Steven Berkoff is the screen and stage’s favourite bad guy, writes Ben East. Now he’s bringing his favourite Shakespearean villains to the stage
It’s one of the most memorable roles in the long history of James Bond villainy. In Octopussy, Steven Berkoff’s General Orlov roars his plan to take down the “decadent West” with all the delighted fervour of a psychopathic dictator. When Bond, played by Roger Moore, finally catches up with the power-crazed baddie, he realises to his horror that Orlov’s cunning ruse to explode an atomic bomb will be mistaken for an accident, thus leaving the West open for invasion. “That,” says Orlov, with a steely, cold grin, “would be the most plausible explanation.”
“Sometimes the best roles are villainous,” says Berkoff, more than 30 years since Orlov catapulted him to mainstream success. And he should know. After Bond, bad-guy roles in Beverly Hills Cop, Rambo: First Blood Part II and The Krays made Berkoff something of a go-to actor for a certain kind of thinking-man’s villain in film and television. But he never descended into cliche, even as a demonic Adolf Hitler in television series War and Remembrance. He gives all the credit for such skill to a man who died 400 years ago this April: William Shakespeare.
“Shakespeare definitely helps you play bad people without descending into a pantomime performance,” he says. “And that’s because a Shakespeare villain should never be played so obviously, as such: when you look at all of his villains, you realise that they’re very similar, that they’re all motivated by a few particular things. They all feel rejected and lacking in approval, love or admiration. So when I play villains in movies I want to try and make them appear normal – otherwise they probably wouldn’t get away with the villainy. It’s about looking ever so slightly different, not clearly different.”
Berkoff, then, has always been more than a movie bad guy thanks to a decades-long career as a playwright, stage actor and director. His fascination with the nature of evil in Shakespeare, however, coalesced into one-man play Shakespeare’s Villains in 1998, an exploration of the Bard’s most evil characters. He brought the play to Dubai earlier this year as part of the Emirates Airline Festival of Literature.
“Obviously, I’m fascinated by the architecture, but I wanted to be a tourist, go to the desert, go to the old part of Dubai,” he says of his travel plans.
Which, oddly, sums up Berkoff’s approach to life: serious about his art, but determined to enjoy it, too. Certainly, this is how Shakespeare’s Villains has developed over the years. “Initially it was more or less a dissertation on the texts, and it’s grown as I have improvised and developed it into something more accessible,” he explains. “It was about someone, hopefully in the prime of his craft, taking on six completely different parts and roles, and showing how an actor can deal with the versatility.”
Berkoff isn’t short of confidence: he says that by going from Shylock to Coriolanus, he expresses emotions that very few actors can cope with. He also admits that exercising such talent is a “bit of showing off”. So there isn’t nastiness inherent in his criticism of, for example, Michael Fassbender’s portrayal of Macbeth in Justin Kurzel’s well-received film of last year. It’s just born of a frustration that directors and actors don’t adhere to his belief that there are two principles and techniques necessary for good Shakespeare: voice and movement.
A Shakespeare villain should never be played obviously: when you look at them all, you realise that they’re very similar, they’re all motivated by a few particular things
“Fassbender’s Macbeth was nominated for awards, but really the performance is not good,” he argues. “I know that the latest fashion is to say Shakespeare quietly so that it somehow seems more real and naturalistic. But I think it should be an orchestra to be conducted with great fury, power, delicacy, excitement and catastrophe. You want it to be all guns blazing, because that’s what’s exciting.”
And when it is, says Berkoff, Shakespeare can continue to appeal to generation after generation, young and old. He’s right that a good Hamlet will immediately connect, whether the role’s played by Maxine Peake or Mel Gibson, because the intoxicating language and imagery transcends gender and time and allows for actors to show off their talents.
Berkoff being typically curmudgeonly Berkoff, he’s not sure he’s ever seen an “amazing” Hamlet, but remembers that a pre-Sound of Music Christopher Plummer was “great” as the doomed Danish prince in a 1964 television production in which Berkoff played Lucianus.
So it’s interesting that the Shakespeare villain Berkoff most enjoys playing isn’t Hamlet at all, although on the right night he does find him fascinating and intriguing.
“For the linguistic possibilities and the sheer sharpness of the analysis, it has to be Richard III,” he reveals. “This is a man, who, as he’s planning to kill, is giving a simultaneous psychoanalysis of his motivations and his methods.
“Whatever he chooses to do, he will have an excuse. So nature conspires to ‘heap an envious mountain’ upon his back. He revels in his ugliness and justifies – as he’s planning to commit murder – why he has every right to. That’s villainy.”
Berkoff says there’s only one way that an actor can achieve that level of insight: by playing the role night after night. It’s why Shakespeare continues to vibrate across global culture and storytelling – academic analysis of a text will only resonate with limited audiences. It is performance that is key.
“These villainous roles mean something to the public because they see actors get beneath the skin of the characters. Certainly, I found that there is a feeling about a role that becomes apparent after a while – you understand the history, you almost crawl into the DNA of the character. And then you play another villain, and you realise the similarities –that rejection is one of the key stimulants in the development of all of these beasts.”
It’s interesting that playing so many of these villains continues to intrigue Berkoff, rather than bore him. Typecasting doesn’t bother him: if the mass market of film has given him that “meaningless reputation” of a baddie, he still has his directing, playwright and stage work to fall back on.
“In any case, look at Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Jack Palance,” he laughs. “They were typecast and made pretty respectable careers out of it.”
It’s interesting that Berkoff should mention Palance in particular: Cagney might have been the archetypal tough guy but Palance was once memorably described as exemplifying “evil incarnate” on film. Both were stars of mid 20th-century movies, but perhaps surprisingly Berkoff thinks celluloid villainy is alive and well in the 21st century.
“Ben Kingsley was a frightening villain in Sexy Beast, a normal person in a little short-sleeved white shirt capable of really unpleasant things,” he says. “And I have to say Javier Bardem was brilliant in No Country for Old Men.”
And perhaps Bardem has taken on Berkoff’s mantle as a certain kind of intelligent bad guy in the movies, not least because the Oscar-winning actor stole the show as the charismatic, tortured Bond villain in 2012’s Skyfall. Which brings us back to Berkoff’s first assertion that some of the best – and simultaneously most difficult roles to inhabit – are villainous. “But also the best actors are people who can take on those villainous parts and inhabit them,” he corrects. “The heroes may not be the best actors, and they don’t have to be.”
“But – and this is really important – the villains give the heroes reflected light, and heroes are just as crucial because they give us hope.”