Interview: David Suchet

David Suchet David Suchet - © Pal Hansen
Posted: Wed Mar 21 2012

As David Suchet tackles Eugene O'Neill's 'Long Day's Journey Into Night', he surveys his 43-year career

There is more to David Suchet than a finely waxed moustache. The RSC star became a household name when he stepped into the patent-leather shoes of Agatha Christie's Belgian super-sleuth, Hercule Poirot. But he was and is a big draw in the theatre, as he proved in 2011 when his moving portrayal of Joe Keller in Arthur Miller's 1947 classic, 'All My Sons', made him Critics' Choice and Audience's Choice for Best Actor at the Awards.

On April 2, Suchet returns to the West End's Apollo Shaftesbury to play another guilty father in another American melting-pot masterwork: Eugene O'Neill's devastating, autobiographical 1956 drama, 'Long Day's Journey into Night'. A lifelong Londoner and patron of Wilton's Music Hall, Suchet hails from an immigrant family of talented innovators: his father trialled penicillin with Alexander Fleming and his grandfather, pioneering Fleet Street photographer James Jarché, is the subject of a forthcoming ITV documentary made by Suchet. He talks to Time Out about his London roots and his life in theatre.

You're an East Ender. What does London mean to you?
'I am London born and bred and very proud of it. I blow London's trumpet wherever I go. I think it is the greatest city in the world, and, having played in most other cities, I know that it is the greatest city in the world for theatre. There are more venues per square mile here than anywhere else.'

Your father came over from South Africa to study medicine, then stayed to play a key role in two of the most useful inventions of twentieth-century medicine: penicillin and the epidural…
'Dad was actually the first one to try out the unnamed bacteria, on dogs at White City. It was the first test of penicillin and cured them completely of infection, which allowed the Dog Derby to continue. The derby was a big deal in those days so he got life membership to the White City dog track. Later he became a wonderful surgeon and obstetrician, inventing the epidural for pain relief during childbirth.'

How important to you was your grandfather, Fleet Street photographer James Jarché?
'I was very close to Jimmy. He was almost my surrogate father. Some of the iconic photos we remember from years ago are his. In fact, he got the paparazzi scoop of the era when he took the first picture of Edward and Mrs Simpson - if that happened today he would be a millionaire. I recently made a documentary about him where I find out about his life by putting myself into situations he would have been in: like going to a sheep farm in the Welsh Valleys or a studio to do photography with celebrities, using his 1954 Leica camera.'

Did you initially want to follow in your grandfather's footsteps?
'I did. When I was 16 I made some little 35mm documentaries about the poor in London. I went round Notting Hill, which was a real slum in the 1950s, shooting film. Jimmy and I looked into my becoming a film photographer and it was one of those Catch-22 situations: you couldn't be a photographer until you were a member of the union and you couldn't join the union until you had a job.'

So how did you get into acting?
'I had joined the National Youth Theatre at 16 and by 18 I was enjoying it so much that I auditioned for the various drama schools - and failed, because I couldn't sing. Then I went for an audition at Lamda [London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art] and was offered a place immediately. Dad wasn't keen on my doing it. So I had to get an audition with the GLC and managed to get a grant.'

How did you take to drama school?
'Like a fish out of water! I had been educated at public school. And everyone in the '60s was in capes and smoking dope. I turned up on my first day of drama school in a suit! I had RP [received pronunciation], because I had been given elocution lessons to stop me from speaking London cockney - which was forbidden in my family circle.'

When did you realise you weren't going to be a romantic lead?
'Very soon! I've always been short and stocky. So when I got into repertory theatre after graduation
I found myself doing character roles: because of my deep voice, shape and height I was playing 40-year-old, 50-year-old roles at the age of 23.'

Did you father become reconciled to your career?
'Dad became more reconciled when I got in my first season in 1973 with the RSC. I had started acting in 1969, so from 1969 to 1973 was a bit of a hard ride. My getting nervous about first nights didn't really fit in with his world, being a man who was dealing with life and death.'

You're often described as one of the RSC's last 'boys' whom they brought up through the ranks.
'I started off in roles with two words and a spear and then took over understudy roles and was able to play them because of my rep experience, and I got noted. In my first season I went from dressing room 12 to 1a in the old Stratford-upon-Avon theatre. And I never left that dressing room. I was there until 1986.'

Which Shakespeare role are you most proud of?
'Not the obvious ones, which would be Shylock or Iago. The most formative role for me was Caliban in “The Tempest”. I knew I had a lot of emotional restrictions in me, and unless I really unzipped, I would never play that weird, raw islander.'

You're a full member of the Fight Directors Association of Great Britain. If it came to a scrap, what would be your weapon of choice?
'For me? Rapier and dagger! When I was a young actor it was a good thing to get that certificate so that you could choreograph the punch-ups and scraps. I could still do it now, even though I am a little ancient.'

In 43 years as an actor you've never been out of work. What's your secret?
'I'm character. People don't know me as David Suchet, they know me by the characters I've played. A personality player is always himself: Cary Grant is always Cary Grant. But the only character I've ever been in that situation with was Poirot. And there's nobody more different from me: I was in disguise!'

How much of the moustache was yours?
'None of it. It would take too long to every day to maintain and create it whereas they can prepare it the night before and feed it properly.'

Is it tough, at 66, to be touring again?
'Yes, it's tiring. But this is an actor's lot. I love touring: you're going out to the people. God forbid the day should come when actors just want to stay in London and say, “You come to me.” '

You made grown men weep in 'All My Sons'. Now you're in another heart-rending family drama. Would you rather make people cry than laugh?
'I was actually looking for a comedy when I found “Long Day's Journey into Night”. I'd seen it and loved it in the '70s, when Laurence Olivier played in it as his last major stage role. I thought you can't be offered a part like this at your time of life and say no. I'm no longer 23 playing 65. I'm 66 playing 65 and in ten years' time when it comes round again I won't be considered.'

James Tyrone in 'Long Day's Journey' is an actor who sells out. Do you have sympathy for him?
'I have enormous sympathy for him. He's guilty. But he had a reason. And his reason was his family. He is a working-class Irishman who went to America, found a play which made him a lot of money and gave his family this rum life which they all blame him for. His wife became a morphine addict and the children became alcoholics and all fingers point at Dad. And quite right. In his eyes, he gave the kids a private education, cars, a house in the country, maids. What he didn't provide was genuine, generous love.'

He was modelled on Eugene O'Neill's own father. How far have you based your performance on him?
'I'm not doing a carbon copy, but what I hope I bring to the play is what O'Neill's father was and the reason why he was. O'Neill described “Long Day's Journey” as “written in blood”. He never wanted it to be published, let alone performed, when he gave it as a gift to his young wife.'

Does the fact that it is such a personal play make you feel more strongly about it?
'Yes it does. When I was 18 and not sure whether I wanted to be an actor, I realised that a playwright has no voice without an actor. That's my reason for acting: to get that character as right as possible for my writer. And I have never changed my philosophy.'

Does that apply to Poirot too?
'Absolutely. People ask me if I tried to make my Poirot popular. I didn't. All I did was to start to read Agatha Christie's novels. I wanted to be the Poirot that she would be proud of. So out went the funny costume designs and the huge moustaches. And in went everything that she had written. The morning suits. The little gifts of vases of flowers. The perfect moustache. We film the last five cases later this year, so I will have been in every single possible Poirot story. I'll leave behind me the complete works!'

Why do you think drama is making a comeback in the West End?
'Because this is what we are famous for. This is what people come to see. When we were doing “All My Sons” we put a world map up, and when people came to the stage door we put pins in to show how far they had travelled. There were pins in it from every continent and almost every country. This is what London theatre is all about: real, eclectic work. Not just musicals and comedies, dramas, real dramas. Being applauded by worldwide audiences.'