“I’ve made Tom Courtenay hot again!” Andrew Haigh, the director of the veteran English actor’s new film 45 Years, laughs after he says this.
But basking in critical acclaim for his performance in 45 Years, 78-year-old Courtenay’s star wattage is indeed brighter than at any point since he came to prominence in the 1960s spearheading British cinema’s new wave with roles in Dr Zhivago, The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner and Billy Liar.
In 45 Years Courtenay and Charlotte Rampling play Geoff and Kate, a retired couple in their 70s living in Norfolk in the East of England.
Their impending 45-year anniversary party is thrown in turmoil when he receives a letter from authorities in a Swiss town stating that the body of his former girlfriend Katya has been discovered 50 years after she fell to her death in an icy glacier.
The film is one of those slow-burners where the silences speak volumes and what doesn’t get done ends up being defining. The focal point of the film—reinforced by the ending—is Rampling’s realization that she never was her spouse’s true love. But the fact that Courtenay is being pushed for a Best Supporting Actor nomination at the Oscars shouldn’t overshadow what is a brilliant leading man performance.
Haigh, who also wrote and directed the acclaimed HBO gay relationship drama Looking and the film Weekend, has created a poignant showcase for Courtenay’s pale complexion to register a constant state of emotional daze throughout the movie.
When we meet in Toronto, Courtenay tells me he was similarly stunned when he read the script. “I was away from home, and when I read it on my iPhone, it did me in,” he says.
He had never worked with Rampling before, yet their onscreen dynamic is exceptional. “Charlotte sent me a sweet email,” he notes, “saying, ‘It’s just you and me being ourselves.’”
Courtenay, married to second wife Isabel and lives in South-West London, is childless like the character in his new film.
Courtenay could have worked with Rampling previously on 1966 Swinging London movie Georgy Girl (“I declined Georgy Girl—it was a really scruffy script.”)
Once he did work with Rampling, he found her “very bossy. Her father was a soldier, you see. She told me a lot more how to do things than Andrew! I would say, ‘That seems to have worked.’ She’s very formidable.”
Though the pair share an uncomfortable sex scene—the first in his career—Courtenay says he was more nervous about shooting the film’s climatic dance sequence than breaking his cinematic cherry.
“I just thought it was a hoot at my age to be doing that. I thought it was fun. The older I get the more peculiar I realize I am but I could see no problem with it. They said you’ve got to have your underpants on, and my wife had bought me new underpants. So they were clean.”
The UK box office success of 45 Years reinforced the recent demographic shift in cinema-going that has made elderly stars all the rage (Dame Maggie Smith—who acted alongside Courtenay in Dustin Hoffman’s 2012 film Quartet—is one of the hottest actresses in Britain following her new movie, The Lady in the Van).
It’s all very different to when Courtenay started out. “When I first started to go to America,” he says, “there was only one man who had grey hair, [talk show host] David Susskind. What you didn’t do was grow old because then you’d automatically become less capable and less manly.”
Should Courtenay receive an Academy Award nomination for 45 Years, it will be his third after Dr Zhivago and theatre comedy The Dresser in 1983. For me, Courtenay’s transformation in David Lean’s epic from idealistic protester to brutal general rivals those of Al Pacino in The Godfather and Robert De Niro in Taxi Driver a decade later.
He now has mixed feelings about Zhivago: “I never thought that much of it. There was so much waiting around for David to get the right colored sky. We had no time—we had to shoot it in six weeks. I’m very fond of David and it was a big thing in my life… but I remember when all of a sudden I became the leader of the revolution I was scared witless. I was rigid.”
Courtenay was recently approached by an autograph hunter asking him to sign a piece of paper underneath the words ‘The personal life is dead’, one of his memorable utterances in Dr Zhivago!: “What a load of bollocks that is! In our film [45 Years] it’s the complete opposite.”
Why does he think his generation of British actors, which included Michael Caine, Terence Stamp, Albert Finney and Richard Harris, captivated the world half a century ago? “A lot of it was due to the scholarship boys who became writers—there was all this great writing from working-class boys. People like Albert Finney and myself just walked right into it.
“I liked reading the lesson at school but had no idea about the new wave. It just took me along, too quick. I would have preferred to have been discovered a bit later but my face fitted.”
Did he enjoy fame? “No. The best thing was the girls. I was quite a slow starter and quite shy, so I didn’t have to do anything. But I think I was too young and too thin-skinned and I couldn’t handle it really and that’s why I retreated from it.”
Geoff in 45 Years is full of regrets and Courtenay has a few of his own. “I suppose that’s why this film spoke so strongly to me,” he says. “You can only see backwards, you can’t see in the future.” One regret is not acting in more movies.
“I probably over-did it,” Courtenay says of his move away from film to theatre in the late 1960s. “But I couldn’t trust the cinema business as far as I could throw it. I was self-obsessed, but not in love enough to consider myself to be like a movie star. I wanted to learn this funny thing called acting and I learnt that doing plays.
“I was so desperate to get on the stage and learn how to act and I thought I was sort of wasting my time. I didn’t know where to go and had this agent who said, ‘You do this and that for money, strange films.’”
One of them was 1968 spy film A Dandy in Aspic in which he appeared alongside Laurence Harvey and Mia Farrow. The movie’s director Anthony Mann collapsed and died on set: “When we were summoned to see the doctor, Harvey said, ‘This always happens to me!’ I kid you not!”
Courtenay was born and raised Hull, Yorkshire, near the fish docks where his father worked.
He lives up to the stereotype of the plain-speaking Northern Englishman. He tells me the “highest praise” he got about his acting capabilities came from his friend Albert Finney visiting his dressing room after he had performed in the one-man play Moscow Station off-Broadway in 1995. Finney paused and exclaimed, ‘You little fucker!’ Courtenay found this “touching”.
Then there is his notorious selectivity (as well as Georgy Girl, Courtenay is believed to have rejected roles in George Roy Hill’s 1966 epic Hawaii and Alan Bennett’s 1985 comedy A Private Function.) Most recently he reputedly turned down the part of Hal Fields, the elderly man who comes out as gay, in Beginners. It was a role which was to win Christopher Plummer a Best Supporting Actor Oscar.
Such care with his career has led Courtenay to conclude he’s only acted in two stinkers on film. He doesn’t mention them, but one has to be playing a wise seer in The Golden Compass, the flop fantasy 2007 blockbuster based on the first novel in Philip Pullman's trilogy His Dark Material.
“That was awful,” he reflects. “They cut the shit out of my part and they never told me. This love scene with a witch girl really made it a sweet part but they removed it. They sacked the director [Chris Weitz] who I really liked. Then he called me up and said, ‘I’m back on the film’ and he had the grace to tell me [his part got cut]. The producers never did.”
He had a good time making the 2012 remake Gambit with Colin Firth even though that flopped too. “It was a lot of fun. Well, it was a disaster but Colin and I had a great time.”
Now his career has come full circle and he says it’s no longer film he won’t do but theatre: “I don’t want to. I’ve had enough eight times a week, feeling nervous all day. I’ve lost the stomach for it.”
Courtenay still hasn’t watched Andrew Haigh’s previous film, the brilliant Weekend (about the sudden, sexy and romantic blooming of a gay relationship one weekend). “I lost my hearing aid so I couldn’t hear it,” says Courtenay.
But he is grateful to the director for giving him a new creative lease of life. He sent Haigh an email which, while lacking the profanity contained in Albert Finney’s backstage tribute to him, was long on affection. It read: “I have cause to be grateful to you and don’t let me forget it.”
45 Years is released on 23 December.