"A Voice From the Past"The Bothan Spy's interview with Guy Siner, published May 8, 2007
Not so long ago, in this very galaxy, The Bothan Spy was introduced to Guy Siner, a talented actor and writer who lent his skills to the Star Wars universe. Splitting his time between Hollywood and the U.K., Mr. Siner's career has encompassed numerous genres of film and television. He graciously shares his experiences with us, using his sharp wit to recount tales of German officers, pirates, and galaxies far, far away.
It's an honor to speak with you Mr. Siner. Thank you for taking the time out of your busy schedule to chat with us.
Thank you for asking me. It is my pleasure. I am sorry it has taken me so long to get down to it!
Born in Manhattan and educated in England, you trained for the stage at the Webber Douglas Academy in London. Through a career spanning more than 30 years, you have become a household name in the U.K. What prompted you to choose acting as a career? What was your first big break?
I seem always to have wanted to be an actor. I believe I was about 11 when I first made the decision. I had a lucky start; nowadays there are hundreds of so-called drama schools in the U.K. and anyone can train, but in the 70s there were only 5 accredited top schools and 100 hopeful applicants for every place. I was lucky enough to be accepted at the Webber-Douglas Academy and, on leaving, received the national Rodney Millington Award and so was fairly sought after as I entered the profession. Looking back, now, of course, my 'big break' came later when I was cast in ‘Allo ‘Allo!, although I didn't know it at the time.
What actors inspired you when you first started acting, or even today? Are there any qualities they had that you try to bring out in your performances?
I was interviewed for one of those '50 Greatest Actors' TV shows a while ago. They really only wanted to hear me talk about Johnny Depp, but it does mean I gave this question some thought. As a child, what attracted me - inspired me if you like - was great comedy – actors who brought skills learnt in the theatre to film: Keaton for his physicality, Chaplin for his pathos and later people like Lemmon and Matthau who exemplified characterization and timing. My absolute favourite? Jacques Tati. As a boy I saw M. Hulot’s Holiday. I was absolutely mesmerized. This must have been about 1955 (yes – I really am that old) and I think then the idea of playing comedy for a living must have begun to formulate in my mind. I was lucky. I knew very early on what I wanted to do and never really wanted anything else. Most of my friends never knew. Some still don’t. Of course, they're all rich now. As for 'bringing out their qualities in my performances' – no. Not intentionally. Of course everything you observe in life becomes part of you as an actor and occasionally you might pinch a joke or a bit of business you have seen, but I honestly can't remember an instance. I can, however, remember an instance of someone 'borrowing' from me. I met a very well-known actor in Hollywood, whom I particularly admire, and almost the first thing he said to me was: "I saw you do a triple-take in a TV show which made me laugh so much that I used it in a play I was doing at the time at the National Theatre. I’m sorry." And no – I won’t tell you his name.
You've worked with numerous actors and directors throughout your career, from Herbert Wise to Dick Van Dyke and more recently Johnny Depp. Who are some of your favorite people to work with, and could you share some of your experiences?
One of the real joys of my profession is that you get to work with people you admire. It was an extraordinary feeling to work with Dick Van Dyke. He was a star when I was just a kid! Johnny Depp is, in my humble opinion, the great movie actor of his generation. He makes interesting choices of roles and is always dangerous and exciting on screen. Furthermore he is devastatingly good-looking, is married to one of the most beautiful women on the planet and has gorgeous children. He makes me sick! He was kind and welcoming to me and it was a privilege to work with him, albeit in a tiny role. Holly Hunter. A superb actress. Beautiful. A voice to melt any man's heart.
You are perhaps best known for your portrayal of Lieutenant Gruber in the BBC comedy series ‘Allo ‘Allo! The WWII themed satire was widely acclaimed and is still shown in more than 80 countries, 14 years after the series concluded. For those not familiar with the series, could you please describe the character you played on the show?
The show is set in a village in Normandy and centres on the local café which the resistance is using as a 'safe house' to hide British airmen who have been shot down over France. The plot mostly involves ingenious attempts to get the British airmen back to England under the noses of the Germans, who use the café as their favorite watering hole. Lt. Hubert Gruber is an officer in the German tank corps. He is quiet, kind and gentle and hopelessly smitten with Monsieur René, the owner of the café and unwilling 'hero' of the resistance. Poor René spends much of his time trying to avoid the attentions of Gruber, since he is not gay. Far from it. He has an ever watchful wife and is also enjoying the favors of both his pretty waitresses. For those not familiar with the series, go buy the DVDs. You have a real treat in store!
Did you find it difficult to keep a straight face reciting your lines on a show filled with hilarious one-liners?
Yes and no. I realize this answer is boring, but comedy is a very serious business. Naturally we laughed a great deal in rehearsals. The read-throughs at the beginning of each week were a joy ... when we got to hear the jokes for the first time.
Do you have any favorite memories of ‘Allo ‘Allo! you can share with us?
So many. The 'set pieces' at the bar. Scenes between Gruber and René nearly always based on a misunderstanding. Pure genius on the part of the writers Jeremy Lloyd and David Croft. The interrogation of Monsieur Alphonse. A joy to be working with the consummate Kenneth Connor. And poor Gruber ... totally at a loss as to how to question a prisoner in the approved manner and having to resort to the "Manual of Interrogation".
Many long-running shows become something of a family with the passage of time. After 9 seasons, was it difficult to say farewell to ‘Allo ‘Allo!, or was it time to move on? Or perhaps both?
Perceptive. Both is right and my feelings are contained in the question. But the series ran for 10 years and the war ran for 6! I miss Hubert very much. He was a much nicer man than I am. But all good things come to an end and it was a pleasure and a privilege to have played him.
You have appeared in episodes of several science-fiction series, including Doctor Who, Babylon 5, and Star Trek: Enterprise. Do you consider yourself a fan of sci-fi or of the classic genres like Doctor Who or Star Trek? Did you approach these roles as you would any other job?
I wouldn't say I am an avid fan of sci-fi but I do enjoy watching shows from time to time. I actually saw a couple of episodes of the new Dr. Who series the other day and think they are really excellent. Having been in the series in the mid-70's as a very young actor, I would love to appear in it again now in its new format. As for the roles – yes, it's a job and the approach is the same regardless of the genre. Someone pointed out the other day at a fan convention that I am the only actor in the world who was involved in all four of the 'greats' – Star Wars, Star Trek, Dr. Who and Babylon 5. I suppose that's an achievement of sorts!
Let us touch briefly now on your Star Wars connections. You've lent your voice talents to four successful Star Wars video games, including TIE Fighter, Galactic Battlegrounds, Jedi Knight II, and Force Commander. How did you obtain these roles? Did your involvement in the first one lead to your participation in the latter three?
You know what? The role in TIE Fighter was huge and they could have cast anyone. I asked the same question of the director, "why me?" (Maybe you should ask her. Actually that might make an interesting interview). This is what she told me, "As you know, LucasArts are based in San Francisco, and she auditioned there first before coming to LA. She just couldn't find what she wanted. I don’t know why, but she told me that the moment she heard my voice she wanted me. That was her story." She was lying, of course. You want the truth? I was the only actor stupid enough to agree. They tied me up – and they would have gagged me if they didn't need my voice – in a tiny sound booth all alone for ten days where I sat on a high stool and read four and a half thousand lines while the engineer slept in his armchair and the director did her nails and drank coffee on the couch. Anyway, they must have liked what I did because it did lead to my being asked to work on the other three. I was useful to them because I did several roles on each project using different voices.
Were you familiar with the Star Wars movies before lending your voice to the games? What are some of the difficulties or advantages to voice-acting roles such as video games?
What planet are you from? Oh of course, what am I saying? Naturally I saw Star Wars. Didn't everyone? I love voice overs. It's a completely different skill from acting for the obvious reason that the audience doesn't have the advantage of seeing your face and body. The voice has to convey everything. That’s a challenge. Also, to be honest, I never looked like Johnny Depp. And the older I get, the less I like looking at myself on screen. I now have what we call a "great radio face". I would be ideal for The Simpsons. I'm available but they never ask.
You voiced the character General Maxmillian Veers in two of the Star Wars games. This character was played by Julian Glover in the movie The Empire Strikes Back. Was there any emphasis placed on imitating this character's movie voice, or was this particular role just one of a long list of voices you were assigned?
No. I know Julian. Nice enough chap, of course, but I’m quite happy being me. Can I make a shameful confession? The character was called "briefing officer" in the script. I didn't even know it was supposed to be General Veers.
Recently you've appeared in a number of movies, including the first Pirates of the Caribbean. You played a small but memorable role in one of the opening scenes as the Port Royal Harbormaster. You inform Jack Sparrow that it is a shilling to tie up his ship and that you will need to know his name before settling on three shillings and the name 'Smith'. How different is it going from a central role in something like ‘Allo ‘Allo! to a small part like in Pirates of the Caribbean? Are there different pressures involved and does that make you more or less at ease in one situation or the other?
Thanks for replaying the scene for me. I'd forgotten what it was about. As a matter of fact though, this is a very interesting question. I hadn't thought of it in those terms before but indeed the pressures are very different. I have a memory, now that you mention it, of not wanting to let Johnny down because it was his movie and he had a lot to do. I suppose others felt the same about me in ‘Allo ‘Allo! ... where I felt entirely at home and in control. I’m glad you say 'memorable', because I think that little scene worked well. Kids still come up to me and quote the lines. And the fact is that Johnny’s entrance into the picture was the best I have ever seen for any leading man into any picture. Ever.
Along a similar train of thought, having worked on stage, television, cinema and even voice-acting, do you have a favorite acting medium? What advantages or drawbacks does this have compared to the others?
I’m going through my "movie period". Picasso had a blue period, so why not? It doesn't exclude other work but it happens to be what interests me most at the moment and I am learning all the time.
In addition to English, you speak French, German, and a little Italian. You've done a number of roles where an accent has been a prominent factor. Does your mastery of multiple languages give an edge in those parts? Do you have a naturally 'musical ear' or are accents something you have to work at?
I do have a musical ear and a facility for accents. (Hey Groening! I’m still available!) Sorry, I digress. Casting directors like this. It also helps in learning (and speaking) foreign languages. I don't know about an edge, but it does give me latitude when playing roles and it means I can make choices. Combined with a 'mime' face, on which I can paint a character, it means I rarely look or sound the same in two roles.
You've begun making convention appearances along with several other ‘Allo ‘Allo! cast members. How do you like the convention experience? Do you get to catch up with all your ‘Allo ‘Allo! cast members?
You can blame John Rhys-Davies for this. It's all his fault. For years people have been asking me to do Dr. Who conventions and I've always said no. But an organizer approached John at a Lord of the Rings thing and mentioned my name and John called me and made me talk to him. John is a wonderful actor and a dear friend but he's very forceful. It's that voice. You can't say no. So I had to agree. I have the good fortune to have done movies and sci-fi work in Hollywood as well, which means I get to do quite a few conventions on my own and meet other (non-‘Allo ‘Allo!) actors. This is the best part, as well as meeting convention-goers. I've made some good friends. The travel is great. I've been to Holland about 5 times this year. Of course I'm banned now, partly because I've been too often, but mostly for behaving badly. Naturally, sooner or later, there is an ‘Allo ‘Allo! convention so I have to associate with the rest of the cast, but then life can't all be a bed of roses, can it? All kidding aside, some of the ‘Allo ‘Allo! cast members are close friends, as you might imagine, so I see them anyway.
Have you gotten much attention at conventions for your Star Wars voices, or for your various other sci-fi roles? For that matter, are you recognized often for your memorable role in Pirates of the Caribbean?
Yes to all those questions, really. The fans are very passionate about their interests and it might be Pirates of the Caribbean or it might be Star Wars. Babylon 5 has a very dedicated fan base. Of course I am most often associated with ‘Allo ‘Allo! I have been recognized in cities from London to Sydney to Manhattan, in the latter case wearing a business suit and sunglasses for heaven’s sakes!
You are currently writing a comedy series. Can you tell us more about this? When might we look forward to seeing the final product?
Ah. You're a trifle out of date here... I had a show. It was a very funny script set in 1770 in Boston, and called Revolting. Think Cheers just before the revolution. It was supposedly with Castle Rock but they nixed it because they didn't feel people could be funny in period costumes. Hello? Tom Jones? Hello??
Do you have any other upcoming projects you like to tell us about?
Back to the "movie period" theme. I have a small production company and we are working on our first project, a British caper comedy called The Day the Train Stopped. A very funny script by Ashley Nunn. I would produce (with partner Nick Irons) and play a part also. Watch this space. Or better still watch my website: guysiner.com. In 2006, I made two short films for the wonderfully talented new director David Roden. I had a ball and I think they represent some of my best work. The first of these, The Resurrectionist is a kind of ghost story. I play a Cornish lighthouse keeper. It is soon to be entered for some major film festivals.
Once again, I'd like to thank you for taking the time to talk with us. It has been a pleasure learning more about you and your career. Is there anything else you would like to add? (Perhaps comments or advice for your fans?)
My advice: read again and inwardly digest the above. There will be a quiz later. Thank you!
Thank you again Mr. Siner for taking time from your busy schedule to talk with us, and thank you to everyone for stopping by to read this interview. For those interested in learning more about Guy Siner, be sure to check out his website at http://www.guysiner.com.