The Anatomy of Acting

Michael York, OBE is an English actor. An early career with the National Youth Theater, Oxford University Dramatic Society, and University College Players led him to the National Theater in London. After acclaimed roles in Zeffirelli's Romeo and Juliet (1968), Cabaret (1972) and Jesus of Nazareth (1977), he is more recently known among mainstream audiences for his role as Basil Exposition in the Austin Powers series of comedy films. Classically trained, Michael York wrote a handbook "A Shakespearean Actor Prepares."  

  • Transcript


Well I think the interesting phenomena about this job is that if you're very lucky and if you play it right, you can go on doing it all your life, more or less, because in most jobs you get to the age I am now and you're asked to retire, to go off and do something else, play golf or whatever.  But if you're an actor, your usefulness carries over.  I mean roles change obviously.  And so there's always something, the doors close on some things and they open on others which is very reassuring.  The process, it's odd.  It's like Mr. McCorber, you always hope that something will turn up.  As much as you expect to plan it, you can't because in a way you're dependent upon you know, other people's employment.  Unless you are as a lot of actors are and I've done it myself, you become very pro-active and you create opportunities for yourself, which is more often easier said then done.

Question: What attracted you to the World Science Festival?

Michael York:  You know I have a terrible facility to say yes to everything, including doing this interview.  You know, another leap into the unknown.  But it leads you into, sometimes into a lot of trouble but more often than not, into a whole new interesting you know, sphere.  And the invitation, I was in fact was at the Aspen Ideas Festival where somehow I don't know I, I do know how I got there.  I was very happy to be part of this extraordinary week of intellectual discussion and with people who really, the movers and shakers.  And just to be a fly on the wall was wonderful.  And you, know, I also got to do something there.  So you know, the performer I think, I always try to look back to the, you know, the Elizabethan days, where a performer was expected to be not only a dynamic actor, but also a great speaker.  This is another thing that's fallen by the wayside.  The actually physical act of acting and voice production has all, you know, gone by the board, because we all now rely on little microphones and we mumble.  But he was also expected to be a playwright, musician, dancer, whatever, you know.  We are all now, we're all put in our little pigeon holes.  You're even a stage actor rather than the theater actor.  It's very depressing.  Whereas you know, the renaissance feeling was that you were capable of anything you put your mind to.

Question: Is theater dying?

Michael York:  Well obviously entertainment is important.  And as we have more and more leisure time, it becomes increasingly important and I think that's where not just mindless entertainment, you know, filling up the hours.  I think it does become important to, you know, to have entertainment that really increases you know, what a piece of work is man.  Again that sounds pretentious but I do think there is you know, if we speak English we inherit an extraordinary culture and it has to be handed down.  And my only concern is that you know, when there are cuts in the schools, it's the performing arts education that often goes by the board, which is very short-sighted.  I know that you know, obviously athletics is very important, the exercise of the physical body.  But exercise of the imagination I think, is equally vital.  And it's a very well known fact that if you have a performing arts program, it often-- it leads to great success in other academic subjects.  There's a you know, synergy between the two.