Terence Stamp interview:
'I don't do ordinary'

We speak to the 'Song for Marion' star about his fifty years on film

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    He won an Oscar nomination for his first film role in 'Billy Budd'. Not bad for a boy from Bow. Instantly famous, Stamp was part of the hip gang of working-class actors that gave ‘60s London its swing – along with his flatmate Michael Caine.

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  • Song for Marion

    He thought twice before taking the part as a grumpy old geezer. ‘I don’t do ordinary.’ In the end he based his character on his own dad. ‘His life was hard and futile, and I think it stifled the natural grace he had.’

Billy Budd

He won an Oscar nomination for his first film role in 'Billy Budd'. Not bad for a boy from Bow. Instantly famous, Stamp was part of the hip gang of working-class actors that gave ‘60s London its swing – along with his flatmate Michael Caine.

The son of a Thames tugboat stoker, the actor Terence Stamp survived the Blitz, made it to Plaistow Grammar in east London then drama school, and was Oscar-nominated for his first film, 1962’s ‘Billy Budd’. Among the most fashionable faces of London’s Swinging Sixties, he worked for William Wyler (‘The Collector’, 1965), Federico Fellini (‘Spirits of the Dead’, 1968) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (‘Theorem’, 1968).

The 1970s were a fallow time (when he spent time in an ashram in India), but the ‘Superman’ films, in which he played General Zod, prompted a new chapter as a suave character actor. He played a drag artiste in ‘The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert’ (1994) and an expat hitman in ‘The Limey’ (1999). Approaching his seventy-fifth birthday in 2013, he stars as a pensioner caring for his ailing spouse (Vanessa Redgrave) in new British film ‘Song for Marion’.

You’ve played just about every sort of role except an ordinary old geezer. Did ‘Song for Marion’ feel like a departure for you?

‘At first I had reservations about it, because these two aren’t Romeo and Juliet. They’re ordinary. And I don’t do ordinary. But the director [Paul Andrew Williams] told me he’d written the part based on a relative of his, who was also a good-looking guy, so I shouldn’t think about it.’

Anyone who’s read your volumes of autobiography will see elements of your father in your role in ‘Song for Marion’. Was that how you approached it?

‘Yes, he was exactly like that. Exactly. Stoic and emotionally closed-down. He’d been in the Merchant Navy at fifteen, and any show of emotion would have been considered flash, so he got into the habit of not showing his emotions. His life was hard and futile, and I think it stifled the natural grace he had. I had incredibly few conversations with him, really.’

That’s why your part in ‘Song for Marion’ is so demanding. You have to invite the audience in while never making a show of yourself…

‘Why I’m so interested in this movie was that it was what I’ve been looking for all my career. I wanted to imitate my idols – Gary Cooper, Marlon Brando, Montgomery Clift. The way they showed nothing but they allowed the audience to feel what was going on inside them. While we were making it, I could feel that happening, but I didn’t know if the camera was picking it up. It was a very emotional time for me, because I’d always dreamed of being this kind of artist.’

Before ‘Song for Marion’ came along, had you reconciled yourself to playing character roles? Given the paucity of leads for a gentleman of your maturity…

‘I knew when I came back for “Superman” in the late 1970s and they lit me from below and put on green make-up that my days as a lead were over. Which was a less painful option than not being in the business. It didn’t matter if it was a week or a day’s work. Was it interesting? That was my thought. I’d had snobbery starved out of me.’

After such huge celebrity in the 1960s, it was as if you just disappeared off the map. How did that happen?

‘I was just so identified with that decade, and it all ended. What was so awful for me was that there was no reason. It wasn’t like I’d given some terrible performance. But even with everything that happened after that, whether it was learning yoga, or breathing, or chanting, or whirling like a dervish, I always felt it would add another dimension to me as a performer. When the call came I would be ready. And it did.’

So there was a moment when it all turned around?

‘I got a cable to the ashram in Pune, addressed to Clarence Stamp, offering me two “Superman” movies with Marlon Brando and Peter Brook’s “Meetings with Remarkable Men”. I was almost afraid to open it. You could feel the psychic weight of that cable pulling me back. After “The Mind of Mr Soames” in 1969, a very interesting movie where I played an adult with the mind of a new-born child, the next movie where I got billing and was seen was “Superman” in 1977.’

That’s a great story. But it’s not strictly true, is it? Because you were shooting films during the 1970s, surely?

‘Well, it might look like I was making films, but these were experimental things. Mad stuff. Travelling in the back of a bus, and some director trying to kill me by getting me to lie on the ground near a volcano in Ethiopia, the hottest place on earth. “Divina Creatura” [in 1975] was the only film I actually got paid for during that time.’

Before that, in 1968, you worked with the great Italian director Federico Fellini on ‘Toby Dammit’, the episode directed by him in ‘Spirits of the Dead’. Was that a special collaboration?

‘I’m at the time now when I can look back. For me, I think of my career in terms of before Fellini and after Fellini. Back then I was still an East End spiv. I’d been winging it through the ’60s, and I’d really gotten away with it. I’d never had a great success like “Lawrence of Arabia” or “Saturday Night, Sunday Morning”. I’d never been really commercial. I just felt that I was fronting.’

And Fellini changed all that?

‘Well, it was amazing to go and be the first English actor to work with him. But what really happened was that he’d written this amazing script “The Voyage of Mastona”, about the netherworld after death where the individuals don’t realise they’re dead. You can imagine what Federico would do with that, but he never was able to get it made.

‘Anyway, he approached Krishnamurti, the great Indian speaker and philosopher, who was in Rome at that time, and I ended up at a lunch with him. He’s saying things like, “The observer is the observed,” and I had just no comprehension. But I wasn’t dumb, and I was sensitive. I knew I’d just never met anyone of this quality. It was like the guy was lit from within. What I learned from that is what you actually are comes before thought process or the expression of emotion can manifest itself. Awareness. It’s there and unchanging.’

Did that realisation enable you to give such a serene performance in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s ‘Theorem’, also in 1968?

‘That was the first time I tried it out. I was really trying to encompass the idea of being empty but present when the camera started rolling. It was like my whole life was opening up.’

 

Many leading men at the time would have fought shy of the bisexual element in the story of ‘Theorem’. Did you have any concerns?

‘If I tell you the story, you mustn’t think it mundane. When I was a teenager, I saw Silvana Mangano in a movie called “Bitter Rice” and literally had wet dreams about her for years. I met her in the street in Rome one day and I was almost in a trance. Such refinement! Such beauty! She’s going to be in the film, and later I meet Pasolini at Claridges in London to discuss it. Thought it unusual for a gay Catholic Communist to be staying at Claridges, but there you go.

‘So his producer explains the story to me: “It’s about a bourgeois Milanese family. There’s a father, mother, son, daughter, maid. A guest arrives who has a divine nature. He seduces everybody and leaves. This is your part.” I’m thinking: he seduces everybody…that means a love scene with Silvana! So I tell them, “Sounds like me, fellahs.”

‘And incidentally, I became great friends with her, my first real female guru. I’m actually hoping to be able to introduce the film at the BFI Southbank [during the BFI’s March/April 2013 Pasolini season] because I’ve only seen it once. I’m really curious to know what Pasolini saw in me.’

Strangely, there’s something of that same serenity in Stephen Frears’s ‘The Hit’ (1984). You play a gangster calmly reconciled to his own death. We believe this guy is almost in a state of grace. But how do you get yourself there as a performer?

‘There’s a scene where I had to read out this John Donne sonnet, “Death Be Not Proud”. Very delicate. But, during the filming, it kept getting rescheduled, to the point where we had to bung it in as a night shoot. By this time, I know it so well I don’t have to think about it, and when they put the light on me and I start saying it, it encompasses me.

‘I feel I’m telling you things that are going to sound stupid if you print them, but, actually…I don’t care! This was the one time I’d actually had to deliver lines during this kind of transcendence, and as I spoke this wonderful Donne poem, it was as if the words were coming out and fitting into a beautiful made-to-measure doeskin glove. Honestly! When it was John Hurt’s turn for the reaction shot, he said, ‘I don’t think anyone will be looking at me when Terence is in that fucking mood.’”

Is ‘The Hit’ a favourite of yours then?

‘Yes, it is, though I do think it’s a bit of a cop-out when the guy’s revealed as a fraud in the end. So that’s one I do feel close to. But really “Song for Marion” eclipses everything for me. I’m a bit self-conscious talking about it even, but I don’t want to dishonour it by denying it.’

And you even sing in ‘Song for Marion’, which you’d fought shy of before…

‘I turned down the film of “Camelot”, which I always regretted. I didn’t feel I’d do justice to the score, that I’d be revoiced, ruined. Then this comes along, it’s got Vanessa Redgrave, who was Guinevere back then. Now I’m playing her husband, who’s called Arthur, and he sings. Had to be, didn’t it?’

Song for Marion’ opens in UK cinemas on Feb 22. The Pier Paolo Pasolini season runs at BFI Southbank throughout March and April 2013. There will be a Terence Stamp season at BFI Southbank in May 2013.


Users say

2 comments
SHANE TREACY
SHANE TREACY

Mr.Stamp is a very intelligent man with a lot of baggage.I dig your site and maybe you could ask Mr.Hugh Muckian to mail me.Dont worry.He knows who I am.Thank you.

Mia Clark
Mia Clark

Full circle. Welcome back to centre stage, Terry

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