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The Bank Job - David Suchet interview

David Suchet in The Bank Job

Compiled by Jack Foley

DAVID Suchet talks about playing a real life porn king in The Bank Job, the research he did for the character and his recollections of the robbery depicted on film.

Q: Lew Vogel is not the real name of the man you portray in The Bank Job. But he was an evil man?
David Suchet: Yes, he was king of porn in Soho. I think he was an extension of the East End London Jewish Mafia that he would have known in is day, as a younger man. Although by 1971 that was over, he was the last remnant of being called king. That’s why there are these little moments in the film when rather than giving the police money for protection, he throws it at them. He needs them but he doesn’t want to fraternise.

Q: How did you research the character and make him so believable?
David Suchet: My fun as an actor and my task as an actor is to transform myself to become other people. I enjoy becoming characters but I don’t enjoy becoming caricatures. The research I do is only necessary in so far as we move into other dimensions. There are clues in the script… he will say “I think drugs are immoral”’… but the guy who says that kills, tortures, pimps and has whores working for him. There is this strange morality going on, which is rather like the Mafia.

In The Godfather, for instance, they say they won’t deal drugs because they have a code of behaviour. He is the last remnants of that. So playing someone like that, who is also in pain with his kidney stone, means you’re beginning to find a dimension of the guy who is king and all show and the private guy who is in pain.

Q: Did you meet anyone from the period?
David Suchet: No. But I knew the period. I was 25 in 1971. I also had the privilege of growing up there in Baker Street where the robbery actually took place. From the moment I was born I went into a flat in Baker Street, called Chiltern Court. This block of flats was almost opposite that junction where the Lloyds Bank was. I remember The Chicken Inn and The Sack and places like that. Obviously, the film takes place later but this was my stomping ground. So, when we went to Pinewood and saw the set my jaw dropped because I was there as a boy. Everything on the set the set was so detailed… the buildings, the costumes, the props and indeed the cars. It was just how Baker Street looked back in those days, it was extraordinary.

Q: What did you recall about the real bank robbery?
David Suchet: I don’t remember a lot. I remember reading about The Walkie Talkie Robbery. I remember headlines that said something like: “More Money Stolen Than In The Great Train Robbery.” I remember it going from huge, block bursting front page news, to complete and utter silence. At the time I think I was in Birmingham Rep and I remember looking at the daily newspapers and then suddenly seeing nothing. When I was cast in the film I realised why the original title was D-Notice. Then it was going to be called Baker Street and, of course, there was that big pop song by Gerry Rafferty and I think The Bank Job is a very good title. It is what it is. It is a bank job.

But it’s a different type of British movie; here we have a film that is not The Italian Job, it’s not a giggle or a sentimental film, like Four Wedding And A Funeral. This is gritty stuff and it is very beautifully made by a wonderful director [Roger Donaldson] who has put it all together. I watched it recently and thought it was a really solid British film and unlike any other film that I’ve seen. Because it is not really about a robbery, it’s the consequence. Very cleverly, the writers have put Vogel’s little black book in the bank’s vault and suddenly, through my character, the audience is taken into 1970s sleaze, outside of the bank robbery. So, the film broadens its boundaries. You don’t just concentrate on the bank robbery because this isn’t just a heist movie, it is also a social movie. There is Vogel’s world with strippers and porn and blue movies and police corruption and then there are the robbers – everybody is guilty of something and funnily enough the most innocent of the guilty are the robbers. It’s a very interesting counter balance all the time.

Q: Did you ever have any slight misgivings about doing The Bank Job because of the plot’s involvement of the Royal Family?
David Suchet: I think we have reached a level in society – with Helen Mirren playing The Queen – when we’re not surprised any more. We don’t mention names. Yes, it’s obvious by inference. But we don’t mention names and the film is not up to point fingers at Royalty. What we’re doing is saying what happens with the establishment and how are we as ordinary human beings are used as pawns. What do we really know about what goes on! We think we are a democracy…. Are we? I’m not so sure.

Q: Your performance in The Bank Job reminds us how much you appear to enjoy portraying real people?
David Suchet: I love playing real people. It’s a huge challenge and responsibility which I take on board and which I relish. It also scares me to death. Give me a totally fictional character and I don’t have the same sort of responsibility. If, though, I play Sigmund Freud or Robert Maxwell or whoever then there is a responsibility. As I say, there’s something that scares the hell out of me but it really makes me work hard in losing myself. I’m not really interested in me as an actor or being a personality player, or a Hollywood star. What’s given to me is to become different people and to find the truth of that. That is really what I do.

Q: You once said that you would have loved to have played Napoleon?
David Suchet: I would have done. He was one of the most complex personalities in history.He was ruthless, small in stature, a bully, vulnerable, unfaithful and I think he was the first person to shoot prisoners of war so that he had food for his own army. He was absolutely single-minded but he also obviously had charm. How else could a man like him have come back as he did and have the nation rise to a man! There has not been anybody with all those combinations. He did not rule by tyranny like Hitler, Saddam Hussein or Henry VIII. And he would have spoken French with an Italian accent. It would be like a Prime Minster here speaking English with a German accent. People forget that because we see films with Napoleon having a French accent. But that’s wrong – he actually had to learn to speak French.

So, if I ever played Napoleon it would be with an Italian accent. He was an outsider, which also interests me. In so many roles I’ve played the outsider. As an outsider, you have more energy to succeed simply because you are an outsider. There are scripts floating around but they’re not coming my way and I think that I am getting a little bit too old to play Napoleon. But if I was ever offered the role I would grab it. I don’t know if I would be allowed to play him with the Italian accent as I would want. Certainly, it would have to be explained to the audience in the script that this was how Napoleon spoke.

Q: You have said you did not want Hollywood?
David Suchet: It’s not that I didn’t want it, I wanted it as a character actor but not as a personality star player. There’s a part of me that wishes I had done more films because I love the medium. I love seeing my characters big up there and I would have liked to have reached a different public in movies from my television public. There’s still a part of me that wishes that my character range could be seen on the big screen. Rather, as Rod Steiger was, because he was a big influence on me – about becoming other people and not worrying about your own glory or self esteem but sacrificing yourself to become somebody else.

I think I’ve grown up in an era where character acting on film has become less desirable for the producers and directors and therefore the audience. They have got used to the people that those actors really are. The great exception to that, of course, is Johnny Depp, who is absolutely the ultimate character actor. Johnny Depp is the future of the character actor and thanks to his success maybe we will see the return of an era when my sort of actor is back in vogue. It’s not in vogue for me to be in Hollywood movies as lots of different people. Maybe The Bank Job will change that? I’d like it to change.

Read our review of The Bank Job