Ian Holm: You Ask The Questions

How do you feel about being called 'The Lord of the Flings' in the press? And do you mind being a supporting actor rather than the star?
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The Independent Online

Sir Ian Holm, 72, was born in a mental hospital in Goodmayes, Essex, where his father was superintendent. Inspired to act after seeing Les Misérables aged eight, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before beginning a 15-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1954. Following a severe case of stage-fright in a production of The Iceman Cometh in 1976, he has only returned to the stage three times, including his acclaimed portrayal of King Lear at the National Theatre in 1997. His film credits include Alien, Chariots of Fire and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played Bilbo Baggins. He lives in London with his fourth wife, and has five children from his previous relationships.

Sir Ian Holm, 72, was born in a mental hospital in Goodmayes, Essex, where his father was superintendent. Inspired to act after seeing Les Misérables aged eight, he studied at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art before beginning a 15-year stint at the Royal Shakespeare Company in 1954. Following a severe case of stage-fright in a production of The Iceman Cometh in 1976, he has only returned to the stage three times, including his acclaimed portrayal of King Lear at the National Theatre in 1997. His film credits include Alien, Chariots of Fire and the Lord of the Rings trilogy, in which he played Bilbo Baggins. He lives in London with his fourth wife, and has five children from his previous relationships.

It's rumoured that Peter Jackson will make a film of The Hobbit. Would you appear in it if he did?
Oliver Warman, Bromley

Yes. But I might be a bit old, not in Hobbit terms, of course, but in human terms. I'd be into my mid-seventies by the time filming started. But if it does happen, I'll be on the bandwagon.

Your generation of actors have the ability to play a great range of characters. Do you despair at the current generation of pretty, Botoxed and surgically enhanced actors who can only play themselves?
Guy Wilton, by e-mail

Yes, it does worry me. Everybody looks the same now. Some of them can act and an awful lot of them can't. Scarlett Johansson was wonderful in Lost in Translation, and then, seemingly within a couple of weeks, she became completely Hollywoodised. I was shocked. I didn't recognise her. I hope to God it's just a phase. At the moment, the movie business has very little to do with artistic venture and that appals me.

Do you own a Bilbo Baggins doll?
Rosie Dugdale, Blandford

I had several, but I've given them all to my nieces. They were very pleased.

Who'd win in a fight - Bilbo or Ash from Alien?
Rob Beattie, by e-mail

Ash. Bilbo would trip over his large feet. And I fear Ash would devise some terrible foul in round three. I don't think old Bilbo would stand a chance, I'm afraid.

The Lord of the Rings made you a major-league star. How has it affected your life? Have you been mobbed? Showered in fan mail?
Pippa Small, London

I'm completely amazed by the reaction that the films have had. I get a lot of fan mail addressed to Bilbo and sometimes Sir Bilbo - it's hardly ever addressed to Ian Holm, in fact. My business manager drafts the replies, and then I pop in to the office and sign them, "Bilbo!". But, of course, it hasn't changed my life. Nothing could possibly change my life.

What is your opinion of method acting?
Peter Lacy, Milton Keynes

Whatever it takes, is my opinion of method acting and indeed any other kind of acting. Look at Brando and De Niro. But it's not my cup of tea. I'm more of the old school, summed up by the famous comment Laurence Olivier made to Dustin Hoffman while they were filming Marathon Man: "Try acting, dear boy". After all, it is just pretending. Method acting can also be very time-consuming. If everyone's ready for a shot to start, except for one actor who's intent on getting to the bottom of their soul, it can be a bit annoying.

Is Tony Blair a good actor?
Eve Forbes, Farnborough

Yes. All politicians are, otherwise they wouldn't have made it. He's very good at conviction politics. Whether or not one agreed with his decision to go into Iraq over weapons of mass destruction - and I didn't - he was absolutely convincing on the subject.

How did you feel about being dubbed, "The Lord of the Flings" by the Daily Mail, which recently ran the serial of your memoirs?
Robert Dellmann, by e-mail

No comment... except that I will. I didn't mind about that. What upset me was their suggestion that I'd abandoned my children, which I've never done. It's the worst kind of gutter press, but it's yesterday's news now. However, it probably will stick in my mind, just as I only remember bad reviews. There was a certain gentleman, who shall remain nameless, called Mark Lawson, who said in his review of my Lear at the National Theatre that he was surprised that I could have fathered five children with a member that size. And there was another review, ages ago, which said that I had a voice like a thumbnail scraping down a windowpane. I've forgotten all the good ones, you see.

How did they do the decapitation scene in Alien?
Jonathan McVeigh, Slough

It wasn't easy. There were various stages. They had to build up my costume and squash my head into my body, as it were. Then they dangled a false head on the top. It wasn't a particularly pleasant film to do. It was 16 weeks of bloody hard work down at Shepperton Studios, full of uncomfortable situations. And of course, you have no idea at the time if the film's going to be any good.

What have you learnt from writing your memoirs?
Owen Tierney, Cork

For a start, I did not write them. They were written by my very good friend, Steven Jacobi. He's done a very good job of turning the life story of a very bland middle-class boy into something interesting. So, what have I learnt from reading my autobiography? Well, not much.

I've read that you were born in the mental hospital that your father ran. What memories do you have of your early years there?
Keith Hart, London

Well, of course, I wasn't allowed near any of the dangerous patients. But I do remember one who was called Mr Anderson. He was always immaculately dressed and, most days, he would fill a wheelbarrow with soil and then spend the rest of the day picking every grain of soil out of the wheelbarrow and putting it on the ground. I rather liked that. My childhood there was a pretty idyllic existence. I wouldn't go so far as to say I was happy, but it passed without too much trauma.

No matter what role you take on, you always seem to pull it off brilliantly. Which was the hardest to bring to life?
Joanna Knowles, by e-mail

I suppose I would have to say The Iceman Cometh because that was the one in which I collapsed and had my breakdown. It's a very difficult part. The character, Hickey, is talked about for 76 pages before he comes on so you've got all that time of terror in the wings. And then once you're on, you never draw breath until the end. That is a scar on my memory that will never go away.

Always the supporting actor, seldom the star... Would you have had it any other way?
Harriet Jacobson, London

Certainly not. As an actor, I'm very much a company person. And this also goes through my life: I have a dread of responsibility. I like someone else to be in charge.

'Acting My Life' by Ian Holm (and Steven Jacobi) is published today by Bantam Press, £18.99

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