Thursday, 5 January 2012

Interview With James Devereaux

The Devereaux You Know

You know, since I started promoting my blog on Twitter (which was pretty much on day one of my blog) the most surprising and positive thing I’ve got from being on a platform like that is the amount of friendships, virtual or otherwise, I’ve made. This is because the way Twitter works is that, unlike Facebook, it’s about connecting people up via their common interests and so you end up talking... or tweeting... with like minded people who are interested in exploring the same kinds of things which interest you.

One of the people who has supported me and my blog on Twitter for quite a while now and who is responsible for reminding me that performers are also an important part of the process of a film or play (sometimes these concepts fall out of fashion), is the actor James Devereaux. If you’re a regular reader of my blog you may remember him from here, here, and here. The Twitterati will also know him from The Great Acting Blog which he posts here.

I asked him if he’d be available for an interview for my blog and, though he always seems to be beyond busy, he graciously gave me some of his time to answer some questions I had. This is actually the first interview I’ve conducted and I wasn’t quite sure what kinds of questions to ask, to be honest. Please let me know if I got it wrong (or right, for that matter) and suggestions for any improvements to my role as interrogater in my comments section at the bottom of the post. Please be aware that there is frank language throughout the following interview. Thanks for reading...

NUTS4R2: How long have you been in the acting business and roughly how long was it from when you first realised that this was something you wanted to do before getting your first professional gig?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Oh goodness! My decision to become an actor was very conscious, it was something I thought about for a long time... I didn't "fall" into it as many actors say they do. I was very excited by the idea of becoming an actor. I couldn't understand why everyone else wasn't doing it. But it was a long time from making my decision to pursue acting to when I first worked, several years.

NUTS4R2: Oh, okay. So during those years, was it always what you were driven to or did you look at any other possible career paths?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: No, I never looked at other career paths. Once I made my decision, that was it - and I vowed never to walk away from it, whatever happens. I hear so many stories from people who set out to become actors, then quit and do something else and make up some bullshit reason. That's bullshit to me.

NUTS4R2: You’ve said on your blog that a defining moment of realisation about your goals came when you saw Brando. Who else kept you interested in that kind of pursuit?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Well, like many British people, my formative cinematic experiences are with American films (I never went to the theatre). So, many of my favourites at that time were American. There was De Niro of course, Pacino, and Jack Nicholson. Not only did I like the intensity of their work, I also thought they were cool. British actors just weren't cool to me at that time, but I didn't know anything, the more experienced I become as an actor, the broader my appreciation becomes, and now guys like Charles Laughton, Dirk Bogarde and Michael Gambon are masters to me.

Later I discovered European cinema, and it was people like Jean Gabin and Alain Delon. Michel Piccoli is a very important actor to me, because he was the first film star I came across who spoke about actors as artists, he speaks about the work very seriously. Simon Callow is a major influence on my thinking as well, believe it or not. I discovered Laughton through Callow, and also through him I came to understand that an actor can speak out and define his work... be an individual, creative artist.

NUTS4R2: It’s funny you cite the US actors first. When I think of Nicholson I think of his amazing performance in Five Easy Pieces and not his later stuff. Looking at your list, a lot of the American “thesps” seem to have become almost a caricature or parody of themselves over the last decade or so. Is this something which comes with the recognition and fame aspect of acting do you think?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Well, firstly, Nicholson's performance in Five Easy Pieces is a masterpiece of acting. However, I'm not so sure they become parodies of themselves or caricature. I'm not sure what you're refering to there. There are different cinematic forms, and it's the actor's job to fit himself into the different forms presented to him. So, the demands of, say, One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest, are not going to be the same as Batman. The demands of Taxi Driver are not going to be the same as Meet The Fockers. Acting is an art form like any other, but it's not afforded the freedom that other forms are, like filmmaking or writing. This is largely because acting doesn't have intellectual champions, interpreting the work. There is no proper criticism of acting available. Much of that work is left to directors, but, usually, a director's notion of acting is flawed - Bresson the obvious example.

NUTS4R2: Okay. You’ve written and directed some wonderful shorts and also worked with Rouzbeh Rashidi of the Experimental Cinema Group, out of Ireland, so you obviously know adjacent areas of your craft well. What would be your primary influences as and actor and then the same question as a writer/director?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Well, my acting influences shift as my focus on different aspects of the work shift. At the moment De Niro's performance in Casino, and Jean Gabin's performance in Touche Pas Au Grisbi would be performances I'm thinking a lot about, they may even be aesthetically perfect. In fact, yes, I think they are. Also, Harold Pinter influences my acting a lot, even though he was primarily a playwright. There are many many filmmakers who influence my writing and directing (and my acting). I favour a certain disciplined and austere kind of filmmaking; Bresson, Melville, Antonino, Aki Kaurismaki, Hal Hartley, Jim Jarmusch, David Mamet, Claude Chabrol and more recently Ozu, all have impacted me directly. Then there are other filmmakers I love like Kieslowski or Mike Leigh or Cassavetes but I don't think they have influenced my choices when making my short films.

As a writer: Harold Pinter - I own all his plays and refer to them constantly. It's probably worth pointing out that whatever writing and directing I've done, I view as part of my acting work, it's not separate to me. I plan to do a lot more filmmaking, but will hopefully show that this is still acting.

NUTS4R2: Right. A lot of the people who you mention as an influence on your writing and directing do have a kind of stripped down visual aesthetic which, dare I say, allows greater accessibility to the more complex issues and attitudes they’re dealing with? Do you prefer, then, talking about complex and sometimes highly emotive issues in a more head-on style or would you see your work more as celebrating the smaller moments? Or am I just trying to type you to a specific aesthetic which isn’t necessarily your intent?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Well, I never have ideas. I never have themes. I never do research. I never bring what I know to my work. I work purely from my imagination... I just make it up, and play. I have total confidence in my imagination. When I write, it is the same, with perhaps a little bit of re-shaping and cleaning up as we go along. It is the same on the occasions when I direct. I let the material suggest things to me, rather then bring ideas to the material. Just make it up, that's what it's all about. It's true I favour a pared back aesthetic ( eg - in acting, stillness is very powerful... if an actor moves unnecessarily, it trivialises the work) but this largely stems from my nature, and the things I like influencing me unconsciously. I think economy, precision and discipline are extremely beautiful in art, and austerity is particularly beautiful in cinema.

NUTS4R2: You recently said to me that you really don’t mind watching bad acting but that you really dislike “phony” acting. I have a little idea of what you mean but humour me and tell me (and my readers) what the difference is between the two?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: It's a question of intentions: an actor can give a bad performance because he lacks talent but he is honestly trying to express the scene for the audience, Cassavetes would sometimes deliberately hire this kind of actor for certain roles. Then there is phoney acting, where the actor has no want of talent, but perverts the scene in order to show off thier skills, for example; they may squeeze out some crocodile tears - it's phoney and this actor is only doing it to be admired, basically they see the production as a personal showcase.

NUTS4R2: I see. Yeah, there’s a lot of that first kind about in independent cinema and sometimes it’s to be applauded (I always do) but I know there are some audiences who find that lack of skill to be a hurdle to their experiencing the movie in the way the director would prefer them to. I guess the second kind you describe is where I see a lot of the US actors you mention earlier as playing from these days. Do you think the phonies are encouraged towards that behaviour by the directors and producers they meet on a day to day basis? I’m assuming that’s the last state you’d want to end up in yourself... actually, I can see how either option would be bad for you as an artist. When the big acting money starts rolling your way (as I know it will when you conquer Hollywood and Sundance), would you find it hard to steer yourself away from taking certain kinds of roles and taking risks do you think?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Our entire culture, from our birth, encourages us to be phonies. The teacher tells you you need 70% to pass the test. But you think the test is bullshit. What are you to do? What most 12 year olds do is hide their doubts away and set about getting the 70% in order to progress. And that pattern is repeated throughout our lives: behave and we'll give you the doggy choc. Acting is the same. Most acting training is about pleasing the teacher, not about doing great work, and I've seen the same thing in the rehearsal room. The actors' work becomes about making the director like them. This phoniness is also what's encouraging young filmmakers to use non-actors, because non-actors have an unpoisoned approach to the work at hand. By the way, American acting is particularly awful these days, there appears to have been no legacy handed on from the Brando-DeNiro generation, that kind of rigor has just died out. Sad. Having said all that, how can you criticise a culture as fabulously successful as America's? I could tell you the coffee in Starbucks tastes like shit, but so what?

I'm not sure about risks... it's not something I've thought much about. I suppose whether something is a risk or not at any given time, depends on what my interests are at the time. That's generally how I make my decisions - whether the thing energizes me or not. I don't really have goals which are about conquering existing institutions, I'm much more interested in creating something new. I love the mythology of the French New Wave, I would love to be a part of a sweeping new aesthetic like that. That's exciting to me.

NUTS4R2: You’ve implied recently that preparation for a role without any research involved (i.e. for Rashidi) is possibly more gruelling in some ways than doing a lot of research for a role. Can you talk a little about that?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: The challenge is different. When working from a locked text and with proper rehearsals, the challenge in performance is about delivering something very precise when under pressure. However, without a script or any preparation you haven't got to worry so much about precise results, nobody knows what the results are supposed to be... but you have got to worry about creating the framework around your improvisation as you're going along, otherwise you won't give the director anything usable. If you're working from a script, the script is the framework, and so that task has been done for you by the writer. So, working without a script is a slightly different task.

NUTS4R2: I guess that’s the difference between working for, say Stephen Spielberg... and working for Mike Leigh. It seems to me that Spielberg would be the easier director to work for in terms of chugging along on a comfortable daily groove but Mike Leigh would need you to be absolutely creatively performing full on at 24 frames per second. Would you say working in a more improvisational piece, although it is harder, is more satisfying and gives you more of the result you would like from your performance?

JAMES DEVEREAUX: Well, I'm not saying the improvisational form is harder, it just asks slightly different questions. What becomes pleasing is bringing your principles to the work at hand, and employing them, regardless of the situation. For example, I worked on a play earlier this year, and the script was extremely poor, almost unactable. But I applied whatever I've learned about acting to it, and this lead to a result I was very pleased with. It was never going to be my best work, because of the nature of the material I was working on, but that's not the point. In February however, I'm going back to Ireland to finish work on Rouzbeh Rashidi's new feature film HE - it's exactly the kind of work I want to do, it's important to me, and it's extremely demanding... so it's about employing my principles to meet those demands and not coming up short for the film. It is exhilarating. And that's what it's all about in the end.

NUTS4R2: That’s great. I look forward to seeing what you guys come up with. Let me know where and when I can see a copy and thanks so much for taking time out to be interviewed. I appreciate it man!

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