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Arts feature

The power of words

Tom Conti tells Mary Wakefield how to get inside a woman’s mind

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

2 April 2011

12:00 AM

Tom Conti tells Mary Wakefield how to get inside a woman’s mind

I watched Shirley Valentine again last night. It’s different when you’re older. At 14 it’s impossible to imagine that any sane woman would talk to a wall — or put up with that dour, demanding husband for so many years. When you’re 35, well, it doesn’t seem so far-fetched, does it? Tom Conti (as Costas, the love interest) looks better, too, this time round — more attractive. When you’re a teen, you’ve no idea how rare it is to find a middle-aged man who looks good in jeans. As the credits scrolled up over sundown in Mykonos, I was full of an unsettled longing for retsina, self-actualisation and holiday romance.

I can feel the echoes of that longing now, 24 hours later, as I watch Tom Conti disappear into his kitchen to make me a cup of tea. Two decades after Shirley, with 13 more films under his belt, countless plays and a stint as a TV detective, he still cuts a dash in denim. Other lady journalists must feel the same, because Conti is everywhere right now, promoting his new play Smash!. He’s all over the colour supps: ‘Still sexy at 69!’ The doctors of Harley Street will probably record, among ladies of a certain age, a mysterious spike in blood pressure during spring 2011; a tendency to linger by the magazine rack in waiting rooms.

So, I’d better warn you now that, during the hour we spend sitting side by side on his lovely white sofa in his lovely house in lovely Hampstead, I conclude that Conti is very far from Costas. Yes, he has his Italian side (a way with the ladies, an open marriage), but it seems to me that it’s his mother’s Celtic genes that define him. He’s more intense than I expected; more interesting, full of theories.

To start with, he doesn’t seem to want to talk about himself, which is odd for a showbiz type (or for a human being). I can’t persuade him to complain about being an only child — ‘It was nice’ — and he might be the only actor I’ve met who doesn’t leap at the chance to deliver a soliloquy about the moment the stage beckoned. I start a conversation about his daughter Nina (a ventriloquist), then about her son Arthur, who has built an empire out of wooden blocks, which sprawl across the Conti’s sitting room, presided over by a pink plastic squid. But Tom remains polite, watchful.


Until we somehow get on to the subject of aeroplanes. ‘You like aeroplanes? I love aeroplanes! Actually, I even wanted to be a pilot when I was young,’ he says. (Phew — lift-off!) ‘I wrote off to an RAF training college to say I wanted to join up.’ Did they reply? ‘No, which was rather odd — then years later I realised my mother hadn’t posted the letter.’ She didn’t want you to be shot down? ‘Nor shoot anyone else down, because she’d lived through the entirety of the war…but then I’m glad she didn’t post it, where would I be now? Flying for a third-rate airline.’ Conti laughs. I laugh, too. He’d look nice in a pilot’s peaked cap, though.

After five minutes in the skies, there’s a gleam in Captain Conti’s eyes, so I try again to talk acting, this time less biography more theory. A man so keen on drag and lift must have a theory about acting.

‘How to act? It’s terribly simple, really. You just pretend to be someone else.’ It’s not simple for me, I say. ‘But people act all the time, we all act. I don’t mean this in a pejorative way,’ says Conti, ‘but you’re acting now.’ I freeze, suddenly aware of my awful ingratiating interview persona. ‘You’re putting something on in order to survive, to stop being embarrassed, to stop me thinking things about you, you don’t want me to think. And I’m doing it with you, too,’ says Conti smiling; ‘it’s all just acting.’

The next few minutes I spend desperately trying to recover any poise I once had, while Conti explains further. Any form of acting that’s rooted in what’s true — in actual observation of real people — is OK by him. It’s even all right for an actor to have a particular shtick — ‘Cary Grant did the same thing over and over again, but he was just magic to watch.’ But woe betide a phoney.

‘There’s a certain school of actors who act,’ Conti stresses the word. ‘They’re not trying to be real. There’s a phrase that is often used in classical theatre, that is “to colour the words”. But that’s the very last thing you should do. Words have their own tremendous power and clarity, you don’t have to do anything to them. Listen, if I say to you [he leans forward] “I’m going to shoot you in the liver,” that’s enough, isn’t it? The words carry the impact. I don’t have to say, “I’m going to shooooot you in the LIVERRR!”’

Are you thinking of the Royal Shakespeare Company? ‘Yes, that’s why I don’t go.’ I recall a curious fact about TC: you don’t think very highly of Shakespeare, do you? You’ve said that he’s a better philosopher than a playwright? ‘Well, I suppose Shakespeare was confined. What was the point of him writing great parts for women, for instance, when he has to have some spotty boy playing the pretty girl?’ Conti shakes his head.

Women. Yes. Conti’s keen on women, but not just in a Costas kind of way. He’s one of those men who seem genuinely interested in how women think and behave, although, if he has a preference, I’d say it was for the darker sort of female psyche. When I ask him which young actors he admires, he says instantly, ‘Noomi Rapace (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). She’s extraordinary. I have no idea why she wasn’t nominated for an Oscar for that film.’ (Conti was a judge.)

Later that night, I read Conti’s novel, The Pilot (aeroplanes again), and his admiration for Noomi in that film fits an emerging pattern (though she is, of course, brilliant). Conti’s best-drawn character is his female heroine, who is oddly more convincing than the Conti-esque hero. She’s a tricky customer: promiscuous, bisexual, neurotic. But the author doesn’t condemn her at all; he seems to enjoy being in her head. Was it fun writing a girl in the first person? ‘Immensely. You bring to mind all the girls you’ve ever known and pick the bits you want.’ He looks into the middle distance, lost in reverie.

Are you writing another book? ‘Yes, it’s a dark love story — really awfully dark.’ And then he explains some of the plot, which I probably shouldn’t relate, but leaves me tongue-tied when he stops, unable to meet his eye. I’m looking forward to it, I say awkwardly, staring hard at my teacup (and, having read The Pilot, I now know I mean it — although he does need a better editor).

I want to talk more about book two, but it’s heading for suppertime and I think I’m supposed to talk about Smash!. So we do, although I think Conti’s heart is more in his writing than in his acting right now. And I wonder, as I leave, whether it wouldn’t be a stroke of genius for some director (Roman Polanski, perhaps) finally to see past the lovable lothario thing, and cast Tom Conti as a complex character.

Smash! is at the Menier Chocolate Factory, London SE1, until 8 May.


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