By Ed Rampell
Julian Sands, who played George Emerson in the 1985 Merchant Ivory film version of to E.M. Forster’s 1908 novel A Room With a View, returns to the Italy-set romance a third of a century later. But this time, Sands portrays his previous character’s father, the English tourist Mr. Emerson, in a radio adaptation commissioned by L.A. Theatre Works co-starring with fellow Brits Eugene Simon (HBO’s Game of Thrones) as George and Eleanor Tomlinson (PBS’ Poldark) as Lucy, Edita Brychta and Darren Richardson.
Sands may be most famous to aficionados of literary screen adaptations for View, which won three Oscars (including Ruth Prawer Jhabvala for Best Writing, Screenplay Based on Material from Another Medium) and was nommed for five other Academy Awards, including for Best Picture. More lowbrow fans know Sands for horror flicks, such as 1989’s Warlock.
But in this Q&A the classically trained Yorkshire-born thespian, who’d joined London’s Forum Theatre Company as a young aspiring actor, opens up about his other passion – acting on the live stage, including in a homage to one of the British theatre’s greatest playwrights, who won 2005’s Nobel Prize in Literature. Sands was interviewed by phone in L.A.
@THIS STAGE: You’re primarily known as a screen actor. But you’ve also trod the boards – in 2012 I saw you in A Celebration of Harold Pinter, directed by John Malkovich, at L.A.’s Odyssey Theatre.
SANDS: I’m glad you saw it. It had a sort of workshop period at the Odyssey Theatre. And we played Off-Broadway twice for a couple of months for a couple of months and it’s been on tour around the world. Wonderful, intense, extraordinary experience. Working with John, but principally working with Harold, with whom the origins of the show began when he asked me to do a presentation of his selected prose and poetry works, which he’d intended to do himself, but his illness had prevented him from so doing. After he died [in 2008] I repeated it as a memorial tribute. That’s when John got involved and we evolved it into something we eventually took out on the road.
@THIS STAGE: Tell us about some of the other plays you’ve been in?
SANDS: In L.A. I played Tony Blair, then British Prime Minister, in David Hare’s production of Stuff Happens at the Mark Taper Forum [in 2005]. Keith Carradine was George Bush. That was an extraordinary production at a time when there had been no voice of dissent against the [Iraq] War. It was very interactive, with a very vocal, visceral audience. So that was an extraordinary production.
I was at the Geffen [Playhouse] in The Female of the Species with Annette Bening [in 2010]. Currently I’ve been workshopping and presenting a new one-man piece, which is called Keats, Shelley, Ghosts, and Lovers over the Valentine’s weekend at a small theatre, the Actors Art Theatre at Wilshire Blvd. It seats maybe 50 people… I’ve been asked to take that to New York to the Irish Rep; we’re trying to work out the dates.
@THIS STAGE: You previously played poet Percy Bysshe Shelley in the 1986 movie Gothic.
SANDS: Yes, that’s not entirely accidental. The Keats, Shelley, Ghosts, and Lovers piece evolved because two years ago I had played Shelley in Ken Russell’s Gothic. I was asked to write a preface for a new anthology of the Keats, Shelley collected works, published by the Keats Shelley Museum in Rome, the apartment where Keats lived the last six months of his life and was visited by Shelley. Keats and Shelley had a strong both rivalry and friendship throughout their young lives.
I said I’d be very happy to contribute this preface but I needed to re-immerse myself in their work. And I was astonished how passionate, vigorous, sexy, radical, philosophical I found their work. Even though I’d studied Keats and Shelley at school I think I was too immature to appreciate their maturity. I had a very different recollection. When I studied Shelley for Ken’s film in my twenties, I studied his life more than I studied his poetry.
I happened to be filming for Netflix in Rome the Medici series, which allowed me to go into the Keats Shelley Museum on my days off and I’d just approach people as they came in to look around… and say, “Hello, I’m Julian, I’m the designated reader for today. Can I share a poem with you?” And I’d read it very intimately to [a handful of] people and that evolved into more formal readings in Keats’ apartment, the museum. And also at Keats’ graveside in the Anglican cemetery in Rome. Now it’s a more fully developed piece and I might work on it with John Malkovich before we take it to New York. Nobody’s ever asked for their money back…
L.A. has such gems of small theatre, such wonderful spaces for the performer and audience alike. People think there’s no theatre tradition in L.A. but I don’t know of any other city with as many small theatres where fabulous work can be encountered. [Recently] I was at the Road Theatre on Lankershim Blvd. to see a play called The Death House. It’s such an intense piece of work and the acting, writing and directing were of the highest order… I was very privileged to be in the audience there…
I’ve also had the wonderful privilege of taking Shakespeare into schools in Los Angeles with a troupe of wonderful actors. Some of whom are appearing in A Room with a View with me. We’ve done Richard III, Hamlet, the Scottish play, Midsummer Night’s Dream and in England it’s not uncommon to have a troupe coming in [to schools] – they call it “Theatre in Education.” That’s always been a tremendous pleasure and tremendously fulfilling to play to students.
@THIS STAGE: Have you worked on Broadway or the West End?
SANDS: No… I’ve performed plenty on the London Fringe [Theatre Festival]. Not because I haven’t been asked to, but as you’ve observed, I’m mostly known as a film and television actor and I’ve been lucky enough to be kept pretty busy, so it’s hard to commit to a six month run anywhere. That may change…
When I went to the [Royal] Central School for Speech and Drama in London I had in mind all I wanted to do was theatre, to be a classical actor in one of the main companies in England. But the film thing opened up in a way that seemed random at the time but had a kind of inevitability, looking back, when I was asked to go to Thailand to work on [1984’s] The Killing Fields. I found that the scope of film work was something which was very attractive for many reasons. But to become confident, or competent, with the medium, I made the choice to stay available for more film work, which meant eschewing other theatre opportunities and to a large extent my career took that path for 20 years or so before I started looking at theatre again.
@THIS STAGE: How about radio? Have you ever worked for L.A. Theatre Works before?
SANDS: I’ve done quite a lot of productions before for L.A. Theatre Works, about 10. I’ve also done quite a number for the BBC in London, too.
I’m going to India to do a film in March and April, but with the radio schedule we can rehearse for four days and then do four live theatre shows, and it’s all recorded with the audience. It’s a sort of a perfect week because you have this deep immersion into the characters, the text and the relationships with the other actors and it has this end product which evolves very fast, with a crystalline aim by the week’s end. It’s very fulfilling for audience and performer alike. I much prefer the live theatre recordings to studio recordings, which I’ve done, too.
@THIS STAGE: The screen role you’re probably best known for – aside from maybe some of the horror movies you’ve been in –
SANDS: Yes, it’s very dependent for demographic what one is best known for.
@THIS STAGE: For filmgoers like me it’s as George Emerson in 1985’s Merchant Ivory movie A Room with a View. In terms of the acting, how do you make the transition of performing in the same work as a film and now as a radio production, the translation from one medium to another?
SANDS: I think the same way any actor does – any medium, it has its own requirements. The simple truth is you approach it with sincerity, humility, authenticity, as a new project. I was always told over and over again at drama school: Keep it simple, keep it real. Believe that what you’re doing on the day is the only thing that matters. So the process of approaching a radio recording – especially when there’s a live audience – means that you’re onstage, interacting with the other actors. It’s the same belief you’d have if somebody’s pointing a camera at you.
I’m not playing the same role I played in the 1985 film. I was in my twenties then. I’m playing the character’s father in the film, who was played by Denholm Elliott. I was first asked about this about a year ago and said I’m interested, but I have to see the script first and know who’s playing the other roles… I also talked to Jim Ivory about this… He was very happy about it. He thought it sounded great as an idea. Because it was Kate McAll – with whom I’d done Daniel Deronda [an adaptation of George Eliot’s novel] for L.A. Theatre Works last year – who was doing the script I knew her intelligence and integrity would be very faithful to E. M. Forster and very evocative of the film, but making it absolutely her own.
The script she produced, she sent me a couple of months ago and I had some notes, which she was very happy to take onboard. Now, to read it, is an absolute delight. It’s full of the joy and humor and substance of that story, those characters. There is at its core great heart and great humanity in the story of the Bartletts and the Emersons. It was a pleasure to be involved.
L.A. Theatre Works is very good at evoking the locations. When they’re in Florence there will be back projections [in the James Bridges Theater] of Florence which feed into the audience’s imagination in a wonderful way, as well as into our imaginations.
@THIS STAGE: What’s coming up for you?
SANDS: I think they’re hoping to present the film version of Jerzy Kosinski’s novel The Painted Bird at Cannes next May … I just finished another Netflix project, a sexy, glamorous thriller noir starring Renee Zellweger called What/If… It’s 10 episodes all filmed at the Gower Studios on Sunset. And it’s quite a novelty to actually film in Los Angeles. Most of my work is spread out all over the world. It was exotic to be here. I think it premieres in May.
I’m also in an adaptation of an interesting book which was shortlisted for the Booker Prize called Gardens of the Evening Mist set on a tea plantation in Malaysia, where it was shot on location… Next I go to India, to Mumbai, to do a sort of Bollywood Billy Eliot story.
@THIS STAGE: Where do you live now?
SANDS: I live in Los Angeles and England. I go between the two as homes. But mostly I live on the road. I just got an email from British Airways saying: “Congratulations Mr. Sands, You have passed 1 million miles of flying.” But there was no accompanying gift or freebie!
A Room with a View is being performed March 1 at 8:00 p.m., March 2 at 3:00 p.m. and 8:00 p.m. and March 3 at 4:00 p.m. at the James Bridges Theater, UCLA School of Theater, Film and Television, 235 Charles E. Young Drive, L.A., CA 90095. Each of the four performances will be recorded live in front of an audience for radio broadcast six to eight weeks later, plus distribution on CD, digital download and online streaming. L.A. Theatre Works’ syndicated radio theater series broadcasts weekly on public radio stations across the U.S. (locally, in Southern California, on KPFK 90.7 FM); can be heard daily in China and around the world on the Radio Beijing Network; can be downloaded as a podcast via iTunes and NPR One; and can be streamed on demand at www.latw.org. Ticket info: (310)827-0889 or www.latw.org.