Friday, October 23, 2009

Day 17: British Actor Mr. Timothy West

Keble College Chapel

Last night I met an actor I could respect. He was charming, he was witty, he had played on the stage and in front of cameras, and, most respectably, was serious about the intellectual challenge of acting.

Yet on the stage of Keble College's O'Reilly Theatre last night, Mr. Timothy West was not acting. As a faithful supporter of student theatre, he had come to share his experiences and sage wisdom with Oxford's Thespians.

Mr. West recounted his experience playing roles of various sorts, including Shakespearean roles of all kinds and comedic and historic figures. He opened the evening's lecture with one of his most challenging roles as Winston Churchill. For this role, Mr. West's physique was changed entirely: he was given a full head (toupee and all) of white hair, false ears, false nose, and blue eyes. What was most challenging about the role was the voice. Churchill believed that, the closer he got to the microphone and the louder he raised his voice, the more people he would reach (his director, a large a man as Churchill, had to sit on Churchill's lap to keep the microphone at a non ear-splitting distance). Thus Mr. West had no recordings of Churchill's normal intonations; to learn Winston Churchill's accent, Mr. West listened to these speeches again and again and attempted to imitate the voice at a lower decibel.

Mr. West has also played numerous villains, including an MP who swindled thousands of Britains in a lottery-like scandal, Joseph Stalin, and a suicide-assisting doctor. For each, he would study the personality, the habits, and particularly the accent of each individual in-depth. He first would study the part and determine a truthful way to play it. When satisfied on this point, he would then study the part and determine how to clearly play the part. When satisfied here, he would determine how to make the part interesting, for even though a part could be played truthfully and clearly, it could be “dull as a dead being.”

When asked if he liked playing these actors and why he felt he could, with integrity, play them so well, he said he would never refuse a part if he disagreed intellectually with the character, but he would refuse to act in a production if he disagreed with what it said about the villainous character. The villains, he said, “Whether they be Hitler or Margaret Thatcher, villains do not believe they are villains,” and deserve to be honestly played. If not honestly and truthfully played, he would not be acting, but commenting on the characters.

I was impressed with this. As an attorney in the United States, I have gained an appreciation for the role of an advocate, even for the most guilty defendant. They deserve to be faithfully represented in court, to “have their day in court” so that justice might be served. Mr. West treated his role as actor in a similar way, so that the character of the villain could be honestly portrayed and thus honestly judged by the audience.

With all of his charm, wit, and experience on the silver screen, I was impressed that this talented man had been enough unaffected by success to remain honest and hardworking. To me, it made him a first-class actor.

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