Van Helsing – Interview with the Vampire

He might be an evil, undead fiend whose rapacious bloodlust terrorised Europe for centuries. He might shun the sun, savour the crypt and look like a winged rat. But Dracula is, and always will be, a charmer. A Lucifer and a gentleman, there’s a trace of the cad about him. But Transylvania’s most wanted never leaves the castle looking anything but dark, dashing and younger than his years. And it’s not just six pint virgins who fall for him, as Silvia Colloca will soon affirm before God.

One of Dracula’s three brides in big budget monster romp Van Helsing, the Italian actress had to fight her fellow bloodsuckers tooth and claw for their master’s attention. Not so off-set, as she will wed Australian actor and sometime lord of darkness Richard Roxburgh in September this year. To call it a match made in Hell would be uncharitable, but being courted by the Count is surely the pinnacle of kinkiness?

“Yeah, I had to make sure she liked me besides the hair, earring and being dressed head to toe in black,” laughs Roxburgh. “We got beyond that stage, but she was still holding a candle for me when I went to pick her up … after hours.”

Recently returned to London after a hectic trip to Italy seeking a venue for their nuptials, the pair will use their wedding speeches to thank Van Helsing writer and director Stephen Sommers for introducing them, but will not be exchanging blood vials with their vows like Angelina Jolie and Billy Bob Thornton.

Still, it’s tempting to picture the guest list. Reuniting Universal Studios’ classic triumvirate of Dracula, Frankenstein’s Monster and The Wolfman in nineteenth century Eastern Europe, with Mr Hyde rampaging through Paris for good measure, Van Helsing is Mummy director Sommers latest horror-CGI extravaganza. The venerable vampire hunter Abraham Van Helsing of Bram Stoker’s original 1897 novel has been modified into a younger, crossbow-toting Gabriel Van Helsing, a Vatican-bankrolled assassin played by X-Men’s Hugh Jackman. Fighting alongside him, Kate Beckinsale is gypsy princess Anna Valerious, the last of a royal line systematically wiped out by Dracula. Underpinning the action, and in spite of his polygamy, the Count has family issues and is manipulating the other monsters for his own diabolical needs.

“Apart from the fact I met my wife on it, this film was a really fulfilling creative experience,” 42-year-old Roxburgh claims. “Much more than I expected it to be. I mean, Draaacuuuula!”

His intimidation is forgivable. A 15th Century statesman, alchemist and total sadist, Dracula, Prince Vlad V of Wallachia enjoyed watching children impaled as he mopped up his gravy, and it was this historical figure Stoker infused with the gothic elements of Romanticism and Slavic vampire myths to create the most enduring villain since Satan. From Max Shreck’s vile, rat-toothed Count Orlock in the copyright-dodging Nosferatu, through Bela Lugosi’s iconic portrayal in the Universal movies, Christopher Lee’s masterful donning of the cape for the Hammer series and Ingrid Pitt’s buxom she-fiend, right up to Gary Oldman’s tortured soul in Francis Ford Coppola’s lavish adaptation, the Count has had countless incarnations. Even David Bowie’s bequiffed disco stalker in The Hunger and Dracula’s Dog didn’t garlic the legend.

“What really interested me was that Steve wasn’t looking to run from Dracula’s history, or indeed the horror genre in general,” says Roxburgh. “He used it as a springboard and took it somewhere else with all the technology now available. I loved the sequences that really drew from the flickering lamplight and huge shadows of 1930s horror, which in some ways I feel hasn’t been surpassed. But I also got to fly on wires, which was great. I love that stuff.”

Scenes of Roxburgh scaling 30ft walls and walking across ceilings were actually performed for real, aided by a rigging crew. This gravity defiance he took in his stride, but dancing with Beckinsale proved more intimidating.

“She spent the entire time absolutely helpless with laughter,” he recalls. “We hardly got any practice and we were both atrocious. Luckily, we had some of the world’s leading authorities to drag us through it, the choreographer from Cirque du Soleil trying her best to make it seem we had the faintest idea what we were doing.”

Performing a similar role was a dialogue coach. “God, that was a balancing act. We settled on an accent that was largely Hungarian with some Romanian elements to it. The trick was avoiding the Sesame Street Count.”

“I wanted the character to draw on gypsy imagery, because the area Dracula came from is rich with Romany tradition, so I sought that. But if you believe Kate, I ended up looking like Adam Ant, which was hardly the intention. I prefer to think of him as a muscular Dracula, with a lot of rage, who I think got a raw deal. He made a pact with the Devil to live forever but now can’t feel anything. He’s still a gentleman, just a gentleman who made some dark decisions.”

Another gentleman with a dark side is his fellow Australian, Jackman, who having successfully flexed his claws as Wolverine for the X-Men franchise is fast cornering the market in brooding macho avengers.

“A really funny bloke,” reckons Roxburgh. “I can’t imagine Hugh will ever not be a thoroughly solid and grounded person. He’s incredibly focused and supports you, but he challenges you in a way too, because there’s no backing away from him. In the scenes between us, we’re toying with each other. There’s a quietly creepy sense of menace underneath, and he never backs away from that.”

The admiration is mutual, as Jackman has previously claimed the actors who initially inspired him were Roxburgh and Geoffrey Rush. Though nowhere near as feted by Hollywood, Roxburgh is considered Australia’s foremost stage actor, his performance of Hamlet garnering both popular acclaim and critical plaudits. Indeed, his sneering turn bloodying Tom Cruise’s features as Dougray Scott’s henchman in Mission Impossible 2 aside, he has become the casting director’s literary aristocrat of choice. Before trying to steal Nicole Kidman from Ewan McGregor as Moulin Rouge’s conniving Duke (“Er, mostly my singing voice, though for the more reaching notes they got a proper singer.”), he played both Sherlock Holmes and Moriarty, the former as a coke addict.

“Like Dracula, I thought if they’re asking me, they probably want it to be slightly different to what has gone before. I enjoyed that it was closer to the original conception of the character, that it included the darkness and he wasn’t just an extraordinary brain puzzling away. He had real torments that he dealt with in his own way, an injection of charlie every day!”

“I don’t really have preferred roles except those with some complexity,” he muses. “If you’re playing a villain, you like to have a rationale. Why is this person behaving in that way? It can’t just be ‘I’m going to kill them all, I want to take over the world!’ Because then your character becomes a functionary, the hero’s opposition and nothing else. You can’t derive any pleasure from that.”

Regrettably, this was his experience playing the scheming but essentially stock villain M in last year’s abysmal League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Starring Sean Connery as Alan Quartermain and with a character line-up including Captain Nemo, Dorian Gray and the Invisible Man, the film failed to translate the wit and darkness of its source material, Alan Moore’s revisionist graphic novels. Filling out the league were vampiress Mina Harker from the original Dracula novel and Dr Jeykll and Mr Hyde, overlaps that make for an unfortunate parallel with Van Helsing, particularly as Roxburgh spent the same year shooting both films in Prague, flooding of the city during LXG’s production a huge factor in its failure.

“The only job I’ve been on delayed by an act of God,” he sighs. “It was a hard shoot. I think Alan Moore’s novels are sensational, a really brilliant conceit and very, very black. They went to a place that sadly, we weren’t able to go to with the film.”

Enthused by Sommers’ direction, he had no such concerns filming Van Helsing. “Steve’s extremely aware of his American brashness and the need to temper it. I think the natural darkness of Prague helped as a balancing act for his humour – those worlds he delves into, the gothic landscape became the counterbalance. He draws from this dangerous energy, you can’t imagine what the source is. It’s not drugs, maybe yoga or something. Either way, it’s positive energy, very forward looking.”

Looking forward himself, Roxburgh plans a return to the theatre and to direct his own film, a story set in Australia at the end of WW II. Before that, he has a role in Rob Cohen’s forthcoming Stealth, playing a scientist trying to stop a rogue stealth bomber annihilating the world. Artificially intelligent, the plane has echoes of the terrifying Hal in Stanley Kubrick’s 2001. All this and tying the knot with his beautiful co-star would exhaust most mortals, but as his current role testifies, there truly is no rest for the wicked.

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