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Quartet - Tom Courtenay and Sheridan Smith interview


Interview by Rob Carnevale

TOM Courtenay and Sheridan Smith talk about working with Dustin Hoffman on his directorial debut Quartet. Sir Tom also discusses the origins of the project, while Sheridan discusses overcoming her nerves. They were speaking at a press conference held during the London Film Festival.

Q. Can I ask about the origins of the project? It’s inspired, of course, by Ronald Harwood’s play but also, in part, by a documentary?
Tom Courtenay: I have to keep reminding Dustin [Hoffman] that this whole thing was my idea! It’s not that he’s resentful, he’s just forgetful. But years ago – it might even be seven, it might be eight years ago, I asked Ronny Hardwood if he fancied the idea of making a screenplay of his play, Quartet, which I’d seen some years before and had remembered how moving it was at the end. Anyway, he was very excited and BBC Film commissioned the screenplay and nothing happened until Dustin came along.

Q. How was working with Dustin Hoffman?
Tom Courtenay: Can I do an impersonation of when it was a good take? [In Hoffman’s voice] “Oh gorgeous, gorgeous f**king take… that’s in the movie!”

Q. And Sheridan, what was it like working with Dustin Hoffman as your director?
Sheridan Smith: Overwhelming! Just to be a part of the film was an absolute honour. Obviously, being on set every day with this amazing cast… I wanted to curtsey every morning. I was so overwhelmed by it! It was an incredible experience, so I tried to be like a sponge and take it all in.

Q. Sir Tom, having been with the project so long and seeing it evolve in the way that it did, did it evolve as you had imagined it would?
Tom Courtenay: Well, it moved on. Dustin asked Ron if he could make some changes. One of them, in the play they’d fallen out because Reggie was impotent. But Dustin didn’t like that, so he changed it. And that was a big change for me. But it was fun being the juvenile lead. I’ve never, ever had so much make-up [laughs]. And Dustin was most particular about how I looked. He was determined that I look as handsome as possible and I’m very grateful to him for doing so [smiles].

Q. Sheridan, you’ve alluded to being thrown in at the deep end with this cast and subsequently soaking things up. So, what did these illustrious people teach you on-set?
Sheridan Smith: So much. The film is so special and all the cast are actually retired opera singers and retired musicians and in between scenes they’d be jamming. Dustin is also a great pianist and he’d get on the piano. It was just such a special film. And also working alongside the likes of Billy [Connolly], Tom [Courtenay] and Maggie [Smith]… the stories that they told me. I had to pinch myself every day. It’s been a magnificent experience.

Q. Would you have any advice for people who would like to follow in your footsteps?
Tom Courtenay: Good advice would be to get Dustin to direct you if you’re in a film. And this is a bit of advice I got from Dustin. He used to say: “Do nothing, do nothing… in a movie like this nothing is something.”

Q. And Sheridan?
Sheridan Smith: Well, there was one moment I remember because I was really nervous about being on the set and Dustin took me over to one side, gave me some good advice and said: “You know, the clothes are Doctor Cogan…” Luckily, my character is in awe of all these retired opera singers. So, he said: “The clothes are the character but act how you feel about all these wonderful actors.” So, that was incredible advice.

Read our review of Quartet

Read our interview with Dustin Hoffman