Byline: James Fallon
SHEPPERTON, England — A king sits on his throne, gradually going mad. Nigel Hawthorne stutters his way through a speech opening the latest session of Parliament, momentarily forgetting that America is no longer part of his empire. The year is 1788, the 28th year in the reign of George III.
It’s August, and Hawthorne is on the set of “The Madness of King George.” He is reprising his successful stage role in the film version of Alan Bennett’s play, “The Madness of George III.” During a break in filming, he admitted he is far from being bored by a part he’s played so often — he’s addicted to it.
“George III has entered my bloodstream,” Hawthorne said. “And it’s wonderful, because I never expected to be offered the part. I’m not really a film star.”
This movie, which opened in the U.S. last week to critical huzzahs, could change that. Many believe the actor could be headed for an Oscar nomination for his portrayal of the king suddenly sliding into insanity. It’s a far cry from Hawthorne’s previous best-known film role in the U.S., as a villain opposite Sylvester Stallone in “Demolition Man” — an experience that still causes Hawthorne to wince. But the actor didn’t find George III much easier, despite his respect for its director, Nicholas Hytner, and his costars, Helen Mirren, Rupert Everett, Rupert Graves and Amanda Donohoe. “I have never worked on anything that has given me so much of a problem, because I can’t shake off the part,” Hawthorne said during filming. “George III has been part of me for almost three years, and to try to lose him at the end of each day is very painful.”
Hawthorne is under no illusions about the film, and wonders how it will go over with an American audience that doesn’t know much about English history. While Hytner admitted he doesn’t care whether the film is popular “in Des Moines,” Hawthorne clearly does.
“It’s not just about history,” the actor noted. “It’s a fundamental story of a man in pain who happens to be a king. So you get all the pomp, ceremony and political people trying to make a buck out of the king’s illness, but you also get to see underneath the man, and to judge the line between sanity and insanity.”
Hytner, who directed the play and who now has made his first film, believes the story speaks to everyone’s basic fears of losing control. “To me, the only actor who could play the part was Nigel,” Hytner said. “He is the consummate comic actor. More importantly, he has no fear of letting rip emotionally.”
While Hawthorne, jittery at the best of times, was nervous about transferring “George III” to film, Mirren (Queen Charlotte) was having a great time. Making the movie allowed her to spend more time in her homeland, England. (She lives in California with director Taylor Hackford.) Immediately after “George III,” she began work on the latest “Prime Suspect,” a British police drama for television.
“I’ll be in England for most of the year, and it will be the first time in a long time I’ll be able to see the whole spectrum of the English climate,” Mirren said. “I love it. But I miss Los Angeles, too, especially things like the O.J. Simpson case.”
And she also was able to dress in period costume. “This,” she said, waving her hand at her gown, “is why I took the part. Everybody loves getting dressed up. Also, the fact that I’m in a piece of work by the best living writer in England. It’s a story even relevant to what’s happening today with the British royal family because it shows the nature and danger of power and how transient it can be.”
While Mirren was reveling in the costumes, Donohoe had trouble hiding her loathing. The set’s naughty girl, who kept flitting away for cups of coffee or cigarettes at the merest break in filming, couldn’t wait to doff her duds.
“I defy any woman to wear a corset for 14 hours a day,” Donohoe said. “It makes you realize how restricted women were. I can barely breath in this thing, so I’m always hyperventilating. No wonder there was all that swooning going on.”
And Mirren had troubles of her own.
“It’s this crown,” she said. “It’s so heavy. Oh, jewels can be such a problem, can’t they?”