Esquire, September 2016
What I’ve Learned: Christopher Guest – actor, film-maker, 68.
Whether it’s filmmakers or thimblemakers the personalities are the same – the same dynamics, aspirations, the same emotional investment. The award ceremony for Best Thimble is as important to them as an Academy Award or an Olympic medal.
Success doesn’t always come the way you expect it. After Spinal Tap, we were in London doing interviews at the Savoy and this journalist looked terribly confused. He said, “excuse me, I don’t know what’s going on. But you’re not the people in the film. They were English rock musicians.” I’ll take it.
You have to trust your intuition. I can’t audition new members of the cast, because there’s no script to read from. So we just talk for 15 minutes and at the end I make a decision. In the last 25 years there’s only been one person who hasn’t been able to do what’s needed.
I like obscure things. I tie fishing flies. I play and collect arcane musical instruments – mandolins, mandolas and mandocellos. I go to websites where they compare old vintage microphones. I’m just not very mainstream.
I’ve played at Wembley and the Royal Albert Hall, and it’s the same feeling as a much smaller place actually. It feels very cosy and nourishing to be playing and hearing music. And it’s absolutely pure.
As an actor, improvising is like playing music. You play in the same key, you have to establish a melody before you go off and come back. It’s not just people fooling around trying to make each other laugh. But it’s not something that can be explained or taught either. Which is fine, because nobody responds to a piece of art because it’s acrylic instead of oil. Once you dissemble something, you ruin it.
I’ll spend two or three years wandering in the wilderness – sometimes literally, up in the mountains – before I start another project. I’ve never had multiple things on tap. That’s just not the way my brain works.
It probably sounds suspicious but ambition has played zero part in my life. I never wanted to play on Broadway or perform in a big stadium. Things just happened that way. In New York, people would say, ‘don’t leave town, this is when they do the casting.’ But if I wanted to go backpacking for a month, or skiing, I just went. There was never a master plan.
A friend of mine did a film that got bad notices and he plummeted. So I said, “maybe you shouldn’t read the notices, because what difference do they really make?” I haven’t read the reviews of anyone, including myself, since 1986. And I feel freed by it. Because I just do what I do, and it doesn’t really influence me doesn’t if someone likes it or not.
If you can’t decide between insurance and jazz guitar, then you’re probably going into insurance. Because if you want to be a musician, you’ll be one. Or any career in the arts. You may not become known or make a living even, but you’ll have to do it. It’s quite stark actually.
When my daughter was learning to drive, she said, “I already know how to drive.” When you’re 17, you think you know everything. But you don’t.
As I’ve gotten older, I have shrunk my expectations in terms of what I can influence. I look at a much smaller context. I can support young people who are making instruments. I can make films and give actors opportunities. I cultivate my garden, as Voltaire said. But to try and stamp out hunger say, that’s too much to bite off, as it were. People who try to fix the world are going to be disappointed.
The only truly positive thing out there is art. Because artists might be pretentious, some of them, but they’re never trying to hurt people.
I have experiences but I don’t know about wisdom. It implies elitism. I recently worked with an actor in the UK who was as talented a person as I’ve met in my life. And I felt as if he was my hero, even though I’m old enough to be his dad. That’s a far healthier way to look at it.
Comedy analysis is really a slappable offence. Five slaps, I think. Which is a lot. If someone talks about comedy without any trepidation, there’s something wrong with them.
There’s no mysticism. I don’t pray to anyone. I believe in the natural laws of the world. And we should treat people and the world well. And bear in mind I’ve stood there at sunset touching the rocks of Stonehenge. It was a lovely evening, but I didn’t feel any great vibration.
I’m the Right Honorable Lord Christopher Haden-Guest, 5th Baron of Saling in the county of Essex. And I can tell you, being in the House of Lords is as interesting as it is absurd. It’s like being in a movie from another time.
I’ve been a football fan all my life – Manchester Utd, since you ask – and I know this much: England will never win. They can’t possibly. Just look at the history.
This will make me sound like a curmudgeon, but there’s a lot to see in the world that isn’t happening on a screen. People sit in the front row of the Wimbledon finals while Federer is serving for the match, and they’re texting. If it was up to me, I’d kick them out.
I watched TV till I was 12 years old and then I never watched it again until a few years ago. So I’ve missed every famous show you can name. Cheers, Mash, The Sopranos, all of them. I would go home and read a book or record some music. My wife reads two books a week. It just never occurred to me to turn on the television.
I think the Internet has lowered the bar on so many things. For Best in Show, one of these Internet journalists came to the interview in a dog suit, because he thought it would be funny. So of course the interview was about him, not me. And he said, “if you were an animal, what animal would you be?” I said, “that’s the end of the interview.” I’m the kind of animal that walks out of interviews.
I wake up at 6am every day, I have an Assam tea and a yoghurt and I read the Independent, the Guardian, the New York Times, the Washington Post and Salon. But never television news. I gave up on CNN in the 80s. It’s actually an emotional decision because I get upset at seeing how poorly it’s done. I get literally hurt. I’m too sensitive, that’s the trouble, I need to protect myself. I have to mute commercials when I’m watching a sporting event. I should probably be in a home actually.
I’ve won awards and lost awards. And it is more fun to win than not win. But in the end, I would chuck it all. It’s not important.
My youth was insane. I bounced around doing a lot of different things. But I would never say to anyone, ‘that’s what you should do’. It’s just what I did.
It all started with Beyond The Fringe for me. My family were friends with Jonathan Miller, and he came to stay with us in New York. You could make the argument that it led to Monty Python and all the rest. Smart people doing smart comedy but also being very silly.