‘OK,” says Julian Glover. “We talk to each other for an hour. And you extract what you want, as long as it’s nice.” We’re sitting in a cafe in Barnes, London, and it is all a little surreal. Glover, now 87, is so vividly recognisable from The Empire Strikes Back, in which he played villainous General Veers, that it’s like teleporting back to the 1980s. In fact, to look at, he seems to have altered almost not at all between starring in 1967 film Quatermass and the Pit and, say, playing the baddie in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade two decades later. What’s more, you would have easily picked him out as Grand Maester Pycelle in Game of Thrones. Basically, in the flesh, this man reminds you of every important moment on the large and small screen, from even before you were born.
Glover is a legend. How could he possibly think anyone would not be nice? Who has hurt him? He has to think back to the 1950s, to a Royal Shakespeare Company production of Julius Caesar. “One reviewer said, ‘Julian Glover’s Cassius is about as lean and hungry as Kenneth Clark.’ I didn’t care. I was damn good.” That was seven decades ago, and Clark was a famous art critic. Glover had gone angling for acting work after school, give or take a year at Rada and some national service.
We’re here to talk about his role in Prizefighter, which stars Russell Crowe and is written by Matt Hookings, who also plays turn-of-the-19th-century pugilist Jem Belcher. Glover is Lord Ashford, by no means the least likable aristo of the piece, but pompous, thoughtless. It’s a subtle and lingering performance, in an incredibly evocative, earthy film, which Glover hasn’t yet seen. “I’m so glad it came across as earthy. Think of what they smelt like in that time! They never washed their bottoms. If they get beaten up in the ring, they just slosh their faces and go about their business.”
Glover came by the role when he made a short film with Hookings. “I thought, ‘This boy really knows what he’s doing.’” Glover must have done 30 or 40 shorts, he says. “You do it for expenses – if you’re lucky, they pay £200. I consider it part of the actor’s duty, if he’s got anything to pass on.” Laudable, of course, but it doesn’t sound like the whole story. “Kids are very nice to me,” he adds. “By definition, they’re going to be nice, unless you screw up.”
Describing his long and often quite lurching CV – from classical stage to huge hit to political drama to flop to megafranchise – he claims he’s merely been “obeying the rule of Dame Edith Evans, who said, ‘If the work’s there, do it.’” The theme he returns to is how much he hates telling other people what to do. This explains his career: if you want to thrive without bossing other people around, you’ll be on a lifelong quest to find people who’ll boss you.
He made this discovery in the army. “I was on the officers’ training course, bottom of the whole class, relegated for two weeks. I thought, ‘This won’t do. I’m supposed to be an actor. I’m going to act the part of an officer.’ For a fortnight, I did that, bossing everyone around, hoping I was being sympathetic but not tolerating people’s mistakes. And I came out top.”
I wonder if this aversion to authority is the result of a bohemian childhood, both his parents being journalists who divorced in a decade – the 1940s – when people really didn’t. He considers the word sceptically, before describing about the most boho upbringing you’ve ever heard. He paints a picture of his parents so loaded with piquant detail that you feel as if you’ve seen the film of it.
Both BBC journalists, they were in Mallorca, renting a flat from poet Robert Graves, who was at the peak of his fame. They were desperate to meet him, so his father Claude pretended to have put his toe through a bedsheet, in order to make an approach. “To apologise, to say, ‘This is so embarrassing. I’m so sorry. Of course we’ll get you another sheet.’” They were greeted by Laura Riding, his fellow poet and companion. “She was the great filter to Robert and the first question she asked my mother was, ‘And what is your philosophy, Honor?’ And my mother thought, ‘Fuck!’ and said, ‘Miss Riding, I have my own personal philosophy.’ Laura thought that was wonderful. They were in.”
Graves is Glover’s godfather and his Balearic literary salon was the first place Honor vamoosed to after Claude’s philandering, when Julian was four months old. This is where she met her second husband. “A lovely, lovely, lovely man,” says Glover. “He was divine. And they went on to produce my brother, Robert Wyatt, who’s a modern pop musician. Or he was, before he broke his back.”
He learned at school, in particular while singing Nightmare Song from the Gilbert and Sullivan opera Iolanthe, what it was like “to hold an audience in the palm of your hand. I could feel it. I could see it. I thought, ‘This is it.’” He describes joining the RSC with typical self-effacement: “I auditioned – and because I was tall, and good at standing in front of lights, I got in.” In his three seasons there, he went from “spear carrier to playing quite nice, small parts”. He’d met his “first, darling wife, Eileen Atkins” at Rada and they married in 1957, divorcing in 1966 so that he could marry Isla Blair, also an actor, to whom he’s now been married “42 years – or 52”. (In fact, it’s 53.)
Glover tells short, incidental stories about himself that seem to lead to much larger stories about other people. When he was 22, with the RSC at Stratford, he was understudying Paul Robeson, who was coming over from the US to play Othello. Except Robeson went to Moscow on the way. “He was a fellow traveller,” says Glover, referring to Robeson’s history with communism and his McCarthyist blacklisting. “He caught a cold in Russia. And there was me, aged 22, having to rehearse the part of Othello, with Albert Finney and Sam Wanamaker. And I had to rehearse it for a week – and I bloody well did. Then he came back and he did it. I never had to go on, thank God.” Wanamaker, years later, put it in his will that he wanted Glover to play Lear at Shakespeare’s Globe in London. Which he did in 2001.
After playing a series of dastardly villains on TV shows, he landed a Bond role: bad guy Kristatos in For Your Eyes Only. “That’s where I got to know Roger Moore. What a sad, sad loss.” The franchises – Bond, Star Wars, Indiana Jones – have been huge for him because, he says, with disarming frankness, of the convention circuit. “At my age, I’m terribly worried when I haven’t worked for six months. I’m making a sort-of living by doing conventions. I’ve been so lucky, haven’t I, with all these big franchises?”
Then he leans in and says: “Did I ever tell you how I got that role in Star Wars? The executive director on the film was a man called Robert Watts, and he lives right next door to me, here in Barnes. We were just good friends across the garden fence, and one day he said, ‘We’re setting up a second Star Wars film.’ And I said, ‘Oh wonderful, the first one was so terrific’ – even though I did laugh, at first, about ‘the force’. And he said, ‘Do you want to be in it?’ We couldn’t do that now of course.” There’s a pause. For a second, I think he’s going to say something disappointing about white men not being able to stitch up such deals these days because of all the woke warriors. Instead, he says: “Too much foliage.”
That was a fruitful but random moment in a life that has “never had much strategy”. He says: “I don’t want to sound po-faced, but for me, and quite a lot of my colleagues, being an actor is a thing we have to do. It really isn’t a matter of a choice. Whether people like what I do, I’ve just got to do it.”
He likes the idea that it cuts both ways: there are people who need to perform, just as there are people who need to watch them. “During the war, immediately, everyone under the age of 30 was called up. So off they went, Gielgud and Richardson and Redgrave, joined the forces. Within six months, they were called back. It was realised that people can’t do without theatre. They were all pulled back, so they could do shows in the West End. And they’d only stop for the sound of gunfire, or bombing. You can’t keep people down. If there are no theatres, people will get on the tables.”
• Prizefighter is on Prime Video from 22 July.