Arts editor HELEN MUSA chats to Hercule Poirot actor David Suchet about his most famous role, and his unusual unscripted show “David Suchet, Poirot & More: A Retrospective”, coming to the Canberra Theatre in January
WHEN you’re chatting to actor David Suchet, it’s almost like talking to a family member.
That’s because for more than 25 years of starring as Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot, in all 74 Poirot television movies, he’s been coming to our living rooms up close and personal.
“Sometimes I’m stopped in the street by people who say they’ve grown up with me,” Suchet tells me by phone from London.
He’ll be here during late January in an unusual show, “David Suchet, Poirot & More: A Retrospective”, where he chats with Australian journalist Jane Hutcheon about – well, everything.
“It’s not so much a scripted work as an evening with me,” he explains. “We talk about how I trained, how I developed into an actor and how I prepared for my TV character roles, ending up with Hercule Poirot.”
In the second half, he’ll be talking about how he started at the Royal Shakespeare Company, also reading from some Shakespearean roles in “a mixture of performance and chat and having a lovely evening.”
Suchet will also talk about his spiritual life. Raised in no religion, he converted to Anglicanism as an adult.
“Your spiritual life is very connected to the creative side of what a human being is made up of, I will discuss that at length,” he says.
It was in Suchet’s third year at the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art (LAMDA) when he discovered character acting, he tells me.
“In the first two years I learnt a lot but I was given the wrong roles – ingénues, young romantic leads – but then I was in Christopher Fry’s play, ‘The Lady’s Not For Burning’ when director Jeremy Spenser said, ‘I think I’ll put you in a character role’,” he says.
“Up until that time I didn’t figure at LAMDA, but that changed everything and I got the best drama student award when I graduated.”
Suchet has maintained his connection with his alma mater and funds a bursary for students in their final year, once won by Canberra actor Ed Wightman.
It’s an obvious question, but I ask how he’s managed to survive his domineering TV character, which he played for so long.
“Easy,” he replies in a flash. “I didn’t have to reinvent my career… I didn’t come to Poirot until I was in my early 40s, by which time I’d headed up two or three TV series and played huge classical roles at the Royal Shakespeare Company like Iago in ‘Othello’, Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice’ and Caliban in ‘The Tempest’ – wonderful roles.”
During his Poirot years, he explains, there were many breaks between each series, so he’d always do another TV part, a West End play or a play in the provinces.
Cases in point are his roles as George in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?” Salieri in “Amadeus”, Cardinal Benelli in “The Last Confession” which toured to Australia, and as British media magnate Robert Maxwell in the TV movie “Maxwell”, for which he won an Emmy.
“I did that all at the same time as Poirot, I was always doing other things,” he says.
He hasn’t slowed down and is very proud of his recent role as Gregory Solomon in Arthur Miller’s “The Price”. Oh yes, and for fun he’s been playing Lady Bracknell at the Vaudeville Theatre in London for years.
But certainly Poirot has formed a large part of Suchet’s life, and in his view he’s been lucky, “because, if you take away a big, huge character like Hercule Poirot, what you’re left with is David Suchet who is a character actor.”
It’s quite true, he says, that Dame Agatha didn’t like the character at all, especially his obsessive-compulsive disorder characteristics.
“But that has nothing to do with being faithful to the character she wrote,” he asserts. “And you know what? You don’t bite the hand that feeds you and Agatha kept writing Poirot stories.”
Delving into the character was initially a formidable challenge – “such an iconic character and such wonderful actors had played him,” he says.
Weirdly, Suchet appeared as Inspector Japp in “Thirteen at Dinner” in 1985, where Poirot was played by Peter Ustinov, who immediately suggested Suchet should have a go at the role himself.
“I was briefed by the Christie estate that I wasn’t to make him a jokey chap… when I read the stories, I immediately saw a man that I had not seen in any of the portrayals. I wrote down 93 characteristics in note form so that I could carry them around and always refer to them.”
At this point in the interview there is a shuffle in the background, after which Suchet returns to the phone gleefully carrying those very dog-eared notes.
“My mission was that I wanted Agatha Christie’s reading public, billions of them in number, to see the chap that she wrote. It wasn’t for my own benefit.
“When first asked by the BBC how I thought my Poirot might go down, I told them, ‘I hope it’s not too boring’ … I had no idea it would take off.”
When in character, he says, he became him in movement, voice and in every little way, “a walking brain”. But happily he has never insisted that his two boiled eggs be exactly the same size.
But there was one legacy.
“What Poirot did for me was that he made me a better listener,” he says.
It was the Belgian detective himself who said, “I listen to what you say, but I hear what you mean” and Suchet now believes “to listen is a very active verb, it takes an effort to listen”.
Not unlike Miss Marple, we agree.
“David Suchet, Poirot & More: A Retrospective”, in the Canberra Theatre, January 20-21. Book at canberratheatrecentre.com.au or 6275 2700.