Terence Stamp on accents, first takes, and playing a transsexual

Terence Stamp on accents, first takes, and playing a transsexual

Welcome to Random Roles, wherein we talk to actors about the characters who defined their careers. The catch: They don’t know beforehand what roles we’ll ask them to talk about.

The actor: In Swinging London, Terence Stamp was the face of the ’60s, romantically linked with iconic model Jean Shrimpton and called “the most beautiful man alive.” But when the era ended, it almost took his career with it. He made only six films from 1970 to 1977, spending much of the time meditating in an Indian ashram. Then he got the call to play General Zod in Richard Donner’s Superman, and though he never regained the heedless momentum of his early years, he managed to turn up every few years to prove what he can do with those steely eyes and that booming voice. He’s also written several volumes of literary autobiography, including the most recent, Rare Stamps: Reflections On Living, Breathing And Acting

Unfinished Song (2012)—“Arthur”
The A.V. Club: Your character’s wife is dying of cancer, but he tends to keep his sorrow bottled up, or it erupts in anger. You’ve talked a bit about drawing on your father for this role.

Terence Stamp: That’s right. The reason that I used him as a role model is because by the time he came back from World War II, where he served as a merchant seaman and was shipwrecked three times, he was emotionally closed down. I never remember him hugging me. I never remember him even touching me, actually. Now I had an enormous, amazing, amazing benefit from my mother, who was behind me every step of the way. But the fact was that my father was emotionally closed down. He really loved my mother and was completely devoted to her. And I think it’s because he had love for her that he gave up any idea of his natural inclinations, which wasn’t to be having loads of kids. 

AVC: You and Michael Caine, who you shared a flat with as a young actor, were part of a major shift in the British film industry where it was suddenly no longer necessary for every leading actor to speak like a BBC newsreader. Coming from the East End of London was part of your bio from the beginning, but it seems, with few exceptions, you only came around to playing working-class characters late in your career.

TS: At the time that I started, you had to really be able to deliver in the theater. You had to be able to do it onstage. I realized very quickly that if I didn’t amend my Cockney accent, if I didn’t learn how to speak standard English, it was really going to limit the scope and array of roles I was being offered. So it became something I was always working on—a lifelong habit, really. There’s rarely a day that goes by when I don’t do some breathing exercise or some voice exercise, and I was consumed with that. I never consciously avoided it. People say, “You turned down Alfie. The thing is, I was playing Alfie on Broadway when I was offered the movie, but the reality was that I was playing the Morosco Theatre for a couple of months and that’s very debilitating, so the last thing I wanted to do was repeat Alfie again. That was a real working-class part I could easily have done; I did it in the theater.

AVC: It carried over offscreen as well. There’s a backstage interview with you from 1978, when you were playing Dracula, and the way you speak is not the way you’re speaking now.

TS: Right, right, right. My voice is kind of an ongoing thing. If you listen to the film of Billy Budd, my voice is very light. It’s sort of lightweight. And after Billy Budd, I worked with [Laurence] Olivier and I remember Olivier talking to me about my voice. He told me, “You must always work on your voice, you must continue to work on your voice because, as your looks fade, your voice can become empowered.” And I thought to myself, that’s one of the great Shakespearean actors of the era, really. So I’ve always done that. I’ve found singing teachers to work with. It’s something I like to do. 

AVC: Over and above moving beyond your roots, it’s a great gift as an actor to be able to speak in different tenors, different registers. 

TS: It’s very close to one’s essence. If I’m introduced to somebody, when I hear their voice, I get a much stronger impression of them than from how they look. 

Poor Cow (1967)—“Dave Fuller”
TS: Ken Loach had met Carol White during Cathy Come Home and he was inspired, in part by her, to write Poor Cow. But he really didn’t write it; we didn’t really have a script. That was one of the things that was interesting about it. It was just wholly improvised. He had the idea, he had the overall trajectory in his mind, but we didn’t have a script. And, consequently, it had to be Take One because each of us had cameras on us. So before a take, he’d say something to Carol, and then he would say something to me, and we only discovered once the camera was rolling that he’d given us completely different directions. That’s why he needed two cameras, because he needed the confusion and the spontaneity. That predated The Limey, which was another film that I made that was only first takes. 

Billy Budd (1962)—“Billy Budd”
AVC: You’ve written about preferring to be a first-take person, and how there are first-take people and not-first-take people, both actors and directors. When did you realize that about yourself?

TS: I think I realized it on one of the very first movies that I did [Billy Budd]. I was being directed by Peter Ustinov and I was being lit by [cinematographer] Robert Krasker, and every actor in the cast was wonderful. What happened on that movie was that most of the time when I got kind of buzzed—when I was actually feeling something—was on the first take. I didn’t really understand that, but Ustinov kind of reassured me when I did one take and he said, “We’ve got that.” I said, “Are you sure you don’t want to do one more?” He was the first guy to say, “No, no. It’s absolutely fine. We don’t need another one.” It wasn’t something that happened immediately, but by the time I started working with [William] Wyler [on 1965’s The Collector], he also loved that. He liked my first take. So I thought if it was good enough for Ustinov and it was good enough for Wyler, maybe I should think about doing that more consciously. 

AVC: That’s interesting, because Wyler isn’t someone you’d peg as a run-and-gun kind of guy. His movies don’t have the looseness of Soderbergh’s. 

TS: The thing I think can be easily misunderstood about Wyler is that he’s possibly the greatest director that ever lived, because he only made one film that wasn’t a commercial or an artistic success—and that was his last film. So when he made a flop, he said, “Oh, that’s enough.” The truth is he was incredibly sensitive and he was right there with you. He was right there underneath the camera with you and when you nailed it, that was fine for him. 

The Limey (1999)—“Wilson”
AVC: Your description of Wyler being “right there underneath the camera with you” recalls Soderbergh’s method of directing and operating the camera at the same time, which puts him as close to the performance as he can be.

TS: I think in the pantheon of great directors I’ve worked with, I’d say Wyler and [Federico] Fellini and Soderbergh. What made Soderbergh different was that he operated the camera. He and the camera were not two. 

I was on holiday in Hawaii, and I got this number to call him and he’s telling me about the movie. And he said he’d seen this older movie I’d done called Poor Cow, and he was thinking of using footage from this old movie as a kind of backstory, and how did I feel about that. 

I was speechless, really, because when I got the call from him, I just assumed it was for some kind of supporting part. But as he explained the movie, I realized that he was actually thinking of me as the limey. He said, “What’s the matter, what’s the matter? Don’t you like it?” And I said, “I really like it! Did you think I wouldn’t?” He said, “I don’t know a lot of other male stars who’d like to be up there with themselves 30 years ago.” And I said, “Not me, mate.” However, during the shooting of the movie, we didn’t have permission [to use the Poor Cow footage]. Every week, every time he got a day off, he’d go to Warner Bros. and work his way up from the people who sell you, like, frame by frame. He worked his way up, and finally on the last weekend, he’d worked his way up to the head of Warner Bros. And what he told me was this. He said that the guy said to him, “Why are you dealing with me? Why can’t you deal with the people who sell the movies by footage?” And Soderbergh said, “Because I want permission to put anything I need from the movie, into my movie.” And the guy—I can’t remember the guy’s name—said, “I can’t do that.” Steven said, “Why not?” and he said, “Because it’ll create precedent.” Steven said, “Yes.” And he said, “I can’t do it.” Then Steven said this thing which I thought was amazing; he said, “If you won’t give me permission to do it, I will never make another movie for you.” This is a guy who’s like 35 or 40. And the guy said, “Oh, take it, take it.” What was wonderful for me when I saw [The Limey] was his pace and his restraint in how little [of Poor Cow] he used when he could have used anything from it. That, to me, is why I put him up there with Fellini and Wyler. 

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AVC: And of course, Soderbergh went on to make the three Ocean’s movies for Warner Bros.

TS: [Laughs.] They did pretty well by giving him the footage. 

The Hit (1984)—“Willie Parker”
TS: When you’ve had a long career like I’ve had, there’s quite a lot of times when you’re really broke. What happened before The Hit was that I had no money at all and I phoned my agent and I said, “What’s on your desk?” And he said, “You won’t like it.” And I said, “What is it?” And he said, “Well, it’s TV.” He knew I’d never, ever accepted any TV, I’d never had an interest in TV whatsoever, but I didn’t have any money so I said I’d do it [1983’s Chessgame]. 

So I went up to Granada [Television] and it was very good material, but it was TV. It was about moving lips; it wasn’t about moving pictures. And toward the end of that, I was feeling very down because I thought, “Well, is this my life? Do I want to continue just making my living from acting? Is it this? Is this what I’ve been reduced to, admittedly in my own estimation?” And that’s when I got offered The Hit. 

Stephen Frears and [producer] Jeremy Thomas actually came to my chambers. I was living in a place called the Albany in London, and Stephen walked in and saw a wall of books, my own books. I think they were the first professional people I’d ever had in my apartment, you know what I mean? It was kind of destiny, really, that he saw those books and was like, “Oh, no. You’re Willie; you’re absolutely it” kind of thing. 

So I was very, very happy to be sort of restored and resuscitated in movies. And then working with Stephen, I don’t think he’d made a film for like 15 years. And then John Hurt and Laura Del Sol and Bill [Hunter] and it was just like I felt like I’d died and been reincarnated. 

Superman (1978), Superman II (1980)—“General Zod”
AVC: You said you were broke at that point, but that was only a few years after the Superman movies. Did you think those would reinvigorate your career? You’d practically quit acting before Superman; you were in an ashram in India when you got the call.

TS: I’d been out of the business for about eight years and I got the Superman movie, but of course, it was the Salkinds, so they paid me 75 cents and a toffee apple; it wasn’t like I got a lot of money for the Superman movies. And although it’s the only worldwide, commercial success I’ve ever been in, it didn’t do anything for my career because General Zod only became really famous with the passing of time. It was when those kids for whom Superman II was their first movie experience grew up that the majority of them identified with the supervillain rather than the superman. 

AVC: I was five when the first Superman movie came out, so I guess I’m one of them as well.

TS: So you’re one of those guys that comes up to me in the street and says, “Kneel before Zod.” I mean, there’s rarely a day that goes by that I don’t get somebody who comes up to me and says, “You’re Zod, you’re Zod! Say it for me, say it for me!”

AVC: It’s a legitimately great performance. It’s easy for people to forget that superhero movies are an established genre, but there was no template for that kind of acting then—nor for Christopher Reeve or Gene Hackman. There’s a whole language you have to build so that people don’t laugh at that character.

TS: Yeah, but it was also Richard Donner. The thing is that, in my opinion, everything that came after—all the comic books, all the Star Wars kinds of thingnone of them cut it the way those first two Superman movies did. And that was Richard Donner. If you see Richard Donner’s version of Superman II, it’s completely different from the version that was finished by Richard Lester. Richard Lester is no mean talent himself, but that was Donner’s vision. He really nailed that comic book. 

AVC: Have you seen Man Of Steel?

TS: No, I haven’t. I haven’t. I’m not sure that I will because, to me, that experience with Richard Donner and Brando and Chris and Gene was such a rich, rich time in my life. 

Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999)—“Supreme Chancellor Valorum”
TS: I’d just arrived in Australia when I got the call from my agent. She called and said they want you to do Star Wars. And I said, “What’s the part? How long is the part?” and she said a few days. I said, “Baby, I’m not coming back from Australia for a few days.” And she leaned on me and leaned on me and finally I went back. He may be a great visionary, [George] Lucas, and he may be great with toys and effects and stuff, but he doesn’t really strike me as someone who was really interested in acting. 

AVC: There was the story at the time, when the technology was still very new, of him removing a smile from Jake Lloyd’s face and pasting it onto his face in another take.

TS: [Laughs.] I’d never heard that, but I believe it. 

The Adventures Of Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert (1994)—“Bernadette”
AVC: When you say you were in Australia, were you doing Priscilla?

TS: No, I was just there. I’d avoided Australia for a long time because I was out there in the ’60s, and I hated the paparazzi so much. I’d never experienced paparazzi in Italy like when I got to Australia. It was horrifying; they were like animals with cameras. So I never ever wanted to go back to Australia. But I rediscovered Australia with Priscilla, and of course it had changed vastly in the time that had passed. So I went back there because I’d met a lot of people I liked, and it’s a nice place to be when I’m not working, quite frankly. 

AVC: It’s interesting to go back to Priscilla now. It was well appreciated at the time, but you look at the cast now, with people like Guy Pearce and Hugo Weaving, and it’s all future stars. 

TS: And I’d got Bill Hunter the part. I’d been with him in The Hit, and I knew how magnificent he was, so when I agreed to Priscilla, I said, “Who is playing the boyfriend?” and they said they hadn’t cast it. So I said, “Well, what about Bill Hunter?” It was great all around, really. 

AVC: You’ve written about your trepidation with doing that part and doing drag, looking foolish and all the rest. When you saw how it came out in the end, how’d you feel about how you looked up there? 

TS: Well, admittedly, I was kind of pissed off, because I never, ever go to rushes. I never have and I never will. It’s just something I don’t need to do. But in my mind, when I was playing Bernadette, I was picturing the most beautiful women I’d met in my life and that was helping me throw myself into the character. So I would imagine that the cameraman would be making me look wonderful. The first time I was going to see the movie was at the Cannes festival, and the cameraman actually called me and he said, “I just want to say how sorry I am.” And I said, “Well, what about?” And he said, “Well, about how you look in the movie.” I said, “Well, what do you mean how I look in the movie?” And he said, “Well, I’m just afraid I didn’t make you look very good.” And I said, “Well, why did you do that?” And he said, “Well, it was [director] Steph [Elliott]. I did everything I could, but Steph wouldn’t let me. I kept saying, ‘Terence has a wonderful head, he has wonderful cheekbones, I’ll just put a little front light on him and he’ll look great.’ And Steph said, ‘I don’t want him looking great.’” So there I am in the middle of this big Cannes audience at the world première of Priscilla and I look hideous. 

AVC: One of the great things about that movie though is how rough and worn-down the drag queens are. You know not to mess with them. 

TS: The thing is that Bernadette isn’t a drag queen, she’s a transsexual. So my characterization was based on how it would feel to be born into the wrong body. My feeling was, this was always a woman, she’d always only been a woman. But the truth is, the more I became familiar with the movie, I realized that it kind of is a masterpiece, really. It’s so silly that people don’t take it seriously, and it’s kind of a perfect movie. Flawless.