“Pete was always interested in something personal to do with the part. When we were doing ‘The Tempest’ in 2007, the big question for him – as for any actor playing Prospero – was Prospero’s staff, which he’s supposed to break at the end. And most actors worth their salt will be preoccupied with ‘what is my staff?’ because they often turn up and get landed with some great Old Testament club or some daft Darth Vader-like thing. And obviously when you talk about the staff you have to talk about what magic is in ‘The Tempest’ and what it means to be a magician.
So Pete and I had long talks about what we thought magic could be on stage and what we thought Prospero was about and how it was something to do with a man devoted to a certain exploration of life who had focused his mind, his body and his emotions in a certain kind of way so that he could make things happen, which I think is also the only way you can make an audience believe something. And after a few months of discussion, Pete said, ‘I found a piece of wood in the garden, I think it might be the staff.’ I was like, ‘Oh my God, he’s going to come up with a staff design and its going to be mental.’
So the next time I saw him he brought out this piece of wood and he held it and was balancing it on one finger, and it had a very particular size and a very particular kind of shape and it was very simple, very thin, not very big – just bigger than a conductor’s baton. He looked at me and I said, ‘Wow, that’s really amazing!’ so he varnished this piece of wood and he and friends of his did things to it and it came along to rehearsals. During rehearsals, one terrible time, I took a backward step and heard a dreadful crack. There was this awful, ‘I-can’t-believe-it’ moment, everyone froze… I had trodden on the staff. It was okay, though, thank God.
The staff became part of Pete when the audience saw it. He didn’t have to break it at the end, he handed it over to Ariel and just collapsed: he felt like all this power had come out of him. The audience believed him because he created it himself and I think that’s a kind of genius, to be able to do that, to have the originality and the taste and the care and the attention. No one who saw it would forget it and it was exactly the right thing for him to have. At the end of the run he gave it to me. He said, ‘I don’t need it any more, it’s for you.’ So I have it at home. It’s very special.
“It kind of reminded me of being on the road with someone, with a band or something. It’s quite exceptional for an actor to be like that”
Pete very much brought a company together, he liked other actors and he liked to create a whole kind of family from the company. For him every night was like doing a gig, he had that kind of live excitement: his dressing room door would be open two hours before curtain and he would be in there and he used to have the very respectable old custom among actors of having the odd pint of Guinness to see him through the evening, and people would just drop in and talk to him. He’d always have either Bob Dylan’s ‘Modern Times’ or Johnny Cash playing and he would chat away. And after the performance he’d always want to be there in the bar and talk about what happened, not in a laborious way but in a very fresh way.
Pete was fearless and he took risks, which is what all the great actors do. But there’s a world we live in now where everyone’s meant to deliver a brand or a known thing, and quite often I think actors are only being asked to give about 25 per cent of what they’re really capable of because people just want something everyone knows.
Daniel Day-Lewis, who gives these amazing performances on film, knew Pete when he was a student and at Pete’s memorial service talked about the time they spent in Bristol. It was because they met there, that when Dan was doing ‘In the Name of the Father’, he said, ‘I want Pete Postlethwaite to play my father.’ And it’s actors like Peter and Dan who I think really push the boundaries. Pete was a great exemplar of that and I think that sometimes we don’t talk about the fact that this is what great acting is all about: imaginatively transforming yourself into something and taking risks as opposed to playing safe, which is
what an awful lot of actors are being forced to do at the moment.
Pete would always do this fantastic kind of farewell, he would go out into the theatre and do a clenched fist. It was just something he did that would make the audience feel like they had been involved in something, and make them feel special. That’s what I loved: he picked up on something that was a bit freer than theatre is normally, so the whole run of the play would be really exciting. He would always be in the moment and never got bored; he had people at the theatre who wanted to talk to him, he
would have old friends he hadn’t seen for ages, he would have young filmmakers looking for help. It reminded me of being on the road with someone, with a band or something. It’s quite exceptional for an actor to be like that.”
Pete Postlethwaite, 7th Feb 1946-2nd Jan 2011.
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