Ben Cross has launched another career as a singer Photo: Alexander Nishkov
The grapevine has it that Ben gets not exactly "cross" (I know, I know!) but perhaps a little peeved at constant mentions of the 'C' word, so without further ado let's dispose of that myth.
"It's not that. I have made 80 movies," says Ben, his voice rising ever so slightly. "It's not the fault of Chariots of Fire. I recognise it's a kind of psychological problem for me. Let me put it this way, I wish I'd made another movie – and I did try with First Knight (1995) with Sean Connery and Richard Gere and Star Trek (2008) – that would spring to the lips of journalists and people before Chariots. My goodness, I made that movie in 1980. I suppose the reason I'm sensitive is that it would appear that of the 80 movies I've done since, I haven't done anything really memorable."
Of course, Chariots resounds because it was a great film. It evokes instant memories. "The British are coming", the Oscar victory in 1982 which had this (then) 15-year-old journalist punching the air, the slow motion sprinting to the backdrop of Vangelis and Ben's wonderful portrayal of Jewish athlete Harold Abrahams. "They tested every Jewish actor and athlete in London but David Puttnam (producer) and Hugh Hudson (director) later told me they had found 'the right man'," Ben says.
Ben tells me that many people in Hollywood thought he really was Jewish. "Would it be appropriate to wish you a happy New Year?" nervous executives in LA would ask him.
Chariots was such a hit, however, that perhaps it raised unrealistic expectations for all parties concerned. Director Hudson is a case in point. He only made two or three pictures, since, notably Greystoke and Revolution, neither of which – apparently – set producers salivating over box office receipts.
Sadly, two of Chariot's actors died too young of AIDS, Ian Charleson (who played Eric Liddell) and Brad Davis.
"I cannot tell you the number of people I knew who died of AIDS. I don't relate it to to the movie in particular. If I sat down I could give you a list of 12 people – friends of my ex-wife, people I've worked with in one capacity or another – so many people," says Ben.
Chariots still brings a smile to many people but for all its iconic status, it's just a movie. Ben has always been fit but he's no athlete.
"One time I was lying by a pool in LA, smoking a cigarette. A guy swam up to me and rested his elbows on the side of the pool. He asked me, 'you Ben Cross?' 'Yeah'. 'You smokin'?' 'Yeah' 'God, give us an idol we can believe in,' said the man."
Critics and fans The internet is a runaway beast, at once flattering but also perhaps slightly unnerving when one finds one's work and choices dissected. "Great actor, bad projects," is the verdict of one 'pundit' on IMDb about Ben's work.
Ben's a real internet buff, with his own website and Facebook account, so it's pointless disregarding it. He's seen it. Strange that people in underpants can sit in front of their computers, pontificating on someone's career. You wouldn't say 'great real estate agent, bad houses' or 'great lawyer, bad cases'. After all, most of us don't have much choice about the work we do. And Ben says that he's no exception.
"I think there are more actors and actresses in the world that are like me than there are stars. Many people don't understand that only if you are Tom Cruise, Keanu Reeves, Tom Hanks or Jim Carrey, do you get to choose. People are always penning scripts and stories on their behalf, of which they are completely unaware, because they have box office cachet. The general public don't seem to realise about actors like me – and I've done so much because I've been doing it a long time – that we don't have a choice. It's not that I have two, 10 or 15 scripts, and I'm twiddling my thumbs and consulting my manager. Right now, I haven't made a movie for seven months. I've been offered two movies and turned them down because, for one reason or another, they weren't what I wanted to do, but that's the stark reality – I haven't worked for seven months."
You can afford to turn down work? "Yes, but if I couldn't afford to turn work down I'd have no moral choice but to put bread on my table. Right now I'm in a fortunate position. It may not always be so, but that's the position I'm in right now."
So you have financial security? "Let's put it this way – I don't suffer from the 'will I ever work again syndrome' – a common affliction among some actors," says Ben. "I do suffer from the 'when will I work again' syndrome but not the 'will I ever work again?' syndrome. I will work again but 'great actor, bad projects' implies that, if I'd held out, I'd have got something different and better, which is absolutely untrue."
On the reverse side, Ben admits he is "touched" by the loyalty of fans. "They're always so enthusiastic. For example, one has done this fantastic drawing on my Facebook page of me as Sarek in Star Trek. Generally speaking, it's ladies, of course; they're in different cities, mostly in the US. My website is administered by one of my fans, together with my daughter."
The other type of adulation – autograph hunters and people wanting to have their photo taken with him – is something he admits he finds harder to take.
Gold and dross Ben's recent turn as Sarek in Star Trek was a case in point, a chance to break back into A-list movies. He has monitored something called the starmeter on IMDb and he says, perhaps not entirely self-deprecatingly, that his pointed-eared Vulcan has not, after all, set him back on the road to super-stardom. "The two young lads who played Spock and Kirk in that movie reached number one and number two. If I remember correctly I once reached number 67 – out of literally thousands and thousands. I'm now 4100 or something like that," he says with a smile.
I point out that Ben once said he cried when he read the Chariots script. So doesn't he have a bullshit detector to spot the mediocre?
"This is another thing. Nobody wants to make a bad movie – even though some movies are just money laundering. So when you read a script, and the director is an unknown quantity, what do you do? You 'Google' the director or check him out on IMDb. But if I haven't worked for a month or two, and this particular film starts in two months, and it will take 10 weeks, and if this is my only opportunity I'm going to have over the next four or five months...well, you know I can't practise my acting walking up and down at home alone, quoting Shakespeare to myself. It's not like painting, drawing, singing or playing a musical instrument, which you can practise alone." So he likes to work, but he draws the line at soaps. "I'd have to be in a very desperate place, or in my dotage, to do Coronation Street," he says.
Having visited several film sets, contrary to what the gossip-mongers may say, banter and camaraderie always seem to flow freely. So does 10 weeks of intimacy lead to lifelong friendships?
"We actors always set out with good intentions. You can make friends for life on movie sets," Ben says. "I have some good friends who are actors, but not because we have worked together, but because we moved in the same social circles."
The lonely writer Ben's credits range from A-list movies to a series of action movies, usually as sinister villains. He's also a writer and singer, although acting is what has given him his lifestyle. He is confident about film acting, not that it comes easily as such, but perhaps it's not agony either. He knows, after all, that he'll get several takes to get it right.
'Godfather' Marlon Brando annoyed some fellow thespians when he said (on the Larry King show) that acting was easy compared to writing. Perhaps surprisingly, Ben does not disagree. "I've been writing since I was eight. I've written four plays and three screenplays. I've got loads of ideas, sketches, some stories and lyrics. When you're offered a job as an actor, it's really easy to start with – at least you get paid, whereas with writing you are sitting there, you have the whole story in your head from A to Z, then comes the laborious process whereby you type up the whole thing with no prospect of any money at all. It's true to say that screenwriters get a very raw end of the deal. But where does any movie start? It starts with the writer, sitting at the kitchen table, staring into an empty screen. Without that writer, the film wouldn't have a producer, director or anything. It's a hard and lonely job."
Wise old sage Marlon also made another point, that often when audiences credit a great performance, what they really mean is a wonderfully written part.
"You are right, of course, but all the other elements have to be there too. You have to have a good director because that great script can turn into something dreadful. And you have to cast the right actors. In that sense it's a melting pot of different talents. To use a cooking analogy, you can have a dish that comprises 30 of the finest quality ingredients but if you then over-salt it, it's ruined."
So many actors tell me the "magic" happens in the editing room and Ben confirms that technology has made reactions almost instant.
"Nowadays editors respond to the rushes – the dailies – in real time," says Ben. "You can digitally send off today's work at the end of the shooting day. Halfway through the next day you can get a message from an editor saying they need a particular shot to link it with another. In the old days it was more hit-and-miss because the film stuff had to go to a laboratory, and it took God knows how many days."
Snobs and yobs Ben is a master of accents, often cast as evil Nazis. Nowadays, however, many British actors seem to keep their regional accents. Roger Moore, writing recently in a British tabloid, laments the fact that actors no longer speak the "Queen's English" and cited his daughter who believed that having a "posh" accent was a drawback.
"Yes, that's true," says Ben. "But on the other hand I do remember reading – I think it was the Mail on Sunday's colour supplement – and I'm going back 20 years ago, they had a day in the life of Edward Fox, where he complained that the 'lower orders' were taking jobs from upper-class actors. He actually said the 'lower orders'. That made me think, sorry, if that's your attitude, then bring it on, let it happen, but at the same time I do believe that actors should be able to do accents; it's part of the job, part of the skills. Certain actors nowadays come from Wales, Scotland or Ireland, but their accent remains the same. I can understand when they say 'this is who I am, there's no real reason why I should change' but, on the other hand, it can be laziness or a lack of particular talent, or just plain arrogance. So what Moore said strikes me more and more as true. Sometimes I look at a piece of drama and think to myself – he's a duke or a princess and they wouldn't speak like that, but then again perhaps we don't know how they would speak. So who's to say?"
Nevertheless, Ben agrees that the immortal Bard is best spoken with received pronunciation.
"When you speak Shakespeare, you can, of course, use any accent you want, but basically in order for the poetry to work it's better to use received pronunciation. I do believe that the way a voice sounds affects the credibility of the person behind that voice and reflects – perhaps – what they're trying to say."
Love and some disasters I've interviewed Ben once before, three years ago, and then he seemed a little jaded, not exactly depressed, but a little chastened. The man I met recently was more bubbly. Perhaps some of that can be attributed to Deyana, whom he met in 2008. He mentions her proudly on his website.
"We live together and I think it's appropriate. I don't want to make any secret of the fact that I have a girlfriend; I think it's respectful. She's one of the nicest and most capable and sweetest and hardest working people I've ever met. Apart from one or two glorious exceptions, I was always involved with crazy bitches, I'm sorry to say. But, of course, in this life you get what you deserve. Actually you get what's right for you at the time. Even if it is the most disgusting and upsetting experience I do believe we attract things to us. We may not actively desire them, of course, but we do get what we deserve at that moment, for good or ill."
Is he admitting to being a cad in his youth?
"No, but I became sexually active pre-AIDS as did all my contemporaries, so you never worried about that. It was also the age of the pill. The pill was supposed to set women free, but the great irony was that us guys were getting laid 10 times more than we would have done normally. I think it took women a while to latch on to that fact. Then, obviously I'm a public figure – I've been acting for 40 years and fame becomes attractive to some women, so someone like me would have had more opportunities to be a naughty boy than other guys. Now that I'm older (he's 62) the spirit and the fantasy is absolutely willing, but the flesh is weak. Thank goodness, I'm not as sexually driven as I was. Today, I'm more into personality," he says.
Hecklers and hiccups Ben's recent foray into song and dance revives memories of his stage career.
"I'm a bit shy but shyness has to be dealt with. If I met the Queen 'shy' wouldn't be the correct word. When I do live performances, like the show in Soul in Da Hole*, I'm extremely nervous. You never know what's going to happen. There's no way you know when you get up if the gig will be successful."
Ben, a veteran of a great deal of stage work, including a stint opposite Charlton Heston in the Caine Mutiny Court Martial in the West End in 1985, says that intimate surroundings can sometimes be more daunting.
"In a small setting you're not blinded by theatre lights. With the Caine Mutiny by the time we arrived in the West End we had toured in theatres outside London. So, apart from the first night buzz, I'd settled in and felt comfortable. I've done musicals - I Love My Wife and Irma La Douce and I played Billy Flynn in Chicago before Chariots. I was once with Liz Roberston and Richard Beckinsale in I Love My Wife. The opening of the second act was me and Liz singing and dancing and breaking off into dialogue. Suddenly, during a matinee, some guy shouts out - 'you can't sing, you can't dance and you can't bloody act'. There's that awful moment when the audience wonders what you're going to do. I dealt with it the only way I knew. I went down and said to him. 'If you're not satisfied with the show, tell the box office and I'll pay for your refund.'"
"Another problem can be if someone has a persistent cough, when you're playing a soft and tender love scene. This kind of thing can drag you out of character. In that kind of situation you hope that the audience will deal with it because they're actually much nearer to it than you are."
Still travelling Ben seems to have fairly footloose connections, having lived in LA, London, Vienna, Spain and now Sofia. He doesn't appear to miss his home country very much.
"Every time I read the Sun I don't read anything that makes me nostalgic for the UK. It reassures me that I made the right decision to leave," he says.
He has lived in Sofia since 2005 and now speaks very good Bulgarian. He may have been "forced" out of his old apartment – he tells me that the street on which he used to live seemed to become a magnet for Sofia's prostitutes and transvestites – but he remains enamoured with Bulgaria.
"When I first came here I tended to notice only the gorgeous girls. Now I tend to look in the opposite direction at the five or six people in between the gorgeous ones. People in the UK don't have much clue about Bulgaria. Before I came here neither did I. Back then if people mentioned Bulgaria I'd picture guys in fezzes and flowing moustaches. Fact is, some people in the UK still think I'm at the ends of the earth."
He used to frequent a few expat watering holes, but now rarely does. "I don't need to surround myself with British people. I have many Bulgarian friends and acquaintances," he says, adding that perhaps President Purvanov was right when he said that some of the English coming to Bulgaria would be – putting it euphemistically – the undesirables.
Sneaking songs Ben has always been musical – at Rada they taught basic song and dance.
"I grew up listening to Johnny Mathis, Johnny Ray, the Everly Brothers, Bill Haley, Sinatra and Belafonte. I had two older sisters who were teenagers when I was still five or six. I used to sneak in and play their records while they were out. I learned their entire albums and used to sing to myself all the time."
His foray into music in Sofia, however, was a slow burner. "I wrote quite a few songs for Vasil Petrov. They were recorded and I would accompany him to the studio. We owned a small jazz bar for a year here. One day Vasil asked me if I'd like to go to Apollonia to sing songs at his concert, so I agreed. They performed one of the songs I'd written and then I sung a couple of numbers with Vasil. One day I was in the Soul in Da Hole to hear the Mihail Yossifov Sextet. I was with Deyana and we were sitting by the bar and they started playing the introduction to My Girl. I joined in – without knowing the words – and next thing I knew we had rehearsed 14 songs. I like the piano bar culture but I wanted to do songs that other people don't normally hear in piano bars."
'Regrets, I've had a few...' Ben says that 62 is a good age to be for an actor. Or, more accurately, he says "it would be if all those 70-75-year-old actors weren't dying their hair and pretending to be my age". He says that the entertainment world is increasingly youth driven and that's the case everywhere. "Unless you're lucky enough to have Caine's or Connery's career, whom producers trust to put bums on seats, then it's not easy. My name alone is not enough. I'd be hard-pressed to get a lead in a blockbuster movie. I'm too old and my name does not have enough cachet at the box office to guarantee a film's success. Sometimes, though, word-of-mouth can help a smaller movie. People can see it and like it and give it good reviews on the internet."
I mention that it must be strange to see oneself aging on screen, an experience that mere mortals don't have to endure. "I'm not beating my breast about getting older," says Ben. "On a personal level many things went wrong but I have to take my share of the blame for the negative things, just as I take some praise for some of the positive things. Of course, we could all be more successful, richer, more powerful and better looking. But when you reach a point where you aimed to be 10 years ago, then you have to be content."
Fact is, Ben is no mere one-hit wonder and has a body of work that will stand up to any number of 'critics' out there.
*Ben Cross's next performance at Soul in Da Hole, at 180 Vitosha Boulevard, with the Mihail Yossifov Sextet is on Friday July 16 at 10.30pm.
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