John Cleese: Stepping up to the mic

On Shrek 2, John Cleese's co-star was a microphone, with not a human being in sight. That's how he likes it, he tells Ryan Gilbey
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The Independent Culture

How fitting that my first glimpse of John Cleese in person should come as he looms out of his hotel suite with one hand clamped to his jaw, looking like a disgruntled giraffe emerging from captivity. Pain is very much on his mind today. Pain, it transpires, will be the dominant theme of our conversation.

He has come to our meeting direct from the dentist's chair, and is doing his best to maintain a palsied smile while the anaesthetic wears off. Toothache isn't the half of it. The story of John Cleese's movie career is one of dread, disappointment and serious physical injury. Before there are mass suicides among the nice people at DreamWorks, who have paid for Cleese to promote Shrek 2, in which he provides the voice for the ogre's disapproving father-in-law, it should be said that he rather enjoyed this spell behind the microphone.

"Radio was always my favourite medium," he purrs, settling into his armchair with a cup of what he calls "poncey" herbal tea. "And this had more in common with radio than film-making." All things considered, the prime reason for Cleese accepting Shrek 2 might be that it offered a working environment of comparative solitude - just the actor and a microphone. "What I always loved about radio was the simplicity. I'm deeply bored by any sort of technology. I dislike the way technology has altered communication. There used to be times when you could be on your own and no one could reach you." His eyes have that misty expression that John Major used to get whenever he talked about warm beer and cricket greens.

There is a danger that Cleese's words can sound defensive, curmudgeonly, even paranoid, so it should be remembered that he delivers his pronouncements on modern life with disarming warmth and jollity. You can still hear in his delivery the relish for language that made his writing, particularly on Monty Python's Flying Circus and Fawlty Towers, so ticklish to the ear. Smart employers play to Cleese's strengths, and involve him in the writing process. On the James Bond films, of which he has appeared in two (The World Is Not Enough and Die Another Day), he is more than just the new Q; the producers fax him early drafts of the scripts, and he sprinkles some magic dust over his scenes.

"I'm lucky to have that job," he sighs. "I don't know if it will go on or not. What rumours have you heard?" He has clearly mistaken me for someone whose finger is on the pulse, but I tell him what I read - that the writers haven't yet come up with an acceptable script. "There aren't many roles at 64, you know. That's a very nice one. It's two days' work, and I get paid extremely well."

Evidently the most appealing jobs now are the ones that can be polished off in less than a week. Cleese's last starring role was nearly ten years ago, in Fierce Creatures, the gentle sequel to A Fish Called Wanda. Since then, he has restricted himself to eye-catching spots in US comedies such as The Out-of-Towners, Isn't She Great and Rat Race, cameos in the James Bond and Harry Potter series, and an amusing gig as the voice of a gorilla in George of the Jungle. Arguably the clearest sign that Cleese is as sharp as ever has been in his guest appearances on US sitcoms. He was as tall and crisp as a carafe of wine in the boozy fug of Cheers, while his best recent work involved being the sharpest point of a bizarre love triangle in 3rd Rock From The Sun.

This year, he appeared in six episodes of Will and Grace. "Unfortunately that involved being in LA for five days," he grimaces, "which is a fate I wouldn't wish on anyone. If there's a nuclear attack, that's the best place to be: the morning after, how would you know anything had happened?" The show itself left him bewildered. "It was a nightmare. They seem to have decided that it's best for the actors to see their lines just before they say them. They kept handing me new lines and I said: 'I haven't got the old ones right yet. Give me a fucking chance!'"

There isn't very much about his career that seems to excite him. Sure, we started by shooting the breeze about The Secret Policeman's Ball, the 1979 film of the revue that Cleese organised to raise money for Amnesty International. But no sooner has he reminisced about everyone huddling in the wings to watch Peter Cook on stage than he has dredged up a fistful of bad memories to accompany it - the "human cockroach" who was found to be making money from those charity shows, or the way they were taken over by rock stars. "The trouble with rock stars," he points out helpfully, "is they bring along six people who loiter around backstage. You never got that problem with Willie Rushton."

It is common knowledge that expectations - his own more than anyone else's - have weighed heavily on Cleese's life. He has spoken in the past of feelings of pointlessness that close in on a person after experiencing success or fulfilment, and he returns to that idea when we talk about his early stage performances with the Cambridge Footlights.

"I always got a buzz in the first four or five weeks," he recalls, "when we were trying to figure out how things worked. But do you know how very difficult success makes life?" I nod vaguely, assuming the question to be rhetorical, but he clearly wants an answer. "You do know this, don't you?" Yes, I tell him, I've found it to be the case. "Well, that was my problem. Around the sixth week, you do a really good performance and you realise: I can't do any better than that, and I've got to go on tomorrow. It's paralysing.I wanted out of Python even earlier, but the others put a lot of pressure on me, and I wasn't strong enough to stand up to them. Performing live was the same. It was central for those first six weeks, then it's just this fucking show you have to do when you'd rather be having dinner with friends."

It could be assumed that film would be the perfect antidote to this - once you've done the writing, you shoot the damn thing and then toddle off to dinner. Now be honest - did you really think it would be that simple for John Cleese? "Never much liked movies," he sniffs. His prickly silver moustache seems to shimmer beneath his nose. "It was interesting at the beginning when I was learning. I liked the early Python films, but I never really liked the process. The result is that the number of movies I've made that I've actually enjoyed is very small." That's sad, I tell him. "It is in a way," he agrees, as though it has never struck him before.

Most often, it will be the climate that keeps him happy. He loved making Life of Brian, he says, because "we were getting up with the sun, and it was warm in the morning." His turn as a hoity-toity Robin Hood in Terry Gilliam's Time Bandits is cherished because it amounted to "a day and a half in Epping Forest." He will admit, at a push, to having a good time on A Fish Called Wanda. "The director, Charlie Crichton, was quite old, so we always finished at 6.30pm. You could go home, exercise, even watch a bit of television. Now they all work 15-hour days and you don't have time for more than a massage before bed."

Within moments, though, he has undercut his pleasant memories with more revelations of anxiety and discontentment. "When we were writing Wanda, Charlie got a very bad back. I remember thinking: 'Phew, we don't have to do this anymore now!'" He lets slip a booming, devilish laugh. "There was a sense of real relief. Then he had acupuncture and rang me up to say, 'I'm feeling great - let's start up again.'" Cleese shakes his head. "And. My. Heart. Sank."

So why bother at all if it causes so much distress? "In the beginning," he explains, "you can get an idea that you really like, and it ignites something in you. That gets the adrenaline going. But then..." From here, Cleese walks me through his personal inventory of anguish. He breaks down the making of Wanda, from first draft to final 64-day publicity tour, in a manner that would make any aspiring actors, writers or directors throw themselves into an office job.

Then come the injuries, which seem to occur whenever there is a film to make. Eight weeks before Cleese started shooting the dark, underrated comedy Clockwise, he nearly died from peritonitis. He managed to recover in time, only to tear his left hamstring during the first day on set, with another seven weeks to go. "There are very few films - and I mean this quite seriously - where I haven't emerged physically damaged in a way that I never quite recover from." His eyesight deteriorated while making Wanda. On Fierce Creatures, he became aware of arthritis in his hip. During The World Is Not Enough, the arthritis was so bad that he was stuffing his face with painkillers; a hip replacement operation followed soon after. (He also cut his head quite badly on the set of Will and Grace, if you're interested.)

"Film-making is like the First World War," he says, swilling back the last of his tea, and uncrossing his long legs. "It just grinds you down. All you can do is to focus simply on surviving it."

'Shrek 2' opens today

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