Ben Cross: the challenges of playing Harold Abrahams in Chariots of Fire
Actor Ben Cross ponders the parallels between his life and that of the Jewish Olympian
Ben Cross (left) as Harold Abrahams. Below: the real Abrahams. “The film was about minorities going against the flow,” says Cross
Ben Cross has around 90 hours of DVDs of all his film performances. So over the years it has irked him a little that he is still primarily known for just one — the first he ever made, Chariots of Fire.
While at times he has resented it, he has now come to accept the significant part it has played in his life, and the strange relationship between himself and the man he played — 1924 Olympic 100 metres champion Harold Abrahams. For in the public imagination, Abrahams possesses Cross’s face and body.
The film, re-released this week ahead of London 2012, was made 31 years ago which makes Cross 64, or as he puts it, nearly a pensioner. Not that he looks it. The chiselled cheek bones are still there and he still looks as though he could run a decent 100 metres.
He finds it very strange that, three decades later, he is still recounting his experiences of the movie.
“Here we are, talking about it again. How often does that happen? There are times when I have felt resentful but I’ve mellowed. I’ve reconnected with Hugh [Hudson, the director] after many years and I feel if the film is good for [producer] David Puttnam and good for the Olympics, I think to myself, come on Ben.”
Cross is not Jewish but for a while many assumed he was. He took it as a massive compliment when every September, strangers would wish him a happy new year. He was determined to do his research into Judaism which involved chatting to rabbis and reading up on the religion.
“I wanted to address that aspect of Abrahams’s character — his upbringing and his personality. I also wanted to get into the Jewish questions like snobbery and antisemitism. I came to the conclusion that Abrahams was motivated by a combination of prejudice and paranoia. I played Harold as a man whose pilot light was always lit. There was this quiet defensive anger and occasionally the boiler would light up.” He says Abrahams, for all his achievements, was not accepted within the establishment, pointing to the fact that he is one of very few men who became chairman of the Amateur Athletics Association and never received a knighthood. “I don’t think that would have made him very happy,” says Cross.
Although Cross comes from a very different background to that of Abrahams, there are parallels. He was born Harry Bernard Cross into a working-class Irish-Catholic family. After leaving school at 15 he did a variety of menial jobs before being accepted as a student at Rada, aged 22.
As an actor from a poor background attempting to make his mark in the rarified world of theatre, Cross exhibited some of the same character traits as Abrahams. Hugh Hudson has remarked that Cross “had the sense of pugnacity and slight chip that was required for the role”.
Cross bursts into laughter when I quote this to him. “I would agree with that. It was probably more like a potato on my shoulder than a chip in those days.
“I came from a pretty unimpressive background and by the grace of God I was able to do a number on myself. I never told Hugh or David this but I was really intimidated by them. I had an inferiority complex and it doesn’t take an awful lot to convert that into something that would work for Abrahams.”
Back in 1981, Cross had forged a reputation in the theatre but had yet to make his screen breakthrough. When the script for Chariots arrived he knew it was a great one. “In those days when I had a script to read I would lie in bed and see at what point I went to sleep. With that, I read it all the way through and ended up crying my eyes out. I thought to myself, I’m going to do everything possible to get that role. The next day I started training. I was training by myself for three months. Then we had six months training prior to filming.”
So Cross was in good shape by the time he arrived on set. He was also naturally fit through his work as a song-and-dance man. Under the tutelage of athletics coach Tom McNab, he and Ian Charleston (Eric Liddell) developed a good turn of speed. “My fastest 100 metres was 11.6 seconds. To put that into context, that is the equivalent of a 16-year-old female club runner. I was only a second slower than Abrahams but if one second is 10 yards, that is ignominious defeat.”
He adds that he was playing Abrahams as a 24-year-old when he was already 32 and that Charleston was some years his junior. The scene in which Liddell beats Abrahams over 100 metres in 1923 accurately reflected their sprinting prowess. “In the movie, Ian had to beat me. Actually, he was naturally a bit faster than me, though I don’t think he was any fitter.”
Cross only understood how much the film had taken off when working in the US in 1982. “I would be in a cab and the driver would clock me there would almost be a crash. It was particularly striking that immigrants driving taxis absolutely loved that film. That’s when I started to analyse what Chariots of Fire was about and realised that it was about minorities going against the flow. In the US, the Cubans, South Americans and Spanish-speaking immigrants in particular seemed to identify with Abrahams.”
Cross realises that making his film debut in one which won the best movie Oscar was an incredible stroke of luck. But there are regrets. “A film like that it is professionally life-changing. Suddenly, you get offered lots of work, which is lovely. But since then I have done 80 or 90 projects, none of which have been in any way as successful. I would have loved Chariots to have been my fourth of fifth film, but then I wouldn’t have got the part, because Hugh wanted unknowns.
“Ultimately, what pleases me most is that people still tell me I did a good job, and in a grudging sort of a way say that I nailed what it is to be a Jew. That’s the finest praise I could get.”