Actor David Suchet's Bombastic Detective Poirot

David Suchet i

David Suchet (right) as detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express. Acorn Media hide caption

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David Suchet

David Suchet (right) as detective Hercule Poirot in Murder on the Orient Express.

Acorn Media

Actor David Suchet has had his turn on the stage, television and the big screen.

But despite roles in many films and more than a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company, Suchet is best known as Agatha Christie's well-loved but somewhat disagreeable Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot.

He first starred as the mustachioed sleuth on British television more than 20 years ago. The latest Blu-ray release featuring Suchet, Murder On The Orient Express, has just come out.

Though he's been playing Poirot for more than two decades, Suchet still remembers his very first scene as the detective. "The camera was on my very shiny patent leather shoes," he tells NPR's Neal Conan. Then, slowly, it panned up his legs to reveal his striped trousers, morning coat, gray waistcoat, bow tie, wing collar and "of course, the famous mustache."

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NEAL CONAN, host:

In just a moment, we'll be talking with the actor David Suchet about his portrayal of Hercule Poirot. But joining us here in the studio is NPR political editor and our Political Junkie, Ken Rudin. And Ken, any surprises in the votes for the leadership?

KEN RUDIN: No. But it's important to note that 43 Democrats did vote against Nancy Pelosi. That was not a record. There have been challenges in the past for the party leadership. But given the fact that the party is considerably smaller, more African-American, more liberal than it had been prior to the November 2nd results, the fact that there were - 43 votes against her, and 68 Democrats in an earlier vote, Democrats wanted to postpone the elections until after Thanksgiving, not exactly a ringing win of confidence for Nancy Pelosi. But, again, the vote was a 150 to 43, not really close.

CONAN: Is there precedent for a speaker - whose party has been defeated to stay on and serve as minority leader?

RUDIN: Yes, but not for a long time. I mean, we did know that after 2006, Dennis Hastert quit Congress within a year. Newt Gingrich, of course, was still speaker when he stepped down. The nearest precedent I could think of was Joe Martin of Massachusetts, who after the Republican's lost control of the House in 1954, stayed on. He was defeated in the primary years later. It was like a intraparty coup, but he stayed on in Congress for another 12 years.

CONAN: There was another intraparty dispute within the Democratic Party. The number two Democrat, Steny Hoyer, wanted to retain that position as the Democrats move from the majority to the minority, but also one of the members of the black caucus wanted to move into that seat too.

RUDIN: Well, that's exactly right. Because once you're in the majority, you have the speaker, the majority leader and the majority whip. When you go to the minority, you lose the speakership, so you lose a position. Jim Clyburn had been the whip. But because Nancy Pelosi will now be leader, Steny Hoyer moves down to whip, what do you do with Jim Clyburn, who after all is a member of the black caucus? And the black caucus made it clear that they didn't want Steny Hoyer pushing out the only African-American in the leadership. So Nancy Pelosi created a position called assistant leader, and Jim Clyburn will be that person.

So again, the Democratic - despite the biggest Democratic drubbing in the House since 1938 - they lost 61 seats so far - Pelosi, Hoyer and Clyburn will still be the leadership.

CONAN: And this - I guess one more seat decided today when they - a Democrat in Illinois conceded the election in the 8th Congressional District, so there's still five outstanding...

RUDIN: There are six, right, and three of them are Democrats who were trailing. And there is also another result in Alaska. We are finally able to call the fact that Lisa Murkowski, the write-in candidate who was defeated from renomination in the August Republican primary, she has won another term. The only person, since Strom Thurmond, to win on a write-in election.

CONAN: And also votes today for the House leadership in the Republican Party, no surprises there either?

RUDIN: No. Today is John Boehner's 61st birthday. And he's been - he was chosen as leader and will be the speaker in January.

CONAN: Ken Rudin, thanks very much for your time.

RUDIN: Thank you.

CONAN: Appreciate it.

David Suchet played juicy roles on stage, including a decade with the Royal Shakespeare Company. He's been featured in movies like "Amadeus," "The Falcon and the Snowman," and many others. But there's little question that he will always be best remembered as Agatha Christie's well-loved and somewhat disagreeable Belgian detective Hercule Poirot.

Suchet first starred as the mustachioed sleuth on British television more than two decades ago, and he's been a torn in the side of well-heeled murderers ever since. And while Christie has been accused of writing cozy, gentile murder mysteries, the latest TV/movie adaptation of "Murder on the Orient Express" begins with a suicide. And soon, Poirot finds himself aboard the famous train after he and a fellow passenger witnessed a woman being stoned on the streets of Istanbul.

(Soundbite of TV show, "Poirot: Murder on the Orient Express")

Mr. DAVID SUCHET (Actor): (as Hercule Poirot) Yes, I saw you this afternoon in the streets of Istanbul.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) You saw that?

Mr. SUCHET: (as Hercule Poirot) Oui. You are not too distressed by what happened, I hope?

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Yes, of course, I am. I'm distressed I could do nothing to help, aren't you?

Mr. SUCHET: (as Hercule Poirot) Oui, but justice is often upsetting to witness.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) Justice.

Mr. SUCHET: (as Hercule Poirot) It's like the gallows in England, right. But in another culture, it is best not to intervene.

Unidentified Woman #1: (as character) The woman was adulterous. She had not killed anyone.

Mr. SUCHET: (as Hercule Poirot) No, but she had broken the rules, and she knew what that would mean.

CONAN: "Murder on the Orient Express" has just been released on Blu-ray in the U.S. by Acorn Media. You could also find it on DVD as part of a three-movie boxed set, "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 5." And if you have questions for David Suchet about his role as the great Hercule Poirot, give us a call. Our phone number: 800-989-82-55. The email address is talk@npr.org.

David Suchet joins us now from the BBC and Broadcasting House in London. And thanks very much for being with us today.

Mr. SUCHET: Hello.

CONAN: And do you remember the first time you met Poirot?

Mr. SUCHET: Yeah. I remember - do you mean as an actor playing him?

CONAN: Yes.

Mr. SUCHET: Yes, I remember the very first day. I remember the very first shot. The camera was on my very shiny, patent leather shoes...

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUCHET: ...and then slowly came up my legs to reveal my striped trousers, to reveal my morning coat, my gray waistcoat, my bow tie, wing collar, and, of course, the famous moustache.

CONAN: Have you ever grown a moustache?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUCHET: Yes, I have, actually. I had a moustache when I was a young man. But I have to say I don't have one now because I wouldn't be able to go anywhere.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: People would stop you on the street and ask you to investigate the terrible things that have happened down the road.

Mr. SUCHET: I'm afraid they would.

CONAN: You, when you first played him, I have read, took great care to read every one of Agatha Christie's stories that featured Hercule Poirot and to see as much of your competition as possible.

Mr. SUCHET: Yes. A lot of actors don't like to do that. But I had already seen "Murder on the Orient Express" with the great Albert Finney. And not only had I seen Peter Ustinov as Hercule Poirot, but I was also in a film of Hercule Poirot with Peter Ustinov as that character, and I played Inspector Japp. And I'm here to tell you, and I will be honest with everybody, it is the worst performance I have ever given in my life.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUCHET: And why I laugh about it is because there were several other stories to do with the same cast. And I was not recast as Inspector Japp, which allowed me, of course, when it came to it, to be offered the role of Hercule Poirot. If I'd have been known as Inspector Japp, it would never have happened.

CONAN: A lot of people remember Peter Ustinov's portrayal. How is your - how would you describe yours as different from his?

Mr. SUCHET: Well, mine is different from both Peter's interpretation and Albert Finney's. What happened was I started reading the novels to decide whether I wanted to do the character, because my only knowledge of him was through the movies because I hadn't read any novels prior to me being offered the role. So I started to read the role - the books and study the role. And I realized that the little man that I was reading about, I had never seen before. For some reason, Albert Finney was very, very close, but still not, in my view, the pure Poirot that Agatha Christie wrote. And self-confessed, darling Peter Ustinov said that he couldn't be, anyway, because he was just a different shape and a whole different thing. And he wanted to do something different with the character.

And what I was reading about, when I read the book, is this strange, little, eccentric man. And the more I got to know him, the more I decided that if I was to play him, I would play him exactly as Agatha Christie wrote him. And that's what I did. And it seemed that all the Poirot fans came out of the woodwork at that time, saying, oh, gosh. Now every time I read a Poirot book, I can see you. And that was what I wanted to do, and I think that's the difference.

CONAN: You described him as eccentric. Agatha Christie herself once described him as a bombastic, tiresome, little man.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUCHET: He is a bombastic, tiresome, little man. He's also very eccentric. If you like two eggs in the morning, but they have to be exactly the same size, that's very eccentric. But he is bombastic. He is tiresome. He's also, however, enormously charming. He adores people. He loves, what we say, below stairs. He loves the serving class. He loves - he loves people. He's very generous with people, until he meets people he really doesn't like, which is usually the British upper class who's in - and inherited money.

CONAN: If you don't recognize the voice, in the unlikely event, it's, of course, David Suchet, the star of the many Hercule Poirot mysteries as Agatha Christie's great mustachioed Belgian hero. 800-989-8255. Email is talk@npr.org. And Jay's on the line from Eaton Rapids in Michigan.

JAY (Caller): Hello.

Mr. SUCHET: Hello, Jay.

JAY: It's a great honor to speak with you. I have to say that your portrayal of Poirot physically is so delightful and so addicting that Agatha Christie must have had you in mind when she wrote the part...

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY: ...because I can't think of anyone else being capable of the nuances that you play. I'd like to know if any of his eccentricities have crept into your life. He's so fastidious and so fussy. The business with the moustache wax on the Orient Express, I just went crazy over that. Have you adopted any of Poirot's habits? Do you require your eggs to be exactly the same size?

Mr. SUCHET: Well, no. To be honest with you, Jay, if I did, I wouldn't have a wife. I'm sure that she would have divorced me by now if I had all the eccentricities of Hercule Poirot. But he has taught me one very important thing, and that is he's really taught me to be a good listener. Because one of Poirot's great assets is the - his ability not only to listen, but to decipher, while listening, what the speaker really means. So although he hears what they say, he's actually listening to what they mean. And that - that's not an eccentricity as such, as you asked. But I suppose an eccentricity with me is I have got much tidier in my life, and I cannot bear crooked pictures on the wall.

(Soundbite of laughter)

JAY: I wondered if your tastes in tailoring had changed. I won't say improved, because I don't know what you're tastes are. But he has so beautifully turned out wherever he sets foot, whether he's in a dressing gown with his polished leather slippers, or in his dark grey morning suit with his gloves.

Mr. SUCHET: Well, it's a very timely statement of yours, Jay, because only this morning did I go to my own tailor, a new tailor in the city of London. And when I walked in, he recognized me and he said, oh, my goodness. Are you going to be as fussy as Poirot?

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. SUCHET: And I said, oh, yes.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: Jay, thank you very much for the call.

JAY: Thank you.

CONAN: We're talking with...

Mr. SUCHET: Thank you.

CONAN: ...David Suchet about Hercule Poirot and Agatha Christie.

You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News. Let's go next to Jean(ph), Jean with us from Milwaukee.

JEAN (Caller): Hi, Neal. Thanks for taking my call.

CONAN: Sure.

JEAN: Mr. Suchet, it's an honor to talk to you. My husband and I are huge fans of yours and of your portrayal of Hercule Poirot. I just had a question for you. You strike, like the previous caller said, just such a nuanced balance in your portrayal of the character.

You know, it's such a seamless characterization you have. We're you intimidated by the challenge of bringing such a beloved literary character to life? And how did you walk that line between, you know, pleasing the audience with, you know, an over-the-top portrayal of Poirot's mannerisms, but also creating a real person? I mean, you do that so skillfully in your portrayal. But was that a challenge for you, and how did you go about doing that?

Mr. SUCHET: Well, that - such interesting questions, if I can answer them briefly and to the point. I was daunted by the fact that I was going to create such an iconic character. But the one thing that sort of calmed my mind about that was that I have - I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company for about 13 years, and I had already played very many iconic roles that are being played by many greater actors than myself.

So my mind was put at rest about that. All I could do is what I could do. But that fine line between over-the-top eccentricity and naturalism is achieved and still is achieved by me by making the character himself. And if you watch the programs, you'll see what I mean.

He is not aware of his own eccentricity. If he was, you'd see the actor commenting, and then it would be very silly. I think Poirot - anybody who is eccentric, anybody who we say is eccentric, they don't know that they are.

It's our observance. And the most important thing, and where I have to be very, very disciplined on the set in filming, is not to make himself aware that he's being odd or comical or eccentric in any way. Does that answer that?

JEAN: Absolutely, it does. Thank you, Mr. Suchet. I really appreciate it.

Mr. SUCHET: And you're very welcome.

CONAN: Thanks, Jean, for the phone call. I did mean to ask, you have filmed, over the course of two decades, many, nearly all, in fact...

Mr. SUCHET: Yes.

CONAN: ...of Agatha Christie's Poirot stories.

Mr. SUCHET: Yes. I mean, I am on tender hooks at the moment. I'm waiting to hear, literally waiting to hear - and I'm told I might hear by the end of the year - if I don't hear, I'll go crazy - whether we have or will have the chance of filming the very last six stories, including the final book that she wrote about Poirot called "Curtain."

And if I do that and if I can, if I'm given that present to be able to do, I will leave behind me the complete works of this little man, which will be the first time in history.

CONAN: You have seen all of your competitors perform Poirot. Do you go back and watch yourself?

Mr. SUCHET: I have to. I really do have to watch myself. I'll tell you why. Because these DVDs, as you well know, they are very, very popular in America and they sell extremely well, but I don't expect my audience to watch them in sequence.

The one thing about Agatha Christie's writing about Poirot is that he never changed his character. He changed the style of his stripes on his trousers and different colored bowties, but she never changed the actual character. So, apart from - and I can't help this, the character getting older, because I'm getting older, I try as much as I can to maintain the qualities of the character that I first portrayed in 1989.

In order so to do, I have to watch at least, before I start a new series, I have to watch and study and practice. I watch about 10 hours of Poirot every single time. And it should look easy, but the glove is very hard and difficult to put on every time, and I have to be - because I am a perfectionist as a person, as is Poirot, actually. But I am a perfectionist, and I have to get it right. But I have to get it right not only for myself. I have to get it right for Agatha Christie, and I have to get it right, just as importantly, for my audience.

CONAN: David Suchet mentioned the DVDs. "Murder on the Orient Express" was just released on Blu-ray DVD by Acorn Media. You can also find it as part of a three-movie box set, "Agatha Christie's Poirot: The Movie Collection, Set 5," also from Acorn Media.

David Suchet joined us today from BBC's broadcasting house in London. Thanks very much for your time.

Mr. SUCHET: Thank you.

CONAN: And we will await desperate word on whether those last six stories will be told. Good luck with that.

Mr. SUCHET: Thank you very much.

CONAN: Tomorrow, next week is one of the busiest travel periods of the year. We'll talk about full-body scanners and pat-downs and balancing privacy and security on the airport security line, plus Fran Lebowitz on public speaking. Join us for that.

I'm Neal Conan. It's the TALK OF THE NATION, from NPR News.

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