Many British actors approaching 60 appear a little dissipated. By contrast, the fit and muscular figure I meet in a Sofia café looks like he could do 40 press-ups and then sprint around the capital's Nevskiy Square. But, then again, the performer in question once played athlete Harold Abrahams, forever immortalised in the 1981 movie Chariots of Fire.
Ben Cross was 33 when Chariots was released. For a while he was – in that awful Hollywood jargon – a hot property, appearing alongside superstars like Charlton Heston, Sean Connery and Burt Lancaster as well as acting in several acclaimed TV series. Still very much in demand, Ben has worn well: the penetrating and intense stare, the strong jaw line and photogenic features are very much intact.
Cross never chased the big time – the roles pursued him. Unlike many actors he doesn't decry his profession or some of the dross he appears in. And he certainly doesn't pretend he'd be happier doing Chekhov on stage. He enjoys himself on the film set, making friends and having a laugh, as comfortable in the company of Dolph Lungren (with whom he became pals on the set of last year's The Mechanik) as with esteemed performers like Ian Holm, still a friend from Chariots. He's not snobbish about genres. The parts flood in and he gives them all his very best.
From a poor Irish Catholic family, Ben acted in school plays but had no idea how to approach his dreams professionally: “One day, to my delight, I learned from my English teacher in secondary school that there were such places as drama colleges. At one point I was going to Loughborough College to study engineering. However, I went to London's RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts) instead.”
Ben says he chased success, not stardom, stressing the distinction. “After Chariots I did a 10-hour series for the BBC (The Citadel) and a series in India (The Far Pavilions) for HBO. Then I found myself in Los Angeles. I've never wanted to become a “big” anything in my life. I was simply on a roll. There was no career plan. I was already well established in LA without living there but circumstances, probably a job, took me there. Strangely, my work always took me somewhere else, even though I was based in California, which became a bone of contention.”
He was nominated for the Helen Hayes award for his excellent performance in 1985 opposite Charlton Heston (who also directed) in the stage version of the Caine Mutiny Court Martial. “It was a very good experience. Chuck's very easy and straightforward. It was a very male orientated play. The only woman involved was his wife, Lydia, who did the front of house photography. We also took the play to the Kennedy Centre in Washington.”
Although he has played American characters with great success, he believes, generally speaking, that English actors perform better in English productions than Americans and vice versa. “Look at Marlon Brando. He was appalling as Bligh in Mutiny on the Bounty (the remake with Trevor Howard). It was an embarrassing performance! Of course, there can be glorious exceptions of Americans playing English.”
He has acted in Shakespeare, yet he's careful of the pitfalls. Even acclaimed actors like Anthony Hopkins, Albert Finney and Peter O'Toole have been panned by critics when they tackled the Great Bard, particularly on stage. Macbeth and Lear seem particularly dangerous roles for actors. “I can't speak for other actors. But I saw the black and white film of Paul Scofield in King Lear and it was just brilliant. If anyone offered me Lear – I'm not saying I would decline – but I'd definitely have to liaise closely with the director. That play requires a lifetime of experience. I think sometimes just because you're a movie star you mistakenly assume, by virtue of sheer bravado, that you can pull it off. Of course, it may sell tickets but that doesn't mean it's very good.”
Ben worked with the late James Mason in one of his last roles, The Assisi Underground in 1984. “We became friendly after a cool start. That was the director's fault – he gave James a completely false idea of me.” He notes, sadly, that he does tend to “see people off” after I cite the premature deaths of Ian Charleson and Brad Davis (who both died of AIDS) from Chariots. “It's rather spooky. I think actors of a certain age might start refusing to work with me!” he jokes. He played Titus Gabrus alongside Alan Bates' Agrippa in his final role, Spartacus (shot in Bulgaria) in 2003. “He was a robust-looking man but he looked pale. He was very gentle as if he was conserving energy. He couldn't get insurance yet, to their credit, the film company went ahead and hired him anyway. As it turned out it was a very good risk – he was a lovely man,” Ben recalls.
Another prominent role was as Prince Malagant in First Knight, made in 1995. “It was a strange experience because there was Sean Connery, Richard Gere and Julia Ormond – whose star was very much in the ascendancy – and there was me. I wasn't quite in their league (in terms of fame). It wasn't as though I was hanging out with Richard or Sean in the bar afterwards, not at all.”
Apart from America and the UK, he has also lived in Spain and Austria. However, Ben's home for the last three years has been Sofia. “I was contracted to do a job here in August 2004. Then I was offered another movie in Bulgaria before I'd finished that one. Four films later, I bought an apartment because it seemed ridiculous to keep paying for hotels.” He lives in the city centre but is building another property in Lozenets, near the American Embassy.
Bulgaria is very popular with filmmakers, attracted by cheap costs and great scenery. “I meet a producer or director here in Sofia and they offer me a part and then they say: ‘You know, Ben, we don't have...' and then I interrupt them because I know what's coming next. The mere fact they're filming here reveals that they don't have much money to offer you. Black Dahlia was an exception but that movie had two Oscar-winning actors.”
He has now made 12 or 13 movies in Bulgaria, some leading roles but also supporting parts. “I think Bulgarians, because of the repressions of Communism, are a very cinema-savvy people. Because if something is banned this goes right against their mentality,” he tells me. Ben has also filmed in Ruse and visited the Black Sea, Plovdiv and the Rhodope Mountains.
He is happy in Sofia yet doesn't gloss over its shortcomings. “At this stage in my life if I had all the money in the world and could live where I chose – and to a certain extent that's true anyway – would I go and live in Paris, Rome, London, New York or LA? The answer's no. Until recently I had a girlfriend here and she really opened up my eyes to Sofia. I met many nice people through her. I have two or three very good friends here. In a way I put roots down without really wanting to. There are a couple of slices of Bulgarian life that I could well do without. There are also other things I'd change: the potholes and the pavements. But you soon get used to it. You wish it were not so if only for the poor old ladies who have to navigate the pavements. And yet they've been doing it for 20 years and I've never seen an old lady falling over.”
He cites an obvious bonus for Westerners relocating to Bulgaria: “The cost of living is incredibly cheap. But that's not one of the reasons I'm here because I could live comfortably anywhere in western Europe. But I do have a real problem paying three or four euros for a cup of coffee (in Britain) – it's the principle more than anything else. I feel I'm in a pioneering situation here in Bulgaria. It's a land of opportunity on all fronts.”
He relishes the country's attractions but, after three years here, he sees the place realistically. “I do like the people. Of course, everybody comments on the beautiful women and it's true – they are beautiful. But when you've lived here long enough you begin to see – between that pretty girl and this pretty girl – the 10 people who're not so gorgeous and who're struggling to earn a living. For these people life can be tough. And this is a good thing to bear in mind.”
He says he's not a very good tourist or expat type. He doesn't seek out the company of compatriots. “I work out and the only reason I do that is so that I can smoke and drink! So sometimes I go to Murphy's where it's inevitable that I meet people from all over Europe. I go there and sit on my own and have a pint of beer and a scotch. And I read The Sun to remind myself why I no longer want to live in England.” He hasn't lived in the UK for 20 years. He has great affection for his homeland but he's infuriated by political correctness and has no desire to return permanently.
Ben says the only time he feels a sense of true belonging is on a film set. The theatre is not his favourite medium. “Given the camera or the stage I'd choose the camera,” he tells me. However, he did do a recent play about death row called Coyote on a Fence and, before that, Art, the long-running show in London's West End that has seen many changes of cast. “I thought the revolving door cast was well established. It wasn't as though you were taking over from some stellar trio. I had no problems doing that for three months – it was hugely enjoyable. We were eased into our roles by director Nigel Havers” (another Chariots co-star).
One of his most chilling recent roles was as Rudolf Hess in a BBC film. “If you play a bad person then you somehow have to convince viewers of the character's evil. And to do that you have to scare them. You can do it with cold eyes or with a smile depending on the role. It's a cliché but the antagonist is always more interesting than the protagonist.”
Even the Nuremberg series was filmed in Sofia and he particularly enjoyed it. “That job was brilliant. The entire resources of the BBC's history department in London were at my disposal. I'd ask, for example, which book Hess was reading in the court and the answer came back – Grimm's Fairy Tales. So I had great resources at my disposal and of course I saw contemporary film. The set they built was an architectural replica of the Nuremberg courthouse, so it was very real. Although it was a drama documentary, there was still plenty of opportunity for me to strut my stuff.”
Ben appears in public without too much hassle from fans. “One time I was in a restaurant where they were celebrating a baby's christening. Two or three families were there, spanning several generations. This woman came up and asked if she could take my photo with her and her baby. As I got up I was thinking to myself – by the time this baby's old enough to know who I am I'll probably be dead!”
Somehow, looking at Ben's lithe figure, I doubt that very much. I think the runner has paced himself well and has plenty of puff left in him yet.