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

The Jewish Chronicle - - INTERVIEW -

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.”

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