Low, long, and suburban, the Nare Hotel—five and a half stars and counting—crouched over a huge Cornish beach. The dining room was all windows, and the magnificent view stretched out in every direction, observed glassily by an ancient clientele at candlelit tables draped in pink and white linen.
The whole thing was like an upmarket rest home. The heating was on at full blast. Scones and cake were served in the drawing room at 4:30 with clotted cream and canned conversation.
The owner was a blond called Toby—ex-navy—and the place was run with military precision. Everyone had their table. We all murmured, “Good evening” and “How was your day?,” as we were seated with great attention by the sweet Romanian and Slovakian waiters, a crew-cut brigade in tartan cummerbunds, white shirts, and waistcoats. Their sergeant majors were a couple of young Englishmen—queens, I presumed, but you never knew these days—and above them in the chain of command were two woman generals, Barbara and Alex, in navy-blue suits, a formidable duo in their 60s.
Everyone knew there was a film being made in the vicinity, and the words “Judi Dench” could be heard breaking on the waves of conversation that lapped against the pink linen. It was a gentle soundtrack with discrete crescendos and sudden silences, accompanied by a rhythm section of cutlery on china, corks discreetly pulled, and the crash of the ocean breaking on the rocks below. Judi-pop-boom. The tables and their patrician guests turned to silhouettes as the night drew in and the vague lights of faraway cargo ships moved slowly across the vast space.
In the gloom, Barbara made bananas flambé on a portable kitchen unit for a table of geriatric generals and their wives. She was from war-flattened Cologne, and the old wounds had healed with strange scars. Her son died fighting for England in Afghanistan, and they all knew.
“You’re absolutely marvelous, Barbara,” one general said with feeling, fixing her with a fierce glittering eyeball.
“Yes. We all think so,” confirmed his tight-faced wife.
The film was a Hollywood extravaganza and had taken over the area. The roads were blocked. The hotels in St. Austell were full of us, and at night cranes with bright lights illuminated the tumbledown coastal village that was our set. It was as if a spaceship had landed and the film crew were the aliens in their quilted coats and woolly hats, their tight trousers slung with walkie-talkies, hammers, rolls of gaffer tape, and all the tricks of the trade. They seethed across the nighttime village talking their strange language, drawing bushes and lamps, makeup ladies and hairdressers toward a nucleus of blinding light where a scene was being prepared on a tree stump. Two actors stood in the glare—prisoners marooned by the swirling Martians—and the director sat hunched under a black canopy dressed in black, a nutty black pope from the Crab Nebula.
Tim Burton was thin and anguished, and I liked him immediately. He may have had a kind of locked-in syndrome because he seemed unable to communicate in the conventional way, but it didn’t matter because he exuded a touching empathy and an infectious enthusiasm that made everyone want to turn somersaults. He certainly didn’t want to sit down and have a gossip, which was rather a relief in a way because I had run out of things to say. Instead he dashed around on the balls of his feet, an elf in black drainpipes, arms outstretched, long bony hands waving directions. During the day he smothered his face with sunblock so that he looked like Marcel Marceau or The Scream, by Munch. He was from outer space, but like all the great aliens, he came in peace. He is also one of the last auteurs. His vision is absolute, unsullied by the meddling of the desert hags in Hollywood. Due to a long string of hits, he is able to realize his aesthetic in the grandest possible manner, and this time I was a part of it.
Tim Burton was thin and anguished, and I liked him immediately.
It all started when my new agent, Sue, told me that I had been offered a role in his latest film, Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children.
“I’m really pleased,” she said. “I’ve been working on this for a while.”
This is the kind of sentence with which a show-business agent often peppers sparse news. Well, for some reason (and I’m not blaming you, Sue), I got it into my head that the character I was being offered was called Mr. Barron. I gloomily set about reading the script one night in bed. My long-suffering boyfriend, Babinho—lying beside me—was more excited than I was.
“Trust me,” I groaned. “It’s going to be one line.”
“Maybe not. Maybe Tim Burton loves you.”
“I very much doubt it,” I snapped, and Babinho sighed, returning his attention to the great god Face Booky flickering from his iPhone.
Well, I couldn’t believe my eyes. Mr. Barron was a rather good part. Actually, it was a very good part. Someone had edited the script—it had been too long—and it was obvious they had cut out a lot of his dialogue, but some of it could easily be replaced, and then, well, next stop Hollywood. Someone once said there are no small parts, just small actors. I disagree. You can bash your head against the brick wall of a bad part and no one will notice, whereas a good part in a good script is like driving a Rolls-Royce over a cliff. There’s bound to be an explosion of some sort. You can’t go wrong.
So one wet evening in March I arrived at Tim Burton’s office in Belsize Park, and the door was opened by a legendary casting witch called Susie Figgis. We sat down on a leather couch in a big empty studio, where our bottoms made embarrassing sounds against the cushions, and she informed me with shining eyes that Tim was looking for the “real thing” for this role “and that’s why we want you!”
“Oh, great,” I replied. “Super.” When someone refers to you as the “real thing,” look busy because they are usually being reductive. You can’t necessarily act, but you “are” the part anyway. A little alarm bell tinkled, and I wondered what about me was the real thing for Mr. Barron. He was an alien—a “peculiar.” I suppose I was, too? Or maybe Babinho was right after all. Maybe Tim Burton actually liked me. This hardly seemed possible. Meanwhile, Susie and I chatted amiably about Catholicism. She had been at a convent in India; I at a monastery in Yorkshire. She always wanted to be a casting director. I wanted to be Saint Bernadette.
“Did you perform any miracles?”
“I’m here, aren’t I?”
Tee-hee-hee and Tim arrived, a bundle of raw energy, and took me out to see some gravestones in the garden. The house once belonged to Arthur Rackham.
“Trust me. It’s going to be one line.”
“Maybe not. Maybe Tim Burton loves you.”
“I very much doubt it.”
“Tim. Are you really offering me this part?” I asked, incredulous.
“Yes.” He laughed.
“I don’t have to audition?”
“No, of course not.”
I was overwhelmed. I hadn’t been offered a good part in at least five years. Not a really good part. We went back into the house and the three of us sat there, and I began to talk about Mr. Barron. I was giddy with excitement.
Tim seemed to love everything I said.
“That’s so true,” he screamed, pointing at Susie victoriously.
“Wait!” she screamed back.
“I just felt reading the script that his character completely disappeared once they got to Blackpool,” I continued smoothly.
“Exactly,” gasped Tim.
“Stop!” shouted Susie, and we both looked round.
“You’re not playing Mr. Barron,” she cried, breathless. “Your part is the ornithologist.”
Silence. Freeze-frame. They both looked at me, smiling, eyes glittering. I couldn’t even remember the ornithologist.
“Samuel L. Jackson is playing Mr. Barron,” said Tim apologetically after an appropriate pause.
Thank God for being a hooray. I slammed into dinner-party overdrive.
“Oh, well, of course, yes. How silly of me. He’s absolutely marvelous. Golly. I’m sure the ornithologist will be very exciting, too.”
“Oh, yes,” agreed Tim. “He’s absolutely perfect. He does everything right. He’s a typical English gentleman.”
“The real thing, you mean?”
“Exactly.” Talentless toff. I was right.
“Great. Well, let me have a read again, because honestly I can’t really remember him that well.” I artfully funneled a sob into a burp and beat a hasty retreat.
My phone rang as soon as I hit the street. It was Sue. “Susie just called me. She told me there was some confusion with the role.”
“Some confusion? Yes. You told me I was up for Mr. Barron.”
“No. It was always the ornithologist.”
“Well, I do get things wrong sometimes, but this is very peculiar.”
“Maybe someone at the studio told you the role was Mr. Barron,” ventured Sue cautiously.
“Well, it certainly wasn’t me.”
“No, of course not.”
Back in bed that night, my previous suspicions were confirmed.
“You see, Babinho? It is just one line after all. Well, 10 actually.”
To add insult to injury, the character was described as being in his 30s and very athletic.
In reality, I was approaching 56 and had just developed walking pneumonia.
“Sue,” I wanted to say on the phone the next day, “aside from the fact that if anyone had ever said the actual word ‘ornithologist,’ I would have remembered it. In the script this ornithologist is 30 years old. It seems strange that you have been working on getting me this job since Christmas and never once did you think of saying, ‘Oh, by the way, Rupert, ignore the fact that there is only one line and he’s 30 and athletic. That’s all going to change.’” I rambled on like this, seething with impotent fury, lying rigid in bed—this is what we actors do—but on the phone the next day I took the easy option. Sue and I had just started. It couldn’t go wrong right out of the stable.
“There’s not much there to get your teeth into,” I whined carefully. “I mean, I would never do such a small part.”
“Really?” she chirruped. “I don’t want to force you.”
“Good. Because I’m not doing it.”
She knew I would, and a month later there I was, dining on the crumbling cliff.
Copyright Rupert Everett 2020, extracted from To the End of the World, published in the U.K. by Little, Brown, an imprint of Little, Brown Book Group Ltd., on October 8, 2020