- The Washington Times - Thursday, June 15, 2000

LOS ANGELES Ask Ian Holm how he goes about the business of acting, and he sputters a bit not the reaction you might expect from a performer with such a stellar stage and screen resume.

Trained at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts in London, Mr. Holm was a long-term player with the Royal Shakespeare Company and garnered a knighthood in 1998 for his distinguished career, which includes an Oscar nomination for "Chariots of Fire."

Yet queried about where the performances come from, how he conveys deep emotion through the subtlest of expressions in 1997's "The Sweet Hereafter" or the most outrageous of rantings in the current "Joe Gould's Secret," Mr. Holm's answer is: "I don't know why I do things."

Mr. Holm harks back to the set of "Alien," in which he played the malfunctioning robot Ash, to explain his creative process.

"Did I tell you the John Hurt story?" he asks, referring to the fellow British actor whose character was host to the embryonic alien that ravaged the crew of the spaceship Nostromo. "No? I will, because it kind of sums up what I feel. It's the scene where the thing comes out of his stomach."

The night before that action was shot, the cast's "American contingent," Yaphet Kotto and Harry Dean Stanton, tried to rattle Mr. Hurt with questions about the big scene, Mr. Holm says.

They asked Mr. Hurt if he was worried and nervous and how he would go about playing what became the horror classic's most memorable moment.

Mr. Hurt thought it over, began a low-key response about how he might try this or that, and then as Mr. Holm recalls, raising his own soft-spoken voice to a shout Mr. Hurt told Mr. Kotto and Mr. Stanton, "I guess I'll go out and just do it."

"It's a good analogy. It sums up what I feel about acting," Mr. Holm says. "Most of the time you just do it."

The 68-year-old Mr. Holm has gotten to do more than he expected at this stage in his career, when he figured he would be playing mostly smaller parts for elderly actors. Instead, director Atom Egoyan, and later Stanley Tucci, offered him a pair of plum lead roles, albeit in lower-budgeted independent films.

Mr. Holm starred in Mr. Egoyan's somber "The Sweet Hereafter" as an attorney crusading for the parents of children killed and injured in a school bus crash, a man haunted by his own grim family history.

In his current outing, Mr. Holm stars as the title character in Mr. Tucci's "Joe Gould's Secret," about a real-life, raving scholar of the New York City streets. Mr. Tucci co-stars as New Yorker writer Joseph Mitchell, whose profile of Gould in the 1940s briefly turned the bushy-bearded madman into a celebrity.

Directors enjoy Mr. Holm, often inviting the gracious, pliable actor back on subsequent movies. They include Kenneth Branagh ("Henry V," "Mary Shelley's Frankenstein"); Terry Gilliam ("Time Bandits," "Brazil"); Hugh Hudson ("Chariots of Fire," "Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan"); David Cronenberg ("Naked Lunch," "eXistenZ" ); and Franco Zeffirelli ("Hamlet," TV's "Jesus of Nazareth").

"I am amenable," Mr. Holm explains. "I always use the analogy of a tennis match that the director has to hit the ball first, then I'll hit it back with spin or slice it or whatever. I guess that's what they like. I will always offer a director a kaleidoscope. OK, do you want this facet, do you want that facet? It's up to you the director is the taste master."

"Joe Gould's Secret" was Mr. Holm's second film with director Tucci, after "Big Night."

"He was the only choice for Joe Gould. That was it," Mr. Tucci says. "He's a great actor, and he was perfect for the part. He's got a tremendous facility for language that the part called for, and he had a physical resemblance to Gould. Ian's very handsome, though we made him look not so for the part."

Mr. Holm says he enjoyed working with Mr. Tucci so much on "Big Night" that he would have taken any role he was offered in "Joe Gould's Secret."

"I think I'm very happy to have joined the Stanley Tucci repertory," he says. "I'm also very happy to have joined the Atom Egoyan repertory. I think that's called ensemble.

"I would love to get to a situation in movies where we nearly got in theater in the '60s, where you play a leading role one week and a walk-on the next week. Of course, that doesn't work. I'm talking about an ideal world. It would be wonderful to have a film repertory company like that, where you interchange and play small parts or big parts. That to me would be the ideal way of working."

While "Joe Gould's Secret" and "The Sweet Hereafter" played to small audiences in limited release, Mr. Holm has a couple of potential blockbusters coming up. He co-stars in two of the three epic films based on J.R.R. Tolkien's "Lord of the Rings," the first one due in theaters next year.

It's a hush-hush project, with a secrecy clause written into Mr. Holm's contract.

"I mustn't say anything about it. Otherwise, I'll get shot by the lady who just shut the door," Mr. Holm says, referring to a publicist who had just left the room.

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