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Interview with Alec Guinness

New York -- Sir Alec Guinness was down at the end of the hotel hallway, holding the door open and saying "this way." He is not known to be enthusiastic about granting press interviews, and the smile on his face made me think of the motto for Powdermilk Biscuits: "They give you the strength to do what has to be done."

He looked hauntingly familiar, despite the recent addition of a beard. In fact, he looked familiar not only as himself--Sir Alec, distinguished British star of stage and screen, winner of the 1957 Academy Award for best actor in "The Bridge on the River Kwai"--but also familiar from a whole gallery of movie roles, from Fagin in 1948 and Father Brown in 1954 to Obi-Wan Kenobi in the "Star Wars" saga: He looked familiar, that is, as a whole race of Guinnesses, smiling quietly, deferential, sly, calculating, quite wise, perhaps a little mad and sometimes surprisingly kind.

He showed me into the living room of the suite where he is living during a two-week visit to New York to act in "Love Sick," the new Dudley Moore movie. It was decorated to fit somebody's idea of a New York brunch, with yellows and bright greens and leaves and flowers on every upholstered or wallpapered surface. The windows were flanked by shelves bearing the latest Reader's Digest condensed books-by-the-pound supplied by the hotel, but on the coffee table was the book he was reading: The new Dick Francis racing thriller.

"There's no room service," he said, "but perhaps we could send out for something? Tea? Whiskey"

"Are you a Dick Francis fan?" I asked.

"Not exactly. I'm just getting started on him. I believe he was the Queen Mother's jockey until he retired and started writing thrillers."

"Is that a prestigious position in England?"

Is what"

"Queen Mother's jockey."

"I suppose it indicates that one is a rather good jockey, doesn't it? Ummm."

We sat down on overstuffed sofas, facing each other. He looked patient and composed, pleasant and politely distant--not, in short, like a person about to start confessing his secret fears and desires. The role in "Love Sick" represents the first acting he has done in New York in 17 years, since he played the title role in "Dylan" on Broadway. I asked him to tell me something about his role. He nodded as if he had won a private bet with himself on the subject of the first question.

"I'm afraid I can't even show you the script," he said. "It's a tiny part, elegantly written, in a comedy to do with psychiatrists. I have some little bitty scenes with Dudley Moore."

"Little bitty scenes with little bitty Dudley," I said, smiling.

Guinness did not smile. "Remember that you said that," he said. "Do not write that I said it."

"Of course," I said, feeling a bit as if I had just told the Prince of Wales I could not run on the Sabbath. I asked why Guinness, who is one of the great British movie stars, had done so few movies in America.

I never had any success in Hollywood," he said. "I made three movies in Hollywood and they were all flops. The pictures people think of as Hollywood hits, such as 'Bridge on the River Kwai,' were in fact British productions." He smiled. "Peter Ustinov told me that when you work in Hollywood, how they treat you depends on the role you are playing. If you're playing a king, they treat you like royalty. If you're a character actor..." He shrugged. "In any event," he said, "the great movie stars have all been American. Or, if not American--like Greta Garbo or Cary Grant--actors who worked totally within the American film industry."

"Did you make a conscious decision, then, to do most of your work in England?"

"I've worked all over the world, often through no conscious decision I was aware of at the time, other than perhaps to visit a place I hadn't been before. Like anyone else, I have to earn my living. Very often, I've accepted work just for the work. Like any actor, I grow very nervous when I'm out of a job. I think every offer is the last one I'll receive."

Although Guinness made his first movie in 1933 and had worked steadily in movies since "Great Expectations" in 1946, his best-known role is certainly Obi-Wan Kenobi, the wise, mystical sage who told the heroes the Force was with them in the enormously successful "Star Wars." Did Obi-Wan lead Guinness to a leap in fame and greater recognition from strangers on the street?

"Not really. Not in this country, certainly. And then the beard throws them off. I grew one for Kenobi, of course, and then shaved it off and then grew it again for Freud."


"The character I play in 'Love Sick.' I'm Sigmund Freud. I appear in some of Dudley Moore's fantasies, smoking a very long cigar. But . . . the 'Star Wars' pictures. How did I like doing them? I liked the people very much. But, no, they're not really much fun to act in, not when you're put totally in the hands of technicians and asked to sit in a cylinder and imagine explosions. That's only amusing for a time. But the people couldn't have been nicer, of course. I've just finished my role in 'Return of the Jedi,' which is the third in the series."

Are most of the same characters going to be back in "Return?"

"I don't know whether they are or not; it seems to be so complicated."

Guinness was so composed during these statements that it was difficult to sense where the interview was going. I had the inescapable impression that, nice as he was, obliging as he was, he found giving interviews to be terribly boring. I produced another predictable question: What do you look for in choosing a role?

"Well . . . I don't really know. I mean. If could talk about acting in a sensible way, I don't think I'd be able to do it. It's no good talking about one's work in life. I'm not particularly conscious of how I set about doing anything."

"But what about 'King Hearts and Coronets' (1949). In that one, you played . . . was it seven different roles?"

"Eight, I believe," Sir Alec said, firmly.

"Eight different roles! And its' been said that you played them all with such modesty that each one became a separate person, as if you chose not to let the audience see you peering through each of the eight disguises."

He smiled, as if pleased at the observation. But then he shook his head wearily. "It wouldn't have occurred to me to do it the other way 'round, as a sort of a star turn with the same person in various disguises. Besides . . . I shouldn't say I played all eight roles with equal success. I did rather well with three, I would guess. Perhaps four. I was only offered two parts in that movie. Perhaps four. I couldn't see the sense in playing only half the roles. I cabled them offering to play all eight. To my surprise, they accepted.

Did you always want to be an actor?

"Oh, yes." He was on more comfortable ground now. "In retrospect, I wanted to be an actor from the age of 5 or 7. When I was 5, I was sent to boarding school, where I would tell the boys stories in the dark, always acting them out, flashing an electric torch for effect, using funny voices, sound effects . . . A little later, I build model theaters and populated them with cardboard figures which I ordered about."

You were in boarding school as such a young age. did you become an actor to deflect criticism from yourself?

"No, not realy. Actually, my boarding school days were very happy. When I was 5, my Mother married . . . someone, and they wanted to go off, so I was sort of pushed off the boarding school, but it became the most solid part of my life. There were the same boys, term in and term out, and if fact it was the holidays that were never stable. I never knew in what hotel, in what town, I would find my mother, until I was 13 or 14, and went off on holiday on my own."

He recited these memories in a flat, objective voice, which seemed all the more to mask strong emotiions about them. I asked if he planned to write an autobiography.

"Not an autobiography, no, athough at the moment I am writing some chapters about the people who have influenced me."

Roger Ebert

Roger Ebert was the film critic of the Chicago Sun-Times from 1967 until his death in 2013. In 1975, he won the Pulitzer Prize for distinguished criticism.

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