An Interview With Olivier's son, director Richard Olivier

 From the London Times (April 11, 1999)

Being Laurence Olivier's son was hell, but after years of anger Richard Olivier has finally found how to be himself

Once more into the breach with my father

My father died 10 years ago this July, and I still ask myself: what does it mean to have someone of his magnitude as a father? As a child I felt I could never quite get his attention. I could see that he was not as lively with me at home as when he was on a stage or a film set.

It made me feel miserable, but when Dad wasn't working he was unhappy. It felt as though the National Theatre was his favourite child and we, myself and my sisters, were his stepchildren in Brighton, waiting to see him at weekends. And then he was often tired and reading scripts.

As a teenager I didn't know what was wrong with me. I had this deep sense of loneliness and emptiness. When Dad died it was a huge shock. I went numb. I hardly cried at all. Something inside me shut off and I started acting almost like a machine. I wanted to run away from the past and pretend it hadn't happened. I withheld my emotions and became a workaholic - like my father.

Like him, I wasn't able to relate to people properly. My wife wished I would put some of the energy into my family that I put into my work. Like my father, I'd sit at home waiting for the phone to ring for the next job. Ultimately, however, my father's death catapulted me into looking at my unhappiness. Now I feel I have been on a journey that has come full circle.

For years I felt very bitter and resentful. As a child it was hard to understand that he preferred playing Othello to being with me. I went through a lot of angst and anger. And I do think my father's love of work was unbalanced. He got to the point that he was so attached to the buzz that he would be depressed if he wasn't working. When he was older, he didn't enjoy the fruits of a lifetime's work: being with his family or seeing friends. Much later, when I was directing my mother on stage in Time and the Conways, I heard her telling a reporter: "Of course I love my family, but the theatre is my life." I was shocked. I wasn't sure if she quite knew what she'd said.

I decided to question everything seriously for the first time. I went into a dark night of the soul: I joined a men's group and went into therapy. I went on men's retreats. I found there was something magical about being with a group of men who are not together to make business deals or to get pissed or to see who's better at football.

The whole point of men's retreats is get to a place where men can drop into themselves and have what I would call an "authentic experience". I discovered that we walk through life wearing masks and we play roles. My father wore masks. But he didn't know when he was and when he wasn't.

On a retreat I never thought of my father. He became one of the layers I had to peel off with my mobile phone. I don't know what he would have thought of what I was doing. But I think he would have been happy for me. Because I know now that he loved me.

I became very involved in what is now a growing men's movement. At first, it was considered a joke - men baring their breast and hugging trees; but men feel duty-driven to work 40 or 60-hour weeks and once you're on the treadmill, it's hard to stop. Men like my father become defined by what they do, so they feel good only when they're working. Sometimes on retreats we send men out into the woods for four hours and tell them not to return until they've had a good idea.

What happened to me was a strange quirk of the men's movement, therapy and my famous father. People came to talk to me because of my father and I became a much more public person than I had anticipated. For better or for worse I decided to be honest. I blamed my father for my feelings of emptiness and unhappiness. That felt necessary, but I'm glad it's over.

I have been reading a wonderful German psychologist called Alice Miller, who says you have to go through a stage of blaming your parents, because if you pretend your childhood was wonderful you will never really find out who you are. Now I accept what happened to me in my childhood. I am no longer angry. It's a great relief that I no longer blame my father, because I have so much more energy for the things I care about. And, having gone through the blame and rejection, I must forgive myself for having blamed my parents: I mustn't get stuck in the guilt for having blamed them. I have come out the other side.

Of course, it's very peculiar that as I was trying to reject my parents' way of doing things, I was working as a theatre director. And five years ago I wondered how I could bring together these two great passions of my life: the men's movement and working as a theatre director.

I began talking to the theatre director Mark Rylance about Shakespeare's plays and how they could be used as stories of personal development. I was also interested in how my work in the theatre and the men's movement could help the development of business organisations to make work more constructive. We talked about the nature of kingship in everyone and how this could help them to be leaders. Two years ago Rylance asked me to direct Henry V at the Globe. It was the first time I'd ever done a Shakespeare play and the first time I'd ever done something so completely identified with my father. My dad had started his film of Henry V in a reconstruction of the Globe Theatre. Years before, if I'd directed this play I would have been proving myself as an Olivier. Now, because I was ready to give up being a theatre director, I didn't care. I felt free to approach Shakespeare in my own way, involving my knowledge of myth and ritual and emotional intelligence through my work in the men's movement. It was an all-male production and it was fabulous.

We decided to develop our Henry V workshop to bring it to managers in business. Some managers felt they couldn't be inspiring leaders. We'd say: "If you were pretending to be Henry V and you had to get all these men into that bloody breach, how would you do it?" They'd say: "Well, if I was Henry V I would probably just do . . ." And they'd suggest something. We would say: "Great. You just did it. Now go do it with your staff."

What was intriguing for me was the idea of the good leader being a good actor. Sometimes you have to bluff and pretend - be an actor - because you have to inspire others.

At last I felt, if not on an equal stage, then on a level platform from which I could look at my father's life. I knew, at that moment, it wasn't about fame or being a respected member of the profession. Deep down I knew that theatre wasn't enough for me. I realised I was better working with business people than actors. There are better theatre directors than me.

But there aren't many better arts consultants than me. Working in theatre, I would always be second-best. Now I don't think in terms of best or not best at all. My father would be pleased with me and what I'm doing. Partly as a homage and partly as following in his footsteps. He did what he wanted and needed to do and so do I.

My father didn't have much truck with psychology or positive thinking but he didn't need it. He was lucky he could do his stuff and be marvellous without that kind of help. Now I feel that everything that my father has stood for is helping me to do the work I'm involved in, and that I feel I was born to do.

So many people think that two-thirds of their entire life is a necessary evil in order to get four weeks' holiday a year. It's tragic. But now that I feel inspired by my work, it means that I, too, have to face the problems my father faced.

Balancing work and family life is one of the hardest things. Some of my working life still isn't very family-friendly.

Troy and Ali, my two children, are 11 and 9. Now I phone their schools and get their timetables before I start booking my work so that I can be with them during their half-terms and holidays. We swim, play tennis and football, and Ali and I dance about on the floor.

Last Monday we had an Easter-egg hunt with about 15 kids down at Dad's old house. Mum was there - she's a wonderful grandmother - and we had a football match with the dads against the boys. I'm still slightly suffering from it.

There was a time when I thought, if only I could get out of my father's shadow. Now I wouldn't want to. I feel closer to my father than at any other time in my life. I almost feel that he is here with me.

Richard Olivier was talking to Ann McFerran


Back to top