ere is the Derek Jacobi interview which was originally shown on the PBS site
Sir Derek Jacobi returns to MYSTERY! beginning
Thursday, January 7, 1999 for the fourth and final season of Cadfael.
Jacobi, who stars as the series' crime-fighting,
medieval monk, takes a break from his busy schedule to talk
about Brother Cadfael, his friendship with Sir Laurence Olivier,
and why he still considers himself a "jobbing" actor.
Question: What will you miss most about portraying Brother
Derek Jacobi: I shan't miss that hairdo!
[laughs] I shall miss all the people in it and the great fun we
had doing it. I enjoyed playing the character very much. It was
a very, very special character and a very special series. And
the camaraderie of it all. I loved it. Knowing that we were
doing good work and the stories were good. They were original
and charming. They weren't particularly violent or sexy or any
of that. They were just unique and that had a good feel to it.
Q: Do you have a favorite Cadfael episode?
DJ: I think the one with the best narrative and the
cleverest tale was called The Virgin in the Ice [Series
2]. I liked that one very much indeed because it also
brought in Cadfael's son. It was a very good idea for a mystery.
It was also the one where Cadfael's past very much becomes part
of his present.
Q: Has Brother Cadfael affected who you are?
DJ: I don't think he's permanently affected me except
in the sense that I miss him. I miss being him. Or trying to be
him. He is one of a gallery of characters that have had an
impact on my career and therefore my life. He was somebody who
made me think, I suppose, about the contemplative life. I've
always been a city fellow, but I've often had vague thoughts
about `checking out' and perhaps going into a monastery and just
seeing what it was like. And playing Cadfael, it redoubled those
thoughts. I don't think I ever would. I don't think I ever could.
I particularly couldn't in circumstances such as he did. He was
living in an age much more dangerous, more painful, much more on
the edge than our own particular age. It's too hard a life for
me. I could only do it--check out in that sense--if I checked
out somewhere that was luxurious and within hailing distance of
Q: What was it like filming in Hungary?
DJ: I shall miss going to Budapest to record the
series. It was three months per year in that lovely city. It was
wonderful. We started filming in 1993 which was only four years
after the fall of communism. The difference in Budapest over the
last five years has been remarkable. The growth from a communist
to a capitalist system is mind boggling. But it has its
unfortunate side, too: Budapest now boasts, I think, ten
McDonald's. The Hungarian people themselves are so warm and
friendly and kind. The film studio built the Cadfael set which,
over the five years, has weathered and become much more
authentic. All the countryside around Budapest which stood in
for twelfth century Shrewsbury was just wonderful. The light
there is extraordinary.
Q: You had an opportunity to meet Cadfael's creator,
mystery writer Ellis Peters, a.k.a.., Dame Edith Pargeter,
before she died. What was she like?
DJ: She was lovely! I first met her when I was being
touted as a [candidate for the role] and they asked that I meet
Edith because she had to give approval. So, I met her with her
agent at lunch. We took to each other immediately and, although
I wasn't physically ideal for the Cadfael she described in the
book, she said I would do. So we took it from there. She came
out occasionally to watch the series being made. She didn't
always totally approve of everything we were doing to the books,
but that's inevitable when the author gives up the book to
another writer to adapt. She was a very tough lady; a very
confident lady; a very clever lady; a very strong lady.
Q: In addition to the new Cadfael series premiering in
January, you have a motion picture coming out in the United
States this fall--Love is the Devil--about the painter,
Francis Bacon, whom you portray. The film focuses on the
sadomasochistic relationship between Bacon and George Dyer, his
model, lover, and muse. This is quite a departure from your role
as Brother Cadfael. How do you think your public television fans
will react to this shift?
DJ: I am an actor and I live in the world of pretend
in my working capacity. I live in the world of my imagination.
If they can accept me as Hamlet, who by the end of the play is a
mass murderer who has killed far more people than his Uncle
Claudius ever killed--and quite cold bloodedly--they can surely
accept me as a cruel Francis Bacon. The bottom line is that I'm
a jobbing, working actor, whether it be Richard III, I,
Claudius, or whether I'm playing a saint or a villain, a
sympathetic character or an unsympathetic character. It is, to
me, part of the rich world of the thespian, of which I am very
pleased, proud, and happy to be a part.
Q: You've played a wide variety of characters throughout your
career. Do you have a favorite type of role?
DJ: No--not a favorite type. There's never been any
game plan or thread through my career. It's just happened that
I've ricocheted from one interesting character to another. I
think if there is any bottom line it is that each character has
fascinated and interested me enough to want to play him. Be it a
real-life person--and they're often the hardest to play, people
that you recreate who have actually lived, because you have to
live up to people's knowledge of those characters--or the purely
fictional characters, where you can really let your imagination
rip and go down all kinds of avenues to try to bring the
character to life.
Q: Is there a particular role still out there that you would
really like to play?
DJ: I'm always conscious of the fact that I am part of
a profession that is 80% permanently unemployed. So, to be
working in any sense is to be privileged. But, if I were to
choose roles. . . . I think anyone who has aspirations to be a
classical actor as I have must go through definite hoops. You
have to get through the Hamlet hoop as a young actor.
Your classical qualifications are based on the quality of your Hamlet.
And then, as an older actor, you have to get through the Lear
hoop. And I'm approaching the Lear hoop. Someday, not too
soon, I think, that will probably be the next huge classical
part that I would play. But until then, I just want to keep
Q: Have you ever questioned your vocation?
DJ: Never, never, never! As far back as I can remember
I wanted to be an actor. I'm a Londoner, born and bred, no
acting tradition in the family. It must be a gene I was born
with. When I was at school, I was taken on school parties to
theaters in London. I remember going to see Richard Burton when
he was still a theater actor playing Hamlet and Henry
V, and it being absolutely wonderful, sitting as a school
boy gawking at him. So, it seemed quite natural. I've been a
professional actor now for 38 years. A long time. And it's
wonderful to earn your living doing something that you love. To
think people actually give you money for it!
Q: What did your parents think when you told them you wanted
to be an actor?
DJ: I was very lucky. I was an only child, but I was
very lucky in that their response to that was `If that's what
you want to do, do it.' Although it was no part of their life,
particularly classical theater--Shakespeare and all that--not in
their world at all, they supported me completely. I think they
were happy that I'd gone to university and gotten a degree in
history so they thought, `Well if acting doesn't work for him,
he can always become a history teacher or something.'
Fortunately, the acting worked out. They were totally
supportive, always saw everything I did. One of the thrills of
my life was when they went to the theater to see something that
I wasn't in. It opened doors for them that otherwise
would have been totally closed.
Q: In 1963, Sir Laurence Olivier invited you to join his new
National Theatre Company. What do think Olivier would say about
your career now?
DJ: Oh Gosh! I hope he'd say, `Well done.' I
worked with him for eight years as my boss, my director, my
fellow actor, and, ultimately, my friend. He was always a sort
of a father figure to me, in a way, as he was to all the young
guys in the company. I hope he'd be proud of what's happened. I
certainly learned a huge amount from him. He was always
very generous to the young actors. He could be very strict and a
disciplinarian, too. He had many faces; he wore many hats. But,
ultimately, he loved the theater and he loved actors.
Q: I understand that you nearly declined Queen Elizabeth's
offer of knighthood in 1994. Why?
DJ: Every person who is offered a knighthood
has the opportunity to say yes or no. You get a letter from the
Prime Minister saying you've been recommended for a knighthood
and there are two little boxes, one says yes, one says no. It
was a fantastic honor, a total surprise and I was quite overcome
when I opened this letter at breakfast one morning. But, after
the shock and the surprise and the huge honor and flattery of
it, I had to think long and hard about what it would imply, what
it would mean. Would it mean any alterations of one's lifestyle?
Or, more than that, the way that people regarded you? The way
they reacted to you if you had a Sir in front of your name? I
thought about it long and hard. I don't think there was ever really
a possibility that I'd have said no, but I wanted to make quite
sure that I was accepting it in the right way and on my own
terms. And that I was confident that I could use it and be
worthy of it in the right way before I put that little tick in
the yes box.
Q: You've just celebrated your sixtieth birthday. What are
your goals for the coming decade?
DJ: Well, to keep working. I never lose that
terror of `this is my last job, I'll never work again.' You can
never relax and rely on whatever reputation you've built.
Reputation is fine but you have to keep justifying it. In a
sense, it makes it harder because people's expectations of you
are higher. So, you have to fulfill those expectations. Or, try
to exceed those expectations. But, it becomes more difficult as
time goes on. I would like to be as fit as I've always been.
I've been blessed with good health, I've been blessed with
stamina. Particularly for those great classical roles, you need
an Olympian stamina. I, fortunately, have that. Vocally, it's
all still working. Mentally, please God, I can still remember
lines. I'd like to go on for at least another twenty years. And,
one of the great things about being an actor is that I think
it's a rejuvenating process. I think actors always retain one
foot in the cradle. We're switched on to our youth, to our
childhood. We have to be because we're in the business of
transferring emotions to other people. In order to keep a
through-line to those emotions, you need the receptivity that a
child has. So actors, I don't think, ever really grow up. I'm
hoping that that rejuvenating process applies to me, too. It has
so far. I've been very lucky.