Julian Sands: A versatile British actor who deserved more respect

The actor, who appeared in films including ‘A Room with a View’ and ‘Leaving Las Vegas’, was never afraid to get his hands dirty – and the critics never gave him enough credit for that, writes Geoffrey Macnab

Wednesday 28 June 2023 12:39 BST
The debonair actor from the Yorkshire Dales embraced roles in every kind of movie imaginable
The debonair actor from the Yorkshire Dales embraced roles in every kind of movie imaginable (Shutterstock)

You saw him here, you saw him everywhere. One moment Julian Sands was in turn-of-the-century Florence, as the dashing Edwardian Englishman George Emerson opposite Helena Bonham Carter’s Lucy Honeychurch in Merchant Ivory’s sumptuous costume drama A Room with a View (1985); the next, he had spiders crawling all over his face in Frank Marshall’s creepy-crawly comedy Arachnophobia (1990). You might find him as Romantic poet Percy Shelley in Gothic (1986), or as a snarling eastern European pimp in Leaving Las Vegas (1995). He loved Harold Pinter, but that didn’t stop him from appearing in erotic Italian movies such as 1991’s Husbands and Lovers. He worked with everyone from visionary British director Derek Jarman to Hollywood horrormeister Jason Blum.

To call Sands – who has been confirmed dead, months after he went missing during a walking trip in the Californian mountains – versatile is to understate his talent hugely. The debonair English actor from the Yorkshire Dales popped up in every kind of movie imaginable. He could do toffs and he could do thugs – and just about everything in between as well. Auteur directors from Mike Figgis (with whom he collaborated countless times) to David Cronenberg, Wim Wenders and Terence Davies all clamoured to work with him. He made films in England, Europe and the US.

Sands was a bit of a hunk. As a young actor, he very nearly got his big break as the jungle hero in Hugh Hudson’s Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes. At the time, he didn’t even have an agent. The filmmakers considered him seriously for the role, but the project was delayed, and he lost the part to Christopher Lambert. Instead, he first gained international recognition playing British journalist Jon Swain in Roland Joffe’s far darker drama The Killing Fields (1984), set in Cambodia during the time of the Khmer Rouge’s genocide against its own people.

Julian Sands: Actor's major career highlights

David Puttnam, of Chariots of Fire fame, was producing the film. He wanted unknowns for the leading roles, and Sands fitted the bill. It was while working on The Killing Fields that he first met American actor John Malkovich, who became his lifelong friend. Director Joffe had been worried that they wouldn’t get on. Malkovich, who played American photojournalist Al Rockoff, was an abrasive American with bags of experience. Sands was a sensitive English public school boy near the start of his career. “It’s funny. Roland was very concerned that John and I would have antipathy [but] the moment we met, it was just such an instant bond,” Sands later recalled to interviewer Nicholas Vince.

Almost 40 years later, Sands did eventually get to play Tarzan after all, in the radio play Me, Cheeta: My Life in Hollywood, appearing opposite Malkovich’s Johnny Weissmuller.

Sands became an actor in a roundabout way. Growing up in Yorkshire, he loved appearing in village pantomimes but didn’t have an obvious route into the business. A girl he met through his public school debating society gave him the prospectus for the Royal Central School of Speech and Drama. He applied and was accepted. At first, he was a little intimidated by his peers. “Everybody seemed so much more glamorous and talented and confident,” he later recalled. However, he very quickly decided that the actor’s life was for him. Many of those contemporaries who had seemed so at ease at drama school struggled to adapt to the hand-to-mouth life of provincial rep, shared digs, and constant uncertainty about where the next role might come from. Sands, though, relished life on the road. In his early twenties, after he left drama school, he appeared in productions in pub theatres and in glorified home movies, but loved every minute of it.

“I doggedly never allowed my belief to be compromised,” Sands later said.

Julian Sands and Helena Bonham Carter in ‘A Room with a View’ (Merchant Ivory/Goldcrest/Kobal/Shutterstock)

It’s a revealing remark. In his movie career, Sands was never afraid to get his hands dirty, to take jobs in B-pictures and genre fare as well as in more prestigious productions. As long as there was a decent script and the director had a strong vision, he would sign up.

Sands possessed a saturnine quality that made him the perfect casting in darker roles. In interviews, he was articulate, affable, and often witty in an English deadpan way. On screen, helped by his gaunt features and intense gaze, he could convey real malevolence. It was little surprise that he was cast as Satan’s son, bent on destroying the world, in fantasy horror picture Warlock (1989).

He could also be very camp, and had a nice line in self-parody. Watch him in the Blum-produced “A Nasty Piece of Work” (an episode in the Into the Dark horror series), and you get a bit of both. He is almost Vincent Price-like as the overbearing and very manipulative boss who invites two male employees and their wives to dinner. “Two candidates, one enviable new role. One of you will become expendable,” he says, as he pits them against one another and then watches the mayhem unfold.

Julian Sands and Elisabeth Shue in ‘Leaving Las Vegas’ (Moviestore/Shutterstock)

It’s intriguing to compare the trajectories of Sands and Daniel Day-Lewis. Both emerged at around the same time and appeared together in A Room with a View. Day-Lewis was picky in the extreme in his choice of roles and, years later, has still only made a handful of films. By contrast, Sands seemed to gorge himself on everything that was going. He made so many movies in so many genres that critics didn’t always give him the respect he deserved. Day-Lewis’s filmography still looks positively emaciated next to that of Sands. It doesn’t have any TV horror movies or Italian erotic dramas to sit alongside all those earnest biopics and literary adaptations. Sands may not have won Oscars, but at least he had fun.

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