A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
In the third of their occasional features “In Conversation with”, Vulpes Libris talks to the US-born actor Jay Benedict.
Jay has worked extensively in theatre, film and television in the UK and continental Europe and is probably best known to British audiences as US Army officer John Kieffer in the Foyle’s War episode, ‘Invasion’ and the series finale, ‘All Clear’. In addition he played Frank Crowe – superintending engineer on the Hoover Dam – in the BBC series Seven Wonders of the Industrial World, Prosper Mérimée in Vicente Aranda’s beautiful film version of Carmen and, most recently, Lord Melbourne in Queen Victoria‘s Men.
He also runs Sync or Swim, an ADR loop group, (which he will explain further, in due course …), does extensive voice-over work and, being English/French bilingual (and no slouch in Spanish either), occasionally turns his hand to translations.
We chatted recently (in English, I hasten to add) about books, the universe and everything . . .
VL: Welcome to VL – and thank you for making the time to answer our questions. The first is fairly easy. What did you read as a child?
JB: Superman comics I brought over from America.
Tintin, in French, of course.
Le Petit Prince by Antoine de St Exupéry.
All of Enid Blyton in French.
A pictorial history of the Bible in English!
VL: Did you read to your children? If so … what did they enjoy? (And more importantly, did you do the voices properly?)
JB: Most of Anthony Horowitz, Michael Morpurgo, J K Rowling, naturellement! I hope I did a good job with the voices!!
VL: Have any of the books you’ve read really influenced you in a profound way?
JB: The Godfather – Mario Puzo.
Travels with Charley – John Steinbeck.
Catcher in the Rye – J D Salinger. I found my Phoebe.
VL: It’s lovely that you found your very own Phoebe … but that’s an interesting answer. My US-born boss said she was bowled over by ‘Catcher’ too when she read it as a teenager … it left me absolutely stone cold though. I just thought he was a tiresome little tick. Do you think you have to be American to ‘get it’?
VL: I suppose it’s not the only ‘classic’ that doesn’t travel well … Okay – next question: Have you ever revisited any of the books you loved as a child and been sadly disappointed?
JB: No, but I went back to Mountain Drive, St. Barbara California where I’m from and found it a lot smaller!
VL: Places do that as you grow up – shrink, that is. Any classics or mega-best-sellers that you’ve read and thought were wildly overrated? (Thus far I’ve nominated Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and The Catcher in the Rye (sorry …). This time I’ll really risk the wrath of the grown-ups and go for Middlemarch … just to encourage you to stick your neck out a little.)
JB: The Da Vinci Code – wildly overrated.
Captain Corelli’s Mandolin was a good read but a lousy film. I hate to say it because I went to school with Shaun Slovo who adapted it for the silver screen. Oops!
VL: Ever considered trying your hand as a writer? The great American/British/ French/Spanish novel perhaps? Or your memoirs?
JB: ‘My night with Keef’ – My full blown autobiography – has been written and sent out to various illustrious publishers who all wrote back praising the writing and saying what a good read it was. Unfortunately you have to be the latest evictee on Big Brother in order to shift books in that market. For Autobiography you have to be famous or notorious. Perhaps if I kill someone I’d get it published. I have read several extracts from it on Radio 4 on a programme called “OFF THE WALL” with Matthew Parris. Good reference material for other stuff. It wasn’t a wasted effort at all!
VL: I believe dying helps when it comes to getting published – but I suppose that’s just a little extreme. Given what you’ve done and who you’ve worked with, it should be worth reading … but dare I ask who ‘Keef’ is or was?
JB: Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones picked me up in the Gorille bar in St Tropez in 1971 and took me aboard Hugh Hefner’s yacht where the most God almighty orgy started with Roman Polanski amongst others….. that’s kind of how my book starts …..
VL: Heavens. (Adjusts half-moon glasses and hastily changes the subject …) Your CV is quite extraordinarily diverse, partly I suppose because your languages have enabled you to work so much in Europe. So, I have to ask – what brought you to Europe in the first place – 35 years ago, was it? (This is where you DON’T say ‘a large aeroplane’, if you have any sense …)
JB: My parents didn’t fit in with the status quo in America and decided to go to Europe and live on $5 a day, which you could in those days!! My Mother studied mime with Marcel Marceau and my step-father made ‘underground’ films with just about anyone. London was swinging in the 60’s, and here I am!!
VL: In the 70s, you were in The Rocky Horror Show – playing Frank N Furter, amongst others … It was still a relatively young show then … had the audience participation started? And … I’m sorry, but the world really needs to know this … did you look good in fishnets and high heels?
JB: Audience participation is something that happened much later. I was in the 3rd cast of R.H. and audiences were still mesmerized and reverential. It was so camp and outrageous people were mindblown and speechless and it was still breaking down barriers. Remember this was all pre aids and condoms, etc. A generation later the ‘fuck box’ sequence (where Frank seduced both Brad and Janet) had Frank N Furter putting on a condom!! Would never have happened in my day! The younger audiences a generation later turned it into something else again. I bumped into Richard O’Brien recently at a birthday party and he’s growing breasts and wearing a skirt. So plus ça change….
VL: Apparently. And the fishnets and high heels … ?
JB: I looked brilliant! I used to take the high heels home to practice in …
VL: That conjours up a few interesting images … The Rocky Horror Show rapidly achieved cult status, of course, but you managed to get yourself involved in a couple more projects that have acquired what you might call a dedicated following … the first Star Wars film (now – confusingly – the fourth Star Wars film …) and Aliens. Your characters (Deak and Russ Jorden respectively) didn’t make it to the final cut of either film originally. That must be frustrating for an actor.
JB: Frustrating? More like heartbreaking! They turned out to be 2 of the biggest grossing pictures in cinema history. Jim Cameron eventually got final cut to his film 6 years later and I was put back in. As for Star Wars I’m in the 20th century redigitalized DVD game version apparently and dedicated fans still manage to track me down and get me to sign autographs. Crazy world. I’m going to my first Star Wars-Aliens convention at Earls Court to meet the fans next weekend. It’s a lucrative circuit to get in on for some. (Right: Jay in full flight at the London Film and Comic Convention, Earls Court, 19th July 2008. Credit: Mark Owens.)
VL: I’ve realized a bit belatedly that I saw you on stage in Plymouth in the 1980s in “Sweet Bird of Youth” – with Lauren Bacall, directed by Harold Pinter. You played The Heckler – sort of the conscience of the play, I suppose. That must have been quite an experience.
JB: A Number 1 tour and then straight into the Haymarket for a year long run – not bad for a youngish actor at the time. Lauren Bacall (Betty) was potty about my baby daughter at the time and Harold taught me a lot about cricket!!
VL: And then there was Come Back Little Sheba for Granada Television – Laurence Olivier and Joanne Woodward. You played Bruce, I think?
JB: Carrie Fisher played my girlfriend too! I later worked with Joan Plowright who played my Mother in my first West End play with Pierce Brosnan playing my brother!! I went on to make a movie with Tamsin Olivier when she was still acting and appeared in a play playing Tennessee Williams as a ghost in a play produced by Julie Kate Olivier. So I have quite a history with the Olivier clan. Bob Sherman and Bill Hootkins were also in Come Back Little Sheba, now since sadly departed. Great guys all of ‘em!!
VL: Looking through your CV it’s fairly obvious that in the UK – be it TV or theatre – you’ve been cast almost exclusively as an American. In real life, your normal speaking voice is as English as mine – your native accent has vanished almost completely. Queen Victoria’s Men was the first time I can remember seeing you playing an Englishman … I presume casting agents over here only tend think of you as ‘A Yank in England‘?
JB: You’ve hit the nail on the head! I have to go to France to play Englishmen and Spain to play Frenchmen but at least it’s evenly spread. I can be out of work in 3 countries at once.
VL: It has it advantages though … (not being out of work in 3 countries at once – being typecast as an American …). John Kieffer, in Foyle’s War, was an absolute gift. He was a great character … and in the first outing – ‘Invasion’ – a refreshing change from the usual ‘overpaid, oversexed and over here’ stereotype. But they did something terrible to him in the series finale, ‘All Clear’ – a quietly powerful episode*.
JB: I loved that character because it had development. He came over full of ideals and for all the right reasons but, not three years later, left England under a cloud having gone through a terrible experience at Slapton Sands, and winding up a broken reed. Thank you Anthony Horowitz for all your brilliant dialogue!!
VL: I’d be lynched by certain parties if I didn’t ask you at least one question about Michael Kitchen. Is he as self-effacing a man as he appears to be? And as easy to work with as I suspect?
JB: Michael’s a great guy and very easy to work with and we’re still in touch. What you see is what you get. He was very generous with me and he’s a superb actor. He’s also a mean tennis player!
VL: Frank Crowe – in the ‘Hoover Dam’ episode of Seven Wonders of the Industrial World – was another interesting character, in an entirely different way. I wouldn’t touch the man with a barge pole in real life … but that sort of single-mindedness is almost hypnotic. I have a really very trivial question to ask though … was it as HOT as I think it was on location?
JB: 40 degrees by 9am in August. Hotter than hell. How did those guys back in the 1930’s go out there in their 3 piece woolen suits and no air conditioning?! Frank Crowe lost 30lbs in weight in the first 2 months!! Thankfully, we were in the motel pool by 3pm every day as it was too hot to film. We were getting up at 3 in the morning however!
VL: Shifting across to the continent … I’d like to talk briefly about Vicente Aranda’s film version of Carmen . I stumbled over it by accident when I was looking for an English language edition of Mérimée’s novella for ‘France’ week. It’s a wonderful film – visually stunning and pretty faithful to its original. I had no idea it even existed. It sank virtually without trace in this country, which is almost inexplicable, given its quality. You played the narrator – who Aranda sensibly decided was Mérimée himself – but you told me that you originally auditioned for another role entirely?
JB: Yeah, I went up for the part of a Magistrate on account of my being able to bluff in Spanish. They were so impressed that 2 hours later they were offering me the 3rd lead in their film after Paz Vega!! It was up for endless GOYA’s in Spain and did well in Italy and Korea and Russia and on the University circuit. The critics killed it over here. “Do we really need another Carmen?” Well I say, “Do we really need another Shakespeare?” Don’t get me started.
The film opened huge doors for me in Spain and subsequently I made Tirante Lo Blanc with Vicente but this time he shot in English and it’s not his language at all so something got lost in translation there. He wants me to play Goya next but I need to put on weight!!
VL: Sounds good. Allow me to recommend chip butties and jam doughnuts … works for me every time. Moving on to Sync or Swim … I was doing a bit of pre-interview homework on the internet and found you lurking in the technical credits for any number of films. The Golden Compass, Flawless and Love, Actually are three I specifically remember. Please explain – as you would to a reasonably bright 5 year old – what an ADR loop group is and does, what ADR voice casting involves and why so many people in the field seem to have a taste for bad puns when choosing their company names …
JB: ADR means automated dialogue replacement.
When a film has finished shooting it goes into a process called Post Production.
All the sound effects and music and dialogue gets deleted/added/re-written/re-recorded for technical reasons, such as planes flying overhead on exterior shots etc … Most things are fixed in Post.
Directors are usually too busy shooting the film and having to stick to a schedule, for budgetary reasons, to have time to sort the problems out. Often, said film is with 2 or 3 internationally acclaimed stars but shot in Bulgaria with local actors who speak 3 words of English who all have to be revoiced for the International marketplace and that’s where I come into it!!
I cast voices and provide crowds of actors for movies and films and direct the sessions. Frequently the director’s already on his next project so I work closely with the editors who are basically in charge of the film from that point onwards.
Hope this is clear!?
VL: Admirably, thank you. And the puns?
JB: Synch or swim/all or nothing/feast or famine – They’re all clichés of theatrical life and our profession generally. I was looking for a catchy name as opposed to the JLOOPGROUP which I toyed with for a while, but a girlfriend suggested the title and we grabbed it – and haven’t looked back!
VL: You have a huge amount of voice work to your credit. I was listening to your show reels at your voice agents and discovered that you’re a real vocal chamaeleon. On some of them, if I hadn’t known it was you, I’d never have guessed. Were you a natural mimic as a child, or is it something you’ve learned over the years?
JB: I lived in 5 countries before the age of 12!! You learn to blend in and assimilate yourself as quickly as possible in order to be accepted therefore you mimic and copy what’s around you. Plus at boarding school in England I listened to the radio at night under my pillow and got a love for it. I really wanted to be Emperor Rosko – Le plus beau celui qui marche sur l’eau – your refugee from across the sea. He was a bilingual DJ in France and England and my total hero. The Clitheroe Kid I remember on the light programme as it was called then. Brilliant education for me so it was one of the first fields of work I got into when I left Drama school!!
VL: Emperor Rosko – I’d completely forgotten about him. And we’ll pass lightly over the Clitheroe Kid. But, you know … listening to those show reels, I realized that the voice was very familiar. Have I heard you in lifts and on theatre PA systems? Have I, in fact, been cordially inviting you to “shut the f**k up” for years without knowing it?
JB: ‘Fraid so! I’ve been in lifts, in auditoriums, in talking toys and CD Rom games in both French and English – and American. I’ve done MANGA cartoons – the full unexpurgated versions – I’ve dubbed Zinedine Zidane into English in the last ASTERIX film etc… It goes on…..
VL: And you do translations, too … Is that something you’d like to do more of?
JB: Yes, I’m a frustrated Christopher Hampton or Sanjit Ray. I’ve written foreign language versions of films and TV all my life but a freefall adaptation of a book or play is something I’d love to have a go at! Any offers?
VL: Um … I’ll let you know … (and the cheque’s in the post, and of course I’ll still love you in the morning) …
JB: I won’t … in your mouth is the third one!
VL: You’re a cad, sir. (Now there’s a word you don’t hear any more …) So, what have you got lined up next apart from the convention and Goya – when you’re sufficiently well-upholstered?
JB: I’m off to Paris directing actors in Post production on Coco Chanel starring Shirley MacLaine and Malcolm McDowell, a forthcoming mini-series. And then in August I’m at Pinewood overseeing the recording of the English dialogue (my translation from the Hungarian!) for “A Fox’s Tale”, with Bill Nighy, Miranda Richardson and Phil Davis, among others.
VL: Finally, it’s a bit of a Vulpes tradition to ask our guests to name their five favourite literary works, and give reasons …
JB: Bleak House – Charles Dickens. A condemnation of legal systems, bureaucracy, hypocrisy and poverty that’s as relevant today as it was around the middle of the nineteenth century – and it’s all packed into a thriller/love story full of my favourite comic characters.
Far from the Madding Crowd – Thomas Hardy. Hardy’s superb evocation of the English countryside and its characters and customs, along with his fascination with the role of chance in people’s lives, which comes to the fore in the tale of the beautiful Bathsheba and her three suitors, make this a must. And I’ve always fancied the pants off Julie Christie!
Of Mice and Men – John Steinbeck. Like Lenny, I’ve always dreamed of living in the country with the rabbits and the alfalfa. My grandfather lived in the mid-west through the thirties depression and whenever I read this tragedy of friendship, I think of him.
La Peste – Albert Camus. The mysterious narrator tells the story of corruption and heroism emerging from the most unlikely sources as the inhabitants of a plague-ridden town are shut in to meet their fate.
A Farewell to Arms – Ernest Hemingway. All the best novels have an element of doomed love and Frederic Henry and Catherine Barkley’s journey through the perils of the Great War taught me greatly about passion and bravery and it’s no co-incidence that my elder son is named Frederick!
The Talisman – Stephen King and Peter Straub. Two terrific writers combine to make a wizard read and the werewolf “Wolf, right here and now!”, who’s the best and bravest pal a boy could ever have.
Tender is the Night – F. Scott Fitzgerald. Jay Gatsby, my namesake. Love, sex, death, the roaring 20’s? This novel has it all.
VL: That’s seven books . . . but I’ll let you get away with it, because they’re such great choices. Actually, I do have one final question: would you like to come back from time to time as a guest reviewer for us? We’ve had a couple of comments about the lack of XY chromosomes on the site …
JB: Yes please!
VL: Excellent! And thank you very much for your time and patience. It’s been fun.
* After this interview was published, Anthony Horowitz revealed that Foyle’s War has, in fact. been recommissioned: Summer Madness in Scotland and Tea with Terrorists.
Read more about Jay’s time with the Rocky Horror Show HERE.
There’s an interview with Jay’s remarkable mother, Renate HERE.