The Deborah Ross interview: Steven Berkoff

He's a mesmerising actor and a brilliant playwright, but he's been known to threaten critics. He has an unwavering faith in his own genius, but he's constantly on the attack. What's behind Steven Berkoff's monstrous ego? Believe it or not, it's an insecure East End boy called Leslie
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The Independent Online

Am I frightened of meeting Steven Berkoff? Well, put it this way, the night before the interview, I have this terrifying dream in which I meet him, lose it completely and ask: "So, Steven, do you have a favourite colour?" And: "What did you think of Cats?" Needless to say, I wake up in a terrible, gibbering, teeth-chattering sweat. You just don't playfully toy with Steven Berkoff. He called one journalist who gave his autobiography a bad review a "desiccated hack". He once threatened to kill a critic so convincingly that police protection was felt to be required. Steven's last interview with this paper went as follows:

Interviewer: What gives you most pleasure in life?

Berkoff: I can't answer such a fat question. You sound like the Daily Mirror. It's a silly question. When you have grown up, ask me grown-up questions.

We meet at the King's Head in Islington, north London, the pub/theatre where his latest play, The Secret Love-Life of Ophelia, is currently being performed. He is wearing black. Black might be his favourite colour, actually. His looks are mesmerisingly spooky. His looks are Hannibal Lecter via every chilling, bullet-headed serial killer there has ever been in Prime Suspect. And Cracker. (No offence, Steven! Personally, I find that look most attractive!) His eyes are an icy, starey, un-giving blue. His voice is Tom Baker-ish, very articulated, very actoooooorly. (Nothing wrong with that, Steven.) I hope to win him over, to make him nice to me, by parading my fear, by telling him about my nightmare.

"How horrid," he says, coldly, when I've finished.

"Um... so, do you have a favourite colour?"

"No."

"It's not black?"

"No."

I don't think I need ask about Cats. (It's jolly good, by the way. Love "Memory". Total classic.)

We wander round the corner to a coffee shop. Here, he takes out his tobacco tin, which has a skull on it. Um... Favourite vegetable? "No." He rolls a cigarette slowly, carefully, menacingly. Possibly, he does everything menacingly. Possibly, he washes his socks menacingly. Is this just the way he is? Or something he's developed? A contrived effect? I don't know. I only know that my palms are horribly clammy, and remain so until I ask him if he has a middle name, and he says, "Not at the moment."

Not at the moment?

"I may have had, but I threw it out. I've changed my names around."

You've changed your names around?

"My first name used to be Leslie. I snipped that off and put my middle name, which was Steven, in the front. Then I took the Berks..." Berks? "My father changed it from Berkovitch to Berks, which I detested. So I gave it back the 'off' to retain the ethnic identity..."

Hang on, Steven, what are you saying here? That your true name is Leslie Berks? "Yes." Leslie Berks! Steven Berkoff, you can be frightened of. But Leslie Berks? I don't think so. Leslie Berks, surely, shops at Cecil Gee and wears jokey aprons at barbecues. I laugh. I can't help myself. He laughs. Well, he goes: "Heeeeeeh," on a single, rather sinister note, which I think is his laugh. But then he says: "Of course, the problem is that, inside me, and even though he's all shrivelled up, there is still a little Leslie Berks. Oh, yes. There is still a little Leslie Berks inside, going boo-hoo-hoo."

As there is, I think.

What to make of Steven Berkoff, formerly Leslie Berks? A tricky one, this. I know that just as he has it in for a lot of people, they have it in for him. I know a lot of people think he thinks too much of himself, is too monstrously egotistical. Indeed, when I ask him which contemporary plays will still be of interest in, say, 200 years' time, he can't, initially, think of any apart from his own. "Even the ones I wrote a quarter of a century ago are still modern, because they touch on various emotions that are eternal."

I go on to ask him if he ever suffers twinges of self-doubt, ever loses faith in his own genius. He replies: "I can't really afford to have too many doubts. I'm like a kind of small state surrounded by unsympathetic nations, so I can't drop my vigilance. Others may be able to relax, go a bit mad, have a nervous breakdown occasionally, go on the piss, but I have to be vigilant. I am a small state. I have to protect my little empire."

So, invade before you're invaded? Attack before you're attacked? Have your armies poised, at the ready, always? And what is he protecting, ultimately? That little Leslie Berks, going boo-hoo-hoo? Perhaps. Certainly, I'm beginning to suspect his psyche might actually be a surprisingly brittle and dainty thing.

Whatever, I do hope that Steven Berkoff, the PR disaster, doesn't ever totally eclipse Steven Berkoff the actor (impossible to take your eyes off him), director (startlingly original, particularly his Shakespeare and Kafka adaptations), and playwright. His early plays – East, West, Greek – remain among the most remarkable in post-war British theatre, and probably will still be around in 200 years.

East, particularly, will always be a reminder of his blazing talent. Based on his own uneasy youth, it's sort of Shakespeare meets Clockwork Orange via the East End, and, interestingly, I can now see, has a main character called Les – Leslie? – who hates his own name: "It's soft, it's gooey, but choose it I did not... in my mother's hot womb did she curse this name on me..." Later, Les says: "I was always lonely, you know what I mean? Just lonesome, basically. I think, like, one is born that way as if it was something like a habit or the colour of your hair." Is this you, Steven? Yes, he says. Are you still lonely? "As I've got older I've found, you know, a kind of camaraderie in the work I do. I've found allies, although there is still a sense of isolation at the back. But that's kind of inbred."

He was born in 1937, in the Jewish East End, to a doting mother, Polly, and a largely absent father, Albert Berkovitch. Albert, a tailor who made zoot suits for West Indians, was something of a womaniser, flashy dresser – always wore a trilby and monogrammed handkerchiefs – and gambler. His shop was beneath a betting establishment, so "much of the profit from the old man's hard-earned calluses, produced over 40 years of cutting with the huge shears, was frittered away on the nags, the dogs, and anything else from poker to bridge".

Even when he wasn't in the betting shop, Albert had little time for Steven. "He didn't have sufficient interest in me. I didn't understand why." Steven was continually being uprooted. During the war, he was evacuated to Luton, then it was a year in America, then back to Luton, then back to the East End. He never had a bar mitzvah. Why not? "This was the source of angst for me at an early age because everyone else was having that done to them. It's a kind of ritual crossing, a rite of passage, and if it's not done to you, you haven't been, like, stamped with the authority. I think my father didn't really have any interest in making one for me. I needed someone to say: Right, you're going to the classes and you're doing this. But he didn't. I think, actually, my father was more worried about the cost of making the party afterwards. At that time, you had to rent a hall, invite the relatives, get the catering..."

Was your father violent? "No more so than anyone else. He had a big temper; he was a bit of a shouter. A few cuffs here and there, probably deserved. Was I frightened of him? In the early days I was, yes, but then one day he went to give me my usual cuffing and I was about 14 and as he came for me I took my stance. I stood up to him with my fists up, ready for a punch-up. He never touched me again after that. I got too big."

He says he always knew he'd end up doing something in the performing arts. Why, I ask, when there was no family precedent? "Some children," he replies, "just have a sense of their own destination." Perhaps, I put it to him, it was a desire for an audience. A desire to be noticed and recognised. A desire to be centre-stage, literally. A desire to prove himself not the worthless, cuffable irrelevance his father took him to be?

"It's a possibility," he concedes grudgingly. But then he seems rather taken with the idea. "It is a possibility that there are certain ingredients that go into people who feel the need to do creative acts. I think they are: the father must give you very little love; you must feel isolated; you must be uprooted; and eventually the world becomes the father and you say I'm going to impress you, no matter what. I will impress you so much I will bladder you with my impression. And no one will ever be able to stop me. No one."

So, the little Leslie Berks who went boo-hoo-hoo, shrivelled away to make space for the considerably more commanding and menacing presence of Steven Berkoff? Someone who will practically club people into noticing him?

Is this, also, why he finds criticism so hard to take? Because it's rejection all over again? "When I have criticism that I feel is unfair, the rejection does disturb me, but it also strengthens me. I used to get turned down for all sorts of jobs. I used to writhe in pain but then I would say: Good. Good, I will get stronger for this."

At the moment, he seems to have it in for John Peters at The Sunday Times. "He's had an obsession about me for years. Years and years. Obsessed. Whatever I do, he has to tear it to pieces, but not in any way that is creative."

I do think, though, that his earlier, more autobiographical works have the edge on his later ones. The Secret Love-Life of Ophelia – a two -hander based on imagined letters between Hamlet and Ophelia – might very well not be around in 200 years time. It does seem rather overstretched and arch. (No offence, Steven. What do I know?)

I see it on its first preview night, when the audience sniggers in the wrong places, which isn't an especially good sign. What's it about? The denial of love, he says. "The most vital part of your humanity is the love you have for others. To deny it, is to deny your life. What is my heart beating for? Is it beating just to eat, to sleep, to go to the toilet? No, it beats because of the ultimate quest in life, which is the love that you want to express."

Has he ever felt like this? Yes, he says. "The play is a memory of a love I couldn't have." Why couldn't you? "I was married."

If love should never be denied, Steven, why didn't you leave your wife? "These are the sorts of decisions you have to make," he says. Anyway, "it happens to me every seven years". Falling madly in love? "Yes."

He's been married twice, and now lives with Clara Fisher, a German musician. He is quite the Jewish housewife, it turns out. He's an excellent cook. "I do a devilish borscht and I'm very good at pickles. I used to make jars and jars of sweet- and-sour pickled cucumbers."

He has no children. Or, at least, I thought he had no children until I put it to him that it's a pity he's never been a father, because I imagine he'd find it interesting. "Oh, but I do have a daughter," he says.

"A daughter?"

"From a previous relationship, a long, long time ago. I think, now, she must me about... I'd guess... 38?" "Do you see her?"

"From time to time."

"Could you have been involved in her upbringing, if you'd wished it?"

"I can't really talk about it."

Later, he talks as if he hadn't any children, describes what it's like not to be a father. "Children balance you, earth you, stop you floating around like an amorphous thing. It's what you're made for. Your brain is programmed. So when you don't have children, you do other things. You go crazy, you overwrite, do too much performing, become a theatre machine." Is he, I wonder, too solipsistic for fatherhood?

He is, indeed, quite spectacularly narcissistic. But, then, I suppose he has to be, in order to make that "small state" worth defending. Whatever, our time is up. I say that I hope I haven't bored him too much. He says: "No, no, no, it's been fascinating."

I don't know. Is he sending me up? He pockets his tobacco tin with the skull on it. We wander back to the King's Head. He is a kind of one-off genius, I think. And not too terrifying, when you think of him as Leslie Berks...

Leslie Berks! No offence, though, Steven. It could probably grow on me, given time.

'The Secret Love-Life of Ophelia' will be playing at the King's Head until 28 July. Tel: 020-7226 1916

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