An actor who makes a big impression in a small part is an actor who knows what he's doing. It helps if the vehicle is also a big hit, like "Brideshead Revisited," in which actor Nickolas Grace had the good fortune to be cast as Anthony Blanche, Evelyn Waugh's "aesthete par excellence"; "ageless as a lizard, as foreign as a Martian."
"You say esthete over here, don't you?" he said. "We say eesthete. I did learn a new word here, though, which I love: 'wimp.' As in he's a wimp. We don't have that one."
Grace has been traveling in the United States in recent weeks, one of five actors from the Royal Shakespeare Co. visiting American colleges, including Goucher College in Baltimore, for performances and lectures. The trip coincided with the run of "Brideshead" on public television, which has thrown the country, or at least a lot of people, into a Monday night fever of Anglophilia.
"It's wonderful, for a short time," he said, somewhat surprised and a bit appalled by the degree of gaga he has been greeted with here. It's been more than a year since he finished "Brideshead," and in the interim he's gone on to parts like Edgar in "King Lear" and Dr. Pangloss in the musical "Candide." He also played Hamlet and the emcee in "Cabaret."
Such versatility might seem surprising if the character of Anthony Blanche is fresh in your mind. Blanche is the most outrageous of the Oxford eccentrics; defiantly effeminate and bitchy, with hooded eyes slightly tinted with eye shadow and cheeks slightly rouged, stammering his way through gossipy conversations.
"He had aroused three irreconcilable feuds in Capri; he had practiced black art in Cefalu; he had been cured of drug-taking in California and of an Oedipus complex in Vienna," Waugh wrote. " . . . his vices flourished less in the pursuit of pleasure than in the wish to shock, and in the midst of his polished exhibitions I was often reminded of an urchin I had once seen in Naples, capering derisively, with obscene, unambiguous gestures, before a party of English tourists . . . He was cruel too, in the wanton, insect-maiming manner of the very young and fearless, like a little boy, charging, head down, small fists whirling, at the school prefects."
Grace took Waugh's descriptions and created a fascinating creature, both snake and charmer, a proud outcast with an underlying loneliness, who makes a career of being outrageous.
"I've always been into danger," said Grace, who was dressed in an un-outrageous pin-striped suit and tie. "I'd rather be a disaster by being bold than by not doing anything."
The stutter was in the book; Grace added the Gallic "r" based on Waugh's description of Blanche as having grown up a globe-trotter with an Argentinian stepfather. "My eyelids twitched when I d-d-did the stutter," he said, suddenly turning into Blanche. "So I just kept it."
"I think he's the only guy in the book who tells the truth. He tells Charles that Lady Marchmain "is a b-b-bloodsucker, my dear," and tells Charles he is an artist. " 'Your drawings, they are exquisite. You are not. I am.' All the warnings he makes over that dinner come true."
The character, he said, was based on two of Waugh's friends, Harold Acton and Brian Howard, although Waugh always denied the book was based on personal experience. "They were both called esthetes par excellence. Harold Acton was the one who read T.S. Eliot from the balcony. Brian Howard wrote a book called 'Portrait of a Failure.' He's dead, poor chap. He liked dressing up as a woman. There was a story that he dressed up as the duchess of Vincennes and spent the night with the duke and he didn't even know it. While he was in the RAF he liked to dress up as a waitress. That's where I got the idea for the makeup--I just took dressing up a stage further."
They were eccentrics and rebels, delighted to shock the stodgy conventions of the upper classes. At the same time they were as snobbish as their conventional brothers, interested in "beauty" and convinced they were the elite.
"In America people are much more interested in the homosexual angle than in England. Here, people want to know. Were they? I say it's a story about young love, and we've all, I hope, experienced that."
He had no qualms about playing a homosexual, "although I might have three years earlier. But by the time I had this part I'd proved that I am versatile, so I wasn't too worried about typecasting."
The first part he was offered after the series ran in Great Britain was that of a transvestite. He turned it down. At the moment he's en route to India to be in James Ivory's film "Heat and Dust," which stars Julie Christie. He plays a British member of an Indian prince's court who falls in unrequited love with Christie.
Grace was born in Liverpool ("No, I did not know the Beatles,") and grew up in middle-class comfort. When he was 14 his father decided a change of life was in order and moved them to a rough section of London where he became a probation officer. "It was a little schizophrenic," said Grace.
The seminal theater experiences Grace recalls from childhood are seeing Michael Redgrave in "Hamlet," and the stand-up comic Al Read in a Christmas pantomime. "I think that says a lot about me," he said.
At the Central School of Drama, where he now occasionally teaches and directs between acting jobs, he learned physical and vocal control and decided he wouldn't be successful until he was 40 years old because he would have to grow into the character parts he was inevitably cast in. Fortunately, he said, he got over that depression. He is now 32.
Americans are used to actors being rather like the character they play, while the English expect an actor to act, to become another person rather than a recognizable extension of oneself. Grace is not surprised to find people looking at him a bit closely, probably checking for the eye shadow and nail polish. And they always find a way of asking The Question.
"The other night at Goucher a girl got up and asked, 'Are you married?' " he said, becoming for an instant a shy college girl. "I said 'no.' Then she said 'Would you like to be?' I said 'Probably.' Then I said, "Why don't you ask me if I have any children?' The answer is 'Not that I know of.' "