Christopher Lee: You Ask The Questions

(Such as: you formed a great double act with Peter Cushing, but did you get on in real life? And what were you scared of as a child?)
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The Independent Online

The actor Christopher Lee was born in London in 1922. His mother was an Italian contessa, his father a high-ranking officer in the Royal Rifle Corps. In 1957, Hammer Films cast him as the monster in The Curse of Frankenstein, kicking off a career in cinematic villainy that would see him notch up some 300 film credits, which no other actor has matched. Most recently, he has played Saruman The White in the The Lord of the Rings trilogy. He is married, with one daughter, and divides his time between England and Italy.

What scared you as a child? Charlotte Riglin, London

I was very frightened of masks. I can't explain why. I remember that a governess I had once put on a devilish mask, came into my room when I was in bed and made scary noises. It terrified me. That's why I don't like looking at some of the special effects that they use to distort people's faces in films today. I think it's quite unnecessary.

Is it true that you met J R R Tolkien? Do you think he would have approved of your portrayal of Saruman? Bob Wadsworth, Inverness

I did meet him, very briefly, in the Fifties. It was in a pub that he used to go to in Oxford, called the Eagle and Child. I was there having a beer and I was completely overcome when he walked in. I had already started reading the books and thought, "This man has created a unique form of literature - one of the great works of all time." While I was filming The Lord of the Rings, I thought about what he would have thought all the time, and hope he would have approved. I'm still an enormous fan - I read The Lord of the Rings every year.

What, in your opinion, is the greatest threat to our civilisation? Martin Palmer, London

Terrorism is the obvious answer, but it goes deeper than that. I think that - apart from the fields of science and medicine - we live in an age of decline. Look at the world. There is decline in morals, ideals, manners, respect, truthfulness: just about everything, in fact.

What do you consider to be your greatest performance? Karen Milward, Leeds

Without a doubt, Mohammed Ali Jinnah, the founder of the nation of Pakistan, whom I played in the 1998 film Jinnah. He was to Pakistan what Gandhi was to India. I took the part because I thought that the truth should be told about his life. He has been so maligned and misrepresented, most notably in the film Gandhi, where he was portrayed as some kind of demon, which he certainly wasn't. But the film hasn't been generally released. I don't know why, except that today, if you mention that a film is about a Muslim, in some parts of the world, they will say that only means one thing.

Did your mother approve when you decided to become an actor? Lola Dean, by e-mail

She was absolutely appalled. Her behaviour was like something out of an old tragedy. She was an Edwardian, you see. She said: "Think of the disgrace you will bring on the family." When I reminded her that her own grandparents had founded the first opera company in Australia, she didn't have much of an answer. But she did add one comment, which I have always found very amusing: "Think of the appalling people you will have to deal with." And I can't deny that.

What is the last good film that you saw at the cinema? Tony Granger, by e-mail

I hardly ever go. I prefer to watch the old movies. The film stars of today, in my opinion, don't compare with their predecessors. The best are very good, but the last giant of cinema, I think, was Bette Davis. One actor I admire, who could become a giant, is Johnny Depp. He has elements that other actors don't possess.

In which role did you have to wear the most make-up? Charles Paice, Rochester

Probably The Curse of Frankenstein. It took two or three hours to put it on. These days, that's nothing. One character in The Lord of the Rings was in make-up for 11 hours!

You and Peter Cushing were a great horror double act, but how did the two of you actually get on in real life? Jim Tyrrell, Dublin

We got on wonderfully well. He was one of the greatest human beings I have ever known, and one of the finest actors. I miss him very, very much.

How do you vote? And do you think that Ann Widdecombe was right to say that Michael Howard has "something of the night about him"? Jerry Klein, Birmingham

I vote Conservative, and I think Michael Howard is the ideal person to lead the party. When the last election was won by Labour, I said to my wife, "The man we need is Michael Howard", and I've said it ever since. He is an honourable man and his power lies in the fact that he is a splendid debater. Ann Widdecombe's comment is meaningless, as far as I'm concerned.

Which was the best year of your life? Peter Butler, by e-mail

1961, the year I got married. No further explanation is necessary. I married fairly late, between 39 and 40. I couldn't afford to before then. Also, of course, I had to find someone who was prepared to take on the role of being the wife of an actor. It's a very uncertain life.

How do you get into character when acting in front of a blue screen? Jaz Singh, Leicester

Well, a real actor has to have an awful lot of imagination, and I do have a great deal. Of course, you know what's in the script, but you don't know how they're going to do it. Sometimes, it's a complete surprise when the film comes out. Only then do you find out what's above you, below you, in front of you and behind you. You can have no idea at the time and have to rely on your own instincts: you can never be a proper actor without good instincts.

You have said that the one thing you would have loved to have been is an opera singer. Do you regret that it didn't happen? And which one operatic role would you have liked to have made your own? Paul Owen, Worcester

I greatly regret it. I would rather have been an opera singer than anything else. I almost joined the Stockholm Opera in 1948, after the greatest tenor of the day, Jussi Björling, heard me sing at a party. He said: "You've got a voice. What are you doing with it? Come and sing to me tomorrow." So I went along and he said that if I could pay for my board and lodging in Stockholm, they would take me on and train me as a permanent member of the opera company. Well, of course, it didn't happen because I didn't have the money. Iago is the operatic role that I really would have liked to have made my own.

Would you like to be immortal, like Saruman The White? Jules Fisk, Colchester

I can't think of a worse curse.

'Lord of Misrule: The Autobiography of Christopher Lee' is published by Orion, priced £18.99