Russell Brand: interview
He says he's vain, a sex addict and an egocentric ex-junkie. Time Out gets to the bottom of Russell Brand's obsession with poo, his self-destruction, the price of fame and what really happened with Sachsgate
Russell Brand crosses the corridor from his room in an exquisite luxury hotel in the middle of Dartmoor and looks around thoughtfully at the smart suite in front of him. ‘Is this where we’re doing the interview?’
‘I like it in here. It’s calm. In fact I might do a poo in here. Tom, would you fetch my wipes?’ This is to his personal assistant. ‘I can’t go in my room, there are girls in there. Seems a bit rude.’
He’s taller than I expected, and disconcertingly handsome, his kohl-blacked eyes intense yet benevolent. There is no hint of the hyperactive faux-fop we’re all now so familiar with. He speaks eloquently and intelligently, avoiding his customary archaic grammatical flourishes. Perhaps the suite is in fact having a calming effect.
‘He comes from Essex and he could be the real deal’ were Time Out Comedy editor Malcolm Hay’s words when he saw you in the Hackney Empire New Act of the Year in 2000. How important was it to get that feedback early in your career?
‘It was hugely significant. It was the catalyst that brought about the change from small pub gigs to getting signed with an agent which led to being on MTV and then on to Edinburgh. You forget that you would scour Time Out for any kind of mention, even just to see your name in the listings. To be singled out, particularly after the disappointment of only coming fourth, was an incredible boost. My pre-fame existence was like a kind of madness. I often felt I was one of those guys reading the Bible out loud on the tube or screaming “The end is nigh!” in Leicester Square. I knew I was good. But at the same time I was ill – a drug addict and an alcoholic – and it was a long, self-destructive slog. Whenever I’d get near to success I’d fuck stuff up. I badly needed someone to believe in me and Malcolm was one of the first people to understand what I was trying to do.’
That must seem like a lifetime ago.
‘Sometimes. We’re going from here to New York and then to LA and then to Australia with this tour, which is selling out fast. We’re also doing a documentary with Albert Maysles, who made “Gimme Shelter” with the Stones, which Oliver Stone is exec producing, documenting the next year of my life. And I’m doing another film with Judd Apatow, “Get Him to the Greek”, where I’m playing Aldous Snow, the character I played in “Forgetting Sarah Marshall”, again. And then after that we’re remaking [the Dudley Moore hit movie] “Arthur”. However, because of those years and years of crying in the wilderness and of relentless dogged pursuit, I am aware of trying to stay in the moment and understand how transient all this is.’
How do you ground yourself?
‘I regularly attend Alcoholics Anonymous and Narcotics Anonymous meetings to keep me balanced and on track and I’m surrounded by people who are respectful and supportive of me but who are very quick to point out “That’s mental, what you’re saying there, you’ve just crossed the line into madness”.’
Does it annoy you that every journalist who writes about you seems to want to psychoanalyse you?
‘I don’t mind what people do as long as I’m being true to myself and not disingenuous. I don’t mind my stuff being analysed because I’ve put a lot of it out there in the public domain. They’re not telling me anything I don’t know. I’m coruscatingly self-analytical. I’m incredibly self-involved. Vain. Compulsively addicted to sex. There’s not much that someone could say that would make me respond “How dare you!” I’ve been through so much therapy I’m more aware of my own failings than anyone else. Although I prefer it when the verdict comes out as “He’s unquestionably a genius” rather than “He’s a neurotic fuck-up”.’
You’ve written that you created ‘a papier-mâché version of myself to send out into the world’. Is there still a private and a public Russell Brand?
‘Yeah, there is a distinction. I think all of us have façades and coping methods. People think I’m very confessional on stage and it’s true, you do use yourself, but it’s not really that personal. It’s sort of become this product – sterilised by that process, and certainly abstracted. In my current show I’ve been talking about why I don’t have girlfriends but have endless promiscuous encounters. Why can’t I commit? Is it because of the template of love my mother imposed? I know that’s a deeply, personal thing to share on one level, but I think loads of people can relate to the things I’m talking about. Unlike if I were standing on the stage going “I really need to fuck cats, dogs and toddlers.” I have uncontrollable impulses, like when you want to throw hot tea in someone’s face, and I have to be especially careful now because of the way things can be interpreted. I did a joke in Nottingham about these unsuccessful sex attacks in an underpass. I was being sort of glib and flippant and ended up phoning the police, which was probably a mistake. But the room was exhilarated, the audience was alive and buzzing. On that night, in that room, we had consensus. However, once wilful misunderstanding had been applied by the Daily Mail, they’d reduced it to: “What, you think rape’s funny?” I don’t; that wasn’t what I was saying at all. I was making fun of the way it was written in a local newspaper. But that doesn’t fit in with the way they wanted to tell the story.’
And did the media do this with the whole Radio 2, Sachsgate affair?
‘Yes, to some extent. They’re not interested in the whole situation – that would be a bit complicated. They judged us as if me and Jonathan Ross – while smoking roll-up fags and wearing fingerless gloves – went: “ ’Ere, let’s phone up Andrew Sachs and say I fucked your granddaughter. I hope he kills himself.” What actually happened was a slow and incremental process. The joke was, “Oh no, what a terrible thing we’ve done.” And if you actually listen to the tape we spend most of the time actually apologising for having done it. Obviously, it went too far and we apologised and everyone knows what happened after that, but what I think is more interesting, more relevant and says more about our culture than that particular isolated bit of stupidity is the way that it was used culturally. Whether or not there’s an explicit agenda, the Daily Mail wants people to be scared. It doesn’t want anything to be taken lightly, everything has to be taken seriously. And I resent that.’
Wasn’t it the case that Andrew Sachs was actually invited to be a guest that night specifically because you’d already talked about the relationship with his granddaughter several weeks before when David Baddiel mentioned it on air? He wasn’t able to take the call when you rang so you left the message on his answerphone.
‘Exactly. David said “I was round your house the other day and there were those two girls there, the Satanic Sluts. And isn’t one of them Manuel’s granddaughter?” I think the joke would have been us chatting on the phone and skirting around the topic. And it could have been fun. But it’s not convenient to look at the full story, because [the media] want to believe that I’m the sort of person who’d phone someone for no reason and say “Yeah, I’ve fucked your granddaughter.” It’s this deliberate removal of nuance that I think is a form of tyranny. This in microcosm demonstrates the mentality of that form of media. They use words like “totty” and “love nest” because they have to use abbreviations because they haven’t got the physical or ideological space to relay complex ideas. They just want to simplify things. Like with the Jade Goody situation. I personally think that poor young woman would not have developed cancer had she not been the focus of such intense hatred – malevolent hatred – for such a long period of time. And now, it’s convenient for the narrative to like her again. It just sickens me.’
Is this ‘simplification’ at the heart of the media’s obsession with your sex life?
‘Absolutely. They’d like to portray me as some loner constantly trawling the night-time streets. The truth is I’ve got a legitimate and also quite thorough interest in sex. But when people say, “Oh, he’s obsessed with sex, it’s all he ever goes on about,” 99 per cent of the time I’m responding to a question somebody has asked. I’m not obsessed with sex, I’m just fulfilling my biological destiny evolved over millions of years. Rather well!’
Are you worried that as you become more famous you might have to compromise who you are?
‘As long as I don’t compromise to the point where I’m grinning with a tin of brown carbonated water in my hand or endorsing things that I don’t believe in I think it’ll be all right. I have clear objectives. Running parallel to my success is a narrative of scandal and anti-establishment ideas. It’s good because I think there’s gonna come a point where that becomes the story. It’s not going to be “Oh, he’s made a dodgy phone call.” Instead you could alter the narrative of the way the world is going. I could change the world – make everyone be nice to one another [he laughs]. That’s what I want to do. But it has to be absolutely authentic – if I was secretly thinking that I could fuck all their daughters, it wouldn’t work at all.’
It would be easy to mock Brand’s near-messianic mission statement had it not been delivered with such sincerity and genuine warmth. Our time is up and before I go he gives me a huge hug. For some reason I’m worried about him. He seems childlike, naive. I think he’s far more vulnerable than he lets on. ‘Are you happy?’ I ask.
‘Happier. But that’s as close as you’re likely to get. I feel better now than I’ve ever felt, mostly because of the thing that I keep returning to – working with people who are in good alignment with each other. We’ve got a good overview, interesting plans, a bright future. I still have a constant awareness of mortality, but overall, I’m much happier. This is much better than being a penniless junkie in Finsbury Park.’
He walks me to the door and gives me another hug. ‘I’ll leave you here if that’s all right. I still need to do that poo.’
Russell Brand plays the O2 on April 17. A four-disc box set of highlights from his Radio 2 shows, ‘The Best of What’s Legal’, is out on April 13.
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