Julian Sands: Yorkshire actor who loves mountaineering on why life is an adventure

Up a mountain or on location, the Yorkshire-born actor with the eclectic CV believes life is an adventure – an experience to be relished. He seeks it wherever he can find it, as he tells Tony Earnshaw.

The scratchy call comes through from Switzerland. Julian Sands is climbing the Eiger. Breathless and worried that his cell phone will lose reception, he urges me to begin our interview earlier than scheduled.

It’s a long way from his Otley birthplace to the Eiger, just as it’s a long way from Gargrave, where he grew up, to his current home in Los Angeles. But 55-year-old Sands has always been a seeker of adventure.

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I ask about the view he can see from his vantage point on the mountain. “Right now I’m looking across the North Face of the Eiger towards the Jungfrau. Spectacular!”

Such is the down time of this particular working actor. Sands is on a break from working with Ben Cross on an American TV show called Banshee. His intention is to scale the Eiger, reach the summit and return to base. Just 48 hours later he will fly back to New York for more filming. Then it’s off to Mexico for a new film.

Tall, angular, handsome and with a shock of blond hair, Sands broke through in the early Eighties. Within a few short years he had joined the Merchant/Ivory team for an acclaimed version of EM Forster’s A Room with a View, played Percy Shelley for Ken Russell in Gothic and made the cult classic Warlock in Hollywood.

He’s been active ever since, flitting between film, TV and theatre. Only last year he brought his one-man show A Celebration of Harold Pinter to Bradford, Hull and Ilkley after having been nominated in the Drama Desk Awards for Outstanding Solo Performance. It gave 
him a chance to call in on family and friends, and to walk part of the Pennine Way. He greeted his mother by saying, “I’ve come from Derbyshire, and I come in peace!”

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One of his recent projects was Suspension of Disbelief, for writer/director Mike Figgis. Their relationship stretches back over more than 20 years and half a dozen other films beginning with The Browning Version and taking in Leaving Las Vegas, The Loss of Sexual Innocence, One Night Stand, Hotel, and Timecode.

“We found we had a very empathetic relationship,” says Sands. “For me the most important film I’ve done is The Loss of Sexual Innocence which was very much [about] memories, dreams and reflections of the filmmaker. I played the central character, called Nick, although he might have been called Mike.”

He describes Figgis as “a genius” and adds that he is “one of the two most accomplished filmmakers I’ve worked with”, the other being David Fincher with whom he collaborated on The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.

“They are the only two people who have such a total command and understanding of the medium: light, sound, movement, action, colour. Mike’s gifts and his maverick singularity make him the most individual and revered of filmmakers I’ve had direct experience of.”

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Sands describes the new film as exploring reality and imagination – “a deconstruction of cinema but an exploration of the imagination.

“The central character is a professor in film theory. What it explores is film practice from many perspectives, sort of a Rubik’s Cube of the film medium. It’s also a sexy drama, a thriller in which a girl disappears.”

Sands plays an investigating policeman with Sebastian Koch as the protagonist. “It’s one scene but it’s a very complete scene,” he reveals. “It’s short. If our scene was produced as a short film it would sustain, I think, at any festival. Interesting directors, interesting actors or actors who are interested will always empathise and get along towards the greater good of the films. I’ve said before that actors are the paint on the palette for the filmmaker, and certainly with these auteur films. It’s their medium.”

Sands can trace his fascination with acting back to childhood pantomimes and nativity plays. His mother was a member of Gargrave Amateur Dramatic Society. He admits he “got very excited” and eventually at the age of six he took part in the village production of Aladdin. He even remembers his first line: “My master, the great Aladdin”.

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As a slightly older child he saw Laurence Olivier’s film of Richard III at the Plaza in Skipton. From a different end of the movie spectrum, there was the epic Zulu, with Stanley Baker and Michael Caine, and the Hammer horrors that starred Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing.

“They always seemed to be on at the Plaza. I used to pretend to be 16 and I was only about 10,” he recalls. “All these combined to excite me and I thought ‘I would love to work in this arena and be an actor’ and my dream came true. Here I am. [My parents] were sympathetic in that they weren’t discouraging, but I don’t think there was any real knowledge of the professional arena of acting, stage, film. I sought it out. I think you have to really want to do it. You have to be completely committed and you find your way.”

He trained at London’s Central School of Speech and Drama. When he left in 1979, he formed a small youth theatre that toured schools, youth clubs and other fringe centres, making films and acting. In 1981, he decided to follow his dream by breaking into movies.

Early jobs included playing the Devil in Derek Jarman’s short Broken English, a one-line appearance in Privates on Parade, Channel 4’s A Married Man with Anthony Hopkins and then a featured role in The Killing Fields for Roland Joffe. In Ken Russell’s Gothic he played Shelley, a dangerous man of extreme feelings bordering on the schizophrenic. His co-stars included Gabriel Byrne, Natasha Richardson and Timothy Spall.

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It was his first opportunity to tackle a real-life character. Later he would play Tony Blair on stage in David Hare’s Stuff Happens and Laurence Olivier in the TV film In Praise of Hardcore, about the censor-baiting critic Kenneth Tynan.

“The great thing about playing a real person is that you have a resource of which there is great knowledge,” he muses. “I played Louis XIV in a film called Vatel for Roland Joffe and it was a fantastic study to be able to go to Versailles and feel his sensibility through the architecture, design, portraits and sculptures that exist there.

“I think it’s a pressure if you try to go for an impersonation [of a real character]. It’s not such a pressure if you take the essence and try and channel something of the essence of the person but through yourself.

“It’s the same in Shakespeare. You’re playing Henry V or Hamlet. These people existed but you’re finding the essence of that character inside yourself. It took me a long time to figure that out as an actor – that it wasn’t about putting on false noses and pretending to be someone else. That worked for Olivier spectacularly. I’m not sure it works for everyone. For me it was about using yourself to reflect the sensibility of someone else.”

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After Banshee and the Mexican film Sands intends touring once again with A Celebration of Harold Pinter at a few American cities. He’s also given his support to a new short film, Borley Rectory, a part animation, part live action portrait of the most haunted house in England. And after that?

“A lot of things talked about. I wait to see. The thing about being an actor is that the future is the adventure. But the great thing is there is a future.” I mention another interview with another thespian, an American of some stature who dismissed talk of Oscars, gravitas and star status, claiming he was just an itinerant working actor who went from job to job. The trick, he said, was in choosing the right jobs and the right collaborators. Sands agrees. “It’s normal. I don’t think that’s a mystery. Like finds like and somehow interesting things come of that. Certainly an interesting life comes of it.”

We start to discuss his love of mountains but the line begins to break up. In the background there is noise – voices, rattles, bangs, the sound of what appears to be rushing wind. Sands’ voice fades in and out and it is impossible to discern what he is saying.

Suddenly the line clears and Sands’ tones emerge unmistakably. “I’ve got to put my harness on and get going onto the glacier now. Have you got a final question?” I tell him to be safe. “I don’t take anything for granted,” he replies. Several hours later I’m putting the finishing touches to the piece when the phone rings.

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“It’s Julian Sands again. I’m talking to you now from a bivouac on the Mittellegi Ridge. We’ve just arrived. It’s pretty intense. It was tough getting up here. From when I talked to you last it took a lot of technical climbing. I’m within my comfort zone but I’ve got a lot of respect for the mountain. We’ll try to summit tomorrow. We’ve another thousand metres to go.

“But I just wanted to be clear: the thing I’m climbing is the Mittellegi Ridge, not the North Face of the Eiger. Mountain and climbing folk, and a small percentage of your readers, will know the difference.

“And, you know what? Mountain climbing and filmmaking are very connected. There’s always another mountain. And ultimately the point of climbing a mountain is that the mountain is within. And I think that’s true, too, of the acting experience.”

Actors are known for having their heads in the clouds but I suggest he’s made a pretty profound statement given his extreme location. “We’d have the same conversation if we were having a cup of coffee at sea level,” he replies, his voice muffled and distant.

• Suspension of Disbelief is released by Content Media on download and on-demand from September 6 and by Verve Pictures and Swipe Films to DVD on September 9.

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