A few years ago I saw Joss Ackland on an interview program on the BBC. What impressed me most about him was how outspoken and straightforward he was. When I spoke to him last year shortly after his wife of 51 years, Rosemary, had passed away, he had lost none of his candidness. Despite his recent loss, he was as charismatic and as affable as ever. His own personal character mirrors his versatility as an actor—reflective yet gregarious, a stern critic of society’s fads yet a good-humored observer of the world.
Mr. Ackland was born in 1928 and graduated from London’s Central School of Speech and Drama in 1945. That same year, at the age of seventeen, he made his professional stage debut in The Hasty Heart. His first screen role was a small uncredited part in the 1949 film Seven Days to Noon. In 1951 he met his future wife Rosemary Kircaldy at the Pitlochry Festival where they were playing the two leads in J.M. Barrie’s Mary Rose. A few years later they moved to Central Africa, and shortly thereafter to South Africa, where they lived for two years. After returning to England in 1957, Mr. Ackland joined the Old Vic and later, from 1962 to 1964, was Associate Director of the Mermaid Theatre.
Although he is known to American film viewers primarily for playing dark and unpredictable villains such as the murderous Sir Jock Delves Broughton in White Mischief (1987) and the dangerous Arjen Rudd in Lethal Weapon 2 (1989), he has had a varied and prolific career encompassing the stage, screen, and television. His recent stage credits include Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2, Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House, Weller Martin in The Gin Game, Captain Hook in Peter Pan, and Juan Peron in Evita. His poignant portrayal of C.S Lewis opposite Claire Bloom in Shadowlands (1985) helped the film win the BAFTA Television Award for Best Single Drama. He was equally unforgettable co-starring opposite Glenda Jackson and Denholm Elliot in John Le Carre’s mystery A Murder of Quality (1991). In 1989 he was nominated for a BAFTA Film Award as Best Supporting Actor for his role in White Mischief (a film that is a searing indictment of England’s imperial settlers) and a year later, in 1990, he was nominated for a BAFTA Television Award as Best Actor for his starring role in First and Last (1989). In 1987 he starred as Mafia Godfather Don Masino Croce in Michael Cimino’s crime drama The Sicilian. In 2001 he was awarded the CBE for his services to acting.
This fall he can be seen playing Thomas Quarre, the mastermind behind a bank heist, in the noir film No Good Deed—based on the Dashiell Hammett short story, “The House on Turk Street”—a film he calls “a great mix of comedy, drama, terror, and tragedy.”
AFG: First of all, I’d like to say I’m very sorry about what happened to your wife.
JA: Ah, thank you. Yes, it was very tough.
AFG: I know how that is. It’s a tough thing.
JA: It is. We’d been married for fifty-one years, you know, and we were inseparable.
AFG: I know that. That’s why when I watched you acting Colonel Peregrine in Tales of the Unexpected I thought, he’s acting like the kind of person he’s totally the opposite of.
JA: [He laughs.] Yes, I remember that now. Somerset Maugham, wasn’t it?
AFG: Yes, a Maugham story. So what do you enjoy working on more, the stage or the screen?
JA: Well, I think really I came into the business because I was mad about movies. It just took me an immensely long time to get into them. I’m contrary to most people. Most actors prefer to work on the stage. I enjoy rehearsing, I enjoy the theatre, but I do have a very low threshold of boredom. So after awhile doing the same thing every night for probably up to a year can be murder. But really I enjoy doing most the thing I’m not doing at the time! The plays I’ve enjoyed doing . . . I mean, I loved doing Falstaff in Henry IV Parts 1 & 2—when we opened the Barbican—which Trevor Nunn directed, and I enjoyed playing Galileo [by Bertolt Brecht], but I must confess that I really like to be on stage all the time or I do get bored! And I enjoyed the last thing I did which was playing Captain Shotover in Heartbreak House which I did at Chichester. Heartbreak House particularly is my favourite. I loved that. I’ve done quite a bit of Shaw.
AFG: What are the projects that you have coming up in the future?
JA: Well, I’ve done three yet to come out. One’s just come out which was K19 The Widowmaker. I haven’t it see yet. It’s interesting but a very dark project. We shot that in Moscow and then Montreal and also in Nova Scotia, in Halifax, and it was great. This was last year and my wife was able to come with me and they were very good. They helped and she was able to move around then in a wheelchair. And then later on I did another movie in Montreal which Bob Rafelson directed called No Good Deed, which is based on the short story called “The House on Turk Street” by Dashiell Hammett. There were only about seven of us in it with Samuel L. Jackson and it was a nice little subject.
AFG: And what are you playing in it?
JA: I was playing an eccentric character who captures Samuel L. Jackson and then holds him hostage. My name is Mr. Quarre, a weirdy.
AFG: It sounds very interesting, especially as it is by Dashiell Hammett. You’ve been a critic of some of contemporary films and, to be honest, I agree with you. Who do you blame for it? The studio people, the writers, the or moviegoers themselves who will pay £8 to see two hours of garbage?
JA: It’s a great shame, you know, because it wasn’t like this in the old days—well, I don’t believe it was, because it was before my time. At the time when studios were in charge of the actors rather than actors in charge of the studios, you had monsters like Harry Cohen, Sam Goldwyn, Jack L. Warner, and I mean, they were real monsters, but they had one thing in common. They all loved movies. And now we just have chartered accountants in charge who have no interest in movies at all. They’re just interested in making money. They are always having to aim at the audience to make money, they aim for the Midwest or they aim for the Orient or they aim for most kids. They give them all these car chases, the villain dying twice, and they play down to the audience. But I believe you should never give people what they want. Give them something a little more than what they want and that way they grow up. But, sadly, it’s down and down and I do think this is terribly sad. So really, most of the interesting movies are independent movies.
AFG: That’s true someone like David Mamet does very good work.
JA: Exactly. But the thing is, if you think of a cast like Casablanca—where, the whole cast is what made that movie—it was fascinating and everybody was interesting right through—Claude Rains, Conrad Veidt, Sydney Greenstreet, Peter Lorre, Victor Franck. You can go right through the lot and everybody was played by somebody with personality. Nowadays, sadly, when the actors are in charge and when so much money goes to two leads, I mean, it’s much easier to make a movie for $50 million than it is for $10 million because you can guarantee two people at the top at the time. They will get their $7 million, $10 million, $50 million, whatever it is, and you have guaranteed an audience, but the result is then you don’t get the rest of the interesting cast.
AFG: When you brought up this point you made me curious about something, Twenty years ago you would see a film like Murder on the Orient Express which had an all-str cast. Why haven’t they been able to bring together an all-star cast like that for another film?
JA: Because you couldn’t get twenty people getting $10 million each!
AFG: That’s true. But I really don’t think Sean Connery, for example, asked for a lot of money to be in Murder on the Orient Express.
JA: No, no, no. It’s really not so much the fault of the actors but the fault of the agents. The agents have far too much power and they are aware of the drawing power of their particular client and they will use it accordingly. There should be a restriction I think. There should be a limit. I mean who the hell wants to have $25 million? Alright, give it to them! But then put $20 million back in the movie as well.
AFG: I know. And you have a writer who is probably paid almost nothing, who unfortunately, very often nowadays, can’t even write!
JA: That’s it, yes. I mean, sadly, writers have always had a raw deal with movies, even before the War when you had people like F. Scott Fitzgerald writing for movies.
AFG: I know. Like William Faulkner.
JA: They were stuck in a small back room with a telephone and not allowed to come out but, by God, you got some good stuff. You got stuff with intelligence and morals. In the days of Preston Sturges, Frank Capra, there would be a moral behind the movie. And it made a better world.
AFG: It’s become very in vogue to be unethical.
JA: Yes. Romance is out. It’s considered almost a dirty word. I think—and this is nothing to do with being ancient; it is simply the fact that I can really go through the decades now—I just happen to think that in twenty years time people with look back on this particular decade and think, were they all crazy? But I like movies like The Big Night, a wonderful little movie about a restaurant. But again, it was an independent. Usually the movies I vote for at the Oscars are all like this. But of course, sadly, my compatriots obviously don’t agree.
AFG: There are some great independent films out there, but they only put them on in one theatre where I live.
JA: Oh, really. Well, there you are. That’s what I’m saying. Now I live in north Devon, which is a million miles away from anywhere, but I’ve got a sort of huge screen here and I wait for all the Oscar movies to be sent in and then I have a field day at the end of the year. [He laughs.]