In the Hallmark Frankenstein mini-series, Alec Newman played the title role - Victor Frankenstein himself. I was lucky enough to go on set in Slovakia for Fangoria where I interviewed Alec in August 2003.
How did you get this part?
"This came like a bolt from the blue for me. I got a phone call at half past ten in the morning one day from my agent. I hasten to add this never happened to me before, so I was a bit dazed for several hours. I got a phone call at half past ten and I was told about the project. I hadn't heard anything about it prior to that. And by the end of the day that information had become an offer. So I didn’t audition - which is definitely the way to get work!"
Did you have to think about it?
"I just read the script. I seem to have been involved in a lot of, not necessarily epic pieces..."
Dune is certainly epic.
"Yes, I’m really thinking about that more than anything. So I’m not someone who’s afraid of a project with scale, maybe something slightly more ambitious. This in a way is, in a lot of respects a lot more straightforward than something like Dune. It's a great, classic, gothic tale. But when I heard that it was Victor I was immediately very interested. Then looking at the script, it was very tightly based on the book. So there was absolutely no question about wanting to be involved with it."
I understand you’re working almost the whole shoot. Must be punishing.
"It is very punishing, yes. In fact, it’s kind of hit me this week. But I’ve done this kind of thing before where you’re working in almost every scene, and I seem to quite like it that way round. I think waiting around is one of the most tiring things you can possibly do - as I’m sure you know. Also with being tired comes a certain kind of inability to do extraneous crap in a shot. You just get on with it, you don’t over-embelish. I think it’s horrible when you watch someone who has come up with all these marvellous ideas and actually all you’re required to do is tell the story - get on with it - in as truthful a way as you can. Also, with Victor, the condition of being tired is not unhelpful in a lot of the scenes for Victor. Working twelve or more - in most cases more - hours a day, acting, is not unlike, I’m sure, the feeling Victor Frankenstein has when he stays up all night and tries to build this creature. So yes, it is very tiring but that’s not altogether a bad thing."
Had you read the book?
"I had actually read the book at school when I was 12 or 13 but it had really faded from my memory. In fact, one of the things I think about Frankenstein that’s very powerful but unfortunately quite misleading is its movie history and not the novel that it’s based on. It’s a bit similar to Dracula in that respect, apart from the time it was written in and Dracula and Frankenstein being two great gothic horror tales. So I’d read it but I had sort of forgotten it. It had been trudged over by the movie history as opposed to the literary history. So I read it again - completely actually. I’m not a fast reader but I read the whole thing on the plane from Los Angeles to here. We took off and I started reading, and ten minutes before we landed I finished it, so it was great. I didn’t have much time in terms of preparation, so I was determined to get through it as thoroughly and quickly as I could, and was able to do that fortunately. Otherwise I’d be screwed! But the script is very, very tightly based on that novel. I love it when you’re able to do that, to refer to a classic novel which your script is tightly based on on. Like Dune again."
Victor has been played many times by great actors. It’s big shoes to step into.
"Yes, I think there’s a certain relief, once it gets past a certain point. There have been so many versions of it, so many great actors who’ve played it, it sort of cancels itself out. I don't think anyone’s done it quite so tightly to the book, at least in the script form. I know that after we’ve finished there’s a lot of shit that can happen and you can end up... I don’t think this can ever be bubblegum but you know what I mean. It’s a long way from what we shoot to what actually is there. That’s to do with the Powers That Be unfortunately, and I haven't met them. So we’ll see.
"But it’s been around for so long and there have been so many versions. It’s not that the pressure is off but I feel strangely fresh actually looking at it anew. I’m not overly familiar with the actual movies. Everybody’s familiar with the image of Boris Karloff with a bolt through his neck. But if you take the fact that most people think Frankenstein is the monster and not the man who created the monster, that tells you how little people actually know about it. And that’s a great opportunity for this production to show people what’s actually in that novel. It’s a great thing: people go, ‘Oh shit, I need to go back and read that. Because I didn't think it was that. I thought it was about white overcoats and guys with green heads, when in fact it isn’t.’
"I think Mark Kruger has been very brave in this script: this thing speaks. People forget that. It’s not a grunting Robert De Niro. I loved his performance in many ways and disliked it in other ways. In the book, it’s not just ‘urgh urgh’, he’s quoting Milton for God’s sake! It’s very deliberate, Mary Shelley is very deliberate in how eloquent this creature is. Luke Goss is doing an unbelievable job in making that live. So it’s definitely not an obstacle. When you read it, you think, ‘Christ, I’m glad I’m not playing that!’"
Are you doing many action scenes?
"Yes, we’ve done a couple of scraps. Fortunately I’ve done a lot of that before. Most of it’s with Luke and he’s just finished a picture with Michelle Yeoh so no prizes for guessing that he’s all kung fu-ed up. But this is very character specific. Victor Frankenstein’s probably a bloke who’s never had a fight in his life, so there’s all these character considerations. Which means that you can act the fight instead of having to do cartwheels and massive kung fu kicks. It is a very physical role actually, I’m finding that. After twelve takes of a hysterical fit yesterday I’m finding that this is a physical role."
Have you done the creation scene yet?
"No, not yet."
What’s it like? Because there’s no creation scene in the book.
"I think he says ‘It was a dreary November when I uncovered the fruits of my labour’ - or however she puts it. Kevin Connor has had a great idea about the creature’s first breath. Without going into specifically what that entails, it is very specifically a very, very clearcut, sharp moment when life comes to the creature. That moment is life for the creature and the beginning of a horrible spiral for Victor."
Do you get to shout ‘It’s alive!’?
"Not ‘It’s alive!’ I wouldn’t want to steal Kenneth Branagh’s fire. Actually, I don’t think he said that, did he? I say ‘Live! Live!’ - but in utter frustration and despair that it isn’t working. Then of course this moment of life arrives. It’s just shock and horror and later agony and despair. It’s a very amusing story..."
How are you coping with shooting in Slovakia?
"Oh, it’s terrible. The women are horrible-looking. Of course, I don't drink, being a Scotsman. I hate it. No, it’s terrific. I’ve worked in Prague twice now for long periods, and this is very different to Prague. The historic centrum, the old part of the city, is pedestrianised and I think always has been. Great restaurants. But really there’s precious little time for me to do that. So I just do it anyway."
Dan Stevens and Nicole Lewis are both on their first production. Are they looking to you as experienced old hand?
"Not overly. They’re both terrifically scary in how natural they are. Dan was referring to it as his summer job from Cambridge for the first few days, and I told him to shut up. Nicole just looks like she’s been doing this for years but she’s only nineteen. I’m 28. I’ve been working for eight years now since I left college. To turn round to someone and say for the first time in my life, ‘Oh, you’re probably too young to remember this’ is quite an eye-opener. But they’re both terrific."
You’re playing the character all the way through from the young student to the final scenes.
"Obviously, in the book, it’s six or seven years. This is three hours of television. What’s very, very important is to track the boy-to-man angle, purely and simply in terms of age as a thing on its own, the make-up and hair. It’s marked by make-up and hair changes but it’s more marked by the narrative sections of the story and the pace at which sections move or become slightly less frenetic. That’s what marks the development of what’s happening. You know that a man who’s having a nervous fit and a following fever is somehow much more involved than the young man who's considering a future in science.
"So although there are make-up and hair changes, the story is not so driven. So it’s probably not going to feel like six or seven years like it does in the book. But then again, the way Shelley does that in the book is by going ‘I continued in the way I’ve described at Ingoldstat University for two years.’ And that’s it, that’s your two years in one sentence! So we can do the same with a cut to the next scene. I think the story’s strong enough. I worked this out just so I knew, found out whether the information was absolutely essential and I really don’t think it is. I don't think it’s a question people are going to ask because the story moves at such pace."
How is Kevin as a director?
"Great. I was saying to him the other day that, whatever happens on set, it all comes down to who’s in charge. Because Kevin is in charge it’s a very, very calm, controlled, easy-going atmosphere. Which is great - because the story isn’t easy-going or relaxed. He knows when to put his foot down, but somehow in such a short space of time he’s managed to create an environment where people are desperate to work for him, and that’s great."
Have you got anything else lined up after this finishes in September?
"Not at the moment. In the middle of all this I’ve managed to sneak a couple of audition tapes back to London and Los Angeles. There’s project back home with Tom Hunsinger and Neil Hunter in a film called Lawless Heart, which is ongoing. So there are a few things in the fire. I think I’ll be going back to London for a couple of weeks and then back over to Los Angeles."
Any plans for a third Dune?
"I don’t know what stage that’s at. Not that it would involve me hugely of course. There’s been a lot of changes at the Sci-Fi Channel and I don’t know how that’s affected those plans. John Harrison’s a great friend of mine and I know he’s developed the ideas and there’s a series written of maybe 16 episodes. But I’m sure if it doesn’t go with Sci-Fi it’ll go somewhere else. Because there’s a ready-made audience for that thing. It seems absolutely insane to me that they wouldn't pick it immediately and run with it."
Is that the next book?
"No. The gap between the second and third book, which was the second mini-series, and the next book, is three thousand years - so potentially that’s a lot of TV! That was the idea. Personally speaking I think the books are too complicated to film, I think they should leave them alone. I think we just got away with it with the second and third book. The idea of James McAvoy as a huge, prosthetic worm is a bit bizarre. God bless you, Frank, but what were you smoking?"