Seventeen Magazine, January 1968
by Leonard Whiting as told to Edwin Miller.
What do I think of myself? That I am wise, witty, handsome and gracious? I don't know really. I must be a littl like Romeo because if I weren't I don't think that Franco Zeffirelli, the director, would have cast me. He explained to me that Romeo really has no purpose in life when Shakespeare's story begins, that he is aimless and a dreamer, that he tends to blow everything up out of proportion. Like that business about his loving Rosaline at the beginning of the play. Probably she had only looked at him three or four times, but he said they were in love. When he really falls in love with Juliet, it gives him a purpose in life for the very first time. Zeffirelli sees Juliet's family as newly rich--I think the expression is Nouveau riche--and still pretty earthy. They dress in a gaudy way and are a bit flashy as a family trying to raise itself socially, while Romeo's family is more idealistic and on a different social level. But Romeo doesn't give a hang for all the quarreling between the families, he's just not interested. And once he sees Juliet, things are changed forever.
Olivia Hussey, who plays Juliet, and Franco and I are staying at the same villa outside of Rome and he goes over the script with us time and time again. Understanding the motivation, the feeling behind the lines is the most important thing; when you have those down, the lines come out right by themselves. When I signed for the movie, I began to study speech. Franco had me move away from home in North London so I wouldn't be influenced by the kind of speech I heard around me all the time. And I started taking fencing lessons. It was funny about the dueling. When I got to Rome to do the movie, I found that the style I had been taught in London--the way you placed your feet and all that--was three hundred years later than what I should have been learning. I felt pretty foolish.
If I had three wishes, first I'd wish that I'll really do well with my performance. Next I'd hope I'll be able to finish buying a house for my parents, but I hate to say anything like that. I can hear people say "Oh, listen to that now, will you!" And then I would like to have a happy life. Actually, I'm happy now. My father works for a firm that makes exhibition materials, which he helps load on trucks; my mother works in a telephone factory. Every summer for fourteen years, my family would go to a holiday camp for a week. Holiday camps are nice, your whole day's programmed with activities and all that, and every year I'd keep trying to win the song competition. A voice teacher suggested "love is the sweetest thing" as a good song for me to practice on, and I kept on with it. Some years I'd make it part way to the finals, but I always lost out at the last, and now I've pretty much had it. If the movie hadn't come up this summer, I wouldn't have gone back this year in any case.
Acting is just something I like, something I've drifted into. It's been a good way of getting pocket money for my expenses and I've never thought much about the future. When I was twelve, I had no idea of what I'd be doing when I was grown up and it's just gone along this way. It all began because of my uncle Terry, who's an electrician. He plays the guitar too and he's not very good, but he's always had an ambition to be involved with making a pop record. When he heard that some singer had taken ill before a recording session, he took me around to the producer, who couldn't use me, but suggested I take lessons. While I was in the studio, a woman who heard me sing told me to go around to the musical Oliver! because they were hiring replacements all the time as the boys grew too big for their roles. I auditioned and went on as the Artful Dodger four years ago. I stayed with Oliver! for nine months, then dropped out for three because of the English law which limits children's working, and then went back for four or five months more. The show had been running quite a long while and by then its blood pressure was beginning to drop, if you know what I mean, but there were about fifteen boys in the cast and we had a good time. It didn't interfere with my schooling at all.
I'm a Catholic and I went to a Catholic school. My best subjects were history, literature and religion. I'm not especially interested in religion but the exam ws so easy that I got a good grade on it. I'm glad to finish school; it was boring and I didn't learn anything. I learned more about history being in Rome for a couple of weeks than I did in school. Half the time I was in Oliver! I don't think they really knew I was working or anything; I would go to school every day, and on matinee days just leave a little bit early. I never talked very much about being in the theater; none of the kids at school did either. It was just accepted. I played a couple of parts on television and made a film for Disney called "The Legend of Young Dick Turpin," in which I was a pick-pocket.
That played on TV in the United States, but it was a regular feature in England. Then I was sent around to the National Theatre to audition for Sir Laurence Olivier. I sang "Love is the Sweetest Thing" for him. He listened for a minute and said, "All right, he'll do," and that was it. I was signed on for William Congreve's comedy "Love for Love" as a singing page; my two songs were "Love's But the frailty of the Mind" and "Cynthia Frowns." We went on to tour to Moscow for two and a half weeks and Berlin for a week. I saw Lenin stretched out on a marble slab in Moscow but I slept a lot while we were there and didn't get to see much else. Then when we where in Berlin, the company went to East Berlin to visit the Berliner Ensemble and I was asleep when the bus left so I missed that too. I seem to have been sleeping quite a lot. I never went to the theatre much before I went into the company, but after I saw all the plays in the repertory besides "Love for Love," like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead; The Royal Hunt of the Sun; The Dance of Death. I saw things I didn't really know about before. And I've learned watching Sir Laurence and the other actors. I made twelve pounds a week with the National Theatre. That's thirty two dollars or so, and by the time everything was deducted, I had about twenty-four left. I didn't give much to my mother for board, and I ate most of my meals at home, so I don't know where all of it went, but it did go. I have a steady girl friend from school. She's sixteen and we go to movies--I like Marlon Brando and Albert Finney, Peter O'Toole, Richard Burton, Julie Christie--or dancing once in a while. My favorite pop groups are the Cream and Procul Harum. Most of my friends don't talk about anything special, just all sorts of things going on, movies, sports.
When Romeo came up, I read for it several times--that's when I first met Olivia--and finally there was just another fellow and myself, and then someome said, "I guess you've surmised that you have the part." It was quite exciting in a way, although I wasn't tense thinking about it. My father and mother who had to sign my contract because I am under twenty-one, are excited about all this and are very pleased for me. I've got two sisters--one's ten, the other's fourteen. The younger one didn't say much about it, but my older sister bought me an autograph book so I could bring back everyone's autograph, and it's a little embarrassing doing that. I don't know what will happen to me after Romeo and Juliet. My agent has my contract and I don't know what it amounts to except that Paramount has options on future pictures. It all depends on what they'll have for someone my age. When it was first announced that I had the role, someone asked me what I'd do with all the money I'd be making--although it's not quite that much--and I said I didn't know. I do now. I'm suddenly interested in cars--which I haven't ever been before, although I've practiced driving back home, through the back streets, with a friend. You can't get a license in England until you are seventeen. Since I've been in Italy I've decided that I'd love to buy a car. Do you know, I always thought Italy would be more sandy, somehow. There used to be on the back of a cornflakes box, with bleached white Mediterranean houses where the beach met the sea, and you couldn't tell one from the other. I guess that was what I really expected to see.