GFF interview: Richard Johnson, Radiator
Screen and stage legend Richard Johnson discusses his new film, Radiator, directed by Tom Browne
Acting since he was 16-years old and having enjoyed a storied career interrupted just once by wartime national service, Richard Johnson has seen it all and then some. A founding member of the Royal Shakespeare Company, Johnson's movie credits included appearances alongside Charton Heston and Laurence Olivier in 1966's Khartoum and appearances in Alfred Hitchcock's TV Hour – not to mention a yearlong marriage to Kim Novak.
More recently the actor has appeared in Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas and Midsomer Murders. Even at age 87, Johnson isn't showing much inclination to retire. Instead, he is currently to be found passionately promoting his latest film, Radiator, which played at Glasgow Film Festival after premiering at London.
It's a moving film that in some ways recalls Michael Haneke's Amour. In it, Johnson plays Leonard, an elderly grouch whose body has failed him and is entirely dependent on his wife for his physical care, much to the chagrin of his son, whom Leonard still asserts disappointed patriarchy over. It is a poignant portrait of family and the challenges of late life.
You’ve struck a balance throughout your career between stage and screen, was that important to you from the outset?
I was at the Shakespeare Memorial Theatre from 1952 to 1957, it was an electric time to be in that company. Five years later I was getting enquiries from Hollywood, can you imagine that? I didn’t think I was really a ‘movie star’ and you soon learn when you become a movie actor after being a stage actor, the two things are chalk and cheese. If you’re going to have any sense of doing a proper job then you’ve got to learn how to do it.
I had a decade of doing three or four movies every year, I travelled all over the world, I was in all the countries of Europe and had a fantastic time. Even now in my 80s I’ve had three of the best opportunities of my career.
Radiator seems an incredibly personal story from writer-director Tom Browne. The film was also shot in his late parent’s holiday home. How does that level of intimacy with the material impact the production?
Right from the off I felt it was a superior piece of writing for the screen. The tightness of the unit was wonderful and the right way to make this film. Tight crew, tight locations, tight time considerations and absolute determination to be neither sentimental or untruthful. It was a culmination of all the things I’ve learned to love about making movies. It wasn’t hard, in a way, the way we worked seemed to be completely natural. And Tom, who is an extremely accurate kind of director, was onto me like a shot if I tried any form of ‘acting’. We got on very well and I hope we’ll work together again.
Leonard is a hard character to like, yet you tease moments of empathy with him. What discussions did you have with the director about humanising this character?
I don’t think any actually. I understood the script right from the beginning and I worked with both Tom and his co-writer Daniel [Cerqueira], for two or three weeks before we started. We knew where we were and what we wanted – we were completely at one about it. As a group we instinctively understood what the film was about.
It is a terrible situation, Leonard’s lost his body but he’s not completely lost his mind. That’s a tough circumstance for anyone to be under and deserves sympathy and understanding even if it’s hard to put up with. It’s even more inevitable now that when people get old they’re going to survive for longer in circumstances that aren’t particularly pleasant for them or their family. We’re all going to have to put up with it, me and you included. Me sooner than you, I imagine.
When you’re on your last legs, like poor old Leonard, you know you’re on the way out. It’s frightening, but you don’t want to admit it. The thing I tried to disguise most was Leonard’s fear, because he is indeed frightened.
Who have been some of the most memorable stars you’ve worked with?
Many really I must say. I never felt I was that kind of ‘force of personality’, star. I always thought I was a more modest talent in a sense, I only wanted to find ways of telling the truth about the characters I played. If that meant you took a secondary place, that’s fine. I never fought the professional side of being an actor. I was also fortunate that I always had work – one job to another. Some of them just for fun, some just to be in Italy. It’s a curious, unlikely life – 70 years playing someone else and enjoying every moment of it.
Any true Hollywood stories you could share that no-one would believe?
[laughs] You ask me to be indiscreet? There are too many. Let me say this: there are two sayings that I’ve had in my mind for a very long time. One of them was made by a travel writer, Rose Trevelyan, who said she’d been to the theatre the night before and it was a ‘good way of killing time, but who wants time dead’? I’ve taken the mantra: ‘be careful not to offer dead time’.
The other one that has to be born in mind by any sensible actor is the five ages of an actor’s life. It starts, who is Richard Johnson? The second stage is, get me Richard Johnson. The third is, get me a Richard Johnson lookalike. The fourth is, get me a young Richard Johnson. And the fifth one, who is Richard Johnson?
You have to take life, suck it up, swallow it and be grateful for everything can get.
Radiator screened on Wed 25 and Thu 26 Feb as part of the Glasgow Film Festival 2015. General release TBC.