I had been warned not to mention The Sound of Music. This was not going to be easy since, when I was aged six, during a Sunday matinee at the Pinney theatre in Boise, Idaho, I had learned, as Captain von Trapp led his family across the Alps to safety, that you could cry simply because you were happy.
Now, headed toward our agreed-upon Mayfair location, I was about to meet the man who referred to the film that had made him a household name as “S&M” and “The Sound of Mucus”. I should, I thought, keep my memories to myself.
What immediately impressed me about Chris was not sternness or reserve. It was his elegance, his warmth and his youthful, almost vulnerable curiosity. It’s always a moment when you meet with a star to discuss a role you would like them to play. How much do you woo? How much space do you give them? What’s the way in?
Chris made it easy because of the work he’d already done. He had been reading Tolstoy’s work, and reading about him – he told me things I didn’t know. Tolstoy had composed a waltz. Chris, himself an accomplished pianist, wondered if I’d thought about the character playing it in the film.
We talked about marriage, too, the challenges and the rewards. It was clear that this was a man who was deeply engaged with the experience of love and commitment. I was, not surprisingly, a bit anxious about the coming together of Chris and Helen Mirren. The tempestuous love story of Leo and Sofya Tolstoy was the very heart of the film. In another situation you might have gotten the actors in for a “chemistry read”. Not an option with two such gifted, celebrated veterans.
Still, the task was sizeable: to convince the audience that these people had been married for 50 years, had 13 children together, buried five of them and had one of the most fiery, difficult and passionate relationships ever written about. To find and express this history would be a complex acting challenge. I believe Chris’s own strong feeling about the marriage, his past difficulties and his remarkable relationship with his wonderful wife Elaine, contributed so much to the texture of the film.
There was, even in the moment of greatest conflict between his Tolstoy and Helen Mirren’s Sofya an underlying sense of wonder and respect for the power and intelligence of this woman he had loved for so long. There was a sense that they understood each other in a way that no one else ever could. One of the great pleasures on that set was to watch Chris and Helen laugh and play, tease each other, whisper together like a couple of kids. Their connection was deep and joyful.
When I was writing the script, I had concocted a love scene between the two of them drawing on Leo and Sofya’s pet names for each other. This required Chris to enter their bedroom and after getting beyond his very legitimate anger at her, to strip off his clothes, begin crowing like a rooster and throw himself into bed with her.
Many people questioned whether this scene would work when they read it and they were right to wonder. It required absolute commitment on each actors’ part. If there was even a hint of doubt or embarrassment it would dissolve into a heap of ridiculousness. I remember asking Chris if he had any questions, dreading that the first out of his mouth might be: “Why the fuck did I take this job?” But he simply said: “I don’t think so. We should probably just do it.”
And do it they did. The years of struggle and conflict that characterised the Tolstoys’ long, fraught journey dissolved, leaving young lovers drunk on the possibility of each other. I remember looking at my producer Chris Curling. We knew what a privilege it was to stand it that room, so close to greatness.
I remember rehearsing the scene in which Tolstoy dies. He suggested we go around the room, myself, Helen, James McAvoy, Paul Giamatti, Anne-Marie Duff and John Sessions and share any experiences we had of being with someone at the moment of their death. We told our stories. He nodded and said: “I think I understand.”
The work he proceeded to do was so naked, simple and true. He had managed to do that which every director dreams of: to take a line, a scene, an entire role with all it’s insufficiency, and induce a little alchemy. My words he made gold.
The last time I saw Chris, he was receiving a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame. He seemed a little put off by the fuss, a bit embarrassed by it all. It was the work that mattered to him – and the people, because even there, with all the noise and all the press, he found time to speak to my daughter Olivia, who had met him on set all those years ago. He greeted her, asked her about herself, made her feel seen.
Afterwards, Olivia said to me: “Chris is a lovely man, isn’t he?” “Yes, sweetie,” I said. “He is absolutely splendid.”