Queue for the ideal Holm exhibition

With four films due out and an acclaimed `Lear' at the National, Ian Holm has never been busier or better.
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Ian Holm suffered stage fright so badly in the Seventies that he collapsed in his dressing room, refused to go on, and stayed away from the theatre for 15 years. Now triumphantly back on stage, he has acquired a couple of new anxieties.

The first is his green card. He has one because of his movies. This year there are four films opening that feature him - with another one awaiting a release date. But green cards require that you spend time in the US. Holm resides, nominally, at the Los Angeles address of his son (he has three children), who runs a well-known jazz club The House of Blues. "They're getting very tough, and they don't like weekend visits," Holm says. "You are officially a resident alien."

The problem is that the resident alien is also star of the hottest ticket in London. Queues form from 6am outside the National to get returns to see him in King Lear. Holm is committed until September, and with only 275 seats in the Cottesloe he has been asked to extend. So Lear "gets in the way of everything until the end of the year".

There's something else that's worrying him when we meet at the London offices of Electric Pictures. He thanks me warmly for the "fulsome" review (I'd said he was "magnificent"). "I always read them," he says, "I'm not one of those actors who say they don't. They can be extremely helpful." He thought critics would attack him as Captain Birds Eye going bonkers. Not exactly. The London Evening Standard said he was "hugely memorable" The Sunday Telegraph's critic said Holm was "the best, of those I have seen, since the late Eric Porter's, nearly 10 years ago." The Spectator had "never seen one so intimately moving". The Sunday Times man said Holm "joins the three greatest Lears of my theatre-going experience ." The Times' said it "may be the best Lear I have seen".

Holm sits on the sofa, at 65, a brisk, stocky, tanned figure, who after 45 years as an actor admits that 1997 is already "extraordinary". So what's worrying him? He tells the story of a despairing Laurence Olivier locking himself in his dressing room after a performance. When his dresser knocked on the door and told him the show was a triumph, Olivier replied - and Holm imitates the agony of Olivier's voice: "Yes, but how did I do it?"

The rehearsals, previews and opening of Lear have been a breeze. "I can't remember a more uncomplicated, happy - for want of a better word, because it's a tragedy - event. Now is the problem for me. Sustaining it. Because I am out of training. I haven't sustained a part for 30 years. There will be terrible tendencies, because of all the filming to ..." The sentence trails off. "Perhaps boredom will set in. It always does. You run out of permutations, doing it again and again, and you start changing things." Don't the audience make each night different? "I don't notice the audience," he says, giving some hint of his history of stage fright, "I daren't."

We are here to talk about this month's Ian Holm release, Big Night, a charmingly off-beat film written, directed and starring Stanley Tucci (best known, over here, for Murder One). Big Night is a European-style movie about two brothers, Italian immigrants, trying to run a restaurant in New Jersey: the chef is a perfectionist and his front-of-house brother is a pragmatist. A small-budget movie, Big Night became a surprise hit in the States, making the country's Top 10. As Pascal, the Italian- American who runs the popular rival restaurant which serves inferior food, Holm goes spectacularly over the top. At one moment he bites Tucci's backside. "Every time I would do something Stanley would say to me, yes, do more. My ex-wife saw it and said, 'You were outrageous'."

He plays another American - a New York cop, believe it or not - in Sidney Lumet's Night Falls on Manhattan with Andy Garcia. He's also in Luc Besson's The Fifth Element with Bruce Willis, Danny Boyle's A Life Less Ordinary, and he's a lawyer in Atom Egoyan's The Sweet Hereafter. The 50 films he has done is nothing compared to the number of commercials. He was in a scene in one film in which the TV was on in the background and the voiceover on the ad was his own.

He never "particularly wanted" to be an actor. He was a "no-hoper" at school and his Dad, who was a doctor at a mental asylum, and with whom he did not get on "particularly well', asked him what he was going to do. Holm said, "Be an actor." His Dad said, "Prove it", which Holm considers "the best two words". He played Hercule Poirot in the local amateur dramatic society. Then a professional actor living in Worthing, where Holm's parents had retired, took on the role of his first drama teacher. "He thrust his tongue down my throat and I didn't know what the hell to do with it."

Holm went to RADA, which was interrupted by National Service, which in turn was interrupted when he fell out of a truck and broke his back. The injury still troubles him. Then he went to Stratford. "It took me a very very long time to think I was any good at all. In the early days I didn't know what people were talking about."

You get some idea of Holm's approach - the detail, clarity, and precision - from his description of Olivier. "When I was in Brook's Titus, Olivier had this extraordinary moment. Pure technique. Alan Webb, as Marcus the elder brother, had this long, long tirade, which ended on this very high note. Sir used to get himself up against this pillar, with the light shining on his eyes, and then roll his eyes up, so the light only caught the white, and then in a stage whisper would say "Why - I - have - not - another - tear - to - shed" with all the d's and t's very clear, so it was absolutely audible at the back. I used to go and watch this - as I was killed on page two every night - and think, how do you do it? It was magic." The Olivier spell hasn't lasted. "I find his stuff almost laughable now. And yet, Oh god, I thought he was ... great."

Holm's Lear has its seeds in the work he did 30 years ago when he was an actor on a long-term contract with Peter Hall's company at Stratford, going from Claudio, Troilus and Ariel to Richard 111, Prince Hal and Henry V. "People grew within the company. The Roy Dotrices, David Warners, myself, and so on. And there was a vitally important segment of the group, the middle bracket, the Brewster Masons, the Paul Hardwicks, the William Squires, who in Shakespeare are absolutely vital to play the Warwicks and the Essexes and the whatever-whatever. There's been a tendency, particularly up there" - he gestures out of the window, as if in the direction of Stratford-upon-Avon - "over the last decade or so, to not look after that area at all. So there's been a reversal to the old-fashioned star system. You get a glittering central performance and the rest is silence."

With Lear he's back with the sort of company he knew at Stratford. It was two years ago that he said yes to Richard Eyre. He didn't think he was going to have to do it. Hence the green card. "Because of all the stage fright, and the rest of it, I thought, two years, plenty of time to back out."

`Big Night' opens on 30 May