PERSUASION, INDEED: Very little was needed when the call came over two years ago now from Gene Gill, a longstanding and dear family friend of mine and my parents. Always mindful of my career, Gene had a proposition for me that she felt could not miss: How would I, as an American arts critic and journalist based in Britain with extensive experience of interviewing and profiling British actors, like to chair a panel of U.K. thesps during the 25th JASNA AGM?
My decision took a nanosecond: Of course, thought I, intrigued by the prospect of doing my own Winchester version of Charlie Rose. And how exciting--if, admittedly; slightly nerve-wracking--it would be to deal simultaneously with a handful of interviewees, rather than the one-on-ones that, for the most part, are a journalist's inevitable lot.
In fact, I have interviewed pairs of people before: the actor Toby Stephens and his father, the late Robert Stephens (Maggie Smith's ex-husband), and, more recently, the only just-deceased Alan Bates alongside Eileen Atkins, Simon Russell Beale with Adrian Lester (two great stage Hamlets), and Alan Rickman together with Lindsay Duncan. (All these interviews were for the Sunday New York Times.) A greater number than that, however, marked new terrain for me, as I set about considering the various combinations of thesps that one might be able to corral.
Initially, Gene and I agreed that five panelists would be the right amount, the number allowing for a good cross-section of younger performers and older, male and female. But I was well aware that no actor two years hence would have the vaguest idea of his or her availability on a Sunday night in October, 2003. So with the assignment in mind, I then shelved the actual specifics of the task until spring/summer of 2003 when the real entreaties began.
In part, my mission, as I saw it, was to take advantage of whatever chance encounters I had with relevant performers as they arose to at least broach the topic informally in order to sound out one or another actor's willingness. Emma Thompson, a near-neighbor of mine in northwest London, was an obvious candidate, having both starred in and won an Oscar for her screenplay adaptation of Sense and Sensibility. "I don't do panels, darling," she said with friendly, if firm, resolve. I mentioned the same event to Amanda Root, star of the BBC Persuasion, when I met her at a press conference to promote an altogether different TV show. Her eyes widened with alarm as she seemed to imagine some kind of interrogation in store. "Oh dear, I'm not sure I'm brainy enough," she told me, ending further discussion. That was that.
Others at least liked the idea. Interviewed by telephone in the run-up to last June's Tony Awards, where she was a Best Actress nominee for her Broadway debut in A Day In the Death of Joe Egg, Victoria Hamilton said she would love to participate, schedule permitting. Simon Russell Beale sounded keen, as did Corin Redgrave, whom Gene had assiduously and diligently courted during his various theatre engagements in New York. (It helped that he was at one point a Manhattan tenant of Gene's good friend, the actress Kathleen Chalfant.)
But September--with six weeks pending--was the time to put one's mind entirely to this matter: "entirely," insofar as I could, juggling a daily schedule of work that is not exactly lacking in activity. In the interim, Kerri Spennicchia had kindly assembled a fantastic master list of all the performers over time who had ever done a Jane Austen novel on screen, large or small. The line-up included more than 150 of the great and the good of Britain, including at least one actor, a fellow Yalie like myself, named Alessandro Nivola, who wasn't British at all but happened to have starred as Henry Crawford in the Patricia Rozema movie of Mansfield Park. In fact, he comes from Boston.
'Sandro, as Nivola is known to friends, seemed a natural for the panel: after all, how many Americans crack the inner sanctum of British filmmaking to the extent that they are sharing scenes with Harold Pinter, the feigned (in Nivola's case) accent never once slipping up? …