Interview: Actor Julian Sands on new Czech production ‘The Painted Bird’

By Ryan Keating-Lambert

I was lucky enough recently to have a little chat to British actor Julian Sands, who’s currently shooting new film The Painted Bird in Český Krumlov. Directed by Václav Marhoul and also starring Harvey Keitel, the film is based on the controversial novel by Jerzy Kosiński which portrays World War II through the eyes of a young Jewish boy, and is due to be released in 2019.

The actor, and best friend to John Malkovich, was also more than happy to discuss his hugely successful career where he’s played a plethora of memorable roles, from cult horror films like WarlockArachnophobia, Dario Argento’s Phantom of the Opera and the controversial Boxing Helena, to the more romantic and classical roles like composer and virtuoso Franz Liszt in Impromptu, and romantic George Emerson in the star-studded Room With a View.

Mr Julian Sands, how are you, sir?

I’m good thanks, Ryan. I’m enjoying my weekend in Prague. It’s been wonderful. My only experience of the Czech Republic before was two visits to the Karlovy Vary Film Festival so I was keen to spend a little time in Prague because The Painted Bird is currently being shot in Český Krumlov.

Now I have to ask you, how do you like the beer? The Czechs are very proud of their beer.

Well, I drink wine more than beer, but I have been drinking Czech wine. It’s not so warm here and the red wine is nice and dry. I have tried some of the beer though and enjoyed it very much. I did ‘Audience’, a play in Los Angeles by Václav Havel. I was ‘the brewmaster’ so I could sense the love of the beer. I’ve enjoyed the food very much too. You know, I’ve had the duck, the venison, the pork knuckle.

Every kind of meat known to man, I’d imagine.

Yes, and the soups. It’s been very cold so it’s been very restoring.

Tell me a little bit about The Painted Bird. It’s a very ambitious project.

Well, it’s kind of an odyssey. It’s a journey about a boy in the hinterland of World War II, in which he encounters different people and different stories on his search for home. Some of these people are good people and some of these people are not good people, or let me put it this way – they don’t do good things.

I play ‘Garbos’, a farmer who lives alone in a remote part of the woodlands. He takes the boy in, but he’s a child abuser. There’s something ferocious about him. He’s the wolf in sheep’s clothing as they say. As an actor, when you play a character who does bad things, I don’t look to judge. I don’t look to explain him. I just look to represent his internal and external life as authentically and honestly as I can. You just play it real, without emotional manipulation of the anticipated audience.

The whole experience has just been so rich and complex. The integrity and the professionalism of the film crew led by director Václav Marhoul. Their commitment and the belief in a very high level of creative work in which everybody feels like a collaborator. This crew. It’s not just people turning up to do their jobs. It’s people turning up to believe in the project, and that’s very inspiring. That’s how I like to work. I have such respect and such admiration for Václav for undertaking this kind of project.

It’s an epic project.

It is epic. The beauty and the attention to detail, and to shoot on 35mm. To shoot in black and white, not to be nostalgic, but because he knows the value of cinematic effect. The Director of Photography Vladimír Smutný is a real artist too.

You’ve played villains before but this one is a lot more visceral. did you prepare differently for this role?

Visceral is right, yes. The things that always matter the most are the script and the writer, and of course what the director tells me, and also the actor’s instinct in the scene. As an actor, you’re very much a reactor. So to put me in a remote arm of the southern hills of Bohemia in a dark place, it’s easy to feel the reality of the character.

Petr Kotlár who plays ‘the boy’ is such a pure and innocent spirit that if I were to think about that, it wouldn’t be honest work. I don’t think about it. I just react. For all of his innocence and sweetness, I am just as dark and uncompromising, you know? In some more commercial work, the bad guy is written with more colour and fireworks so you can relish that. With this, it’s austere. Your imagination, your intelligence and your instinct combine to show you the road to take. Your intelligence is how you read the script and listen to the director, your instinct is that visceral feeling you get out of it, and your imagination is what makes it all authentic.

-Nabarvené ptáče_režisér Václav Marhoul a Julian Sands (c) Jan Dobrovský
Director Václav Marhoul and Julian Sands as ‘Garbos’ (Jan Dobrovský and Jakub Čech)

The director Václav Marhoul commented on wanting the film to be more than just a Holocaust or World War II drama. He said he’s aiming for something more timely. Do you think the film is relevant in today’s society as well?

I would say it’s very contemporary. I haven’t once thought of it as a holocaust drama or a typical World War II drama. It’s a journey and there are young people in today’s world drifting the way that the boy in this film is drifting, and there are people like me exploiting those young people. There are also people like the priest (Harvey Keitel), who try to do good, even if a lot of priests don’t necessarily do good in reality. It’s absolutely timeless. It’s a fable like ‘Little Red Riding Hood’. It’s got more in common with Hans Christian Anderson or The Brothers Grimm than the classic writings of World War II.

There’s quite a cast on the film as well. Harvey Keitel and Stellan Skarsgård are also there. Have you had many opportunities to interact with these two?

Well, Stellan is on another chapter but I have worked with him on another film called Timecode. I’m a great admirer of Stellan and his work. He’s an actor of the highest level and my kind of actor.

Harvey Keitel is an actor I’ve admired for 40 years. He plays ‘the priest’ who is the foil to my character, or attempts to be the foil. In fact, I sort of manipulate him. It’s been a great privilege and a pleasure working with Harvey, who’s brought all his qualities to the representation of the priest. We speak in this kind of Pan-Slavic dialect. Well, I’ve been trying very hard to absorb it and speak it as if it’s the only language I speak, so I’m very proud of that (laughs).

Well done! Slavic languages are known for being notoriously difficult so you’re obviously doing well.

It’s really difficult. I’ve had good coaches and to be able to learn that language and make it my own has made it much more authentic. The scenes are given honesty and depth which I think has been very enriching as opposed to if it was in English. We’re really speaking the language and credit to Václav for insisting on that.

So I’d like to talk about some of your older films now. Myself and others are dying to hear some details.

Of course, anything!

First of all, Arachnophobia. It terrified me as a kid and I was surprised to learn that you’re actually not afraid of spiders. Is that true?

Well, it wasn’t an option (laughs). But yes, I discovered that I’m not afraid of spiders and that I actually like them, but I know that a lot of people are. There’s that one scene where I’m totally covered in them. This was all made pre-digital so to get that shot I had to lie down and have a mask over my face with a tube, and they would drop 80 or 100 spiders down the tube and at the last minute pull the mask away. So, it meant that for 5 or 10 minutes, I had 100 spiders on my face and I just sort of had to be in a zen place, you know?

Arachnophobia (Chicago Tribune)

That sounds terrifying.

Yes, well fortunately I do yoga so I can always take myself somewhere else. BUT, I have to say… I did a film for Dario Argento, his version of The Phantom of the Opera, where I had to lie in bed with rats all over me, and rats really freak me out. Really. I’m like Winston Smith from ‘1984’ when it comes to rats. But being an actor, one of the most exciting things is always discovering these new experiences – new people, new places, and finding new challenges in whatever the scene is. It’s actually much easier to deal with rats and spiders than a difficult actor, not that I’ve had many bad experiences.

Speaking of these weird experiences, you’ve worked with so many great directors including David Cronenberg, David Fincher, James Ivory, Wim Wenders, and also Jennifer Lynch. Boxing Helena was such a controversial film for its time, but has now become somewhat of a cult classic. Do you feel it’s become more popular over the years?

Yeah, absolutely! It’s a very interesting film. At the time, the critics hated it. There was also a big lawsuit with Kim Basinger that cast a big shadow over the film. It was seen to be exploitative, brutal and grotesque. I always saw it as a love story, again I refer back to the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Anderson. To me, it was a kind of fairy tale. A dark fairy tale. It had within it, great beauty and romance, and feeling, even if it all got a little warped. I love working with Jennifer. It’s interesting that young people, who weren’t necessarily alive when we made the film in 1993, approach me often and want to talk about it. I’m glad it endures.

You’ve worked with a lot of great actors too. Who are you still in touch with today?

Well, my best friend is John Malkovich. We did our first film The Killing Fields together in 1984 and were together for 16 weeks in Thailand. I was in my early twenties and John was a little older. When I moved to New York I lived with him. I’ll also be spending Thanksgiving with him on Thursday back in L.A.

Is it true that he actually introduced you to your wife?

Yes, he did. 30 years ago! John and I had gone out to this party with Andy Warhol and Grace Jones, who I’d just done the film Siesta with. It was all very ‘New York in the ’80s’. Anyway, a bit like Cinderella, this girl was leaving and John said ‘oh I think I know her’ and introduced us. An amazing thing that we’re still together. I also had the great pleasure of being in a short film that John directed last year in Istanbul, in which I played the main character. It’s called A Postcard from Istanbul. It’s a YouTube film.

You were also in James Ivory’s A Room with a View. A fantastic cast including Maggie Smith, Judi Dench, Daniel Day-Lewis and Helena Bonham Carter. Do you ever see each other?

I see Helena every now and again. I see Simon Callow much more consistently. Last month there was actually a reunion in Florence marking the 30th anniversary of the distribution of the film. A lot of cast and crew came and there was a print projection. It was extraordinary how good it looked. And again, a lot of young people there who loved it. It felt so contemporary. It didn’t feel at all dated.

Julian Sands, Helena Bonham Carter and director James Ivory (The Florentine)

You’ve also done a lot of television throughout your career including ’24’, ‘Banshee’, and more recently ‘Gotham’ and ‘Will’. So many great actors are going to television now. What do you watch and what would you like to be a part of? 

Well, I would loved to have been in ‘Breaking Bad’, but you know that’s done and dusted. I think I was approached about it but I was busy on something else. People always tell me how great I was in ‘Game of Thrones’ even though I was never in it (laughs). I just say thank you.

And what’s your favourite movie? What does Julian Sands like to watch?

When I was at drama school in London, of course films like Apocalypse Now and The Godfather made big impressions on me, as did the early Scorsese films like Taxi Driver. European cinema made bigger impressions on me though. The films of Visconti, Fellini, Bergman, and of course films by Werner Herzog – Woyzeck, Nosferatu. Also Angelopoulos’s Travelling Players – there was something so epic and yet intimate about that film. It had something I hadn’t encountered in films before.

And finally, what’s coming up next? What are you excited about?

I did a film earlier this year in England called Walk Like A Panther. It’s a wrestling movie about a bunch of guys trying to enter a competition and it’s very charming and entertaining, but also has soul. If the film is anything like the experience, it’ll be wonderful. I hope it comes to the Czech Republic. It’s like a little cross between The Full Monty and Calendar Girls – it’s that same beat.

Feature photo: Jan Dobrovský and Jakub Čech










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