Monday, January 3, 2011

Pete Postlethwaite, A Decent Actor

Pete Postlethwaite is dead of cancer at 64. A terrible loss. Rarely am I inclined to expostulate on the passing of a celebrity, but rarely have I actually come in contact with one, especially of such class as he. So I’ll make an exception, for an exception.

It’s perhaps inaccurate to call Postlethwaite a celebrity. He didn’t have the star power of some of his other peers of the English stage, of Ian McKellan and Patrick Stewart. He rarely played the lead, at least on film. Yet no one could doubt his skill. Postlethwaite had the goods: presence, conviction, and that “warty, whiskery, pustular, rubicund, infinitely lived-in face.”

Such were his talents that while my casual moviegoing friends didn’t know him by name when I've mentioned him before, as soon as I rattled off some of his many key supporting roles their faces would light up in realization: Oh yeah! That guy!

Yes, that guy. The first time I saw Alien3 as a teenager I recognized among all the other bald-shaven English convicts, “that guy.” Roland Tembo, the game hunter from The Lost World, who had the good sense to exit the film just before it reached its absurd T-Rex-running-through-San-Diego nadir. Postlethwaite was put to far better use as Giuseppe Conlon, the titular character of in In the Name of the Father, and the mouthpiece of Keyser Söze in The Usual Suspects, and he was one of the few actors running around Baz Luhrmann’s William Shakespeare’s Romeo + Juliet who actually knew what he was doing. Most recently I saw him give weight to a rote archetype among many as the dying CEO father in last summer’s Inception (a perhaps fitting penultimate role for the eventual cancer casualty). The through-line for all of these characters are the quiet dignity Postlethwaite brought to them.

His strength as an actor and the usually secondary nature of the roles he played were what interested me when I read he was going to play King Lear while I was in London two years ago. How would he fill out such a titanic figure, given his normal reserve? Pretty damn well, actually. Postlethwaite’s Lear was by turns proud and pathetic, venomous and vulnerable. The heath scene was a bust thanks to director Rupert Goold’s decision to have him carried around yelling his lines through a megaphone, but the Poor Tom scene and the “trial” that followed, were masterful.

But now we come to the reason I’m writing about Pete Postlethwaite. After seeing Lear I came out of the theater and sat down at a table and sketched my surroundings. This was in the Young Vic, which has a two-storey bar in the theater lobby. I was just in front of the actors’ backstage entrance, from which exited John Shrapnel, who had played Gloucester. Sensing an opportunity, I decided to wait out Postlethwaite and ask for his autograph. I did some more sketching and writing, and bought and finished a Hoegaarden in the meantime.

At least twenty minutes passed, after which I half gave up. But then, out stepped Pete. I approached him, babbled some stuff about my sketches, loved the show, been looking forward to it, could I get his signature.

“Of course,” he said with characteristic British warmth. He asked me where to sign, and I pointed to my sketch of his Lear as he had appeared in Act IV, Scene 6, in a flowery Japanese robe with a parasol, a take on the character being fantastically covered in wildflowers, and also giving a nod to Akira Kurosawa’s Ran. “All the best, Pete Postlethwaite,” the signature read.

Here then was the mild-mannered figure I knew from the movies, without an ounce of hesitation or relish, annoyance or ego. I therefore mean it in the best possible sense when I conclude that, in all those many portrayals of decency that I have seen Pete Postlethwaite in, he wasn't acting.


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