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From Graves to Gravedigger

Derek Jacobi
Peter Mountain

He, Claudius: Derek Jacobi in Kenneth Branagh's new screen adaptation of "Hamlet."

Derek Jacobi, TV's Claudius, talks about Kenneth Branagh's new 'Hamlet'

By Richard von Busack

Derek Jacobi has collaborated frequently with director Kenneth Branagh, turning up as the villain in his agreeable 1990 detective thriller Dead Again, the narrator in Henry V and King Claudius in Hamlet.

Few who saw him are likely to have forgotten Jacobi as the abject Emperor of Rome, Tiberius Claudius Drusus Nero Germanicus--a brilliant man hiding his intelligence under the mask of a stuttering fool, in the title role of the BBC serial I, Claudius.


Metro: Here you are playing the villain for Kenneth Branagh again . . .

Jacobi: You know, I got into the last three finalists for The Silence of the Lambs. Who knows, I could have been Hannibal Lecter. I've only played the heavy twice. In most of the work I've done on British television, I'm much more the victim. I was the victim of all time in I, Claudius. I think that English actors make good villains. To American audiences, English actors sound villainous.

Metro: Did you have any idea that I, Claudius would be remembered this long?

Jacobi: No, oh, no. It was done originally as a BBC-2 classic series. We didn't realize was that the basic ingredients of sex, violence, power and wealth would have great appeal. Sian Phillips, who played Livy, was married to Peter O'Toole; he came along to watch the filming and said, 'The critics aren't going to like this, but millions will watch; it will be a great hit.'

When it first started airing in London, the critics weren't for it at all, but gradually it took them over. We had no idea it would last. A few years ago, I was at a party, and I met the producer of Dynasty, who was a great I, Claudius fan. She said, "You do realize we pinched your plot." It translated well.

Metro: Did you ever meet I, Claudius author Robert Graves?

Jacobi: I met him twice, once long before I knew I was going to be in I, Claudius. I met him in Mallorca, in late 1967. He was about 75, but full of energy, a giant of a man. He lived on this house at the top of a cliff and went swimming daily, hurtling himself into the water, and hurtling himself back up the stairs to his house five times during the course of the day.

I spent the weekend there; I'd been taken by Maggie Smith, who knew him. Ava Gardner was there, and the guy who played Jesus in the first time we were allowed to see his face on screen: Jeffrey Hunter [star of Nicholas Ray's 1960 King of Kings]. We had a wonderful weekend.

And then he came to see us on the set in 1976, at the BBC studios. By that time, Graves was in his 80s, and he was gone. Really couldn't get a sane word out of him. He spent the day with us, and he didn't mention I, Claudius at all; he never once acknowledged where he was. He'd gone off to his own world. The only intimation that he knew where he was he want up to George Baker and said, "You're the right height for Tiberius."

Metro: Did you see the documentary about the unfinished Josef von Sternberg film of I, Claudius?

Jacobi: Yes, The Epic That Never Was. The BBC showed it to me to lay [exorcise] the ghost of Charles Laughton, who played Claudius--to make sure I did something completely different. [It was] a fascinating piece, with extracts from bits and pieces that were actually shot--a very Hollywood version with 100 vestal virgins.

Metro: Kenneth Branagh mentioned how seeing you as Hamlet influenced his decision to be an actor. Having played Hamlet and Claudius, have you played the other parts in the play?

Jacobi: Yes, I played Laertes to Peter O'Toole at the inaugural production of the National Theater in 1963, with Olivier directing and Michael Redgrave as Claudius. Laertes has a difficult time. Most of the play he's in the dressing room; he has to come out and play in the same mood as when he left the stage two hours previously.

I admit I didn't see myself as Claudius material. Given as we were playing the entire text, though, it opens things up. It's a hideously difficult text, very compact, very convoluted, very hard on the tongue. Claudius is usually cut to ribbons when the play is filmed. But it does pays dividends to see it filmed entire.

Metro: And you directed Branagh on stage as Hamlet.

Jacobi: I directed Ken in 1988, and then he directed me. I'm totally in awe of Ken. He's that rare creature, a mover and a shaker, and I envy that. As a director, he's very conscious of an actor's problems, which he tries to minimize. He's rather like Henry V: He exalts the company to be a company. No star baggage. If you're there, you may be the most highly paid actor in the world, but you're a member of the company.

He directs very gently, almost by osmosis: "Let's do that," "Why don't you try that?" He spends a lot of the time on cinema shots, close-ups, etc. He would ask for a range of reactions: "Act as if you enjoy what you've heard," "Act as if you're frightened of what you've heard"--and he'll never tell you which take he's going to use.

Metro: How was it being directed by Laurence Olivier?

Jacobi: Olivier did a tremendous amount of homework. Ken does this, too, but Olivier had a little stage at home in his study, and he'd come back the next day with the idea of where he wanted all of the actors to be. [Imitating Olivier]: "Walk to the door. Come back."

You'd pluck up your courage: "Please sir, can I try something?" "Yes, yes, carry on." But you'd always end up doing exactly what he wanted, even if you'd had a chance to flap around and do your own thing first. You did what he wanted you to do.

You had a natural deference to Olivier. My shirt was always sticking to my back, even after eight years of friendship. I could never call him Larry to his face. Behind his back of course to my friends, it was "Larry said that . . ."

Metro: What do you think you've most accomplished as an actor?

Jacobi: Getting this far without being found out.

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A web exclusive to the February 20-26, 1997 issue of Metro

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