AS two new films shine a spotlight on him once again, Sir Tom Courtenay tells Siobhan Synnot why he still gets stage fright at 75, and why Dustin Hoffman is obsessed with his chin
I WAS standing on the tube the other day,” says Sir Tom Courtenay. “And this lovely young woman looked across at me and gave me a big smile. So of course, I smiled back.” He demonstrates with a radiant grin that transforms his face to the boyish Billy Liar of the 1960s. And then,” he adds, dolefully, “she got up and offered me her seat.”
In the 1960s, Courtenay was at the forefront of a gang of brilliant working-class actors who gatecrashed the party and changed the face of film and theatre forever. Since then he’s won countless awards and has twice been nominated for an Oscar, in Doctor Zhivago and The Dresser, yet he can still travel the Underground to Putney without a second glance, except from nice girls.
Mind you, Cameron Diaz seems to be a fan. “I am totally in love with him,” she says. “He is the most charming, hilarious man. I can’t watch films when he was younger. I don’t want to tease myself about what might have been.”
She also compliments him on his kissing technique. “She kissed Colin Firth for much longer,” observes Courtenay wryly. “I had to watch them, at some length while I just stood there. Mine was only brief in comparison, but she was a sweet girl, and we did get on well.”
Diaz, Firth and Courtenay have just worked together on Gambit, a frothy crime caper where he plays a master art forger, donning a bandana when creating new Jackson Pollocks. It’s one of two genial films out this winter which threaten to make taking the tube a bit more fraught for him in future. Quartet is his real showcase, a film that drew Dustin Hoffman to make his directorial debut, guiding Courtenay, Billy Connolly and Pauline Collins as a sprightly set of opera singers, whose peace in a home for retired musicians is disrupted by the arrival of diva-ish ex-wife (played by Dame Maggie Smith) of Courtenay’s character.
As an actor, Hoffman is known to be demanding. As a director, however, he had a light touch with his cast, generating a lot of upbeat energy. “I mean, he likes a nap,” notes Sir Tom. “But don’t we all, at our age?”
It’s a film that plays to Courtenay’s strengths; his delicate capacity for playing hurt, without showboating for sympathy. But Hoffman had bigger plans, hoping to relaunch Sir Tom as romantic matinee idol. “I had more make-up than Julie Christie in Doctor Zhivago,” jokes Courtenay. “I used to tease Billy Connolly by pretending I had to get the lion’s share.
“Dustin was very particular about my chin too, always wanting me to hold it upwards to make the neck look good. I said, ‘Dustin, it’s too late now,’ and Dustin would say, ‘It’s never too late!’ He said to me, ‘When this movie comes out, you can have any woman over 70 that you want.’”
Actually, as he notes himself with a little pride, he does look younger than his 75 years, with a full head of moppy grey hair that would make Bruce Willis swoon with envy, a trim figure, and an endearing gentle manner. Clearly, he adored Hoffman – “before a take he’d say, ‘Oh, we’re ready – time to get nervous and self-conscious.’” – but he also marvels at the dexterity with which Hoffman handled thoroughbreds like Dame Maggie Smith at her most imperious.
“She would say, ‘Not another take, Dustin,’ but he completely won her over. She doesn’t suffer fools gladly, but at the end she said to me, ‘It’s taken me all these years to find a director who knows what it’s like acting in films.’” marvels Courtenay. “She was obviously in a good mood that day.”
Courtenay’s native Hull accent has all but disappeared now, hardly surprising since he has long been based in South London with his second wife, Isabel, a stage manager, and their dog Stan, named after Stan Laurel, who appears to have total command of their sofa if the pictures on his iPhone are anything to go by.
When he isn’t acting he enjoys golf, writing, playing the ukulele, reading and astronomy; pursuits he has been able to explore in depth, since Courtenay’s filmography isn’t as full as might have been imagined, given his spectacular beginnings in the British New Wave.
He still likes the bolshy Borstal boy he played in The Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner: “I’d noticed that the best runners looked as if they were about to die at the end of a race. I found that easy enough.”
However when the roles got bigger, and starrier, he found that acting moved down the film’s priorities. He remembers big-budget films such as David Lean’s Doctor Zhivago as “a boring case of sitting around waiting for particular lighting, waiting for daffodils, waiting for the right snow”. He also disliked Hollywood, with its emphasis on glamour and its focus on his gaunt good looks and blue eyed intensity.
“I had been only a few weeks out of drama school when Tony Richardson put me in Loneliness of The Long Distance Runner, then I did Billy Liar, so I was concerned I hadn’t done enough on the stage, and I thought you learned more about acting doing it in front of people and I would have a longer career.” He half-regrets this, I think. He beams and gives my hand a little squeeze when I mention Moscow Stations, a landmark one-man show about a doomed and damaged alcoholic dissident, which debuted at Edinburgh’s Traverse Theatre in 1993 and reignited his career on stage – but the cost of live performance is expensive for him.
“Nerves are the respect we pay our audience,” he says. “I did The Dresser on stage 500 times and I was nervous to the last performance.” My doctor said to me, ‘I go into work but I’m not nervous. But you actors, every time you go to work it’s nerve-racking, isn’t it?’” So now he has decided “no more eight times a week – never, ever”, leaving him more open to movie offers than before.
“I did turn down a lot. I probably overdid it. But I won’t any more,” he says, with a little laugh. Are there particular roles that still haunt him? “Oh I can’t say, it’s bad form,” he says, quickly. “But let’s say that one film in particular someone had huge success with – and good luck to him. I didn’t fancy it.”
Quartet was also supposed to co-star Sir Albert Finney, until he dropped out in order to appear alongside Daniel Craig in Skyfall. A pity, since Finney and Courtenay struck enjoyable sparks on film in The Dresser, on TV in A Very English Marriage, and on stage in Art, and offstage their relationship reflects one of the themes of Quartet; artists who spend the early part of their lives competing with friends for success, then discover that comradeship is more important.
In the 1960s, Finney and Courtenay were often bracketed but never appeared together, although first Finney then Courtenay played Billy Liar on stage. The writer Keith Waterhouse said it was fascinating to contrast Finney’s “I am a star” extrovert performance with Courtenay’s “I wish I was a star” introvert, but it was Courtenay’s more wistful Billy who bagged the movie.
“We are utterly different personalities,” says Courtenay, who says that when he was younger, he found Finney’s ebullience a little overwhelming. “Then on The Dresser we got on very well. It was a better time for us, with us being older. Albert is a terrific tease, but by then I could keep my end up and get one in every so often. We are very close now. I just saw him ten days ago.”
What does he tease Sir Albert about? “Food. Being fond of food. I’m fond of food too – but not as much as him.” In turn, Sir Albert pokes fun at Sir Tom’s interest in healthcare. “When we were doing Art, we were always discussing our ‘complaints’ and what was wrong with us, as you do when you get older. So Albert bought me a medical encyclopaedia.”
What a thoughtful and useful gift. Does he use it much? “I had to put it to one side,” he admits. “I read the first few pages, then thought, ‘I’ve got everything here.’”
• Gambit is in cinemas from 21 November. Quartet follows on 4 January.