British actor David Suchet

An Interview with David Suchet

When Anthony Trollope started writing what would become his longest novel, he never dreamed a con artist in a supporting role would take over the plot, swindling not only the characters in the book but the author himself! Such was the force of personality of his creation, Augustus Melmotte. David Suchet’s rendition of Melmotte in The Way We Live Now makes it clear what Trollope was up against. No fastidious, obsessive, mincing Hercule Poirot he — at least, not in this performance.

In addition to his signature roles as Poirot on Mystery! and in the 1992 Masterpiece Theatre production The Secret Agent, Suchet has appeared in the feature films A Perfect Murder, Sunday, Wing Commander, Executive Decision, and RKO 281 on HBO. Among his many stage roles, he has appeared as George (opposite Diana Rigg) in Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf? and as the professor in David Mamet’s Oleanna. He made his Broadway stage debut in Peter Hall’s Amadeus playing Salieri. Suchet recently told Masterpiece Theatre: “The joy of my career is I’ve been very blessed to be able to be an actor in major films, television, theater, and also British radio. In fact, my dream as an actor when I started out was to be able to work in all the media. Thankfully, that’s what I’m being given to do.”

He went on to describe his most challenging role to date: Melmotte.

Were you a fan of Trollope before you got the role of Melmotte?

No. In fact, my introduction to Trollope was really through this wonderful novel. I based my performance completely on the book, and I’m very pleased to say that the Trollope Society here in London was so thrilled that Melmotte was accurately portrayed — in their opinion — that they’ve made me an honorary member of the society.

PBS viewers know you best as Poirot on Mystery! Do you see any resemblance between Poirot and Melmotte?

None whatsoever. They are as dissimilar as any character you could read on a page or see on the screen or meet in the street or say hello to in a restaurant. If you saw Melmotte sitting next to Poirot, their appearance, clothing, family background, attitudes, morals, tastes, everything about them would be completely different. I must say that playing Melmotte was nothing at all similar to anything I’ve tried before.

So how do you do it?

You go to the book. With Poirot I had over 60 or 70 stories to draw on, so it was a far greater chance for me — or for Agatha Christie — to develop the character. With Melmotte I just had Trollope’s one novel, which made it all the more important to be as accurate to the original as possible. When you’re doing characters from famous novels, you have a responsibility as an actor to make it what the writer intended. And then you add and expand from there to create a three-dimensional performance.

Did you draw on real-life examples? Melmotte does have his share of contemporary equivalents.

When I read the script, the man who immediately came to mind was Robert Maxwell, the British businessman and media tycoon who drowned in 1991. After his death it came out that he was involved in all sorts of dishonest financial manipulation. Extraordinarily enough, Maxwell’s life almost exactly mirrors Melmotte’s, and it has been said that he was a 20th-century Augustus Melmotte. So I was able to draw on his example, and in doing so I didn’t deny myself fattening things to eat. I put on a lot of weight and really got into the role.

Did you ever meet Robert Maxwell?

No. I met a relative of his while researching the role. I’m not at liberty to divulge who, but that person was a great help to me.

How did you go about developing Melmotte’s accent?

It was interesting. Trollope originally thought Melmotte should be an Irishman, but then in his first description of Melmotte in the novel, he has him coming from the continent and talking with an undefined accent. I tried to place him from middle Europe, sounding vaguely Hungarian without being too specific. The most important thing is that he’s from Central Europe and he is an outsider in English society. That was exactly the case with Robert Maxwell, who was originally from Czechoslovakia. The only difference between Maxwell and Melmotte is that Maxwell learned how to speak English without any accent from listening to the BBC. But they both called themselves Englishmen.

Those bushy eyebrows — are those yours?

Yes, they’re mine. For Poirot, I keep them trim. This time I just let them out. It’s not my hair, though.

Do you think that someone who is a great swindler has to be a great actor?

Yes. The thing about Melmotte and Maxwell is that both had enormous charm, with totally convincing, wonderfully winning ways. In addition to being good actors, both knew how to manipulate people. They were great salesmen. I suppose that’s the key. A successful swindler has to be a great salesman even more than a great actor.

Take us through the mechanics of Melmotte’s swindle.

Melmotte’s modus operandi was this: He would take a brilliant idea, form a company, sell stock, and use that money to set up another company, sell shares in that company, get more money, and so on. He might have five or six companies going all at the same time. He wouldn’t bother with running the companies. He would just take all that money, for as long as he could keep it coming in, and have a wonderful life.

His partner, Croll, is nervous that Melmotte is getting to enjoy his wonderful life too much.

Yes. In the past, Melmotte has always been found out but got away. What’s ironic is that he has a chance to make a fortune honestly, if only he builds the railway from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz. He has the money; he has the people. All he has to do is pay the workers, and in all probability he’ll make a tremendous profit for the company, but he wouldn’t have so much for himself. Part of Trollope’s satire is to make this outsider wealthier than anyone else, so that the society of London, irrespective of their dislike of him, stick to him like leeches to get a piece of what he has.

When Melmotte first hears the proposal to build the railway from Paul Montague, he says, “Who on earth would want to take a train journey from Salt Lake City to Vera Cruz?” And then he looks at him and says, “I wouldn’t!” In fact, the railways were the great speculative investment of the era, with lines opening up everywhere and many of them making a great deal of money. Melmotte eventually seizes the opportunity, but not in the way his investors think.

With Mrs. Hurtle, the American who shot a man in Oregon and threatens to shoot Paul if he doesn’t marry her, do you think Trollope was poking fun at Americans?

No, not in any way at all. He was taking the clich? femme fatale and satirizing that. She was quite a woman, with her whips and pistols, but I don’t think she was meant to be a parody of Americans.

At the end, when everything starts to unravel for Melmotte, there’s a scene when he barks like a dog. Was it difficult for you as an actor to show this supremely confident man falling apart?

It was the biggest challenge of my career on the screen. It was incredibly difficult. Those barks, by the way, were my invention. He was very inebriated at that point and slightly insane through his desperate situation. One thing you have to do when you have ideas like that is try them out and not care what people think. It seemed to be the right thing for him to do. It certainly wasn’t easy, though.

Did it take a number of takes to get it right?

In actual fact, that particular scene only had two takes. No, what it takes is a lot of courage, because you’re surrounded by people on a film set, and you’ve just got to let go. That’s the thing about film acting and television acting. You just release yourself and do what is true for the moment, and ignore everybody and everything and all the technical razzmatazz that goes on.

When you’re in the middle of a challenging role like this, do you find yourself taking the character home, unable to escape it at the end of the day?

I think what every actor takes home when playing such a huge character as this is the anxiety that you may have not done the part justice on that particular day. You don’t take the character home; you take the worries of anybody who is doing a very difficult job. People in business or medicine face these worries. It’s important not to make too much of them. It was a terrific responsibility that I had insofar as English literature is concerned. Melmotte is one of the greatest villains of all time. But he is generally forgotten now, and I wanted to elevate him to people’s consciousness. He is a huge rogue and should be up there with the best of them.

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© 2012. Design by Daria Pichugina
© 2001—2014. Texts by Daria Pichugina, Adelka
© 2001—2014. Translated by Adelka, Kim Dolce, Elena Ukhina et al.

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