Under the lights, Ben Cross has begun to sweat. His heavy, brown uniform doesn’t help, so in the breaks between filming it’s the first thing he takes off. Now, sitting in his white undershirt, in a bright red silk air-conditioned tent, Ben is talking about his other great love. Up on youtube, you’ll find recordings of live gigs at a dark piano bar in Sofia, Bulgaria. Backed by either a trio or a sextet, he is the vocalist. Crooning out old jazz hits – the screaming trumpets at his back, fingers clicking, head thrown back – he is clearly in his element.
“I’ve been singing all my life,” says the British actor, naming roles in musicals like ‘Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat’ and ‘Irma La Douce’. “There was even one crazy production in which I played the chorus in ‘Henry the V’, where I came on with a guitar like a hippy in army fatigues,” he says grinning at the memory. In fact, it was with his portrayal of the wily lawyer Billy Flynn in the 1978 stage production of ‘Chicago’ that he also auditioned for what would become his most famous role – that of Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams in the Oscar winning film ‘Chariots of Fire’ (1981).
Ben was 32 then – but his character was a mere 19 years old and though Abrahams would age five years in the course of the film, he was still an Olympic standard athlete. So after Ben had submitted his tape for the consideration of director Hugh Hudson and Producer David Puttnam, he began to train in earnest. He knew that in a few weeks, he would be asked to ‘run around’ a little for the cameras before the final decision on casting was made. “I started to train three months before that, just in case I got the job,” he says, “I was running every night…4 to 5 miles every evening, a couple of miles every morning, lifting weights and doing sit-ups and all sorts of things. I really wanted that role and so I did everything in my power to get it.”
Ben has described the character of Abrahams as being almost unlikeable (“as indeed, was the man”) but he put a great deal of thought into how he would handle what was portrayed as Abrahams’ driving force, his desire to fight anti-Semitism by, well, running really fast.
In the movie, a memorable bit of dialogue refers to Abrahams having ‘felt the cold reluctance in a handshake.’ After much research and thought, he decided that he didn’t have to “play at being a Jew” when everyone knew who his character was. Instead, “I was just on the lookout for those moments when in my portrayal of Harold Abrahams, I could show a kneejerk reaction to something that may or may not have been meant as an insult or slight.”
In spite of all that preparation, Ben would later identify that first week filming ‘Chariots of Fire’ as the most gruelling in his entire career. Describing himself as “naive,” he says he only realised the scale of the production when he saw the number of trucks parked outside the location and the size of the crew. Soon after, he was put straight into scenes with some of the most accomplished actors of that generation – Sir John Gielgud, Lindsay Anderson and Ian Holm.
“This was extremely intimidating,” he says, adding “that same week I had to recreate a newspaper picture of Harold Abrahams doing the long jump in which he’s frozen in mid-air and I had to do the long jump so many times, and I was chasing a car…at one point I was sitting in a chair, exhausted for having pushed myself so much physically and I threw up over the side onto the grass. I remember thinking, I hope nobody saw that, or they might sack me.”
By the end of that week, he was “a wreck, physically and emotionally.” “In a sense, I had lost my virginity,” he says. He knew it was unlikely that another movie would ever demand so much of him again, even if it did, he would now be far better equipped to deal with it. Strangely, he found himself “lamenting” that. “It was extremely demanding, thank God,” he says with relish. It seems an odd thing to be grateful for, so why is he? “Because I like to feel at the end of the day that I earned my money…sometimes, I do films that don’t make those kind of demands on you.”
Unfortunately, he’s only being honest. In a career with over eighty movies, none has been of the same calibre as ‘Chariots of Fire’. Certainly not ‘Species: The Awakening’ or ‘Exorcist: The Beginning’. He was briefly in the spotlight when he was cast as a Vulcan and Spock’s father in the most recent Star Trek film (the most successful in the franchise) and of course as Prince Charles in ‘William & Kate: Let Love Rule’. The movie was panned by critics, though it spent some time at the top of the list of DVD sales in the U.K. Still most had something good to say about Ben’s performance – they may dislike his movies, but they almost always respect him as an actor.
With memorable portrayals of Rudolf Hess and Solomon, as well as host of theatre credits, Ben has managed to keep his acting bona fides. As a musician, he’s written and recorded songs, and even penned a musical ‘Rage’ about Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be hanged in the U.K. Looking back, he says “I think I have been blessed in my career, I have played a hugely wide range of characters and frankly that’s what I love.”
Published in The Sunday Times, Sri Lanka on May 19, 2011. Words by Smriti Daniel. Pix by M.A Pushpakumara