London's Wild West
FROM CERTAIN ANGLES, SAM WEST seems the very model of a Modern British Actor. He has the sensitive eyes of a young Laurence Olivier and parents who rank with England's theater royalty (more on them in a moment). As one of the most successful members of the "Britpack"—the group of rising young film stars from the U.K.—West's résumé exudes literate class. Moviegoers who remember him as Leonard Bast in 1992's Howards End will see a similar refinement in his two latest films, both in U.S. theaters this month. In Persuasion, based on Jane Austen's final novel, West plays the caddish Mr. Elliot. Carrington, with Emma Thompson, tells a quirky tale of artists in World War I-era England. But ask West, 29, about his ultimate ambitions and he speaks not of Merchant Ivory, but of Bert and Ernie. "I watch Sesame Street as often as I can," the Oxford-educated actor says. "I'd love to sing with Bert and Ernie."
He's not kidding. Two Sesame Street characters in West's apartment in London—a Grover puppet and a photo of the Count—offer proof. West's pastimes include juggling, unicycle riding and collecting comic books. In his adult mode, he enjoys vegetarian cooking with his girlfriend, actress Julie Cox, 22, whom he met while filming the Danielle Steel miniseries Zoya last April, and poker games with pals. "I'm deeply hyperactive," he says.
But when acting, he's single-minded. "There are a lot of good actors his age, and it's a struggle to be noticed—but Sam's doing it," says Carrington director Christopher Hampton. "He assumes the character completely."
The craft is in his genes. His father, Timothy West, 61, is one of Britain's most accomplished stage and TV actors; his mother, Prunella Scales, 63, though best known as John Cleese's wifely nemesis, Sybil, in the BBC comedy import Fawlty Towers, is also a grande dame of the stage. Scales recalls bringing Sam and his only sibling, Joe (now 26 and a graduate student), to see their father play the title role in King Lear. Even at age 6, she says, Sam had taste. "Somebody asked him, 'And what's your favorite play? Cinderella?' " she recalls. " 'No,' he said, 'Love's Labour's Lost, I think.' "
West was exposed to low comedy during visits to the set of Fawlty Towers in 1977. Cleese, who played acid-tongued hotelier Basil Fawlty, West recalls, asked him to come up with a few nasty remarks for Basil to hurl. "He was prepared to pay me in apples," West says. "But I never came up with any usable insults."
By age 13, West was showing a fine sense of stagecraft. He had a small part in a BBC series called Nanny, and Scales remembers Sam asking the director if he could hold a book instead of a comic, thinking it was more in character. "I was thrilled," she says. "I thought, 'A true actor's instinct.' "
After graduating from Oxford in 1988, West won a part in the movie Reunion, playing a German aristocrat opposite Jason Robards. Two-and-a-half years in theater and TV roles led to Howards End. During that shoot, West found that costars Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson were both quite the clowns. "I'm silly, but they're sillier," West says. While filming Carrington last year in Yorkshire, Thompson impressed him even more. To deal with raw nerves before their steamy sex scenes, he says, she burst into his dressing room and whipped open her robe to show her naked self, shouting, "Right! This is it!" It was, notes West, "the perfect way to break the ice."
LYDIA DENWORTH in London