MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
Peter O'Toole made his first indelible impression on the movie screen as T.E. Lawrence in "Lawrence of Arabia" - burnished and chiseled, wrapped in a white burnoose under a burning sun, his blue eyes a vivid match for the sky. He was 28 when filming began.
Now at 74, Peter O'Toole plays an actor at the end of his life in the film, "Venus." In this scene, he compares pills with his friend, Ian.
(Soundbite of movie, "Venus")
Mr. PETER O'TOOLE (Actor): (As Morris) What have I got today? Oh. You should try these. You'll never wake up.
Mr. LESLIE PHILLIPS (Actor): (As Ian) It's the waking up pills I'm looking for.
Mr. O'TOOLE: (As Morris) Anything blue I recommend for that. White ones give me more of a thrill. Oh, well. Do not operate heavy machinery. Keep away from children.
Mr. PHILLIPS: (As Ian) Biblical advice.
BLOCK: It was some equally prophetic advice that led Peter O'Toole to acting in the first place. He was 20 and serving in the Royal Navy as a signal man on an armed cruiser.
Mr. O'TOOLE: I served with men who'd been blown up in the Atlantic, who'd seen their friends drinking icy bubbles in oil and being machine gunned in the water. And I mentioned that I wasn't particularly satisfied with what I was doing in civilian life, which was working for a newspaper. And the skipper said to me one night, have you any unanswered calls inside you that you don't understand or can't qualify? I said, well, yes, I do. I quite fancy myself either as a poet or an actor. He said, well, if you don't at least give it a try, you'll regret it for the rest of your life.
BLOCK: What a smart man, that skipper, that captain was to tell you that.
Mr. O'TOOLE: Well, what a lovely, lovely man. Delightful man.
BLOCK: And from that skipper's advice, a very long career was born on stage and film. In this latest movie, "Venus," Peter O'Toole plays Morris, a veteran actor who's reduced to playing corpses on TV medical dramas. He meets a young woman - very young - and falls for her. Their relationship is both creepy and tender.
Peter O'Toole says the appeal of "Venus" was in the words.
Mr. O'TOOLE: From my earliest memories of even thinking of being an actor to the present day, what for me has been first, foremost, last and essential is a script. We were a generation who were brought up to believe that plays -particularly plays - however well constructed, were human speech as an art form.
And when I read "Venus" - it's a strange thing, but it's true for most actors -is you pick up a script and the author has very, very carefully and over many months put down these words in ink, and that ink flows in through the eyes and into the person and inhabits it. And one knows - you know when you've found a part that you want to play. You know it. Because the part takes you over. It sits in the script waiting for you to play him. You just know.
BLOCK: So when you got the script for "Venus" and were looking for, you know, you're describing human speech as an art form, you found it in there. What in particular about your character, about Morris…
Mr. O'TOOLE: I know it's fashionable now to talk about character, and I've heard many, many young actors and actresses talk about character. But I haven't the faintest idea what anyone means by it.
To me, it was a good part in a good story. I love the story. And I love the part.
BLOCK: The focus is, of course, on your relationship with a young girl, Jessie. But I found maybe the more interesting relationship is the one that you have with your fellow actor, Ian, played by Leslie Phillips. There's some wonderful moments of tenderness between the two of you.
Mr. O'TOOLE: Sure. Well, I think throughout the picture, if someone asked me if I could sum up the picture in a few words, I would relate what a dirty old man and a young slut of a woman. And then it's an examination of those two clichés. Then it begins to examine more than that: friendship, beauty, youth - youth particularly. Youth. Youth and age.
And it could be a risqué subject, and it indeed is, for there is sex in it. There's violence. There's all sorts of things. And yet, when I read it and even when we played it until this moment, there's not one scrap of smut in the entire picture. It's a wonderful balancing act.
BLOCK: Your character at one point recites a Shakespeare sonnets to Jessie, to the young girl.
Mr. O'TOOLE: Yes. Yes.
(Soundbite of movie, "Venus")
Mr. O'TOOLE: (As Morris) Shall I compare thee to a summer's day? Thou art more lovely and more temperate. Rough winds do shake the darling buds of May and summer's lease have all to short of a date. Sometime to halt, the eye of heaven shines, and oft this is gold complexion…
BLOCK: It doesn't get much better than that, does it?
Mr. O'TOOLE: It's beautiful stuff, isn't it? Shakespeare, I believe to be one of the most overrated playwrights in the world. In that, there are 12 plays or so that are sublime and matchless. And in the rest, I'm afraid, for my money, a bit rhetorical and boring. And the idea of a Shakespeare industry I find laughable and crude. And unspeakable, in fact. But nothing in his language compares with his sonnets. Nothing in my view in the English language compares with the Shakespeare sonnets.
BLOCK: Was this part of the original script, or was this something that you added yourself?
Mr. O'TOOLE: No, no, no. I don't do that. I'm - I really don't. I find a very strange attitude, indeed, which I can't comprehend if there is some material in front of you and you believe that you are superior to that material. Or you can add or subtract to that material. I find that a very ill attitude indeed. No, I like it to be on the page in front of me. Having said that, I think there was some debate about which sonnet, but that was all.
BLOCK: Hmm. And did you weigh in on that debate?
Mr. O'TOOLE: No. No. Oh, yes, I did. I said, well, let's pick an old favorite. An old - everyone knows "Shall I Compare Thee to a Summer's Day?" Everyone knows that one, I think. So I said, let's do an old song. And that was agreed, we'd do an old song. And that was agreed we'd do an old song. Rather than some of the more obscure sonnets.
BLOCK: So you would have known this one by heart.
Mr. O'TOOLE: I'm afraid I know all 156 of them.
BLOCK: You don't.
Mr. O'TOOLE: I do. They're my life companion. They're at the side of my bed. They travel with me. I pick them up and I read them all the time. I find them endlessly informing, endlessly beautiful, endlessly - they say, they hit the spot so many times on so many things.
BLOCK: Could I ask you to tell us one now?
Mr. O'TOOLE: Tell you one? Any one in particular?
BLOCK: Whatever you'd like.
Mr. O'TOOLE: Oh, my mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun. Coral is far more red than her lips red. If snow be white, why then her breasts be done. If hair be wires, black wires grow on her head. I have seen roses damasked, red and white, but no such roses see I in her cheeks. And in some perfumes is there more delight than in the breath that from my mistress reeks. I love to hear her speak, yet well I know that music hath a far more pleasing sound. I swear I never saw a goddess go. My mistress, when she walks, treads on the ground. And yet - anything - but I've forgotten the last couplet.
BLOCK: That's just wonderful, to…
Mr. O'TOOLE: Just popped into my head.
BLOCK: Well, you did very well.
(Soundbite of laughter)
BLOCK: And you're going to remember that last couplet as soon as you leave the studio, I know.
Mr. O'TOOLE: And yet I believe my love more fair than any she belied with false compare. There.
Mr. O'TOOLE: Not a very good couplet, is it?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. O'TOOLE: That's probably why I can't remember it.
BLOCK: Well, Peter O'Toole, it's a pleasure to talk to you. Thanks so much.
Mr. O'TOOLE: You're Melissa, aren't you?
Mr. O'TOOLE: All right. Thank you, Melissa.
BLOCK: Peter O'Toole's new film is called "Venus." There's more of our conversation at npr.org, where you can hear him talk about filming "Lawrence of Arabia."