Stephen Fry doesn't like being called an intellectual, but he might be willing to settle for "Renaissance man." The Cambridge graduate has been a stage, television, and film actor, a novelist, a comedian, a newspaper columnist, a screenwriter, and, as of this year, a film producer and director. His personal life is almost as colorful as his professional one, and almost as public: Suicide attempts, an early-youth credit-card-fraud conviction, a nervous breakdown, a public declaration of celibacy (which he maintained for 16 years), and outspoken views on everything from his sexuality (famously described as "90 percent gay, 10 percent other") to recreational drug use likely would have made Fry a celebrity even without his formidable résumé.
Which makes it all the more impressive that Fry is still better known for his work than his background. Alongside longtime writing and acting partner Hugh Laurie, he made an enduring impression in British comedy series like A Bit Of Fry And Laurie and Blackadder; in 1990, the two men became the title characters in the acclaimed British series Jeeves & Wooster, based on P.G. Wodehouse's stories. Fry has continued to take on small but memorable character roles in films like I.Q., Cold Comfort Farm, Gosford Park, Gormenghast, A Fish Called Wanda, and Spice World, as well as more significant roles like the title characters in Peter's Friends and Wilde. In between roles, he's worked on the stage and written a handful of dark comic novels, including The Liar and Revenge, as well as the autobiography Moab Is My Washpot and the nonfiction travel diary Rescuing The Spectacled Bear.
This year, Fry made his cinematic directorial debut with Bright Young Things, an adaptation of the 1928 Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies, which follows a crowd of trendy, jaded twentysomething socialites in 1930s England. A few days before the film opened, Fry spoke with The Onion A.V. Club about his first experience as a writer-director, his love of small roles, his fascination with the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and his saggy bottom.
The Onion: How did you initially get involved with Bright Young Things?
Stephen Fry: Well, actually, it was as a writer to start with. Some people who had the rights to the Evelyn Waugh novel Vile Bodies asked if I would consider writing an adaptation of it, and I'd always loved the book. So I said I'd have a go, and I did a couple of drafts, and I didn't think much more about it for a month or so. Then I called them up because I had a meeting with [English director] John Madden, who had just won all the Oscars and things for Shakespeare In Love. So I said, "I'm having lunch with John Madden. Should I show him the script? Maybe he'd be a good idea for a director." They said, "Oh, no, we had another director in mind." And I said, "Who's that?" They said, "You." That's the first time it crossed my mind. I went back to the script with a different view of it: I thought, "Who wrote this rubbish?" And I crossed lots of things out. Somehow, as a writer, you tend to use words to paper over structural cracks. But that's really how it all began.
O: So you find that writing for a project that you're planning on directing differs significantly from just writing?
SF: Yes, I think it does. As a writer, you feel insulated from the process, because you're really more like an architect than anything else. You're saying, "Well, I think the laboratory should go here, and there should be a den here, and maybe we have a veranda or a porch here." But it's up to other people to choose the colors and the furniture and the carpet. Your job is a purer one, in a sense. So when you do it all yourself, it's a rather odd experience. But it has huge advantages. It means you can be merciless. I can stand there at the location and just rip pages out and scribble things in the margins without worrying about trampling on anybody's sensibilities. It's very helpful.
O: Had directing been a specific ambition of yours? Was it something you were looking forward to trying at some point?
SF: It was exactly that latter point, I think. I had always been slightly wary, or leery, or whatever -ary word we want, about doing it for the sake of doing it. Simply because, in a kind of calculated way, one's life is busy enough. My life, at least, is divided between writing and performing and mixtures of the two. In a given year, I can do smallish parts in five films, and maybe one very big part, but I don't get lead roles very often. I could write a book, maybe, and be in three television series and lots of other things, all in a year. When you direct a movie, that's a year and a half, at least, of your life. You do nothing but concentrate on that, and go to meetings of various kinds, and it's months and months before you start proper pre-production. Then it goes on forever, right up to charming moments like this when you're still, in a sense, working on it. So I wasn't going to commit to something as drastic, in terms of time, as directing a film unless it was a project where I felt I could make a difference.
O: You've made significant changes from the original book. What was the philosophy behind the new ending?
SF: Well, it's an inevitability, because the ending of the novel is the ending of the world. Evelyn Waugh kind of wrote a science-fiction novel, a futuristic novel. He wrote it in 1928 and set it in the early '30s. And it ends with an apocalyptic wasteland, a war that ends everything. Money no longer has any meaning. Civilization is coming to an end. If not the destruction of the world, it's an endless stalemate. He imagined this war to be like the previous war, the first World War. We always make the mistake, the fatal mistake in the case of military people, of imagining that each war will be a kind of version of the one that happened previously. So he imagined these great trenches, this huge no-man's land, and the whole of Europe is this vast war theatre. And that's how the novel ends. Well, we know that's not what happened. I couldn't end it in 1933 with a world war, because there just wasn't one. So I had to somehow compress the 1930s in order to make the story still have the spirit in which it was written, the spirit in which Waugh wrote it in the late '20s, but end with the war we know. I challenge anybody to do an adaptation of a book in which they don't have to do something similar.
The other option was to update Vile Bodies and set it in our era. Indeed, I considered that. I thought, "Let's make a film about young, shallow, frivolous, vain, narcissistic people crashing and burning as they party their way to their own destruction, in blithe disregard to the state of the world. Well, that's a film about now." I think, funnily enough, that when you set satire in the present… Satire and film very rarely go together. There are a few glorious, obvious counterexamples to that statement, but they're not thick on the ground. In a sense, period drama, costume drama, is a bit like science fiction that looks backward rather than forward. It's a way of writing or speaking or addressing your own time without being bogged down in its tedious details. If I'd set the film now, people would say, "Oh, is that supposed to be Nicky and Paris Hilton? Is that supposed to be Posh Spice and David Beckham? Is that supposed to be Camilla Parker-Bowles?" or whatever. All the guff of one's own time. "Oh, they're wearing Prada. They should be wearing Dolce & Gabbana." Suddenly it becomes an awful style show. It sort of loses all its impact by being contemporary. It's one of the paradoxes, I think, of that kind of satire. You can talk about humanity best when shorn of its present-day detail.
O: You've talked in interviews a lot about the parallels between the world of Bright Young Things and the world of today, but…
SF: Yes, well, mostly because I've been asked. I've gotten some trouble about it, because they immediately start asking me my opinion about the Hiltons. A few unguarded remarks, and suddenly I'm all over the place as being incredibly unkind to poor Paris Hilton, whom I met extremely briefly, enough to say hello to. I had no wish to humiliate her or be rude about her. I don't think one makes films entirely in order to be—he says grandly, having made one film… I don't think many filmmakers want to write an essay, a thesis, a school assignment onscreen. You don't really have a message or point of view of an exact kind, because most good films are people-shaped rather than idea-shaped.
O: Oscar Wilde has become a career-defining role for you. Are there disadvantages to being so closely identified with that character?
SF: Well, I suppose there are. Every Wilde-ian project that comes up, in one form or another, I get asked to comment on or involve myself in. In fact, there's a big Sotheby's Wildean sale in a couple of weeks, and they asked if I would come read some stories and letters for the collectors. But that kind of thing is a pleasure, and I certainly don't regret if I'm associated with Wilde to my dying day. Because, let's face it, I do not get offered the parts that Brad Pitt has just turned down. I've never had any illusions about being a lead actor in films, because lead actors have to be of a certain kind. Apart from the beauty of looks and figure, which I cannot claim to have, there's just a particular kind of ordinary-Joe quality that a film star needs to have. You have to be a kind of Everyman, and I know I don't have that: My height, my size, my voice, my accent, my ethnicity—within Britain, being a Jew prohibits me from being an absolutely ordinary person. Therefore, one has to some extent the privilege, I think, of playing more extraordinary parts.
I remember when I did a small part on a John Travolta film called A Civil Action. I was chatting with Conrad Hall, the cinematographer. He was being very kind to me, and I said, "This is very nice of you." He said, "No, it's great. We enjoy our filmmaking, and that's lucky for us. There are some who don't enjoy it." And he looked rather meaningfully at Mr. Travolta, or "J.T.," as he's usually known on a film set. I said, "Don't you think he enjoys himself?" He said, "Well, he's the only person who's not wanted on this set." I said, "What do you mean?" He said, "I'm hired because [A Civil Action writer-director] Steve Zaillian wanted me as the director of photography. Steve's hired because he wrote the screenplay and he's the director. You're hired because Steve and the casting director thought you'd be good in your part. All the cast were cast because they are perfect in their roles. J.T. was cast because the studio wanted him to do this film. And J.T. knows that." He knows he's not necessarily the one Steve would have cast if he had his druthers. But a film star is a kind of public monument, and everyone's staring at them, and they've kind of got railings around them, and they're rather miserable most of the time.
I don't mean that Travolta was a moody sort, and I don't mean he was a complete pain in the ass. But I could suddenly see what Conrad meant: It's a great privilege just to be in a film not because you're some packaging that some agent has done with the studio exec: "We need a John Travolta film." Whereas the rest of us were kind of, "Yeah. Here we are. We're doing a job, and then we'll go off and do another job." We might happen to see that the opening weekend was good or bad, but it won't disturb us. It won't affect our ability to get another job. But for J.T., it will. He'll look at that and think, "Oh my God, it only made $7 million on the opening weekend. I'm losing it. Oh God, I'm losing it." This awful misery of that. It's a great thing to be a free, jobbing actor. Because we're still perfectly well paid, God knows, and we have a great time. And so in that sense, I'm probably lucky not to look like Brad Pitt or whoever. Because at least if you look like me, as each year passes, it's not going to be a disaster. Whereas one day, Brad Pitt's bottom is going to sag a bit. And there'll be a queue of people going "Ha, ha, ha!" So if you start off with a saggy bottom, it doesn't matter. [Laughs.]
O: You've spoken in interviews about how art, in the modern era, has become a more powerful force than politics. What kind of responsibility does that put on you as an artist?
SF: I would, in a sense, not hold my hand up to being a full artist. I think there are artists with a capital "A." There are people who are utterly uncompromising. I'm much more of an entertainer. I like to engage and to provoke. I certainly don't want to be formulaic. I want to be honest and authentic and everything else. I never quite dare to believe I'm brave enough to be an artist, but I'm on the side of artists. I think of myself as a bit of a Salieri, looking with longing eyes at Mozart.
But that aside… The point I was making was a thing I've noticed while visiting campuses to give talks. If you looked inside students' rooms in the 1960s and 1970s, you would have almost certainly seen a poster of Che Guevara or of John Lennon or Jimi Hendrix. There was this sense that rock music, the alternative culture that it represented and all the things around it, all revolutionary politics, somehow defined the bohemian student, and that they were the future. Well, the Che Guevara picture has become a piece of retro-chic now, and with the death of communism and so on, nobody really believes that any kind of genuine revolutionary politics can change the world. After the shooting of John Lennon and the early death of so many great stars and the utter naked venal mercantile marketing of pop music and rock music, I don't think anyone really believes that music is anything more than another commodity.
Now, if you go to a student's room, I think the chances are if they have posters on the wall, they will be of Oscar Wilde, or maybe Albert Einstein. The life of the mind, whether the mind of an artist or of a scientist, is what students perhaps believe in more now. The radical thing to be is a thinker and an artist who can find a way of reshaping our way of looking at reality. You'd say what seems to be on the rise is not art or science, but religion and the medievalism of superstition and the tyranny of who owns whose soul and the soul of what nation. But I think art is one of the things that can be very strong, still, about that.
O: You have a list of your personal artistic influences on your web site. All of them were born between the mid-1800s and the 1930s, which is also when Wilde lived, and when Vile Bodies was written and set. What about that period appeals to you?
SF: I suppose the thing that really interests me is what mankind did with the big, big, big discoveries that have created our modern age. Up until then, everything had been based on a kind of certainty, a sense of man at the center of things, a sense of order and hierarchy. And suddenly, almost simultaneously, these extraordinary discoveries are made. Niels Bohr said of quantum mechanics, "If you're not shocked by it, then you haven't understood it." And that's just as true of Darwinism—in fact, I think it's truer of Darwinism. People still don't get how astounding Darwinism is. People think what shocked everybody was that Charles Darwin seemed to be saying we had descended from apes. Well, yes, that's what the public and the cartoonists believe. But actually, what was shocking about it was that it said "all life is struggle." It's necessary for our survival that someone is going to suffer at our expense. With most animals, there are runts who are discarded, and nature just tries again in its merciless, relentless, remorseless way. The discovery of that was profoundly shattering to the late 19th century and early 20th century. Similarly, Freud's ideas completely removed the sovereignty of self over itself, and replaced it with these dark inner things over which we have no control, this subconscious, this id. Add to that a shifting universe with no mechanical stability that Einstein added. Indeed, Marx and Engels adding this idea that man had no place in history, that history was a kind of Hegelian mass that moved inexorably with its own will. Inside that, there were these extraordinary artistic flowerings. On the one hand, you had those trying to hold back the tide, refusing to accept this horror. On the other, you have the experiment of modernism and all that it entails, with James Joyce and T.S. Eliot and Ezra Pound, the great vanguards of it.
In a strange way, Evelyn Waugh, too. That's what you get in Waugh which is so shocking—you don't get the distribution of reward and punishment that you expect of a novel. Good characters in Evelyn Waugh are constantly being shat upon by fate for nothing to do with their own inner faults. We expect the villain or the hero to have made a choice, and for their fate to be accorded because of that. And what you get in Waugh is this very modernistic idea that it's a kind of chaotic world, and that's pretty frightening. So, gosh, I've been giving a very complicated answer as to why I like that period. But I suppose it's the energy. All the pins were knocked down by the various balls of Darwin and so on, and they had to be erected again, and they were done in startling new ways. There was a phenomenal energy about that period. But if I'm really honest, I still love the order, the rhetoric, the precision, the connection with its ancestors, of the language of that time. There was an elegance of performance, and a style, which I personally don't see in much of contemporary art or writing. Which is not to say that I dislike all contemporary works of art, not true at all. But there is so much more power in having the excitement and energy of modernism inside the frame of classicism, which is what happened in that period from the 1880s to the second World War. Maybe that's the reason.
O: There was some controversy when your novel Making History first came out. Was there ever any fallout from that?
SF: Well, it was a strange thing, actually. The only really bad review I got was in The New York Times from this woman whose name I forget. [Michiko Kakutani. —ed.] Because it dealt with the great subject of the 20th century, the Holocaust. It sort of suggested that Hitler being born was a good thing—it presented an alternative history in which he'd not been born at all, and all the anti-Semitism and nationalism came to a head with another leader who was actually worse, because he didn't have Hitler's mania. He was more controlled. In England, most people know I'm Jewish. They don't think about that too much. But in America, they assume I'm not. I don't look Jewish, I don't sound it particularly, and I wasn't brought up in a Jewish tradition. It just happens that I am. There was this sort of suggestion that I was toying with the idea of the Shoah, and that I had no right to talk about the Shoah, from this woman. The day that review ran, I was at a party in New York and I bumped into Bret Easton Ellis, who gave me a big hug and said, "It's so nice to meet someone who gets worse reviews than I do." But [Kakutani's] review of my next book was so unbelievably generous and kind that I felt she'd since found out that I was Jewish.
I know my publishers wanted me to write a foreword to Making History saying, "Look, I am a Jew. I think I have a right to address this." But once you start having to say, "Look, this is the number of my family killed in the Holocaust. That gives me the right to discuss it and to think about it," then it becomes ridiculous. The Holocaust has no meaning if it doesn't affect us all. Anybody has a right to discuss the Holocaust. Because everyone is somehow complicit in it, as much as it was a cultural eruption of the most appalling kind. If we only believe it's something nasty to do with Germans, then essentially, the only answer is to round up all the Germans and put them in ovens. And obviously no one is suggesting that.
O: When you're performing the Harry Potter audiobooks, or playing Jeeves in Jeeves And Wooster, or even playing Oscar Wilde, you're facing a tremendous set of expectations from fans who expect you to live up to their specific ideas. How do you deal with that?
SF: It's very difficult. In the case of the audiobook, it's not quite so difficult, because part of your job in reading the story is not to overdo it, not to make listeners listen to a performance, to let the story work so they're not even aware of someone talking. They're inside the story. You do the characterizations enough to make the character live and be different and be separate, but not so much to have people go, "Oh, he's brilliant. Oh, what an amazing accent." It shouldn't be like that. It should allow the listener to enter the world without being hectored. In the case of someone like Jeeves, one has to be aware that the books always have a far greater quality, because the prose is so exquisite. It's almost surreal. Jeeves doesn't walk, he shimmers. Well, I'm sorry, I've got two feet. I can't shimmer. The best you can do is create an impression of a world and a character that is intriguing enough to have people turn to the books, and not put them off it. When the producer came to Hugh and I with the idea of doing Jeeves and Wooster, both of us, as fans of the books, said "Ridiculous! It can't be done. They're so marvelous. No, surely not." He said, "Okay, I'll go and ask a couple of other people then." And we went, "Um, hang on! Whoa! Just a minute here." If someone's going to bugger it up, it really ought to be us. If it was going to be done, then we would like to be the ones, at least, to have a go.
O: You've turned down roles in the past in an effort to avoid being typecast. Do you feel that you get offered the same kind of roles too often?
SF: Yes, I've been typecast all right, but not in a way that really annoys me. Sometimes I turn down a role because it's so samey. I think, "I can't play three lawyers in a row, or three teachers, or three Nazi interrogators," or whatever. I don't have a systematic or calculated view of things. I really do respond on a visceral level to a script. Sometimes against my better judgment, I will do a script simply because my feeling is that it's right, even though my judgment is, "Gosh, you've done this sort of thing before." I'm sometimes accused by my friends of being an intellectual, which I would heartily protest. Because I do believe that almost everything I do is based on my feelings, not on my intellect. Though I don't know that that in itself isn't an intellectual interpretation. But we won't chase ourselves up that particular sentiment, or we'll get lost.
O: You've written and performed in a wide variety of media. Did you ever decide you wanted an eclectic career, or has it just turned out that way?
SF: It's just worked out that way, really. But I'm pleased that it has. If I'd had a chance to make a conscious decision, I hope I would have made that decision. There's always the danger—there's a very dismissive British phrase, "Jack of all trades and master of none." But who wants to be the master of one trade, rather than having fun doing lots of things? The best evidence is that we're all just going to be on this planet once. So we might as well taste as many fruits of as many trees of as many orchards as there are in the world. If we're finally presented to St. Peter, I'm sure he would be extremely disappointed if he said, "So, what did you think about that particular fruit on that tree?" and you said, "Oh, I never tried that. I was too busy in the other orchard." "Well for heaven's sake, why didn't you try everything?" I think that's a good attitude. It's all about not closing off, not bourgeoisie-fying. Not saying, "This is what I think about this, and that's what I'll always think. I've made up my mind." I like the idea of every morning suddenly thinking, "You know what? I've suddenly decided I'm a fascist." I don't think that will ever happen, and I hope it doesn't, to be perfectly honest. But I do think it's important not to be absolutely sure, so sure that you can't reinvent yourself in some way, or at least rediscover the truth of why you think what you think, and not just take it as an assumption.