For him, the play's the thing

He's been called "the finest stage actor of his generation" and "the sharpest classical actor on the British stage." His portrayal of Richard III was "breathtaking, one for the history books," raved one critic. His villainous Iago in "Othello" was a "terrifying articulate, obscenely cunning slug," said another. His "Hamlet," said yet another, showed the "exceptional naturalness with which he handles Shakespeare's language. Not a single phrase sounds affected, phony, or highfalutin; many of even the most familiar lines hit you as if never before."

In sum, that critic concluded, "many another actor would be greatly better if only they could attain the level that is Russell Beale's worst."

These kinds of reviews, along with two Olivier awards (the British equivalent of a Tony), make Simon Russell Beale a sought-after actor. But for audiences, he also must be a sought out actor. While his midcareer British contemporaries such as Ralph Fiennes, Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry, Hugh Laurie, Emma Thompson, and Tilda Swinton have gone on to make movies and TV series in the United States, Russell Beale has made only a couple of minor appearances on film and has only a single British TV series on his résumé.

To see him in Britain last fall, fans had to finagle their way into the tiny 250-seat Donmar Warehouse theater, where he was appearing in repertory as Malvolio in William Shakespeare's "Twelfth Night" and as the title character in Anton Chekhov's "Uncle Vanya." His Vanya won him a third Olivier nomination; the winner will be announced Feb. 14.

American audiences now are getting a rare peek at him at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) in New York, where the plays have transferred for a run through March 9. Tickets are already scarce.

Why the low profile? It's certainly true that Hollywood rarely has interest in putting the great theatrical roles on film, the occasional "Hamlet" or "Romeo and Juliet" aside. And Russell Beale professes a discomfort with the much different way that movies are shot, preferring the intense give-and-take of rehearsal with fellow actors that theater affords over the more solitary preparation often required for film work.

But there's another reason, and as he talks with an interviewer across a table in a cluster of offices upstairs at BAM, he sees the question coming. "You're getting onto the 'looks question,' aren't you?" he asks of his slightly uncomfortable interviewer. Russell Beale has also been described in the press as "pudgy and affable" and "an amiable bear of a man." When he played "Hamlet" in Scotland, the Glasgow Herald headlined, "Tubby or not tubby, fat is the question," while noting that other headline writers had succumbed to jokes about Russell Beale's "too, too solid flesh."

'Tubby' is OK, 'rubbish' is not

But that kind of coverage seems to be more and more out of place as the top-notch performances and glowing reviews keep coming. Russell Beale has long ago made peace with his physicality, and now even sees how it may have kept him in theater, his true love.

"When I was younger, I rather regretted that I didn't have a leading man's looks," he says. "I think now it doesn't bother me.... When the 'Hamlet' reviews came out, everyone mentioned my weight. And a couple of friends phoned up and said, 'Are you all right? Does it bother you?' And actually, it really, really doesn't, because I am overweight, so there's no pretending that I'm not. As long as they didn't say I was rubbish and overweight or, as one person did do, rubbish because he's overweight, which did irritate me, then that's fine."

Russell Beale seems to relish playing flawed characters, bringing out the humanity in them. "I'm fascinated by failures and second-rate people," he says. In "Twelfth Night," Malvolio strikes the only real dark note in a play dominated by a love story and comic antics. Many actors decide to push Malvolio for laughs. "I thought, 'Oh my God, he's got to be funny, he's got to be funny,' " says Russell Beale, who does manage to evoke laughter from Malvolio's love-struck humiliation and through his mincing walk. "And of course, he doesn't have to be funny. That's precisely why he's such a mysterious character. If he is, good. But he doesn't have to be."

He thinks playing Vanya, the tragic figure in Chekhov's play who gradually loses his hopes of love and happiness, at the same time affected his approach to Malvolio. "I think that's what happened. Malvolio, I felt terribly sorry for him, as I feel terribly sorry for Vanya."

A sweet prince

After graduating from Cambridge University, Russell Beale began his acting career playing comic parts. It was only after he appeared as the brooding young Konstantin in Chekhov's "The Seagull" that directors began to see his possibilities in dramatic roles. By the time he had worked his way through Richard III and Iago, he thought he might be too old to try Hamlet at 40. But he got his chance - to rousing reviews.

"Hamlet turned out completely differently from what I intended," he says. For one thing, his mother had just died, which "had an enormous effect" on him. "The soft edge of him took me by surprise. I thought he'd be harder. But he didn't turn out that way. He turned out to be the 'sweet prince.' A gentle man."

Before the play opened, friends like Fiennes, who already had played Hamlet, warned him it was an extraordinary part. "And you'd go, 'Yeah, yeah, yeah. So is Iago and Richard III. But it is qualitatively a different part. I don't know why, but it is.... It's the only part that I've ever done that you have to absolutely strip away any rubbish by the end of the process. In the end, you stand up on the stage and say, 'The readiness is all.' All the rest is silence.... I don't think any other part I've ever done requires that. There's always some agenda or some hiding or, in the case of Iago, a deliberate brutal suicide, a shutting down. Or Vanya dying in misery. But Hamlet is just 'whoosh,' a calm wind. It's fantastic."

But you're not likely to see Hamlet or any of his theater work on film anytime soon. "Part of the joy of [theater] is when the [performances are] gone, they're gone," he says, splaying his fingers with a sign of "poof." "I have no burning desire to record these on film. That's part of its excitement. You [the audience] can only smell us in the flesh," he says with a fiendish grin. "And I can only do it when I smell you. I love that!"

Beyond that, the rehearsal process for film intimidates him. "I have no independent ideas of my own," he says laughing at himself. "I'm quite high maintenance in the rehearsal room. I need a lot of ideas thrown at me - bam, bam, bam, bam. And then I can go away and think about the part."

He says film actress Emily Watson, who returns to her early roots on stage as Viola in "Twelfth Night" and Sonya in "Vanya," was quite "flummoxed by this process of exposing yourself in rehearsal. That the process is there for everyone to see. I said to her: 'My horror is exactly the opposite of yours - having to do it by myself at home. I don't know where I'd start.' "

Russell Beale seems to be a fearless actor, taking a character wherever the text and his instincts tell him it must go, however painful. As Vanya, he crawls on the floor and sprawls on a table to express his anguish. But he claims such letting go isn't easily done. Once when he was rehearsing a scene as the humiliated Malvolio, director Sam Mendes began laughing at him "because gradually, I was turning my back to the audience, as though I didn't want to be there. And it was true. I sort of felt embarrassed and didn't want to be seen."

Nonetheless, "the great privilege of my life is doing these great texts," he says. 'I'm doing two of the greatest plays ever written. They allow you to throw yourself at them. Vanya's pain is so palpable that it'd be irresponsible not to, literally, in this case, writhe on the floor."

As a busy actor, he has little time for anything else. He's taken up piano lessons again (he had once thought of a career in music). He loves doing crossword puzzles and reading nonfiction, mostly history. His father and siblings are important to him, and he's overjoyed that his youngest brother has just made his professional opera debut in Mozart's "The Magic Flute."

"If I could earn a just a little bit more money, I'd be perfectly happy with this for the rest of my life," he says of his stage career, which pays nothing approaching what film actors receive. "Perfectly happy doing the great plays on the stage. That's fine by me."

As we part outside the theater, he's off to grab a quick lunch before the Sunday matinee. He takes off down the street alone - and quite unconcerned that anyone passing by will take notice of "the finest stage actor of his generation."

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