September 2009

Time flew.

I can’t quite believe that it has been two years since I last wrote. The only positive I can take from this lapse is that I really can’t be accused of blogging or ‘twitting‘. I like writing you all letters from time to time, and waiting until I have something to write about is probably a good idea anyway.

I arrived back from Canada this morning where the umpteenth Toronto International Film Festival is underway even now. And I can say without any hesitation, if film is your thing then make a booking for next year and take a friend or three. It’s a lovely place, the people are friendly and, astonishingly, they still seem to have the patience and courtesy to accept this annual invasion of marketers and makers, actors and producers. If all the birds and insects, mammals and reptiles suddenly left the Amazon Rain Forest to descend on the Bronx Zoo for a week – all of them desperate to show each other their latest mating rituals – then you’d have to have a little sympathy for the lions and tigers and bears who live at the zoo all year round.

An army of fire-fighters and police volunteer their services as drivers and bouncers – librarians and school teachers become waiters or bell-hops and the thanks they receive is a 20 second applause before each and every screening. It’s quite wonderful. Easily the most relaxed and non-exclusive of the festivals I have been to. If you were an autograph hunter, you simply couldn’t carry enough paper to sign each and every actor or director who walked in and out of one of the few hotels where we were sent for our meetings with journalists and photographers.

The only ‘off-limits’ events are the post-gala parties. I went to 3 of them (including my own) and I really couldn’t wait to leave all of them. I’m not very good at parties anyway, but even so, they were pretty dreary affairs. It’s ironic that the few spots where the booze and food are free and available in unlimited quantities, where nearly all the people are glamorous and gorgeous, just happened to be the places where I felt least at ease and most alien. But these were the only places where you could spot the rarest of all the Amazonian creatures, the Greater Crested American Distributor. These are the people who select which films anyone will ever actually see in the richest country in the world. They only ever come out during film festivals – they spend the rest of the year trying not to go bankrupt as far as I can tell.

I spent most of my time with Ruba, my director from Cairo Time – a refreshingly normal woman, unusually attractive and mischievous and totally unpretentious (a neat trick at a festival, where most directors can only be classified as ‘practicing enigmatics’); Daniel, my producer who I constantly teased as being the spitting image of Tim Curry; and Patricia, my co-star (more accurately – my star-star) whose every liquid movement was the central focus of attention in any room we ever entered.

I think the film went down okay. I certainly liked it, aside from the fact that I went into cardiac arrest any time I held the screen for more than two seconds almost as if I was wishing myself not to fall over.

I always assume people are bull-shitting when they say something nice at an event like this, I’m ashamed to say, but I’m an actor, and I’m always expecting people to be blowing smoke up my arse – I blow smoke up other people’s arses! But judging by the reception for this film – if the smoke were actually helium – I could have saved my producers the price of a return air-ticket and floated home. I think that’s a good sign.

The most unusual (and compelling) thing about Cairo Time is that it takes two ordinary people and puts them into an ordinary situation. Not a great tag-line, I know. I can’t really imagine seeing a trailer in the theatre where the voice-over guy who smokes too much says, “Two ordinary people … in an ordinary situation .. At a theatre near you .. Now!”. But that’s pretty much what it is and somehow it manages to be life affirming. I hope someone releases it in the States at some point so you can decide for yourselves – it’d be a shame to see it on a plane – everyone weeps at everything on aircraft – I think I wept about 10 times while watching “Dude Where’s My Car?” – they must be putting something in the air they pump down the aisles.

I have been unusually lucky this year. I’ve worked with two brilliant directors. The other is Julian Schnabel. I remember Julian calling me last year and asking me if I knew who he was. I didn’t initially, because he didn’t actually tell me who he was for the first two minutes of our surreal conversation. I have an infuriating habit of playing along with people in the hope that I might begin to understand the rules of the game while the game is under way so I didn’t admit to anything. Until he mentioned his name and the title of his last film, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly. Suddenly I began to pay attention. He had asked my friend Hiam Abbas for my number and she (in her fathomless wisdom) gave it to him.

We met several times. I warmed to him very quickly. He wears pyjamas nearly all the time – beautiful pyjamas, classic broad striped brushed cotton things and a blazer or suit jacket. He’s a painter primarily, of the abstract school (something I know nothing about). But he is extremely famous for his painting I believe.

We met at his exhibitions in London. He had the infuriating habit of showing me his work and asking me what I thought – which is a bit like taking a four year old to see a skyscraper and asking him what he thinks about the quality of the engineering. Needless to say that in this instance I didn’t pretend that I knew what the hell I was talking about.

We shot Miral in Israel earlier this year. At first I was worried that Frieda Pinto had been cast as the eponymous heroine – not because I doubted her acting chops – she was a scene stealer in Slumdog Millionaire – but because she has an undeniably Indian accent. After many weeks camped out in various locations ranging from the West Bank to a Catholic monastery near Jerusalem, I can safely say that I am no longer concerned about this enchanting girl at all. She sounded great – she looked great – the only time anyone ever busted her was when we were walking through the busy market in Jerusalem where one elderly Palestinian woman screamed, “She’s too beautiful to be from here!”

Rula Jabreal’s auto-biographical book of the same title and our script deal with Palestine/Israel and the heroism of several women as they cope with the enormous changes that happen in that part of the world since 1947. I haven’t seen the film yet but the experience on set was an amazing one for me.

Obviously I’m going to be careful here because this movie and the way in which Julian would like everyone to perceive it is probably still under discussion.

Remarkably, I had no problem getting into Ben Gurion airport even though it states quite clearly in my passport that I was born in The Sudan, the very country in which Bin Laden learned how to become the devil incarnate. I was shocked. I was fully expecting to be strip-searched or (at the least) have my luggage searched or my mobile phone and all my contacts downloaded into some kind of super-computer – but no – just a friendly wave accompanied by the thick (strangely Arabic) accent of the young woman in passport control wishing me a warm welcome to Israel.

It was only as I left the country after many weeks that I was held for over two hours as every detail of the story of my stay was referenced and cross-referenced, my luggage opened and it’s contents removed and spread out neatly on a white table for inspection. Why, I wonder, were they so much more worried when I was leaving the country then when I entered? Maybe – counter to all current perceptions – the powers-that-be in Israel are more concerned about the welfare of rest of the world than they are about themselves? I dunno.

It’s worth making an effort to go and visit Israel. It’s not as dangerous as IDF statistics would have you believe. Thousands of rockets or mortars have been fired into Israeli territory in the past few years, but according to Wiki a total of 12 deaths were recorded in 2007. This number is, of course, too high but I don’t think it constitutes a major threat to visitors – or even Israelis, given the fact that (according to Israel’s national newspaper Haaretz) there were over 400 Israelis who committed suicide in 2009 alone.

Tel Aviv is a bustling youthful city with miles of sandy beaches and trendy bars and one or two very good places to eat. You can hire a car and visit most of Israel (except any place the Israeli Defense Force has decided to blockade) in a few hours. There are road blocks at all the entry points to Arab areas, but they are fairly easily negotiated as long as you have paperwork or a passport proving that you are definitely not Palestinian. You can see for yourself the 25 foot high walls that surround all Palestinian areas, with their look-out towers and gun posts. You can visit one of the refugee camps which hold thousands of Palestinian families while they wait to be allowed to return to the houses they were forced to leave in order to make way for new Israeli families. Some of them have been waiting to go home for 40 years now. They keep their old front door keys.

Manyof the Israelis I talked to were very sympathetic to the plight of these poor people but they were also scared. Scared that they may get hit by a rocket or mortar. So by and large they agreed with their government’s stance that the continual segregation and the demolition of suspects’ houses and the gradual build up of new Israeli settlements in the dwindling Palestinian areas were a good thing because they live in such dangerous circumstances.

Go and have a look – you’ll be fine. But do be careful crossing the road because that can be very dangerous as well. I think that as many people as possible need to see for themselves and make up their own mind about the situation over there.

I have no idea what Clash of the Titans is going to be like. Louis Leterrier directed it. A very sweet man who had no problem dealing with some of the huge stars he was working with. I hadn’t seen Ralph Fiennes for more than 15 years and it was great to hook up again. As some of you probably know, I played a small part – one of the gods, Hermes, who wasn’t in the original version of the movie. Now I look back on it, it was fun but at the time it was excruciatingly painful wearing the full body armour we all had fitted. I couldn’t sit down or even drink water without a very long straw and after several hours in this state I think I became a little … grumpy?

Liam Neesen was there, as kind and as friendly as ever. The only sign of the hell he must be going through this year being an occasional emotional shut-down as he stared into the middle distance between takes. Every now and then Emma Thompson would turn up and give him a hug – she was filming Nanny McPhee on another stage.

Needless to say it was a huge production with acres of trailers parked nearby to house the million actors who were hired. It was produced by Legendary Pictures and if their track record is anything to go by – it’ll definitely be worth the price of admission. It better be! It’s the only picture I’ve been involved with that Django (my son) will find even remotely interesting while he’s still a child. He hit 13 last week so it won’t be long until he’s properly grown up.

Buster, my strapping step-son is nearly 18 now. He’s thinking of entering the military. Parents just love to hear those words from their children!

How time flies.

Lots of love,
Sid