BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear

Following in the steps of the Metropolitan Opera and Britain's National Theatre, the Ontario, Canada-based Stratford Festival is beginning to screen its productions in movie theaters worldwide. Stratford Festival HD launches in the U.S. this week with King Lear, starring Colm Feore in the title role.

BroadwayWorld spoke with Feore over coffee in Manhattan on Feb. 16, the day of Lear's private premiere at the Directors Guild. Public screenings commence Feb. 25. Stratford Festival HD will then release King John in April, followed by Anthony and Cleopatra in May. All three plays were filmed during their runs last season in Stratford. The festival plans to film the complete works of Shakespeare for theatrical release over the next decade. For a cinema near you showing the productions, go to stratfordfestivalhd.com. For tickets, visit Fathom Events.

Feore, 56, has played nearly all major Shakespearean male roles--Romeo, Iago, Petruchio, Richard III, Oberon, Macbeth--in his 17 seasons at Stratford. He portrayed the prosecutor in the Oscar-winning film version of Chicago and is also known to movie audiences from Thirty-Two Short Films About Glenn Gould, The Amazing Spider-Man 2, Face/Off and The Chronicles of Riddick. His extensive screen credits include recurring roles on such television shows as 24, Revolution and The Borgias. On the New York stage he played Cassius opposite Denzel Washington's Julius Caesar on Broadway and was Claudius in the Liev Schreiber Hamlet at the Public Theater.

Was one of your regular performances filmed for the King Lear that will be shown in movie theaters?
Absolutely, a packed house. There are 1,850 seats in the theater, and 10 or so were replaced for cameras. [It was] at the very end of our run: We started in May, and were finishing up the end of October, and this was three or four days before we finished, so it's as polished as it could be.
It had been an ambition of [Stratford artistic director] Antoni Cimolino's to do it [film the canon], but if you haven't got the hard cash, you simply can't get the gear and the people to come in. It costs so much money that they had to do an awful lot of lobbying, begging, pleading, schmoozing to get people to put up money, and that was happening while we were up and running. So it was very much not a sure thing until they actually completed all that--and that was well into our season.

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear
(From left) Stephen Ouimette as the Fool, Colm Feore as King Lear,
and Jonathan Goad as Kent

Did you have to do anything different for the performance that was filmed?
The theater is all about sending out. The actors send it across the footlights in the fondest hope that people like it. The reverse is true in cinema: It's all about allowing them in, so the closer they can get to your eyes, the more likely they are to know what you are thinking. The advantage we have in Stratford is that no seat's further than 65-odd feet from the stage. That's fairly intimate. It's a remarkable space where the actor says, I'm going to tell you with my body and my voice what the wide shot is, I'm also going to be able to stand stock-still and just speak and achieve a virtual closeup. So I found that the best thing to do was to acknowledge the cameras being there, to have a fairly technical understanding of what the lenses were--who was up your nose and who was doing wide-angle--and to simply play it as we normally would. I had to wear at least two microphones, in case one shorted out, so you're all tricked out with gear. When you get over that, you realize that you can now use the power of the lens and the power of the microphone to your advantage: You can be subtler in some places, braver in other places.
We have a very cinematic stage. I know that sounds paradoxical, but because it's a thrust--and very small--essentially we are able to do what Shakespeare did, which was cut [from one scene to the next]. He doesn't have transitional scenes; this scene ends, that scene begins. How does that happen on the Stratford stage? Just as those people are going off, we turn the lights on these people who are coming on and talking. Pushing the cinematic element is very good for a modern audience.

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear
Feore with Liisa Repo-Martell as Regan in King Lear

Was King Lear always planned as the first one, or did it just work out that way?
Antoni knew that he would have Lear, Anthony and Cleopatra, King John and Midsummer Night's Dream in the repertoire at that time, and I'm sure he thought Lear's not a bad one to start with because there are so many schools that are going to be teaching it, every library would like a copy, it would announce our presence with a certain amount of authority. You're not having to sell the title, which is a big deal. It's not like, "We're going to do Timon of Athens...it's like Lear, only with money."

Have you done any movies of Shakespeare?
I was very lucky to be in Julie Taymor's Titus with Anthony Hopkins. I played his little brother, Marcus Andronicus. A nice trip to Rome for about six months, and Tony was extraordinary. So I know what a proper Shakespeare filmed is.
It's an interesting hybrid, filming productions on stage. It's not a movie, but it is a cinematic experience. I think that the way we've done it in Stratford is about the only way that people will be able to fund Shakespeare. Julie can do it because she go out and ask people to do it--Dame Helen [Mirren] did a Tempest for her, where she played Prospera--but I don't think anybody else has the track record, where someone's going to hand them $15 million. [Except maybe] Kenny Branagh. I think Kenneth Branagh has done more for Shakespeare globally than anybody else, because he's managed to bring Much Ado and Hamlet and Henry V and Love's Labour's Lost to an extraordinarily wide audience that would never have dreamt of seeing them.

King Lear is generally regarded as the culmination of an actor's career. So where do you go from here?
I did Lear young enough to realize I should have done it younger. It's a terribly difficult part, enormously physically demanding. Brian Blessed, just playing a few weeks ago, had to step away because he collapsed in the first scene. He went back on and finished the play, but he was told, "That was heroic, but you are 78. You have to stop." Anyone who plays it at an advanced age obviously has a great deal more to say about being old, but if you keep in mind that Burbage was probably 36 when he did it, we realize that being old isn't the point. Coming to it after years of experience doing everything else helps enormously, I think, but it leaves you feeling, Okay, I guess that might be the end of my Shakespeare run...

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear
Feore with Sara Farb as Cordelia

So how do you get through six months of performances in such a difficult role?
Lear's not on all the time. When I played Hamlet years ago, director David William suggested to me that the reason Hamlet's on at the beginning and then has a 20-minute break [when he's not on stage] is you need those 20 minutes to recover. Lear's exactly the same. It's a blast of unbelievable discombobulating terror and roaring, and then you don't see him for a while. He's recovering, because the next hill he has to climb is probably more dramatic, more demanding, more emotionally and physically draining. Oddly enough, there isn't a lot of poetry in Lear; it's mostly raw emotion and the apprehension without comprehension. That's why it's so hard to do. I admire anybody who can do it older, but there are certain advantages to playing it young. One critical one, I think, is you can create the dangerous and really horrible person out of Lear at the beginning if you carry the girl on at the end. There is no one in the audience who will fail to be moved by the sight of a father carrying his dead child. If you carry the girl on, people will feel sorry for you--which they didn't at the beginning when they were thinking, "Why are you so mean to your daughters? You're a hateful, obstreperous, obstinate, stupid old man."

So Lear is not a victim at all?
He's a victim of his own arrogance and stupidity and obstinacy and inability to see himself for what he really is. As Gloucester is really blind, Lear is metaphorically and emotionally. He's so used to being told, "Yes, sir...no, sir..." and he has a whole world around him that has helped build that solid castle of delusion.
Strangely enough, he never forces the girls to do the things that we assume they've done. They don't send him out into the storm, he chooses to go. Goneril doesn't banish him from her house--she has made it horribly uncomfortable, but he chooses to leave. He does it to himself, and I think that's important. He deserves what he gets. The lesson is clearly: This is the kind of stuff we do to ourselves; be careful, try not to.

Did you borrow from any past Lears for your portrayal?
As many as I could find. One of the best ones I saw while I was busy stealing things was the 90-minute live television that came out of America [for Omnibus in 1953]. They cut the play radically. It was directed by Peter Brook, and it's introduced by a very young Alistair Cooke, and guess who was playing Lear? Orson Welles. He can bluster like nobody, and during the storm scene he's ranting and raving, and they're throwing buckets of water at him and the wind machine, and the mustache starts coming off. So what you see is this flipping, flopping mustache. That's heartening: You think, if it can happen to Orson Welles and he's banging on with it, this is okay.
My favorite one was Michael Hordern, a wonderful English actor. He did a very heartbreaking domestic Lear. You could see him be old and confused and mad and frightening and regal--and stupid--all at the same time. So I pinched a good deal of his. There's Ian McKellen to steal from. I saw Frank Langella here, pinched a few things from him. And guys whose experiences I admire: Ian Holm had played it, Anthony Hopkins had played it. There seemed to be a lot of Lears going on: I did see the National filmed version of Simon Russell Beale's, directed by Sam Mendes. Wonderful stuff to be stolen there. Tony Sher's going to do it at the RSC this year.

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear
Christopher Plummer playing King Lear at the Stratford
Festival in 2002

I don't know that I've ever heard any actor be so open about "stealing" from other performers.
Everything theatrical represents the sum total of what we know to this day--what we've learned about acting, what we've learned about the parts and the verse--so if somebody's had a good idea, it behooves us to pass it on.
I was filming in Calgary a year or so ago, went home and flicked on the television in the hotel, and there was Christopher Plummer doing his one-man show Barrymore. He did a thing with a Hamlet soliloquy that I'd simply never thought of. I've played Hamlet, I've played Claudius, I've played the Player King, and I'd never heard that reading, I never saw it that way. And so I simply stole it. Of course Christopher has done all of this stuff a thousand times, and brings to it his experience of having played with the greats before him.
That's essential work for all would-be classical actors. You have to know what Branagh and Ian McKellen and Sher think about these things. McKellen and Michael Pennington sat down with Jeffrey Horowitz not too long ago. It's a wondrous interview, and it's available on YouTube for all students of the theater to see. Horowitz runs the Theatre for a New Audience here and does great Shakespeare stuff, and Pennington was doing Lear there. They just sit there for an hour and talk about, essentially, how to play Shakespeare and how to play King Lear particularly. And they say, "You know, in Shakespeare there are no pauses." There are people in conservatory drama programs around the globe trying to din that in to acting students, and they don't grasp it. But if you hear these guys--knights of the realm--and they say "There's no pauses," there's no pauses. These things are only picked up along the way as you practice and as you steal the very best knowledge about how to play Shakespeare from those guys.

BWW Interview: Colm Feore, Coming to a Movie Theater Near You as King Lear
Colm Feore, offstage

In addition to all your classical work, you've been in popular mainstream movies. What is it like to go from the rarefied world of Shakespeare to a "popcorn flick"?
Talking about the usefulness of stealing and understanding the Shakespeare vocabulary: I did Thor for Kenneth Branagh. I was playing the King of the Frost Giants. I was 9½ feet tall and blue. The makeup took 5½ hours to get into and 2 hours to get out of. Pretty silly stuff. But Ken had spent a long time with the producers and the writers, carving the script up and making sure that they shaped it into a truly classical ideal. And he hired Tony Hopkins to play Odin. So the three of us would be waiting to do a take and discussing Shakespeare--or using Shakespeare phrases, characters and lines to focus the work we were going to do. There's no time to rehearse in the movies, and half of it was given over to getting into the makeup anyway. So we come together, and he [Branagh] turns to Tony and says, "You're doing Lear, Act 1, Scene 3--that's what you need to do here," "Colm, I thought it would be a bit more Hamlet or Winter's Tale..." With that in mind, we got a long way down the pitch. It allows you confidently to "cross-pollinate," to bring everything you ever learned about being on stage, about being a prince, a king--you're now playing a big blue frosty king, but he's a king, so consequently all of that stuff is not chucked away but absolutely core to King Laufey, Frost Giant. That's what makes the stuff so fun, and I hope it's what makes us employable.

When will we see you next on the small screen?
I just finished a couple of episodes of Gotham. I play Dr. Francis Dalmacher, which loosely translates as "the dollmaker," and he's a very interesting creature. We were shooting up in Yonkers at an old mansion which doubles as my inner sanctum.

You also lend your voice for audiobooks and narration. Anything new on that front?
I'm reading Mordecai Richler's Solomon Gursky Was Here for a collection of all of Richler's books. And I'm doing a documentary film about the life and career of Lawren Harris, the great Canadian Group of Seven painter. I'm reading his own words, his letters to people like Emily Carr.

Your wife, Donna Feore, is a director and choreographer at Stratford. Did you meet her there?
I did. I was in a production of Julius Caesar, and she was featured in a production of Guys and Dolls. Since, we've had a very enjoyable time collaborating. She's directed me in Cyrano de Bergerac, as Fagin in Oliver! She directed my second Cyrano de Bergerac. The first time I played it, she was pregnant--and our son Thomas made his stage debut 15 years later in the Cyrano that she directed. But she's also had huge hits there [that he wasn't in]: She did Crazy for You last year, Fiddler on the Roof [in 2013]. She's doing Sound of Music right now, with Stephanie Rothenberg.

Feore in King Lear photos by David Hou. Plummer photo by V. Tony Hauser.

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