LONDON — Before he can even begin singing, Bob Dylan is pelted with lighted cigarettes from the audience at the Electric Ballroom and cries of "Off! Off! Off!"
To these cutting-edge punks and skinheads with their jewelry-freighted ears and noses, in this place where a stage-side gong bears a likeness of Mussolini in profile, his gentleness is passe.
But the normal exits are blocked by the hecklers and Dylan leaves the stage the only way he can--by diving headfirst into their midst. With his aureole of (lighter-than-remembered) chestnut fleece, he suggests nothing so much as a sacrificial lamb.
Then, Fiona, his young backup singer, restores order by ripping into a hard-driving ditty called "Hair of the Dog," winning cheers with her own theatrical hair-flinging. At song's end she hurls the audience a "Thanks for the cigarettes--but I quit!" The audience feasts on her scorn and calls Dylan back on stage, "because if it wasn't for him we wouldn't be here."
Dylan reappears--to huzzahs. But his craggy face is wearily impassive. He knows too much to be moved by the fickle enthusiasm of the madding crowd.
Indeed, Dylan--or rather, Billy Parker, the character he plays in the currently shooting "Hearts of Fire"--will soon fulminate to Fiona's Molly McGuire character:
"This business is gonna eat you up. Just like it was gonna get me. It's this big machine. It gets you in its teeth, it sucks everything out of you. You wake up, you're a star. So . . . you're a star ! But there ain't nothing to you no more. You're empty."
Dylan as Billy Parker is "perfect casting," according to "Hearts" director Richard Marquand. In what the producers are calling a drama-with-music, the sensible and usually reclusive singer-songwriter plays a legendary musician who for a decade has been a self-exiled gentleman farmer in rural western Pennsylvania.
(The troupe later moved production to Toronto, doubling for Pennsylvania and other American locales, with shooting to finish this week. The $9-10 million project is a Torremodo Ltd. production for Lorimar Motion Pictures, with 20th Century Fox releasing next summer.)
Parker agrees to perform in an oldies concert in England because of the opportunities he sees there to promote Molly, his locally born protegee-heartthrob . . . only to watch her fall for British rock-sensation-of-the-moment James Colt (portrayed by Rupert Everett).
"It's not exactly like me doing Shakespeare--it's not a stretch in that sense," Dylan admitted between takes of a scene shot earlier in Wales. In this setting so rich in associations--the former Robert Zimmerman from the Iron Range of Minnesota took his professional name from the Welsh poet Dylan Thomas--he was friendly, smiling and polysyllabic, all the things he was said not to have been at a preproduction press conference in London. "You could say that (like Billy Parker) I'm somebody who became famous through music and that I had certain feelings about fame."
But Dylan, 45, never retreated from music to the extent that Parker did--though he confessed he's "not all that aware" of current trends beyond what's gleanable from "what I just happen to hear on the radio."
So, despite his similarities to Dylan, Billy Parker is a character separate from him. "Really," Dylan said, "there are a hundred guys I know in the music business who could have played this role, who have the background and experience to make it seem true."
According to director Marquand, before accepting the Parker role, Dylan not only asked, "Do you think I can do it?" but submitted to what the director called "a private screen test." And there is on the set whenever Dylan is shooting, a coach/dialogue director named Harold Guskin.
Guskin, who regularly coaches Marquand's "Jagged Edge" star Glenn Close, said, "I don't work on 'interpretation' as such. It's more a matter of getting actors in tune with themselves and the role, so that they can feel free to offer a director options."
Marquand cited a typical Dylan option: "He'll do whatever it was that we discussed and then at the end add a smile which is so absolutely right--something that came straight from his knowledge of Billy Parker."
Whatever insecurities Dylan may have had about acting, Marquand said he had "very definite ideas" about his character as written. "He contributed ideas about what might have happened in Billy Parker's past. Making it rougher and tougher than what I had been thinking about. There was a very nice thing about how his father might have run a dance band and how he might have traveled around with him. And Bob felt very strongly that Billy's reasons for dropping out should be made clear, and came up with reasons very specific to Billy's life, such as the behavior of his manager."