Before we dive into this really fun interview, Shakespeare enthusiasts take note: this coming Wednesday, February 25 at select theaters around the country, you get to see the first in a series of filmed plays by William Shakespeare produced by the Stratford Festival in Stratford, Ontario. Most Shakespeare nuts know that this festival, which runs every year from April to October, is the premiere event to see the Bard’s works in North America, and beginning with KING LEAR on Feb. 25, they plan on filming every work by Shakespeare over the next 10 years. After LEAR, look for productions of KING JOHN (April 8) and ANTHONY AND CLEOPATRA (May 21) at your local movie theater. For a list of participating theaters, go to www.stratfordfestivalhd.com, and trust me when I say these are well worth checking out, even if Shakespeare isn’t your thing.
Case in point, I’ve already seen the version of KING LEAR that’s premiering this week, and to see Canadian actor Colm Feore—a staple of the Stratford Festival for many years—tackle the role of the jaded and paranoid king for the first time is a sight to behold. Feore has long been one of the great character actors of the last couple of decades, a consummate working actor who, by his own admission, rarely says no to any part he’s offered. He views every role as a chance to try something he’s never done before or work with someone he’s always wanted to work with and learn from, and as a result, he’s racked up a formidable list of film and television credits.
His calling card film role was 1993’s THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD from director François Girard (the two also made THE RED VIOLIN together five years later), and it was a rare lead performance from Feore, and it lead to a whole lot of work for him as a result. You can spot in such works as FACE/OFF, CITY OF ANGELS, the Stephen King-written mini-series STORM OF THE CENTURY, THE INSIDER, TITUS, PEARL HARBOR, THE SUM OF ALL FEARS, CHICAGO, THE CHRONICLES OF RIDDICK, THE EXORCISM OF EMILY ROSE, President Richard Adar in “Battlestar Galactica,” CHANGELING, “24,” the king of the Frost Giants in THOR, a scheming cardinal in “The Borgias,” THE AMAZING SPIDER-MAN 2, and more recently in an upcoming two-episode arc on “Gotham” as The Dollmaker.
And believe me, these credits are only a fraction of works he’s done, but they certainly show the range of his accomplishments, both in terms of the size of the productions he’s been involved in and the types of roles. But a common thread that runs through man of the roles Feore has played over the years has been that he plays men of authority better than just about anyone else. His unblinking eyes, long face with nicely defined features, and powerful voice have made him a go-to actor for a certain type of menacing, guy-in-charge parts, whether hero or villain. He’s also an incredibly articulate person who sees keenly aware of his place in the pecking order of Hollywood and the stage, and he embraces it whole heartedly. I met with Feore last week in Chicago and had a terrific time talking to him about Shakespeare and a few other roles he’s done over the years. So please enjoy my talk with the great Colm Feore…
Capone: I’ve seen KING LEAR done several different ways. I was lucky enough to see Stacy Keach do it here in Chicago about 10 years ago. To me, he was always the high watermark of this particular play [Feore nods in agreement]. For actors who perform a lot of Shakespeare, the role always seemed to be the one that they think about in the back of their head, “Just let me live long enough to play this one.” Because it tends to be played by older actors, but I feel like that’s just not because they look the part, but they’ve lived a life that gives them the right to play this part. Would you agree with that?
Colm Feore: I think the old duffers are lucky to have a job [laughs]. So, it’s great. I’m waiting for Christopher Plummer to retire, so that I can work a little bit harder so that I can retire. But at the moment, he shows no signs of doing it, right?
Capone: I saw his LEAR as well, on TV.
CF: So you know what I’m saying. He’s extraordinary, indefatigable, and made, I’m sure, of titanium and fired by nuclear fission. I don’t understand how it happens. I’ve seen him do a one-man show for two hours, by himself—unspeakable feats of theatrical presentation. He’s one of the last of the great creatures of the theater. But as far as that notion that when an actor reaches a certain age, he deserves to play Lear. He thinks it will be a good idea because he has, as you say, all this life experience, it will somehow illuminate the piece. But that’s not necessarily true. Shakespeare wrote it for someone who is 36. [Richard] Burbage was his leading actor and did all of the greats, and Shakespeare was under no obligation to hire an old man.
Can you imagine an old man in 1600 actually doing this, that had a diet that allowed them to do this? It’s impossible to do. What happens generally speaking is that whatever actor you choose to do it tailors the performance to what they are capable of, if they are of a certain age. Which means that, generally speaking, they don’t carry the girl on at the end. Now I think it’s really important that you carry the girl on at the end, because Shakespeare in his first fully printed play by his friends, albeit after his death, uses very few stage directions. In this particular one, it says, “Enter Lear carrying body of Cordelia, dead.” Just incase you weren’t sure. And the reason for that is really important because it is the thing that allows us to forgive this foolish, irascible, ornery old man who behaves abominably throughout most of the play. We’ll almost forgive him anything because every one of us in the house are horrified by that thought of a parent carrying their dead child. And we respond viscerally to the cruciform image of an old man barely able to, but definitely carrying, his dead child.
So if you go backwards from that, and you say, “What kind of physical and emotional stamina was Shakespeare asking of his actor if that’s where he ends?”, clearly something really extraordinary has to happen at the beginning and throughout. And he gives Lear great big breaks during the play. Why? So he can recover from the real trauma of how hard it was to do each block of scenes. And so for that, I felt, without any disrespect to all of the greats, I’d like to do it younger, because I felt strong enough to do it, I felt I may not be in the future, and I don’t want to miss a chance. And I think I was right. I don’t think I’d do this next week.
Capone: It does seem to get progressively more physical as it goes on, and there’s more of an actual burden for him at the end.
CF: There’s a literal burden, but there’s also the heaving and speaking though massive emotion. It’s not his most poetic play. There’s not a lot of fancy, polysyllabic, articulateness like a Hamlet would use to say, “What am I thinking? What am I feeling?” He just uses a bare-bones language for “What the hell is happening here? Why are you not helping me, god or gods, to understand these people who are supposed to love me? What the hell is going on?” “Well, I think it’s something you did to yourself.” “What do you mean?” And down the rabbit hole we go. But each and every time, he faces the frustration of not understanding and forcing his children to behave badly toward him, the stakes get raised. He gets more and more desperate, so he has to keep investing more and more energy, more and more thought, as he moves towards a physical and mental crisis. And it breaks down, and he ends up in a storm and the cataclysmic effect is, he’s out there against the elements, and they crush him like a bug.
Capone: I don’t remember which actor it was, it might have even been Christopher Plummer, but there’s a series on PBS I think it’s called “Uncovering Shakespeare”—
CF: Yes, Chris just did one on LEAR. I saw it. It was wonderful.
Capone: Yeah, I just watched it too. But somebody in that made a very interesting point in saying that the real test of that storm sequence would be for an actor to play it with no lightning, no sound, some people do rain, no rain. Just to have the actor convince you he’s in the storm with no accompaniment.
CF: I saw a Lear do this recently, and they had arranged for a rain shower to come down on him, and the sum total of that given the lighting was that the actor who was playing that knew he was wet. The rest of us couldn’t see it. And of course, the one question you ask is, “Where does the water go? Is it recycled?” And the second question I thought, “Is it warmed?” I was immediately thinking about THE PRODUCERS, where he throws the cup of water at Gene Wilder, and he goes, “I’m wet. I’m wet.” So I don’t know if that helps you much. He’s absolutely right, this person who suggested that, maybe we should do it with nothing. Just the power of imagination. We tried to do pretty much that. We bared it down. We turned down most lights, threw on a puff of smoke, and we just spritzed ourselves so the hair looked a big stringier. But you’re right, it’s poetic. We know we’re up against the worst of the elements, the most unforgiving things. Forget your children who don’t forgive you and don't want to understand you and care for you, but now the elements go, “We don’t care. You’re on your own. And you did this to yourself.” So he is hammered on the anvil of the real world until he comes to his senses, and by that point he’s crazy, and he says perfectly sane things in crazy ways, right?
Capone: In the years leading up to you finally saying, “Okay, I’m going to give Lear a shot,” were there things about this play and playing this part that terrified you?
CF: Yeah, lots. First of all, there’s the idea of all the great people who have played it before. And as you say, it’s usually an actor of stature who has reached that stature thorough a long and glorious career, so it always comes with an enormous amount of freight. There’s a baggage to it. All the company is respectful of the actor, they’re a little careful. The actor can then choose to give or not give, depending on how they are going to play it. I knew that that was not going to work for me. And I was afraid that what I had to offer would not be enough, but then I thought, “This is what we’re going to do; me and [Antoni] Cimolino, the director and the artistic director of the festival, had decided we’re going to give this a go as who we are right now. We thought we were at the height of our game career wise, we’ve all been at it a long time, we’ve played everything else, he’s been an actor and a director, he directed my “Coriolanus,” so we have a very good relationship in terms of actor-director collaboration.
So we thought, “Listen, we’re not dumb. We’re going to research, we’re going to steal from the best of these old guys, but let’s just say we’re going to attack it emotionally, honestly, and simply and see if that might lead us somewhere.” So that’s what we did from the start. I didn’t wait to give a performance; I gave it on the first day. We started rehearsals, I was pushing the envelope of what I thought I was capable of. I was chucking all the things I had ever learned before, trying to get rid of my mannerisms, the things I thought I was real good at. “I can really kill it when I do this…” I tried to both recognize what those pitfalls were and where my traps were and ask Antoni to say, “Dude, I don’t believe you.” And he did.
I’ve been very lucky. My wife has directed me, Donna Feore, she’s directed me a lot, and she directs me even if she hasn’t been hired to direct me. And I know that behind my back, Antoni was calling my wife and saying, “How do I get him to do this?” And she’s very harsh and straightforward just like Antoni is. “Just ask for that, and you don’t accept anything less than that.” So I knew people had my back. They were actually really prepared to support the notion of us all, the company included, going on this journey of discovery and saying, “Look, we’re not telling the story of old. I’m going to do old.” My dad is 86, and I basically stole all of his mannerisms, and he wanted 10 percent on the opening night. I was very worried that he would spot how I pinched all this from him. But of course, that made it make sense, and the only thing that we could then do was be sincere and try hard and work really, really hard.
So to do that, Antoni and I spent about a year and a half before we actually committed to being in rehearsal hall throwing out ideas and asking ourselves, when we still had an out, “Is this a bad idea? Is this dumb?” Then I thought, [Paul] Scofield did it first when he was 40, then he recorded the film when he was 50. And the people playing opposite of him, who were supposed to be his daughters, were probably the same age. The guy was playing Cornwall, his son-in-law, the same age. And you go, “It’s called acting. So let’s see if we can work on the acting part of it,” and that’s when Lear really gets hard, because there’s no hiding behind the facility of language. And I’m reasonably good at that stuff. I can do Hamlet soliloquies, I can do Macbeth and Petruchio [from “The Taming of the Shrew”] and Romeo and Iago [from “Othello”] and Cassius [from Julius Caesar”]. I have that stuff at my fingers ends, and it comes pretty trippingly off the tongue, partly because it’s polysyllabic and poetic and philosophical dissertations on the nature of being, existentialist this and that. And it skirts very fluidly, effortlessly, but on a broader, higher plane. Lear does none of that.
He drops down into a search into his own humanity and soul and stupidity and ignorance and willfulness that bangs his head against the wall. And sometimes, he actually bangs his head. He actually slaps himself in the head and goes, “What the fuck were you thinking?” And people are going, “Don’t slap yourself in the head. Your head is delicate enough as it is, and you’re already acting crazy.” But he keeps digging and digging and goes, “How did I get this so wrong? I thought I knew her. She said she loved me.” “She lied.” “No, people don’t lie to me. I’m the king.” “Well, they lied. They misrepresented the truth, they fudged some stuff, because they wanted the kingdom, you idiot.” “Oh, do you mean they don’t love me?” “No, they don’t love you.” “They never loved me?” “Probably not, you’ve been an asshole for a long time.”
And so this discovery is bare and scalding and harsh, and all those people that really do love him—Kent and the fool and Cordelia, who all hang on to the bitter end—they all lose everything being loyal. And they mostly, particularly the fool, just tell the truth. “You’re behaving badly. You’re making a mistake. This is stupid.” And he goes, “You’re fired. You’re banished. Get out of my site.” Right? So we all recognize that. His ego won’t allow him to just say, “You’re right. I was wrong. I apologize. Help me out with this.” And when he finally gets to that place, it’s too late, but it’s not too late for the audience. So the audience watches this decent into madness, and the re-ascent out of hell into some discovery of what’s possible, and we realize he’s never going to be able to enjoy this. He got it too late.
Capone: You said something earlier that struck me, that you didn’t allow yourself to fall back into your habits.
CF: Yeah, my mannerisms, and the things that I do.
Capone: That's the opposite of knowing your limitations. It’s knowing exactly what you’re capable of and trying not to rely on that.
CF: But you know what? One of the things I’m really good at is knowing my limitations, and often actors who are reasonably successful are asked, “When are you going to direct?” I’m married to a director, I know I can’t direct a two-car funeral; I know that. But knowing that is helpful. I know what I came to Lear already good at, and that is a certain confidence and a facility with the language, and, to be frank, a sense that I could shape and carve the text of Shakespeare in an interesting way that would give the audience a certain understanding. I could finesse the whole thing. And it suddenly occurred to me, that would be the most boring evening in the whole world, and no one would believe me. And any time I found myself falling in love with the sound of my own voice, I thought, “This is doomed. This is a bad thing.”
So what I very consciously did is, all the exercises I always do for the voice, all the rigorous preparation I do physically to allow the voice and the diaphragm to open up, I did all of that, and then I walked on and said, “I don’t give a shit how I sound. I really don’t care. Is this going to be a pretty sound? A rough sound? I don’t care. It’s going to be my sound, today, right now. This is who this guy is: live, not Memorex.” And that was very freeing, because of planning to make a great, dramatic Shakespearian sound when you’re howling at somebody, just fucking howl. Just howl. It’s simple. And I have to tell you, it was the hardest thing I’ve ever tried to do, but it was the most liberating. Because I realized when I went home, and I was shredded and exhausted, and my voice was tired. But it wasn’t tired because I’d overworked it and was planning to do a performance, it’s because I gave everything, I left nothing to chance, it was all on the floor, and I needed a day or two to recover before I could do it again. The beauty of Stratford is, that’s the nature of the repertory system. I could do it like an opera. I could go for broke every time and not look back going, “Oh, I wish I’d tried harder.”
Capone: I saw and interview with you once where you basically said you pretty much say yes to every role that’s offered to you. But I bet you look at every offer and say, “This might not be the strongest script, but I get to work with this person.” And that’s the benefit. That’s the education.
CF: And that’s important. That’s really important.
Capone: Are you an actor that’s still learning?
CF: Always. Always. And that’s the fun of it, and showing up in different towns around the world, different sets with different people, stealing from the best of them and saying, “How did you manage that? How did you do that? What’s your experience? Can you share with me some knowledge of how to get good at this?” Because it seems to me, that there’s so much pressure on actors to fulfill expectations. It’s enormously freeing to get to the place where you’re either old enough or successful enough that you just don't care. I like coming to do this work, because I like doing this work. It’s always interesting and different. But in the early days, I was convinced that it’s merely a confidence trick. The people who had been vested by Hollywood and told they were fabulous came with that sense of themselves. So consequently, the work seemed that much more relaxed. I was working my ass off going, “Why can’t I just show up like that?” “Well, because nobody has told you that you can relax. You’re fabulous, it’s great, it’ll sell a ticket. You’re a star.” So I had to work very hard at not working very hard.
Capone: I don’t think I recognized you in THOR when I saw it the first time, but I can see you saying, “Kenneth Branagh is directing, and there are most definitely Shakespearean elements to this story.” Not only is Branagh perfect for that, but I could see why you would jump at being a part of it.
CF: Absolutely. And he cast Tony Hopkins. Tony and I had been together for years before doing brothers in Julie Taymor’s [film] TITUS.
Capone: Exactly, you got to work with Julie Taymor, on the great stage directors working today.
CF: I had worked with Tony before, so what were we talking about on the set? Shakespeare. How was Kenny directing? He’d say, “Tony, this is a bit of King Lear; I want you to do Hamlet, Act II, Scene I…” And of course, we all knew what we were talking about. And it was a wonderful shorthand. Saved money, saved time, and we knew exactly what he wanted, which for me was huge. It took me five and a half hours to get into that makeup, it was all real; the eyes, the teeth, the head, the face, the body, and then they did some camera trickery and a little digital stuff to make me look bigger than people. But bottom line, this was acting. They dropped the voice a little bit, but it was all Ken coming along and saying, “Do this, do that.” When you’re in a rubber suit in a rubber head, you don’t want to do it 75 times. You’ve got to be sure you’re going to get it right, and use anything that can help you do that, particularly in the classical mode that THOR was.
Capone: I have such a distinct memory of seeing GLENN GOULD in Chicago for the first time—where I was, who I saw it with—and thinking, “Who the hell is that guy?” And for years after that, I don’t think I knew your name, I just said, “Oh there’s that GLENN GOULD guy.” Until I saw you, in of all things, STORM OF THE CENTURY, which I thought was amazing.
CF: You’re very kind. Thank you.
Capone: And as a Stephen King fan, I was excited because I knew it was the first time that he had written just for TV, so you’re actually getting to speak the words right out of the pen, pretty much.
CF: And I think we shot his first draft. It just came out, like six hours of television, 60 characters, and they all came out fully fleshed with a beginning, a middle, and an end. And you know how I got that job? THIRTY TWO SHORT FILMS ABOUT GLENN GOULD, because he had seen that and went, “I really loved that. It was really cool.” And I went, “What? You want me to play the devils advocate?” “Yeah.” “Okay!”
Capone: I just had the chance to re-watch it in the last six months for a podcast I was doing, and we were talking about made-for-television Stephen King films and miniseries, and I said we have to do STORM OF THE CENTURY, because it’s probably the best thing he’s ever done just for television. Give me one great story about that experience, because there’s so many cool actors in that, but you are terrifying in that film.
CF: I can give you a story that would have mitigated my terrifying quality. If you recall, I could transform myself into various things. I played a very large newscaster, and this was back in the prehistoric days of 3-D makeup, and I was hours in the chair for that, so when it came to THOR I was an old hand. I played a variety of different characters for that; the old guy, the heavy-set weatherman guy, a sort of Walter Cronkite, a preacher guy, all of them. I was also meant to play a woman. Now, understand—I am in a complete FX-made, Hollywood-designed makeup. A rubber head caste, the whole thing is fake, and I am still one of the most unappealing women you have ever seen. I don’t know how this worked out so badly.
Capone: You even shaved your legs.
CF: [laughs] Here’s what happened: I knew this was dire when I had spent all these hours in the makeup chair, we were doing the test for this thing, and I was going to walk to the set to show Craig Baxley the brilliant director of this, and say, “Craig, what do you think?” They looked at me and said, “Maybe some wardrobe. Maybe larger breasts. I don’t know if this girl can be on television.” And I passed Craig’s wife and daughter, who were visiting the set, on the way in, and I heard them say as I passed, “Oh that poor girl. She’s trying so hard.” I went straight to Craig, and I said, “Craig, my career is at stake here, the credibility of our film, and let me tell you what your wife said.” He cut the makeup that night, and I never got to play that, and there are few pictures. I don’t know how I could make such an ugly woman even when I was wearing a different head. But somehow my own innate ugliness came right through and just sort of went, “Oh god, no. This will completely capsize the show.”
Capone: I wouldn’t say there’s a running theme through the characters that you’ve played over the years, but you do seem to play, whether it’s a bad guy or a good guy, these men of authority. Something about your voice, something about the way you wear a suit maybe, something about the way you carry yourself.
CF: I think that’s partly the classical-actor background in the sense that at some point in my youth I was given a sword, a crown, and a cape and told, “If you don’t stand up straight, this isn’t going to work. Oh and by the way, you should speak clearly and you should try and command a certain amount of attention.” Now understand always, it’s the crowd that makes the king, it’s them who are going to have to bow and scrape. I’m just a human being who for many, many years has been told he’s fabulous, he’s awesome, and he can rule. So yeah, that gets to you after awhile, and I’ve played a lot of kings, a lot of princes.
So when I went out to do theater and film, I had a huge resume of Shakespeare, which I took off when I went to LA—I didn’t want to frighten anybody, so I didn’t mention it—but I was still standing up straight, I was speaking pretty clearly, and that creates the illusion of a certain intelligence, which creates the sense of, “Well that’s probably the guy who knows what’s going on. Maybe that’s the guy who should know what’s going on.” And look at my face. It’s a hard sell to make me adorable or cute. It just doesn’t work. The angles of my bones, when they catch the light, I’m a cinematographer’s dream, because they could just hit this and the story is told. If you catch the top of my cheek bone, the eyes are sunken, the face looks dark, the hatchet nose, and people are afraid.
So it’s partly physiognomy and partly my training. I got kids that need to be put though school. I don't say no if they want me to be the bad guy, the authority figure, if they think that I can convey a kind of intelligence. I have years of training speaking, so I can do pages and pages of dialogue in one take when we’re ready to go and make them sound like somebody talking. I’ve always thought that would help my employability. I don’t want to see it as a liability. I’m just so less convincing as cute.
Capone: Or as a woman, apparently.
CF: Unspeakable as a woman. Un-filmable as a woman [laughs].
Capone: It was a real pleasure to meet you. Thank you very much.