Lynden Barber talks to Mary Luckhurst, co-editor of a new book of interviews with actors renowned for playing famous people. 
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14 Sep 2010 - 11:49 AM  UPDATED 26 Feb 2014 - 4:08 PM

The biopic – or biographical film – is hardly new, of course, but only those who've been living atop a Nepalese mountain could have failed to notice the genre has been getting more popular among filmmakers. Today's film biographies are also increasingly likely to focus on the still-living or relatively recently deceased, leaders and celebrities that viewers already feel they know from TV footage. Immediately springing to mind are recent fictionalised film portraits of Tony Blair, Queen Elizabeth, Adolf Hitler, Bill Clinton, Idi Amin, the Baader Meinhof terror gang (well-known in Germany), George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, plus singers Joan Jett, Johnny Cash, Ian Curtis (Joy Division), John Lennon and Ray Charles. New examples reach our cinema and TV screens every month.

Playing a real-life character whose every gesture appears to be well-known to at least part of the audience poses a special challenge to actors, yet it is one about which there has been surprisingly little written. Until now, at least. Published in Australia this month is Playing For Real (Palgrave Macmillan), a book of interviews with UK actors who have played real life characters on screen and stage, edited by Mary Luckhurst and Tom Cantrell.

The interviewees includes Jeremy Irons, whose real life roles include an Oscar-winning turn as Claus von Bulow, who was accused of attempting to murder his wife, and on TV, British PM Harold Macmillan; and Ian McKellen, whose many real-life roles include disgraced UK politician John Profumo, desert military leader T.E. Lawrence and Frankenstein director James Whale in Gods and Monsters. Others in the distinguished list include Simon Callow (whose copious biographical credits include Charles Dickens in at least six different stage, TV and film productions, and Soviet spy Guy Burgess), Eileen Atkins (who played Virginia Woolf twice on the stage and was a supporting player in The Hours) and David Morrissey, who played UK leader Gordon Brown in Stephen Frears's telemovie, The Deal.

Visiting Australia to promote the publication, acting trainer Luckhurst said that most of the established actors she spoke with during her research “said that 8 out of 10 scripts they are reading are to play real people, a trend that's as strong in the theatre as in film.” This is an extraordinary figure, especially when many of her interviewees also told her of the particular challenges involved, saying they had “to do a lot to be persuasive,” in film and TV productions, given those media are more unforgiving than the stage.

Luckhurst says she has noticed the trend for the 5-10 years of the Academy and BAFTA rewarding actors for playing real people and thinks it has “something to do with our obsession with reality and reality TV, and with celebrity, and the way celebrities live their lives – looking behind closed doors.”

Many of the interviewees spoke of doing copious amounts of research and of feeling a special responsibility to the person they're playing, especially when the latter is still alive. Yet perhaps the challenge is not as great as it might initially appear. Luckhurst observes that with purely fictional characters, the viewer is “more likely to think 'no, that actor's all wrong for the role', simply because there's no generally agreed interpretation of that character and the actor is “dealing with very different images that exist in many forms inside the heads of reader-viewers.” With characters based on real human beings, the public often has a general consensus on the way that person looked, moved and spoke.

With real people the actor has something concrete to work with – an image that there is often general agreement upon. A similarity in looks can help, but continually audiences “buy” a performance by a person who looks nothing like the person they think they know already. Fortunately for actors and biopic directors, this seems to indicate viewers are suggestible, willing to suspend disbelief when given encouragement in the form of a recognisable hairstyle, costume or physical gesture (McKellen talks of Hitler's bad back being a key insight he used for his portrayal of the dictator in TV drama Countdown to War) and a script that isolates key aspects of their persona.

Luckhurst says many actors talk about their need to withhold judgment on a celebrity character they're playing – and some commented on how hard this was to pull off. Irons talked about his difficulty in overcoming his dislike for von Bulow, who was still alive, initially turning the role down.

An authentic look may not be as crucial as many might assume for a convincing performance. Speaking about Stephen Frears's The Queen, McKellen observes that if you put the real life Queen Elizabeth “next to Helen Mirren dressed as the Queen, there is not a person in the world who would confuse them. It is all an illusion created by the costume and the camera.”

Certainly externalities can be useful, but good performances rely on something else. All the actors interviewed talk about the importance of animating the character's inner life. Michael Sheen, best known for his portrayals of ex-UK PM Tony Blair and TV interviewer David Frost, says in interviews that what he's doing is much more than impersonation. Observes Luckhurst astutely, “To a certain extent, all British PMs are trained by actor trainers. There's a definite crossover between playing a politician and a politician being an actor.”

Luckhurst has several favourites among recent real-life film performances, including Nicole Kidman's “marvelous” performance as Virginia Woolf in The Hours (pictured) and Joaquin Phoenix's “stunning” turn as country singer Johnny Cash in Walk the Line, adding that “I think it's doubly, trebly, difficult for an actor to play another performer. To some extent you've got to be able to sing and it seems to me that's about the toughest.”

When it's put to her that actors are obviously performers, thus already have something in common with the real-life singers or actors they portray, Luckhurst says sure, before adding rhetorically, “but how do you play charisma, how do you play genius? Some things that are to do with looks and intangible things like sexual allure. That's something a lot of women don't like – 'can I recreate the magnetism of the person?' That's about someone's physical effect.”

That, she says, is why Marlene Dietrich (played by Katja Flint in a 2000 German film, Marlene) is particularly hard to reproduce before agreeing with my estimation of Robert Downey Junior's stab at silent comic Charlie Chaplin in David Attenborough's biopic, Chaplin: “Very impressive as an impersonation, but it failed because the indefinable genius was missing.”