A/V Room









Oliver Twist - Jamie Foreman (Bill Sykes) interview

Compiled by: Jack Foley

Q. How was it seeng London recreated in the Czech Republic? Did it give you an odd feeling?
No, not with this movie. Alain Sarde’s design on this film is absolutely phenomenal. He’s got to be one of the best designers around at the moment, to take on a project like this and to recreate it so truthfully and realistically.
It was so easy with Anna Shepherd’s costumes as well, you walk out, you go onto the backlot and you just hit this huge, massive set.
And the amount of detail, whatever shop you walked into, if it was a butcher’s say, there would pork chops there. If you went into a greengrocer’s shop there would be fruit and veg hanging around the walls. Not that the camera was ever going to delve in there, but you always got a sense that it was actually real.
It’s very easy for an actor to pretend all of that, but it’s easier when you’ve got it all there.

Q. Having grown up in Dickens’ neighbourhood, was the role of Bill Sykes one that you had to play?
You could make a shopping list of all the characters you want to play, but with somebody special like Roman, who comes along and sees you have the qualities that he’s looking for in his Bill Sykes, that’s a dream come true. For any actor.
I talked to some great actor friends of mine and they all said, ‘Polanski, oh God, I’d love to work with him’; he’s on everyone’s shopping list. It was a great thrill.

Q. What's your best memory of working with Polanski?
His terrible jokes. He loves a terrible joke, although he doesn’t think they’re terrible, he laughs harder than anyone else at his own jokes. The point was though that it was fun, he made it good fun.
Foreman: He’s very intense. I’ve never worked with a director who is so meticulous, but it’s all for your benefit.
I remember a scene where we were in the street, when I’m walking towards my house to confront Nancy, and I’m doing this scene and we’re having trouble with the dog, getting it to stay on the right side of me, I’m going round the lamppost one way and he’s going the other, and extras are going up in the air.
Then all of a sudden, when you feel like you’ve just got one bang on, Roman starts screaming and there’s a guy at the end of the road, overacting, far in the background. At first I thought that wouldn’t have mattered, but then I realised that if his eye had gone to it, it would take the audience’s eye away from it as well. So you felt so protected and so cared for, that everything’s going to be so right.
And that’s right, because if I’d gone to the cinema and seen it, I would have got back on the first plane to Prague and found this guy, because he’s upstaged me, in the best moment in the film for me! But that’s the beauty of working with someone like that, he’s a joy, the whole experience was like that.

Q. Having spent so much time in Prague, did you have a favourite restaurant?
I was there for seven months in all, going backwards and forwards, with four months of that continuously filming. It’s a great town. I had my favourite restaurants, funnily enough I was at one yesterday, because I was over for the premiere over there. I got a later flight back so I could visit it.

Q. How did you go about putting your own stamp on such a familiar character?
We had a great Ronnie Harwood script. I feel I was given a lot more scope as an actor to approach Bill, because he’s gone back to Dickens’ original text a lot more. And he’s funny, Bill’s opening scene when he’s introduced in the book is funny, very dark and wicked.
I think if you can capture the humanity that they bring into the writing, and he gets a lot more screen time to project other sides to him. When he’s lying in bed ill, with the fever, that’s seeing another side to Bill that no-one’s ever seen before. As with Toby.
Bringing Toby into it, and his relationship with Toby. Seeing the way he enjoys Toby’s flamboyance. That gave me a lot more chance to put my stamp on it and open him up a lot more.
What everyone should remember is that Oliver Reed, who’s phenomenal, played him in a musical and that’s a different genre and it has a different effect on the overall look and feel of the film.
He never sang a song or anything, but he has this weight and this presence that represents the danger, to offset the musical elements in the film. I never had that problem, I could play him as a more truthful man.

Q. You also do a lot of acting with the eyes? Was that hard?
That’s all I’ve got! It comes from the right place, if you’re feeling it. Don’t play Bill, be Bill. So it was because I had the chance to delve into different sides of his character.
I don’t think Robert Newton had that opportunity and Oliver Reed certainly didn’t. I’ve been lucky enough to have had that opportunity thanks to Ronnie Harwood and Roman Polanski. I didn’t ever feel that I was walking in anyone else’s shoes.

Q. You have a number of tough scenes, especially with the dog involving some abuse. Was it hard to do? And were you best friends off-set really?
No. I wanted to barbecue him. That’s going to upset every dog owner in the country! But he gave as good as he got, so don’t worry about him. He held his own. It was me or him at one point [laughs].
He’s bigger than me, the dog. He was a Czech dog, he didn’t speak any English so that didn’t help. No-one told me for the first two days, that when he started barking, if I went ‘shush’ it meant ‘bark more’. But no-one told me that for two days.
He certainly wasn’t Lassie, that’s for sure.

Q. How was your relationship with the younger cast?
It was difficult because Barney and I had a lot of very dangerous things to do. I’m a father of sons, and I’m very protective to them, but when we were up on the rooves and doing this you have to feel a sense of trust.
I think that helped Barney and I, because when I was throwing him about he’d know there was another side to me that’s different. This is just what we’ve got to do.
We used to do scenes, and every time I’d grab him I’d ask if it hurt, and when he said ‘yeah’ I’d say ‘good!’. But he knew that I’m doing that for a reason.
Clark: It was funny, because before every single scene Jamie would scream, start roaring in character. You’d be getting ready to go into the room and you’d hear this scream.
Foreman: It was the same with all the [young] guys, they’re such good actors. You don’t have to explain everything to them, they inherently know it.

Q. How was working with Sir Ben Kingsley?
I think every actor who’s ever worked with Ben will say the same thing, and that is that he’s a joy to work with. It’s a great experience to work with an actor of his quality and calibre. You know that you are in the moment when you’re there, and it’s a great thrill.
He’s phenomenal. He would stay in character and that was very important for him to do that, because it’s so not like him.
The man is a tall, wonderfully elegant, good looking guy. He’s playing this wizened monster. The pain he was going through, because he was bent double all the time, one day he stood up straight and his back cracked and he said he was dying for that to happen, he’d been waiting three days to do that, to release the pressure. He was a joy.

Q. Was it a daunting project going into it? And do you think the story remains relevant to modern audiences?
It’s like you have great directors like Kurosawa coming in and taking on Shakespeare. These stories are universal, the themes of these stories are universal, they relate to anywhere in the world. There’s no dominion over them. The relevance is universal in that respect. I had no problems with him coming along and taking this on.
He’d done such a great job with Thomas Hardy’s Tess, and he’s admitted himself that he has a great penchant for 19th Century literature, especially English literature. So you know it’s going to be a serious interpretation whatever Roman Polanski does with it.
And to get Ronnie Harwood on board, one of the best screenwriters this country has ever produced. So he’s taken this very seriously, put a lot of money and a lot of investment into it. He knows the dangers that he’s going to be faced with and the questions he’s going to be asked, why he’s taking this one when it’s been done before.
I think for a director of his stature it’s even more important to understand that he’s taking on somebody else’s luggage and put his own stamp onto it. I think he’s done that very well.
I think it’s the best interpretation I’ve ever seen. It’s the most succinct, the most clear, and I think – with the greatest respect to the master – if Dickens was to write a film script of his story this would be as close to it as we would get.

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