‘He Just Wanted to Act’ — Inside Pete Postlethwaite’s Screen Swan Song, ‘Killing Bono’

Hollyblog: At the end of that first day I excused myself from the set and wept — ridiculous I know, but the change in him 
was so dramatic

Pete Postlethwaite and I first became friends when we worked together at the Royal Shakespeare Company. We enjoyed a creative and powerful bond: the young director and the older actor. We shared a house, we hung out and we lived well – almost too well at time. After leaving the company we remained friends, I started making films, and Pete began mixing his strong theater work with equally powerful roles in cinema.

It was no surprise to anyone who knew him that he would eventually conquer that medium in the same way he mastered the stage. His performances were remarkable not just for their insightful truth but because he was unique: unique to look at, unique in his delivery, and unique in his passion for the work.

The work was everything to him — he cared less about the trappings of stardom and more about how the moment was going to be portrayed. He supported the other actors and was a powerful force for good both on and off the set.

It was on my latest film "Killing Bono," which opened in theaters Friday, that Pete and I would finally be reunited. He had always wanted to be part of the project and came on board early, originally to play an underworld gangster. Then one day I was in the production office and I had a phone call.

It was from Pete. He told me there was a small problem: He had cancer. I was devastated. I was also told that this information was to be kept private — Pete didn’t like a fuss and he didn’t want any special treatment. It then transpired that, given his medical condition, he was no longer insurable. I couldn’t cast him in the role intended because there was real concern as to whether he would be able to physically finish the film.

It was a horrible moment, but more than anything the producers and myself wanted to honor our commitment to him. Pete’s own commitment was typically rock-solid. When he said he was doing something, it was done.

So we wrote a role he could realistically take on: a gloriously camp landlord and patron of the arts. Pete loved it. We started shooting and constantly checked on how he was doing. Would he turn up? Could he physically make it?

The date arrived: it was a freezing January night in Belfast and word had got around the crew that the legendary Pete Pos’ was somewhere on set. I found him in his trailer entertaining my kids, who had flown over for the day to see the filming. They adored him and it took me ages to shoo them out so Pete and I could sit and talk in private. I hadn’t seen him in over five years. He’d shrunk. The cancer had made him smaller: even more wiry.

So here we were many years after our RSC days, sitting on a dark, blustery film set working out how Pete was to get through the next few days. The temperature was well below zero and the chemotherapy made him suffer the cold terribly, but Pete needed no persuasion. He was there to work; he needed the discipline of filming, he needed motivation, but most of all he just wanted to act. Because of his condition he hadn’t been able to play a role for a while.

Other film projects he’d been attached to hadn’t been able to insure him either. So it was vital that Pete made this work.

The next day we moved his trailer next to the set so he could easily rest between set-ups. Directing him again after so long apart was something I hadn’t really thought about until it hit me. He could only work slowly. He was patently in pain. But Pete dug in and delivered. When I rehearsed a scene and insisted he sat for the whole action, he refused even though the other actors were happy to make it work.

This was classic Pete — the scene didn’t ask for him to sit so he was going to stand no matter how much pain he was in — he was stoic and brilliant in his wish to be ordinary. At the end of that first day I just cried; I excused myself from the set and wept. Ridiculous I know, but the change in him was so dramatic. My mind flashed back to the ferocious and daring actor from our RSC days. He was still that, still the same man, but diminished physically by illness.

We carried on the next day, moving heaters onto the set and giving him plenty of time to rest. He began to enjoy himself and I could see a certain carefree abandon as he relished the comic possibilities of the role, the Pete I knew from his prime coming to the fore. He loved being there, he needed to be involved and I’m happy that we could give him the opportunity.

We wrote Pete a speech for his final scene. As he was delivering it, a wonderful hushed moment occurred. This sometimes happens on film sets when what is being captured cuts through the craft to a core of truth. Pete spoke his lines about fame in a quiet, gentle tone and everyone there knew he was talking about himself in some way: “A word for the wise from an old man before you go. Remember only this: the measure of a man is what’s left when fame falls away.”

Pete was never about fame — he was too real for that — but we can be thankful for a body of film work that bears testament to the man and to a uniquely original actor. And I hope, as everyone involved in our film does, that Pete’s brilliantly inventive comic landlord proves a fitting cinematic swansong.