We must preface this interview by stating this was supposed to be on camera, but thanks to dodgy internet signals, instead we reverted to a phone call, as we spoke to the wise and pensive actor Julian Sands, to mark the release of the controversial drama The Painted Bird.
The film – which provoked mass walk-outs upon its premiere in Venice last year, and at several film festivals since, has picked up notoriety, known by many for its violent, challenging sequences, as it is its masterful artistry. We asked Sands – famed for his roles in movies such as A Room With a View and The Killing Fields – how this made him feel.
“You know, Vaclav [Marhoul, the director] spent 10 years or more making this film,” he began. “For me, I’ve done several other projects in the meantime, and so it’s not quite as viscerally painful to hear about people’s unhappiness about the film or frustration with it. People are free to walk out, I can actually see why people would walk out. It’s very difficult as it it exposes human nature which isn’t easy to embrace, or accept. So I don’t take it personally. I did a film a long time ago called Boxing Helena which was very controversial, about a man who takes a woman hostage and to prevent her escaping amputates her arms and legs.”
“Again, I would say the director of that film or writer of it, Jennifer Lynch, was much more personally hurt than I would have been as the actor because I’d gone on to other things and I wasn’t emotionally and creatively dependent on the one film in the way that the filmmaker might be.”
Sands plays a reprehensible figure in the movie, and admits the experience shooting this film, and going to those depths psychologically, was an isolating experience.
“The character is a pretty isolated character so that compounds a certain level of personal isolation if you go deep into the character, of course,” he explained. “There I am playing this sort of evil child exploiting sexual predator which is in itself isolating, and I was both emotionally and socially isolated as a result. But that’s alright because it was all going into the work as an actor, you’re a sponge and soak all this stuff up.”
“The study of characters, of complexity of the human personality, continues to fascinate me and I remain curious, I’m still very, very curious. At the age I am now at an age where my friends are planning their retirement/will have retired. My younger brother who was a career teacher, just retired. I feel excited about the future even though much of it is uncertain. Now as I as I ever did, it’s a great blessing.”
This passion for his craft was infectious – even over the phone – as Sands explains that he plans to remain in this industry for some time yet, and comments on why he loves this profession so greatly.
“One of the great joys of being involved in the performing arts as an actor, but I think it’s true for musicians and painters and sculptors is that you’re forever examining a range of human personalities and characters. Discovering and needing to discover through your research and preparation, insights and hopefully glimpses, glimpses of understanding the human makeup definitely and that’s one of the reasons that being an actor such an interesting occupation.”
“When I left drama school four years ago, drama school, there’s so much which is distracting from the work to do with ambition, desire, insecurity, competitiveness, glamour, all that comes with all the sort of the rock and roll circus of the being in films in your 20s. Those things become intruders or sort of distractions, obstacles. When you get into your 50s and 60s, there is a purity to the experience because none of that other stuff matters. You’ve done it and it’s really All About experience of the work you’re absolutely in the present living it and certainly that’s how I felt when I was in Bohemia, Czech Republic working with Vaclav is extraordinary.”
“A continued participation is your ability to travel or your energy, but also when people consider worthy of being sent the material is those two things together, but I have no known and worked with many actors who I would say we’re doing the best work 60s 70s 80s.”
Of course despite his outlook on life, and on his career – we did ask if he was a nostalgic person too, whether he ever found himself looking back, particularly over some of his fantastic work.
“I think it’s important as an actor to live in the present and the near future,” before finishing, “The past is another country. Memory Lane must be approached in a very careful way. So no, I am not one for nostalgia or looking back I would say it’s really important to stay looking forward to relish, still relish the unknown.”
The Painted Bird is out in cinemas now.