To celebrate the new 4K restoration of Merchant Ivory’s Maurice which was first released in 1987, the film will be opening at the BFI and in selected cinemas around the country, which is as good an occasion as any to revisit an old favourite or even discover it for the first time. Heralded as one of the most iconic gay themed productions of the last thirty years, Maurice has recently seen a resurgence in interest since the release of Luca Guadagnino’s beautifully atmospheric 2017 film Call Me By Your Name, for which James Ivory won an screenwriting Oscar.
Earlier this week, HeyUGuys had the pleasure of speaking to the film’s leading actor James Wilby about his fond memories of acting alongside Hugh Grant and Rupert Graves in this groundbreaking production, and about the lasting effect Maurice has had on its fans and on Wilby’s own acting career.
HEYUGUYS: Thank you so much for taking the time to talk to us about this wonderful film. Is it a little strange for you to still be talking about it 30 years later?
JAMES WILBY: Yes, although it’s sort of been with me all along because it started my career, and then I worked with Merchant Ivory two more times, and they became very close friends of mine, you know I’ve always seen them. I mean sadly Ismail died, and that was in itself a great tragedy, it was like losing a member of one’s own family and I still feel that, I often think about him. There was a screening at the BFI a couple of months ago and Hugh (Grant) and I went to introduce it at the start, and I said to him “are you staying to watch it?” assuming he’d say no, but he said yes and we both sat together and watched it, because I hadn’t seen it in about 20 years.
Had you been familiar with E.M Forster’s book before being cast as Maurice?
No, I hadn’t read it then. I’m actually rather ashamed to say that I had never read any Forster before doing Maurice, of course I read them all immediately afterwards.
Did you know that Hugh Grant had been cast as Clive when you took on the role, and was it easier because you already knew each other?
What really happened was that I was never supposed to be in it, it was Julian Sands who was cast as Maurice first, and I don’t know why, but he pulled out very close to the start of the principal photography, so then I was back in the frame. I had originally gone up for a different part and Jim (Ivory) said to the casting director Celestia Fox “we can’t have him in the film, he looks too much like Julian”, and then when Julian left, I was back in the frame and I phoned Hugh to tell him. I knew I was going to be reading and auditioning with him, and he was already cast, so we went through the whole thing the night before. It’s a huge advantage to be able to work with an actor when you’re trying out so you get way ahead.
Did you have any apprehension about playing a gay character, or were you ever worried about how it would be perceived in the mainstream, especially in those days?
Everyone asks me this question but no, none at all. We’re actors we like to play whatever is thrown at us. It was probably one of the top roles of the year for an actor of my age, I was absolutely thrilled, I mean it started my career. It’s more of an American thing you know… that, American actors tend to have this problem about playing gay characters or characters which are perceived as weak, British actors don’t worry about it too much.
What were your memories of working with Hugh and Rupert (Graves)? Do you remember much from that shoot?
I remember everything [laughs], it was great. I mean, Hugh has got a brilliant comic ability, very straight and yet funny, and that’s just a wonderful thing to be playing off, there was a little bit of humour somewhere around the edges. Rupert was just a very honest and wonderfully warm and open actor. What was also very interesting was that the character of Maurice, or how I’d decided to play him, was somebody who was buffeted by things, he was constantly being pushed around, so he was more on the back foot rather than the front foot for most of story. So my job was just to allow whatever was happening to me to happen, and to have actors like Rupert and Hugh around me was great.
And all those other wonderful actors, I mean Denholm Elliott who pops in and does this phenomenal little turn, and Simon Callow and Ben Kingsley. It was just fantastic for a young actor like me to be working with that calibre of actors.
Are you surprised when people tell you how much this film has changed their own lives from watching it three decades ago.
I had hundreds of letters, particularly from Americans, who said it had changed their lives and gave them the confidence, not necessarily to come out, but they had faith in their own gayness. All these letters were basically saying the same thing, it’s wonderful to be in a film when it actually does change lives, and the fact that it was a mainstream film and done in a very conventional way, it was affirmative for these people. And the fact that it was two gay love stories, one unsuccessful and one successful, was a kind of affirmation for them too.
How does it feel to have a whole new generation take an interest in a film you starred in over thirty years ago? And do you think there will be a renewed interest in Maurice from fans of Call Me By Your Name?
Oh god, I’m sure all that will happen. Yes, there are similar theme going on, a young gay love story, and it’s written by the same man, so yes it will have a huge impact on a new bunch of people watching it, and of course it hasn’t really aged at all. It’s got a lot of depth to it, I mean I love Howard’s End and I love A Room With A View, but they’re much more frothy pieces. I mean Forster and James Ivory got right underneath the underbelly of Edwardian English society, and it really does get in there and push and prod and it’s not comfortable viewing.
The film is such a beautiful study of the class system, were you aware that was happening when you were filming it?
Yes, absolutely! I mean the book was the bible, because Forster is such a brilliant author, he’s always describing what people are thinking, he’s got this wonderful ability to gently pull the rug from under the feet of the establishment. And I think he really went for it in this particular novel, because it was never published when he was still alive, and that class thing is wonderfully written in the book. What was really brilliant about the book was that Maurice is no hero, I mean he says terrible things about the poor, and he actually feels physical disgust when he finds out that Scudder’s father is a butcher from some local village…the idea disgusts him, but in the end he’s strong enough to get beyond that, because that’s his teachers and his parents and all the rest of society telling him how he should behave.
We recently saw you in Poldark, was that a fun project to be part of?
Well it’s fun stuff and its wonderfully written and has lovely actors and you know…you go in there and do your bit [laughs]. It’s always a bit odd being one of those supporting cast members, because you know the story is really about the main ones, and you’ve got to fit around them a bit, but at the moment it gives me a chance to flex my muscles.
Finally, can you tell us what else you’re working on at the moment.
Well this is going to make you laugh, because I’m about to direct Maurice. It will be in a small theatre called Above The Stag which has been going for a while, but which has just moved to a new venue in Vauxhall. It’s a really beautiful little theatre, with its own rehearsal space and a lovely bar and we’ll be opening in mid-September, so looks like Maurice has come back to haunt me [laughs].