Interview with Michael York
“This resonated well with my new-found work practice of positive, adventurous action rather than safe inaction.”
The above quote from Michael York’s 1991 autobiography Travelling Player sums up his work philosophy-a philosophy which has paid off both personally and career-wise, resulting in a superb body of work and an enormously rewarding life. In a career encompassing the stage, film, and television, this flexible attitude has led Mr. York to play a variety of roles from Tybalt in Franco Zefirelli’s Romeo and Juliet (1968) to John the Baptist in Jesus of Nazareth (1977) and more recently to the Antichrist in the independent film The Omega Code (1999) and its sequel Megiddo: The Omega Code 2.
Born Michael Johnson in 1942, Mr. York joined the National Youth Theatre in 1959. After graduating from Oxford in 1964, he joined Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre where he met Franco Zefirelli, who eventually cast him in the role of Lucentio in his production of The Taming of the Shrew (1967), marking the start of his film career. He went on to act in several more Zefirelli productions including Jesus of Nazareth and Romeo and Juliet. In 1972 he was cast opposite Liza Minelli in Cabaret and went on to star in such films as England Made Me (1973), The Three Musketeers (1973), Murder on the Orient Express (1974), and Logan’s Run (1976).
Mr. York lectures extensively about the art of acting, Shakespeare, and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling. In 2000 he collaborated with long-time friend and colleague Adrian Brine to write A Shakespearean Actor Prepares. His recent book Dispatches from Armageddon, written in an informal yet contemplative style, offers a witty behind-the-scenes look at the making of the two Omega Code films, as well as entertaining glimpses into the making of several of his other films.
TSM: So tell us about your new book, Dispatches from Armageddon. I’ve read it and I thought it was very easy to read, and it was very entertaining.
MY: Oh, I’m glad. Well, that was the object of the exercise, you know. For one thing I enjoy writing and I had a feeling it might be interesting to write about this film but without grinding you down with endless boring detail, so I kept notes on it-particularly because, as you know, I was involved as a co-producer with the decisions involved beforehand, what leads up to it, and what happens afterwards. So that was the premise [of the book] and then, you know, the film came out and I sent the book to be published on September 10th and on September 12th I called the publishers and I said, “Listen, just hold up! This story’s not over.” So I was able to add the epilogue about having the film come out in the post-9/11 climate.
TSM: Did those problems hurt the film?
MY: Well I don’t know. They obviously affected it. You know the decision was made to go ahead with its release and I explained [in the epilogue that was because] there was this amazing parallel. [The film] wasn’t about terrorism but the forces of good and evil-the forces of good in the world being rallied by an American president. So a lot of people were very convinced and demanded its release and thought its message was even more timely. But as you know, there was enormous soul-searching and breast-beating about what was appropriate at that time. I think now we’re several months away from it and the DVD and the video have just been released in huge numbers, and if The Omega Code One is anything to go by, I think that’s where its real niche will lie.
TSM: So did you expect that the first film would be such a hit?
MY: Not such a phenomenal hit, no. I had no idea that it would be the number one limited release film of the year. Nor was I aware that there was this groundswell of Christian entertainment growing in this country. And then of course this Newsweek article came out about it and attention was drawn to it. Whether we were part of it . . . I think we were part of it because it got mentioned in most articles. From my point of view, I was always standing outside, any organisation of Christianity. The idea when they first came to me was that these films would have a sort of double purpose: that they would appeal to a core Christian audience of course, but that they would be made-hopefully well made-using Hollywood techniques, that they would cross over into a much wider audience.
TSM: You’ve played both the Anti-Christ and John the Baptist, so I have to ask if you are a spiritual person.
MY: Oh, I think I am, yes. I would like to think I am. There’s this endless quest: Who are we? What are we doing? Where are we going? Although the great question is, who am I? Which is of course endlessly fascinating!
TSM: So tell us about your passion for Shakespeare and the poetry of Rudyard Kipling.
MY: Well, you know, in the 90’s I decided that I’d love to do some eclectic performance pieces and concentrated on things that I enjoyed most: Shakespeare-there’s one about acting and actors’ perceptions-and also the poetry of Rudyard Kipling, which I think has been seriously underestimated. People write on Kipling as just the King’s trumpeter, you know, this versifier of Empire. But he’s not. He’s much more complex.
TSM: He was somewhat of a critic at times, especially, I think, after his son died in the War.
MY: Oh, yes, and in fact I touch on some of that poetry after the event which is really visceral, powerful, and not at all the jaunty Barrack Room ballad, but there is such a variety of poetry from the great narratives to the Barrack Room Ballads done in the soldierly vernacular. You know the famous one is Gunga Din but then also some very beautiful lyrical poetry. I think it was T.S. Eliot who said that he was a great poet, and I think this can be proved. He was very complex man and I think this is what is so fascinating; this Anglo-Indian character has made for enormous complexity.
TSM: What are your memories of Murder on the Orient Express?
MY: Well, very happy ones. The film was so star-studded-with every role played by somebody famous. Richard Widmark was in it and said he signed on to meet the stars! It was a huge pleasure, and in fact I remember we had a sort of round table buffet for luncheon because people didn’t really want to stop in the middle of the day-because I think several were doing West End shows-and this round table became rather famous. People would drop by-I mean royalty and visiting dignitaries. I was living in London at the time, so it was a great pleasure. I had a beautiful lady as my countess, Jacqui Bisset, who of course lives here now and we still keep in touch.
TSM: You managed to look and sound like a real Hungarian. How did you prepare for the part?
MY: Well, thank you. I actually had tea with a very famous Hungarian writer, George Mikesch, to sort of get the accent. But you know the clothes were also a real feature. Anthony Powell’s costumes were just superb. And it’s interesting, there was an overcoat-I think I write about it in the book, the beautiful camelhair overcoat-which was made for that film, and I loved it. It was so elegant. After the shooting it was returned to some wardrobe and years later it turned up again, and I thought this was too good to be true and I bought it. And I’ve used it on subsequent films.
TSM: Yes, I’ve heard that. So who would you say was the most supportive and inspiring director you worked with? Would it be Franco Zeffirelli?
MY: He’d have to be on the list-getting that first chance, which I think is so important. It had happened that I’d worked with him in the theatre; I was in Laurence Olivier’s National Theatre Company in a production of Much Ado about Nothing. I remember one time during rehearsals, I just happened to be in the canteen at the Old Vic getting a cup of tea and Zeffirelli was there and he said to me, “Have you made movies?” and I said, “No.” And he said, “Well, would you like to?” and I said, “My God, one dreams of it!” And he said, “Well, one day you should.” And a year later I got summoned to go to Rome to audition for his Taming of the Shrew, and by great good fortune I got the job and got this other label-the movie actor. But I think working with Bob Fosse on Cabaret was enormously rewarding because he was so creative, so concentrated, so inventive, cared so much. He would . . . . You know, films are so often about technical things; we wait for lights to be lit, tracks to be laid. It’s quite time consuming. But he would always use this time for rehearsal, energising times, trying things in different ways so that, when the set was ready, the whole cast was firing on all cylinders full of interesting ideas to put into practice. There was a sort of dark side to him too, that I liked, which obviously came out in the other movies. He was not the smoothest person. But we liked each other. We kept in touch.
TSM: You also worked with Billy Wilder.
MY: Yes, I’m so thrilled to have that on my resumé. And Fedora was, I think, unfairly dismissed with faint praise when it first came out, but it has certainly since found a much more enthusiastic reception. Well, you know, I was playing myself, which was a bizarre role, and you know I’m responsible for the death of this leading character who forms a passion for Michael York and has a little shrine. But, you know, I said to Billy that this is the one occasion I can legitimately say to you, as actors so often tiresomely say, “I’m sorry. My character wouldn’t say this!” It was a great pleasure. I just wish then I’d had my notebook out and, Boswell-like, jotted down notes.
TSM: Would you return back to the stage to do more Shakespeare?
MY: Well, I do go back to the stage, but it has been some time now, except that I’ve been doing these lecture performances around the country-sort of getting my performance, the theatrical side, giving it a turnover, and appearing before an audience with a sort of hybrid lecture cum performance piece, which I very much enjoy. But really I’m wide open. I’m looking for things to do, but it hasn’t come along yet.
TSM: So will you write more books?
MY: I must say I enjoyed it enormously. But doing the two in a row, you get into the habit. I’d love to do more, but rather than talking about it one should just call you up and say, look I’ve done this. You know, I suppose everyone dreams of writing a novel, even one. You’re a writer?
TSM: No, I’m an editor. I have to look over all the manuscripts.
MY: Well, yours is a sort of vanishing trade, don’t you think?
TSM: Yeah, it is.
MY: It’s a tragedy that’s happened.
TSM: So you would consider writing a novel in the future?
MY: I’d love to. I’d love to try my hand just to say that one had done it.
TSM: You have plenty of life’s experiences, and you’ve been all around the world, so that counts for a lot.
MY: I wonder, yes. Maybe. But that’s next on the agenda, and I think you do get withdrawn if you stop writing. I know that doing the diary I was getting up at 4.30 in the morning and I couldn’t wait to get down to my desk. I’d love to do it.
TSM: So in your book it says that you’re interested in natural medicine and things like that. Are you into the organic food?
MY: I think so, yes. I think it’s an important aspect of it. My wife and I have been, you know, medically alternative for thirty years-in fact so long ago we were sort of freaks. Now, of course, everything has become a little more mainstream. I don’t think they even call it alternative anymore. It’s called integrated. My wife has a passion that the so-called orthodox and the so-called alternative shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, and that they should join forces. And you know there are wonderful, huge, noble things being done in each branch. I love homoeopathy and acupuncture. I think that everything that keeps the body in an optimum state rather than waiting for it to break down and then seeking help . . . you know, seeking help beforehand. Rather like the Chinese, where you pay your doctor when you’re healthy and you stop paying him when you get sick.
TSM: That’s a very good strategy! For the past few years I’ve grown my own vegetables organically in terracotta pots ….
MY: Well, you’re right, it does make a difference. I don’t care what they say that it’s all in the mind. We shop in an organic store, and I know it makes a difference.
TSM: If you look at the increase in chronic illnesses over the past hundred years or so, I mean, you have to think that pesticides are causing all of this.
MY: Oh, God yes, and some additives are surely there, and the fast foods, and the way that the whole population is getting so enormous.
TSM: I know. You know, they’re stopping physical education in schools.
MY: And diabetes is rampant. There’s something not right.
TSM: So you and your wife have a very happy marriage. To what would you attribute that?
MY: I wish I could pin it down to one factor. You know, I think we’re very lucky. We are well suited to each other. We’re interested in the same things but not to the point where it’s boring or we’re sort of clones, you know. I love the fact that she’s become this very celebrated photographer and exhibits all over the world. It gives me a chance to travel with her and go to these fascinating places. She’s had exhibitions in the Kremlin, St. Petersburg, London, Dubrovnik, Warsaw, and places like that. So that’s great. I think also having someone to love keeps you healthy too. It all has its up and downs, of course, but I think if you’re sharing it with someone it makes it so much less impactful.
TSM: And your wife travels with you, of course, throughout all the locations.
MY: We try to, yes. A foreign location gives her scope for her work as a photographer and writer and it’s just so nice to be together. You know, I’ve witnessed on location where actors haven’t been able to be with their families and it’s a bit of a compromise. You’re waiting for the experience to end so that real life can begin again, whereas if you are with your loved one, it’s just an embellishment of life. You can go off and share and enjoy what’s there.
TSM: So, will you ever retire?
MY: No, I’d like to emulate John Gielgud! Call me on my 96th birthday when I’ve put in a good day’s work! But that is one of the great fascinations of the job, the sheer un-nine-till-fiveness of it all. If you can keep your wits about you and your health, there’s always something for you to do.
TSM: And finally, besides acting, what are some of your hobbies, the things that you enjoy doing?
MY: I love going to the opera, travel of course, a bit of collecting. I’m a bit of a magpie. I’ve been collecting stuff to do with the opera and the ballet. I love design drawings, costume drawings, set drawings, things that are later translated into something else. I have a lot of interests. I’m sure I’ve left something out! Maybe too many interests. I have a magazine mind, you’ll be pleased to know.
TSM: Oh, that’s great!
MY: Both my wife and I are great magazine readers, so the bedside is pretty heavily piled and it’s a sort of addiction. There should be a Magazine Readers Anonymous where you go to try and curb it. But I’ve always loved newspapers and magazines. I’m thrilled to know that yours is there. It’s a noble name been revived.
TSM: Well, thank you so much. Thank you so much for speaking to me. It’s been a great pleasure.
MY: Well, for me too, and I hope you feel better.
TSM: Thank you so much.
MY: Not at all.