A legend of the cinema, Peter O’Toole chats about his latest movie “Dean Spanley”

A genuine legend of the cinema, Peter O’Toole came to prominence in 1962, playing the title role in David Lean’s Lawrence of Arabia. A turn Premiere magazine later ranked as number one in their list of the 100 Greatest Performances of All Time, it afforded O’Toole the first of his eight Oscar nominations to date. His most recent nod was for Roger Michell’s 2006 Venus, in which he played a man enchanted by a young girl. Now 76, O’Toole is still very much active as an actor – whether it be voicing the food critic in Ratatouille or playing the Pope in The Tudors.


His latest role is in Toa Fraser’s Edwardian-set Dean Spanley. O’Toole plays the cold-hearted Fisk Sr, made so after losing both his wife to illness and his son to the Boer War. In an attempt to stir his father from his stupor, his only remaining son, the long-suffering Fisk Jr. (Jeremy Northam), takes him to a lecture on reincarnation. There, they meet the mysterious Dean Spanley (Sam Neill), who likes nothing better than being plied with Hungarian desert wine. Below, O’Toole talks about what drew him to the role, why he still loves to act and why he loves to watch rugby in the sun.


Q: What attracted you to making Dean Spanley?

A: It’s remarkable. It’s a most unusual script. It’s different. I can’t compare it with anything – except it’s a sophisticated comedy of a high level. There’s a lot of visual…the visuals of this film will be about adjectives. Yes, there’s a lot of dialogue but then there often is in comedy. The five leading people are first class actors. Two of them, I’ve known forever. Judy [Parfitt, who plays housekeeper Mrs. Brimley] and me, we go back ages. She’s an excellent actress. She’s good news. And Bryan Brown [who plays Wrather, Spanley’s adventurer friend], we go back donkey’s years. And to work with Sam Neill is a delight, because he’s first class. And so is Jeremy Northam. You’ve got five top mamas doing it!

Q: Did you know much about Lord Dunsany, Irish author of the original book?

A: I’ve not heard of him for fifty years. I looked through his credits, and I remembered him for three works. I knew him as a short story writer and I knew him as a playwright, but not for fifty years have I even heard his name. An amazing man, as we now know. A great chess champion. Again I’m going back for fifty years, and I may get my facts a bit skewiff, but Dunsany was considered to be a part of that whole mob – Somerset Maugham and everybody, who wrote short stories and plays. But it was pointed out to me that he was really a part of a ‘Celtic Twilight’, at the end of the 19th Century, when people got very interested in the occult, reincarnation and the transmigration of souls. All those things. Which they took very seriously. Conan Doyle and Yeats particularly…


Q: Does it remind you of the relationship between you and your father?

A: It’s a very strange thing, but I find that the whole of theatre and cinema and script-writing and plays is a parallel universe. It doesn’t remind me really of anything. Because you’re playing a human, it’s inescapable [to draw from own background]. One has to. I can’t play a dog. Woof. I’m a human apparatus. But in terms of my own life, it’s about one’s own life that informs one, but not consciously.

Q: It seems like you had great fun making the film?

A: Oh, yes. We worked like dogs – pardon the expression. We were up at 5 to fucking midnight, with scene after scene, and it was a hard slog. We all had lots to do, but the pleasure of working with top pros is that it’s alive. You can always tell when the crew join in, and they’re watching the monitors. They know that it’s going to be – I’m not saying it’s going to be good, bad or indifferent – different. Something that’s taken their attention, something that’s attracting them. I think the story hits a lot of nerves. I hope it punctures the pomposity of Hindu and Buddhist and all the rubbish that goes on right now.


Q: This is your biggest role since Venus. But how was that experience?

A: It was lovely. I don’t like playing big parts anymore, because of the energy and time it takes. I don’t enjoy it. I don’t want to be exhausted. I’m not the youngest man in the world. I just don’t want to be tired and miserable. I like popping in and doing a week. But Venus was irresistible. A lovely film, and a beautiful part. A 70 year-old man, like me, we yearn…good parts make good actors and not many good parts come along for a septuagenarian, so I grabbed it, as I would. And I loved it and I loved playing it. It’s done me the world of good. Work has been flowing in.


Q: Yes, you recently did Disney/Pixar’s Ratatouille, how was that?

A: Yes. They’re nice people, Pixar. I loved doing that. I loved doing it. We had such fun, doing it. It’s gorgeous. The first thing that happened was that I was sent this script, and I thought, ‘Ratatouille? A cartoon? Stop it!’ I read it, but the dialogue is beautiful. It was a beautiful piece of writing. Then I met Brad and we did it. I got involved in the process. He showed me how it was all done. We did two or three days – on the first day, there was a camera on me, on the microphone, and the next time around they’d adopted some of my mannerism and put them into the film. Beautiful. All I had to go on was the words.

Q: Do you ever get nostalgic for the past?

A: No, no. Have you seen the camera we’re using? It’s a High-Definition digital camera. Look at the cameraman, and look at his years – he has to be nearly 60. He’s a 35 mil emulsion man, but he’s loving it. There he is.


Q: It seems like you take great interest in the technology of film?

A: I love it. I love camerawork too. I began life as an apprentice press photographer, would you believe, on the Yorkshire Evening News. I got my foot in the door as an apprentice press photographer. Me and Keith Waterhouse. Keith was a little bit ahead. By the age of 16, I’d moved into features and sports. Then I served in the navy for three years and my ideas on everything had changed. People think this is arrogant, though I don’t it to be, but I’d rather be reported than report. I’d rather be on the pitch than in the stadium. I love to be on the pitch. I don’t like stadiums – I hate the bloody places. If it weren’t for Will Carling…I’d never go to a rugby match. Will invites me up to Twickenham, and it’s lovely. Friends and the All-Blacks, the Aussies, all the old test players, and you get a nice seat and lunch. I’d normally rather watch kids play – so I can walk around the touchline as I did as a little boy.



Dean Spanley is at Irish Cinemas from 12th December 2008