'Fresh Air' Remembers Actor Pete Postlethwaite Virtually unknown in America until his Oscar-nominated role in the 1993 film In The Name of the Father, the British actor died Jan. 2 after a long battle with cancer. Fresh Air remembers him with highlights from a 1997 interview.
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Actor Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011

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Actor Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011

Actor Pete Postlethwaite, 1946-2011

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We're going to listen back to an interview with the British actor Pete Postlethwaite. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 64. Americans came to know Postlethwaite through the 1993 movie "In The Name of the Father," for which he earned an Oscar nomination.

In '94, he co-starred in "The Usual Suspects," playing a mysterious and sinister character named Kobayashi. Steven Spielberg called him probably the best actor in the world, after directing him in "Amistad" and "The Lost World: Jurassic Park." His recent films include "Inception" and "The Town."

Postlethwaite had a face that made an impression on you. An AP article described it as remarkably cranky and timeworn. One critic described his cheekbones as boiling out of his head like swollen knuckles. His voice made an impression, too. He could play very vulnerable or very tough, as in this scene with Ben Affleck from Affleck's film "The Town."

Postlethwaite played a crime boss in a working-class neighborhood. Affleck worked for him pulling heists. When Affleck tells Postlethwaite he wants out, Postlethwaite threatens him and tells him how he ruined the life of Affleck's father.

(Soundbite of movie "The Town")

Mr. PETE POSTLETHWAITE (Actor): (as Fergus Colm) You play the horses? You know, they either geld the horse with a knife or with chemicals. When your daddy said no to me, I did him the chemical way. Gave your mother a taste. Put the hook into her. Ah, she doped up good and proper. Hung herself with the wire (unintelligible). And you, running around the neighborhood looking for her. Your daddy didn't have the heart to tell his son that he was looking for a suicide doper who was never coming home. If there's a heaven, son, she ain't in it.

GROSS: Pete Postlethwaite in a scene from last year's movie "The Town." I spoke with Postlethwaite in 1997.

You're from a working-class family, I believe, in the north of England.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Mm-hmm. Mm-hmm.

GROSS: How were you exposed to acting? Was it mostly through movies or did you actually see a lot of theater where you lived?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No, I didn't see a lot of theater to start with. I suppose it was pictures, really, Saturday morning cinema and things like that. We used to go and see Tom Mix and Hopalong Cassidy and things like that. But I suppose in terms - I don't know. Maybe something to do with the Catholic background. I mean, you know, being an altar boy, you know, being on that altar, you know, it's a bit like being on stage, you know? Maybe there's something in that. I don't know. And then at grammar school I started to do a couple of plays. We did "The Importance of Being Earnest," I remember and "A Man For All Seasons." Quite enjoyed that, doing then those kind of things. Then I went to college and read drama and P.E., a strange mixture, physical education and drama, and drama eventually took over.

And it was at a time, in the late '60s, when there was some extraordinary writing coming of England, plays by Pinter and Beckett and all these guys were all writing these extraordinary plays like "Waiting for Godot" and "Look Back In Anger" and stuff like that, all happening at the same time and I thought, blimey, this is extraordinary stuff. So I really enjoyed all that.

But then I thought well, you can't, you know, you still can't go be an actor. I mean people from Warrington don't go and be actors, really. So I decided to carry on - I'd teach for a couple years and then see what happened after that and if I still fancied it after that I'd follow - I'd go and do it.

GROSS: So you taught physical education?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No. I taught - in the first year actually when I left, I didn't - I taught - really, it was hardly teaching. It was in what we called an approved school in England, which is for the naughty kids, really, for children who have - find it very difficult to fit into the system and rebel against and that generally the schools can't cope with them so they send them to approved schools, which they were then. So that was more like social work than teaching, even though I was, you know, employed as a teacher and I did that for a year. And then, went - changed and went to a girls' convent grammar school, would you believe, in Manchester.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: And taught a thousand girls a week - drama, that was. I was a member of the English department to start with, an English teacher on the staff and the staff was massive; there was 77 on this staff. It was a big school but I realized there wasn't a drama department so I thought well, I'll create a drama department and then I can be head of it, really. So that's what basically I did. So I taught drama there. But then, even after that, after a year of that, I thought, still not really what I want to do. So I went back to school. I applied back to drama school and went back to school, went back to basics at the Bristol Old Vic and left there in 1970 and now find myself in a studio in New York talking to you about it in 1997.

GROSS: What did your parents say when you left teaching? Did they think you were being unrealistic?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Yes they did. Yeah. Yeah. It took about 10 or 11 years before my mom stopped saying, well, eventually you'll get a proper job. I think that basically came as well - these sound terrible stories against my mother and they're not meant to be. But I think she realized being in The Royal Shakespeare Company, which is a massive wonderful company in England - or can be wonderful. They can also do some awful stuff now and again. But we opened a new theater there, the Swan Theatre, and Queen Elizabeth, our queen, came to open it. And my mother, who's my queen, I suppose, came as well to there to watch it.

And when she saw me being introduced to the queen on the stage of the Royal Shakespeare Company, I think then she thought well, now yes, it's a serious job now. That's all right. That's perfectly all right for him to do.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: But it was strange. Yeah. I think they did think oh well, he'll grow out of that or whatever. It was a strange choice for somebody from my background.

GROSS: You really made your mark in America with the movie "In the Name of the Father," in which you played the father of a young man who is unjustly accused of an IRA bombing of a British pub.


GROSS: And the son's family is held as co-conspirators so you are imprisoned with your son, played by Daniel Day-Lewis.


GROSS: And it's a great role. You know, you start off in the movie looking like a real spineless guy. You know a father who would never stand up for himself or for his son or for anybody, someone who would let people walk over him. But in the jail scenes you show this surprising inner strength. And watching the dynamics change between the father and the son in jail are just so really fascinating. Very subtle performance.

Tell me your take on this character, what your profile of him was when you were figuring out how you should perform in the role.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Well, he was my dad, really. He was exactly my dad who died in 1988. Who was Northern working-class Catholic. But there is a breed of these people that have this extraordinary inner strength. They appear to be spineless. They appear to be easy meat. But in fact when the pressure is on, they resort to their inner strength - this resilience that they have, which is based on their values and their beliefs and what they think. My dad and Giuseppe were very similar, except Giuseppe was Northern Irish, whereas my father was Northern English. But they were - it's exactly the same kind of background. And there's a whole breed of these kind of men and women and that's the kind of profile you think well, you've got to do justice to these people.

GROSS: We're listening back to an interview with actor Pete Postlethwaite. He died yesterday at the age of 64. We'll hear more of the interview after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: Let's get back to our 1997 interview with British actor Pete Postlethwaite. He died of cancer yesterday at the age of 64. When we left off we were talking about his film "In the Name of the Father."

Now you played a very different kind of character in an earlier movie called "Distant Voices, Still Lives."


(Soundbite of laughter)

GROSS: And in this movie you are an abusive father and husband.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Horrendous. Yeah.

GROSS: And I know when I saw the movie, every time you appeared on screen my whole body would tighten. I mean it was like uh-oh, here it comes again.


GROSS: So it's interesting how you were able to embody two such different kinds of fathers and husbands. And I wonder what the difference is in how you carried your own body, how you presented your own self physically in both roles, in "In the Name of the Father" and "Distant Voices, Still Lives."

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: I never thought about it like that, really, but looking at it now, you're obviously right. Yeah, there was a difference. Strange, really because maybe the father in "Distant Voices, Still Lives" was inherently weak, whether it was because of his lack of employment or his migraine or his drinking problem, I don't know, but he was inherently weak, whereas in a way Giuseppe Conlon was inherently strong and outwardly weak. I mean he had - he was ill, whereas the father in "Distant Voices, Still Lives" wasn't.

And it's strange that I don't identify that father with my father, isn't it? I don't. I mean he wasn't like that.

GROSS: Good.


(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: But that was actually very autobiographical. That - Terence Davies film, yeah?

GROSS: Yeah. Yeah.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Directed by Terence Davies. It was completely autobiographical, I believe. Well, I know because that's what he said: That's what he used to do. That's what it was like. And I don't know, I thought...

GROSS: Would he critique your performance by saying no, no, no. My father was more like this?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Oh yeah. Very much. Yeah. Oh, no he would do that. Yeah. I remember in one particular scene where I think the daughter went in the cellar, cleaning up the cellar I think. And the daughter asked for some money to go to a dance and I think I hit her with a brush, with a yard brush. And I sort of whacked her a couple of times with the brush and Terry said no, no, he didn't do it like that. Oh, no, and he got a hold of this brush and he turned it the other way around where the end of the broom was. And we had this metal cage around the camera and so the brush whacks would go into - directly into the camera, and he bent this metal with this brush. I said now Terry, come on, don't be silly. No father could do that. Nobody would do that to a child. Said no that's what he did. That's what he - I said, no. Do you mean that that's how it appeared to your sister as a child, I mean this massive thing come at? No, that's how hard he hit. I said well, he'd kill her. And he said, no, he didn't kill her and that's what he did. And you just think, blimey. Where do you go from there? So I don't know. I mean he had a lot to feel angry about his father about.

GROSS: I have one last question for you.


GROSS: Now I understand when you were co-starring on Broadway in "Cyrano," "Cyrano de Bergerac," that Derek Jacobi, who played Cyrano...


GROSS: ...tossed his nose to you at the curtain call of the last performance.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: That's absolutely true.

GROSS: Yeah. Well, that must've been quite an honor.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Absolutely true. I still have it. I still have it in a little tin box at home and it's still there. That's true.

GROSS: Did you know that was coming?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No, not really. No, I didn't, no. Are you making sort of references to kind of, you know, catching the bouquet of the...

GROSS: Right. Right. Right.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: ...when the bride throws her bouquet and I'm the bridesmaid? No, that did happen. That did happen on the last night. Terrific last night in New York. Wonderful.

GROSS: And so where is the nose being stored now?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: It's in a little tin on the shelf and - with all my other little memorabilia that are about, mainly from films as well as plays, but I even have the rosette that was on my right shoe from that show and lots of little things, keepsakes, lots of little memories. They're all good. They all remained.

GROSS: What other memorabilia have you kept from your shows and movies?

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: Well, I have the baton from "Brassed Off". I have the belt I wore as Roland Tembo. I have the plaque from the coffin of Giuseppe Conlon. I have the rosette I wore on my shoe for "Cyrano de Bergerac," the nose-catching-incident one. I have lots of things.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: There's always something. You always take a little bit back, I think, just to say well, that's mine.

GROSS: I want to thank you so much for talking with us.

Mr. POSTLETHWAITE: No problem.

GROSS: Pete Postlethwaite died of cancer yesterday. He was 64. Our interview was recorded in 1997.

You can download podcasts of our show on our website, freshair.npr.org. I'm Terry Gross.

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