could hear John’s profuse laughter, muffled by the partition
between the living room and bedroom. I was sitting on the sofa
of his hotel room at The Shangri-La, located a short distance
from Circular Quay, waiting, along with Jonathan, the Paramount
Australia publicity manager, and Leah, John’s publicist.
I was told earlier on that he was in the middle of a phone
interview. I went over my notes: a list of handwritten questions
assembled in the form of a tripartite flow chart. I took
inspiration from Dignan’s godly agenda in Bottle Rocket.
Jonathan, perhaps impressed by my flow chart, wandered over to
inspect it, before he suddenly had to answer his cell. My
anxiety must have been transparent as Leah gave me
assurance that John was really easy to talk to. It would be like
a conversation with grandpa. I reflected on my planned questions
for a few more minutes before John’s tall figure emerged from
the other room. In studying John’s past interviews, his solemn,
voluble and discursive speech frequently caught me by surprise.
His evident erudition strongly contrasted with the frivolous
characters he popularised: Gimli and Sallah. His deep voice
always filled up the room he was interviewed in. I was prepared
for that. What I had not anticipated was the sheer force
of his physical presence. I was in awe. He looked me
square in the eyes and courteously requested my name.
“Andreas”, I offered.
noted to himself that Andreas was a variation of Andrew.
“Tell me, Andreas, are you a saint?”
Jonathan and Leah laughed. John’s eyes were buried in thought as
he motioned to sit down on the chair opposite me.
Before I could begin the interview, John asked me about what
work I did. I told him I was an arts honours student doing a
little film journalism on the side. From there, we proceeded to
discuss the film industry.
said, “There’s no guarantee that your first or tenth film will
be successful, but if you’re known as a man who gives value for
money, the word slowly spreads, and one day you win an audience.
The audience is where we are aiming at. We need an audience
because they pay our bills. We serve the audience. Remember that
great aphorism: “the drama’s laws, the drama’s patrons give, for
we that live to please, must please to live”. Can you tell me a
story? Can you make it worth my while? Can you astound me, move
me, amaze me, make me laugh, make me aware of the human
condition in a way that I’ve never been aware of before? If you
can do that, you’re there. So, do you write? Are you a writer
“Not at the moment, no. I don’t think I’ve experienced life
enough to comment on it”.
grinned before saying, “That’s a very humble way of saying
things. Obviously that’s very true in a way. I am probably
better able to write now than when I was twenty, but you can
also tell stories. If you can tell a story well then you have a
right to say, ‘I want to tell a story that hundreds and
thousands and millions of people can see’”.
said, “I’m interested in your childhood and perhaps how it
contributed to your acting because my fiancé’s brother is in
year eight and wants to be an actor. He is like a mini Sidney
Poitier. I’m just wondering what you were like as a child. Were
“I was a lonely child and I had a schizophrenic childhood -
which was wonderful. My father went out to Africa in the Second
World War and we started off living in tents. He ended up as a
policeman living in Tanzania. I had pet monkeys, I had pet dogs,
I had my own rifle by the time I was eight, I shot my first
buffalo when I was eleven. It was four servants and five acres.
I went to a school that was mean and tough but intellectually
demanding. The first play I saw at my school was Oedipus Rex,
which at the age of twelve is the most crucial time you could
ever encounter great drama, and that changed my life. In the
holidays, I spent my time with my grandmother and my Aunt
Maggie, who were both widows to Welsh coal miners. They had very
small cottages in Wales. A tin bath in front of the fire and
that on a Friday night. I was very unhappy at my boarding school
and one of the ways my school coped with my dysfunctionality was
by allowing me chances to act, so by the time I had left I had
played Othello, Volpone, Ulysses in Troy and Cressida.”
continued, “I went to a new university, the University of East
Anglia, its very first year. I founded its dramatic society. I
did a lot of amateur acting in Norwich. I even did my very first
professional job while still at university: I taught for a year
waiting for my wife to graduate. I then won a scholarship to the
Royal Academy of Dramatic Art and left drama school on a
Sunday night at the end of a production and started work Monday
morning in the professional theatre. So, I had about twelve or
thirteen years of doing play after play. Did a lot of standard
English television but I worked. If you’re Brad Pitt you can be
very selective about the work that you do but for most of us, we
should take on almost anything that comes and see if we can make
it work. It’s the challenge. You think, ‘what the hell am I
going to do with this?’, ‘how do I solve this problem?’, ‘I can
do that. I can do that’. It’s the engagement of the curious mind
that makes for interesting acting”.
used his answer to segue into the question of whether or not he
helped Steven construct Sallah’s character.
“Yes, I did, in a way. He knew what he wanted. Harrison
certainly knew what he needed to do and wanted. But they
gave me a lot of creative space and sometimes I would throw out
ideas and Steven would say ‘no! no!’. Sometimes he would say,
‘okay let’s turn it upside down and do it that way instead’. But
it is one of the rights of the actor to say ‘what about?’ or
‘what if?’ but it’s still the director’s job to be able to say,
‘interesting but not the picture I’m making’ and you respect
that and good directors don’t mind suggestions. In fact, it is
the richer, the creatively rich directors, who just have a
mastery and have such a creative fluency that is interestingly
them – they are the people often who are most happy to have
“Was Steven like that?”
“Oh yes, particularly in that film, at that particular time. We
experimented. There’s a lot of behind the scenes stuff that
never got in the final cut where we were just trying things. We
were shooting quickly, we were shooting fast, we were really
sort of sticking to the schedule. Sometimes we could throw three
pages out. And we did try to throw a lot of Tunisian pages out.
It was physically quite a hot day to shoot. I had the sense that
at the time Steven was at his most creatively free, in his own
“Did the studios give him much creative freedom because -?
“It was George’s money”.
“Oh, I see.”
“You know most of us have to defer to the studios because they
make the big pictures. Most of us, in our hearts of hearts, know
that sometimes there are one or two people in those studios
making decisions. They understand, they love and they’re there
to create. Equally, the studio system is often about finding
reasons to not seem to have done the wrong thing. It is better
to say “No” than to say “Yes”, and be proven wrong. I’m not sure
that a studio would have allowed Raiders of the Lost Ark
“Staying on the topic of Raiders, I understand that it
was filmed in Tunisia. How was that like? I read that many of
the crew members succumbed to illness and -?”
“Tunisia was a very hard shoot. We were shooting in just about
the last oasis before the true Sahara begins. We were right on
the edge of the true Sahara. Fresh water was an issue. In
theory, you have bottled water but in fact, the hotel workers -
they were so poor. They would take the money for the bottled
water, fill an old bottle with tap water and put the top back on
- (laughs) – and it was hard for you if you didn’t have a bottle
opener. We all got ill. It was a really physically tough shoot,
as they often are.”
that point, we were told that we both needed to wrap things up.
“As for your girlfriend’s brother, be born lucky is the advice
that I would impart.”
That time it was he who was putting things in a very humble way.