Interview with David Suchet
(Editor’s note: I had the pleasure of speaking to David almost 15 years ago. I had a tough time tracking him down, going through several layers of agents and publicists till a good friend of mine suggested I send a letter to the theater he was performing in on Broadway. David called the office and one of the people answering the phone in my office was so awed by having Suchet on the line that she forgot to ask for a call back number. He called a few days later and gave me a wonderful interview)
David Suchet is known to millions of people around the world for his superb portrayal of Agatha Christie’s Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in London Weekly Television’s series Poirot, which lasted for six years-from 1988 to 1994.
Mr. Suchet, born in London in 1946, decided on an acting career at the age of eighteen as a member the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain. He then studied for three years at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Arts, eventually joining the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1973.
Mr. Suchet has had a very diverse career, acting on stage, radio, television, and in cinema. His stage credits include Othello, The Tempest, The Merchant of Venice, Oleana, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and Timon of Athens. He has also made several television films including The Secret Agent (1992), Freud (1984), Blott on the Landscape (1985), and A Song for Europe (1985). In 1986 he received the Royal Television Society Performance Award for the parts he played in Freud, Blott on the Landscape, and A Song for Europe. Among his film credits are A World Apart (1988) (for which he was nominated as Best Actor in a Supporting Role by The British Academy of Film and Television Arts), Sunday (1997), and A Perfect Murder (1998). He is currently starring on Broadway as Antonio Salieri in Sir Peter Hall’s production of Amadeus, a part he has been playing since 1998 in London and Los Angeles.
After a five year hiatus Mr. Suchet has reprised the role of Hercule Poirot in two new films by A&E, The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, which aired in February, and Lord Edgware Dies, which will air on June 4th of this year.
TSM: You’re playing the part of Salieri in Amadeus on Broadway. How is the play going?
SUCHET: It’s doing very well, Andrew, thank you. We are sitting at about 70 percent which is nice because February is always a bit of a difficult month, of course, but we hope to get through the strain of February into early spring and beyond.
TSM: Will you be doing a tour of more states other than California and New York?
SUCHET: No. I think, for me anyway, the time will be right to leave the show at the end of July. Obviously they are hoping to get a tour of the States with this production, but it won’t feature me as Salieri.
TSM: How did you first get interested in acting?
SUCHET: Well, it all began when I was at school. When I was 16 or 17, I played Macbeth in the school play. I’d done other plays at school but following Macbeth, which was particularly well received, my English teacher, a man called Joe Storr whom I remember very well-I’m still in touch with him, actually-advised that I would maybe enjoy joining a group of young theatre people called the National Youth Theatre of Great Britain, which I thought was a great idea. So I went to audition and then joined them and did one or two plays for them and enjoyed acting very much. Now, at that time, I was also hoping to be a doctor for my real career, but my mathematics was not good enough.
TSM: Yes, your father is a doctor.
SUCHET: That’s right. He’s retired now. I remember the moment I wanted to become an actor. I had just finished the last performance of Bartholomew Fair by Ben Jonson at the Royal Court Theatre in London. (My goodness, those years ago the National Youth Theatre could play the Royal Court!) I had picked up my make-up bag and went to the stage to watch all the scenery coming down, and as I saw the scenery coming down and the light bars coming down and the empty auditorium and started remembering what it was like being on that stage, I thought the atmosphere was so incredible that, at that moment, standing there, I decided that my life should be in the theatre and in show business. It’s a magical world and a world that is very important to people. The arts are vital and necessary to people for a well-rounded life. So that’s where I wanted to be, and that’s where I am.
TSM: I really enjoy the Poirot series and I understand The Murder of Roger Ackroyd is coming up on February 13th. What was that like to do-because you stopped acting in the part for five years and now you’re back in the role?
SUCHET: It was great. Now I’m back in the role but I don’t know for how much longer. If A&E continues to want to do them, then of course I’ll do more. It all remains to be seen whether they want to make more because now they have the option. It’s not with ITV-it’s not with England anymore. But it was really great coming back to the character.
TSM: There is also another Poirot film which A&E has done.
SUCHET: Yes, there is another one. We did two. The next one is called Lord Edgware Dies. That was lovely too and it’s a great fun one. Actually, ironically, Lord Edgware Dies is another title for Thirteen at Dinner. And the funny thing about that is that I filmed Thirteen at Dinner with Peter Ustinov years before. I was Japp- possibly the worst performance of my career.
TSM: Did you imagine at that time that one day you’d play Poirot?
SUCHET: No I didn’t. I didn’t really know Poirot. I sort of knew him-I thought he was Peter Ustinov, really. But when it came my way I was absolutely thrilled to bits.
TSM: How and when were you approached to play him?
SUCHET: I was approached the year before we actually started shooting-which was 1987. We started shooting in 1988 and it was first on television in England in 1989. So I got to know Poirot in 1987 during my research and that’s quite a long time ago, isn’t it?
TSM: Yes, 13 years. It seems like the other day when I first saw it. Did you know that Rosalind Hicks saw you in a film in the 80’s and thought that you would make a perfect Poirot?
SUCHET: Yes. She saw me in Blott on the Landscape, which was a BBC adaptation of Tom Sharpe’s novel, and she thought I’d be her next Poirot. But it was when she saw me with Peter Ustinov as Japp and remembered Blott on the Landscape that she really decided.
TSM: So how did you prepare for the part of Poirot? Did you have any coaching for the accent?
SUCHET: No, I did it all myself. What I did was, I had my file on one side of me and a pile of stories on the other side and day after day, week after week, I plowed through most of Agatha Christie’s novels about Hercule Poirot and wrote down characteristics until I had a file full of documentation of the character. And then it was my business not only to know what he was like, but to gradually become him. I had to become him before we started shooting. I worked very hard on finding the right voice. I was desperate that he should sound French, although he is Belgian, because everybody believes that he is French. I wanted to move my voice from my own-which is rather bell-like and mellow and totally unlike Poirot. I wanted to raise that voice up into his head because that’s where he works from. Everything comes from there. My voice is very much in my chest and in my emotional area, but his is up in his head. He’s a brain, so that voice had to be raised up and perfected. And then I had to learn how to think like him and how to see the world through his eyes. I had to make his mannerisms and eccentricities not as though they had been put on to be laughed at, but as if they had come absolutely from within that person. I had to make it look real for the audience, yet in a way so that they could find themselves smiling at this strange little man. His mannerisms and eccentricities have to be real and not jokey, so he must never be aware of them or comment on them-even things like putting a handkerchief down on the floor before he kneels. They mustn’t be commented on. This is just what he does.
TSM: Do you find that you have any similarities to Poirot-such as tidiness?
SUCHET: Looking around my apartment at the moment, yes, I’m an unbelievably tidy person. I think I have to own to that.
TSM: Which episode would you say you enjoyed working on the most?
SUCHET: I enjoyed The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, but I think my most favorite of all was The ABC Murders. I loved that.
TSM: That’s one of my favorites, and I also liked “Murder in the Mews.” Are there any which you’d like to film which you haven’t done yet?
TSM: You have an excellent supporting cast with Philip Jackson as Japp and Hugh Fraser as Hastings and Pauline Moran as Miss Lemon. What is it like to work with them?
SUCHET: They are all terrific, actually, and they are all in the next one-the whole family comes together in Lord Edgware Dies. It is wonderful when we are all together. I think it makes it really rich. And they are so good to work with. They understand their characters just as fully as I understand mine, so we could do anything with them now.
TSM: And Philip Jackson is marvelous as Japp. He just seems to turn into him.
SUCHET: I agree. He’s a very nice man. We see each other-Philip and Hugh and Pauline and I-during the year even if we don’t film.
TSM: Well that’s nice. And one can detect that certain chemistry on the screen. What are some of your other favorite roles on television or in the cinema, besides Poirot?
SUCHET: This is going back a long, long way now, but I have played Freud.
TSM: I saw Freud back in the 80’s.
SUCHET: I enjoyed playing Freud. I enjoyed Blott on the Landscape-I loved playing Blott. I loved doing A Song for Europe. That was a film I did about Stanley Adams, who actually blew the whistle on that big chemical company in Switzerland-Hoffmann-La Roche-because they were forming illegal cartels. He was a very brave man. And then he was really put through hell by the Swiss police and his life was destroyed. That was a great role-Stanley Adams.
TSM: I remember you as Mr. Verloc in The Secret Agent, which I enjoyed seeing.
SUCHET: I’m so pleased. I loved doing that. Verloc in The Secret Agent was a great challenge for me and a very difficult role, but I really enjoyed that very much.
TSM: It’s one of my favorites. You were very much like the Verloc of the novel.
SUCHET: Yes. When there is an adaptation of a novel, what I always try to do is serve the original writer. For me that’s the way to go. That’s my mission, if you like.
TSM: What are your other interests besides acting?
SUCHET: Recently I haven’t had much time, but I love photography and I enjoy music. I used to play the clarinet, actually, but I don’t play it as much now. Sometimes I get it out. I like reading theology and philosophy. And I love water-I enjoy boating on the canals and rivers of England as well.
TSM: What are some of your philosophical beliefs?
SUCHET: Well, I’m a Christian by faith. I like to think it sees me through a great deal of my life. I very much believe in the principles of Christianity and the principles of most religions, actually-that one has to abandon oneself to a higher good. I think to accept the now and to live in the present is the most important thing for all of us to learn to do-to be able to live in the present and not let the quality of the present be coloured by the fear or anxiety of the future or the pain of the past.
TSM: Do you have plans on ever writing?
SUCHET: Oh, I wish I could write. I don’t think I can write novels. If ever I write at all, I would think it would be philosophical books. I don’t think I have it in me to write a novel. But you never know. I’ve never tried.
TSM:One more thing before this interview ends. Would you please say good-bye like Poirot?
SUCHET: Monsieur Gulli, it has been a great pleasure and privilege for me to speak with you today. And I hope that you will publish me in the way, of course, that I am, which is as the greatest detective in the world…. Au revoir.