The Sitter's tale: Simon Callow

New faces at the National Portrait Gallery: the actor recalls squeezing into plastic armour and declaiming Falstaff's lines
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The Independent Culture
David Buckland and his wife are friends of friends, and I met them for the first time when I went to a National Portrait Gallery exhibition of Bruce Weber's work. We fell to talking, and he said, I would love to take your portrait. I said I would be thrilled and honoured because he's a great artist.

Then the idea came up for his new `fantasy' series. When he asked me to take part last year, I'd just said yes to doing Chimes at Midnight at Chichester where I was going to play Falstaff, so I suggested that I could pose as him. David said great, and that he'd get some props; he got a huge suit of plastic armour - it would have to be huge for me. I had quite a full beard at the time and he said, just come along to my house as you are.

It was unusual sitting for that kind of portrait, as he added things using a computer later. I didn't see the overall image until it was finished. Also, I hadn't yet played Falstaff - I hadn't even learnt the part. I donned the armour, which was too small, so we had to hold it together with bits of string, and I just let my brain kind of wander off into the idea of playing Falstaff.

It was done in an afternoon in July. I live just round the corner from David so it was very easy to set up. He asked for a key speech by Falstaff to accompany the picture, so I gave him the lines about honour: "What is honour? A word. What is that word `honour'? What is that `honour'?" I don't think he was very familiar with the character, but he was terribly struck by the lines. I gave him a book about Falstaff, and he was really taken with the story of this reprobate who was the friend of the King's son.

As I posed in the armour something happened to my mouth, and a kind of dog-like jaw developed. It turned out that I didn't do that in the performance. So this is a visualisation of an early vision of Falstaff I had, which in rehearsals turned into something quite different.

I'm delighted with the portrait, I love it, so much so I got 100 copies of the postcard of it from David. One so rarely gets meaningful images of yourself - as an actor you are photographed all the time but they are very formulaic images; people asking you to look this way, or smile. Doing this portrait was a real change.

Today is the last chance to see `David Buckland: Performances', including Simon Callow's 1998 portrait, at the National Portrait Gallery, WC2 (0171 306 0055).