How We Met: Jon Blair & Sir Antony Sher

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Antony Sher, 58, was born in Cape Town and joined the Royal Shakespeare Company (RSC) in 1982, winning his first of two Olivier Awards for a breakthrough role in 'Richard III' in 1985. He went on to star in such films as 'Mrs Brown' and 'Shakespeare in Love', and in 2000 won the KBE award for services to theatre. He and RSC director Greg Doran were one of the first gay couples to sign a civil partnership.

I first met Jon at an anti-apartheid fundraiser in 1988. It was called Two Dogs and Freedom, which came from a beautiful poem written by an eight-year-old boy in Soweto: "When I'm old I would like to have a wife and two children – a boy and a girl – and a big house and two dogs and freedom."

Both my friendship with Jon and my involvement in Two Dogs have been part of my political education. Although I was born and brought up in South Africa, I didn't have a clue about the atrocities my family had been part of simply by enjoying a life of luxury with not a moment's conscience about the misery the majority of people were living through.

Last year, Jon and I finally got the chance to work together. I had heard the shocking story about the murder of a South African actor called Brett Goldin. He had been due to join a production of Hamlet at the RSC, but on Easter Saturday – just days before he was due to travel – he and a friend were shot dead by a gang of car thieves. I strongly identified with Brett, a young, gay, Jewish actor who had been incredibly excited about performing at the RSC – that could have been me 40 years ago. I rang Jon a couple of days later to talk about making a film, but I was approaching it from a very personal point of view and he said we would have to show the broader picture of the violence in South Africa. In many ways the film we made is about the legacy of Apartheid. That poison is still there, manifesting itself in terrible crime figures.

Jon and I share a fascination with the dark side of humanity. One day during filming, I was very upset after meeting grieving relatives. I remember asking Jon why I keep visiting these dark subjects. He told me that, yes, they were upsetting, but also fascinating. I think it's an important part of our relationship that we're both prepared to look at the things one would prefer not to look at.

Jon often comes to see my shows and we'll have a meal afterwards. Sometimes one prefers friends who aren't honest, but you know instantly what Jon thinks of something. A year or two ago I directed my first play, called Breakfast with Mugabe. I was so pleased to see Jon there on the first night and to hear that he liked the show – he's one of those people whose opinion means a great deal.

Jon Blair, 56, was a producer of 'Spitting Image'. Born in South Africa, his 1995 film 'Anne Frank Remembered' won an Academy Award for best documentary, while his 1983 film about Oskar Schindler, narrated by Dirk Bogarde, preceded Spielberg's hit feature by 10 years. He lives in London and Suffolk with his partner, Yvonne, and their twin seven-year-old sons.

I think it was almost inevitable that Tony and I would meet – we're the same age, both work in show business, and were born in South Africa to families who potentially descend from the same town in Lithuania. We have a common core of totally assimilated, non-believing Jewishness. I'm probably more politically educated than Tony, which doesn't mean very much but it makes for a nice friendship, because we come at things from a slightly different perspective, which showed in our approaches to Murder Most Foul. But we both have an interest in big stories with human appeal. If you look at my work, which is much less distinguished than his, it tends to have the same core of compassion and individual stories within the bigger political world.

I've done my time as a war reporter but I knew that for the film to work, Tony had to experience that too. He responded fantastically – he wasn't luvvyish and knew he had to educate himself before he could educate the audience. That's what he brings to performances. When he did Richard III, he deliberately took himself out of his comfort zone. In that sense, he's the ultimate method actor. There's a moment in the film when we're driving to see a man who is allegedly the boss of one of the biggest gangs in Cape Town – where the rate of murder is running at about 2,000 a year – and who may have been responsible for killing Brett Goldin. Tony says he's spent his whole career playing bad guys – Macbeth, Richard III, Hitler – and you've got to understand these people. But then he's confronted with a real bad guy and says that, actually, he doesn't give a fuck about their perspective. It was fascinating how he was prepared to show his vulnerability in that way – it's probably what makes him a very good actor.

Off stage, Tony has a reputation for being potentially quite sharp with people, but I find him to be a sweetie pie. We lead very different lives, but I suspect making this film has brought us closer together.

'True Stories: Murder Most Foul' is on More 4 on 25 September at 9pm. 'The Giant', written by Antony Sher, opens at The Hampstead Theatre, London, on 1 November