A FISH CALLED WANDA

Michael Palin ce­ments his Nicest Man In Show­busi­ness rep by tak­ing time out to lis­ten to our daft ques­tions about his Baftaw­in­ning turn.

Empire (UK) - - CONTENTS - WORDS CHRIS HE­WITT

MICHAEL PALIN HAS two BAFTA awards on dis­play in his of­fice at his Lon­don home. Well, “slightly con­cealed”, says the ever-bash­ful for­mer Python. One marks an Acad­emy Fel­low­ship, awarded to him in 2013 for his TV work. The other is tes­ta­ment to per­haps his sin­gle great­est per­for­mance, as the stam­mer­ing, lovelorn Ken Pile in John Cleese’s clas­sic com­edy A Fish Called Wanda, for which Palin won Best Sup­port­ing Ac­tor in 1989. “I’m not sure which one is the Wanda one,” re­veals Palin. “I think it’s the one that needs pol­ish­ing.” With the movie about to turn 30, he told us how he ap­proached play­ing the film’s se­cret weapon.

THE BE­GIN­NING

“John and I met up fairly reg­u­larly be­tween other work,” says Palin of Wanda’s writer/star, and fel­low Python. The duo had just fin­ished work­ing to­gether on Monty Python’s The Mean­ing

Of Life when Cleese ca­su­ally men­tioned he was writ­ing a com­edy (then called A Gold­fish Called

Wanda). “He was very in­ter­ested in hav­ing a char­ac­ter who stam­mered,” re­calls Palin. “He knew my fa­ther had a stam­mer and John, with his pen­chant for re­search, felt he should talk to me about how a stam­mer might be played, so he could get it right. He said, ‘I’m go­ing to write this part and you’re the ob­vi­ous per­son to play it.’”

THE STAM­MER

Palin’s fa­ther, Ed­ward, who died in 1977, was af­flicted with a ter­ri­ble stam­mer, but Palin gen­tly dis­misses a sug­ges­tion that he played Ken as some sort of trib­ute. “I don’t think I did,” he says. “I don’t know if I would have taken on the part if my fa­ther had still been alive, to be hon­est. I’ve of­ten thought about this, and I think it prob­a­bly would have been a bit dif­fi­cult for me.” Palin took the role on one con­di­tion: that Ken’s stam­mer, while of­ten used for comedic ef­fect, would not com­pletely de­fine the char­ac­ter. “There’s a fierce­ness and a strength in Ken which makes him more than just the butt of jokes. I didn’t want him to be that at all.”

THE LOOK

Work­ing closely with Hazel Pethig, who had been the Pythons’ cos­tume de­signer from the off, Palin de­vel­oped Ken’s dis­tinc­tive look, from “slightly tight trousers which were a lit­tle too short” to a won­drous perm. “We did a few tests where I curled my hair,” says Palin. “Ev­ery time, steam was ris­ing from my head. My hair was burn­ing! So I went to a hair­dresser and he gave me this dread­ful perm. I think it shocked John, but then it made him laugh.” Palin’s de­ci­sion meant he had to sport the hairdo in real life through­out the film’s eight-week shoot. “My mar­riage nearly broke up,” he jokes. “I had to sit very far away from my wife on the other side of the bed.”

THE KISS “A very pleas­ant form of act­ing,” is how Palin de­scribes the scene where Ken is kissed by Jamie Lee Cur­tis’ Wanda, in his best­selling diaries, Half­way To Hol­ly­wood. “It was the sin­gle great­est kiss in my movie ca­reer, but there’s not much com­pe­ti­tion!” he laughs. The scene was shot twice, once at the be­gin­ning of film­ing and again at the end as a reshoot, al­though Palin in­sists it had noth­ing to do with him. “I don’t think I had that much in­flu­ence!” The idea that the kiss un­locks Ken, who briefly loses his stam­mer in the af­ter­math, came from Cur­tis. “She’s very sharp,” says Palin of his co-star. “It was a very nice scene in which you re­alise that un­der­neath it all, this man wants a bit of love.” THE IN­TER­RO­GA­TION Ken’s sig­na­ture scene sees him suf­fer at the hands of Otto (Kevin Kline), who tor­tures him for in­for­ma­tion (“It’s a chip up the nose!”), while eat­ing Ken’s beloved pet fish. If it looks un­com­fort­able for Palin, tied to a chair through­out, that’s be­cause it was. “It was okay, I knew there was great comic po­ten­tial,” he says. “At one point Kevin shoves an ap­ple in my mouth, which wasn’t in the script. So I could barely breathe, but peo­ple screamed with laugh­ter.” The chips up the nose didn’t help, either. “You try to put French fries up your nose and re­tain them for three hours. It can’t be done.” The pro­posed so­lu­tions — chips with rough edges, plenty of Vase­line — re­moved the skin from in­side Palin’s pro­boscis. In the end, “the only way I could do it was by enor­mous feats of nasal mus­cu­lar re­ten­tion.” Don’t ask where the ketchup went. THE AF­TER­MATH While Ken’s stam­mer led to some crit­i­cism, it was largely ac­cepted within the stam­mer­ing com­mu­nity, and had an un­ex­pected boon. “I be­came in­volved with a group of peo­ple who were try­ing to start up a place for ther­apy for stam­mer­ing chil­dren,” says Palin. That even­tu­ally be­came The Michael Palin Cen­tre For Stam­mer­ing Chil­dren, still based in Clerken­well, Lon­don. “That was the very good side of it, where I felt I’d done my dad proud.”

Clock­wise from

left: Palin’s petty thug Ken Pile is bowled over by his piscine passion; Puck­er­ing up for that kiss with con artist Wanda Gersh­witz (Jamie Lee Cur­tis); Mad­ness sets in as Ken at­tempts to kill OAP Eileen Coady; Wanda’s boyfriend Otto (Kevin Kline) and his unique chip tor­ture; Wanda, Ken and Otto are joined by bar­ris­ter Archie Leach — Wanda writer John Cleese.

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