LOS ANGELES, Calif. – Tom Stoppard is sitting on the patio of a Sunset Boulevard hotel, bathed in California winter sunshine, framed by bamboo landscaping and looking very much out of his element in Hollywood.
The acclaimed British playwright professes to feeling that way as well, despite having pocketed a Writers Guild of America lifetime achievement award the night before for his screenplays, including the Oscar-winning “Shakespeare in Love.”
“I was always nervous coming here. The first time I was terrified,” he said. “I’m trying not to sound nauseatingly self-deprecating, but I don’t think of myself as being a terrific screenwriter or even a natural screenwriter.”
Combine that, he said, with the local entertainment industry’s perception that “I’m some different kind of animal,” a high-minded artist to whom the words “intellectual” and “philosophy” are freely applied.
But if Hollywood can be forgiven anything, it should be that. Stoppard has created a remarkable wealth of two dozen-plus plays, including “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead,” ”Travesties” and “The Real Thing,” and he’s counting on more.
He looks like a proper man of letters, with unkempt grey hair, a comfortably unstylish cardigan and a delicately shaped mouth that hesitates, slightly, before dispensing exacting thoughts on the art of writing (without pretension: he relishes a snippet of “Ghostbusters” dialogue.)
Stoppard also is the master behind “Parade’s End,” a five-part HBO miniseries (airing Tuesday through Thursday, 9 p.m. EST) that was lauded by U.K. critics as “the thinking man’s ‘Downton Abbey'” after its BBC airing.
Adapted by Stoppard from a series of novels by British writer Ford Madox Ford, “Parade’s End” features rising stars Benedict Cumberbatch (“Sherlock Holmes” and the upcoming “Star Trek” movie) and Rebecca Hall (“Vicky Cristina Barcelona”) in the juiciest of roles.
Like PBS’ “Downton Abbey,” it’s set in the early 20th century among aristocrats and encompasses World War I’s shattering effect on the social order. Romance is provided by the triangle of Cumberbatch’s tradition-bound Christopher, his unfaithful wife, Sylvia (Hall), and a suffragette (Australian newcomer Adelaide Clemens). The uniformly impressive cast includes Janet McTeer, Miranda Richardson, Roger Allam and Rupert Everett.
Stoppard rejects the oft-made comparison to PBS’ “Downton” as unfair to it and its writer-creator, Julian Fellowes: “I was embarrassed by it because it’s so condescending of Julian’s work. He’s a good writer and he’s done a superlative job,” he said. It’s also a misguided comparison because “Downton” is heading toward season four and “Parade’s End” is “five episodes and that’s it, forever.”
The self-effacing Stoppard leaves it at that. But there’s a wider gap between the two: “Downton” is an easy-to-digest soap opera, while “Parade’s End” is a challenging, nuanced view of a slice of British society and a set of singular characters, all dressed to the nines in the heady language of literature.
“There’s a wonderful richness to the language and a beauty, which I think is the brilliance of Tom Stoppard, and also this very beautiful language of Ford Madox Ford,” said director Susanna White.
The heedless, acid-tongued Sylvia has dialogue to relish, something Stoppard cannot resist.
“The line I like best comes straight from Ford: (the public) likes ‘a whiff of sex coming off our crowd, like the steam on the water in the crocodile house at the zoo,'” he said, adding gleefully, “What a line!”
Although careful to credit the novelist with that particular zinger, Stoppard said “Parade’s End” is the first adaptation in which his dialogue and that from the original text have become intertwined in his memory.
He attributes that to the year he spent forming Ford’s intricate novels into a screenplay, often crafting original scenes, and the several more years he spent helping bring the series to fruition with the producers and White (“Generation Kill”).
“It’s the closest thing to writing a play which isn’t a play that I have ever been involved with,” he said.
The stage has been the Czech-born Stoppard’s chief occupation since leaving journalism in his 20s. But he’s made a number of detours into film, either as a screenwriter or a behind-the-scenes script doctor. His latest big-screen project is the adaptation of “Anna Karenina” with Keira Knightley.
Stoppard’s insistence that he isn’t an outstanding scriptwriter stems, in part, from his reticence. Then there’s what he calls the differing “schools of eloquence” represented by film and plays.
“I envy and admire movies which are eloquent without recourse to long speeches,” he said, citing several lines to illustrate his point. One comes from “The Fugitive” (“I don’t care,” Tommy Lee Jones says after Harrison Ford insists he didn’t kill his wife), another from “Ghostbusters.”
Bill Murray is confronted by “this kind of Amazonian ghost goddess, spooky thing, and he goes, ‘This chick is toast,'” Stoppard said, with a delighted smile.
“It’s the sense that precisely the right words have been uttered,” he explained.
That’s how fellow scribes feel about him. One L.A. film and TV writer said she regularly rereads the famed cricket-bat speech from “The Real Thing,” about the challenge of writing, for joy and inspiration: “If you get it right,” the character Henry says, “the cricket ball will travel two hundred yards in four seconds, and all you’ve done is give it a knock like knocking the top off a bottle of stout, and it makes a noise like a trout taking a fly. What we’re trying to do is to write cricket bats, so that when we throw up an idea and give it a little knock, it might travel.”
For now, the right words for Stoppard would be those of a new play, the first since “Rock ‘n’ Roll” from seven years ago. He has no regrets about immersing himself in “Parade’s End,” but is ready for the solitude needed to find the right story for the stage.
He used to steal away to a house in France until the air travel became too much. Now he makes do with a “small, shabby cottage an hour-and-a-half from London, which in theory is supposed to be my French house. But it’s not far enough away” to evade commitments, social and otherwise. (“I’m Mr. Available,” he laments.)
It’s welcome assurance to hear the guild lifetime award he received Feb. 17 doesn’t signal a halt for Stoppard. It did pull him up short, at least briefly.
“I was quite surprised. Though I am 75, so I shouldn’t be surprised. But I haven’t thought of stopping yet.”
Lynn Elber is a national television columnist for The Associated Press. She can be reached at lelber(at)ap.org and on Twitter (at)lynnelber.