CLASS ACT, CONSUMMATE ACTOR: JANE MERROW IN CONVERSATION
credit: Cary Judd
credit: Bob Willoughby
Jane Merrow has faced some tough, legendary characters. The Saint! John Steed! The Prisoner! Dr Banner/Hulk! Magnum PI! And now? It’s the turn of James Murphy: as Jane talks us through the finer points of a very particular and precise yet notoriously precarious profession.
From Shakespeare to spy-fi; stunt-work to short film-making: get ready for an enlightening, educative and entertaining journey through the Thespian vocation.
Jane Merrow is what one might call a ‘class act’. Refined, elegant, approachable, passionate about being an actor. This is a name and face one recognises, on sight, from a range of great film and television work. The phrase ‘cult star’ has never been more apt than here.
Name a beloved sci-fi/fantasy franchise and chances are, this actor graced it. From The Avengers to The Saint to The Prisoner via MISSION:IMPOSSIBLE and The Incredible Hulk: Jane has done it all! On film? It’s epic, classic, only the very best. The Lion in Winter earned her a Golden Globe nomination and that was amidst an ensemble of top class talent including Katharine Hepburn, Peter O’Toole, Anthony Hopkins and Timothy Dalton.
In short? Ms Merrow personifies the very best of the actor’s craft. So who better to sit down and chat to about the profession? I was privileged enough to do just that, as I sat down for tea and a chat with Jane.
The first item on agenda is Ms Merrow’s recent contribution to the short film scene. Succinct story- telling and logical, linear communication is difficult. It therefore invites the purest and most precise practice for an actor. There is no hiding place; no filler. You must communicate a character in a split second; that glance, smile, frown, touch. Nuance is key.
The most recent example on that front is COUGAR. The title suggests something rather racy? But no. Indeed, Jane is at pains to point out that what really is being emphasised is a need to be genuine in communication.
‘We now live in a virtual world and MUST move towards a balance; technology is needed, of course. But where does it end? At what point is AI / VR and so on going to own us, run us, make us extinct, socially? I find that a fascinating prospect’.
COUGAR is a great watch; kind of like a visual equivalent of a short story that is defined by a twist. I shan’t give it away, of course. But what I will reveal is that Jane fills the screen and steals the show, managing to convey a balance of tension and comedy, via a warm frisson and charge of romantic energy. She truly excels in this art form and it’s vital to connect with it should one have aspirations to direct or perform in a full feature. I do pitch that prospect and Jane is instantly encouraging of the idea, agreeing that the premise could indeed be extended to a larger format.
That’s the present / future. What of her past, both recent and further back? It’s difficult to plot a linear course with an actress whose features are so timeless and work so accessible across genres and decades.
Theatre is a first love and Jane trained at RADA: the most prestigious and elite drama school in the world. Classmates included John Thaw (Inspector Morse, The Sweeney). She returns to Theatre whenever possible.
Lady Macbeth was a recent pet project, having longed to play the part from the start of her career. Indeed, any Shakespeare play is fascinating to confront. ‘He just ‘got’ human nature in all facets; his work, be it poetry or drama, always comes with insight to our condition’.
That sounds very much like a directorial pitch. To Jane, the actor must think every bit LIKE the director in any event, because you are helping each other tell a story, as a team. So acting is an innate gift, then? Are the best actors made, or born? Is there a set of pervasive and core qualities one must possess and /or master?
Jane is quite clear that this is very much a ‘vocation’. It’s not enough to just ‘want’ to be an actor ‘You must almost NEED to do it’. And that was very much her approach, from day one. There is of course, no guarantee, of constant work. One must be business like and pragmatic; but still follow a passion and retain commercial awareness / keep feet on ground.
‘I ran the family business for over 10 years in London…Merrow Language Recruitment…a huge challenge. I am proud of it as it was a small business and survived over 50 years, since it was started by my father and is now part of the largest European multilingual recruitment business.’
In short? ALWAYS have back up plans but be ready, at moment’s notice, to win that dream part in a key genre. Jane mastered the most challenging of action /adventure choreography and it became something of a specialism. Any hair raising memories or near misses? ‘There was one scene on an action driven piece I was doing and an explosion went off: a special effect and perfectly safe but it was scary, first time’.
Ms Merrow became a reliable talisman for any action hero /spy adventurer on screen. Bill Bixby asked her to work with him, twice. He once insisted she climb a high tower with him for authenticity in an action scene. ‘Yet he did so with a natural charm; and the rapport was strong enough for them to simply brave the set-piece and laugh after the event’.
Bixby of course was Dr Bruce Banner in The Incredible Hulk tv series. He was also an accomplished director. Mark Ruffalo now plays the role in Marvel Cinematic Universe products, notably the recent AVENGERS:INFINTY WAR.
If you say ‘Avengers’ for some markets, they think not of costumed super-heroes. Think, instead, of a gentleman in a bowler hat called John Steed, played, brilliantly, by Patrick Macnee: ‘The Avengers’ being a tv series of the 60s /70s where MacNee’s Steed and a series of assistants would encounter all manner of pulpy, campy, high class, high glamour, charming adventure. The kind of thing they simply cannot make or even RE-make today. Jane thinks much of this is down to the fact that a brand is frequently built on its leading actors.
Macnee could not be replaced and it showed when Hollywood tried to turn the John Steed character into a big screen hero, played by Ralph Fiennes, in a 1998 movie that simply did not work.
‘Patrick was not in it enough! And it was a shame for Fiennes because he had been so magnificent in Schindler’s List and The English Patient. It was natural to seek out a franchise / action part for him. But it HAS to be ‘right’ ‘ .
Fiennes need not lose any sleep, though. He is now James Bond’s Boss, M (SKYFALL, SPECTRE, the forthcoming BOND 25) and has just been announced as the star of a KINGSMAN spin off film set for fast track production and release next year. But yes, Mr Fiennes: avoid ANY remakes of beloved television properties. There is a reason for THE PRISONER movie being in relentless development hell. Its original star simply cannot be replaced and the property therefore cannot be rebooted.
Patrick McGoohan was the eponymous ‘prisoner’ and exemplary leading man; admired by all with whom he worked as a kind of mentor figure who expected, demanded and inspired excellence. Famous as much for playing villains as the heroes of Prisoner /Danger Man (nobody else faced Peter Falk’s Columbo more often); he was nonetheless a devoted Catholic and family man. He passed on any possibility of playing James Bond and selected actresses that he felt matched his own work ethic. Jane obviously met his exacting standard as they worked together on a number of occasions.
Speaking of Bond? Roger Moore was an absolute darling on The Saint.
‘He was so modest and accessible; emphasising his background as the son of a Policeman and that he felt lucky to enjoy the career he did, despite being so talented as both actor and director’.
Moore of course went onto play James Bond for seven films over twelve years. It’s a myth that he simply played it for laughs; there are many dark and tense moments in his tenure and he convinces as an action hero with gentlemanly, everyman credentials. Indeed, THAT is one template that Ian Fleming had in mind when writing the Bond of the books, though yes, it is an ever changing character. And that lends itself well to reinvention.
Moore was succeeded by Timothy Dalton and Pierce Brosnan, both of whom Jane also met. The Dalton Bond is a more broody, sensitive, romantic hero than the Roger Moore version. He is brutal and imposing in his action scenes yet vulnerable and human in his more personal scenes as an off duty 007. Such great work.
Dalton was in The Lion in Winter, alongside Jane and Anthony Hopkins and Peter O’Toole. There was quite a bit of teasing on set with the old guard of acting talent keen to wind up the (then) new crop of over-earnest but brilliant young pretenders. ‘Timothy was an absolute gentleman’. I put it to Jane that he was in effect the true heir to Olivier? She does not challenge that assertion, even if the man himself might, out of his famous modesty. Trust me. I met him once. I was 8 and sat through a Eugene O’Neill play to do so: Mr Dalton spoke to me afterwards with patience and courtesy. A thorough gentleman and a truly great actor.
There are entire articles written, frequently, too about the actors who nearly played Bond or missed out, narrowly on similar action hero parts. ‘Imagine if X actor had played Y role’ (if they had not been contractually obliged to stay put where they were). You know the sort of thing.
Similarly themed articles will point out that another of Jane’s other co-stars, Tom Selleck, on MAGNUM PI, was almost Indiana Jones. Selleck went onto a great career and was excellent in the recent Jesse Stone films.
But it’s a fascinating ‘what if’ to think of anyone other than Harrison Ford as Dr Jones. Just as it’s almost impossible to think of anyone except Selleck playing Magnum. But they are doing it! Yep. The show has been rebooted. Will it work? Jane: ‘Once again: all down to the casting and the charm of the leading man; Tom Selleck is a lovely, charming man and a pleasure to work with. Very hard act to follow!’.
With all that first hand experience of film and indeed, facing ongoing commitments as a working actor: can Jane simply relax with a film? Switch off, so to speak? Of course she can! Favourite films include Good Will Hunting (‘it’s deeply moving and so beautifully acted’) whilst music taste is eclectic, taking in everything from Beethoven to The Rolling Stones.
It was a real pleasure talking to Jane. I look forward to watching some of her forthcoming work and covering it here.