The exalted outsider
Jack-of-all-arts Sir Antony Sher tells Julia Weiner about coming out as gay and his struggle to become an actor
Sir Antony Sher has long been a fan of Michelangelo. “During my childhood, one of my drawings was reproduced on our annual Rosh Hashanah card,” he explains. “Called The Deluge, it shamelessly imitated Michelangelo’s version on the Sistine Chapel ceiling. Michelangelo was my great artist hero at the time.”
Sher has rather a lot in common with Michelangelo, for he too is a true Renaissance man. Where Michelangelo was a sculptor, painter and architect but also wrote sonnets on the side, Sher is best known as an actor and writer. He is also, however, a fine painter and next month his first exhibition for a decade will open at the London Jewish Cultural Centre.
Antony Sher was born in Cape Town, South Africa. “I was brought up in an Orthodox Jewish household but my parents were quite relaxed about me and my siblings deciding for ourselves about religion,” he says. “And once I had been barmitzvah, I left the religion. It is not something I practise at all.”
Despite lack of religious belief, being Jewish is very important to him. “It is just part of who I am, in the same way as being gay and being South African. They are the three huge aspects of my identity.”
However, he was not always so open about himself. “I was in the closet not only about being gay, but also about being Jewish and being white South African,” he explains. “When I came to this country and developed a political awareness about South Africa, I was just appalled and shocked that I was one of these terrible people who had created apartheid. Growing up there, we were very apolitical as a family, and I had no sense of the atrocity that we were a part of. The fact that Jewish people were a part of that added to my shock. My grandparents had fled persecution and just a couple of generations later we were the persecutors.
“In terms of being Jewish, when I arrived in this country and wanted to become an actor, I couldn’t see examples of leading British actors who were Jewish — so I decided not to be. So all three things were in the closet. It was a very stupid thing to do. You can’t deny who you are, and I became a much happier person when the closet doors opened.”
Sher supports Jews for Justice for Palestinians and explains why he does so. “I would like to see the Palestinians have their own state, living happily alongside Israelis, and for there to be peace in the Middle East. And though it might seem impossible at this point in time, my experience of what happened in South Africa shows that miracles can occur. Up until a few years ago, any South African you talked to from either side of the colour divide, whatever their politics, was predicting a blood bath. No-one thought the situation could be resolved and yet it was, thanks to one very special man. I wish that someone would arise in Israel and Palestine to provide the kind of inspirational leadership that Mandela gave.” Sher has met Mandela and recalls: “It was like meeting God. He does give you a very special feeling. Just shaking his hand you feel as if you have been given a gift.”
Sher has for many years now been open about his homosexuality. In 2005, he and his partner, Greg Doran, the RSC’s chief associate director, were among the first to register their civil partnership. “It meant an enormous amount to us,” Sher says. “We now have all the rights of a married heterosexual couple. We did it on the very first day that you could. We were the second couple into Islington Registry Office and were only beaten to first place by two staff from the council. It was a day of total joy and celebration.”
Sher was pleased to read in last week’s JC about the Board of Deputies distancing itself from opposing gay equality. “I am sure that part of my turning away from religion was because of the very anti-gay stance that Orthodox Jews take,” he says. “I don’t think I have yet recovered from the shock of the late Chief Rabbi Jakobovits saying that we should try and detect gay genes in foetuses and thus eliminate gay people from the population.”
Sher is a remarkable painter, but has been reticent to exhibit his work in public. “I wanted art to be the thing I did for myself,” he explains. “Because I am an actor and a writer, when I am in a show or produce a book, I will be criticised for it positively or negatively. It is quite something to be endlessly the subject of criticism and I didn’t want that for my art.” He has decided to put this exhibition on now partly as a tribute to his mother, Margery, who died a few months ago. He talks about the woman he describes as “a classic Jewish mother”.
“The big difference between my mother and me is that she had certainty at the centre of her character and I have doubt at the centre of mine. But without her certainty, I don’t think I would be an actor today. My parents and I came over from South Africa in 1968 so I could audition at drama schools. The top two both turned me down quite brutally. RADA sent a letter saying they seriously recommended I think about another career. I would have given up at the first hurdle, but my mother was absolutely determined that they were not right. She made me not give up, so I owe her an enormous amount. She was always totally encouraging and that applied to my private life too. When I came out to her as gay, I received instant and total support.”
However, sometimes the relationship was a little fraught. “Where perhaps her strength and certainty was oppressive was that nothing was ever quite enough. For example, the day that I got my knighthood, I rang to tell her. She said: ‘You’re a knight, so maybe you’ll be a Lord next.’ I was so thrilled that I had been given a knighthood, and she could only think bigger.”
There are several portraits of Sher’s parents on show in the exhibition, among them an intimate painting of his mother after she developed Alzheimer’s disease. This had to be cut down when it developed mould, and the artist explains: “The mould became part of the picture and symbolic of the illness.”
Perhaps the most striking work is a triptych that Sher painted after his father’s death. During the period he was addicted to cocaine, and he mixed his father’s ashes and cocaine into the paint that he used to create the work.
The exhibition also includes a series of self portraits of Sher in some of his best-known roles. He explains how he came to paint these. “I often sketch my character in the scripts as the character is forming in rehearsal. That helps me visualise how I want the person to look. Then I turn those sketches into an actual painting of what that character looked like. Or sometimes it is how I would have liked to look.”
Sher’s next major part will be playing actor Edmund Kean in Sartre’s play of the same name. “I have always been fascinated by Kean,” he enthuses. “In that great line of British actors that includes Garrick, Kean, Irving, Gielgud and Olivier, the only one I can really identify with was Kean because he was a real outsider. He was illegitimate and grew up in poverty. He was short and dark and had Jewish looks though he wasn’t Jewish. He was a wild man.”
Sher is also about to start filming a TV film of his successful stage play Primo (about Primo Levi) for the American company HBO. He hopes that a play he was commissioned to write about Michelangelo will be produced later this year.
With all this going on, how does he find the time to paint? He laughs. “Once a show is on, you are only performing in the evenings for a few hours. Maybe other actors are happy to lie in bed or sit around all day, but I am a workaholic and would go completely stir crazy.
“So both the writing and the painting is what I do during the day. I have to feed my habit all the time and my main addiction has always been work.”