Ahead of the release of The Christmas Candle, an adaptation of Max Lucado’s novel of the same name, FLUXLINGS was afforded the privilege of speaking with one of the stars of the film, Sylvester McCoy.
What can one say about Sylvester McCoy? He is one of Britain’s iconic actors, most famous for being the seventh incarnation of one of science-fiction’s most infamous heroes.
His career though is diverse, in which McCoy has offered audiences the joy of seeing him play a range of characters across film, television, radio and theatre, and now across three Christmases (one down two to go) he will be starring in Peter Jackson’s adaptation of Tolkien’s The Hobbit.
Escaping the world of Tolkien, this December finds McCoy returning to English village life in a traditional Christmas film that is not without its thematic ambition to capture the traditional and magical past confronting the dawn of the progress of the present and future.
McCoy spoke insightfully about his perception of himself the actor, his views of Christmas in the modern world, and his role in The Christmas Candle.
FLUXLINGS: What was it that attracted you to The Christmas Candle, and how did you become involved in the film?
Sylvester McCoy: Well, it was a sweet and gentle kind of story that embraces you. It’s warm, kind and it’s like one of those Christmas films that we don’t really have much of anymore. As I was in a big blockbuster or rather I am in a big blockbuster coming out at Christmas, it seemed like the opposite, and I like to do very different things.
FLUXLINGS: The Hobbit is a production on a huge scale – three years across three films, using all kinds of modern technology. Whilst The Christmas Candle may appear to be the antithesis, there is the sense that the camaraderie, friendship and human relationships connect the two films?
Sylvester McCoy: There was a beautiful atmosphere on The Christmas Candle. It’s a loving film and there was a great feeling of camaraderie amongst all of the actors. The Hobbit is of course a much bigger film, and because it’s on the other side of the world, and we were all kind of thrown together, there was a great feeling of camaraderie on that film as well.
FLUXLINGS: In spite of the auteur theory that states the director is author, film remains one of the great collaborative art forms. With all who are involved in the production of a single film, it is a genuine communal effort.
Sylvester McCoy: It is yes, and if you are lucky, and I have been very lucky in most of the jobs I have done to work with a great director, one of his jobs is to make sure that the set is a place where actors can not only feel free to fly, but also create a great atmosphere. John Stephenson and Peter Jackson are both great at that.
FLUXLINGS: The magical elements of The Hobbit and The Christmas Candle, along with the science-fiction and fantastical elements of Doctor Who, suggests that in a diverse career that there does seem to be an interest in fantastical storytelling.
Sylvester McCoy: Well yes in a way, but the thing is I am not a massively idle kind of actor. I am a kind of quirky, odd, strange little bloke. They are stories that they ask me to join, and I read them and like them and I do it. As quite a lot of them are fantasy, I must be a bit of a fantasy figure.
FLUXLINGS: So it’s more a case of coincidence?
Sylvester McCoy: Yeah, and I have played villains. I remember I did an episode of The Bill once where I played this villain. It wasn’t eccentric; it was completely pulled in and nasty. Wow, I had a great time doing that. I am an actor who likes to do all sorts of different things and surprise people.
FLUXLINGS: When you are playing the part of a villain, does your approach to how you prepare change?
Sylvester McCoy: No not really. I’m an instinctive actor. Someone once said of me that when they are watching me on the stage, they can tell that before I come on the stage I don’t know what is going to happen. I kind of walk off the side of the cliff or walk into the surf and start surfing. I know the lines, I know where the moves are, but the feelings depend on the atmosphere of the audience. It’s the same on the set of a film really. I just rely on my instincts and suddenly, magically something happens that seems to fit. I don’t really know what it is, and I don’t even want to think about it because it’s kept me going this long.
FLUXLINGS: Discussing acting on instinct, as creative people (writers included) do you think that we reflect too much on film instead of instinctively taking these things for what they are?
Sylvester McCoy: Well no not really. Whereas I just dive in on a fly or just float or surf my way through, I have worked with great actors like Tony Sher, who works in great detail, and that’s his journey. Both ways work, and actors approach roles in all sorts of different ways. It’s up to the director to marry them together to make them seem to the audience as one. Sometimes they are facets and cut glass that are sparkling in different ways, but when you look at it from the right distance it looks like a whole.
FLUXLINGS: It’s fascinating and remarkable to consider the mix of personalities that are brought together to create the vision of a film.
Sylvester McCoy: That’s very true. Very different personalities, and that’s what is extraordinary about film, as well as acting in theatre, radio and television. It’s exciting because you can never tell; you cannot guarantee how it will come out, and so it’s both exciting and dangerous.
FLUXLINGS: How would you compare and contrast the three distinctive mediums of theatre, film, and television?
Sylvester McCoy: Well theatre is like painting with the broad brush. It’s big, and depending on the size of the theatre it is loud. You have to get to the back of the stalls or up into the Gods; you have to be slightly bigger. In small theatres you bring it down, but it is still externalised. It’s the same as television. I think of The Doctor and you don’t really know what he’s thinking except by his expression, and what he’s actually saying. Whereas in film it is like painting with a very fine Japanese brush, and it’s very internal is film. It’s something that is happening inside because the camera can read into your eyes and see the truth. That’s the big, wonderful challenge I love of doing film acting.
FLUXLINGS: Max Lucado, the author of The Christmas Candle has spoken about how we look to the past as this era of beauty; a picturesque and simpler time. There is something in the way we imagine Christmas in the past that defines it as nostalgic.
Sylvester McCoy: Well in a sense Christmas is a fantasy. If we went back to 1890 to a poor West Country village in the winter, it wasn’t that comfortable. We fantasise Christmas and especially now with the modern Christmas where it has become so commercialised it’s no longer the Christmas that we once grew up believing in. It’s a shopping spree Christmas.
I’m spending my Christmas outside of Britain. I go to Holland where they tend to celebrate their New Year more than Christmas, and so they haven’t actually spoilt it by over celebrating it.
The sad thing is, and I’ve found this out because my wife is Dutch, but the Dutch don’t sit and watch television on Christmas Day. They are great at entertaining themselves. For many years they didn’t have great television – lucky them, and so they still have this old fashioned thing of getting together, singing, playing the piano, playing games, talking, laughing, and it’s a real Christmas in Holland. Sadly I can’t find that Christmas in Britain, or America. Anglo-Saxon Christmases have been corrupted by capitalism.
FLUXLINGS: Is it mainly Great Britain and America who are at fault here?
Sylvester McCoy: I don’t know. I mean I haven’t traveled too much, but I know that it seems to be an Anglo-Saxon thing that we have gone completely overboard with Christmas. Somehow, I know it’s creeping into Europe, but in European countries because they didn’t take Christmas quite so seriously as we did in the early days, their celebrations were of course different. Santa Claus comes to Holland on the 5 December, and he doesn’t come from the North; he comes from the South. He comes from Spain, and that’s to do with the Spanish Empire, because Holland was under the Spanish yoke for many centuries. So there are some wonderful traditions there, and because of that they take on the best of Christmas Day that we used to have.
FLUXLINGS: The influence of literature and the written word on the idea of Christmas is interesting, especially if you consider The Bible, Dickens and other various Christmas stories in literature, and of course The Christmas Candle is an adaptation. There is a wonderful heritage of Christmas in the written word.
Sylvester McCoy: Oh, indeed. I am a Dickens man myself. He somehow managed to give us a Christmas, but it was full of all the horrors and sadness and poverty of the time. At the same time goodness came through; that’s great!
FLUXLINGS: Which are your personal favourite Christmas films?
Sylvester McCoy: A Christmas Carol with Alastair Sim is just one of the great stories, and as a child watching it I got the full horror of the times, and the meanness of Scrooge. I remember Oliver Twist which also seems to fit somehow into Christmas.
FLUXLINGS: What do you hope audiences will take away from The Christmas Candle?
Sylvester McCoy: A candle [laughs]. The spirit of warmth and a true Christmas feel – the feeling of a non-pressurised shopping Christmas.
The Christmas Candle previewed on 8 December at VUE Cinemas across the UK and Scotland and was released nationwide 13 December.
Interview with Sylvester McCoy by Paul Risker