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A Method to the Madness

Ian Holm evolves from King Lear to literary 'nutter' Joe Gould in Stanley Tucci's new film.

April 09, 2000|ELLEN BASKIN | Ellen Baskin is an occasional contributor to Calendar

What's Ian Holm's secret?

The 68-year-old British actor admits he's "at an age where you think you're going to have to settle for little old cameos and being people's grandfathers and all that." And yet he's never been busier.

"I'm a chameleon," he offers by way of possible explanation, during a conversation in Los Angeles about his nearly 50-year career in theater, film and television. It's a discursive chat punctuated with anecdotes about, and dead-on impressions of, legendary figures he's worked alongside, including Laurence Olivier, Ralph Richardson and, most recently, Ian McKellen.

"I'm never the same twice," he adds, "and I'm not a 'movie star' type, so people don't demand that I'm always the same."

The actor's uncanny ability to disappear into a character is expertly on display in "Joe Gould's Secret," a USA Films release that opened Friday directed by and co-starring Stanley Tucci. Joe Gould is an almost mythical yet real-life character, a bohemian who inhabited the streets of Greenwich Village in the 1930s and 1940s. Unkempt, ill-mannered, always looking for a handout or cadging a free meal, he nevertheless charmed or finagled his way into friendships with some of the most notable literary figures of the time, including e.e. cummings and William Saroyan.

Gould's claim to fame was his monumental opus-in-progress "The Oral History of Our Time," a mysterious work whose location lies at the core of the film. "When this project came up, Ian was the only person I could think of for the role," says Tucci, who plays Joseph Mitchell, a New York writer whose articles about Gould became the basis for the film. Tucci had earlier directed Holm in 1996's "Big Night." "For one thing, he resembles Gould a bit."

Not exactly what one would consider high praise, given Gould's wildly disheveled appearance, but Tucci quickly elaborates. "Ian is a very handsome man, but if you play around with him a little bit, you can make him look like Joe Gould. But the main thing is, Ian's a great actor. He can do anything."

"Who wouldn't jump at the chance to play a nutter like Gould?" Holm asks. "He's an extraordinary character. Certainly Gould was a madman, but he was a most intelligent madman. Nowadays, of course, homeless people like him are just sort of swept off the street. But in those days, the bums, especially bright ones like Gould, were more highly regarded, looked upon as strange, enigmatic figures."

Gould isn't the first true-life character Holm has portrayed. Among many others, he's been Lewis Carroll in the film "Dreamchild," Joseph Goebbels in the miniseries "Inside the Third Reich" and Napoleon (twice, in "Napoleon in Love" for the BBC and in Terry Gilliam's film "Time Bandits"). The task of depicting someone who was once among the living is no more daunting for Holm than interpreting a fictional character. He relies largely on wardrobe and makeup to effect the transformation--to resemble Gould he had the top part of his head shaved and grew an unruly beard--and opts not to do a great deal of research into the subject's life.

"I know that's very un-American," he remarks, "but there's the text, and in the final analysis, that's what you have to count on." As far as any specific acting technique goes, "I regard myself as a minimalist," he says, adding that "Kenneth Branagh [who directed Holm in the 1989 film of Shakespeare's "Henry V"] said that I was of the 'anything-you-can-do-I-can-do-less-of' school of acting, which I've always regarded as a great compliment."

"Ian really goes on instinct," Tucci says. "He has all the lines memorized, and then he just likes to go." The lines in "Joe Gould's Secret" are considerable, often calling upon Holm to recite pages of dialogue at a swift pace.

"We really needed someone who had tremendous facility for the language," Tucci adds, "and with his classical training, Ian fit the bill perfectly."

"I think Stanley thinks I'm a bit of a madman, like Gould," Holm says with a chuckle. Still, he says, "now I'm part of his repertory company," referring perhaps to the photograph in Vanity Fair's recent Hollywood 2000 issue which features Holm sitting with Tucci and others in what the magazine labels "Stanley Tucci's Film Troupe."

After attending the New York opening of "Joe Gould's Secret," Holm is looking forward to returning to the London home he shares with his wife, actress Penelope Wilton, who, he proudly relates, has been appearing in a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Chekhov's "The Seagull." The one downside of his busy schedule, Holm admits, is that "it's difficult for a home life." He's been "all over the place" over the last four years and, while there are several potential new projects pending, he welcomes the notion of some downtime back in his native land.

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