Connolly sings praises of Hoffman, 'Quartet'
Prolific comedy star says he refuses to grow up
Approaching 40 years in films and television, the flame still burns -- and brighter than ever -- for acclaimed Scottish funnyman Billy Connolly, who continues to defy age with his youthful spirit and wit.
Without question, Connolly is at the top of his game in director Dustin Hoffman's "Quartet," in a role, oddly enough, that finds a group of performers in fear of losing their edge as they hit their 70s and 80s as they settle into a home for retired opera singers and classical musicians in the English countryside.
Connolly is certainly no stranger to films with a musical theme. In 1998, he played a lovable road manager who tries to hold together a group of conflicting '70s hard rock personalities who reunite 25 years after an ugly break-up in the vastly under-appreciated comedy "Still Crazy."
But while film audiences have had the opportunity to see the plights of aging rockers now and again, "Quartet" -- which also stars Maggie Smith, Michael Gambon, Tom Courtenay and Pauline Collins -- keys in on a dynamic seldom heard about, much less seen.
"You never wonder what happens to the classical people when the spotlight goes out, because the rock 'n' roll people and the pop and middle-of-the-road people are covered by the news, but classical people aren't," Connolly told me in an interview Thursday. "The news thinks that nobody's interested in classical people unless you're Maria Callas or someone in love with some great, famous millionaire or shipping heir. Then they'll write about you. Usually, they're just forgotten."
Connolly plays Wilf Bond, an opera singer who is in the home after suffering from a minor stroke. Suave and handsome, Wilf takes every opportunity to hustle the female staff and fellow residents of the retirement home with his suggestive, playful charm.
Oddly enough, it was Connolly's youthful looks and charm that created a stumbling block in getting his role in "Quartet," considering the "residents" are in their 70s and 80s.
"That was the trouble Dustin had in casting me. He always wanted me, but he thought I was too young looking, compared to all the others who are haggard and ugly and worn," Connolly, 70, deadpanned. "That Tom Courtenay, what a mess. That Michael Gambon, how he manages to stand upright and speak is a mystery to everyone -- so old and decrepit. And Maggie Smith, give me a break, you know?"
Connolly, who actually got his start as an entertainer playing banjo before becoming a full-time comedian (he used both talents opening up for Elton John for some U.S. gigs in 1976), said there's a definite crossover of those sensibilities when he takes on role: especially one like "Quartet" which for him is all about music, comedy and ultimately, timing.
"It's all down to rhythm and allowing the other person to getting in the same rhythm as you or getting into the same rhythm as them," Connolly explained. "You have to do it without thinking about it, though. If you do, it looks clodhopperish. If you just let it happen, it happens beautifully."
Connolly is thrilled about Hoffman's subtle directorial debut in "Quartet," and he believes the new kid on the director's block has a future behind the camera if he so chooses.
"He's outstanding. He has this lovely feature -- he presumes that you know what you're doing," Connolly said. "So the first take is your first rehearsal. You come on, you do your thing and then he and tweaks it. He doesn't tell you how to come on and what to do. He'll give basic stuff, like 'You're down in that shed doing that scene,' but you choose where you're going to be, where you're going to sit and where you're going to stand and you get on with it. It's a joyous process. Plus, he loves it when you improvise."
At the center of "Quartet" is the conflict four opera singers (Connolly, Smith, Courtenay and Collins) run into as an annual concert at the home to celebrate the birthday of legendary composer Giuseppe Verdi approaches. The problem is, Smith's character -- the legendary diva, Jean Horton -- fights off the idea of performing because she doesn't want to "insult the memory of who she was."
Connolly said his attitude is just the opposite in real life. Driven by eternal youth, he believes his best work is still ahead of him.
"I refuse to grow up. I'll grow old, definitely, and happily, but I'll never grow up," Connolly said. "That's where all the danger is, this growing up bulls---, where you start wearing beige and slack-arse trousers, dressing like your parents and doing that old s---, like frowning on the young and tat-tatting. Bugger that."
Connolly is without question keeping youthful these days given his screen choices. Hot off of "Quartet" and his voice role as King Fergus in the Oscar-nominated animated feature "Brave," Connolly is still filming his role as the dwarf Dain Ironfoot for the next two installments of director Peter Jackson's "The Hobbit."
"The character is wonderful. He's the most badass guy you'll ever seen in your life," Connolly enthused. "He rides a pig and uses an ax to fight with. He's the most frightening-looking man you'll ever see. He's brilliant."
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