Photoplay, September 1971, "Michael Jayston" [partial interview]

(Note: This is not the full interview/feature - I was only able to get the second page.)

The classic story comes from the pen of author Raymond K. Massey. A world bestseller, the story begins around 1904 and is concerned with the last Russian Czar Nicholas and the Czarina Alexandra, the birth of their son and heir, the haemophiliac Alexis and their final ousting from power with the downfall of the Czarist regime under the Russian Revolution ending with their imprisonment around 1918.

The distinguished cast, headed by ex Royal Shakespeare Company players Michael Jayston and Janet Suzman in the title roles, includes such celebrated classical and character actors as Laurence Olivier, Michael Redgrave, Harry Andrews, John McEnery, Michael Bryant and Timothy West.

The backgrounds for the cast’s performances were supplied by two of the finest Art Directors in the business. Jack Maxted and Ernie Archer, who between them reconstructed Czarist palaces, a workers’ factory in Moscow, a Siberian mountain top prison, a Russian hunting lodge, and other spectacular scenes - all previously historically researched and reconstructed with the emphasis on absolute authenticity.

Director is the brilliant Franklin Schaffner, of whom it is enough to say that he won this year’s Oscar for direction of the brilliant Patton!

Cameraman is another Oscar-winner Freddie Young, who with Doctor Zhivago, Lawrence of Arabia and Ryan’s Daughter behind him, is now the acclaimed “finest cameraman in the world.”

And so the list goes on, with spectacular achievement in the film credited to other production members too numerous to mention.

It could be argued, though, that the person to whom perhaps the most responsibility falls in terms of the cast, is Michael Jayston, who portrays the Czar Nicholas. The part of Nicholas is not only understandably very large, but also very unflattering to an actor and open to biting criticism in the way it must be played, from an entertainment standpoint. Not only that, but as an actor his performance will be inevitably compared to those of such fellow cast members as Olivier, Redgrave, Hawkins and so on. Tough competition for any actor even in favourable circumstances!

Michael analysed his character of Nicholas thoroughly before the film began and continued to do so virtually every day during the six months of the film’s shooting. As he explains it: “History shows Nicholas was a weak and complaining man, who although an egotist, was completely dominated by the Czarina. To play the part truthfully, one had to, of course, be weak and complaining during one’s performance, and that in turn leaves one open to the likelihood of boring the hell out of the audience - especially when you’re surrounded by such vibrant and compelling personalities as, for example, Rasputin and Lenin! Fortunately however, I have a good deal of experience behind me of playing characters similar in some ways to Nicholas so I think I managed to get into the ‘character’ well enough to be able to make him a person for the audience to identify with and not be bored by …”

“The experience” that Michael refers to as involving similar characters to Nicholas has certainly been extensive and was, one can assume, certainly one of the prime factors involved regarding his choice to be the actor to play Nicholas - as those who saw his televised portrayals of Beethoven, Siegfried Sassoon, Wilfred Owen and Branwell Bronte will agree.

Filming Nicholas and Alexandra was arduous for all concerned, but not surprisingly everyone willingly gave all that was asked of them. Not last in effort demanding activity was in the somewhat unlikely department of make up! As the Czar, Michael as make up expert Neville Smallwood puts it - “noticeably ages about 3 times in various ways during the course of the film’s fourteen year span of history.” Backing this up was a chart on the wall that gave details of “what facial lines were showing,” “what grey hairs were coming through” and “what the beard was doing” - every fact having been looked into and adhered to according to archive photographs of the real Czar.

On this particular day Michael was in fact in his make up seat at 8:30am “being prepared.” The day’s filming was what may prove to be the most lavish scene in the film - that of an extravagant society ball at Nikolasha’s Palace in 1904. The Czar was at that time a young man, so not much make up work was needed to be done on Michael, although what there was still took about 45 minutes. In the company, was also Michael’s co-star Janet Suzman (The Czarina), Irene Worth (The Empress Marie), Harry Andrews (Nikolasha), and Tom Baker (Rasputin). Tom Baker is an extraordinary character with an extraordinary story regarding how he came to be in the film. Apparently Sam Spiegel had originally envisaged Peter O’Toole to play Rasputin and had, rumour has it, paid him an enormous retainer. As things turned out however, O’Toole was unavailable. It was then that Laurence Olivier stepped in and insisted Spiegel should see “a remarkable National Theatre Company player” who he thought would be perfect as Rasputin in every way. That person was Tom Baker - and he was. To see him, he is obviously ideal - all upright 6 foot 3 inches of him complete with heavy hawk-like features and large, intense, staring eyes.

Michael was by now ready for wardrobe. For Nikolasha’s ball he appeared half an hour later, resplendent in a scarlet military tunic complete with the necessary braid, medals and sash, worn over black jackboots. At this point the transformation was complete and he had become His Imperial Highness, The Czar Nicholas, Emperor of All The Russias. With a cup of coffee to relax with, he stretched out in an old arm chair in his surprisingly dreary two roomed studio suite to wait the fifteen minutes for his “call to set”. As usual, everything had been dealt with super efficiently, so that even at this stage of the day’s filming they were ahead of schedule! The obvious question to ask him was “was there a particular aspect of, or moment in the film’s production that impress you personally more than anything else?”

Almost without hesitation he replied: “I think that the one person who has left the greatest impression on me both as an amazing man and as a supreme actor is Jack Hawkins, who plays the important role of The Imperial Family’s ‘old retainer and confidant.’ There was one particular scene that in my whole life I shall never forget. There is a particularly moving moment in the story when the ‘old retainer’ hears that The Czar, his master, has been blessed with a son. He is the first person to hear the news and is overcome with emotion and excitement as he brings the news. Owing to his serious throat operation, Hawkins cannot, of course, speak the lines and has a voice ‘dubbed over’, but as he acted this scene out, using his face, expression and manner to speak for him, his eyes were filled with happiness and excitement at the same time and were brimming over with tears. The man was literally overcome with emotion as he played the part - so much so that I was consequently almost too overwhelmed to speak my lines,” he paused for a minute looking thoughtful - “that was a magnificent experience.”

His fifteen minutes respite was now over and with a click of his heels and a comic bow, he strode off towards his engagement at Nikolasha’s Palace. END