The Good Times: films, awards and Italy. An interview with actor Gary Lewis.
by Anna Battista
A fine sea breeze is blowing on the Gabriele D'Annunzio Theatre in Pescara (Italy), where the Flaiano Awards, the Golden Pegasus for literature, cinema and television, are every year formally assigned to the best writers, directors, actors and screenplays. This year among the designated winners there's Gary Lewis, awarded the Flaiano Prize as Best Actor for the movie Billy Elliot with the motivation: "Gary Lewis stands among the main characters of Billy Elliot, the British movie considered the revelation of this year. In the character of Billy's father he brilliantly incarnates the virtues of strength and virility typical of the small communities of the North of England, virtues which will almost bar the young protagonist's career in the aerial art of ballet."
Billy Elliot, directed by Stephen Daldry, written by Lee Hall and featuring Jamie Bell as Billy Elliot, Gary Lewis as Billy's dad Jackie Elliot, Julie Walters as Mrs. Wilkinson, Jamie Draven as Tony Elliot and Jean Heywood as Billy's grandmother, amazingly became one of the successes of the year 2001, a success also confirmed by its nomination for an Oscar Award. Billy Elliot allowed Lewis to be nominated to the BAFTA Film Award for Performance by an Actor in a Supporting Role and to the ALFS Award for British Actor of the Year. When he receives the Flaiano Award he reminds the audience where he started from, mentioning the directors he's worked with: "I've been very fortunate to work with directors such as Ken Loach and Peter Mullan. I've worked in commercial movies as well, in the sense that they had a commercial success. And I can say that it is one thing being in a film which is a commercial success, but it is quite another thing to have a special compliment from a festival such as this. We didn't expect a small film such as Billy Elliot to travel so far. After this movie I've been working with Martin Scorsese in Cinecittà in Gangs of New York, so I think I might go back to do a low budget movie again." "Why?" asks the showman who's presenting the award ceremony, amazed to hear such words. "Principles!" replies Gary smiling, before adding, "There are so many good writers and good directors and you don't always get the chance to work in such movies unless sometimes you work in the low-budget films and that's important." The audience claps, Gary Lewis goes back to his seat clutching the Golden Pegasus and the award ceremony goes on.
"Now I'm beginning to think if he got the right part he could do it, he really could. He's definitely got it in him. There's a lot of them could do it, if they got the right parts; but they don't, ye see them doing these walk-ons and ye think fuck they're real actors, they're trained at it, they could take the lead, they could do it. And they could do it, if somebody gave them the chance. They just don't get the chance. Ye're talking about the star-system, the way it's geared to big bucks, mega-bucks. There's merr tae it than that. I don't think so. D'ye know any actors? Aye. Who? A couple. What's their names? Joe Rafferty and Bill Thomas, they drink in that local of mine. Naw sorry, I cannot tell a lie, I just made that up. I dont know what their names are. But they do drink in that local of mine. What is their names? I dont know. Well how d'ye know they're actors? Somebody telt me. They come in quite a lot. I think one of them's been on the stage a few times, it's just adverts they do. What I'm saying but see if they got the chance, they could do a real job. But the bigwigs'll no give them a chance, they'll no gamble. That's how the industry's falling apart, tales of woe everywhere, all these movies, they're all making a loss. Millions and millions of pounds, all down the tubes. That's what happens. "--James Kelman, Gardens Go On Forever
The day after receiving an award is probably even better than the day in which you get it, since, even though you still feel the buzz of the excitement, you're finally free from every kind of pressure which might have been put upon you. That is also why the day after the Flaiano Award ceremony seems to be a fine time to have a late afternoon informal chat with Gary Lewis. It is almost evening, but it seems like the sun doesn't want to leave its golden seat up above in the sky. From the roof of the hotel where we're having our chat, we can see the riviera and the people on the beach, enjoying the last minutes of sun for today. So, while they're working on their suntans, we leave behind the success brought by Billy Elliot and start our chat talking about another film, a movie released a few years ago, Orphans.
Directed and written by Peter Mullan, Orphans (1997), featuring Douglas Henshall as Michael, Gary Lewis as Thomas, Rosemarie Stevenson as Sheila and Stephen McCole as John, is the story of how four brothers spend the night preceding the day of their mum's funeral. Instead of passing their time mourning the loss of their mother, each of them ends up in a different situation, ranging from Michael getting wounded during a bar fight to Thomas keeping company to his mother's coffin in the church and eventually destroying the statue of the Virgin Mary, to Sheila getting lost on her way back home while John tries to revenge his brother. The whole film takes place in a bleak Glasgow, battered by the rain and by a windstorm that will cause a tragicomic accident. "Orphans wasn't dubbed," Gary starts explaining, "it was shown how it was filmed, except in Italy of course, though I don't know if Orphans was dubbed in the States. In Orphans there was a lot of specifically Glasgow stuff, so it would have been a shame if it had been dubbed since it would have lost it." Though Orphans received four awards at the Venice Film Festival in 1998, and in the same year Gary Lewis won Best Actor as Thomas in Orphans at the Gijón International Film Festival, the movie was never totally appreciated by the British Channel 4. "I think what happened was that Channel 4 didn't know what to do with it," Gary admits, "I think Peter said they wanted another Trainspotting or something like that. In the end, I think that the story was that they were uncertain that they were going to distribute the film. And then after Venice, they said 'OK, we want to distribute it' and Peter said 'Forget it, I'll just go with somebody else.' To be really honest I'm not sure what it was that Channel 4 didn't like about it, in the end the film was quite successful. I don't know about the economics, but it was really well received. And it wasn't just the awards, people who saw the movie liked it, people still talk about Orphans now, so it seems to have made an impact."
Orphans wasn't the first occasion in which Gary worked with Peter Mullan. He also worked with him in three shorts: Close, Good Day for the Bad Guys (1995) featuring Gary Lewis, Peter Mullan and Laura Fraser and Fridge (1996), directed and written by Peter Mullan featuring Gary Lewis and Vicki Masson, apart from having worked with Peter in other movies such as Ruffian Hearts (1995), directed and written by David Kane and featuring Vicki Masson and Ewen Bremner. "I have known Peter before I started working with him but that never guaranteed me a part!" Gary exclaims, remembering, "I worked with him in three short movies, Close, Good Day For The Bad Guys and Fridge, which won an award too. Peter's great to work with. He can be very demanding, but he communicates well what he's after and he always takes his time with the actors. For example, before we did Orphans we got together as a family, got a round around the pub, pushed Rosemary around in the wheelchair. If you do something and he doesn't like it he'll tell you straight up, but he's got a balance, so that he gives you a certain freedom as well. He's funny sometimes and I really like to work with Peter that's why I'll try to do other stuff with him."
Apparently, Gary has got quite a few stories to tell about Orphans and working with Peter Mullan, "You know that scene in the movie when the roof came off the church?" he asks. "Playing Thomas I'm standing near the coffin and all the sheets come rushing towards me. There were two wind machines and thousands and thousands of Bibles being torn up as the debris from the storm and trees, leaves, bits of branches and twigs. The art department was working really hard for this scene and the technical department had these two wind machines. There were two cameras in two different positions and Peter was talking to everybody, to the art department, the lightening, camera and technical crew and on this one occasion he hadn't said anything to me and he said 'OK, we're ready to go!' and I asked him 'What do you want me to do?' and he said 'I don't fucking know! You'd better come up with something 'cos we've got only one crack at this!' So he said 'Action!' and the wind machines came and it went like this in the face…" Gary pauses, stretches his face with his hands, as if it were invested by a violent wind, and concludes, "…it was just like being a cartoon! So, I stood like Jesus and then I curled up into the fetal position. There was no time to think, it was just completely spontaneous and it was just how it turned!" Gary bursts into laughing, shaking his head, continuing. "I admire Peter, I admire him hugely, he's really good at utilising everything that is around. I remember we were doing the short film Good Day for the Bad Guys and we had no money. I told him 'My character doesn't have any shoes, I don't have any shoes'. We were filming in this place and he spotted a pair of shoes just lying around. And he said 'This pair! Take these shoes!' They belonged to someone else, but he just said 'Put them on!'"
I remark that shooting with Peter sounds like a very enjoyable and natural experience and Gary seems to have the umpteenth story to tell me about it: "We were filming Orphans, the pub scene with the guys singing the song before I sing the terrible song, and one of the guys in the crew, a really good guy, Douglas, said 'Why don't you film it like The White Heather Club?' This was a really kitsch Scottish programme about Scottish country dancing and he said 'And you can have the camera going on like in a ceilidh dance' and Peter said 'This is a good idea, OK, we're going to do it!' That's just an example, it's not always like that, but he can be open, he's open towards the crew." Another good one he tells is that on the set there was an English first assistant director while they were shooting the pub scene. "The English first ad gave directions to the waitress to pick up the glasses and Peter said 'No, no, there's still some drink in the glasses' and the assistant director remarked 'Yes but they're nearly finished', but Peter underlined 'NO, this film is being made in Glasgow and in order for it to be universal it has to be specific, some aspects of the culture must be specific and that's what helps it being universal.' What was specific in that movie was that people in Glasgow finish their drinks, they don't leave anything lying in the glass like in Starsky & Hutch or some American movie, in which they get a drink, get a sip and then rush away leaving it unfinished. In Glasgow it would be, 'Yeah, we go, but after the drink!'"
Gary also featured as Shanks in Ken Loach's My Name Is Joe (1998) in which Peter Mullan starred as the main character. My Name Is Joe was filmed in Glasgow, as was Ken Loach's Carla's Song (1996) which featured Robert Carlyle and also Gary Lewis. A while back Ken Loach stated that Glasgow is a very cinematographic city and I've often wondered why. "I don't know, I don't look at it through the camera, I live there," Gary shakes his head, thinks for a while and then remarks, "If you think about how Ken Loach shot Carla's Song you realise that there are shots in this movie which are maybe unexpected. Ken Loach showed some really deprived working class parts of Glasgow and some very beautiful aspects of Glasgow, which is a set in which it is possible to go such a short distance and see a huge contrast and realise how people live differently. Think of the West End of the city and then think of Maryhill or Ruchill. If you went to Ruchill where My Name Is Joe was filmed, you could see that it's bleak there, it's really dreary, it's not a healthy place. I think that maybe Loach was intrigued by these contrasts."
Gary Lewis was born and brought up in Glasgow, from where his inspirations to become an actor seem to have come. "Acting wasn't a street lying ahead for me. People who inspired me were the people I met in my life, some people were very good entertainers, some people were very sharp, very funny, very clever, very talented and good singers. There was one teacher, an English teacher, who showed us a lot of films. He showed us also Ken Loach's Kes, which made a big impact on me. It was extraordinary to see this representation of people from a working class background. Most televisions are completely alien to the people who form the majority of the population, it's just bizarre but it is like that. I was very moved, it was wonderful to see this film about a specific working class character other than ordinary people just being portrayed as one and a half dimensional characters, being considered things in the background. Other influences were things I started to be involved with in the East End of Glasgow. I starred in a play about a Scottish socialist, John MacLean, playing the character of John MacLean, and went to the Edinburgh festival in 1979. This was more than a decade before I decided to be an actor in a professional sense. At that time I was still doing lots of other works, real jobs. I did a lot of different jobs--working as street sweeper, postman, working in a library, working with children and homeless people in Glasgow. I studied, but I never trained to become an actor. I took part in other dramas and then I was involved in some political dramas, some satire sketches, and in the end I quit the day job for a theatre position, a job with the theatre, though it was only a small contract. I worked with the Raindog Theatre Company in Glasgow, a company set up by Robert Carlyle among the others, and other companies and then started acting in short movies. The first part in a short film I had was in Peter Mullan's Close and then I thought 'Oh God I love short films!' Short films gave me a lot of experience in front of the camera, so I passed to television and then I started to do some cinema. I'd like to go back working for the theatre: for the Raindog Theatre Company I did One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest with Peter Mullan and Sandy Morton, Ecstasy, Wasted as well as a short film called The Lucky Suit. I worked on the 7:84 Theatre Company production of The Grapes Of Wrath; I did Harold Pinter's The Birthday Party with The Arches Theatre Company and worked at the Tron Theatre. It has been a while now since I worked for the theatre, but it is difficult now to work for it since a lot of theatre productions last so long. Besides the money is crap and I've done enough jobs working for nothing. After a while you want to get paid, don't ye?"
Aye, every now and then it is nice to get paid, to receive an award or to have international success as it happened to the film Billy Elliot. "I had no idea it would have been such a successful movie," Gary admits. "While we were making the film, some people in the crew would say 'I think this is going to be a very special film', but I just concentrated on working on my role. The first indications it was going to be a successful movie were when one of the producers phoned me and said, 'We're getting very good results from test screenings, that's really extraordinary!' They showed it in different places such as Sheffield and New York to different audiences, just to see the reactions and they were getting really good responses. They were surprised because privately they didn't know what to do with this movie: they had made a movie but when they finished it, people involved in the production actually said 'Who wants to see a movie about a kid who wants to be a ballet dancer? What's the target audience?'"
Instead Billy Elliot found a proper audience, perhaps because it's not only a nice story about a kid realising a dream, but it also gives a sort of insight in the 1984-85 miners' strike in Great Britain. "Before working on the film, I talked to miners, a thing which helped a lot. I liked my role also because I had experience in the miners' strike," Gary states, "My family and I were very active in supporting the miners: I stood in picket lines, I raised money for the miners and I was involved in the whole campaign to stop McGregor and Thatcher in closing the pits. Basically, it was the state that launched a complete attack on a section of the work force, a section of the working class. Lots of people responded with solidarity and that was a key element in the script: solidarity working at different levels, the collective solidarity, the economic solidarity. While watching the film a lot of people don't catch that it's only because these guys give their last pennies that Billy is able to go for the audition in London. These people who have nothing, virtually nothing, give the very last of what they've got. The miners I met while we were making Billy Elliot had made contact with the Jewish community in London, with the gay community in London, with the black community in Brixton, contact with people with different backgrounds, people whom they had never contacted before and with whom they had even been hostile to before whether because of racism or homophobia. In the movie there is the same, a solidarity at different levels. The community made possible for the kid to go and realise his dream, they furnished that, they made that possibility a probability, something which could be realised and that was important. Some people took the meaning of the movie in the wrong way, as if Billy was a kid rising out of the working class and then everybody else was fucked! But there are different ways to look at that."
But the success of a movie also depends upon the chance an audience actually gets to see the movie on the big screen. "I think that the audiences in the rest of Europe, some of the rest of Europe, are fortunate because they have an opportunity, for example in Paris or Rome, to go and see lots of films because there are still independent cinemas, but in Britain the audiences are fed on a steady diet of American films," Gary claims. "As Ken Loach says," he continues, "it is not only a problem of distribution, that's one problem, but another problem is the problem of exhibition: there are only so many screens, so in the big studios they say 'OK, so you want Lara Croft? So you've got to take these other shite movies, this one, this one and this one.' There's not enough space left for other films to come through. Ken Loach's film for example, Bread and Roses, how long did it last? Bread and Roses made a few screens in Scotland, maybe the Filmhouse in Edinburgh, the Glasgow Film Theatre in Glasgow, nothing much, you need to be lucky in Scotland to see this kind of movies, but you can see rubbish fucking everywhere! I might be wrong, but I think that in some places in Europe people have more opportunities to see such movies. If you think about Ken Loach's Land of Freedom, well, it was seen all over Europe and it needed more prints in Italy and Spain than it did in Britain, but Loach's a great British director who doesn't get the recognition he deserves in his own country. At present, there's not a lot happening regarding the film industry in Scotland. Richard Mowe was here a couple of years ago, I read the article he wrote and he was just going 'Yes! Scotland! The Film Industry! Wow!' I think it's not like that, it's not true because the film industry isn't properly backed, it isn't getting funded, it's very easy to say 'Oh this is brilliant, Orphans and Trainspotting and My Name Is Joe', but it is not like that. Sometimes not all the 'Scottish' films are really Scottish, they just use Scotland as location."
Gary seems to have been quite busy lately. "I was working in the Scorsese film Gangs of New York in Cinecittà and that took a while not because I have a big part in it, but just because the movie took a long while to make. Yes, it took up a while, but I wasn't working everyday while I was in Cinecittà. I loved it in Cinecittà. The Italian crew were magnificent, really and Dante Ferretti, the designer, is just amazing, incredible! He designed this incredible set! And Scorsese is magnificent, he has obviously such a passion for films, sometimes you're just so surprised about his knowledge about cinema and it is very interesting to watch him directing. Then from Rome I went to Dublin to work in Gilles MacKinnon's film The Escapist, which also features Johnny Lee Miller. And then I worked on another film in Scotland called The Rocket Post. Anyway, Gangs of New York was very different from everything I've done before: there you go, one day you're working in the low-budget film industry for no money and the next you're in Rome!"
Of course now that he's mentioned RomeGary won't escape the question about the best and the worst things in Italy: "Ah, Jesus! Too many best things, honestly!" he exclaims. "I miss it, I could list all the best things. I met a lot of very good people in Rome. I dream about Rome sometimes. I've walked around Rome so much that sometimes I'm just sitting somewhere and I just remember a small street in Rome or some corner, maybe some small place where I was one night. I think Rome has entered my poetic memory! As for what regards the worst things, well, I must have been quite lucky. I was living in an apartment in Rome and we had some problems, domestic problems with things, but probably the worst things are pollution and traffic. But in the end Rome was wonderful. My son, who's only five, came over. Rome was such an amazing place, one of the great things that I was able to expose my son and myself to. And the people were great, really great. I went to the demonstration organised when Haider was giving the Christmas tree to the Pope. A girl came up to me and said 'You're from England, aren't you?' and I said 'Well, actually I'm from Scotland and she said, 'OK, yes, we know you, could you just come here, please?' and she moved me away. Then I saw that there were two guys standing and a guy behind them had a sling and he hurled the sling towards the police and she said 'You know, you were in the way and we didn't want to hurt you!' and then she added 'We liked My Name Is Joe!' See, I had a good time!", Gary concludes, smiling at his Italian memories.
Given that we mentioned Italy, and, it is well known that Italy is a nation of football fanatics, I ask him if he supports Rangers or Celtic, "Celtic!" he beams, before telling me of his Italian football fanatic experience: "I went to the Lazio-Roma game in Rome. We were with the Roma supporters and we got into trouble because after the game we wore our Roma scarves into Cinecittà and there were these guys saying 'Why do all the actors support Roma and not Lazio?' That happened just after the Lazio supporters had given these racist abuses to a player. So I started to talk, talk and talk. I said that the Lazio supporters were hypocrites who in the morning went to the Vatican and asked the Pope for a blessing and then in the evening they went to the stadium and behaved like racists. So I said that I couldn't stand these people and the next day there was this thing on the internet, 'Gary Lewis attacks Lazio fascists'!"
We then leave behind Italy to go back to Scotland, at least with our minds. In particular we discuss another "Scottish" issue, the Scottish parliament. "As far as I can see there were never campaigns on the streets, people of Scotland were never on the streets campaigning for a Scottish Parliament," Gary starts, "they were on the streets against the poll tax, they were on the streets in support of the miners, they were on the streets for different things, but they were never on the streets for the Scottish parliament. And when they voted for the Scottish parliament, they voted for a Scottish parliament with tax raising powers so that there was some degree of atonement, financial atonement, but even when the vote came in they were not in the streets in celebration. Not one party, not one firework, so the campaign really was carried out in different quarters, it wasn't something which was a burning issue for a lot of working class people and I suppose it has become a bit of a disappointment. You ask many people in Scotland who are their members of the Scottish parliament, they wouldn't know, they wouldn't have a fucking clue! I mean, the first thing they did was swearing allegiance to the Queen! As regarding to Scotland having a radical parliament, I don't think so. I suppose that it offers an opportunity for challenge, they challenge the state because the Labour Party is so right wing and it is such a definitely moribund stagnant organisation. Most of the people who became members of the Scottish parliament are pretty poor Labour party chancellors and I have no respect for them. They say that they're socialists and for socialists they've done things so bad. They have lots of positions, they control the district councils, they control the local government, they have positions of power everywhere, so why are things so bad? How come these socialists don't seem to do anything for the people they claim to represent? Anyway, as you can tell, I'm a socialist and I don't regard these people as socialists!"
"I'm no kidding ye, he said, even just out walking first thing in the morning, ye forget where ye are, then that first Glasgow voice hits ye; it makes ye smile, know what I'm saying, cause it's a real surprise. And ye feel good, ye know, ye feel good, cheery. Then in the pub christ ye dont mean to get drunk. Ye just go for a jar and ye wind up having one too many. An auld story but true. Ye meet guys and ye sit on blethering. That Glasgow scene man cunts buy ye drink and ye have to buy them one back."--James Kelman, How Late It Was, How Late
After turning off the microphone and officially declaring the interview closed, we end up having a drink and talking about this and that. Gary explains me that he once starred in a James Kelman play, One Two Hey, about a day in the life of a rhythm and blues band, which featured the Glaswegian band The Blues Poets. Glaswegian writer James Kelman gave voice to the oppressed, dispossessed, disillusioned working class, portraying characters such as Robert Hines in Bus Conductor Hines, Sammy Samuels in How Late it Was, How Late or the hundreds of characters in his short stories spending their existences on the broo or just talking in the pub. Kelman being one of my fave authors, I ask Gary if there is a character out of this writer's works he'd like to interpret. After thinking for a while, he finally states, "I suppose lots of characters, but probably Sammy in How Late It Was, How Late." It might take a while to see a novel from James Kelman on the big screen, but there you go, you never know, one day you're working in the low-budget film industry, one day you're working in Cinecittà and one day there might be a good script taken from one of James Kelman's works lying around, then there would already be someone ready to star in it. And we would already know who he is.
Special thanks to Gary Lewis.