For Strauss, `Night' may be tender, but the shooting was tough
Peter Strauss thinks American television viewers want more love stories. That is one of the reasons he agreed to star in the BBC miniseries of the classic American romantic tragedy, F. Scott Fitzgerald's ``Tender Is the Night,'' now airing on Showtime. Mr. Strauss has just arrived from Little Rock, Ark., where he interrupted his filming of ``Under Siege'' for NBC, a special written by Watergate reporter Bob Woodward in which terrorists destroy the Capitol in Washington. Although he is in New York to help promote the CBS miniseries ``Kane and Abel,'' based upon Jeffrey Archer's best seller, which starts airing Nov. 17, we find ourselves talking more about the BBC-Showtime production of ``Tender Is the Night,'' which started airing Oct. 27 on Showtime
and continues through the end of November. This televised version of a jazz-age romance between a doctor and his wealthy patient has garnered superb reviews from most critics.
But despite the romance of the story, the shooting of ``Tender Is the Night'' was not a happy experience for Peter Strauss, who is used to the fast pace of American miniseries. ``The BBC will spend hours discussing whether or not buttons should or should not be fabric-coated, and will bring on 40 experts on buttons of the period. Americans are not preoccupied with detail on that scale. But once the BBC has had its rehearsal period and starts shooting, it doesn't want to stop for retakes. I do.''
Strauss is ambivalent about the film, since he has come to believe that it would have been better to follow the chronology of the published novel rather than the chronology later preferred by Fitzgerald himself -- one that ``explained'' Nicole from the very start.
One of the main things Strauss objects to is the fact that the book's epilogue has been omitted.
``I feel that Fitzgerald was saying something important there,'' he says. ``For Diver, a young genius, to have been exiled to upstate New York was a harsh sentence, a punishment the likes of which the British cannot begin to understand. It was in the epilogue, and they were determined not to make it a part of our miniseries.
``Americans like to get dirty and sweaty and put a camera right up people's noses. Our energy and lack of subtlety demand that. But the British have great faith in the audience and place a stretch of velvet rope between the camera and the performers and let it happen.
``There were times when I wanted more pace. But they just told me I was going too fast, there was too much energy. I said that Americans in the '20s had a franticness, a craziness. I wanted more jazz clubs . . . drinking . . . but they always wanted less of everything.''
When the interviewer tells Strauss that the end result is super for both the miniseries and his own performance, he smiles and shrugs: ``I'd be stupid to say I disagree with you. . . . I'm delighted. But is anyone going to turn off `Miami Vice' to watch `Tender Is the Night'?''
Perhaps there is an audience for both, the interviewer suggests.
``Well, maybe there is an audience in this country that is prepared to let a piece of literature unfold in a very slow, intelligent manner.'' He begins to get excited about the project, to forget his reservations.
``I think a lot of people love Fitzgerald. The fact of the matter is, it's a love story. . . . I don't want to see any more stories about teen-agers, and I don't want any more `Miami Vice' cops. . . . I want to be moved, not by child abuse and by lung diseases. While those things are very real, and television has a responsibility to do them well, I also want more love stories. . . .And I think other people want them, too. Maybe I'm getting softer now that I have a wife and a baby and one on
the way. . . .''
Since Peter Strauss has become the top miniseries superstar (with Richard Chamberlain) on American television, perhaps he can explain why American miniseries tend to be regarded as pop art, while British miniseries are often considered literature.
``I think it is really a reflection of our cultures and our respect for the written word. To the British, the screenplay, the teleplay, is a very important, highly detailed blueprint. What happens in America is usually that the writer is gone by the time the picture goes into production. So a lot of other people start altering the screenplay. That doesn't happen on Broadway, and it doesn't happen in London for the most part. Where the writer is still the revered figure, the end result is most often goo d . . . or at least is the culmination of somebody's vision.''
What bothered Mr. Strauss most was the fact that the BBC seemed to be shocked by his acting technique. ``They were surprised that American actors keep searching for the truth in their work . . . for emotional recall. Once I asked at the beginning of a difficult scene for a minute to prepare the emotional state necessary to produce the performance. I seemed to be speaking a different language. They were very reluctant, but finally assigned an assistant with a walkie-talkie to stand with me, and I was su pposed to nod when I was ready so the camera could be turned on. And there I am trying to conjure up all the hurt in the world to come through the door teary-eyed, when this girl, watching me like a cat watching a sparrow, kept asking, `Are you ready to do it now?'
``When I tried to explain that it is the way we are rewarded sometimes in our performance, the way we create what we create, they seemed so annoyed. They were used to their traditions -- British actors do it all by technical means. I was not so thrilled to spend 100 hours in costume fittings to get the buttons right. My attitude is that if I move you, you shouldn't be noticing the buttons. But their attitude is that if the buttons aren't right, they are doing a grievous injustice to history.''
Does Strauss realize that he is getting a reputation for being difficult?
He nods vigorously. ``Yes. And for all the wrong reasons. I'm right about why I'm difficult, and they're wrong about the fact that they see me as difficult. As far as I am concerned, difficult is an actor who complains that his dressing room isn't big enough or that he wants more close-ups. My problem is that I don't want to shoot a scene until I have it finished in terms of the writing, ready in terms of the acting. I seem to be getting a reputation for being unwilling to make a commitment to do a film
until the screenplay is finished. If that makes me difficult . . . so be it.''
And if Peter Strauss's ``difficulty'' results in finished products like ``Tender Is the Night,'' millions of television viewers will be saying, ``So be it,'' too.