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A free spirit on lockdown: Julian Sands on what makes him thrive, keep it real and the last time he cried

Throughout his career, British-born actor Julian Sands has always gone against the tide. And, it turns out, in life as well. He's an iconoclast -- an actor without ego, a celebrity who becomes the common man in the mountains of Santa Monica and a romantic hero who has played the most memorable villains and monsters in cinematic history. Here he talks to E. Nina Rothe about his life as a free spirit in this strange new world of lockdown.

Julian Sands photographed by Michael Mayer
Julian Sands photographed by Michael Mayer

Do you remember where you were when you first watched the Merchant and Ivory film ‘A Room with a View’? I do. Watching Julian Sands play George Emerson in the E. M. Forster story featuring my native town of Florence, suddenly made the city rife with possibilities. Around every corner there was magic and romance and I’ve never looked at Florence, or a movie for that matter, quite the same way again.

But instead of continuing on what could have been the predictable path of playing good-looking good guys, Sands then did a 180 and began tackling characters that delved into the dark recesses of the human condition. From ‘Boxing Helena’ to ‘The Warlock’ he proved he could make even the strangest men spellbinding.

Fast forward to current times and Sands is featured in two films currently steaming on Netflix. In the first, Sooni Taraporevala’s ‘Yeh Ballet’, based on a true story, he plays the cantankerous Saul, an Israeli ballet teacher who finds among his Mumbai students two future stars of the dance world. In the second, Agatha Christie’s ‘Crooked House’ he is the stiff upper lipped wannabe patriarch of an aristocratic British family. Sands is comfortable and wonderful in both roles, once again proving his great versatility.

Look for Sands in more upcoming projects, first playing bad guy (an understatement!) Garbos in Václav Marhoul’s ‘The Painted Bird’ which should stream on IFC in July and then lending his voice to a cat in an animated film on Netflix alongside Cher.

I caught up with Sands by phone this weekend and asked him what makes him laugh, the last thing that made him cry, his beloved mountains and how he’s been preparing for this lockdown all his life.

How does Julian Sands keep busy during lockdown?

Julian Sands: The life of an actor prepares you for a lockdown — period. I mean, you can do three films a year but that doesn’t mean you’re actually on a film set. Only for a fraction of that time. As an actor you always use what I call “fallow time” to read and regroup. That requires self-reliance, enjoyment of the present and so having this lockdown it’s familiar, in that I spend a lot of time reading, I spend a lot of time in the garden, a lot of time in the outdoors, in the mountains. The local mountains offer great adventure, you can go out for an hour, a day or even several days. It’s always different and always fantastic. And of course, I do believe in a certain athleticism for me as an actor, keeping fit is important. So living, or being based in Los Angeles — actors don’t really live anywhere, they are always on the road — lends itself to a wonderful outdoors lifestyle. I think psychologically, the difference between normal periods working and the current lockdown is that there is still no prospect of film production re-igniting.

How do you deal with this “hopelessness” — this pause in productivity?

Julian Sands: What you really learn as an actor in between jobs is how to be in the moment. And to enjoy whatever the particular day has to offer. And also to be comfortable with inactivity. It doesn’t always have to be about doing something. Sometimes not doing something is the best way of doing something. Embracing the inertia, the stillness, the quiet, the breathing of it — and this is nothing new. It’s what ancient Indian Sanskrit writing, the Vedic writing, the Yoga Upanishad have been arguing for centuries, the importance of stillness, and breathing consciousness. It sounds awfully trendy but there is nothing very new about it.

I’ve been doing shows in the past few years, readings of the poetry of John Keats and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Keats uses the words, the importance of stillness and silence, and quiet and breathing as the essential nourishment for the human condition.  Shelley does too in ‘Mont Blanc’. They were both inspired by big nature and the importance of nature as a major force in the lives of humans.  And their words are just as appropriate and prophetic today.

So back to your question. The days are rich and not unhappy. It’s like being on a becalmed boat. It would be nice to make it into port but for the time being… A day becomes a week, a week becomes a month.

You went to Mumbai to shoot ‘Yeh Ballet’. And one of the things that struck me when the filmmaker talked about you is what a joy you were to work with. You were really down to earth and took care of your own needs. So how do you stay grounded and manage to be that person who is giving to others while remaining true to yourself?

Julian Sands: To a degree it’s about who you are, but it’s also a choice. And it’s about being real. It’s true that you are yourself, but then you choose to be yourself. You can live thinking life revolves around you or you can be normal. As an actor, as soon as you start having consciousness of yourself and what you’ve achieved, you lose curiosity — perhaps. To me what matters is the present and the near future. Everything in the past is another country, it’s not that it is irrelevant but it has no real conditioning effect on the present. The present is always reinventing itself. And to be open and a sponge to soak that up, ego would be a barrier to that. 

What makes you laugh?

Julian Sands: I suppose like everyone, I laugh at funny things. What those funny things are can vary. I’m British, you know and the tradition of humor in England ranges from the slapstick of Benny Hill to the crazy humor of Monty Python, to the ribaldry of Shakespeare, to subtlety of Harold Pinter. I like to laugh, I think I have a healthy sense of humor and that’s a blessing. 

What was the last thing to make you cry?

Julian Sands: I can tell you two things. One of the things in lockdown is I’ve seen more on the various streaming services, than I would normally have chosen to. Especially the series because they take time and commitment. And I watched on HBO a television show called ‘The Leftovers’ an adaptation of a book, and I found it so metaphysically psychedelic. And so beautifully crafted. At the very end of it, which I loved, I watched it last week — the couple the show is centered on is finally reunited. They’re years older than when they first met, and I wept, I was so moved by it. There is nothing remotely kitsch about the reunion. It felt incredibly poignant and powerful, and beautiful. 

Also a few nights ago, I wept a little when I came off the end of the mountain trail. At the thought of being able to rest my feet and also the relief of having completed the trail. I love climbing mountains, I’ve spent a lot of time in the Alps over the years, a lot of time in the Andes, Alaska and the American ranges. Climbing mountains, a lot of time people who don’t climb mountains assume is about this great heroic sprint for the summit. And somehow this great ego-driven ambition. But actually it’s the reverse. It’s about supplication and sacrifice and humility, when you go to these mountains. It’s not so much a celebration of oneself but the eradication of one’s self consciousness. And so on these walks you lose yourself, you become a vessel of energy in harmony hopefully with your environment. So when that came to an end a couple of days ago, I cried myself a tear of relief.

And finally, what makes Julian Sands thrive?

Julian Sands: I think what makes a person thrive has a lot to do with the good fortune of how you’re made — what’s in your DNA. The thing for me, that I’m blessed with still is curiosity. I’ve been around a while now, and yet when I get the opportunity of a new job, I have more energy and curiosity and interest in it than I think I did when I left theater school. Because I don’t feel the need to prove anything, I don’t feel impeded by being competitive or being insecure about myself, my appearance. I think a professional confidence comes with a body of work. You achieve a plateau of security. It has also as much to do with aging.

One thrives on enthusiasm, curiosity, humility, in that if one stays humble you don’t have the baggage of expectation and entitlement. I mean, two days ago, I was just an old guy begging people for water at a trail head in the Santa Monica mountains. Who cares if you’re a film person, I was just someone very grateful for the kindness of strangers. I couldn’t physically carry the amount of water I needed, it was so hot and 70 miles through the mountains is a long way without water. 

To thrive is to be alive.

Portrait of Julian Sands by Michael Mayer, courtesy of the actor

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