STRAIGHT FROM THE SHOULDER
By Alex von Thorn
I interviewed Peter Woodward at Toronto Trek on Sunday, July 7, 2002, at the end of the last autograph session of the convention, while Virginia Hey from Farscape sat next to us signing her last few autographs. Initially he seemed to want to rush through things, but once he started talking, he relaxed and told me a couple of surprising things. Photos at right and at bottom of article by Marah Searle. Peter's website is at Peterwoodward.com.
You've done a lot of different things in the field: acting, writing, producing, even fight direction. What would you say is your primary artistic form?
It very much depends on what I'm working on at the time. At the moment, I'm very much writing. And you missed something off your list, which is presenting, because now I write and present documentaries for the History Channel, and I've been doing a lot of that. I've done 14 episodes of a new series called Conquest which I'm working on this year for them. But I'm also writing a feature film at the moment. So this year has been very much about writing.
What does each form contribute to the other?
Because I come from a theatrical background, I've never been overawed by the glamour of acting. So I'm very happy to do other things within the entertainment business, whether it's fights or stunts or acting. I like doing them all, and if I do any one for too long, then I find I get a bit stale. So they do feed each other.
As Galen on [the TV series] Babylon 5: Crusade , you played a very cerebral character. What did you bring from such an active background as fight direction, or from your other talents, into this particular role?
What's interesting is that some of the best—in fact, the classic—samurai fights are when two warriors face each other, kneel to each other, bow to each other, and then one kills himself, because they are such great warriors that they know instinctively which one is going to win. That is the essence of the classic fight, where you don't need to fight. In a way, I used that for a bit of Galen. He was never going to pick up a club and start beating people in the head. But he was obviously a very powerful person and had his own history of violence in his past.
So it is interesting to play cerebral characters like that, because you have to find a different way of being physical with them. I was dressed in black leather from head to toe, and occasionally had a staff which I threw about a bit. But apart from that, I had to find it within, and that forces you as an actor to come up with new and interesting ideas.
What did you learn, as an actor and as a person, playing a character like Galen?
It's difficult to learn from the characters you play. Maybe some of the Shakespearean characters are such an experience to play that you learn from the experience. But I think you have to actually bring whatever person you are to the character. It's certainly an experience for a young actor to play a major role. But I think it's the experience of playing the role, rather than the actual character, that then informs me.
Your father, Edward Woodward, was an amazing actor. What did you learn from him?
About acting? Nothing at all. The most useful thing I learned from him was that actors get unemployed. I remember when he was out of work for six months and couldn't feed his family. I was very young at the time, and I remember that very distinctly. That's the best lesson he has ever taught to me. Security is the one thing you absolutely cannot be certain of.
I don't think you can help an actor with acting styles and techniques. You can go to drama school and learn a lot, but basically you're learning to hone the skills that you can learn, and you're learning to bring out your own personality. But it's not something you can really teach as such.
Did you pick up from him anything about the way you use your voice?
No. I inherited a great voice from him, and from my mother, who was also an actress. She had a great voice too. When I was in drama school, it was something that I did concentrate on. I think it's important for an actor, especially on stage, to be able to have flexibility and a range and power in the voice. Basically, I went to a very good drama school and they concentrated a lot on that.
Which school was that?
The Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts. Very old-fashioned, of course. Nowadays, they don't do a great deal of voice training, and I think it's a real mistake.
You worked on The House of Angelo [a 1997 feature film that Peter also wrote], and it seemed very much a family affair with your father, brother, and sister in roles. Did you bring any personal business to the screen?
Not really. In that situation you really have to work together professionally, and just get into those characters. Also, we didn't have a long time to shoot it, so it very definitely was something we had to concentrate on.
We don't see a lot of actors doing science fiction who have the Royal Shakespeare Company in their résumé. What genres do you like performing in, and what do you like about them?
I think there's an awful lot of actors who are rather secretive about their pasts, if they're British. I was in the Royal Shakespeare Company with Patrick Stewart, and I know a number of others, especially actors living in North America, who have that actual training.
I do enjoy theatre. I actually got a bit burned out, I did so much of it. When I came to the States, I decided not to do any more theatre for a while, and I've just been concentrating on writing and film and TV work. But they're very different—totally different jobs, I think.
You did a well-regarded documentary on Egypt [Egypt: Beyond the Pyramids (2001); also Egypt: Land of the Gods (2002)], and now you're doing a series on the History Channel called Conquest. What's your new series about?
I used to direct a lot of fights and stunts, and I had my own fight team for a while. The series is about me teaching members of the combat team to use certain personal weapons, and also to experience an idea. For instance, we've just done an episode on the tournament, we've done an episode on the bow, and on a knight in armour, in which they all have to wear armour and learn to fight in armour, which are all things that I know about and can help teach them, and we help discover it together. But also there are more contemporary episodes in which I learn skills that I don't know, like demolition derby and bull riding and all that. It's a bit of both.
Where did your interest in history and archaeology come from?
It's something that's always intrigued me.
You mentioned in an interview that you liked living in Los Angeles. What do you like about living in L.A.?
I live actually right by Venice Beach, which is pretty different from most parts of L.A. It's very laid back, very easy-going, very friendly; we keep our doors open. I live on a walk street, so there's no cars in the street. There are cars around the back but not in the street. And you get millionaires living next to surf bums living next to writers and rich actors and impoverished directors. Lots of entertainment people, lots of different sorts of people, lots of mixture.
You have such a diverse body of work that during my research, I had trouble getting a handle on it all. If we could imagine a definitive Peter Woodward magnum opus, what would it look like?
I would be stark naked. I would be carrying a very large sword, on a stage, being filmed, and with a History Channel executive fretting in the background.
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