He is one of the greatest British actors of his generation, as large-as-life off screen as on, and a charismatic figure who has captivated audiences for 4 decades. Albert Finney has created a gallery of remarkable characters, in landmark classics such as Saturday Night and Sunday Morning, Tom Jones, Two for the Road, Charlie Bubbles and Scrooge.
In Hollywood, he won further acclaim for the likes of Shoot the Moon, Annie, Miller’s Crossing and Soderbergh’s Erin Brockovich and Traffic. He has been nominated for 5 Oscars and at 67, shows no signs of slowing down. Moviegoers are bound to fall in love with his irascible Edward Bloom in the beguiling Big Fish, and Paul Fischer spoke to the legendary actor in New York.
Question: DO YOU THINK THAT YOU’RE A LOT LIKE THE CHARACTERS YOU PLAY IN THIS?
Finney: I don’t think that we necessarily lie. I mean, we make our living by pretending that we’re someone else. I don’t tell tall tales. I always tell the truth.
Question: WERE YOU SURPRISED THAT TIM BURTON WANTED YOU FOR THE ROLE OF A SOUTHERN MAN?
Finney: I was a bit, and he took just another surprise with playing me younger, Ewan [McGregor]. I was flatly surprised by that, that we both came from across the pond, but I’ve played Americans before and so had Ewan and so, I don’t think that Tim thought it was a problem. I enjoyed it too. I like playing accents, and doing things like that, it was fun. It was fun.
Question: DID YOU ENJOY WORKING IN ALABAMA?
Finney: I did, quite. My girlfriend and I rented a nice house on the river and I was there for about two and a half months, and we were just out of Alabama. I hardly got to see Alabama. You can’t when you’re filing, you’re just busy, but I didn’t see…I used to come home and my girl would make me dinner and it was lovely. I mean, we lived on the river floating by and the world going by on the river was nice. I don’t have many tales about it.
Question: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT WORKING WITH TIM BURTON?
Finney: From the beginning of the film, I thought that I was somehow in safe, good hands with Tim. I think that all the actors did. You just feel comfortable with him, and he certainly makes sure that you’re comfortable. He makes sure that you feel good and that you’re happy with what you’re doing.
Question: ANY SURPRISES ABOUT HIM?
Finney: Not really, only that. The sweetness and the niceness of the guy. That continued to surprise because the project seems to be huge, the film, and yet, he seemed to have time for everyone and as Jessica said, the way he ran about was funny. He’d just run, run all the time, and he walks about, doesn’t he, he never stops. I think that they put an odometer on him one day and he walked miles.
Question: ALBERT, YOU WORK A LOT?
Finney: Not really, I think that’s sort of an illusion.
Question: ARE YOU VERY SELECTIVE OF WHAT YOU DO?
Finney: I think so. I try to be. That doesn’t mean that I make the right selections. I’d like to be that selective. It’s true that old actors don’t die, their parts get smaller. You’re less likely to get the part, many parts, if you’re playing people your age as opposed to people who are younger. There are fewer parts around.
Question: HAVE YOU STRUCK A BALANCE BETWEEN WORKING IN ENGLAND AND HERE IN HOLLYWOOD?
Finney: No, no, I go where the work is, wherever it is. I’ll go, I mean, if I select it, but I don’t try and ration it out or balance it at all. I mean, used to do that a bit with theatre, but now, I feel that eight shows a week in the theatre is too much for an aging juvenile. So, I won’t do theatre as much now, I think.
Question: CAN YOU TALK ABOUT EWAN PLAYING A YOUNGER YOU, YOU WEREN’T IN ANY SCENES TOGETHER, I KNOW?
Finney: No, I didn’t see him. We met a bit, and we worked together a few days, different scenes, obviously, but I don’t know if, I don’t think consciously that Tim said to Ewan, he may say differently, I don’t know, but, ‘Well, we want you to walk the same, or we want you to do this.’ The only thing that Ewan and I conferred on was how we cast a fishing line. We said we’d do it round arm rather than over, and that was the only time that we conferred, really. So, we didn’t actually…I thought that I’d leave it to the young fellow to copy me, to lessen my workload.
Question: DO YOU LOOK BACK AT YOUR EARLIER STUFF AND JUDGE IT AT ALL?
Finney: No, no. I don’t really look back at all. When I’ve made a film, I’ve made it. They kind of go out into the world and they’re on their own really. They have to exist or not in their own right. I mean, with kids, you don’t say, ‘Which is your favourite,’ or ‘Which did you enjoy bringing up the best?’ I don’t have that feeling. Also, the other thing, the man on the screen that’s supposed to be me, I feel is someone else. It’s him up there. He’s doing that. Here’s little me down here. So, I regard it in a rather objective way.
Question: WHAT ABOUT THE PARENTING THEME?
Finney: Well, it’s difficult, really, I suppose for the boy when you have a father who doesn’t quite talk to you. He tells you stories, but then, after a while, when you want more, he doesn’t give you more. He insists on this old elaboration, the old stories that never changes. It’s very difficult to have a father like that. I understand the angst of the son and the frustration of the son. His father’s not there.
Question: WHAT WAS YOUR RELATIONSHIP LIKE WITH YOUR FATHER?
Finney: Mine was terrific. My dad was great. He was very droll, very dry. The first time that he came to London when I was in the theatre and my name was in lights for the very first time and we had the same name, and he passed the theatre with me on the way, he was going to see a matinee and me, and my mother and he passed the theatre, and I said, ‘Look,’ and he looked up at my name in lights, and stood there for five minutes, and I’m going, ‘I want to have lunch and get back for the matinee,’ and I’m with my mother, and he still stood there and so, I went back to get him and he just said, ‘I never thought that I’d see my name in lights.’ I liked him very much.
Question: HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT BEING IN THE OSCAR RACE?
Finney: I don’t enter, I’m entered. It’s up to someone else. It’s up to them.
Question: IS THERE ANYTHING THAT YOU WOULDN’T DO FOR AN OSCAR CAMPAIGN, SOMETHING THAT YOUR PUBLICIST ASKS?
Finney: Well, I’ve been nominated five times, I think, and I’ve never been.
Question: WHY NOT?
Finney: I was in London. It’s a long way to go for a very long party, sitting there for six hours not having a cigarette or a drink. It’s a waste of time.
Question: HOW MUCH DOES TIM LET YOU GO OR DIRECT YOU?
Finney: He just lets you go, really. When we were kind of supposed to rehearse, I don’t remember rehearsing at all. We just sort of gossiped and chatted. There was no specific rehearsal. All we did in Alabama was have a read through with the script, but there was, ‘No, well, it needs more. You’ve got to do this, Albert. You’ve got to do that, Jessica.’ It didn’t feel like that at all. He very much lets you be. You offer things up, I suppose, and he probably gently maybe changes it a little bit one way or another, but you don’t feel directive as it were.
Question: DOES IT TAKE A SPECIAL DISCIPLINE TO GET YOUR CHARACTERS OUT AND YOU’RE EMOTIONAL ARC OUT SO FAST?
Finney: Well, I didn’t feel that. I didn’t feel that when I was doing it. You don’t feel that you’ve only got a small amount of time. I think that one of Tim’s great qualities and abilities is in what seems like a thumbnail sketch to get something quite telling, very simply, when you’re doing it or being in that thumbnail sketch, you don’t feel that it’s important. You just feel what the scene is, what it’s about be it a minute scene or a two minute scene, or a five minute scene, the scene in the bathtub that we had together, someone was talking about that before, but it didn’t feel that we were doing anything sort of significant or dramatic, but we just go on with it. I think that Tim can do that in the film and he does it quite often. He has a very simple stroke.
Question: WHAT ABOUT WHEN BILLY CARRIES YOU AT THE END, I THOUGHT THAT YOU MUST’VE BEEN ON WIRES, HOW DID THEY MAKE IT LOOK SO EFFORTLESS?
Finney: There might’ve been wires, but I have this ability to make myself light. Well you know what, in ballet, when you kind of lift yourself here, it’s all up in the head. So, you can try it when you’re going up stairs next time. Instead of plodding upstairs, think of yourself as going up with your head, and it’s amazing what you can do. No, there were wires, and I was in a sort of bucket moulded to my body. So long as the wires don’t cross your face…I never thought that it would look like it did because with the crane, it’s an extraordinary contraption. They’re everything.
Question: WHY DO YOU RESIST DOING MORE MOVIES IN HOLLYWOOD?
Finney: Well, I’ve always thought that my career was in England, really. I used to do more in the theatre, and I felt that I should be there. It’s not far is it?
Finney: It’s amazing the way that special FX have taken a quantum leap in what they’re capable of doing. I mean, I did a film, a musical of ‘Scrooge’, in ’70, and the tricks were done by flat clothes and mirrors. I hope that the day will come when we don’t have to turn up at all. Go in the first day, decide what the makeup is, decide what the costume is, what the walk is, and they’ll photograph you for one day, and send you home with a full paycheck and the computerize you. That’s what I hope [Laughs].
Question: ALBERT, DO YOU WANT TO TEACH OTHER ACTORS?
Finney: No. I’d rather do it. It’s a marvellous life, a gregarious life that we’ve had. We’re very lucky in that way. Unlike writers or painters, we don’t sit down in front of a blank canvas and say, ‘How do I start? Where do I start?’ We’re given the springboard of the text, a plane ticket, told to report to Alabama, and there’s a group of people all ready to make a film and it’s a marvellous life.
Question: HAS THE LACK OF PRIVACY AFFECTED YOU?
Finney: No, I don’t worry about it that much because I don’t feel…I feel if I put a cap on and walk on the streets, I’m fine. I’m not bothered by the paparazzi and I don’t feel hemmed in, I’ve never felt that. My youth, mind you, there wasn’t quite the same attention to celebrities as there is now, but I’ve never felt that.
Question: DO YOU PLAN ON WRITING AN AUTOBIOGRAPHY?
Finney: I don’t plan on digging that stuff up that I’ve kept down with my feet. Why would I want to dig it all up and examine it like an archaeologist? No, not for me. I think that I’m busy in the present, and I don’t want to go back. Well, there’s been an unauthorized biography, and you can’t stop them. It didn’t worry me. I don’t have to read it and I don’t have to know. You don’t have to help them. They say, ‘Oh, we’re going to write a book about you,’ and you say, ‘Oh, I’d rather that you didn’t,’ and that’s all that you can say in England, ‘I’d rather you didn’t,’ but they can do it.
Question: WHAT ARE YOU DOING NEXT, ALBERT?
Finney: I’m doing another Churchill. I did a Churchill for HBO and that was up to 1939 and there’s talk of the war years. They were going to do it this fall, but the script wasn’t going to be ready. Hugh Whitemore is doing the script again and he’s done a third draft which I’m going to read when I get back, but then, there’s talk about it doing it next autumn. So, I’m available if you’ve got anything.