Charles Dance on making Godzilla: 'The catering was sensational!' (2022)

Charles Dance is 15 minutes late. “London, yer know?” says the 72-year-old actor through a mouthful of pastry. His friends call him “Charlie” and Americans call him “Chuck”, though for his mother there was never any ambiguity. “‘His name’s Charles,’ she’d say. She ’ad a few ideas above ’er station.” The voice is rougher and more gor-blimey than the one to which audiences are accustomed, as well as friendlier and less imposing. His thinning hair, formerly red and now sand-coloured, is swept back, and he is wearing a blue short-sleeved shirt over a white T-shirt. The silver bracelet halfway up his forearm could pass for memorabilia from Game of Thrones, in which he played Tywin Lannister, shot by his own son with a crossbow while on the loo.

Any confusion between the upper-class roles in which Dance has specialised throughout his 35-year film and television career, and the man he really is – the working-class son of a mother who was in service from the age of 13 – was cleared up long ago. But that hasn’t stopped him playing commanders and archbishops, monsignors and monarchs. He will soon be seen in the third series of The Crown as Lord Mountbatten, while in the new blockbuster Godzilla: King of the Monsters he reprises the aristocratic menace routine that has kept him in fancy silver clasps since the days of starring opposite Eddie Murphy in The Golden Child and Arnold Schwarzenegger in Last Action Hero.

Godzilla takes place mostly in darkened rooms or during inclement weather. Major characters drift through the film, their storylines petering out arbitrarily. I couldn’t make head nor scaly tail of it. And Dance? “I had difficulty staying awake,” he jokes, as though imitating an old duffer who’s wandered into a multiplex by mistake. Then he reverts to normal volume: “No, I didn’t say that! I mean, it’s spectacular.” He plays a former British colonel turned eco-terrorist who has a vested interest in facilitating Godzilla’s reign. Before he says a word in the film, he has already shot someone in the head and is thereafter restricted to the odd line and the occasional scowl. Was his performance cut? His laugh is booming and good-natured. “I keep hearing that! ‘I wish there was more of you.’ It’s what was offered. I just like working. Unless it’s complete and utter crap. I’ve got some pride.” There were clear compensations in this case. “The catering was sensational,” he says.

And, as he points out, it has been a while since he did a mega-budget movie. After all, Godzilla couldn’t be more different from Happy New Year, Colin Burstead, Ben Wheatley’s family-get-together film for the BBC in which he played the cross-dressing widower Uncle Bertie without a hint of camp. “Ten days we shot that in. Handheld cameras, communal green room. SAS film-making.” The character’s sartorial preferences were Dance’s idea. “I told Ben: ‘Ever since his wife died, I think Bertie’s worn women’s clothes. He’s been doing it so long, the family accept it.’ He turns up in his modestly heeled shoes and a bit of cashmere, his twin set and pearls.”

I remind him that the role marked his third foray into women’s fashion. “Riiiight,” he says suspiciously. Well, there was Ali G Indahouse, in which he writhed around at Sacha Baron Cohen’s behest in a red rubber micro skirt, thigh-high leather boots, leopardskin crop-top and drop earrings. He rolls his eyes. “Ah yes. The director said: ‘We’ve had an idea for the ending.’ I was kind of forced into that.”

And for one scene in White Mischief, the 1987 drama about the amoral British upper-class in Kenya during the second world war, the toffs interrupt their routine of polo and wife-swapping for a cross-dressing party. “Joss Ackland was there in bombazine and a tiara. I had on a mid-blue chiffon affair. Then Greta Scacchi comes out looking gob-smackingly gorgeous in this jacket with nothing underneath. Joss said, ‘This is all wrong. We should be going to each other’s wardrobe and just putting on whatever fits.’ He stormed off to complain to the director and I went with him. There’s Joss with his handbag on his arm, me standing there in me gear. I thought, ‘Here we are, expecting to be taken seriously …’”

White Mischief was pivotal for him, cementing his image as a sexy but faintly cold-blooded member of the ruling class. The ITV end-of-the-Raj drama The Jewel in the Crown had already made him a sensation three years earlier. The Sun called him “Dishy Dance” and the People claimed he had given up jogging because of the women flinging themselves under his running shoes on Hampstead Heath. Not that he was in danger of having his head turned – he had been “shlepping around the provinces” in theatre for nearly a decade before that big break, which didn’t happen until his late 30s.

Charles Dance on making Godzilla: 'The catering was sensational!' (1)

And he was married with two children, so the tabloids weren’t interested in his love life until he split from his wife in 2004 and began dating much younger women. (He had a daughter with one of them, Eleanor Boorman, seven years ago.) Getting tailed by photographers in his 50s and 60s was no fun. “I was going to a shrink for a while and I got papped coming out of there. Pain in the arse. Lowest of the low.”

He was more prepared for the fuss over Jewel than he would have been if he had played James Bond, a part he was invited to test for – and refused – in 1986. “I think I’d have fucked it up. It might’ve gone to my head a bit. When Jewel happened, you couldn’t open a paper without reading about me. I was ‘the thinking woman’s crumpet’. But Bond would’ve been much bigger. I might’ve blown it.” He’s been eyeing the names currently in the frame. “Young Richard Madden is pretty good. Or James Norton. I think Daniel’s been fantastic. What he lacks in the wit of Roger Moore he makes up for in a sense of danger.”

Without the slightest prompting, he identifies White Mischief as the fork in the road: the moment when he could have pushed his career to the next level, but didn’t. It was in 1988 that Michael Caine said: “Charles Dance is the one. Why? Because he wants it.” Caine approached him in a restaurant: “He told me, ‘I’ve got money on you. Don’t let me down.’ I thought: ‘Fucking hell, that’s nice.’” But Dance himself isn’t sure he ever really did want it – whatever “it” was. “Maybe if I’d had more cardinal ambition. I mean, I’m ambitious, but I don’t tread over people. And sometimes I just don’t feel like it. I thought: ‘No, I don’t want to go off to LA and sit in endless bloody meetings. If it’s meant to be, it’ll be.’ I’m a bit like that.”

Then there was the competition. “Jeremy Irons was, and still is, a few feet ahead of me. Who else? Alan Rickman, bless him.” The shallowness of the casting pool was vividly brought home when he received the script for Last Action Hero. “I get to my character’s entrance and it says: ‘The door opens and there stands Alan Rickman.’” Still, he was a good sport about it. Walking on set on his first day, Dance wore a T-shirt that read: “I’m Cheaper Than Alan Rickman.”

Charles Dance on making Godzilla: 'The catering was sensational!' (2)

It has been a career with obvious highlights: he was the only person to sleep with Ripley in the Alien series (in David Fincher’s Alien 3), played the director DW Griffith for the Taviani brothers in Good Morning, Babylon, and was part of the flawless ensemble in Gosford Park. On the other hand, he was in the medieval stoner romp Your Highness and was recently seen licking Luke Evans with a long, leathery grey tongue in Dracula Untold. He has done Celebrity Antiques Road Trip and Who Do You Think You Are?, where he met the South African great-niece and the three great-great-nephews he never knew he had. He read solemnly from Fifty Shades of Grey and Mel B’s autobiography on The Big Fat Quiz of the Year to much comic effect, and is in the forthcoming Kingsman prequel.

But a significant part of his acting range is currently being neglected. When I asked earlier why he hadn’t yet written an autobiography, his response was humorously gruff: “Who wants to read another book by an actor?” The question of what is missing from the scripts he gets offered prompts an altogether gentler, more ruminative answer. “I’d like to properly front something,” he says softly, his hearty manner replaced by a note of introspection. “If anyone was brave enough to do a remake of Death in Venice, that would be ideal. I notice I tend to be brought in to give a bit of weight to something, you know? Maybe I should be more choosy. I’d just like to be fronting things a bit more than I am.”

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