The esteemed Charles Dance is well-known to different people for different things. He has worked with Royal Shakespeare Company and first became famous for a British TV mini-series called The Jewel In The Crown. But to American audiences, he is better known for genre work like For Your Eyes Only, Alien 3 and The Last Action Hero. When I said a quick hello to him at last week’s Syfy holiday party, I told him I remembered seeing the 1987 drama White Mischief, about white colonists in 1940s South Africa, and he said I was too young to know that film. Bless him.
Tonight and tomorrow night (at 9 PM EST in the U.S.) he appears as Doctor Richard Fludd in the four-hour Syfy miniseries Neverland. Dr. Fludd is the man who creates Neverland, and they when other characters including Peter Pan and Jimmy Hook show up, they begin to ruin his personal utopia. I spoke with Dance on Friday for half an hour about Neverland, his past work and what is coming up with Game Of Thrones and Underworld Awakening.
Are you excited about Neverland?
Yeah, it’s a good show. Two or three weeks ago, Nick Willing the director gave me his cut to look at, and I think he’s done a really good job.
Your character is new in the Peter Pan continuum. Obviously you don’t think it’s heresy that there’s a new character here. How did you originally react to the prequel?
I think it’s a very good idea because Peter Pan flies off to Neverland, and you say, where did Neverland come from? That’s really Nick Willing’s starting point, and I play this 500-year-old apothecary who made Neverland out of harnessing the power of two asteroids. It’s a very imaginative concept, and I think it works really well. My character is able to flit between two worlds. He’s basically trying to create a kind of utopia in Neverland, and unfortunately a bunch of people come in and mess it all up for him, which is very sad.
Judging from the trailers, it seems like a bit more of an adult story, particularly with the future Captain Hook having a sexy lover, a feisty pirate captain herself. I guess it will be a racier, PG kind of story.
Yes, but there’s nothing particularly gratuitous. As you say, it’s perhaps for slightly older children, if children are going to be watching it.
“Whether I’m in a room that is painted green or I’m in a room that’s heavily art directed or in the street or on the back of a truck, if you’re right within yourself then you’re going to be right within the world that you’re in.”
There is a new trend now where authors and filmmakers are reinventing classic properties or providing new twists on old stories, such as the forthcoming film and Hansel and Gretel: Witch Hunters, which shows what happened those two kids after they survive into adulthood.
But also, whether people take liberties with the stories and adapt them, what we we’re able to do now, because of the techniques that are available to us, is to have another look at all of these fantasy stories because we can do things now and can create [their] reality on the screen. We’re able to make all the fantastical elements of those stories that much more believable, and I don’t think that’s a bad thing.
Considering you’ve been doing film and television for nearly 40 years, how do you feel about a lot of the technological changes have that occurred, and do you think it’s affected the quality of the acting, writing and directing? Do you think that there has been too much of an emphasis on effects lately?
I think there’s a danger of that, but frankly people in network television and in film studios are realizing that there is a market out there — it’s called the grey pound or the grey dollar — and they are demanding a product or are welcoming a product whenever it comes along that appeals to them. I think every now and then it’s a useful reminder to people that there is an audience out there that [says], although they can appreciate all the extraordinary advances that we’ve made technically in film, there are still stories needed about human relationships. What people say to each other, what people do to each other, in a real world rather than a created, fantastical world.
Even though you have acted in a wide range of film, television and theater productions throughout your career, you’re probably best known to many people in the States for your work in genre pieces such as Alien 3, The Last Action Hero and Game Of Thrones. Are you seeing big fantasy resurgence in England the way we are seeing it in the States?
I’m astonished, purely because I didn’t know how widely read the Game Of Thrones books are, and it’s got quite a following on the Sky Channel in England. I’m forever getting people coming up to me talking about Game Of Thrones in a very complementary way because I think it is very well done, and the production values are astonishing. But that I think that is quite a good case in point because the quality of the writing is such that all of the characters — although they’re in this kind of fantasy, fictional, pseudo-medieval world — do seem to be based in some kind of recognizable reality, and it’s appealing to people right across the board. It’s kind of an adult Lord Of The Rings; that’s how I would describe it.
With a TV series like Game Of Thrones or a TV movie like Neverland, there’s a lot of green screen being used. How does that affect the reality of the performers when you’re there? Do you see actors changing the way they’ve been performing lately?
No, I don’t see actors changing the way they perform, and for me, as long as you are working with a director who knows what he’s doing — which is not always the case — if there are questions I have about where I am supposed to be looking and what am I looking at, if you’re working with a director like Nick Willing who can show you his extraordinary artwork, because he does all these concept drawings, then I understand the world that I’m pretending to be in. But by and large, if the writing is good and I take it seriously and do my work properly, whether I’m in a room that is painted green or I’m in a room that’s heavily art directed or in the street or on the back of a truck, if you’re right within yourself then you’re going to be right within the world that you’re in.
Given Dr. Fludd’s impressive age in Neverland, do you think he is still in touch with his inner child?
There is a childlike quality about him. The world he’s created is a kind of sugarcoated utopia. Everything is just beautiful, every aspect of it, and then people come in. We are not particularly beautiful, and we mess it up for him. And that is sometimes the story of life, isn’t it?
It’s his Garden of Eden.
What are your favorite aspects of Dr. Fludd and the way he’s portrayed in this universe?
The confidence that he has in the goodness of people; certainly when you see Fludd in Neverland. When you see him in Victorian London, it’s not quite the same thing. This is a character who, like all of us, is made up of different facets and different aspects in his personality, but he believes in people, in the goodness of human nature.
As I mentioned before, to many people here you’re known for genre pieces like Alien 3, Game Of Thrones and going farther back, For Your Eyes Only. Are you comfortable with that duality in your career?
It’s a generational thing because my break as an actor was a television miniseries called The Jewel In The Crown, which had no special effects in it whatsoever. I think that aired here in 1983, and there are people still to this day who assemble in each other’s houses and have Jewel In The Crown weekends and watch all 14 hours.
In England or also in America?
Mostly in America. I have people stopping me in the street now saying that they watched Jewel In The Crown again a couple of months ago, and I think, “Bloody hell, did you really?” So I’m known to that generation for a completely different type of work. The current film and television viewing audience is much younger, and the kind of things that I’m known for are these rather off-the-wall, slightly villainous characters in fantastical film and television things, but that’s okay. It’s better to be looked over than to be overlooked in my business.
How often do people bring up White Mischief?
Now and again people do because it was an edgy film of its kind. It just happened to have the misfortune to come out round about the same time as Out Of Africa.
And it was a different portrait of Africa.
Yes, a very different portrait of Africa, but it was a reasonably successful film. Whenever I see it now and it’s aired on television again, I think it’s stood up to the test of time, which is always a good thing.
Given your extensive body of work, are there any movies that you think are underrated in your canon?
Plenty with Meryl Streep, the adaptation of David Hare’s play. I was pleased with my work in it, and I thought director Fred Schepisi made a very good job of it. I did a film in the Russian Arctic in 1996 on an icebreaker on the Bering Sea for four months. It was a kind of biopic about Robert Flaherty, the great documentary filmmaker who made Nanook Of The North in 1922, which was the first commercially successful documentary. That film unfortunately had a very limited distribution. It was a very difficult film to make for obvious reasons. It was called Kabloonak, and it was a French-Canadian/Russian co-production and is a rather remarkable film.
Do you think perhaps the TV movie Goldeneye, in which you played Ian Fleming, also qualifies as underrated?
Yeah, possibly. I don’t know, to be honest with you. The minute we finish this conversation it will probably occur to me.
What are the advantages of being knighted?
I haven’t been knighted. I have an Order of the British Empire.
What is the actual distinction?
You can either be a Member of the British Empire, which is the lowest order, then an Order of the British Empire, Commander of the British Empire and once you get a CBE, then the next step up is a knighthood, and then you are Sir. It is very nice to be recognized, but it means absolutely nothing and should never be taken particularly seriously.
I assume it gets you better a table at restaurants?
It doesn’t, but being a reasonably well-known actor does. Oh yeah.
Do you take advantage of that when you can?
When I can I do take advantage of it, sure. If you’ve got a bit of clout, you might as well use it.
In Underworld Awakening, which side are you on?
On the vampire side. I’m a character called Tomas. He’s supposed to be Russian, but the directors decided everybody should speak with their normal accents and not put on any other kind of accent.
Are you going to bare your fangs?
Oh, I’ve got my fangs — but they’re ill-fitting fangs that I tried not to lisp through because they would detract from the menace — and electric blue contact lenses.
“I’m known for these rather off-the-wall, slightly villainous characters in fantastical film and television things, but that’s okay. It’s better to be looked over than to be overlooked in my business.”
Can you say anything about what’s coming up in Game Of Thrones?
We finished [filming] season two. I think that will air in February or March of next year, and we will start shooting season three in May or June of next year. Devotees of the books have told me that I have a very spectacular death, not next season but possibly the season afterwards. I’m not going to tell you what that is, but it’s a death scene the like of which I’ve never had before anyway.
Did you enjoy your cameo role in Going Postal?
Yeah, that was fun. There’s another guy who is more widely read than I thought, Terry Pratchett. He has a huge fan base and the most extraordinary imagination. Unfortunately because he is in the beginning stages of Alzheimer’s now, that brain that created this extraordinary Discworld is kind of dying on him, which is very sad.
You’re going to be in Underworld: Awakening, which comes out in January. What can you tell us about that?
Kate [Beckinsale] is very good, I have to say. I first met her when she was a little girl because I knew her father, who sadly died at a very young age of a heart attack. Richard Beckinsale was terrific. That film was fun to do. We shot in 3-D, and I had never done a 3-D film before. We shot that in Vancouver with two Swedish directors. I suspect it will be very noisy and very loud like the other Underworld films I’ve seen. There’s hardly a scene that doesn’t have some kind of soundtrack behind it, which I notice more and more now, and that kind of bothers me a bit. I spend a lot of time at home playing with the volume control on the television because I want to hear what somebody is saying, and half the time I can’t hear it because of the bloody music that’s going on in the background. But there is a great audience for it, and it’s a very popular series of films, so I look forward to that being successful.
Before that I was in Sri Lanka doing a film adaptation of Salman Rushdie’s Midnight’s Children that was directed by wonderful Indian director called Deepa Mehta, who if you haven’t seen a film called Water, I would urge you see it. It’s about the plight of Hindi widows in India, which is still a very male dominated society. She had threats to her life. People made effigies of her when she made this film. So when we came to make Midnight’s Children, which is set in India, we shot in Sri Lanka, because he’s afraid to set foot in India again. She’s married to a white guy and they live in Toronto, but she is a great Indian filmmaker, and Salman Rushdie’s book is a pretty special piece of work. So look for to seeing that. It has no special effects in it whatsoever.