“Normally I’m the villain” says Steven Berkoff
12:47 28 September 2012
Actor Steven Berkoff is famous for playing the baddie in Hollywood blockbusters such as General Orlov in the James Bond film Octopussy, Lt. Col Podovsky in Rambo and Victor Maitland in Beverly Hills Cop.
He also embodied the ultimate evil, playing Adolf Hitler in the TV series War and Remembrance.
But after being cast as a good copper in his latest movie GBH, Berkoff, who was born in Stepney and these days lives in Limehouse, says he now prefers playing the good guy.
GBH, a tale of justice and vengeance starring Nick Nevern in the main role as Damien, a copper whose past catches up with him during the London riots, sees Berkoff take on the role of a guiding figure in the shape of a chief constable.
Sitting in his studio in Narrow Street overlooking the River Thames, Berkoff admits the role was literally “a couple of days work” to help him fund his other work as a playwright and theatre director. But it nevertheless changed his previous perception that playing the villain is more challenging than being the hero, and inspired him to write a play about a good policeman, albeit with a dark side.
The 75-year-old actor says: “Quite frankly, it is a couple of days work. But I also like working with the producer, Jonathan Sothcott, and the fact that he asked me to be a policeman.
“Normally I play the villain but I was playing a chief inspector, a good copper, and once I had the uniform on I was a dead ringer for a copper.
“I then realised playing the villains, as I have done, is draining. You tend to rely on the same methods, the low voice, the slightly dull monotone voice, and menacing mind that is drenched in that nauseating kind of lifestyle.
“But when I put the uniform on for the copper I came to life. I found that to play the good guy there are more positive notes in the voice. You have a grip on reality and as I was speaking to the other coppers I had an almost military bearing, and I kind of liked that.
“I looked at myself with the silver hair, nice black uniform, and white shirt and I thought I’m going to write a script about a bent copper, who appears to be a good man.
“In a way it has happened before in Beverly Hills Cop and Octopussy that when I put on the uniform I feel like the general. I’m really a general not a villain. You do tend to get typecast if you play a role well.”
But after playing the chief constable Berkoff says he would like more roles as the good guy.
“The reason I said in the past that villains are more stimulating is because they have two faces,” he says. “They have a good side as they have to appear to be the genuine article, but they also have a devious side.
“The good guy has just one face. But if you see a villain, a great villain, they are unpredictable, wonderful and bizarre.
“There is nothing more fascinating than seeing the villain implode like Al Pacino in Scarface.
“But it’s a narrower field. Villains are always the same. Villains have a small life, they are usually very territorial.
“Good guys are universal with wider interests, they are fascinated with the world around them, and I now find good roles are more far reaching.”
Describing his role in GBH Berkoff says: “I’m an inflexible servant of the police yet thoroughly moral. He would die on duty and regards the job as a privilege. I like that kind of copper or soldier.”
Berkoff was born into a Romanian Jewish family, his father was a tailor and his mother a housewife. He spent his childhood at various addresses in the East End, including sharing a room with his mum and sister in Anthony Street, off Commercial Street, aged around 10 to 13.
Today he is known for provocative plays with strong language, sex and violence but says he is not sure whether it stems from his late father, who he says used to beat him.
But although he saw the theatre as a way of escaping his life he now looks back at the East End with affection.
“It was quite wonderful because there was a youth club every hundred yards,” he says, “a lido in Victoria Park and activities such as playing football on the roof. And although it seems an old cliché everybody was friendly.
“In the mornings I would go to the corner shop for smoked salmon, cream cheese or lollies.
So by the time I got to school I would have had a little ritual of communication.
“The East End was nourishing, joyful and entertaining. There were cinemas and six theatres such as the Grand Palais, in Commercial Road, which even put on shows in Yiddish, the People’s Palace in Mile End Road, and the Pavilion in Whitechapel.”
But his mother’s love for variety show also brought him to the West End theatres.
He says: “After the war there was a thing about having great American stars coming over such as Danny Kaye. We were always sitting near the front, maybe they were the cheap rows. The artists always seemed orange.
“In those days the make-up was always much stronger, and they had these big eyes and shining teeth, they looked like gods and goddesses. I looked at them in amazement as they sang and smiled at me, and I just thought they were so beautiful.
“My mother always took me backstage so she could push me forward to meet the stars. They would look down and see this cute little boy, I was dead cute, not like now, with curly hair and blue eyes. I asked them for their address and they would always say we live in Beverley Hills, Hollywood, and that enchanted me.”
As a young man Berkoff moved from job to job as he struggled to feel at home in an office or selling menswear in the West End.
“One day someone suggested I try out this drama class in the evening and that was it. Once I was there and saw these people, who wanted to act and seemed so relaxed, I could be myself.”