I am two inches from a girl I have wanted for pretty much two years, since she first walked into the acting class I’m taking. She is applying make-up to my face, specifically mascara, which I’ve no experience with, and lipstick. She is this close to my face, kissing distance, looking intently at my lips. I said something to her, possibly pursing my lips into a kiss. She laughed.
“What’s so funny?” I said.
“What you’re saying,” she said, “and what you look like. They don’t match.”
I was wearing a dress—a long, black evening number, a dress you could sing a torch song in. I was playing the part of a night-club manager who sings a song about the cruelty of Berlin, then pulls the blond wig off her head and becomes him, tells the light man to cut the spot. It was a good part and it brought out of me—I don’t know what. The straight lines, for instance: “Everybody knows I’m not queer, I’ve got a wife and kids . . . of course, that doesn’t mean much these days . . . ” That line got a laugh the second time I said it in front of an audience. I wasn’t playing it for laughs. It was a laugh of recognition. The dress was letting me say things people could tell were true.
I never kissed that girl, but playing that role again for an audition brought her back to me—her face hovering over mine, licking her lips while brushing mine. Another moment we shared was backstage near the end of act one. I played an SS interrogator and she screamed as the cue for me to come on. We would stand there, night after night, me in a white shirt and her in stage crew black pants; we’d chat and she always said how out of character I looked, then she would listen for the line of the play, draw herself up, put her hands to her face, shut her eyes and scream as if her tongue were being speared. And I would walk on with the force of her scream turning my face to stone and pushing me like a wall of sound toppling behind me, propelling me to walk around the flap, take the two steps up, and take over the stage. An older student told me later that she’d sat in the front row with her feet on the stage. “Fuck them,” she said to herself, “It’s my stage.” When I came up those stairs, she told me, she thought to herself, “Oh shit,” and took her feet off of the stage.
It’s strange what a dress brings out of you. I’ve never believed in method acting, staying in character, scrupulous research. Instinct will make you pick the right hat, right pair of slippers, right tatty bathrobe to turn a walk-on part as a Russian servant into a scene stealer. (I shuffled on with tea and shuffled off. The costume designer told me she kept getting compliments on her brilliant conception of the butler’s look.) Did I know anything about Russian butlers, let alone how they were dressed in Turgenev’s day? (It was Brian Friel’s adaptation of “Fathers and Sons.”) I knew I wanted a Chaplinesque simplicity, a clown’s costume with pathos to make it stick. The best representation of the process of acting I’ve seen is Richard Attenborough’s biopic of Chaplin, where Robert Downey Jr. as the young Chaplin goes into the properties room and the hat, the boots, the cane all wiggle at him.
That’s probably a gross romanticization. Perhaps he pinched the hat from a comic he saw fail in the dreaded Glasgow Empire (where comedians went to die). And perhaps the boots were modeled on a tramp he actually saw. Perhaps I’m being equally romantic, but I do believe they spoke to him, perhaps coming together out of impressions contracted over years, and fused together in a moment’s trust to instinct while the props were underneath his fingers. One moment a random collection of garments, suddenly a breathing tramp. A recognizable human bringing the tea. Someone to make you laugh, because you’ve known him before.
That girl with her brush on my lips and that song had one impact on my life. The very first night we performed “Bent,” I saw an actor friend in the dark of the crowd, saw the light in his hair and blew him a lipsticked kiss, still in mid-song. He rocked with laughter and—I don’t know if due to my drag queen or SS interrogator—asked me to play King Lear. This was at university, you understand, and I was twenty-one when he asked, then turned twenty-two before coming back in the autumn to attempt the role. That summer when I went away with the part to learn, I went to join my mother as she sat at her father’s bedside waiting for him to die. I remember she said, as he called her for the umpteenth time from his bed down the hall, “I know he’s in pain, but sometimes I think he’s putting on how much he’s in pain.”
I said, “What’s he got left? What else can he control but how much he exaggerates how much he’s in pain?”
When I got back to college I went to a party with Owen, the boy who would play Edgar. I told him about watching my grandfather, and my mother, and watching her as she watched him die. “Have you got a girlfriend?” he said.
“Not right now.”
“Oh man,” he said “heavy, heavy head.”
There were improvisations, led by the director, and some of the bird movements that I made quite instinctively in the middle of a chaos of actors playing animals later found their way into the play.
“When you say ‘Strike flat the thick rotundity of the world,’” my Regan said to me, “I always see your two arms going up, like a bird trying to break into flight.”
But what went into my Lear without any thought, what was in my breath and body without even my conscious instinct, was my mother’s service and my grandfather’s death. I did not know a thing about having daughters, about “crawling towards death” unburdened, about madness. I knew about losing someone, though, and I knew how the loser wept.
That girl with her brush to my lips was last seen with an acting teacher of mine. He came to teach us movement and clowning skills: acting I would call it, in retrospect. It was after his workshop sank in that I was cast as that singer in drag, and after that as Lear. He had been to a drama school in Paris, run by a famous comedian, Le Coq, who gave them each one piece of advice. For Clive it had been “timing.” For me, Clive’s one piece of advice was: “Do nothing.”
He made me go on stage on my own and sit on a bench—the ubiquitous park bench—and do nothing. Just sit on the stage and feel comfortable and let something happen. I went, I sat, I did nothing. Then he sent on another actor, as it happened the future director of “King Lear,” Simon, with a prop newspaper. Simon proceeded to do classic spy scene shtick: first reading the paper, then flipping it open conspiratorially at me, to comic effect. I didn’t act, just looked at the paper, looked away, and kept on doing nothing. After a while Clive stopped the exercise and said, “That’s good. You might have to do a tiny bit more than that, but that’s good. That’s a lot better than all the stuff you were doing.”
Clive was sitting cross-legged on the floor at a party in that girl’s house when I walked into the dining room, where the food had been, and found just the two of them sitting on the floor, quietly. She was sitting just as close to his face as she had been while painting mine, and he was talking. But with him the mask was so good, it was himself: he was doing nothing and she was listening to the words come out of his unpainted lips, and she wasn’t laughing. They didn’t look up when I came in and I backed out of the room without a word. Simon went on to the RSC, as did my Cordelia—and I met her there, later, as a writer. For all I know Clive is still in that room with that girl, not wearing a dress, and that is better than doing nothing.