Paul Risker chats with actor James Cosmo about The Pyramid Texts…
“To be that man for those days that we filmed it and to go through that emotional journey was something that I’ll never experience again” reflects veteran screen actor James Cosmo on playing the old reminiscent boxer Ray in The Pyramid Texts.
In an empty boxing gym, Ray records a video for his estranged son, in which he looks back on his life, hoping to impart wisdom through his words. Written by Geoff Thompson, and directed by Paul and Ludwig Shammasian, the film merges Cosmo’s experience in front of the camera with the fresh voices the writer and his directors, for who this is their feature debut. It is not a truth conveyed by the film that impresses upon us that these these three fresh voices are experienced hands in narrative feature writing and filmmaking.
In conversation with Flickering Myth, Cosmo reflected on his career and how his perspective of his craft has been less one of change over reinforcing understanding. He also discussed playing the philosophical and spiritual Ray, the difficulties facing contemporary filmmakers and how the industry denies the cinematic art form a means to express itself.
Why a career in acting? Was there an inspirational or defining moment?
My father was an actor and so I was brought up within that world to a certain extent, and although he didn’t help me very much, I always knew what the life of an actor was. When I was fifteen I went to work in the shipyards in Glasgow and then when I was seventeen I hitchhiked down to see my dad. He introduced me to someone who was a director and I got a part in this TV thing, and then off we go. So I never made the conscious decision: This is the way my life is going to be. I just fell into it and I’ve been falling into it ever since.
How has your perspective of the art of performance changed across your career?
I think what I learned as each part came along is you have to look at that character and see if there is something in your psyche that can relate to them, and bring it to reality. It would have been nice to go to a drama school and learn the technical stuff, stagecraft and Shakespeare, but I do think the very essence of an actor is to be able to immerse yourself in a character, to be that character.
What was the appeal of the character and the story when you first read the script for The Pyramid Texts?
The character I play is so multi-faceted. He’s a man steeped in violence and alcohol, in abuse that has become or he is an over-didact. He’s learnt so much about so many things and yet he still has to face himself, to face what he has been, and so that’s what drew me to the part, that’s what insisted that I played the part.
Speaking with an actor on crafting a character, they explained that all the work has already been done by the writer if they’ve done their job correctly. Would you agree?
No I wouldn’t, not at all and I’ll give you an example. I did an episode of Silent Witness where I was playing a serial killer, a really awful person that tortured and killed young women. I remember phoning a friend of mine the night before filming and saying: “I don’t even know what he sounds like.” But my subconscious had been thinking about who that person was and once I went into the make up room, and got my make up on, the character appeared. So I think it is always or it should be in the best of circumstances a subconscious assimilation of that character. That’s the art of an actor – the art is not to act.
Actress Mali Harries told me: “I was taught to learn your lines and then forget them – to see what comes out.”
That’s absolutely right. You learn it, learn it, learn it until it becomes of no consequence. What you are investing in then is the actual character of the person and what they say is completely natural, or it should be.
Is there then a reliance on instinct in the art of performance?
I think the job of an actor is ninety percent instinctive. You know when it’s right and you certainly know when it’s wrong, absolutely!
How do you look back on the experience of playing this character compared to the experiences of your other characters? And when you watch The Pyramid Texts now, how would you compare the experience of watching this fully realised character to previous characters?
This film in particular, like no other in my career, I invested in it so much emotionally that it was almost a fluid sort of exercise – the minutia of performance was actually of no concern to me. I was immersed in that character for the time it took to film and I can’t really remember much about it. It sounds very odd, but for those days that we filmed, that was me.
Oh, it’s incomparable really. It’s bit like as you’ll know, you’ll write something three years ago and you read it today and you wonder: Well who wrote that? It’s almost as if you are standing outside looking at someone else. It was the most extraordinary experience I’ve gone through as an actor. To be that man for those days that we filmed and to go through that emotional journey was something that I’ll never experience again.
The way your character expresses his identity and emotions through speech crafts a film that is a celebration of words. That said, it doesn’t strike me as a writer trying to create a character, but a writer delving into a deep place of self-reflection and expression.
No, indeed. Well Geoff Thompson comes from an extraordinarily violent background. He’s written several books on his life and his journey into enlightenment I suppose, and from a very violent man he’s become a very placid man, who’s more interested in philosophy and esoteric things than one would ever have thought. I just think the character in this film is so stepped in violence and the awful things of life, and yet there is a deep humanity in the man. I was so grateful to do this movie just to show that because one is brought up in those circumstances, it doesn’t deny you access to being a deeply spiritual and humble person.
Early in the film you discuss the spirituality of the boxing ring. Is there also a spirituality to the cinema?
As you must as well, you look at so many films and despair at the way society has been fed dreadful pap, and even films that purport to be intelligent are not. They are just bits of entertainment and there are very few films that ask real questions about people and morality. It’s a great art form, but it’s not being allowed to exercise to it’s full extent. It’s Brave New World that’s sort of been satiated by sickly nonsense and it’s terribly sad that that’s the case with so much of filmmaking today, that it’s a purely financial exercise to feed the population with sub-standard stuff. That’s how I feel anyway and we shouldn’t give the people what they want, we should give the people what they need.
C.G. Jung contextualised dreams as a means for us to solve the problems we cannot solve in our waking state. If cinema exists on a dream logic, it must connect to the idea of there being only so many archetypal stories that are retold time and again. The reason for this is that the purpose of cinema and storytelling is to support each generation with finding the answers to common questions, as well as helping to better understand the human experience.
Absolutely, and wouldn’t you say it’s a primal instinct of storytelling, and filmmaking is just storytelling. It’s sitting around the campfire plus technology, and that’s all it is. It’s too teach us how to live, how to understand each other and our problems. I know that people need entertainment, something to switch off too, but the prime raison d’être of filmmaking surely is to tell stories and those stories are to say: Listen, this is the way things are, so that we can try to understand our fellow man. But it is so hard to get those movies out there and it has been so tough for these guys to get this film out there because we are swamped with garbage, with saccharine.
It is questionable as to whether the challenge now is not producing a film, but rather distribution and finding an audience.
Absolutely, and I mean filmmaking is easier now than it has ever been, but to access the general public is probably harder because of Warner Bros. and Disney, and all the crap, all the nonsense that they feed us and informs our decisions on everything –politically and philosophically, everything. They have such an influence on us and we have to support filmmakers that want to say something that really truly will make someone think: This is what life is about.
Speaking with Carol Morley for The Falling she explained: “You take it 90% of the way, and it is the audience that finishes it. So the audience by bringing themselves: their experiences, opinions and everything else to a film is what completes it.” And if the audience are the ones that complete it, does it follow that there is a transfer in ownership?
I think one participates in making a film and then you do hand it over to an audience and say: “Here it is, take from it what you will.” That’s all. Just take from it a morsel of humanity, of love or sorrow, or whatever. But it is the audience, of course it is because we are just the cipher for these campfire stories.
Filmmaker Christoph Behl remarked to me: “You are evolving, and after the film you are not the same person as you were before.” Do you perceive there to be a transformative aspect to the creative process?
Yes, there was for me in this film. I wouldn’t say it took me a long time to get back to where I was, but it took me a long time to accept who I’d become after the film because I exposed things in myself that I didn’t know were there. It was the deepest most personal experience I’ve gone through as an actor by far. Yeah, it is transformative for the actor and if it’s not, then we’re just labourers.
THE PYRAMID TEXTS is available digitally in the UK now.
Many thanks to James Cosmo for taking the time for this interview.