Sunday Times, 1994

Submitted by Adrien

A Time to Dance

Charles Dance is eagerly shedding the image of the romantic leading man. This year we will see him in four very different roles, says Iain Johnstone.

Charles Dance looked quite alarming as he strode into the bar. Unshaven for several days and with his tufted red hair pointing electrically in varying directions, he might have been about to audition for the lead in Boris Becker—The Musical. He had been his normal smooth self when last I bumped into him at the end of the summer in Harrod’s, with the store assistants fussing around him as if he were Virginia Bottomley.

"I’ve just got back from Puerto Rico," he explained. "The character I was playing had just come out of an institution. It didn’t say so in the script, but I thought the guy probably cut his own hair. Actually, I had to have quite an expensive haircut to create it"

We haven’t seen much of the actor lately, save as the eye-changing hitman who was out to get Arnold Schwartzenegger in Last Action Hero, and we didn’t see much of him in that since 40% of his part—including a song-and-dance routine—was left on the cutting-room floor. However, 1994 will be a time for Dance, with four features coming out: Short Cut to Paradise (the Puerto Rican escapade); Kabloonak, in which he recreates Robert Flaherty making Nanook of the North; China Moon with Ed Harris and Madeline Stowe, which has been on the shelf for two years, since Orion’s demise; and Stephen Poliakoff’s Century, which has just opened.

In the last—set in 1900—he plays a professor of medicine who, one of his students (Clive Owen) discovers, is trying to breed a perfect race by experimenting with poor and infirm patients. "I was thankful to move into an area that might shake off the ‘romantic leading man’ image," Dance said. "I did The Big Breakfast recently and I heard them announcing me as the debonair Charles Dance. I’m not debonair, I just happen to be able to play people who are debonair."

As the austere academic, misguided by today’s standards, but not, as Poliakoff’s research postulates, by those of the start of the turn of the century, he brings a charming gravitas to the part until his methodology is challenged by an upstart undergraduate and his clinical ruthlessness ins revealed. Dance played a writer who stumbles upon film of a botched nuclear experiment, with the victims being kept in a secret London hospital, in Poliakoff’s directing debut, Hidden City (1988), and the author has offered him parts in all his works since then. "Until Century, I either haven’t been able to do them or I haven’t liked the stuff," Dance explained. "Actually, I didn’t think I was particularly right for Hidden City, but it was a highly original piece of work."

There is a confident candour about the 47-year-old actor that comes form a career that was burnished on the boards of the Royal Shakespeare Company and achieved a wider fame with The Jewel in the Crown. Subsequently, he was hauled in by Hollywood—as a foil to Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child (1986)—but not subverted by it. With amusement, he recounted how he was accidentally sent the wrong script for Last Action Hero, where his character’s entry into the film is described in the words "the door opens and there stands Alan Rickman". On the first day of shooting, Dance wore a T-shirt which read "I’m cheaper than Alan Rickman".

Evidence of a more pioneering spirit lay in the trips to Puerto Rico and to the frozen north for Kabloonak. This is the Inuit word for "white Western man" which the Inuit used to describe Robert Flaherty, who made the memorable Nanook of the North in 1922. When a "beautifully written script" by a French documentary maker, Claude Massot, was plonked into Dance’s palm in a Hollywood hotel, the lure of three months on board in ice-breaker in the Bering sea seemed almost preferable to Los Angeles.

"I was meant to board the ship in Provideniya in Russia," he recalled. "I got as far as Nome in Alaska, but, because of bad weather, I was stranded there for a week with a group of Japanese balloonists who were attempting to get into the Guinness Book of records by ballooning across the Bering Strait. We did all the bars in Nome. When I eventually took off and the plane was coming in to land in Provideniya, I thought, ‘This looks a bit like Nome’. Which was correct. It was Nome. We hadn’t been allowed into Russian airspace."

Even when he made it on to the snowy location, his troubles were not at an end. "It was just me and the 15 Inuit, but none of them could play the script as written because they couldn’t speak English—not even the grandson of the man who played Nanook, who was also playing Nanook. So I went on a crash course of Inupik. Also, they were only doing about two-and-a-half set-ups a day and seemed prepared to go on for months and months until the film was finished."

Dance had to return to the relative civilisation of Last Action Hero before finishing the Inuit movie in another month at Frobisher Bay. "Some of it is sensational.," he said. "Some of it makes me groan at the lost opportunities." Although long completed, Kabloonak is being closely guarded by Massot. "He went to a fortune-teller, who said if it was entered for Cannes it would win the Palem D’or. So I suppose we will have to wait until after the festival next May."

There was less superstition, but not a superabundance of competence, in the Caribbean with Shortcut to Paradise, with an unproven Spanish director in a co-production with the newly formed Puerto Rican Film Foundation. Dance had liked the basic premise of the script: he was to play someone who murders a man who is about to take up a post a warden of an apartment building and assumes not only his job, but the man’s identity as well, with more murders and other excessive behavior to follow. As well as designing his character’s haircut, he found it necessary to rewrite six or seven scenes himself. "I also storyboarded them," he mentioned with justifiable pride. "I went to art school, so I have a good visual sense about lenses and storyboards."

Thus, one of our leading cinema actors spent 16 out of the past 18 months abroad in order to pursue his career. He is not a man to complain about the relative absence of British movies, but pinpointed what seems to be a design flaw in many of them. "What’s wrong with British screenplays is that there’s too much dialogue. It’s because of out theatrical tradition and our literary heritage. If we’re going to export, we do have to learn from American movies."

He is offered work all the time in the British theatre, and appeared unbowed by the initial reception of his return to the Stratford stage as Coriolanus three years ago. "I wasn’t really ready when it opened. One or two critics tore me to pieces. One or two were much kinder. When we brought it to London six months later, one or two raved about it."

His recent assertiveness in taking the initiative when he thought his directors were wanting seemed to me to indicate a desire to take the helm of a movie himself. He sheepishly agreed. "I’ve optioned a sensational book, but I think the writer is going to do it himself, so I guess I’m going to have to write something for myself. You know, you can buy T-shirts in Los Angeles which say ‘What I really want to do is direct’."

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