors are less likely to visualise you as Cyrano or Lear or send you the sort of scripts that Dustin Hoffman or Al Pacino might see. Frankly, the whole point of this article, for almost any female but those with the nerve endings and hormonal patterns of a cabbage, will be the photographs of Charles Dance. Edna O�Brien once summed up the whole syndrome of sexual attraction hen she admitted to a weakness for "the lurking cad and bounder". Though such a quality may not be part of the real Charles Dance, his are the sort of decadent good looks that the term implies.
To save readers any further disappointment, here is a list of questions that I did not ask Charles Dance because I was too shy. 1. Do you get physically aroused when making love on screen? 2. What really happened between you and Greta Scacchi in White Mischief? 3. After a 20-year marriage to your very attractive and relaxed wife Jo, is there any chance for me?
Finding Charles Dance at his home in Somerset is not easy. Getting the actual address is only the beginning. The handsome minotaur lives in a 17th century house that is not so much in a street as in the middle of nowhere. Locals could help you, but they would rather impale themselves on their scythes than betray Mr. Dance�s privacy. When you do arrive, you can understand his desire to keep these five acres free of autograph seekers. Bumblebees are working, the air is busy holding together the scent of hundreds of flowers, and old brick walls are standing around thinking of centuries past. Dorothy Wordsworth is not there, but she would love it. A couple of labradors greet you together with a sturdy, sensible woman who turns out to be an animal trainer specialising in chimpanzees. Her name is Rona Brown and she worked on the film Greystoke. Now she has become Mr. Dance�s assistant.
Dance himself is in the barn, behind the swimming pool, next to the ha-ha where the geese are flapping about. Is this real? Is it a Hollywood set for a Very British mini-series? Dance is doing ordinary west country things which involve wearing ordinary west country gear. In his case it is simply a pair of jeans and a denim shirt to match. The effect is blinding. One cannot blame him for the fact that the sun backlights him at precisely the right moment, although I can�t help feeling that God may actually be in his employ as a gaffer.
Dance, alas, is a family man. The point is made very clearly. He is "rescuing a pigeon with his son", Mrs. Brown explains. Meanwhile I can see his daughter in the swimming pool doing exercises. Dance�s wife, Jo, is making herself scarce in the nicest possible way, after checking that the lettuce and salad bits are in the kitchen for Charles when he wants to make us a very healthy lunch. It is the most perfect domestic scene.
Dance and his wife no longer have their London home. They live all the time here in Somerset. Imagine being locked away with him in Somerset, I think. "We talked like a lot of people talk about getting out of London," Dance says in his sitting room, his eyes wandering out to the scramble of trees and long grasses, "and London is getting so crowded you can�t go down the road without getting stuck in a traffic jam. It�s dirty, it�s uncomfortable in the summer and when I was making a series called First Born for the BBC, about a genetic scientist who crossed a gorilla with a human being, we were filming in Wiltshire and Dorset and I used that opportunity to start looking for a house out of London. Every day off I had criss-crossed the west country, and when I eventually found this place I thought, 'Well, right, okay, we�ll do it'."
White he�s working at the Barbican he stays with friends or borrows the flat of some other actor who�s on the road. "Yes," he says ruefully, "I�ve got to try to find a pied a terre somewhere, but I�ve got to find the money for that and the bank to buy this place. Haven�t got any money."
Now this to me is the interesting story about Charles Dance. The fields of England are still stocked with partridge and pheasants but they are not crawling with intelligent, glamorous actors whose range encompasses Hollywood and the Royal Shakespeare Company. Why is Charles Dance still, as he puts it, "not a bankable actor in America"? Why, when the seats at the Barbican are groaning with fidgety young girls in sunglasses and shorts, prepared to put up with all those goings on in Rome just to glimpse their hero, why must this box-office draw worryand worry he doesabout whether he can afford to take the next job he wants to do in England? What�s wrong with English and American producers?
The answer comes in several parts. The root problem is, Dance says, the difficulty of getting any film off the ground in England. Distribution deals are difficult, tax incentives are virtually non-existent and the big money is to be made in American distribution.
"Who are the bankable commodities in this country?" Dance asks. "Sean Connery, Michael Caine, Danny Day Lewis, Bob Hoskins, Gary OldmanThere is no industry here, there is nothing collective about the way producers work in this country. A dozen or so producers went and put their case to Margaret Thatcher and they got L5 million. Now, when you consider that Bruce Willis is getting paid L15 million for his next film, well, that puts the L5 million in some sort of context."
Any idea that this will enable them to have a seat at the co-production table in 1992 when all the European film communities sit down together and decide they are going to make films finds Dance�s tongue firmly planted in his cheek. "What�s happened is that, aside from the little group of people who have gotten together with Dickie Attenborough, most of the film production in this country is done in this fragmented way, by individuals who, because of the dangerous nature of the business, will make any compromise to look after themselves. And because of the need to look after number one there is no programme, no collective effort, no general sense of why don�t we make a vehicle for one of the people in this country who will enable us to raise money. Why don�t we make a British film, raise British money to put money back into the British film making community?"
Dance�s conclusion is that British producers use film stars who are bankable in America and, on the whole, are afraid to risk money on stars such as himself who are still bankable only in Britain. One tends to agree. Most films cost so much money to make that they really have to have an American distribution deal to get off the ground. The Americans are notorious for their need to have s "sure thing" in the lead, and that sure thing is usually spelled Richard Gere, or Eddie Murphy or Mel Gibson. What I am less sure about is Dance�s view that collective efforts of a syndicate of British film makers might be the solution. Or giving Mrs. Thatcher a cigar and folding chair and turning her into Darryl F. Zanuck. Anyway, I don�t argue, but only note that Dance�s attitude is an interesting example of what he describes as his "slightly leftish" views.
The problem Dance really faces appears to me to be this: America is the centre of cinema in the world, and for anyone seeking movie stardom that is where they must be. For his own reasons, Dance has resisted the gypsy life that uprooting family and setting off for New York and Los Angeles would have meant. Now he is 44 years old, and each year his opportunity to become a "movie star", American-style, becomes more difficult.
As well, Dance made a conscious decision to continue as a serious stage actor. That meant both a great deal of hard work and straddling two horses, one of them distinctly uneconomic. An actor does not have a lot left over after the mortgage is paid when working for the RSC. The result is that he has the worst of both worlds and all the drawbacks of movie star fame, such as a genuine need for a very private address and the constant hounding of autograph seekers, as well as the irritation of endless popular magazine profiles about being the "thinking woman�s crumpet". But he doesn�t have the Hollywood salary to make up for all this.
There is nothing wrong, of course, with making a decision that one enjoys being a serious actor in one�s native land rather than a movie star in America. But if you want to enjoy the money and the good things in life, then you had better be a serious actor of divine brilliance. This man, I think, as I study Dance�s easy languor and careless, uncalculated sexual appeal, should have been sitting at Schwab�s drugstore on Sunset Strip 20 years ago.
Dance�s curriculum vitae has several films and smash hits. The Jewel in the Crown was the television series which made his lidded bedroom eyes common currency. That was shown on Americs�a public television system. Dance has also done movies including a succes d�estime called Pascali�s Island with Ben Kingsley, Golden Child with Eddie Murphy, and a stint as an upper-class Brit in Plenty with Meryl Streep. Tomorrow, BBC1 viewers will be able to see Dance in part two of Tony Richardson�s mini-series version of the Phantom of the Opera.
Phantom was a mixed blessing. The money that the American mini-series paid him was rumoured to be very high, and handily subsidised his nine-month stint at the RSC. But then there were the problems contingent upon a transatlantic version of Phantom.
"You have two French extras meeting each other," Dance explains, "outside the Paris Opera House, in what is supposed to be late 19th century France. Then they dub it into contemporary American. So one woman says to the other �Hi! How are ya today?� It does jar slightly.
"I was asked if I would just take the edge off my accent. �What accent?� I said. Because with Burt Lancaster playing my father they weren�t about to get Burt to employ an English accent, so I had to take the edge off mine to give some credibility to our relationship. I did a sort of trans-Atlantic sound."
One can�t help being struck by Dance�s sense of humour as he mimics the Americans. Humour, in fact, is a vivid streak in Dance, and it is both self-deprecating and tart. In fact, it seems a shame that a producer with imagination has not cast him in comedy. He might be marvellous in Noel Coward, for example. Hollywood, after all, has a job vacancy for a matinee idol in the Cary Grant tradition: a star whose innate dignity and charm would contrast wonderfully with the absurd situations into which the script puts him.
As it happens, Dance is now eyeing Hollywood with a new determination. He has been taken on as a client by a red-hot Los Angeles agency, Triad Artists, and flew over to California to meet his new "team" last month. My heart went out to Dance as I listened to his recitation of that encounter. The routine hasn�t changed since my acquaintance with the William Morris Agency in New York some 20 years ago.
Here�s what happens: the new client is led into the boardroom, all bright and sunny. Around the polished burled oak (marble, glass, beaten steel) conference table sit a collection of stage, movie, and TV agents. They are all under 35well, maybe 40 if they are really good. They are so hyped up that they need seat belts to prevent their heads bumping against the recessed ceiling lights. The phones are ringing lake crazy because it�s already halfway through the day in New York. Everyone has been up since the crack of dawn because "The Coast" is three hours behind New York time, and the tanned Los Angeles agent has to swim, jog and ft into the office by 7 AM. Dance, the new talent arrives, presented by his own agent.
Everyone stares but tries to avoid eye . After all, you may not use him. No point in getting personal. The thoughts swarm behind the -lensed eyes of Mike and Joel and Danny and Diane and Nan. Is this a deal? He�s too old for a rites-of-passage movie but too cute for character roles. Do I see him in the new Spielberg/Scorsese/Cronenberg/Beatty flick? Is he sexy or is he too foreign?
"It was one of those meetings", says Dance ruefully, "where you walk in and they say, �Hi Charles. Nice to see you. Thanks for coming over,� and you sit down and then there is silence. And I think, 'Well, what am I supposed to do now?' So you sort of make conversation for a bit and then they just don�t look at you. So then they say, �Well, thanks for coming, Charles.� This is the same line they opened with and you think, �Ah, this is my cue to go.�
"And I said, �I feel like Prince Charles.� And the I met all of them individually later, in their little offices, and the grand lady of this agency, a woman called Nicole David who is a terrific girl, a great agent, introduced me to the man who looks after American television. And she said, �This is Richard, and he runs the television department here.� And I said, �Well, we all have our crosses to bear.� And she said (mock American accent), �No, you mustn�t say that! You have to say "Wonderful! Isn�t that exciting!"� And I went �Oh, sorry.� But you know, what do you really say in these situations?"
In fact, Dance has made a few stabs at taking on Los Angeles before. "I lived there for about six months and I did two things back a few years ago. I did a mini-series with Shirley MacLaine from the second of her five autobiographical books.
"Then I did a film with Eddie Murphy and I rented a house in Bel Air and did the whole bit. One of the many houses owned by Dan schwartz, the man who owns Rent-swreck. He�s a shrewd cookis, is Mr. Schwatz, and has a lot of property.
"I suppose I am in limbo, really. I mean, I went this time not really geared up for doing the rounds of meeting people. I thought I was going to talk about one film because these agents are relatively new to me and me to them. So they organised a week for me. And I was belting about like a blue-assed fly, you know: into the Valley in the morning, back in the afternoon."
The point is that the choices Dance has made have had consequences. He put the notion that his children should be going to neighbourhood schools and his home should be in England ahead of the itinerant life many actors make their family lead. Not all actors, of course, have careers that are best served by the Gypsy life. But being forever in foreign lands is not a dishonourable course to choose, any more than being a ship�s captain or professional explorer always roaming the world is dishonourable.
All the same, is he is to make a go of it in the film business, sooner rather than later, Dance and his family are going to have to leave the Ha-ha and the geese and the rustling foliage of Somerset. He has to move to New York or Los Angels, to where the action is. And he knows it.
He wants to do movies and make some real money. "I would like to have done Pretty Woman," he says. "It�s a good, commercial, unashamedly romantic film. You know, we should be making good, commercial, unashamedly romantic films here, because they allow us to indulge ourselves, and in very good company."
What Dance doesn�t say, because his patriotism is authentic and not assumed like the white linen suits and upper class accents of his films, is that British movies lean all too often to the school of underarm grubbiness. Our fascination seems to be with the seediness that Bob Hoskins wallowed in in Mona Lisa or the contemporary kitchen sink of My Beautiful Launderette. Nor are we very pleasant to handsome actors. But Charles Dance is simply too good-looking for malice to stay entirely out of the response to his work.
Is he too late to find gold at 44? Of course not., It all really depends on coinciding with a hit role or possibly a continuing television character that can bring him great fame. He might even metamorphose, ;later on, into the sort of leading man that Charles Boyer became. George F. Scott is another actor whose leading man roles came to him in middle age.
Becoming a film star is like prospecting for gold. First you have, to be in the right place. You�ll never do it form Putney or Somerset. You must have oodles of talent, as well, and Dance has that licked. Ironically, good looks are secondary for international stardom. No one can tell me that Meryl Streep is a beautiful woman or Dustin Hoffman is a handsome man. But all of these qualification are secondary to two ingredients: you need that indefinable thing called star quality, and you need luck. Dance has star quality in spades. And he�s such a nice, funny, and deserving man that, God willing, I�ll make a novena every night that he is granted the second.