EXCLUSIVE: Actor Mark Umbers talks about playing Sir Roger Moore (and James Bond) in HBO’s “My Dinner with Hervé”
By Matthew Chernov
October 25th 2018
Like science and baseball, James Bond history is often discussed in terms of statistics. For example, how many women has Bond slept with throughout the series? 58 lovely ladies, to be exact. What’s the most financially successful entry in the franchise to date? Skyfall, which earned a whopping $1.109 billion worldwide. In how many films does Bond’s signature Walther PPK make an appearance? Precisely 22 movies. Who’s the most recent actor to portray Agent 007? Mark Umbers. In which movie did James Bond… wait, Mark Umbers?
Yes, you read that last bit correctly. When HBO’s new biopic My Dinner with Hervé premiered on October 20, 2018, British actor Mark Umbers joined an exclusive club of performers who can rightfully claim to have portrayed Ian Fleming’s iconic spy on film. Depicting the turbulent life of French American star Hervé Villechaize, the film casts Umbers as Sir Roger Moore, who co-starred with Villechaize in the 1974 classic The Man with the Golden Gun. In addition to playing Sir Roger, Umbers also recreates the climactic fight scene between Nick Nack and Bond himself, which clearly makes him the latest person to portray 007 on screen.
To learn more about Umbers’ unique position in James Bond history, I spoke with the actor, who’d just completed an exhausting theatre job and was preparing to finish work on a new series he’s writing. Here are some highlights from our conversation.
JAMES BOND RADIO: Before we talk about your role as Sir Roger Moore in My Dinner with Hervé, I’m curious about your relationship with the James Bond franchise. Are you a fan of the series?
Mark Umbers: I’m a huge fan of the franchise and also a huge fan of Ian Fleming’s novels. I read them all in one go about ten years ago. I’m not sure what the first Bond film I saw was, but I vividly remember going to my local cinema in Yorkshire to see For Your Eyes Only where they had parked a yellow Citroen 2CV in the lobby! I grew up with Roger Moore as Bond, so he is the first in my view. The Spy Who Loved Me was one of my favorites as a child. It’s also a very unexpected novel, told from the female perspective. I also love Goldeneye and Casino Royale.
JBR: Can you tell me a little bit about the casting process on My Dinner with Hervé? How did you end up in the role, and what did you think when you first heard that they were looking for someone to play Sir Roger Moore?
UMBERS: I got called into Ealing Studios to meet with writer/director Sacha Gervasi and executive producer Jessica de Rothschild. I had always been a fan of Sir Roger, both as Bond and for his work with UNICEF, so I was anxious to get it right and try to honor his memory.
JBR: Once you’d been cast in the role, did you do any specific research on Sir Roger?
UMBERS: Yes, I watched The Man with the Golden Gun again and also some interviews from that period on YouTube. I had been a fan of The Persuaders! and binge-watched them a few years back, so I think I had already absorbed some of his mannerisms without realizing it.
JBR: You perfectly captured Sir Roger’s charming voice and gestures in the role. What was the biggest challenge when it came to playing him?
UMBERS: I remember my main concern – and theirs – was the voice. There was a very short time to make an impact in the story and his voice had to be precise. I have a musical ear, luckily, so it wasn’t too hard to mimic his cadences which are very distinctive. Lots of unexpected upwards inflection. But his voice is unusually low. There was a great coach on set, both in London and LA, who got me to relax my neck and jaw until my voice dropped down about an octave.
JBR: In general, how does portraying a real-life person differ from playing a fictional character? Or is there no difference at all?
UMBERS: It depends on the size of the role. A Roger Moore biopic would be a very different proposition than a cameo, like this was. The impact had to be instantaneous in this film, so there had to be an element of impersonation involved. A fictional character, however, gives you free rein to make your own choices.
JBR: My Dinner with Hervé does a wonderful job of recreating – albeit briefly – the Thailand set of The Man with the Golden Gun. Where did you actually film those scenes, and what was the shoot like?
UMBERS: That particular scene was shot in Malibu. Fortunately, I was on my way to Boston at the time, so it wasn’t too much of a detour. The beach was full of people sunbathing, all of whom looked a bit confused when a bunch of us in ‘70s clothes started making our way down the steps. It was surreal. The tide was coming in under our feet while Peter Dinklage and I were talking, and we were slowly sinking into the sand. It was controlled chaos. The scene was basically Roger giving Hervé a pep-talk about how to behave and never to take success for granted. The fight scene set on Scaramanga’s Chinese yacht was filmed in the studio in London. We filmed the premiere sequence at the Hammersmith Apollo in London. That was very surreal as I used to live not far from there. They morphed my face into Roger’s for the posters on display in the background, but I wasn’t quick enough to steal one when we wrapped.
JBR: The tan safari costume that you wear in the Thailand scenes is virtually an exact replica of the one that Sir Roger wore in The Man with the Golden Gun. What can you tell me about that costume? Did it help you get into character?
UMBERS: To be honest, I thought I looked like a ‘70s pimp! It was very funny. He wore similar things in The Persuaders!, too.
JBR: Likewise, your hair and makeup in that scene really helps add to the illusion that you’re actually Sir Roger Moore. Did the makeup and hair artists use side-by-side comparisons to get the look so accurate? And did you practice his signature raised eyebrow expression?
UMBERS: Yes, we had some pictures to work from. They dyed my hair darker and gave me his distinctive side parting. But I had to ask for the famous mole, which kind of sealed the deal. I’ve always been able to do the eyebrow thing, and that was the how the scene on the beach ended, actually.
JBR: Peter Dinklage is absolutely remarkable as Hervé Villechaize. What was it like to work with him?
UMBERS: I thought he was exceptional in the role — Jamie Dornan, too. Peter seemed very humble and down-to-earth. An actor’s actor. I’ve been a fan of his since The Station Agent. He was very generous. It’s difficult to acclimatize when you’re only visiting a set for a short time, so it’s worth its weight in gold when the leading cast members are so welcoming.
JBR: My Dinner with Hervé is clearly a passion project for director Sacha Gervasi. How did he compare to others that you’ve worked with in the past?
UMBERS: Sacha and Jessica made a very welcoming, friendly team. It felt very much like a family affair. That is not always the way!
JBR: Seeing you and Peter recreate the climactic wine-throwing fight between Nick Nack and Bond on board the yacht was a genuine treat. It looked like the real scene from The Man with the Golden Gun. Can you tell me a bit about shooting that faithful recreation?
UMBERS: It was kind of comical. Some wires got crossed somewhere and the art department made an enormous travelling trunk instead of a suitcase. I could barely lift it! Peter said it was almost big enough for him to move into. It felt like that Stonehenge scene in Spinal Tap, but in reverse. The wine bottles were made of sugar glass and they would break before he had even thrown them, so the unit drivers had to rush off around West London looking for a liquor store that was open at 11am. It was great fun to do, but I was finding smashed sugar glass stuck to various parts of my anatomy for days after.
JBR: Prior to My Dinner with Hervé, you co-starred in the TV series “Home Fires” with the great Samantha Bond, who 007 fans adore for her role as Miss Moneypenny in all four of Pierce Brosnan’s Bond movies. Do you have any stories you can share about working with Samantha on that program?
UMBERS: Bondie, as we call her, is a legend and was very much the mother of our cast. We were a very close family on that show. I was working with her husband Alex at the National Theatre while she was playing Moneypenny, so I remember hearing about it all back then. She was perfect in the role. Her virtual reality love scene with Pierce Brosnan in Die Another Day was very funny.
JBR: Sir Roger Moore was fond of Twitter, and the last thing he ever tweeted was a message that said “HBO are making a film about Hervé Villechaize. Who will play me?!” Two weeks later he passed away. How does his final question make you feel now that you’ve played the role?
UMBERS: Sacha told me about that. It kind of gave me shivers, to be honest. I had not only grown up with him as James Bond but our childhoods had, I think, shared certain unhappy parallels, so I had always felt an affinity with him. I passed him on Brewer Street some years ago, looking very dapper in a blue blazer, and I wish I’d stopped him to shake his hand. It would have been wonderful to meet him before this film.
JBR: In a very real way, you’ve now joined an incredibly exclusive club of actors who can genuinely say that they’ve “played James Bond” in a movie. How does it feel to be one of only a handful of performers who can claim that distinction? And if Barbara Broccoli asked, how interested would you be in taking over the role of 007 once Daniel Craig hangs up his Walther PPK?
UMBERS: I hadn’t thought of it like that! Funnily, I auditioned for the role of James Bond last time round. I remember reading a couple of scenes from Goldeneye – during which I could not get Pierce Brosnan’s voice out of my head – and having a conversation about sadomasochism with Michael G. Wilson in the boardroom. I was too young and not at all ready, so in hindsight I’m relieved it didn’t come my way. Daniel is beyond brilliant in the role and has now set the bar incredibly high. No sane actor wants to do A Streetcar Named Desire because they know they’ll never be as good as Brando, and I think Daniel’s achieved something similar. That said, when you look back, there does appear to be a Bond for every era, each of whom is peculiar to his time. The films are such great fun to watch, it’s easy to underestimate what a difficult role it is to get right. But it’s a great conflict for any actor to play. A lone wolf whose Achilles heel is his heart. I know something about that.
Interview by Matthew Chernov