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The Eclectic Ensemble

Casting QUARTET meant finding an ensemble capable of embodying the spirit of its characters; the "soul" of the script that Hoffman latched onto when he first read it. "The ambiance of these people was all-important to me," he says.

Some of the main cast were on board from QUARTET's earliest stages, and Harwood wrote the project with Tom Courtenay, Albert Finney and Maggie Smith in mind for the roles of Reggie, Wilf and Jean respectively.

Hoffman recalls hearing a story from Dwyer about Courtenay's passion for the project. "She told me Tom was making a film with Colin Firth before we started on this one," he remembers. "And Firth said, 'I've never worked with an actor before who talks so little about the film he was involved with and so much about the film he was going to make next.' He had so much feeling about it, and there was something about him."

In Hoffman's mind, there was only one actress for the role of Jean Horton, the quartet's breakaway star soloist who arrives at Beecham House and causes her own brand of chaos. Having her already attached by the time he came on board was a dream, he says. "Maggie's a legend," he enthuses. "There was never one before and there won't be another one after. She's an artist and craftsman through and through. She does not tolerate compromise and she's extremely protective of being able to do her first rate work."

"Jean has been a great opera singer in her time," explains Smith. "And obviously she's long past it - as, indeed, everyone in the house is. But she's not been able to sing for too long. She probably stopped her career before she should have done through sheer nerves and despair. So she's there against her will, but in truth I think most people are in those places against their will."

Hoffman says Smith especially understands the struggles with growing old that her character and the others in the story are facing. "Maggie's closing in on the big 8-0 and she still wants that first rate energy. There's a real anger that accompanies the frustration, because she knows it's going to take her stamina away and she must do first rate work. Acting is a declarative statement for her; it's everything."

As Pauline Collins explains, Jean's arrival at Beecham House lights the touch paper that forces the quartet to re-evaluate their shared history. "There's a quote by Samuel Johnson, which is, 'a man should keep his friendship in constant repair.' That is something Jean hasn't done. She finds it again when she comes to this home, and finds that the three of us - Tom, Billy and I - are already a close-knit little group. After she's got over the fact that she's better than all of the rest of us, she realises the value of an old friendship."

Hoffman thinks Smith's greatest strength in the film is that she plays off the image she projects. "She comments on herself," he says. "She does a take on that side of herself. It's a self-deprecating choice and she's having fun with that aspect."

At the heart of the story is Jean's romantic history with Tom Courtenay's character Reggie.

"Reggie's very happy in this place," explains Courtenay, "and then he hears that Jean is going to come to the House, which upsets him because they have a rather ridiculous past. After all these years, though, he still has a soft spot for her."

"It's a relationship that happened long ago," explains Smith, "and they've rediscovered each other after a long time. They knew each other when they were much younger and starting out on this immense career."

For Hoffman, there was only one approach worth taking. "I just felt that this love story could be written for two people in their 20s or 30s," he remembers. "It's no different; he feels betrayed by her and it's a great trauma he never gets over. She's the love of his life and 40 years later they have to face each other again and his feelings are as strong as they've ever been."

"It's an interesting observation and one I'd picked up on watching the rushes," adds Dwyer. "They're flirting with each other at that age, but it felt so real and right. It's all about how Dustin pulls that out and teases it out."

Despite knowing him for a long time, Smith had never worked with Courtenay before. "We very nearly did, but we didn't," she remembers. "It's very rarely that you get an even faintly romantic story for elderly people, and we're all creaking around, but it has been great to do."

From the screenplay's conception, it was written with Ronald Harwood's great friend and collaborator Albert Finney in mind for the role of Wilf. As the project developed over many months, Finney decided, reluctantly, that he wasn't up to the rigours of a long shoot, and departed the project.

For Hoffman, who had faced years of rejection before breaking through as a star with THE GRADUATE in 1967, the casting process was one of the trickier aspects of becoming a director. "Dustin never wanted to meet an actor unless he could give them the part," says casting director Lucy Bevan. "He couldn't bear to reject anyone once he'd met them. So everybody came through me."

Remembers Andrew Sachs of his own casting: "My agent rang me up and said, 'Dustin Hoffman would like to meet you for a drink.' I went in, and we got talking. After about 5 or 6 minutes he said, 'Oh, by the way, you got the role. Now what I want to do is--' I fell over backwards! We were there for two hours."

Bevan would film discussions with potential actors, and send Hoffman interviews they had done.

"He really wanted to see people talking," Bevan explains. "I sometimes got him to read a scene, but really he was interested in the chat. He was really interested in seeing who the essence of the person was, and then he'd want to cast them."

Hoffman's casting choices would often come down to one or two little aspects of a person that embodied the film and the characters, says Bevan. "He was so clear about exactly what he wanted. When he saw the person, it was often something someone said or a glint in the eye. That little moment when people are being absolutely themselves. Instinct; that's what he went for."

So in finding an actor to play the role of Wilf, Hoffman first distilled the essence of the character. Wilf is, he says, a man whose age has not affected his sex drive. "He has a great appetite for life, and sex. He's not a womaniser; he loves women."

Hoffman and Dwyer worked with casting director Lucy Bevan to find the right replacement for Finney, and struggled with the task. "We wanted a real contrast to Reggie," explains Dwyer, "and we had always seen the quartet as four greats of British acting."

The production initially went to Peter O'Toole, who was keen to take on the role but similarly concerned that his advancing years would make the demands of the shoot insurmountable. "It's not that it's a physically-demanding movie," continues Dwyer, "but acting full stop is physically and mentally demanding. When you're of a certain age it just takes more out of you."

Explains Hoffman: "I knew Billy Connolly, but I'd also recently seen him doing comedy acting in Los Angeles and went backstage to meeting. I told my wife on the way home, 'he's not right; he's too youthful.'"

The more Hoffman considered the role, the more he felt Connolly had the right instincts for the part, and could play much older than his years. "What Billy brought to the part, which wasn't written there, is that he's very protective of Cissy. He gives it such an extraordinary third dimension and the audience loves it. He protects her, because he knows she has dementia."

In the end, making Connolly appear older wasn't such an insurmountable hurdle after all. Connolly laughs: "They greyed me up a little and it seems to have worked!"

Still, Hoffman says he had to talk Connolly into taking on the role. "He's an actor, but he doesn't think he is," he explains. "If you see MRS. BROWN you see it, but he thinks of himself as a comedian. He said, 'They're all legends, Dustin; I don't belong there.' So we talked and talked, and he came to work scared to death."

"It's like acting with Elvis," laughs Connolly. "One of the great things is that we're working in this house most of the time, so the feel of that great top-of-their-game fame has softened a bit."

He adds: "Wilf is full of life. I don't know how people accept it because I've got such a working class accent, and opera's such a non-working class genre. But he gives life to the thing, and if you're ever in a place where people are retired, the first thing that strikes you is that they're not talking to one another. Some of them are being fed, some are looking out the window and some are reading. Wilf's character kind of gets them together and gets them going, which is a rather useful job."

For the actor, coming aboard QUARTET meant finally becoming better acquainted with Tom Courtenay. Connolly had been to see Courtenay in a play in Edinburgh, and Courtenay later confessed that the audience had been especially silent that night, as if they were too scared of Connolly's presence to laugh. Many years later, Connolly was finally able to tell Courtenay just how much he'd enjoyed the play. It was something he'd been unable to do the day after the play, when he'd seen Courtenay walking down Princes Street and followed him for 500 yards, failing to pluck up the courage to say something. "It's great becoming his friend now," Connolly reflects. "He's in the next trailer to me and he plays the ukulele. It's a different Courtenay than I thought!"

For his part, Courtenay knew Connolly was the right choice for Wilf within moments of the rehearsal process beginning. "The first day we got together, I thought, This is going to work. He prepares, he listens and he doesn't mind being told what to do by me. There's a lot of leg-pulling; there usually is when actors are getting on together!"

Hoffman thinks their chemistry off screen sells their characters' relationship on screen. "Billy could easily be one of my best friends and I think Tom felt like that also. I wanted to feel that Tom genuinely loved Billy and that Billy loved Tom. Chemistry means you don't have to act."

Courtenay agrees: "I often think when you're acting with people they do the acting for you, actually. With Billy, I'm supposed to love the man, and he's an extremely likeable chap, which is crucial to me, selfishly speaking."

Casting the role of Cissy meant finding an actress capable of embodying warmth, humour and pathos simultaneously. Maggie Smith suggested Pauline Collins. "I saw an interview she did," explains Hoffman, "a piece she'd done for Woody Allen's YOU WILL MEET A TALL DARK STRANGER, and immediately I thought, She's wonderful." Remembers Bevan: "He knew immediately that she was naturally being herself."

Cissy suffers from dementia, and Hoffman says he cast Collins in the role before they ever talked about that aspect of the character. "She's a great actress with a great craft, and when we started talking about the part she mentioned someone she knew dearly had dementia and she wanted to source that person for the part, which she did. She was thinking as the person she knows quite well, and I encouraged her to put that into the part."

As Collins describes, Cissy is, "just beginning to tiptoe down the dementia road. Sometimes she's quite her old self; very bubbly and flirtatious. And sometimes she just disappears to another region."

Hoffman embraced Collins's instinct to play both sides of the condition. "It doesn't exist, and then suddenly it does," he explains. "She played that quite consciously, because that's one of the realities, particularly with early dementia."

With the ensemble assembled, Hoffman was keen to ensure their approach to the quartet felt as natural as possible. "When I met with them all I'd say, 'I don't want you to do characters. I want you to be very close to yourselves. These people are you, and they are me too. We're all in this so-called 'third act' of our lives, and what we feel about ourselves in terms of ageing, and what we feel about our work, is what I'd like to see on film."

With the entire quartet having known and often worked together before production began, they brought their own history to the roles. "They have a genuine love for each other," enthuses Hoffman. "They are all artists without exception."

One of the greatest strengths of Harwood's script is the broad range of supporting characters who populate and staff Beecham House. Keen to work with Hoffman on his directorial debut, with such well-pedigreed material, actors lined up to take part. As Dwyer explains: "There was a bit of an embarrassment of riches with people who wanted to be in it!"

An unforgettable presence in the film is that of the lush and louche kaftan-clad director Cedric, brought to the screen with verve by Michael Gambon, who was working with Hoffman on the first season of HBO's series LUCK while Hoffman was preparing the project. "I don't think anyone can get away with what Michael gets away with," laughs Hoffman. "Who else could wear that hat and those kaftans? I told him, 'don't even read it; just show up. A lot of that stuff is just his. He does what's written and makes it his own."

"No-one seems to like him very much," says Gambon of his character. "He's very bossy; always ordering people around. In a funny way he has not the right to do that. He's very theatrical; at the slightest thing he shouts."

Hoffman thinks looks are deceiving when it comes to Cedric. "I think he's bright," he says. "I think he's passionate about wanting the gala to be terrific. Sure, he's full of shit, he's pretentious, and he makes himself out to be like so many of the people I've met in my 45 years of doing this, but I think he's astute and he understands people. He reads the quartet, and he knows how to get them to perform."

"One of the best things about this film is everyone is so funny," says Connolly. "I didn't know Michael Gambon was such a funny guy. I just have to look at him and I'm gone. I had a scene yesterday onstage and he's in the audience - and he's a bastard, you know... Every time I looked over he did this look like an imbecile, with his tongue hanging out. Every time I saw him my knees went!"

Maggie Smith, who shared many a scene with Gambon over eight blockbusting HARRY POTTER films, is grateful they don't share the screen together much in QUARTET. "It's just as well, because Michael is forever making people laugh," she says. "We spent quite a bit of time on POTTER fooling about, but I don't see him much on this one!"

The youngest member of the principal cast is Dr. Lucy Cogan, brought to screen by acclaimed actress Sheridan Smith. For the actress, starring alongside such seasoned performers was a rare honour. "She was so insecure every day of the shoot," remembers Hoffman. "But I saw her in FLARE PATH at the Theatre Royal and I thought, What a brilliant performance. And then she found out, during the shoot, that she won the Olivier Award for her performance in LEGALLY BLONDE, the musical. How awfully lucky I was to get these people. There wasn't a lemon; not one."

In fact, the young actress was so nervous that, when casting director Lucy Bevan visited the set a week or so into production, Smith's first thought was that she was there to fire her. "I feel terrified and honoured at the same time," Smith laughs. "I've never learned so much on a job as I have on this one. It's so nice to be the baby on this film and to work with this calibre of actors. I feel quite out of my depth some days, but everybody's been so lovely to me in taking me under their wing. I just try to be a sponge, really, and take it all in."

Connolly has especially enjoyed his scenes with the younger Smith, in which Wilf flirts outrageously with Dr. Cogan. "She acts very very well and she's so attractive that it works really well. The funniest thing is, when I'm chatting away to her and doing these things, I feel like an old guy. I'm not an old guy, I'm in my sixties, and I'm the youngest of everybody!"

Adds Smith: "As soon as Billy came on set he put me at ease. He's so naturally funny, and that kind of relationship started up straight away; the banter between the two of us."

One of the most moving moments in QUARTET comes as Dr. Cogan introduces the assembled audience of the gala to the performances they're about to watch. "She is in awe of these opera singers," Smith says. "These retired, fantastic musicians who still have got this real love for life."

But Smith is not the youngest member of the entire ensemble. In addition to the schoolchildren Reggie teaches about opera, the residents frequently have young visitors. Explains Hoffman: "The first thing I said to Finola was, 'I don't want to smell the urine.' When we started to populate the exterior scenes with these residents' children, and their grandchildren, something happened. When you watch the rushes, it's not only showing how much of their internal spirit is the same as these kids, but also there's something about them looking at themselves when they were beginning. That's why we even had a kid playing the piano, and another couple of little girls playing the violin."

The inspiration for the sequence involving Reggie's opera lecture came out of a desire to ensure the film was cross-generational. It's not just a film about embracing life and art in your old age, but doing so at any age. Reggie relates opera to rap music, a style of performance the school-kids already appreciate, to help them to relate to the universal power of art in any of its forms.

Hoffman directed the kids to behave as they would in any lesson, and they came dressed in their own clothing. In their midst, he placed Jumayn Hunter, playing the role of Joey, who would rap for Reggie. "He was the only kid that really knew what the scene was going to be about," Hoffman explains. "He'd written a rap and Tom had spent a lot of time trying to figure out, as the character, what the similarities and differences are between rap and opera."

He continues: "At a certain point I told Jumayn to throw away what he'd written - rap is for freestyles - and we shot it with Tom talking and him freestyling what Tom had said. It's all the real thing, and it was a great day. There's a poignancy that comes out of it.

Hunter, who has starred in films such as EDEN LAKE and ATTACK THE BLOCK, is also an accomplished rapper in his own right, a casting decision Hoffman extended to the wider cast of retiree residents at Beecham House.

"I wanted to cast retired opera singers and retired musicians," he explains. "I didn't want actors pretending to be musicians; I wanted the real thing. I could take care of them not having acted before, but I wanted this quartet to surround themselves with the real thing. You'll see people who haven't worked for years and years coming to this project every single day with the spirit that I wanted imbued within the film, and I got it for free. They just loved working."

Says Lucy Bevan: "Dustin is so confident about his ability to direct anybody that, for example, our great opera singer in the film, Anne Langley, is played by Dame Gwyneth Jones. She's an amazing opera singer; I showed Dustin her in concert and he fell in love with it. So I tracked her down to Switzerland, where she now lives, and pulled her in."

"It's wonderful to work with opera singers because you have something of a role model," enthuses Collins. "Singers have a greater grandeur that we actors have. There's something about the way they carry themselves. They've had years and years of training in classical work and it's great to be amongst them."

Opera singers Nuala Willis and John Rawnsley argue that performance, broadly speaking, is the same in any form. "We're all actors," says Rawnsley. "One tends to act with one's voice. We're told that opera singers can't act, and you get sidelined, which is rather annoying."

Continues Willis: "Opera can be the most visceral, most moving thing, where you're in floods of tears. Theatre is a much more intellectual experience than opera, which is completely emotional and visceral. I can't really think of any actors that have moved me to the extent of a singing performance like Dame Gwyneth doing Salomé."

For Jones, taking on the role meant embracing the technical challenges of film acting. "I have done a little filming already, but this is quite different," she explains. "In the opera, you start and you live through the character until the end, and everything is live. You're creating the atmosphere and taking the public into this atmosphere. Whereas in the film, you do little snatches, and they are very often from all different angles with the cameras, sand then they're all fitted together like a jigsaw puzzle."

Her character Anne Langley, says Jones, is most put out by the arrival of her great rival, Jean Horton. "Anne Langley has, until now, sung the finale at the gala," she reveals, "and they've taken the ending of the concert away and given it to Jean Horton. Of course, she's very upset and very sour!"

Jones performs the aria Vissi d'arte from TOSCA for the film. "It means, 'I live for my art,'" she says. "For Anne Langley, the text is very good, because she's saying 'I've lived for my art; for music and love. Why am I being punished like this, that Jean Horton is going to sing the finale instead of me?'

It isn't just opera stars that round out the cast - musicians of every flavour join the residents of Beecham House. Noted trumpet player Ronnie Hughes is the oldest of his profession still playing professionally. He says he identified with QUARTET's message, that you're never too old to live your life. "A lot of my contemporaries, who were also wonderful players, say, 'I'm fed up with it,'" he says. "But I still like playing and still enjoy it; it's my life."

Hoffman says their experience of their craft was the most important ingredient in drawing performances from this wider cast. "This was their profession in life. There's a way of allowing them to find their own centre, and that is their own behavior. If I have my way next time I will take out every single parenthetical that's in the script. 'So and so sobs loudly.' It's the worst thing you can do to an actor; it's the director's job to get whatever emotional information the scene demands."

Acting, says Hoffman, is a way of hiding "behind a scrim of fiction. But it's you at the back of it. All good work is when it's them coming through with a different kind of walk or cadence or whatever, but they are behind it. I think that's what I wanted, and I was lucky enough to get it."

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