Pete Postlethwaite means many different things to different people (including Steven Spielberg who described him as ‘the best actor in the world’). There are many who associate him with the mysterious Kobayashi in The Usual Suspects. Others remember him mostly for his blistering portrayal of Giuseppe Conlon in In The Name of the Father. And there are those for whom Danny in Brassed Off remains the ultimate Postlethwaite moment. Even his brief appearance in Inception managed to gain great reviews amongst the non-stop special effects and intricate plot. After passing away at the age of 64 after a long illness, the legacy of Postlethwaite amongst generations of cinema and theatre fans remained assured.
In 2002 I met the actor at the West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds as he prepared for his appearance in Scaramouche Jones, a one-man play about a clown who - on the eve of the millennium - reflects on the hundred years that he has lived. It garnered many rave reviews thanks to Postlethwaite’s remarkable ability to evoke pathos and humour at the same time and reflected his confidence at being able to play many diverse roles. How did he think that he has managed to avoid being typecast?
"People like to pigeonhole, but I've enjoyed a wide range of stuff in my career. I think it would have been easy early on [in my career] to typecast me but I like the idea that you can get a guy who looks as tough as old boots and is really hard, but is actually incredibly sensitive. The paradox of that is quite remarkable. I'm quite pleased to be many faces - that's the joy of what I do."
Postlethwaite’s self-effacing and gentle nature was definitely at odds with the behaviour you’d expect from an actor of his stature. Success never seemed to go to his head and he was genuinely excited about all the new projects he would embark on. When asked about what attracted him to Scaramouche Jones he remarked:
"The impossibility of performing it. You read this wonderful piece of writing that Justin Butcher has done, and it's something that hits you. It was a bit like when Mark Herman sent me the script to Brassed Off and told me he'd call back in a few hours. When he rang back I said 'When do we start?' It just had to be done. It was the same with Scaramouche Jones. It's a phenomenal piece of writing and to do it justice is extraordinary. But I think we're there, we've done it. We're up and running, it's beautifully designed and it works I think. I constantly get asked do you prefer films or theatre, what's the difference? In a way, there isn't any difference, as long as it's storytelling. The audience has said 'tell us a story' and we say 'okay, we'll tell you this story'. It's like a complicity between the two.
“The soul and essence of that story is a plea for humanity, a plea for compassion. The play was written in 1999, but we're a few months into 2002 and Afghanistan, Iraq and everything. We've had all this militarism come up and you think 'hang on, when will we ever learn?' That's another thing about the play that I don't mind putting myself next to. Endorsing the idea of 'can't we just hug each other?'"
Despite the obvious love that he has for the play, did he find that doing a one-man show put him under a lot of pressure or was it in fact quite liberating?
"It's a two edged sword, which is brilliant, I like that. You are solely responsible when you're out there. Having said that, there's a wonderful team behind the scenes that you don't see and I never felt that I was totally responsible, but quintessentially you are [on your own] when you're out there. The beauty of that is that you stand or fall by your own decisions, your own criteria. There could be a scene in a film where you've worked your bollocks off and you might not even make the final cut. So it's out of your hand.
"I always quote the old Buddhist thing back to them: 'When you understand, things are just as they are. When you don't understand, things are just as they are' And if that's not Kobayashi, I don't know what is."
“But something like this, it's you and it's the audience and you can modify your performance by honing in on their silences; because the difference between their silences is fantastic. You can have a silence which is 'I don't quite know what's going on', another that is 'what time's the next train' and another which is 'I'm not sure what's happening but this is fantastic, and I daren't breathe too much'. To be sensitive to that, to listen to that, to go on this wonderful journey each night is tremendously exciting. You know as soon as you go out there, that's it, there's no stopping you for an hour and half."
Whilst doing the show, Postlewaite also shared his affinity for the North of England.
"People say a lot about roots, and sometimes you don't know what your roots are until you go back and see them. Without sounding prosaic or sentimental about it, these are my people. I still go to Warrington a lot and get thrashed on the pool table by the locals. It's important to know your roots. That's why I wouldn't change my name early on in my career. My first agent wanted me to change my name. So I changed him. I think the audiences here take me to heart quite a bit. Something about the work we've done up here, especially Brassed Off. The number of people that identify with that film, the character of Danny and what it meant. Not just the loss of the pit, but the loss of their whole culture. So I think there is an affection for Pete Postlethwaite in the north, different than down south.”
At the time, even with a blooming film career, there were still many people he wanted to work with...
"Robert Altman. Mark Herman again. Baz Luhrrman again. Steven [Spielberg, who he worked with on Jurassic Park II and Amistad] on the right project. I was going to do Saving Private Ryan but I was booked on something else. That would have been three in a row with him and that would have been a bit incestuous. Definitely Scorsese, even though I bloody turned him down for Gangs of New York."
"I didn't like the set up, but he's one of my heroes. Look at his films. Raging Bull,Mean Streets. So I was really pissed off when it came to the point that I had to say 'no, I'm not going to do it'. And that would have seen me reunited with Dan [Day Lewis] You know, Scorsese has been working on [the film] for twenty years. It's a fantastic script. It's like Gormhengast on acid. And if he realises the script, it'll be something else."
Yet, despite all that he has done over his career, there is really one important question: did he get tired of people asking him to explain The Usual Suspects?
"You know Bryan [Singer] rang me up and asked me what I thought of the script. I said 'I don't understand a fucking word but it's brilliant.' And he said 'So who do you want to play? Everyone's Keyser Soze.' But I understand the question, and it's a fair question. I always quote the old Buddhist thing back to them: 'When you understand, things are just as they are. When you don't understand, things are just as they are' And if that's not Kobayashi, I don't know what is."
Pete Postlewaite: a man who understood that things are just as they are. He will be sorely missed.
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