With no other film experience than a part in Peter Hall's Midsummer Night's Dream and one other-Henry Ireton- in Cromwell, Michael Jayston won the star part in Nicholas and Alexandra, which gets a Royal world premiere at the end of this month. Based on a best-seller by Robert Massie and produced by Sam Spiegel, Nicholas and Alexandra is a big- scale film shot during 20 weeks of filming, mostly in Spain, with Redgrave, Irene Worth and Olivier among the supporting players. Now 36, Jayston is obviously at the point of the major breakthrough of his career. He is currently one of the three actors filming in Carol Reed's The Public Eye, the other two being Topol and Mia Farrow.
He was alreadv 23 when he started at drama school. I thought I'd be too old but as it was I got all the parts. If you're really 19, you can't play 19, because a real 19-year-old doesn't know how he behaves. I'd been in the army for two years and I'd worked as a clerk at the National Coal Board for two years and I joined the Nottingham Fish Market for a year. You had to get up at four in the morning and eventually I was finishing at five o'clock at night and acting as an amateur -so I was averaging four hours sleep. I learnt a lot as an amateur. I learnt just to be happy on stage."
Looking back on everything that he's leamt about how to act he estimates that 10 per cent came from his amateur experience, 20 per cent from drama school and 70 per cent from "watching other people and being with other people. Like Peggy Ashcroft, for instance. And watching film actors. Bogart obviously, and Cagney, Eli Wallach, Brando. Ingrid Bergman funnily enough. She taught me more than most people. In one film she had to laugh and then suddenly think 'No, that's no good, I'm going to cry.' And then go back to the laughter again, It wasn't completely technical, it was half there as well. She says films are easy. I don't go along with that entirely but they're easier than stage. The only hard thing is getting up early in the morning. On something like The Public Eye, where there isn't much opportunity for comedy and I'm just a kind of cipher reacting off people, I realize that in about five years the technique and the emotion will be one, maybe. But I'm just sort of starting."
He was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for four years and played Laertes in his second season at Stratford. "But the RSC didn't really help as far as films go. The thing that started me off was a series called The Power Game, and that was just lucky. It happened to fit in with the Aldwych performances. Of course the RSC did help me acting-wise, because if you can play Shakespeare reasonably well the part of a police inspector is easy. But for nearly two years I was playing old character parts, like Exeter in Henry V. And it was always takeovers from someone and you felt trapped within somebody else's interpretation, even though they said you could do whatever you liked. To get someone like me taking over from Ian Richardson, to do his business, is silly.
" But I did take over from John Castle in Ghosts with Peggy Ashcroft, and Trevor Nunn redirected it, and I liked that. Acting with her is like acting with an elder sister. She's got so much power. You can take off sometimes. There were one or two evenings when I let go at her and she let go back at me. One evening she'd had an Indian meal before the performance and she said 'I'm not feeling very well', and in one of the scenes she started to stutter and I thought she was going funny. I said to her afterwards 'Are you all right? ' and she said 'Yes I'm fine. I went off in the second act'. She just thought ' I'm going to do something extra here tonight'. And it's great talent' when you can fool someone from two feet away."
In the RSC's American tour Jayston took over from Ian Holm in The Homecoming. " And Pinter directed me into it, which was fascinating. You can't say 'What does this mean? ' I did once. He took his glasses off. 'Well, you're just coming in and saying your brother's stolen your cheese sandwich and where is it? It's quite simple.' I gave up after that. Somebody asked him on television what the play was about. Some interviewer said 'What does it mean when the wife and brother roll off the couch?' And he took his glasses off and said: ' I should imagine at this very moment there are hundreds of couples rolling off couches all over America. It's just a slice of life.'
"He hadn't written a new play for two years and one day he came in and said 'I've written the first page of a new play.' And we all said 'Great ! ' He said 'There's a mother and daughter talking. They're having a chat about life in general.' And that was all he said. And about a month later he said ' I've found out they're not mother and daughter, they're sisters.' He didn't say ' I've turned them into', be said 'I've found out., "Whenever he tells a story it's always punctuated with the Pinter pauses. It's as if he's sending his own style up. And when he's directing he does rather impose his pauses on you, but afterwards you begin to realize he's absolutely right. I watched him in a rehearsal with someone else and he was watching them and his lips were going with the words, and then he paused, and if they didn't synchronize with him he'd go ' Huh ! ' And he said to someone once 'Look, John, you know when you pause there, there are three dots in the actual script and you've only done two.'
" He's completely explicit, but you have to be on his level to under-stand it. He saw me playing the Storyteller in The Thwarting of Baron Bolligrew and I wasn't very good. About two years later when we were in New York, Harold said: 'You know when I first thought you were my kind of actor? When I saw you playing that Storyteller-completely blank, and you just said what you had to say and then got off.'"
Jayston likes being directed by Carol Reed. " He's an actors' director, and also a very nice person, which is a change. But so was Franklin Schaffner on Nicholas and Alexandra. A very humble, tolerant person. I've been spoiled- from now on I can't be doing with the megalomaniacs in the business. Life's too short. You can do things without shouting. Frank Schaffner never raised his voice once.