May 12 1997 FEATURES
Jason Connery hopes that his latest film role, as Macbeth, will finally free him from comparisons with 007.
'There have been times when I've felt the pressure of who my father is'
There is a story from Jason Connery's reckless youth that, to his credit, he does not mind retelling. Twelve years or so ago he was racing his motorbike in Sussex when, in the process of crashing, he banged his left testicle against his petrol tank.
He fractured a thumb and some ribs but it was his undercarriage that alarmed the paramedics. Bleeding internally, his scrotum swelled to the size of a grapefruit. He was rushed to hospital in Brighton and undressed by a female nurse who promptly called in two more.
When the specialist arrived she announced an incision would have to be made to let the blood drain out, but not before summoning ten medical students to behold the rare sight of acute testicular haemorrhage.
"You don't mind, do you, Mr Connery?" he remembers being told. He was on national television every week at the time as Robin of Sherwood: a familiar face, not to mention a famous name.
"No," he groaned. As it turned out, the incision was never made and the testicle gradually healed of its own accord. But Connery lost a job in a film produced by Michael Douglas because of it. When Connery withdrew, Douglas telephoned to ask why. Connery never told him.
This son of Sean is stoic and very private, even if his privacy has to come before his career. Such are his priorities as he arrives in London this week from Los Angeles for his first major British premiere, as the lead in a new film version of Macbeth. It is, he hopes, the role that will finally establish him as a major actor in his own right, independent and in demand beyond his father's lowering shadow.
As on the motorbike track, so in film: Connery Jr does not want for courage. He has taken on one of the great tragic roles in the language despite a curriculum vitae that boasts only one professional Shakespeare part before it: he once played Petruchio in Taming of the Shrew at Southampton. Otherwise, he has not touched the Bard since school.
"I did feel I was being thrown in the deep end," he says. "But I was the one who threw myself there." He did not audition for the part, exactly. It was more a case of agreeing to team up again with his old mate Bob Carruthers of Cromwell Films, which finances ultra-low budget films by selling 500 or so shares at $500 per investor.
The innovative Carruthers system ensures that even if shareholders don't recoup their money they get invitations to the premiere and the chance of being an extra. The challenge for the director and his principals is to harness this amateur enthusiasm in the name of a professional film.
Connery prepared diligently. For one thing, he grew a full beard and very long hair. Hirsute was hip in 11th-century Scotland, but it also conveniently distinguishes the current Connery from the close-cropped, boy-next-door guise in which he played Robin Hood. (Reclining for the Times photographer beneath Whoopi Goldberg's cigar cabinet in a private humidor in Beverly Hills, he still seems intent on disguising his absurdly good looks. The Macbeth hairstyle has been replaced by a hedgehog cut and the unaccountably fashionable Hollywood goatee.)
Hair apart, how does one recreate a character already brought to the big screen by Orson Welles, Peter O'Toole, Sir Ian McKellen and Sir Anthony Hopkins? If Connery was ever daunted by the inevitable comparisons, he is not admitting it. Nor does he have much time for the pretensions of "method" acting so beloved of the more self-important American stars.
"A lot of actors work from the outside in, and a lot work from the inside out," he says. "I felt I was doing an amalgamation of both. You're standing there in costume. You've got the sword, you've got the beard, you feel like a warrior and there's a huge brooding castle in the background. It's uncomfortable. The chairs are all wood, the beds are horsehair. The mistake then is to ask yourself, 'How would this guy think?' What you have to say is, 'If I'm going to make this real I have to put some aspect of myself in it, and make it true for me'."
Whether this Macbeth will prove true for a mass audience is another matter. Like his father, Connery has a knack for flinty close-ups. He is also a match for Branagh when it comes to making Shakespeare's calmer passages work as both dialogue and poetry. But one result of the film's being shot entirely on location in Scotland is that its backdrops sometimes look like tourist-board stock footage. Overall, it is more endearing than terrifying, which may not be the accolade one seeks for the first true British thriller.
If Connery hopes Macbeth will prove his ticket to full-blown stardom, he is biding his time with it. No one in Hollywood has been shown an early cut, and he doesn't know yet what his next acting job will be. Such a hiatus would be unthinkable for an aspiring Hanks or Hoffman, but Connery seems unbothered by it.
Asked about his ambition, he replies in unintended but surely revealing oxymoron: "I think I'm totally committed," he says. "I love acting, but I do feel there are other things, such as my relationship with my wife and child and to an extent my friends, that are more important."
Technically he does not have a child yet, but his wife, the actress Mia Sara, is eight months pregnant. They met three years ago on the St Petersburg set of Bullet to Beijing, where their co-star Michael Caine acted as unwitting matchmaker by offering them both respite from the bitter Russian cold in his imported Winnebago.
Connery hit it off with Caine as his father had decades earlier. When he and Sara were married last year, it was in the Candlelight Wedding Chapel in Las Vegas, recommended by Caine from fond experience. When they returned to London, their first stop was a party thrown for them by Caine at Langan's.
Sean Connery did not attend the wedding. The gleeful tabloids called it a snub. Jason Connery insists it was his idea. "We didn't tell Dad and we didn't tell Mum [actress Diane Cilento, divorced 24 years ago] because basically they can't stand each other," he says bluntly.
Secretive as the wedding was, a year later Connery is taking it most seriously. The only future role he is certain of, he says, is "being a husband and a father". It is not far-fetched to suppose that this earnest-sounding 34-year-old has formed his views on fatherhood from his experience of childhood, which included attending a series of expensive boarding schools (Millfield, Gordonstoun) as his own father bestrode the world and topped most sex-symbol rankings. Still, he insists that most of what has been written about his allegedly tricky relationship with the original 007 is myth.
"There have been times when I've felt the pressure of who my father is," he says, remembering his early days at Perth Rep when the local paper would send a photographer round if he so much as rehearsed. "You're under scrutiny much earlier. When you walk in the door people think, 'I wonder if he's going to look like his dad, or sound like him or have a complex about him'.
"But on the whole I feel as though it's not my problem. In fact it isn't a problem. I am Sean Connery's son."
They will not be together at the premiere. Sean will be in New York accepting an award and Jason is ready for the next round of "Father Snubs Son" hysteria. As it subsides, they will meet up, as they often do, for 18 quiet holes at Sunningdale or the Sherwood course in California.
"If I wanted it I could create it, that whole maelstrom of publicity," says junior. "But you have a choice. I think I learnt that from my father."