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Robbing Malice Of Its Venom: Suri Krishnamma Remembers Albert Finney
Robert Barry , February 10th, 2019 14:12

The great actor Albert Finney, star of Tom Jones and Saturday Night, Sunday Morning, died from a chest infection on 7 February 2019, at the Royal Marsden Hospital in London. In a conversation edited from a telephone interview, the film-maker Suri Krishnamma remembers working with Finney on the film A Man of No Importance, which screens on BBC One this evening

I first met Albert Finney in 1993, just before we cast him in A Man of No Importance, in a tiny office, just off Regent Street. We had been looking for the lead for some time and the reason Albert’s name did not come into the frame earlier on is because we were looking for somebody much younger. In the script that I was asked to direct, the lead character was written for a thirty year-old – nearly half Albert’s age at that time. We looked around at various options. But we couldn’t really settle on the right person until somebody suggested Albert for the role. And it was almost like a lightbulb going off in our heads, mine and the producer, Jonathan Cavendish, the thought that this film, about a man in 1960s Dublin going through this internal struggle with his sexuality, could actually be much more interesting if it was played by an older man. Albert immediately sprung out as the best option. Not only one of the best actors of his generation but he also fitted very much the characteristics of Alfie Byrne, the lead character in the film.

The complexities of his character in A Man of No Importance are that, in a way, he has to play three different roles. He has to play his private life and his private world; then he has his public character, the one he shows to the community around him that hides all the deep secrets hidden in his personal world; but the third one is Oscar Wilde, because he then goes out, dressed as Oscar Wilde, into the community to perform his literary hero. Finding the balance between those three was a really complex process. You’re not really aware, when you watch the film, that those kind of decisions are being made, but it was a really exciting thing to watch him do and something that we had long discussions about – to what extent, in this scene, is he Alfie Byrne and to what extent is he Oscar Wilde?

It came to shooting one particular scene, that actually, I think, is my favourite scene in the whole film. It’s a single shot. It’s just him, looking into his dressing table mirror. And he’s quoting from Oscar Wilde, from De Profundis, “If I can produce only one beautiful work of art I shall be able to rob malice of its venom, and cowardice of its sneer, and to pluck out the tongue of scorn by the roots. And if life be, as it surely is, a problem to me, I am no less a problem to life.” And that’s basically the scene. But during the scene we track around his head as he combs his hair and he moves from Alfie Byrne to Oscar Wilde. It was a really complicated scene to do, even though, on screen, it looks very straightforward. But for me that was a pivotal scene where we saw the transformation between the two.

What I was excited about, the very first meeting with him, and the very first moment he sat down in front of me, was his youthfulness. He bounced in wearing trainers and jeans, with a sort of trendy haircut. He felt very youthful, very spritely, almost childlike in his mannerisms. I immediately felt that this is a man that I can happily spend time with, and not feel daunted by his massive star status and my relative obscurity. This was my first feature film.

Suri Krishnamma directs Albert Finney in A Man of No Importance

I was very influenced in my film school days by a book that William Goldman wrote, called Adventures in the Screen Trade. This was like the students’ Bible. In that book, written by a well-known screenwriter, he interviews Walter Matthau and asks him, what would be your advice to young film-makers when directing big stars? And he said, my advice would be to leave them alone.

I carried this thought in my head when I was working with Albert, but at times I think it got in the way, and I had to brush it away. On the one hand, I recognised that I was in the presence of – I don’t like to use the word ‘genius’ lightly, but a guy that was extraordinarily clever in his acting technique. He’s intuitive in his creative decision-making and he can build characters around himself in a way that makes it quite hard to figure out how he achieves it. On the other hand, I had to guide him, because however experienced and capable he might be, he also needs someone to stand in front of him and say, a bit more this or a bit less that and so on, without any feeling of treading on anyone’s toes.

I found him one day, it might have been the first day of shooting, strolling up and down on the street where we were shooting. He plays a Dublin bus conductor in the 1960s, long before the Oyster card, when people used this strange thing called cash. We had Irish pennies. We made sure that all the props that we used were authentic. We got an authentic old ticket machine from a museum. He became very fond of this old ticket machine and the pouch that carried his change. I would often find him with his fingers in this pouch. He would walk up to me and say, listen to this Suri. He would run his fingers through the coins and they made this sort of tinkling noise. Then he’d pull his fingers out and sniff them. Smell this, he’d say. And they smelt of old coins. Isn’t that great, he’d say, I love this smell.

He felt that he had to immerse himself as much as possible – not just in the characteristics that were required to play this part but also in the period, the smell of the time, which is very difficult. Modern day smells are different. He felt that his character, as a bus conductor, would always smell like this because he’d be handling money all the time. Even if he washed, he would still somehow have that smell around him. It was his way of trying to make sure that he was constantly aware of his character’s profession.

I think what an actor like Albert does is first of all to strip away from themselves the things that they don’t need to play the character. Anything that is of no use, mentally, until they’re left with the bits they think are going to be useful. In Albert’s case, that would be the childlike quality I had noticed at our first meeting, along with a knowledge of literature, and certain other things. And then once you’ve stripped away the things that you don’t need, you then build on top of that the other things that you don’t have, the things that you need in order to fully create that character, like the experience of being a bus conductor. So he had to spend time on the buses and wear the uniform and stand in the right way. He’d say, I’ve got to park myself with one buttock on each side of the rail. I’d say, what are you talking about? He said, because that’s how they got their balance, using the bars on the back of the seat to get some kind of stability as they were collecting tickets.

I bought that old ticket machine from the museum at the end of the film and took him out for lunch, on the day that we said goodbye to each other, which happened to be my birthday. His birthday is on the ninth of May and mine is on the tenth. We finished shooting on the ninth and had our farewell lunch together on the tenth. I always felt there was a kind of connection between us for that reason. I presented him with this ticket machine. I had engraved on it, beautiful people cause beautiful things to happen. I remember I gave it to him and he opened the box, and he just said, oh, it’s my ticket machine. He just burst into tears.

I tried to cast him a couple of times after that. Whenever I saw him, he always said, have you got a part for me? And he would always express interest in everything I was doing. I never managed to find a role that was really suitable for him – or that he was available to do. So I never got to work with him again. But he’s a very private man. He’s been nominated for Oscars six times and never attended a ceremony. Won’t do it. He turned down a knighthood. No pomp and ceremony when it comes to Albert. He doesn’t even do publicity for his films. You wouldn’t see him being interviewed on Graham Norton or any of these shows. I spoke to him about this a few times and he said, look Suri, I’m not a chat show guest. I’m an actor. Acting is what I do. I do it as well as I can. And I’m happy if people like it. But I’m not a talker.

I remember the time I showed him the film for the first time. It took us a while to pin him down. In the end we had to go back to Cork, where he was shooting. He wasn’t Irish but he was very fond of Ireland. We hired out a cinema to show it to him. So we ran the film. I sat I think two or three rows from the front and he was a little bit further back. Five minutes into the film, I turned around and I couldn’t see him. Then I saw him walking up and down at the back. He watched the whole film but he was pacing up and down the entire time. So I walked up to him at the end and said, how do you feel about it?

He said, it was lovely. It’s a beautiful film about people’s private lives and what goes on behind those doors that we’re all fascinated about. People who live in the same street as you and how they live. But I’m sorry – I can’t watch myself on screen. It’s terrifying and I find it really difficult. I’ve never been able to do it.

I said to him, but you must have got used to it over the years?

He said, I’ve never seen most of the films I made. He never saw half the movies that he appeared in because he found it too distressing. As far as he’s concerned, once he’s done the job, he’d done the job.

A Man Of No Importance, directed by Suri Krishnamma and starring Albert Finney, will be shown on BBC One this evening at 11:30pm

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