By Michael Aushenker
Here is a window into the way great actors bond: They create theater devoted to their literary heroes.
In the case of Englishman Julian Sands and American John Malkovich, they admired and befriended Nobel Prize-winning novelist, playwright and screenwriter Harold Pinter, who died in 2008.
On Saturday, Malkovich will direct Sands in “A Celebration of Harold Pinter,” a one-off engagement of readings and remembrances at the Broad Stage in Santa Monica
Best known for his plays “The Birthday Party” (1957), “The Homecoming” (1964) and “Betrayal” (1978), Pinter also wrote screenplays such as “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” (1981) and crafted poetry — of which, according to Sands, Pinter was very protective.
“I’m the only person he ever worked with on his poetry,” Sands told The Argonaut. “It was not an easy thing for him to relinquish this and have another person [reading] it in his stead.”
Sands’ film resume includes “A Room with a View,” “Boxing Helena,” “Leaving Las Vegas,” and David Fincher’s Hollywood remake of “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.”
Malkovich, who has acted in films by Woody Allen, Terry Zwigoff and The Coen Brothers, was most famously the subject of Spike Jonze’s indie hit, the Charlie Kaufman-scripted meta-comedy “Being John Malkovich.”
But there is creative room at the Broad for both.
“John is an old friend of 30 years,” Sands said, who traces their relationship back to working together on the Academy Award-winning 1984 movie “The Killing Fields,” a career-maker for both men. “One of our early pleasures was to read Pinter scenes together.”
That shared love for Pinter’s work, coupled with Malkovich meeting Pinter after playing in a BBC production of Pinter’s “The Lover,” led to an evolving theatrical tribute to their late literary friend.
For Sands, who befriended the fellow London native Pinter a decade before Pinter died, the tribute started forming in 2005, when Pinter called Sands for help as he was about to do a reading.
“He was too ill to perform it,” Sands said. “He asked me to do this charity event.”
Three years after Pinter died, Sands was staging memorial events in London, New York and Hollywood.
“Someone recorded it and sent it to John, who wasn’t able to be there,” said Sands, explaining how Malkovich got involved and took the show on the road.
Initially slated for just 10 shows in New York last year, “A Celebration of Harold Pinter” ended up running for 50 performances. “The response was amazing,” Sands said.
Sands described prior occasions as “odd gigs and odd places”: Budapest, Mexico City, Chicago … wherever Malkovich and Sands found themselves. That eventually led to the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, which would prove fortuitous for Los Angeles. While gearing up for Scotland, Sands met Broad Stage Director Dale Franzen at The Getty, he said, eventually putting this week’s engagement in motion.
After this weekend’s performance, “I can imagine a gig in San Juan, Puerto Rico,” Sands said, alluding to where he’ll be in November — filming Malkovich’s NBC series “Crossbones,” which will air next year. Malkovich will star in the drama as the pirate Blackbeard, and Sands has a recurring role as the governor of Jamaica. Also in November, Sands will walk the runway at a fashion show introducing
Malkovich’s new Technobohemian menswear line.
Sands said working with Malkovich on the Pinter project has “been the most valuable experience — having a director, a guide, a friend with whom I have an extraordinary [rapport]. John has a very good ear for Pinter.”
Sands recounted a Malkovich analogy for their fluid collaboration interpreting Pinter’s work: “[Malkovich is] the lifeguard and I’m the surfer, and the material is the surf board, the audience being the waves. All [Malkovich] has to do is sit and watch. It’s like a conversation between friends.”
As for Sands’ relationship with Pinter, “I was instantly smitten by the power of his words,” Sands said. “Whenever I met him, I was always very intimidated. He was such a star. I became his teacher’s pet.”
The actor said he came to know two sides of the writer’s personality.
“There was the bird of prey. You somehow could not be unconscious of his presence. One was always slightly on his guard. He had this extraordinary keen intelligence and a sense of what he thought about anything,” said Sands.
“Harold had very particular views. Of all the people I have ever known, he had the most focus about what he talked about. The subject absorbed him completely,” said Sands. “There was nothing vague about the conversation you might have. He was absolutely always on. He had a raptor-like gaze and could penetrate anything superficial.”
The other side of Pinter surfaced in his writing: “The extraordinary humanity he had and the capacity for romantic love and humor — a side of him which, like any actor, was capable of being the sweetest and most entertaining.”
Come Saturday night, Sands will not be impersonating Pinter. Anybody expecting to see something akin to Val Kilmer donning a white wig and mustache to transform into Mark Twain will be disappointed.
“I don’t inhabit him so much as he inhabits me,” the actor said. “It’s me as Julian Sands sharing my experiences, and the fruits of the work of Harold and I work together.”
“A Celebration of Harold Pinter” is at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Broad Stage, 1310 11th St., Santa Monica. (310) 434-3200; thebroadstage.com
Being Harold Pinter: Julian Sands and John Malkovich share their love of the Nobel Prize-winning writer during an event at the Broad Stage
By Michael Aushenker