You don’t get the chance to meet an acting chameleon like Sir Tom Courtenay everyday. He was nominated for the Academy Award twice. The first time it happened back in 1966 for his role of Pasha in “Doctor Zhivago”, where his co-stars were Omar Sharif, Julie Christie and Geraldine Chaplin. The second time Sir Courtenay was honored with another nomination was for “The Dresser”, where he played a lead role along with another acting chameleon, Albert Finney.
This time Sir Courtenay takes another difficult trip into the mind of Geoff Mercer to grieve a great loss that will jeopardize the 45 years’ marriage. His superb performance brought him and his co-star, an Academy Award Nominee, Charlotte Rampling, the Silver Berlin Bear which already is a great indication of how well this film was received.
During the Toronto International Film Festival, I had the great privilege to sit down and have a cup of coffee with Sir Courtenay as we discussed Geoff, Charlotte Rampling’s Kate and the 45 years of marriage.
MOVIEMOVESME: It was quite interesting seeing Jeff’s reaction after reading the letter. What was your interpretation of Jeff’s emotions?
Tom Courtenay: Well, I read the script on my iphone. I found that scene, which is his first scene really, it had a profound impression on me. I knew after reading that one scene that I would have to do this part. There was something about the notion of the girl, kind of preserved and visible down in the ice, was just powerful. I don’t quite know why. That’s pretty much all Andrew’s taken from the story, the story is a fragment, all that stuff about the anniversary is entirely Andrew’s invention. The description of her death is all from Andrew. The thing from the story is the idea of the girl preserved and it was a powerful impression on a man recalling when he was younger and how his life was different. It just took hold of me.
MOVIEMOVESME: It is interesting to see how Geoff significantly changes; who he was in the beginning is not who he is in the end. What in your opinion made him to change himself?
Tom Courtenay: He’s rethinking his life, how different it might have been. Also, he becomes aware he’s not young anymore. It’s difficult for me to describe the process, I just sort of went through with the script because all the little things that Andrew wrote, I was allowed to add some odd lines of my own, people said, “It’s all so impressive what you do and so difficult.” But in fact I found all of a sudden I had a wonderful part that I could relate to but I didn’t know quite why. There it was, given to me and that doesn’t happen often. I found the language Andrew had written, for instance, when he talks about the girl’s death when she’s flirting with the guy and they go around the corner, he hears them laughing making him angry, jealous and then the scream. That’s entirely Andrew’s invention and I found it so hauntingly beautiful.
MOVIEMOVESME: Why do think Geoff cared about the letter so much. Yes, he was considered Katia’s next of kin but do you think he actually loved her all those years?
Tom Courtenay: Well he thinks he did. It’s the same he did. It comes back to him that he was in love with her. He was jealous of her going flirting because he was in love with her. And it was a brutal thing that happened, must have had a profound effect on him. When I read it I had to have my wife read it immediately and then she was taken by it from a woman’s point of view too. She asked, “Why does she turn away from him in the end?” I was like, “He’s put her through so much.” But then she said, “We can’t help it but don’t blame him.” This thing happened to him all those years ago and it comes back to him. There was one scene that was cut in the film where the wife wants to know how come they knew where to write to him. And he’s getting uneasy as she begins to realize the importance of this dead girl. And it becomes clear that whenever he moved houses he notified the authorities in Switzerland where he was moving. So he never lost contact. For whatever reason Andrew cut that scene, we did it and I loved it. He felt he didn’t need it.
MOVIEMOVESME: Do you think keeping that scene would have made it clear how much he loved her and hence never lost contact? Because you never know maybe it was something that kept him going?
Tom Courtenay: Yeah, but well you have to ask Andrew why he took it out. I suppose the thing is that he did fall in love again and when they talk about their time together, they dance, go upstairs, is to recapture his youth with his wife and push the girl in the ice aside. Finally he seems to manage to, but I wonder if afterwards he doesn’t have to go to Switzerland and just kinda say goodbye. But it is such a haunting thing. This is what haunted Andrew when he read the story and in his imagination got such a wonderful idea somehow that because of global warming the snow retreated and they somehow managed to see the body. It was haunting.
MOVIEMOVESME: What is your interpretation of the anniversary scene when Geoff acts like nothing has happened?
Tom Courtenay: Well, because he’s gone so far one way, then he has to go the other way. What I found in the script, as Andrew said how movingly he speaks. But I never thought it was till I did it. And when I did it then I got very moved. Andrew shot it in a very special way, there’s no editing. We shot it many times when the shot was on and Kate was listening, but didn’t use any of them. He’s got Kate in the shot beside me but all that speech is my timing, my little jokes, when I stop when I’m upset, the camera never interferes with that process, he leaves it entirely to me, which was very exciting when I saw that. The first time I did it, I was very emotional, it was a wide shot and I was like, “Oh no, I’m wasting my emotion.” But I had emotion every time I did it and I didn’t plan to have it, just had it and I didn’t pretend to have it. If the emotion dries up, you have to do the scene in a different way. Fortunately it didn’t dry up. Sometimes I had to stop it, make a little joke in order to carry on!
MOVIEMOVESME: How would you comment on Kate’s reaction, while you as Geoff observing her?
Tom Courtenay: As my wife said, there’s no blame, you can’t blame him for feeling the way he did and of course it does take a toll on his wife. That we see with Charlotte. The way she turns away in the end, that’s good. Rather than all lovey-dovey, I think the uncertainty of the end, what’ll happen to them is good, and all true to life.