Fishing a peppermint tea bag from one of the pockets of his leather coat, James Frain asks his PR person for a cup of hot water and collapses into the seat next to me. The previous evening he had flown back from Morocco, where he has been filming a lavish American television version of Arabian Knights. On the plane he began to suffer a belated dose of Marrakesh-belly, which this morning has seized him with a vengeance. To top it all, his landlady is selling his flat in Brixton, south London, and he has just been gazumped on the house he hoped to buy. Great. An actor who feels like death and is on the brink of homelessness. This is going to be fun.
As it happens, it is. Although he turns out to be an intensely private individual, Frain is remarkably unaffected for someone who, a mere six years into his career as a professional actor, already has 15 feature films on his CV. At 31, he is one of those actors whose face is considerably more recognisable than his name - a situation which, I soon learn, suits him just fine.
Since his debut in Richard Attenborough's 1993 adaptation of Shadowlands, Frain has cropped up in a variety of roles, big and small, in an array of films and television dramas; he is the link between Hilary and Jackie and The Buccaneers, the common element in Elizabeth and Loch Ness. Now, he can be seen as the titular lead in Vigo (below, with Romane Bohringer), Julien Temple's celebration of the short, spectacular life of the revolutionary French cineaste Jean Vigo.
Temple's energetic and cheerfully experimental approach to the business of biographical film-making has a vitality that is reminiscent of those fantastic early Ken Russell films. Frain agrees, explaining that he and the director were determined that the picture should have a "lightness of spirit". "You're in really tricky territory with biographical films, especially with someone who is a figure in the art world," he says. "The danger is you become either too ponderous or too sensational. The point of making a film about Vigo was that he had a genuinely extraordinary and inspiring life." Jean Vigo was born in 1905 and pursued his erratic film career under a cloud of disgrace and distrust from the authorities. His father, Miguel Almereyda, was a left-wing activist accused by the French Government of colluding with Germany in a scheme to end the First World War. Although constantly checking in and out of sanatoriums for his chronic tuberculosis, Vigo was famous for his joie de vivré and the energy he devoted to his three passions: his wife Lydu, the campaign to clear his father's name and his witty, poignant film essays on life in France in the Twenties and Thirties. When he finally succumbed to rheumatic septicaemia at the age of 29, Vigo left behind just four films (A Propos de Nice, Zero de Conduite, Taris Champion de Natation and L'Atalante) and was considered to be a minor film-maker. It was not until the rise of the postwar art cinema movement that the understated poetry of his work was fully appreciated and understood.
Frain confesses that he knew little or nothing about Vigo before he was sent the script. Intrigued by the story, he decided to take a look at the films but admits that he sat down to watch Zero de Conduite with a very heavy heart. "I thought, 'Oh God, here we go, this is going to be one of those worthy old black and white movies'. It was a bit like when you finally sit down to read a book you know you ought to have read: it's officially good, it's cultur-ally worthy, but actually it's going to be really painful. And, of course, it wasn't. I thought it was hilarious. Really original and striking and touching. I'd never seen something that was so very obviously revolutionary and anti establishment, but that had such tremendous warmth and love of people. Vigo found a way of using images that is so alive. They really get under your skin."
His films may have been alive, but Vigo spent his entire adulthood teetering on the brink of death. The lanky, curly-headed man sipping peppermint tea next to me may look a little on the peaky side this morning, but next to the skeletal, panda-eyed youth he plays in Vigo, Frain is the picture of health. How did he make himself into such a convincing invalid? "I lost just over a stone for the role," he reveals. "All the pictures of Jean were of this very thin man with baggy clothes hanging off him. I just thought it would have more impact if he had a very frail frame, was very obviously ill and weak, yet had all this energy." Consequently, in the months leading up to the shoot Frain subjected himself to an increasingly severe diet.
"It was an interesting experience. Some days I felt really wiped-out and other days I'd feel quite speedy, which I think is part of the sensation that Vigo must have felt. One of the things I learnt about TB is that you get swings of energy so that as well as the ill days there are also times when you feel very sexually potent and artistically creative." He is unsure if he would take such drastic measures again just to look the part for a movie. "Now, when I look back at it, it seems quite a mad thing to have done," he says, almost apologetically. "It took me a couple of months to recover."
One of the major delights of Vigo is the exuberant, burning love between the film-maker and his wife Lydu. The award-winning French actress Romane Bohringer (Savage Nights, L'Appartement) turns in a remarkably delicate performance, even though she had to learn English from scratch for the role. She was, says Frain, a joy to work with. "A lot of the time I found myself just watching Romane and enjoying what she was doing," he confides.
"She has a real integrity and a real focus, an intensity of feeling that's quite striking to be around and to work with." According to Frain, Temple, the one-time bad boy of British cinema, is "gentle, quite shy and very diligent". When I suggest that Vigo seems an unlikely pet project for the director of the Sex Pistols movie The Great Rock'n'Roll Swindle, Frain shakes his head. "It makes sense to me. I think he really identified with the fact that Jean was an anarchist and a youth culture anti-establishment figure. Here was a young man and a group of artists who were wildly creative, rebellious and disorderly." Vigo and his copains as prototype punks? It's a lovely notion. Has Frain had his own share of youthful rebellion? The cuttings of his previous interviews had yielded few biographical details and I soon find out why. From day one, the actor has maintained a policy of not discussing his private life. His parents, lovers, family and friends are not for public consumption and he intends to keep it that way. "Promoting the films I appear in is part of the business. I understand that, and I accept it but it's a big, big intrusion into your life. Also, as you become more of a personality, you become less of an actor. The whole point of acting is that you're trying to be someone else. I don't talk about my personal life because it might get in the way of the characters I'm trying to play." Reluctantly, he shares a handful of personal details. He was born in Leeds but brought up in Essex, the eldest of eight children. He refuses to discuss his mother and father, except to confirm that they have never been involved in the arts. "As a child, I never knew any actors but, for some reason, it was something I was fascinated with and wanted to do. In my teens I started to write, direct and act in my own stuff, just in an amateur way, with friends."
After school he spent a couple of years doing casual jobs and travelling, then embarked on a degree in theatre studies at the University of East Anglia in 1987. At the time he was unsure which branch of the profession to pursue. "I was interested in directing, in writing, in all of it. At that time I didn't really know if I had the chops to be an actor." A successful audition for the Central School of Speech and Drama in 1990 suggested that he did and he went straight from Norwich to London for a further three year's study. A few months before graduation he was cast as Whistler, the troubled Oxford student who crosses swords with Sir Anthony Hopkins's C.S. Lewis in Shadowlands. He remembers his first day as "absolutely terrifying. Everyone on set had a knighthood. It was really bizarre and all I wanted was to survive it. I'd never really been in front of a camera before but there was no pressure put on me. It helped a lot that everyone else was so solid and established. They were confident that they could get what they needed from me. But, even so, it was incredibly nerve-wracking."
Shadowlands led to a slew of television work. He played a Liverpudlian rent boy in Prime Suspect III in 1993, an arrogant lieutenant in Soldier, Soldier the same year and was widely praised for his portrayal of Julius Trevenick, the duke involved in a covert gay affair in The Buccaneers in 1995. "That was a good break, a great role," he says. Probably his most difficult television role was the lead in Macbeth in 1997, Penny Woolcock's experimental re-setting of the Scottish play on Birmingham's Ladywood housing estate, which mixed professional actors and local residents. Frain's Macbeth was strung out on prescription drugs and handy with a baseball bat. "It was an amazing experience and I was really grateful for it, but it was very tough," he discloses. "We really didn't have enough time. We had ten days' rehearsal and a four-week shoot. If you were doing Macbeth on the fringe, you'd get at least three or four weeks to rehearse. I remember two things from that shoot. One is the extraordinary people I was working with. The other is the pressure of not having enough time and the stress of that."
Was he pleased with the result? "I thought it was a really original thing. I wasn't crazy about me in it." Spying a possible route into Frain's emotional life, I ask if he often feels that way about his work. Way ahead of me, he bursts out laughing. "You got me! I just let one go through, didn't I?" Composing himself, he takes a sip of his tea and nods. "I admit it. Yes, I do feel that very often. I am rarely satisfied with what I've done. But most actors would say that. You see it and you want to do it again, because you always learn something from watching what you've done."
After the initial viewing, he never watches his films again. "Once is enough," he insists. Asked if he has a favourite personal performance, he says that he finds it hard to divorce the experience of making the film from the end result. "I tend to remember if I had a good time or not, if I felt particularly inspired by the role and the other people. I am very fond of Nothing Personal because there was a lot of personal investment in that movie and it was quite a passionate little project." In Thaddeus O'Sullivan's controversial 1996 drama, Frain portrayed a Northern Irish loyalist hit-man with an itchy trigger finger. He is also very proud of Hilary and Jackie, in which he appeared opposite Emily Watson as Jacqueline Du Pré's husband, the conductor Daniel Barenboim. He says that he spent a lot of time studying archive footage of the real Barenboim. "Because he's still around, it felt important to make it as much like him as possible, without being an impression or a caricature. Hilary andJackie was quite an easy film to make, in a way, because Frank Cottrell Boyce's script was so fantastic. I don't know if Emily would say the same thing because she really had to go through the mill in that role, but it was such a good piece of writing. It was very clear what it was trying to say about compassion and the ways in which we judge people."
Now that his turn "charging around Morocco in a turban being all silly" as the wicked Sultan in Arabian Knights is in the can, Frain is back in London for just two days, assuming his constitution is restored in time to fly to Vancouver for the next job. In the thriller Reindeer Games, directed by John Frankenheimer, he will play an American who befriends Ben Affleck in prison. Several other projects are in post-production, from a small role in the forthcoming movie of Titus to the part of Ralph Fiennes's brother in The Taste of Sunshine, an epic family drama directed by Istvan Svabo.
Having worked with Sir Peter Hall in She Stoops to Conquer in 1993 and with the Royal Shakespeare Company in Mike Ockrent's Zenobia in 1995, Frain is eager to do more theatre. He says that he is talking to a producer about playing a major role on stage in the near future but refuses to go into detail until the deal is concrete.
Stardom, he claims, would be an unwelcome fate. "I really don't know many actors who started doing this because they wanted to be celebrities. Very little changes about people who become famous except the way they're perceived by the rest of the world. It's quite a disorientating thing and I always feel sympathetic to people when it happens to them. It's overwhelming."
Throughout our conversation Frain has frequently mentioned the respect he
feels for great writers and directors. I wonder if that teenage all-rounder who
created and starred in his own shows is planning a comeback. "Lately those old
urges have been returning," he admits. "I definitely want to direct again, and
to take some time to sit down and write. I'm sure it's getting nearer all the
time." He stares into his tea cup for a moment, then looks up and grins. The
very idea seems to have brought a healthy flush of colour to his face. "In
fact, I think it's going to be pretty soon."
Vigo is on selected release.
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