Steven Berkoff, the actor, director and playwright who has achieved notoriety as the bad boy of Britain’s “in yer face” theater, was uncharacteristically apologetic as he arrived on the set of David Fincher’s American movie adaptation of Stieg Larsson’s international best seller, “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo.” His fellow thespian Daniel Craig, a Hollywood A-lister since starring in the James Bond films, was to play Mikael Blomkvist, a Swedish journalist who teams up with the antisocial punk computer hacker Lisbeth Salander (Rooney Mara) to solve a mystery involving serial killers, perverts, misogynists, Nazis and anti-Semites.
Berkoff was to portray Dirch Frode, the enigmatic attorney who hires Blomkvist to find his client’s long-missing niece – and who introduces Craig’s character to the pierced, tattooed Salander.
Fincher’s set wasn’t the first time that Berkoff had met Craig. “I knew him from England,” the 74-year-old Berkoff said from his London studio. “In the theater, I once auditioned him for the part of Richard II, which I was directing. And I turned him down. I thought he was too strong for the vulnerability of Richard. So when I met him on the set, I was a little embarrassed. I said, ‘I’m sorry,’ and he replied, ‘Don’t be stupid – that doesn’t matter.’”
Berkoff, who was raised in London’s Jewish East End, has been as regaled for his startling adaptations of Shakespeare and his raw original plays (“East,” “West,” Greek,” “The Secret Love Life of Ophelia”) as he has been feared – at least by some journalists – for what they have described as his icy demeanor. During our conversation, he was more cordial, if no-nonsense, as he discussed “Kvetch,” his savagely humorous send up of Jewish angst that was performed by the SeaGlass Theatre in the Los Angeles area this past fall; his portrayal of villains in films such as “Octopussy” and “The Tourist,” opposite Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie; and his monologue, “Shakespeare’s Villains: A Master Class in Evil,” which presents the Jewish Shylock as “an out-and-out rogue” seeking revenge against an anti-Semitic society.
Here’s how the critic Aleks Sierz describes “in-yer-face” theater: “The language is usually filthy, characters talk about unmentionable subjects, take their clothes off, have sex, humiliate each another, experience unpleasant emotions, become suddenly violent. At its best, this kind of theatre is so powerful, so visceral, that it forces audiences to react: either they feel like fleeing the building or they are suddenly convinced that it is the best thing they have ever seen, and want all their friends to see it too. It is the kind of theatre that inspires us to use superlatives, whether in praise or condemnation.”
Berkoff has said that film roles have supported his theater habit; he answered with blunt honesty when asked why he was drawn to “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo:” “You’re offered a job, and that’s what an actor has to do, unless you’re a star actor and you can pick and choose,” he said. Berkoff added that he did find Larsson’s novel interesting, in part for its revelations about Sweden’s Nazi past, but said, “I was more interested in the director, David Fincher [“Fight Club,” “The Social Network”], who has a unique and unusual reputation for creating very distinguished films.”
Fincher is renowned for his insistence on multiple takes per scene, and Berkoff found him to be “very methodical and painstaking, a bit of a perfectionist, a very demanding director to work for. He would never accept just a first performance or a reading; he would look into it quite carefully. It reminded me in some ways of how a painter works, a classical painter who very carefully details each brushstroke to make it right and whole. He may not even be aware of what he’s looking for, but he will make you try it in different ways until he sees or feels the right [quality], which can be trying for some actors –including myself, and occasionally frustrating or wearying. But it gives you an opportunity to try out the scene in more than your usual manner, because he makes you repeat a scene until you break away from your mannerisms and your little tricks that you think are effective, and come to a kind of essential truth.”
Berkoff – who recently appeared in Showtime’s “The Borgias” – grew up in London in the 1930s and 1940s. “When we heard the menacing drums marching near us of the fascist movement, led by Oswald Mosley, we wouldn’t go out,” he said. “But the Jews were very tough in Stamford Hill, where I lived, so any kind of anti-Semitism would be set upon and thrashed, mercilessly. According to The Independent, Berkoff’s Uncle Sam, memorialized in his 2007 play “Sit and Shiver,” (a pun on the Jewish mourning ritual of “sitting shiva”) was a hero of the anti-fascist riots of 1936, “when Jews, radicals and dockworkers stood up to Oswald Mosley’s blackshirts.”
“At school, where teachers were a bit too free with the use of the cane, I had already developed a sense of self-respect and individuality,” Berkoff said. “I found [the beatings] not only abusive and sadistic, but it rather put one in the position of a slave who must obey the master—and I wasn’t going to be anybody’s slave. Once, when the headmaster wanted to cane me, I said, ‘No, you are not,’ and he looked at me, totally shocked. I think I was the only schoolboy who ever had said that to him. But he sent me home, and I was never caned again.”
Berkoff was disappointed when his father, a gambler who often frittered away the family income, didn’t give him a bar mitzvah: “I envied the other Jewish boys, and felt I hadn’t gone through that rite of passage,” he said.
“I felt a little bit of what could be called a loner,” Berkoff said of his boyhood. “Missing the bar mitzvah, possibly, going through the Blitz during the Second World War, being bombed out of the East End, evacuated to the countryside, changing schools and not being able to bond with my mates—I started to feel somehow a bit remote. And sometimes kids would say, ‘You’re a bit of a loner, aren’t you, Steve,’ either half-admiring or half-pitying.”
During his early years in the theater, Berkoff was drawn to the work of the Jewish author Franz Kafka because “he was a visionary who saw the world through an intense lens, almost like a microscope,” Berkoff said. “He felt the things an ordinary person would, to a certain extent, but he felt them as if he were bereft, bare of the skin that protects us. I felt, too, this rawness about life, the feeling that you are unprotected, lacking an outer layer that can protect you from the various whips and scorns of time. And so consequently as soon as I read him, I felt, ‘This is a man who is speaking directly to me,’ which made me feel less isolated and marginalized.”
Berkoff adapted Kafka’s “Metamorphosis” and “The Trial” for the stage, in a 1930s expressionist style that hearkened back to the Russian Habima theater. “It’s horrible,” he said of what the central character endures in “The Trial,” but there’s also humor in it – savage humor – about the feeling of guilt, which is a Jewish feeling, and which has been engendered over centuries of feeling guilty merely to be Jewish.”
Berkoff later wrote original plays in a style that would be labeled “in yer face:” “It’s an interesting term that means stripped bare,” he said. “It doesn’t have niceties and a social kind of elegance; it’s direct, forthright, startling, abrasive, sometimes profane, and it moves you and takes you and sucks you in.” His Jewish background “totally contributed” to his penchant for this kind of theater: “The antennae you create are rooted in a bloodbath,” he explained. “The history you learn about is so traumatic, it makes you search for much more essence in the way you express yourself; it makes you perhaps more radical.”
Berkoff’s one-man show, “Shakespeare’s Villains,” focuses on five characters, one of them the eponymous Shylock from “The Merchant of Venice,” who wants his pound of (Christian) flesh. Shylock is what Berkoff calls a “conditioned villain:” Abuse and discrimination have conditioned him to become what society fears him to be— the “Satanic Jew.” Thus Berkoff dislikes the more politically correct versions of Shylock that have been favored by many directors: “I recoil from the idea of cleansing and homogenising the racist bile implicit in the text,” he wrote in an essay published in The Independent.
In films, Berkoff has often played villains, such as General Orlov in “Octopussy,” and he regards such characters as among the most fascinating on stage and screen. “Villains are always the ones with more energy, more passion and more commitment,” he said. “Often they don’t start out as villains, but as people who are outsiders, radicals, innovators, revolutionaries.”
Berkoff’s character in “The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” is more difficult to place. Dirch Frode is the loyal associate and longtime friend of Henrik Vanger (Christopher Plummer), the industrialist who hires Blomkvist to find his niece, Harriet. “In a way I’m Henrik’s shade, his shadow,” Berkoff said. “My character is one of these allies that men who are very powerful have – [people] of utter integrity who will serve the master.”
While most of his scenes are with Craig, Berkoff does have a most memorable scene with Rooney Mara, which one can see in trailers for the film. It’s the scene in which Frode meets the punk hacker for the first time – he’s hired her to provide a dossier on Blomkvist (i.e., spy on him), for Henrik. When Frode asks for her personal opinion of Blomkvist, who is having an affair with his co-editor of Millennium magazine, Lisbeth replies, “Sometimes he pleasures her; not often enough in my opinion.” Frode’s expression remains inscrutable.
Berkoff recalled that Mara always appeared to be in character, even in between takes: “She seemed to be very effective; and as a lot of American actors are, she was always inside her role.”
“The appeal of this film is that it’s very, very mysterious,” he said.
“The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo” opens on Dec. 21. For more information on Berkoff, his plays or his books, such as his memoir, “Diary of a Juvenile Delinquent,” visit www.stevenberkoff.com.