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LONDON – Comedian Billy Connolly and Downton Abbey star Maggie Smith entertained the crowd with jokes and banter here Monday as they answered questions about their roles in Dustin Hoffman‘s directorial debut Quartet ahead of the film’s red carpet gala screening Monday evening. The screening was part of the BFI London Film Festival.
Hoffman’s film, based on a stage play by Ronald Harwood that the playwright himself adapted for the screen, details the story of a group of retired opera singers in a retirement home whose annual concert to celebrate composer Giuseppe Verdi’s birthday is disrupted by the arrival of an eternal diva played by Smith and the former wife of one of the residents.
Smith, whose turn as the sharp-tongued countess Violet Crawley in Downton Abbey has been a TV ratings hit in the U.K. and the U.S. alike, was at one point asked if she knew that a sandwich seller with an outlet outside the Venice Film Festival’s main theater had named a sandwich after her. “Is it ham?” she asked in response – a reference to an unskilled actor who overacts.
Connolly, whose stand-up comedy routines led Hoffman to cast him in his directorial debut, was up and running with humor from his first question.
Asked how Hoffman was as a director, fellow ensemble cast member Pauline Collins described him as a “dynamo and a darling,” mostly because “it was clear he understood actors.” Connolly’s immediate response was that he’d forgotten the question in a playful reference to the themes of old age in the film. “A nightmare – tantrums, long silences, inappropriate touching,” Connolly then said, before adding that Hoffman actually “was excellent.”
Hoffman jumped in to ensure that Connolly meant the director had provided “excellent touching.”
When asked if she felt she started being asked to play “ageing women” a little early on in her career and whether she minded or not, Smith said she was “glad to get any work” and the fact “they’re all 90 is neither here nor there.”
Hoffman added that he knew Smith was getting offers of other kinds of film work all the time, noting she’d only last year turned down My Week With Marilyn.
Fellow ensemble cast members Tom Courtenay and relative youngster Sheridan Smith at 32 also joined in the fun.
Courtenay chimed in with an impression of Hoffman as a director and the points during the shoot when he knew the debutant helmer was happy. “Gorgeous, gorgeous take, that’s in the movie,” Courtenay said Hoffman would bellow.
But one question drew incredulity from Connolly when he was asked if he felt more likely to be inappropriate as he got older.
“Are you kidding me on”?, Connolly said in his Scottish drawl. “I’ve been accused of being inappropriate from day one. I have pretty much said exactly as I please all my life. I wasn’t just pretending to be old.”
On a more serious note, the cast members were asked if they thought that a fresh genre of movie had been invented on the back of the critical and boxoffice success of movies featuring older casts, such as The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, The King’s Speech as well as TV shows, such as Downton.
“I think it is because a lot of grown-ups would like films [made] for grown-ups about grown-ups. I can only hope that’s correct,” Smith said.
Hoffman and company also revealed that much of the dialogue in the film came from the Oscar-winning actor making his cast feel free to improvise. “It was openly encouraged and a very good idea,” Connolly said before adding a complaint that his best ad lib was left on the cutting room floor.
Hoffman explained that when they were shooting, Connolly and Courtenay’s characters were meant to be watching a deer on the edge of the forest in a highly-charged emotional scene.
Being “low-budget filmmaking,” Hoffman said it ended up that the separate CGI deer scene just didn’t sit right with the other film footage. Connolly’s improv quip for the scene was: “Do you think he knows how delicious he is.”
The film will be released in the U.S. by the Weinstein Co., which is giving it an Academy-qualifying run on Dec. 28.
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