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Derek Jacobi, From Shakespeare To Slapstick

Derek Jacobi is one of Great Britain's leading actors, with decades of work for the stage, film and TV. He's in movie theaters now, playing the Archbishop of Canterbury in the Oscar favorite The King's Speech. His latest stage triumph: an award-winning turn as Shakespeare's King Lear at the Donmar Warehouse in London. It comes to BAM, in New York, from April 28 to June 5.

Lear is widely thought of as the Everest of an actor's career, and certainly Jacobi has proven that he can play almost anything. For six seasons, he starred as the sleuthing monk Brother Cadfael on television. (That performance is captured — as is his work directing Kenneth Branagh in a 1990 stage Hamlet — on DVDs newly reissued by Acorn Media.) And perhaps most famously, Jacobi played the title character in the BBC's I, Claudius, a late-'70s success on PBS.

He even won an Emmy for his 2001 appearance on the television show Frasier, butchering Hamlet's dying speech as a terrible ham of a Shakespearean. To kick off an interview with Jacobi, Weekend Edition host Liane Hansen played a clip from that performance.

Did you laugh when you were listening to yourself there?

Yes, it brought back very fond memories. It reminded me how easy it was to be a bad Shakespearean actor.

You're in your early 70s now. Was it time for you to play Lear?

I've always had a great inclination to play the classical repertoire. And when you're young and you are so inclined, you go through what's called the Hamlet hoop. I gave my Hamlet when I was much younger, and I played him for nearly 400 performances — so I got to know him rather well. You know, you're judged on your Hamlet, whether you can become a card-carrying member of the classic club. When you get older, you have to go through the Lear hoop for them to ascertain whether they were quite right all those years ago to give you a card to belong to the club.

The impetus to play [Lear] really came from the director, Michael Grandage, a director whom I love, whom I trust and I work very well with. So, when he said, "Come on, let's do it," I couldn't really say no.

Who is your Lear?

I've only seen three Lears in my life. I saw Paul Scofield, the film that they did of Peter Brook's production. I saw Donald Wolfit when I was a schoolboy in the '50s. And I saw Sir Laurence [Olivier] when he did it for the television when he was in his 80s — the perfect age for Lear, but he was a little bit frail. The one that I remember most, I think, is Scofield ... which in the film is almost entirely in close-up on him. I would love to have seen him in the theater.

But that said, I then put all that aside and find my King Lear, which is very much text-based, family-based, power-based and mistake-based.

Of course, he goes through madness and eventually finds redemption. It's an extraordinary journey, a tortuous journey, a very emotional journey and a very — ultimately a very moving journey.

Sir Laurence played Hamlet, you've played Hamlet, Kenneth Branagh played Hamlet. So, it seems it's generational there. How did Hamlet evolve or change with each of those generations do you think?

I saw Olivier's film of Hamlet, in, was it, 1947 I think? And that really did stay with me; that really impressed me as a young boy. I was only nine, 10 years old. And my first Hamlet was a schoolboy Hamlet. And what I lacked in expertise I made up in noise and passion. It was very loud, and I tore a passion to tatters as a schoolboy.

And then, of course, I ended up directing Kenneth Branagh as Hamlet, which was a wonderful experience, but it convinced me that I wasn't a director. By the time I directed Ken, I'd played it hundreds of times. And as we went through the rehearsal period, I would get an idea — and my first reaction was, well, why didn't I think of that when I was doing it? Now I've got to give it away to Ken Branagh! And I found that very frustrating.

But I allowed my generous side to win, and I gave these ideas away — some of which he accepted, some of which he declined. But it was fascinating to see it develop from someone like Olivier — and Olivier's version was heavily cut, of course. My version, and Ken's, were the full four-hour versions.

Hamlet, to me, is the big "personality part" in the canon. He can be played any which way — tall, short, fat, thin, male, female — there have been very successful actresses who've played at Hamlet. It all depends on the personality, the sound, the charisma, the look of whoever's being Hamlet. The great thing about Hamlet is that you don't play his character, you play the situations in which he finds himself. You put yourself into those situations — with those words, with those lines, in the situations — and that becomes your Hamlet.

Sir Laurence Olivier discovered you?

Not really. I had been working at the Birmingham Repertory Theatre. It was my first job, and I'd been there for three years. I didn't go to drama school, so it was kind of my drama school; it was all practical, in front of an audience. And he was sitting out front one Wednesday matinee — we haven't been told that he was there — when I was playing Shakespeare's Henry VIII. And he came 'round afterwards.

And when I picked myself up off of the floor ... he said he enjoyed what he'd seen, and a week later offered me a job at the Chichester Festival Theater, the second year — this is 1963. And that company became the original National Theatre Company. So, I was a founding member of the National Theatre. And I stayed with Sir Laurence and the Old Vic company for the next eight years.

So, in that sense, he really didn't discover me; he kind of supported me and set me on my course, I suppose.

What's the most valuable advice you've been given as an actor?

I think it would be advice that I would certainly pass on to any aspiring young actor, and it's that if you wantto be an actor, don't. But if you need to be an actor, do, because you will always regret not giving it a go. It might not work for you — it often doesn't — but it has to be a need, it has to be a visceral gut need. You have to think of life isn't life without acting. It's vocational. You have to need with your heart and soul to be an actor and to be prepared to face the unfairness of the profession.

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