Great Conversations: Terence Stamp

I interviewed actor and author Terence Stamp in 2013. He'd long been a favorite of mine, since sneaking downstairs as a five year-old one night and watching "The Collector" virtually uncut on an independent TV channel in Lexington, KY. My admiration for Stamp as an actor grew along with me as I was exposed to more of his work over the years, and my admiration for him as a person took hold upon reading his three volume memoir, giving an unabashed, warts-and-all portrait of himself from his working class childhood onward. Needless to say, when I spoke to the man in person, he didn't disappoint.

By Alex Simon

One of the iconic actors and faces of London's "swinging" sixties; Terence Stamp was discovered by actor/director Peter Ustinov for the titular role in his adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd in 1962. The Cockney lad from London's notorious Bow district was thrust into the limelight almost overnight, becoming a symbol of the English working class "intelligentsia," which helped shape that decade's pop culture. Along with game-changers like Joe Orton, (Stamp's former roommate) Michael Caine, and the Beatles, Stamp et al proved to the world that one needn't have graduated with a First from Oxford to make a mark on the world. During this time, Stamp was a PR agent's dream, appearing on dozens of magazine covers, at the biggest premieres with the hottest starlets on his arm, and became one of the iconic faces of the 1960s.

After his career cooled, Stamp took a self-imposed exile during the 1970s, mostly in India, where he studied the teachings of Krishnamurti, after being introduced to it a few years earlier by filmmaker Federico Fellini. Stamp re-entered films in 1977, playing the villainous General Zod in Superman and its sequel, Superman II.

Terence Stamp marked his 50th year in show business with the release of last year's Unfinished Song, being released today on DVD and Amazon Instant Video by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Stamp plays grumpy pensioner Arthur Harris, who honors his recently deceased wife (the great Vanessa Redgrave)'s passion for performing by joining the unconventional local choir to which she used to belong, a process that helps him build bridges with his estranged son, James (Christopher Eccleston). Also starring Gemma Arterton and helmed by writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, Unfinished Song is a charming slice of "kitchen sink" life.

Terence Stamp spoke with us recently about his legendary career in front of the camera and other topics. Read on:

What struck me while reading your autobiography Double Feature is what an intelligent, reflective person you obviously are, someone who has a rich interior life. Early in your career, the only thing people seemed to talk about was your looks. Was that difficult for you, the feeling that people weren't seeing the entire person, and perhaps not taking you seriously intellectually?

No, it really wasn't. At the time, it was the beginning of the sixties, and the thing about my debut was that I was discovered by Peter Ustinov, which was incredibly reassuring. Among that group of sixties actors, Peter O'Toole, Albert Finney, Sean Connery, Michael Caine, I was sort of the juvenile, since I was a bit younger that the rest. That was the drawback. I was never considered for Doctor Zhivago or Lawrence of Arabia, so that was the thing that bugged me at the time. I wasn't aware of being taken lightly because I never viewed myself as anything other than an actor.

It was a treat to see you playing a normal bloke in Unfinished Song. I thought back to the early chapters of Double Feature, where you talk about your childhood. Even though this was shot in the northern city of Newcastle, you must have felt many parallels between the working class neighborhoods there and the Bow district you come from in London.

Yes and I think it was meant to look like a working class London area. What was interesting for me is that I based my character on my own dad. My dad was emotionally closed down and the only emotion he showed was to my mother. There was no other woman in his life. She was his great love. Once I hit on that idea, it made a lot of things very clear, such as my relationship with my son in the movie. It was one of those curious movies where everything just seemed to gel. People are mystified by the fact that Vanessa and I never discussed our characters or the story, because we both understood so clearly what was being asked of us.

It amazed me that this is the first time you and Vanessa have worked together on-screen.

Yeah, that's right. We did an Ibsen play, "The Lady from the Sea," about twenty years ago at the Roundhouse. I never really got to know her. We're very different personalities. But the fact was, there was always magic on the stage. We got incredible press for what was a very difficult play, so I felt completely confident and I was just thrilled to be able to work with her in a medium that I felt was my specialty, which is film. Vanessa is, I think, our greatest theater actress. She a wonderful all-around actress, but made her reputation on the stage. I adore Vanessa.

The Collector holds up beautifully today. I actually watched it very late at night on TV when I was about seven, and it left deep scars on my cerebellum.

As it would. Serves you right for being up past your bedtime. (laughs). The thing about William Wyler, really, in my life was at the time I got to work with him, I thought he was one of the greatest directors in the business. I was in awe of him. To be chosen by him gave me an amazing kind of confidence. In truth, Wyler saw something in me I wasn't aware of yet, myself. It was the first real big shift in my life. It's like I was a ship that bound for Scotland and Wyler was able to adjust my bearings just so that years later, I wound up in Iceland. It was an incredible moment for me. Wyler was so spontaneous, which made him incredibly modern, although he was in his mid-60s at the time, but he was completely in the moment, like one would expect from a young director. It was a film that was really twenty years ahead of its time.

I always felt Wyler took a page from Alfred Hitchcock in that he cast a handsome leading man to play an absolute maniac.

I had been given the galleys of the book before it was published and thought it was a masterpiece. At the same time, it made me very sad, because I knew I could never play that part. In the book he's a kind of invisible, spotty, snotty-nosed bank clerk. So I turned down the movie several times, until my agent said "William Wyler is directing. Are you really going to turn down William Wyler?" I was so unconfident, that I agreed to do the test with a girl without a commitment, because I wanted to show Wyler the best I could do, which I was convinced wouldn't be good enough for him. So Robert Parrish shot the test, then I was asked to go to the old Columbia building on Dean Street in London. I arrived at his office and this little man appeared and started walking toward me down this long hallway. It was Wyler. And he was just staring at me intently, saying nothing. It made me rather unnerved. (laughs) So I said "Did you see the test?" He nodded. I said "Which of the girls did you like?" He said "I haven't looked at the girls--yet." (laughs) That kind of reached me and I said "Do you want me for this?" He nodded again and I said "What about the book?" He put his arm around my shoulder and came really close to me and said "We're not gonna make the book. We're gonna make a love story--modern." So I was immediately his accompanist.

That's very clever on his part, because he probably sensed you were ill at ease.

I think so, too, and it was one of the great experiences of my life. It changed everything.

In 1968 you had two amazing cinematic experiences working with the two greatest directors in Italy: Federico Fellini (Spirits of the Dead: Toby Dammit) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema).

To be frank with you, I do think about my career as before and after Fellini, because that was such a landmark for me. I knew he'd written Toby Dammit for (Peter) O'Toole and I knew Peter wouldn't do it. I knew I was the second choice. But he loved me and the price was that I love him back, which wasn't hard. So those four weeks were a real rush for me and it was only because of what had happened to me during the Fellini shoot that I was able to give them kind of performance in Teorema that I was able to. Fellini got the best acting out of me I'd ever done at that point. So by the end of that experience, I was no longer acting. I was just being, which prepared me for the experience with Pasolini, who didn't want acting. Pasolini used to film me without me knowing with his own camera, when I wasn't on set, when I wasn't acting. It didn't take me long to realize what he was doing. He just wanted me being, just being myself. Being present in the present. That was a new strata of performance for me.

Did you feel you got to know Pasolini as well as you did Fellini?

No, not at all. He was very cold, very distant, very closed down. He was very gay. He wouldn't speak to me at all, really. If he had a piece of direction for me, he'd tell (actress) Laura Betti to ask me to do something. "Tell him to play this scene with an erection." (laughs) "Tell him to play this scene with his legs spread astride." He came to London to meet me with the producer, Franco Rossellini, who was Roberto Rossellini's nephew, and they were staying at Claridge's, which was a strange choice of hotel to stay at, and he told me the story of the film. "It's the story of a bourgeois family: father, mother, son, daughter and maid. A guest arrives. He has a divine nature. He seduces everybody and he leaves." I said 'I can do that.' (laughs) He was just very intellectual. It wasn't that he was being cold or mean to me. I think he wanted to isolate me, wanted to throw me back on myself in a way I hadn't acted before. There was virtually no dialogue, so that made it easy.

Pasolini's murder is like the JFK assassination of Italy, with loads of conspiracy theories and so on. Any ideas of your own?

Apparently he was that kind of gay guy where what turned him on was heterosexual youth. It was always very dangerous, his sex life. I've met lots of gay guys like that, especially in my youth. I come from a very tough part of London and what turns those guys on are these very sort of rough, good looking kids. And those guys get beaten up a lot. That was all a part of it, I guess, and from what I gather, that's what happened to Pasolini. I guess you can't get that kind of sexual satisfaction without the risk. I'm not familiar with any of the conspiracy theories you mention.

One last Toby Dammit question: how much did you actually get to drive that amazing Ferrari?

Oh, I drove it a lot! (laughs) It was absolutely wonderful. It was very heavy, with quite a heavy gearbox, not like the Ferraris of today. I had quite a time in that car, let me tell you. (laughs)

I've heard various reasons given for your exile to India during the seventies.

It wasn't that I chucked it all and went off to find myself in India, it's that I couldn't find work and I couldn't bear it. I couldn't bear waking up every day and the phone not ringing, or if it did, it was my agent telling me they were looking for a "young Terence Stamp," and I was twenty-seven. So I decided to travel instead of waiting around, and months became years. I didn't do anything of any significance between '69 and '77, when I got the "Superman" movies. I don't want to mislead you and make it sound like it was a romantic, idealistic decision on my part.

But I got the impression that India had a profound effect on you.

It did, but what had an even more profound effect was when Fellini introduced me to Krishnamurti. I found him impossible to comprehend and one of the things that happened when I went to India was I decided to start a bit lower down the ladder, thinking perhaps I could refine my intelligence gradually so that one day perhaps I would be able to understand Krishnamurti, and that's basically what happened really.

The movie I saw as a teenager that got me interested in your earlier work was Stephen Frears' The Hit.

That was a wonderful movie, wasn't it? I think it's the most Zen movie I've ever made. I don't talk about that one a lot, but it's one of my favorite films that I've done.

Before we wrap up, we have to talk about Steven Soderbergh's The Limey and the sequel that you wrote yourself.

I was inspired to write it by Soderbergh. It was his idea. I tried to get people to write it and nobody was interested. I knew if I didn't put pen to paper, it wouldn't get done. So I did and it just fell out of my left hand as I was writing it, it was so easy. Then the bastard decided he was going to retire! (laughs) The last thing I wanted was to direct something. Apparently he doesn't want to make any movies in the foreseeable future. It's a beautiful screenplay and it was a very rich experience to write it. But I don't have any real psychological ambitions at this point in my life. I'm not one of these actors who feels he has to direct because he feels unfulfilled performing. I haven't heard from Steven in a long time, so I think he's just taken another path.

Can you tell us a bit about the story?

It's not a direct sequel. When I reviewed the movie after a lot of writers passed on it, including Tom Stoppard, I saw that The Limey was a real complete circle. So what I did was, I took the character of Wilson and took Steven's idea of a vehicle for Julie Christie and myself. Wilson has just completed a 25 year sentence, having been put behind bars by his best friend, who betrayed him and while he was behind bars he's married the girl he was always in love with. So he's had 25 years to think about how he's going to wreak vengeance upon this guy and how he's going to get the girl back. We start with the first day of freedom and those two agendas. It's like a canvas, the story of enduring love, but the canvas is stretched over this very violent revenge story.

Carol White in Ken Loach's "Poor Cow."

We have to touch on Ken Loach's Poor Cow, which was used as the flashback scenes in The Limey. How well did you get to know your co-star, Carol White?

Very well. Carol and I were very good friends, as I was with her younger sister, Jane. They were both great beauties. Carol was amazing. She had that wonderful quality, as though...she wasn't like any of the characters that she played, but the great quality she had was that the camera just saw the very best of her. She could play these tragic characters so well because the camera just could see right into her, into the best of womanhood. Making that film was when I learned about improvisation. Ken Loach always had two cameras going, with no screenplay, and would just say "Action!" It really taught me how great things are born out of spontaneity.

I understand you were offered the role of James Bond after Sean Connery stepped down and you've regretted it ever since. True?

No. What happened was, I was taken out to dinner by Harry Saltzman, who was Albert Broccoli's producing partner at the time, and over dinner he put it out there that he'd be interested in me doing it. I was flattered, but felt so self-conscious because Sean had been so successful in it and so identified with it. I suggested to Harry that if he started the movie with 007 disguised as a kind of Japanese warrior, by the time the new actor was revealed, the audience would have become accustomed to the fact that Terence was doing it. Needless to say, I never heard from him again. (laughs)