MICHAEL JAYSTON, who plays Tsar Nicholas in Sam Spiegel's Nicholas and Alexandra, can only be called unknown if one's terms of reference are solely cinematic. He has only one previous film credit (as Henry Ireton in Ken Hughes' Cromwell) but a wealth of theatrical experience to sustain him, and an impressive list of television credits as well. Born in Nottingham thirty-five years ago, Jayston graduated to Royal Shakespeare Company status via the solid route of school plays, an amateur company, drama school (the Guildhall), Salisbury rep., the Old Vic and the Bristol Old Vic. He joined the RSC in 1965 and took over from Ian Holm as Lenny in Pinter's play "The Homecoming" during its American tour but the turning point in his career was unquestionably his performance as the correct and proper Lincoln Dowling in "The Power Game" for ITV. "I was in the series for twelve weeks," Jayston told me, "and I rather wondered how long it would be before people started to recognise me. I got away with it for seven weeks." When his part came to an end, he continued to accelerate his reputation with TV characterisations such as Dickens, Beethoven and Wildred Owen.
He was first considered for Nicholas after Spiegel had seen him in "Mad Jack" on television. He remembers testing with Liv Ullman, then again with Janet Suzman. A demanding film, both physically and emotionally, his talent is in competition with that of many leading stage actors, Laurence Olivier among them.
"It was amusing to see how many parts I was offered on the strength of this one," says Michael, "and long before anyone had seen the film. And most of the people concerned had no idea what I had done before." Of director Franklin J. Schaffner, he says: "He is such a quiet tolerant man. He is a strong man, but he never once raised his voice." The steel beneath that tolerance won an Oscar for Scaffner's previous film, Patton - Lust for Glory.
Michael views his success warily and claims that luck has been a major factor. "Success is such an ephemeral thing, really. The important thing is that being successful lets you do the things you want to, gives you a choice and means that you don't have to do something just for money. You can be selective." Michael has just finished work on Hal Wallis's production of Peter Shaffer's The Public Eye, which casts him as Mia Farrow's stuffy husband. Topol completes the trio as the Greek private investigator hired by Jayston to follow Mia.
In addition to this, he will be heard, if not seen, reading the narration as Sir Winston Churchill in Richard Attenborough's Young Winston. He demonstrated with one of the statesman's famous orations and the accuracy was stunning. A personal project Michael wants to get off the ground is a small budget film about Strindberg. "It may sound turgid, but really it is quite fascinating." His interest in Strindberg stems from his characterisation of him on television. He is also considering an offer to join the National Theatre, but debates having to commit himself for a year, even if it means he might achieve on of his ambitions - to play Hamlet.
He is an accomplished practical joker and has been known to add a line of his own creation while playing Shakespeare at the Bristol Old Vic. At the height of Beatlemania, he made an entrance there with the line: "It's been a hard day's night." The other actors were hysterical but the audience hardly realised.
Live theatre and the presence of an audience are things he treasures, but he won't admit to favouring one medium above another. Acting is his craft, his skill. "If I went back to being a £15 a week actor in Rep., I'd still be acting wouldn't I?"