Pete's Peak

Actor Pete Postlethwaite scales dizzying heights in "Among Giants" -- and tackles his first romantic role.


Jenn Shreve
April 9, 1999 12:06PM (UTC)

With his clifflike cheekbones, gleaming dark eyes and stately schnoz, Pete
Postlethwaite has one of the most unforgettable faces in film. He brings
depth and humanity to every scene he plays, and since his early years with
the Royal Shakespeare
Company, he's portrayed an impressively broad range of characters, from
Kobayashi in "The Usual Suspects" to Giuseppe Conlon in "In the Name of the
Father" (for which he received a best supporting actor nomination) and parts in Steven Spielberg's "Jurassic Park: The Lost World" and
"Amistad."

In "Among Giants," his most recent film, Postlethwaite, 53, has his first
romantic lead, opposite Rachel Griffith ("Hillary and Jackie"). His
character, Ray, is a foreman whose disheveled crew of handymen has been
assigned the dangerous job of painting 15 miles worth of treacherously high
electrical pylons, which they must scale like mountain climbers. Written by
Simon Beaufoy ("The Full Monty"), the story focuses on the difficult
romance that grows between Ray and Gerry (Griffith), a young Australian
drifter whom he hires to help finish the monumental task.

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Numerous scenes in "Among Giants" are shot from
the dizzying heights of the enormous steel structures that Ray and his crew
paint, and along the rocky cliffs outside Sheffield, where Gerry, Ray and
his best friend, Steve
(James Thornton), climb in their spare time. The movie posed other
challenges for its actors: In one particularly touching scene, Griffith and
Postlethwaite wander completely nude through a downpour.

Salon spoke with Postlethwaite by phone from his home on the South Coast of
England. We discussed the difficulties of rock climbing, the liberating
feeling that comes with doing nude scenes and the recent Shakespeare
revival in film.

As an actor, you've worked on a broad spectrum of projects,
including two huge Spielberg movies and some smaller films like "Brassed
Off" and "Among Giants." How do you compare working on big productions vs.
small
ones? Which do you prefer?

I like them both for exactly the same reasons. It's normally the script
and the people you're working with that you go for. [In both big-budget and
small projects] that seems to be the case anyways, so I find no difference
between them, really. It's the tale and the people that are telling them
that draw you to a project.

"Among Giants" must have been a physically challenging film to
shoot.

It was particularly challenging for everyone, for the crew as well as
any of the cast. The crew were lumbering up there with their gear, with
their cameras and their microphones.

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So you were actually up there on the towers --

We were up there, honey. Way up there.

You had to learn to climb for the role. Did you enjoy that?

It was great. Great fun -- especially being on the cliff face, on
the rocks. It was a beautiful part of England, all that, Yorkshire, the
dales there.

Were you ever really afraid up there?

We were when we did the opening shot, when we went to the top [of a
cliff], because it was a helicopter shot. I thought we'd just be lifted up
there with a cherry-picker and brought back down. But if you do that,
where do you put the cherry-picker when you want the shot? So we had to
climb up there. We were up there for an hour or so. We were
glad to get down.

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A lot of fuss has been made about this being your first romantic
role. And you're buck-naked in a whole scene. What's going through your
head when you're being filmed completely naked like that?

Well, everybody's incredibly professional about it. And especially in a
scene like that, they take care of each other. It's what you do in those
kinds of situations. It was a delightful day, in fact.

When you do something like that, do you just have to completely --

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Go with the flow! (Laughs.) And with someone like Rachel, as well, who's
an absolute trouper. If a scene is properly integrated into the story and
should be in a story, then she just gives her whole heart and soul to it --
and body in this case. It's actually terribly liberating, really. It's a
wonderful feeling. And it's a very special scene, I think. Very much part of
the story.

I thought Rachel Griffith gave a great performance, but I get a
little bit frustrated, because there are a lot of movies right now where
you have older men with younger women -- like Anne Heche with Harrison
Ford, Helen Hunt with Jack Nicholson, anyone with Sean Connery. Do you
think this film would have had the same appeal if Rachel Griffith had
30 years more on her?

I don't know. I could see a point where it would if that were
the story, but [the age difference] was one of the interesting twists in
the story. I wasn't aware of all those other people that you
mentioned. I thought it was quite new really, so it shows how naive I am.

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I think it's maybe more of an American film phenomenon. I keep
wanting to see a dashing older woman lead come in.

And a younger man.

That would be even better.

Well, we're doing our best with the nudity. We're certainly saying, Look
it's not just the ladies. Why can't we have some fun, too?

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This is the second film Simon Beaufoy has written that focuses on
working-class Englishmen. Are these films raising social awareness or are
they about highlighting the inherent dignity of their subjects?

I would say they're doing both, hopefully. And also, they're good
stories I think.

You come from a working-class background. Is there a special place in
your heart for these stories?

I'm sure there is. It's part of my background and my culture. That
doesn't stop me from chasing dragons in "Dragonheart" or being in "Romeo
and Juliet," or "The Usual Suspects," or all these other things -- "James
and the Giant Peach," fantastic. They're part of my culture, but so are
quite a few other things as well.

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What did your family think when you came to them and said, I'm going
to become an actor?

I think they really didn't believe it or understand it at the time. I
think they thought, Well, it's something that you will do for a few years,
then you'll realize the error of your ways and get a proper job.

And you worked with the Royal Shakespeare Company.

Yeah. It was 10 or 15 years into my career, I think, that my mom finally
thought this is a good job, because Queen Elizabeth came to open the
theater at Stratford. She met us all onstage and we all had a word with
her. As soon as my mom saw me talking to the queen, I think she thought,
That's a good job. Not too bad. The boy's done good.

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How did you come to work in film?

I started doing TV stuff, then I did "Distant Voices, Still Lives,"
Terrence Davies' film, and I think that's where it really started for me.

Do you still do stage work?

Yeah, I do. In fact we're combining the two this year. Last year we did
"Macbeth" on stage on tour, in Bristol and in Ireland. And
we're now making it into a major film. So that's good.

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There's a bit of a Shakespeare revival going on.

There is. It's great. He could tell a good tale. He was a good, good
script writer, man. I mean still going, 400 years later. The kids'
reactions to "Romeo and Juliet" have been fantastic. It's good. And
"Shakespeare in Love" -- a different kind of thing, but it's all there.

Are you going to stage "Macbeth" traditionally?

No, not at all. It's set in the present, the future and the past.

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Does that help bring it to a mass audience?

Oh, I hope so. I don't want it to be seen by two people in Budapest.

That was the beauty of "Romeo and Juliet."

The whole beauty of this stage production is that we were playing to, at
times, 1,500 15-year-olds in an afternoon. If we didn't engage their
attention, if we didn't take them through that story, we'd failed. In fact,
we played to [almost sold-out] audiences, and 60, 70 percent of those
[in attendance] were 15- and
16-year-olds. They just went in, sat in and just watched all the way
through for two hours. And the letters we got back were fantastic. They
were really excellent. And we got them, I think, because there was a
simplicity and a purity to the story that hopefully we'll be able to
translate onto the screen.

You were in "Last of the Mohicans."

I was. Briefly.

When that came out, it got snubbed at the Oscars. And many
said it was because it was a foreign film. And this year, we have Roberto
Benigni and Judi Dench and Tom Stoppard and "Shakespeare in Love." From
your perspective, are we xenophobic Yanks finally coming around to foreign
films?

I think it's not so much foreign films. I think it's international. I
think people in film now are more internationally aware. And that's a good
thing. There are so many international film festivals now. There's a heck
of a market all over the world. I think that probably can be admired and
applauded and helped if it's possible.

There's the rise of the independent film.

In a way, that's been foisted on people to a certain extent. It seems to
be the only way they could make their films. And now it's, Harvey Weinstein
gets, what, seven Oscars for "Shakespeare in Love." There are many very
poor, low-budget, independent films, too -- doesn't necessarily mean it's
good because it's independent and didn't cost a tuppence. There can be
really good blockbusters, I think. "Toy Story" was fantastic.

Do you take an interest in politics?

I'm not a member of any particular party, but I do take an
interest in politics. I did an ad for the labor party when they won the
last election. It actually was a skit, directed by Stephen Frears, based on
"It's a Wonderful Life." I was a taxi driver who was an angel. We believe
that's actually what swayed the election.

That's what did it.

I'm sure it wasn't. It was time. My goodness.

Have you ever been written about in the British tabs?

Yeah. Especially when you're doing stuff. I recently did two TV programs
over here, so that caused quite a bit of a stir.

But nothing to the degree of the Spice Girls, though.

Oh no, no. Not at all. My private life is absolutely straightforward and
simple.


Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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