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ANTHONY HEALD

ANTHONY HEALD

Where: his dressing room (Music Box Theatre). 5:30 pm.

       Some of the reactions that I get from actors when I ask them for an interview never cease to amaze me. On this occasion, I knocked on the door of Anthony Heald's dressing room, and the voice inside told me to come in. When I opened the door, I saw that he had a notebook, calculator, and papers arranged on his dressing table, and I thought, "Oh great. Perfect timing." I then excused myself for disturbing him and asked if I could come back to speak to him later. He said it was all right and that he was "just figuring out some financial things.''

As quickly as I could, I asked him if I could interview him, and he said yes. Then he turned off his calculator and started to put away his papers! I stopped him and said, "Oh, no. I don't mean right now! I wouldn't expect you to—“ My flustered explanation was cut short by his laughter, and he asked when I would like to do the interview. As he was writing down the date and time in his appointment book, I noticed how neatly the numbers and information were written in his notebook and thought, "Gee, this guy could have been a greet bookkeeper if he wasn't already a great actor." Then to top it all off, he took out a separate sheet of paper and he wrote down the date and time of our interview for me!

 

Because of one film, Anthony Heald has become the most famous "dinner guest” in motion picture history. The movie, of course is The Silence Of The Lambs, and Heald played psychiatrist Dr. Frederick Chilton, the conniving nemesis of his cannibalistic colleague, Dr. Hannibal Lecter. The film went on to sweep last year's Oscars, winning all five major categories: Best Picture, Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay, and was a blockbuster hit for all of 1991. But Heald is the first to admit that he didn't have very high hopes for the picture.

''I never thought it was going to be a big hit and a classic, which is what it has turned out to be. Even when I saw it for the first time, I thought, 'This isn't very scary. I don't think it really works,''' he says, chuckling at how incorrect he was. "In the months before it was released, the word was, 'This looks like it's going to be a big hit,' and I kept thinking, 'Oh, sure. I've heard that before."'

The Silence Of The Lambs fared well not only because of Heald and the rest of the stellar cast, but mainly because of the guidance they received from their director, Jonathan Demme. Jodie Foster has called Demme her "guru," and Anthony Hopkins has stated on numerous occasions that Demme is the best director he has ever worked with. Now, we can add Anthony Heald's commentary to the growing list of praises for the filmmaker. 

"I'm sure anybody that was associated with that production, the first thing they talk about is Jonathan Demme's amazing way of making it all fun. He has a great way of allowing people their creative freedom. He doesn't seem to be breathing down anybody's neck. He has enormous respect for the people that he's working with, and he communicates that. He never seems anxious. One of the first days that I worked, it was a disaster with some of the electrical stuff, and that meant that we weren't able to accomplish a quarter of what we had planned to that day. His reaction was amusement. I never saw anybody respond as if they were under pressure. People did things out of respect and affection.

"Actors like to pre-plan everything, especially actors who are like me," Heald laughs. "And one of the dangers of going from stage to film is that the camera will pick up that you thought this out ahead of time. The camera loves spontaneity.

"What Jonathan would do is he would wait until when all the lighting was right, when you were really hitting the mark, when the camera moves were all great, and when the focus was exactly dead on. Then just before calling 'Action,’ he'd come over and whisper an adjustment in your ear--'Have you ever thought that maybe you were kind of turned on by her at this point?'--something that had not occurred to you before. Then he'd step away and say, 'Okay, roll it.’ And you'd start into the scene, and you had this adjustment that you haven't had a chance to think about. You just had to go with it! You were really improvising, and the camera would pick it up perfectly. So he's very adept at motivating people and a very trusting person.

"And Jodie and Tony Hopkins are both very warm, friendly, normal people. The first night that Tony and I worked together, we worked until about two o'clock in the morning, and I worked another forty-five minutes on an insert shot. Then I got out of costume and makeup and went down to the car to take me back to the hotel, and Tony was waiting in the car. I said, 'I thought you went back to the hotel?' and he said, 'Oh well, I knew you were just about to finish up. So I thought I'd wait for you, so we could chat,'" Heald recalls with a smile.

"Then he invited me out to lunch the next day because we weren't called until quite late, and we sat for two, three hours just talking about everything under the sun and virtually nothing about the business. And he met my wife during one of the days we were shooting, and over a year later at a press junket my wife was there. He saw her and went over and gave her a nice kiss and remembered her name and what she does for a living. He's just a very real person." 

 

Even before Heald's experience of being in The Silence Of The Lambs, New York theatrical audiences have known his work for years in plays such as Elliot Loves, Pygmalion, and most recently, A Small Family Business, which was on Broadway last spring. At such productions, theater-goers have also come in expectation of witnessing Heald's uncanny ability to do a multitude of foreign and domestic accents. But he is smart enough not to allow himself to simply fall back on that aspect of his talent.

"You can do yourself a disservice by trying to scope out how you're being perceived by other people. I like having the reputation of having a facility with accents. If that means upper-class British like Higgins or New York like Lisbon Traviata or Connecticut upper-crust like Lips Together, Teeth Apart, the accent is not as important as the character's voice.

"The first seven or eight shows I did in New York, almost all of them were British, and I wasn’t getting called to read for American roles. I told my agents, 'I will not do any more British roles. I've got to establish in the minds of the theatrical community that I'm not a British actor.' Now, my goal is to play an interesting part that's as different from what I've just done, whether it be English, Irish, American, French. By now, I've established my identity as an American actor who can do British roles. It doesn't worry me anymore. I go after a good role.

"But I would be disturbed if I felt that I was perceived as an actor who was always basically the same except that I put on an accent. What I get most excited about hearing people say about my work is that I'm very different from role to role. That's when I'm pleased. And I love kind of coming up with as much specific, concrete detail for the character as I can, be it voice or background or mannerisms or whatever.

"In the course of the rehearsals and the previews, you really kind of enter into that world of 'What would I do if I were this person?' Eventually you move, sound, and look like someone slightly different from yourself. I think there are probably two extremes of that. There are people who basically play themselves and don't change very much from role to role, and I have great respect for the people who do that with great skill. But for me, the actors who I have the greatest respect for are people like Alec Guinness and Robert DeNiro, people who really seem very different from role to role. You can carry it too far, but as long as it's done with some subtlety, I think it's more exciting.

"The design of a role is like the design of good jewelry. The best design is usually the simplest. It's also the hardest to achieve. If I'm playing a part that is very different from myself, I'll start out doing a lot. And then it's that old sculptor's image of 'Take the block of marble and get rid of everything that isn't the statue.' The simpler, the better. I think Jodie Foster, for instance, in The Silence Of The Lambs, her performance was incredibly spare and pared down. She didn't have a wide range of emotions or expressions that she went through, and she was sort of soft-spoken through the whole movie. That's the kind of performing that I really respect. I mean, there are sometimes roles that invite a certain extravagance in the playing of them, but the goal is 'Don't let them see you act.'

''I tend to break down a script into very, very small bits. And it means if there's ever a second when I'm not sure what's going on for the character, I feel lost. I feel frustrated. I can't really work. I need to always have a firm idea of exactly where I am through the progression of the play or the movie. And you really have to stay open to all the stimuli that can possibly affect you. Some comes from the director or the other actors you're working with. A lot comes from just constantly studying the script and just staying open to connections that may occur to you."

 

Something that has occurred to Heald is that he hasn't had the opportunity to be a part of all the notoriety surrounding The Silence Of The Lambs.

"I remember in the months after it came out, and I was not booking any films, I said to my agents, 'Well, what's going on? What's wrong?' They made it clear that they thought I should not tie myself up in a play, that I should keep my options open and be available. Because when I was doing Anything Goes, I had a 'six month/no out' contract, which meant that even had some film opportunities come up, I would not have been able to take advantage of them. Those are the trade-offs that you make, but for 99% of us in this business, things don't happen overnight.

“I really had to fight a certain kind of frustration and depression after the film came out that nothing was really cooking for me in terms of film. I thought, 'This is going to open up all the doors.' No. It got me a few more interviews, but I can't sit around and twiddle my thumbs and wait for the film things to come up. My career has been 90% theatre, 10% film. I'd like that to be 60/40 or 50/50.

"But I'd be very unhappy if I was not doing a certain amount of theatre. I need the opportunity to go through a role from beginning to end in one stretch. To do a play over the course of two hours in front of a live audience is very different than to do a two hour movie over the course of three months in little thirty second snippets. It's delayed gratification when you work on a film. You don't get to sense what an audience feels about it until you've really lost touch with the feelings that you had while doing it. There's a lot about it that's very exciting and artistically challenging, but I've been doing theatre for thirty years. This is where my heart is.

"Beyond that, the east coast is where my family is. My in-laws, who are very active grandparents," he smiles, "live in Philadelphia. Their daughter is their only child and our son is their only grandchild, and to move to Los Angeles would kill them. My wife is a teacher in the public school system out in New Jersey, and we live on a nice block with a lot of friends. Our life is here. I really don't see moving to Los Angeles as an option. I've spent some time there when I was doing Outrageous Fortune and a miniseries called Fresno, and it was not a happy time for me. I didn't feel connected to anything out there.

"So I hope that the coming years will be years where I'll have one or two good film opportunities a year, and do a play or two a year. Or if there was a TV series that was shooting in New York that I could be a regular on, I'd love that for a few years. That would make me happy." Heald pauses for a moment, then chuckles, "But I'm happiest when I'm rehearsing something." AAA

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