Robert Hardy is one of the most successful British character actors of our time. He is most famous for his portrayals of Winston Churchill, Cornelius Fudge, the Minister of Magic in the Harry Potter films, and Siegfried Farnon in the BBC series “All Creatures Great and Small.” Actor Neil Robertson is his godson. Hardy spoke at Markel Auditorium on Wednesday evening, and will teach an acting master class in the Quilhot Black Box tonight at 7 p.m.
~Compiled by Vivian Hughbanks
When did you decide to be an actor?
RH: I didn’t. I was just going to be an actor. From childhood. From time to time, I informed the family, and they never raised any objection in public.
Did you have any actors that you enjoyed watching then?
RH: Oddly enough, when I first went to the theater, I very much enjoyed watching an actor named Godfrey Tearle. He was absolutely God’s gift to the world. After the war, when I started at Shakespeare’s Stratford, he was the leader of the company. It was wonderful. He was such a nice old man. If I could be as nice as him in my extreme old age — which I am in right now, obviously — I would be very happy.
What have been some of your favorite roles to play?
RH: At the head of the list is the hardest one — Churchill.
Further down, Queen Victoria’s husband, the German prince, over which I got into a sort of disgrace with the royal family because they didn’t like my German accent — they said it was much too strong. But the reason I chose to keep it was because in my research — the basis of all my acting — I got the very strong message that he was very isolated, very alone. And of course, to sound foreign was the quickest way to get that message across. As the thing went on, I improved, and when I came to die, I went straight back to the German itself.
Hamlet is the best part in the world. Corelanus is the next best part in the world. Henry the fifth. But talk to him — he’s much more interesting. He was a child star.
NR: Yes, I’m an actor as well. And for the last 10 years, I’ve worked for a children’s theater company in London. So I mainly work with children now.
RH: He was very, very, very good. He’s my godson, so I watched his beginnings.
NR: On stage, I was still being cast as children in my late 20s. But now, I like working with children. We work from preschool right up to 18-19 years old. It’s about freeing the imagination, really. We do thing called storytelling theater. We make up a story where they have to tell us what’s going to happen next. And as they get older, it turns into more acting games and things like that. One of my best roles as an actor, we worked together in a film for the BBC called “Speed King.”
What was it like to work together?
RH: That was a role that I loved playing too — it was a man who broke the land speed record in “Bluebird,” a very famous car, in the 1930s on the salt flats of Utah. It was a very well-written script.
NR: That was Sir Malcolm Campbell, and then he had a son called Donald who I played. When he grew up, he went and did exactly the same thing — he broke speed records — and then killed himself breaking the water speed record on Lake Constant in the Lake District.
RH: That was a good film.
NR: At that point, as his godson, I didn’t really know him very well and suddenly we were playing father and son — it’s stayed that way ever since.
RH: There was a very good scene we had to play in which his school report had come in, and I had opened it, and I got him to come and see me in my study.
What advice do you have for students who want to pursue a career in theater or acting?
NR: I would never say to anyone “don’t.” If they’re really keen, they’ll do it. But I will warn them that it’s a really crazy profession — there are not enough jobs and too many actors. I’ll tell them to think of it as a part-time job to start with. If it becomes your full-time job, that’s great. I always say to them, “always have something up your sleeve that you can make a living.”
RH: What I always say to them is “don’t.” Because if they’re really tough enough to be able to do it, they won’t take a moment’s notice of what I say. And then I go on to say that you need to be slightly “‘round the bend” as we say in England. You need to have talent, obviously. But there are so many different kinds of talent that will do.
At Hillsdale, we study the liberal arts. What are some ways that theater and film can add to an education?
RH: The results of what directors do on film, on television, and in the theater is an accumulation of how they view the world. So it has its own value in that corner. Then in come the actors and actresses, and the same is true of them. It is a world vision, which is useful. It is valuable as purified observation reduced to an artistic formula. It’s all observed nature.
NR: I’d say it goes back to Shakespeare. Going back to the Greeks, theater has always been used as a social way to explain to people how to live their lives, to learn about their fears. It tells about our history as well.