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Actors, Celebrities, General

Stand up and be counted: Eddie Izzard interview

The Telegraph – November 2013
Ginny Dougary

As Live at the Apollo returns tonight for a new series, read Ginny Dougary’s interview with host Eddie Izzard in which he talks about his ambitions to enter politics, learn more languages, run more marathons and start a family.

Eddie Izzard

The lights cascade down in neon green and flashing blue, the electronic music pounds to a climax as Eddie Izzard walks smartly on stage in high-heeled boots, jeans and tails, looks out at the packed Parisian audience, puts up his hand to silence the applause and breaks into… German.

This is quite a good opening joke, since his devotees – and true Izzardians are every bit as committed in their fandom as Star Trek or Dr Who fans – all know that his next goal (having conquered French) is to learn German (for performing purposes, as well as world peace), then Spanish, Russian and Arabic (ditto). Not only is he striving to be an endurance athlete – as witnessed by his recent marathons, with more to come – but he is clearly set on becoming an endurance linguist, too.

The show is Stripped – which he toured in the UK in 2009 – but with a difference: this is all in French, which is quite an achievement, particularly considering it’s a 90-minute show. He spent three months living in Paris last year, polishing his French, performing in French (the young, hip French stand-ups are all fous for Izzard) and living as a Frenchman. ‘I worked my arse off, but I was living in Montmartre, rehearsing in the Jardins des Tuileries, living the Parisian life. I had my passe Navigo [Paris’s version of our Oyster card] and I can make jokes about Le Marais,’ he tells me.

It has taken him 15 years to get to the point where he can perform at l’Olympia, where Edith Piaf once sang – ‘un rêve’ which he has had since ‘******* longtemps’ – in front of an audience of 1,800 people. It’s a (literally) vintage Izzard show, covering the ascent of man, why he doesn’t believe in God, the different mentality of the PC and the Apple Mac, the impossibility of Noah’s Ark (if it were real, for one thing, all the animals would be dead except for the lions and the tigers), a giraffe signalling lion-danger through charades and a cough, and a jazz-crowing cockerel. There are nods to the French (s’il vous plaît, no more holes in the ground for WCs, they make it hard to balance your iPad, for one thing – and how come there’s no broccoli, just endless haricots verts?), jokes in the subjunctive (for which he takes a bow), building up to a finale of a meditation on the frustrations of communicating in Latin (‘quod the ****’) with reference to Hannibal’s defeat, all woven together in a typically ingenious, surreal arc.

We had met back in London, a couple of weeks earlier, where our conversation was not unlike one of his shows; indeed, on the odd occasion, the interview was the show, albeit with an audience of one, in that he was trying out new material on me. He is far more friendly and seems happier than when I last spent time with him, 14 years ago. (This was for his first show in French, in a flea pit in the Pigalle area.) He looks quite different, too – more bearded-blokey and rugged, his skin is clear and lightly freckled; his gaze direct and very blue. Back then, Izzard was wearing a lot of make-up and slightly bondage-y leather skirts and stockings.

It has been ages since he was in girl-mode, for reasons we discuss later. Today, he is wearing a sporty fleece, jeans, boots with a three-inch heel and, the only flamboyant touch, what he calls his ‘political nails’ – plum-coloured apart from one that is the Union flag and another that is the flag of Europe. ‘That’s three statements there,’ he says, extending his fingers. ‘I’m proud of my country, I’m proud of my continent and I’m proud of being a transvestite.’

Izzard is nothing if not ambitious. He is about to embark on what, he claims, ‘I feel pretty sure is the most extensive comedy tour in the history of the world, ever.’ When I exclaim that he is so competitive, with himself as much as anyone else, he replies, ‘Well, you can do the gossip columns and turn up at the opening of hats, you know, or you can go and play the Hollywood Bowl [he was the first comedian to do a solo show there, last year] or Kathmandu or do your gigs in French. So when people say, “Are you dead now?”, I go, “No, I’m not… I just never did a TV comedy show thing. I studiously avoided that.”’

Then he looks at his phone and rattles off some of the places he’s performing in: St Petersburg, Moscow, Belgrade, Berlin (‘which is almost sold out already’), Helsinki, Oslo, Gothenburg, Istanbul, Vienna, Kathmandu, Delhi, Mumbai, Zurich, Geneva, Ljubljana, Tallinn and also the aforementioned Hollywood Bowl; 25 countries so far, throughout Europe, the USA, Africa, Australia, New Zealand, India, Nepal and the Far East. The posters for the new Force Majeure show him looking rather Steed-like, sveltely-suited, brandishing an umbrella, and staring straight at you. They were designed by Sarah Townsend (who sings as Sarah McGuinness), an ex-girlfriend, who also directed the 2009 film Believe – The Eddie Izzard Story, and is directing and filming the new tour. Some years ago, the two formed a production company, Ella Communications, named after Eddie’s mother, Dorothy Ella, a midwife and nurse, who died of cancer in 1968 when Eddie was six and his older brother, Mark, was eight.

It’s 25 years since Eddie Izzard did his first stand-up. ‘It’s worth mentioning that the Stones have been going for 50 years and we’re catching up,’ he says. Although he is less detached now, with his new, ebullient confidence comes a certain tendency towards self-aggrandisement as though – since working in the States (which he has been doing a lot) – he is impatient with the British tendency for self-deprecation. He has achieved a great deal in a quarter of a century, he has worked hard to get here, it took him long enough and hell if he is going to pretend otherwise. At one point he draws a parallel with Nelson Mandela – ‘my most favourite politician’ – saying that by learning so many languages, he likes to think he is following the same path. ‘He is a politician – he’s not a saint and he doesn’t want to be a saint. The reality is that he did politics and he did it well, and he learnt Afrikaans and I would like to feel I’m following in his footsteps by learning French and German and Russian and Arabic…’ – which is quite a large claim to make for oneself.

After dropping out of Sheffield University, where he read accountancy (his father, Harold, to whom he is close, was an accountant with BP), Izzard took a show to the Edinburgh Festival Fringe, then moved to Streatham Common in south London with some fellow performers, did street theatre in Covent Garden, and waited to be discovered. ‘I got to 20 and said, “OK, let’s go. I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh… someone’s bound to discover me.” But it just kept on not happening,’ he told me when we last met.

The first show he did on his own was at the Banana Cabaret in Balham, followed shortly by a tiny venue in central London, which was at capacity with 25 people, where he did his fly-fishing joke (‘I caught three flies’). Then came the Comedy Store and, soon after, his own sell-out show in the West End. Izzard had arrived, choosing that moment to come out as a transvestite.

He says he is very like his father. ‘We’re about 80 per cent similar. When he got into BP, he thought, “This is bullshit: I’m going to change everything [the system of filing, for instance].” When he was told he couldn’t, he said, “Well, I’ve already done it.”’

During the screenwriters’ strike in 2007-08 in America, after the second season of the TV series The Riches (in which Izzard starred as an identity-stealing Irish traveller con-artist) had aired, Izzard and his father travelled to Aden together, where Harold used to work for BP and where Eddie was born. There he was given some old photos of his mother, which he shows me on his phone: she has a sweet, sideways smile, is wearing a 1950s skirt that fans out, and is cradling her son on her lap. Another one is of his parents on their honeymoon. It’s charming and telling, I think, that Izzard keeps these black-and-white images in his pocket, close to his heart. He suddenly speaks in Arabic to me, saying, ‘My name is Eddie and I was born in the Yemen.’

Izzard has just turned 51 – how does he feel about ageing? He’s in a far better place in every way now, probably than at any time before in his life. ‘Like they say, “Youth is wasted on the young” and so can I do my 20s again please, and not have Thatcher in power?’ he says. ‘It was just hellish for me, that decade – I did get my stuff done, and I came out as a transvestite and had all my midlife crises early. At 20, nothing had happened; at 30, nothing had happened, but was starting to happen; I was OK at 40, and I’m so OK about being 50 I decided to say I was 50 a year before I was.’

In July 2009 he completed seven weeks of back-to-back marathons – 43 in 51 days – around the UK to raise money for Sport Relief. Last May he attempted a bonkers 27 marathons in 27 days in South Africa to honour Nelson Mandela, who was imprisoned for 27 years. Due to health complications, Izzard had to pull out after only four. But, naturally, he is not deterred. As we sit across from one another, in an eyrie above a photographic studio in central London, he occasionally rubs his eyes with fatigue. That morning, he had been running with his new trainer. He had also been to see his doctor to get checked out for another attempt in South Africa.

Part of the health problem last year was that he was on a prescription drug to cut down his cholesterol. He also seems to have realised – after that setback – that it’s foolish to undertake such challenges without being properly prepared. As a glutton for punishment, he had upped the ante by attempting the barefoot running style favoured by many Africans, in specially customised barefoot-style shoes. ‘It’s OK on concrete, but it’s really tough on broken rocks dropped into road surfaces, which is what I was running on in the Eastern Cape,’ he says. ‘The little African kids were just zipping along on it, but it would probably take me six months or a year to acclimatise and I didn’t have that time.’

He gets up to demonstrate the barefoot running style – where everything is pushed back, rather than straining forward, a bit like a Homer Simpson boogie. ‘Think about how a horse runs. When they film a horse that’s running, the legs are all moving backwards.’ He says that he was naturally doing that technique after his 43 marathons because he was so exhausted. ‘I was so tired that my body just clicked into the same sort of rhythm that the tribes and the barefoot runners are doing.’

His next attempt is scheduled for March 2014 and he has started preparing already. As well as the new trainer, he has taken on a sports nutritionist. His team will be expected to transform the comedian and actor into an endurance athlete. For the next 40 years of his life, he is planning to be a low-carb, sugar-free temple of health. Is it very Californian? ‘No, it’s Greek,’ he says, a touch defensively. ‘It’s the Olympian idea of “sound of body, sound of mind”. It’s not Hollywood – it’s feral. I’m trying to get feral because it’s natural – it’s how we used to live.

‘There’s not one wild animal that’s not perfectly fit – like 100 per cent fit,’ he adds. ‘I mean, they’re all getting up to chase the gazelles – it’s just us and domestic animals that are chucking the wrong things down our throats.’

His way of dealing with ageing is to get younger (what’s new?) by becoming slimmer and fitter than he has ever been. He was inspired – this being Izzard – by a lion he was introduced to ‘backstage’ at Boston Zoo. ‘He was about 80 – in lion years – and he came up to us and roared [Izzard roars] and made a sort of feral statement which was, “I could eat any of you if it wasn’t for these bars. I have that in me.” He was like some ancient warrior but was as fit as we would all be in our 20s. So that’s what we should all be trying to do, and I do feel that I’m going to get healthier and healthier.’

He was also inspired by the athletes he met when he was an ambassador and cheerleader for the Olympic and Paralympic Games. During his marathons, he met other marathon runners who were manning the feeding stations (as he calls them), and what impressed him was that they were people in their 50s, 60s and even 70s. One couple had done 730 marathons. ‘They were both in their 60s and were lean and fit. They don’t train but they do a marathon a week, and that’s what I am aiming to do. I want to be a member of the 100 Club – people who have done more than 100 marathons.’

Izzard is also intending, of course, to live till he is 100 – which is why he isn’t panicking, yet, about having children. He has been saying for quite some time that he is determined to be a father in his 50s. In Meet the Izzards, a two-part series which had Eddie travelling from Bexhill-on-Sea, where his father lives, to Namibia, Yemen, Turkey and Denmark, using his own DNA to trace his ancestors, he said several times that he was planning to have a baby – ‘I’ll buy one in a shop,’ he quipped to two elderly sisters to whom he was very distantly related.

Izzard himself has a slightly childlike way about him which becomes even more pronounced when he talks about the practicalities of becoming a father. Will you adopt? ‘Might do.’ Do you think you need another person with whom to do this? (He never talks about his relationships, adopting the Daniel Day-Lewis approach. ‘If Danny doesn’t have to talk about it…’) ‘I don’t know. I can’t figure out the partner thing.’ Would you be happy to be a single parent? ‘Ah… yeah. Er, are you allowed to do that? Your own genetic baby, yeah, but you can’t adopt can you?’

Since he also plans to run for Mayor of London in 2020 and be an MP (he is a well-known Labour supporter) or an MEP, plus all those weekly marathons, as well as his film career, and his stand-up, I can’t quite see the logistics of fitting in fatherhood. ‘Me too,’ he says. And yet he is determined and what he sets out to get he usually achieves. ‘That is the plan. I may end up being a father at 61.’ But, I ask Izzard, you do realise how much a child eclipses everything else, especially at the beginning? ‘Eclipses and dictates things, yes,’ he says. ‘Hopefully all the really tough stuff will have been done, as I now have a certain amount of momentum. A number of people go into showbiz, have their kids and their kids go, “I didn’t see my parents,” and so…

‘I just imagine myself being kind of parenty. I mean, obviously you’ve got to take it seriously. It’s going to take up a hell of a lot of time and things will revolve around this child or children. But I don’t have the answer about the logistics because I’m also thinking I’ve got to do a lot of stuff before I pack this career up. You’re saying you can’t see how I can work it out, and I’m saying the same thing.’
For a long time, he carried a deep emotional wound from his mother dying when he was so young. His father coped by sending the two small boys away to boarding school, aged six and eight.Izzard has talked about how he cried all the time, and was bullied, and how he stopped crying altogether at the age of 11 and how he was emotionally cauterised from that point on. Was he always looking for a mother figure in his relationships with women? ‘Initially, I was in that frame of mind, but
I don’t think I’m still like that. I don’t think you ever get over your mother dying but I’m not a grown man crying into my beer. I’m doing a lot of practical things out of it. I thought she was great, I’d like her to be back, she won’t seem to come back…’

He refers me to the moment in Believe when he is questioned by Sarah Townsend about why he keeps pushing himself so hard, and he answers, ‘I keep thinking if I do all these things, and keep going and going, then… she’ll come back,’ before bursting into tears. Now, he says, ‘It was a moment where I came up with something that I’d never thought about before – which is odd, as it was quite existential.’

Not for him the comfort of knowing that he will meet his mother again in the after-life, as he is a non-believer. ‘I think things just stop, but if I did believe, I’d go to dyslexic heaven, which is Devon.’
When we first met, we talked almost exhaustively about the psychology of transvestism or, at any rate, this transvestite. It was a rather dreamlike encounter, after a show, after midnight – he in my hotel room, wearing a fluffy dressing gown, his face in full slap, talking and smoking into the early hours. It has been five or six years since we saw him in a skirt, and I wonder if he misses his female self – or whether his desire to be famous in Hollywood is more important to him. He says, ‘I can’t get dramatic roles if I turn up at an audition wearing a lot of make-up and going around all girlie,’ which suggests it’s the latter, but in that case, doesn’t he feel repressed? ‘Perhaps it’s the opposite of repressed? Pressed? I’ve got all the boy stuff, except for drinking and vomiting. I love the action movies, wanted to be in the army, I’m football loving and football playing, I’m driven – and I have the girlie stuff, which I feel is about 15 per cent of me.’

I was wondering if it was something a bit more complicated than his desire for film roles. He had talked about the necessity of making himself into the sort of woman he found attractive when he was in girl mode. The ‘look’ he favoured was a sort of saucy punk-rock chick (bustiers, leather, PVC, dominatrix heels), which maybe isn’t such a great image as you go into your 50s. And, also, ageing – himself – could mean he is less drawn to transforming himself into an older woman? But he is having none of it. ‘I’m attracted to women of all ages, you know [the feeling is certainly mutual – my female friends, from young to old, were swooningly jealous; only interviewing George Clooney elicited a similar response], but it’s not something I check.’

But he does admit that knowing how to dress now is difficult. ‘Trying to get it right as a bloke is doubly tricky.’

Izzard really seems to believe that the world can be changed through stand-up. At the end of the show at l’Olympia, he said that the ‘******* melting pot is the way of the future. Maybe we can change some things,’ and he looked quite emotional – or perhaps that was just the standing ovation. Yacine Belhouse, a French-Algerian comedian, whom Izzard chose as the opening act, will be doing a show in English at the Edinburgh Fringe next year. I was sitting next to a young French-African stand-up, Shirley Souagnon, who is coming to the Comedy Store in London next month to do her show in English, too. It’s a bit of a Chauncey Gardiner idea but Izzard seems to have started something. His version of franglais – call it Frizzard – is to make a marriage of splitting a French word and inserting a good, old Anglo-Saxon f-word, one he uses a lot, in between. This is his version of ‘détente’. As he says, ‘Vive la différence but also vive la similarité.’ Formi*******dable.

Actors, Theatre

Steven Berkoff: angry man or cursed by the past?

The Times March 21, 2009
– Ginny Dougary

Slovenly, ignorant, inept – his attacks on fellow actors are legendary. Does he have a softer side?

Steven Berkoff

You definitely don’t want to be around Johnny Friendly when he smiles, and the same could be said of Steven Berkoff, who plays the murderous, most unfriendly, union boss in his play of Elia Kazan’s classic film On the Waterfront. The acting-directing-writing-theatre-company-founding polymath has his own intimidating form when it comes to interviewers (particularly women) as well as theatre critics, whom he has abused in various ways, with insults, bannings, even a death threat.

With the rapturous reviews of his new production (he is director as well as actor) one might have expected to find Berkoff in a sunnier disposition than usual. But not a bit of it. His mood matches his clothing and setting – black jogging gear, black table and chairs, huge black and white photographs of East End characters (taken by him), more gloom in the monumental canvases of rough-hewn faces by Peter Howson. Even the water lapping against the deck of his Limehouse office, a wall of glass looking out on to the murky Thames, fails to soothe.

Berkoff may be the most charmless person I’ve interviewed, eclipsing even Madonna, which is no mean feat. Eye contact is minimal. Small talk non-existent. Manners have been bypassed altogether. “What’s this about?” he raps out by way of introduction, plonking himself at the head of the table. “What is it called, the thing? Does it have a title, this piece?” About 20 minutes in, more barking: “What’s next? Anything else? Get on with it.”

Actors who have displeased him (because it “tends to be a little bit of a cross to bear being a perfectionist”) are often those who have come through the major theatres – which rejected Berkoff (but, no, he’s not bitter) – pain him with their “slovenly ineptitude…their flaws…and ignorance”.

He says that he has never been snide about a director and I remind him of one that he described as a dictator: “Oh, he was a ghastly kind of power-mad lunatic. I didn’t want to hit him – kill him, maybe – no just avoid him and not look at his ugly…loathsome…smug…smarmy little face,” each word weighted in the verbal equivalent of GBH. The film was called Fair Game. “It died a thousand deaths. I felt the poor man may have been bullied by his producer but he was sarcastic and that’s the worst thing.”

He was bullied himself as a child growing up in the East End; son of Albert, a tailor, and Pauline Berks. Steven was christened Leslie, which he loathed almost as much as Berks. He switched to his middle name, adding “Off” to his surname to preserve the ethnic ring without reverting to Berkovitch, which Albert had abbreviated to assimilate in the adopted country of his Russian forebears.

What with Berkoff’s descriptions of his colleagues in the theatre, and his behaviour towards my sisters in the press – he has described them as “angst-ridden bitches” with “second-rate minds” – I wondered if the bullied had not turned into a bully. But he says: “I’ve never needed to or had the desire to bully because I find the opposite is much more satisfying. To be gentle, loving, caring,” a slow icy smile. “But, occasionally, if something really strikes you as being unjust, to express a little bit of anger is all right.”

There was more than a little anger between his parents, which the young Berkoff witnessed often and absorbed. His father was a gambler, a womaniser and absent for long periods. Rejection and disappointment became leitmotifs in his son’s life and on a personal level, with his 72nd birthday on the horizon, all his memories seem to be pickled in bile and a lot of pain. “As Ibsen knew very well in Ghosts, we inherit the curses of the past. And it could be that the pattern and behaviour of my father or his father has created in me a distrust of marriage, and that, in turn, did not perhaps make me the most perfect passer of the baton to the next generation.” They f*** you up your Mum and Dad? “Well, I think you inherit that pattern of conflict. I always saw them fighting and horrible, horrible shouting when I was young. I can remember it vividly, 5 or 6 years old, and there would be screaming and terrible language. But anyway I think that might have affected me.”

I ask him whether he believes that people’s faces reveal their characters; he does, but says it’s for others to decide what secrets to the soul the Berkoff features might reveal. It is a face, coupled with a certain atmosphere its owner projects, that has provided a lucrative income in an array of cinematic sadists: from the Krays to Rambo (as opposed to Rimbaud, the French poet, whom he had rather hoped the film might be about) to Octopussy.

Berkoff says that he hopes his face denotes trustworthiness which, to him, is the most precious quality in a person: “Trustworthiness – to believe in someone, and you, yourself, to be believed in. Not to be betrayed. That may be a little extreme, to talk about words like ‘betrayal’. But within this industry you need to have people that you can believe in and who believe in you.” His father, he says, betrayed his trust: “Oh totally. Absolutely and utterly, unfortunately. And that’s why I’ve always sought it in other men and sought – perhaps too eagerly – honesty and integrity and response in other men. When I find somebody who’s even remotely loyal or decent to me, I will move heaven and earth to fulfill his needs and I will love him for the rest of my life. When I don’t get it, sometimes I’m apt to become a little more disappointed than I should be; when a man is busy and he’s got other agendas – I can kind of really take it too much to heart.”

His mother was a pianist but even she let him down, he says. “Could you believe that I begged for a piano, every year since I was 4 or 5, but she said, ‘No, you’ll get over it’ or ‘We’re going to be moving away’. My parents were rather ignorant of my desires or not prepared to fulfil them.”

There were a couple of failed marriages early on, but the most abiding relationship of his life has been with his German partner, Clara Fischer, a handsome woman who is, perhaps not coincidentally, a classical pianist. They were introduced through a mutual friend, about 20 years ago, when Berkoff finally bought a piano and needed lessons. “I practised very hard for some months but by then it was too late and I knew it was too late. Eventually I couldn’t bear it; it was a threat to me so I had to give it up.”

What a curious, cussed cove he is. At some point during the interview I actually begin to enjoy the challenge of the Berkoff experience and not in a masochistic way. There is something oddly relaxing about being with someone who is so utterly careless about conventional conversational decorum. And unlike Madonna, he does have real talent. We had met, years ago, at a party hosted by one of the few women journalists he appeared to like. We stood on a tiny roof garden of a flat in the heart of Soho and he was a different character then, stylishly dressed in a tailored gangsterish suit, like the Zoots that were his father’s stock in trade, and warm, chatty, friendly and engaged. The difference between him then and now left me wondering where he’d lost his mojo; was it age and fatigue or was this cantankerousness a form of play-acting. When I mentioned the occasion, he did not remember it and could barely summon any interest in the woman who was once such a close friend.

For many years Berkoff was a keep-fit nut: swimming in arctic conditions, yoga, a passing flirtation with break-dancing. Now he calls himself “a bit of a lazy slob”, restricting himself – merely – to a few daily sit-ups, press-ups and a walk, as well as the 20-mile weekend hike, “sometimes a run”, along the seafront in Brighton.

When I ask him about his health he says: “It’s excellent. Touch wood.” No ghastly illnesses? “I have had them all but I reject them all.” You haven’t had cancer? “Everything. I had a brush with that when they thought… but it’s gone. I just plain willed it out.” Minor ailments? “A few little niggles. I can’t run as fast as I used to, a little problem in my knee, a dimming of the eyes. All my teeth, except one. But no pains, no arthritis. I think the reason for that is to lead a balanced life. Not to indulge – and to live with another person.”

I say that this Clara seems to have suited him well, and his faded eyes light up. Her concert days are behind her now, but still she plays for him on the gleaming black piano in front of the glass wall opening out on the river. Does it move you? “ Oh, indeed, yes, of course, it’s lovely to listen to her. When she plays it’s phenomenal.” They share a new passion, in any case. “When she got tired of practising seven hours a day, her energy had to go somewhere else and she is a kind of genius of a cook. She’s got about 100 cookbooks and she can do anything: Greek, Turkish, Russian, English, German, Spanish, Italian. And her sushi…” he sighs. “It’s incredible, as good as a Japanese chef.”

For the most part, these feasts are conjured just for their own pleasure. But occasionally friends will be invited: actors – “I’m not one of those actors who says”, he puts on a theatrical voice, which is not a far cry from his own, “‘Oh, I don’t mix with luvvies’”) – but also the odd writer and lawyer, even a couple of old schoolfriends. Is it her cooking that is responsible for his compact but quite pronounced little belly? He roars, and this time with genuine good humour, “Yes! Yes! It’s too much!”

What, I was wondering , would be Clara’s recipe for handling the Berkoff ego. If one were to do the physiognomy test on her, judging from the one photograph I’ve seen of her dating back to 1991 – full lips, strong nose, an open forthright gaze – she does not look like a pushover. “She’s very relaxed but she does have her moments and can be a bit…temperamental,” her boyfriend says. “She’s also a very, very good mimic and does impersonations constantly.” Does she do you? “Yes, she does and then I’m on the floor because she does them when I’m getting angry or in a mood and then she does me and I find it intolerable because I collapse.” Ah, I see, because then she’s won the argument? “Yes,” Berkoff says, “yes, of course.”

On the Waterfront, Theatre Royal, London; 0845 4811870

Actors, Celebrities

A close encounter with George Clooney

The Times, April 5, 2008
– Ginny Dougary

George Clooney’s easy banter and high-brow films have made him the thinking person’s heart-throb. But what do we really know about him? Ginny Dougary has a close encounter with a most elusive superstar

George Clooney is a guys’ guy, a gays’ guy and, obviously, a ladies’ man. It’s not just the looks and the voice, the irony (a slanting sense of humour not generally shared by his compatriots), the charm, the political awareness and unphoney compassion – an American who isn’t an embarrassment to America; it’s the whole package. He must be too good, surely, to be true?

The Clooney effect is even more astounding. You can attract your own little fan club just by announcing that you are off to interview him. My taxi driver, the most bloke-ish of South London blokes, got unusually excited: “George Clooney! Even I fancy him, and I’m heterosexual.” A gay female friend announced that she would cross the line for a night with him. Editors expirated; acquaintances asked if they could touch my hand as though they could press Clooney’s flesh, by long-distance osmosis, when he brushed mine; friends were beside themselves with envy. Mentioning his name at Heathrow and LAX airports was an “Open Sesame” for instant upgrades. On my return, I watched a documentary about a sex change ex-paratrooper whose first woozy words on coming round from her final op were: “Get me George Clooney’s number.”

I was not immune to the Swoon, and started off by klutzily knocking over my tape recorder. He agreed that this was not my best move, setting the relaxed, jokey tone of the rest of our fiercely negotiated time together. Later, I find myself blurting out that it’s funny looking into those dreamy brown eyes (when you’ve just seen them magnified on the giant screen, there is the odd moment of unreality as you gaze into them face to face). “Yes,” he grins, “they are dreamy, aren’t they?”, as though they were something quite separate from himself.

Is it ever hard being “a lurve object”? “Yes, yes, that’s me, don’t you think? Once you meet me, though, it’s not so fun, is it?” Mass giggles. “Too old and too grey.” But does it become tiresome being fancied by everyone or is it endlessly marvellous? “Well, you know, people have been nice to me most of my life. I mean, fairly kind. But there was a time when compliments about your appearance were used to make it sound as though you weren’t bright, in some way – so much so that you almost wanted to avoid them.

“But you get to an age [at 46, he’s closer to 50 than 40] when you’ll take any compliments you can get – you know, ‘Yeah, thanks’ [a casual, molasses drawl] – so when people are trying to be nice, I’m never bothered.”

People may have been “nice” to Clooney before ER but it was that television series that led him to becoming an international heart-throb at the age of 33. He admits that he was suddenly catapulted into a different stratosphere of attention, because “ER was so huge. In America, with hits like American Idol, they’ll say, ‘Twenty million people watched it!’ But we averaged 45 million. It was such a giant hit that the focus had to be on certain people and things.”

ER’s “certain person” was careful not to emulate other stars of mega TV hits, most notably David Caruso in NYPD Blue, who was released after one season of a four-year contract to pursue a film career, which failed to take off. In contrast, Clooney honoured his five-year contract without once demanding a pay rise, even as he was almost single-handedly contributing to its enormous viewing figures, which cemented his reputation as a man of honour who valued such sturdy virtues as modesty, integrity and reliability.

Post-ER, his first critically acclaimed venture was Steven Soderbergh’s 1998 film of the Elmore Leonard thriller Out of Sight – with the famously sexy scene of Clooney’s bank robber spooning Jennifer Lopez’s US marshal in a car boot. The following year, he talked himself into getting a leading role in the first of his political films, Three Kings, which takes place during the 1991 Iraqi uprising against Saddam Hussein after the end of the first Gulf War. In 2000, he displayed a talent for comedy in O Brother, Where Art Thou?, the Coen brothers’ resetting of The Odyssey in Thirties Mississippi, as good ol’ boy chain-gang escapee Ulysses Everett McGill.

Fast-forward, via The Perfect Storm and Ocean’s Eleven blockbusters, to 2006 when Clooney received an embarrassment of Oscar nominations – the first person to be shortlisted for best director and best supporting actor for two separate films (he was also nominated for best original screenplay). He lost out for best director (for Good Night, and Good Luck, his atmospheric black and white Fifties film about TV journalist Ed Murrow’s battles with Joseph McCarthy) but bagged best supporting actor for his role in Syriana as a bearded, overweight – he gained three stone for the part – CIA agent caught up in the shifting moral eddies of the Middle East.

A few days before meeting the Swoon, I managed to catch up with him in Michael Clayton – he lost out to Daniel Day-Lewis for best actor (There Will Be Blood) in this year’s Oscars – and felt that in this portrayal of a flawed and troubled hero, he was digging into deeper psychological territory as an actor. There is a key scene when a shell-shocked Clooney runs across a mist-shrouded field at dawn to look at a trio of horses whose stillness matches his own. I confess he looked so very forlorn that it made me feel quite maternal, and he laughs and says: “Give me a hug.” (And, no, incredible though the Swooney Fan Club finds it, I did not.)

The new film Leatherheads, the first offering from Clooney’s production company, Smoke House, is a romantic comedy about the early days of America’s pro-football league in 1925. Clooney directs and stars as team captain Dodge Connelly opposite Renée Zellweger as a sharp-talking ambitious reporter, Lexie Littleton, who is dispatched by her editor to do an exposé on Connelly’s prize signing, an alleged boy wonder war hero – Carter “The Bullet” Rutherford.

It has the Clooney charm and farce and appeal – it is very good-looking, for a start, drenched in rich colours – but doesn’t strike me as an instant classic in the mould of the golden oldies such as The Philadelphia Story, which inspired its creators. Clooney recently admitted that Zellweger had been “a little bit” of a girlfriend and I would say there is a little bit of screen frisson between the two – a loaded dance, a romantic although rather chaste kiss, lots of zingy repartee. I particularly liked a couple of the lines, such as the one Lexie lobs at Dodge – “How quiet it must be at the Algonquin with you in Deluth” – but wondered how much of the film’s audience was likely to be even dimly aware of Dorothy Parker and the round table of New Yorker wits.

“It doesn’t matter,” he says. “There’ll be somebody who picks up on it. Having grown up working in television, what all the networks say is, ‘Well, no one will get it.’ When we did the pilot for ER, the NBC executives literally turned round to the head of Warner Brothers and said, ‘What did you do with our $3 million? There’s too many stories. No one will get it.’

“And the truth is – when you think of the shows that have been hits over the years – that people are smart. M*A*S*H and Seinfeld and Taxi are all smart shows.”

Despite all Clooney’s love action with the opposite sex over the years – one ex-wife, decades ago, a string of girlfriends, none of whom has lasted for longer than three years – there have been persistent rumours about him preferring men. I had read about a website called “George Clooney is gay, gay, gay” and the fabulous, practically Wildean insouciance of his response: “No, I’m gay, gay…” “The third gay, that was pushing it,” he completes his quote, looking fleetingly pleased with himself.

The truth is that Clooney has a habit of playing up to the gay rumours. When I ask him about the film company he used to run with Soderbergh, Clooney’s response is: “Steven and I broke up.” Sifting through the cuttings – which despite their bulk are remarkably sparse in terms of fresh content, with the same slender details endlessly recycled – there is a distinct thread of playful campness. Way back, he was asked about an episode of his life when he brought girls back to mess around with him in his boudoir (a bed in a buddy’s cupboard) and his jocular riposte was: “I’m certainly out of the closet now.” During the ER years, asked about what might unfold in the next series, he referred to one of his male “colleagues” thus: “I think Noah [Wyle] and I become lovers on the show. Last season, you could see the longing glances across the room.” When he and some of the Ocean’s Eleven cast were invited to leave their handprints outside Hollywood’s Chinese Theatre, he said: “If I had to be on my hands and knees with three other guys, I can’t think of three better guys to do it with.” Well, excuse me, but frankly how could you not think, “Hello, sailor!”

While some of our own local sex gods also enjoy teasing the press and the public about their various proclivities – Russell Brand and David Walliams instantly come to mind – it is highly unusual for an American film star to set the cat among the pigeons in this way. On the subject of pets, Clooney’s longest relationship has been with his beloved Vietnamese pot-bellied pig, Max, the actor’s constant companion – until his recent demise – for 18 years. According to newspaper reports, Max was even allowed to share Clooney’s bed in the rare gaps between his owner’s human relationships. If any of Clooney’s girlfriends could have been persuaded to go for a menage à trois, they might still be around.

When I say that I’m not going to ask about his sexuality, obviously, Clooney – as relaxed as it is possible to be – says: “That’s all right, you can.” Most people say that you’re so right-on that you won’t dignify the question with a concrete response… “Because then you denigrate the people who are [gay],” he agrees. “Also, I remember when there was a whole story about Richard Gere and the truth is that he handled that as best as he could. He didn’t want to say, ‘I’m not something,’ because it’s somehow insulting to other people.

“You know, people can think whatever they want. I live my life and have a great life and I’m not worried about what people in that world think.”

Later, he mentions “some actor” who introduced the subject of Clooney’s preferences recently, “and it was the funniest thing”. Er, what? “You’re talking about me being gay…” Which actor? “Some actor in a London paper brought it up. I can’t remember who it was but they were really tearing into me and I was, like, ‘Wow, that was strange.'” Sorry? An English actor said that you were gay? “I don’t know if that was what it was – maybe they were just saying that I was an idiot, I can’t remember.”

The unmemorable English actor, I later discover, is Rupert Everett, who had lambasted Clooney for his Ocean’s films, describing them as “a cancer to world culture”, and rammed the knife in even further, saying: “He’s not the brightest spark on the boulevard. He’ll be president one day. Mark my words, if he’s straight [Everett is a very out gay], he’ll be president.”

It is when we talk about the forthcoming presidential election that Clooney really hits his stride. On almost any other subject –which may explain that meagre sense of him in the cuttings – his charm acts as a sort of shield, creating a series of cul de sacs. His favoured response to any question that is remotely personal is to come back with a wisecrack, rather like the banter of an English public schoolboy, but more beguiling – so that you don’t instantly recognise it as a withholding device.

He admits to being a bit of a bloke himself – a bloke with a Peter Pan complex, with his train sets and model airplanes and motorbikes. When I’d read about his pranks – which he still likes to play, he says – my heart rather sank. There’s nothing debonair about leaving your calling card in your host’s cat litter tray (my sons thought this was hilarious, but they are teenagers) or borrowing friends’ cameras at parties to take photos of your naked bottom. His favourite clip on YouTube is of a monkey sticking a finger up his arse, smelling it and passing out.

Even his wedding, to actress Talia Balsam, sounds like a joke – with a ceremony conducted by an Elvis impersonator in a kitsch Las Vegas chapel. Three years after the couple’s divorce in 1993, Clooney himself sounded a bit worried by his prospects, saying: “The problem is kind of image. As you get older, that image isn’t cute any more – not like when you’re 18 and going out with a bunch of girls. When you’re 40 and you do it, it’s kind of sad.” I mention his current gorgeous girlfriend, Sarah Larson, a waitress turned reality television winner, and ask him how many months – “She’s, uh, I think she’s 29 years old, actually” (see, he’s quick) – before mumbling that they started dating in August.

Clooney has referred to his own immaturity, saying that even though he was 28 when he got married, he was probably too young for that commitment, since actors tend to be less grown up than the rest of us. He has often said that he has no desire to reproduce, but is that partly because fathering a child would deprive him of his own extended boyhood? He responds, inevitably, with a gag: “Don Cheadle [Ocean’s Eleven, Hotel Rwanda] came up with a very funny line when he introduced me at an awards ceremony, saying, ‘George Clooney doesn’t have kids because he doesn’t want the competition.'”

I read him Philip Larkin’s famous anti-parenthood anthem (“They f*** you up your Mum and Dad”), which he finds very funny, as a way of asking him about his own childhood. He says: “Oh, I had a great childhood. I’m really, really close to my parents and talk to them all the time. But they were Catholic and very strict. I was always being grounded and being told to be in by seven. Grace at the meals and all that. But I was also a child of the Sixties and Seventies, with all those movements that were going on – civil rights, women’s rights, the drug counter-culture, the sexual revolution – which were interesting to me.”

Apart from Max the pig, Clooney’s longest relationships have been with eight buddies he’s known for 25 years. He says that he does, on the whole, prefer to hang out with “the guys” than with women. When he’s not making films or getting involved in humanitarian causes – he and his father, Nick, a former television news anchor, travelled to Sudan and Chad to make a documentary about genocide – or entertaining guests in his villa on Lake Como, the actor likes nothing better than to play basketball and kick back with his pals by drinking beers and watching sport on TV.

He sounds horrified when I ask whether the gang of eight are all actors. “Noooo, noooooo, noooo. One sells real estate, one’s a lawyer at Warner Brothers, one’s a writer-producer, one’s a security guard in Italy. Only one is an actor. They’re a great touchstone when things really take off…” And you could become a bit of a wanker; do you know that word? “Yes, I know it very well [a look of mock befuddlement], I’ve heard it a lot lately. I don’t understand why.

“What happens is that sometimes people can be too nice to you and say, ‘You’re really brilliant,’ and your buddies will go, ‘Oh, he’s a real genius,’ and they’ll just cut you up. They’re never mean, just funny. We’ve worked very hard for a long time to make sure that the most important thing is that we’re still all around for each other.” This sounds slightly odd when you consider that six of the eight have wives and children but, hey, this is Hollywood.

We had talked earlier about Clooney’s dismay at the way news is increasingly presented as entertainment. He cited a grotesque example of a boy who drowned during some dramatic floods and a producer’s decision to jazz it up with the Doors’ Riders on the Storm. Even Diane Sawyer – who, naturally, turns out to be a friend – plays the emotional card too much for my taste. So I tell him I’m going to attempt to ask him a serious question now. “OK, I’m ready.” This is my Diane Sawyer moment. “I’m ready,” he looks nervous. Do you ever worry about lonely old age? “I [sniffs, pretends to get tearful]… no, actually, I was joking about this with my Dad – about getting old and dying alone, you know, and my Dad was, like, ‘You die alone! That’s what you do, basically. Whether you’re married and have kids or whatever, you die alone.’ So he defends me a lot. And I have a great world. I have a great family and great friends.”

Do you get depressed? “Sure, I get depressed sometimes. But then if you drink, you know, then it’s fine.” No, no, drink can exaggerate depression. “Hahahahahahahah. Not if you’re Irish!”

I mention the references to Clooney’s drug use in his youth – dropping acid and eating magic mushrooms – and comments by his late aunt, the singer Rosemary Clooney, about his dark circles and wild lifestyle. “Oh, I didn’t know that she said that. That’s funny. I was mellow compared to my friends. Certainly it was a different time in terms of drugs in general, but, you know, I never had an issue with it. It was just casual use.”

Rosemary Clooney had her own “issues” with prescription drugs and wrote about her addiction and subsequent confinement in a mental hospital. It was her illness that dissuaded Clooney from taking any pain medication when an accident on the set of Syriana led to him suffering severe back problems and short-term memory loss. He still gets headaches but other than that he has recovered pretty well. “They gave me a tub this big, you know,” he extends his hands. “And you take one and it feels pretty good and you take two, and it feels better, and the next day two doesn’t do it. They’re incredibly addictive.

“There are so many people in this town who are or were addicted to it. They pass them out like M&M’s out here. They really alter your personality. It’s like a bad drunk. It takes you away from who you are, which in Rosemary’s case was a really fun person, but she went through a time in the early Seventies when she was truly hung up on prescription drugs and she wasn’t fun to be with. You were always aware that might be in your genes, so you stay away from them.”

Since Clooney has been outspoken about his support of Barack Obama, I wonder whether he agrees with the view that the Clintons have been fighting dirty. “They have upped the ante and have made it difficult if they were to have a dual ticket so, yes, I suppose that means in some ways they have.

“But, at the end of the day, not too much damage is done – it’s probably nothing more than he would have gotten from the Republicans – so it might as well come out now. I think it would cause an awfully big rip in the Democrats if he isn’t the nominee.”

Was it an easy choice for you? “From the very beginning.” Why not her? “First of all, it wasn’t ‘not her’, it was him. I’m a friend of Bill and Hillary’s and I like her very much, but Barack Obama is that person who comes around very rarely. He’s just spellbinding.”

He mentions that he was talking recently about the state of America with his father – the only reason that Clooney doesn’t mention his mother is that she hates being talked about, but she’s a former beauty queen who was also mayor of Augusta – when the Clooneys Snr and Jnr decided that all was not doom and gloom.

“My father and I were saying that we’ve been lucky as a country historically. When we needed a constitution – something which has to be really well-handled – we had Thomas Jefferson. Then we had a civil war, which could have destroyed the country, and there was Lincoln. With the Depression, we had Roosevelt. The Cuban missile crisis was the closest we’ve ever come to a nuclear holocaust and there was Kennedy. These are some of the greatest leaders of our time, and then we had 2001 and got unlucky. And, listen, I can’t believe that Bush is an evil man – I just think he wasn’t equipped. But maybe 2001 or September 11 wasn’t that moment – although they were two of the biggest moments in our country’s history – but now that our economy is in the tank, our face across the world is probably at its most blemished, our country has been assailed, the fact that we don’t necessarily adhere to the Geneva Convention… maybe in terms of that moment when you absolutely need someone to lead, not manage the country, maybe it’s now.

“Because here’s the thing that’s sort of astonishing. Even at the time of the civil rights movement or Vietnam – when kids actually had something to lose – they still didn’t show up at the polls. But you know what? They’re voting right now like you cannot believe. So maybe this is that moment where, for the first time in our history, kids are going to understand that they have to take the reins of our country and that may be why Barack Obama is around right now.”

Time’s up. I try, unsuccessfully, to coax Clooney into doing a duet with me and warble those lines from O Brother – “Let’s go down to the river and pray” – but he says that his voice is so bad that they cut it out of the movie. “My father, he had an album. My aunt, she could sing. My mother cannot sing at all. She screwed it up for me.” Well, I say, as he is walking out of the door, I’m sure I’ll see you again one day. “Yes, you will,” he pokes his head back and does the Swooney grin, “because I’ll be your stalker.”

* * *

Leatherheads is released nationwide on April 11

Actors, Celebrities

Robert Redford: An American idol

The Times – November 3, 2007
– Ginny Dougary

Robert Redford was the screen heart-throb of his generation, but he never quite played the Hollywood game. Back in the director’s chair, he talks about being an outsider, his looks and why he is in mourning for his country

It’s a measure of Robert Redford’s enduring appeal, even at the grand age of 70, that when he says, “I’m all yours”, just for a fraction of a second, a tiny bit of you wishes it were true. In truth, despite an occasional dimpled grin – when you catch a flicker of the old Redford screen charisma that made your 13-year-old heart pound in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – and surprisingly gentle manners, he has neither the playfulness nor the hint of danger of the natural-born flirt.

This should be music to his ears, if Redford is to be believed, since the poor man has spent decades trying to be taken seriously, only to have his good looks stand in the way. When he appeared on the scene, journalists of both sexes drooled. A Newsweek profile by a male writer is a classic of the type, launching into his “gorgeousness” thus: “The head is classically shaped, the features chiseled to an all-American handsomeness, the body athletically muscled…” Not to be outdone by this homo-erotic rhapsody, the women writers swooned: “He gives you the feeling that even his sweat would smell good”, and raved about his “cool” and “sexual arrogance that is far more fetching than any amount of sweet talk”.

What is more interesting, apart from the quaint gush of these early pieces, is to see how consistent Redford has been from his earliest interviews in the Sixties and Seventies about the issues that he is known for now: anti-Hollywood, pro-environment, concerned about youth apathy, questioning of the government and sceptical about politicians in general, as well as the power of corporations. He has always been protective of his privacy and had periods of withdrawal from work – even at the height of his fame – to travel around Europe or do his own thing.

Way back in 1970, a year after he shot to fame as the Sundance Kid, Redford vented his frustration about Hollywood to a young Derek Malcolm: “You can’t run an art form like a business any more and they’re still trying to. Films to them are just like vacuum cleaners or refrigerators. The approach sickens me.”

Not content to bitch from the sidelines, Redford founded the non-profit-making Sundance Institute in 1981 – using his own land and property in Utah – to support emerging screenwriters, directors, composers and producers who work alongside established names to craft their skills and develop their projects. To this was added the now internationally famous Sundance Film Festival which, to its creator’s evident discomfort, has become so successful it has assumed the mantle of the Cannes of America, with all the trashy commercialism that entails.

This is anathema to Redford, whose rueful complaint to me is: “What happened was the success of it brought the media, and then the merchants came and the stars came… Look, when Paris Hilton comes to the festival, she’s coming to the parties. We’re doing the same that we always have, but then the brand names come to take advantage of the festival and they throw parties to promote their brands and they say, ‘Come and we’ll give you a free coat or a free perfume or we’ll take your photo.’ I can’t control it because it’s a free country – that’s the reality and it is ironic. But I don’t worry about our mission as long as we stay true, and the Lab is non-profit and that’s the purest thing about Sundance.”

Naturally, with Sundance’s success, come the knockers. A counter-festival, Slamdance, established itself in Utah in the Nineties to show the films the organisers believe Redford has turned his back on – but there’s no evidence that his vision has been diluted. He may be attracted to the likes of The Horse Whisperer, which appeals to his romanticism about the American landscape he fights to protect, his love of horses and his sadness about the dying ranch culture of the West, but the films that have come through his “Lab” or have been showcased at the festival are very different and include Pulp Fiction, Sex, Lies and Videotape (the director, Steven Soderbergh, and Redford have since fallen out), Boys Don’t Cry, Orlando, The Blair Witch Project, Memento and Little Miss Sunshine.

Redford has worked equally hard on environmental issues, both publically and behind the scenes, and has a slew of awards in recognition of his contribution. The Utah home he built himself almost three decades ago was fitted with solar panels – visitors have commented on its rather spartan decor – long before it was fashionable to be green. He successfully campaigned against a huge power station being built between five national parks and disgruntled locals – Utah is a Republican stronghold – responded by burning an effigy of the star. Most unglamorously, he took on the role of the local sewerage commissioner with a mission to transform the area into an independent municipality with its own produce and energy resources.

For his pains – and even his detractors could hardly accuse the man of not backing up his words with action – Redford is hammered for being earnest or worthy, impatient, arrogant, humourless, a control freak and so on. One of the biggest and legitimate complaints against him is that he is always late. He once kept a Sunday Times journalist waiting seven hours, after she had made the epic trek to Sundance. Paul Newman, his co-star on Butch… and The Sting, presented him with a needlepoint runner stitched by Joanne Woodward (Mrs Newman) that read: “Punctuality is the courtesy of kings.”

This was a revealing rebuke since it suggests – something one can glean from the early cuts when the actor was a bit more forthcoming – that Redford’s early chippiness about being born on the wrong side of the tracks has prompted grandstanding posturising to demonstrate that he’s as important, if not more so, than the Hollywood royalty he had joined. Newman, who is a friend, was gently trying to point out that such behaviour is not classy.

I would have liked to have asked Redford about his punctuality problem, but our interview, of course, was cut short by his late arrival. However, I should add here, it was the star himself who dared to defy the publicity martinets by insisting that he make up the extra 15 minutes in his own lunch hour. This was gracious of him and also provoked an unexpected conspiratorial mirth between the interviewer and interviewee. “I’m here to serve,” he kept saying plaintively, and moaned that, “They have me jammed to the gills.”

Redford describes himself as coming from “a lower-working-class family. My dad was a milkman and supported us with no money. We didn’t have anything. I grew up in a Mexican neighbourhood [Santa Monica, 12 miles from Hollywood, known as “the home of the homeless”] where you had to provide your own entertainment. I was blessed that I was athletic and so could do sports.”

In one of his earliest interviews, he confessed that, “Sometimes I’d break into those big houses in Bel-Air just to look around and I thought, ‘What have they done to deserve all this?’ I was always good at tennis and I took great pleasure in beating the rich kids.”

His education was not good, but one teacher discovered that her problem pupil had a surprisingly creative bent. “I started drawing because there was nothing else to do,” he says. “If my parents went somewhere on a visit, they would take me along because they couldn’t afford a babysitter. So I’d sit in the corner and pick up a pencil and draw things. And then in class, I would be distracted and looking out the window all the time, or I would draw instead of doing an assignment.”

When he was nine or ten, the teacher who had started out by punishing him – insisting that he draw a picture once a week and describe what it was about to the class – began to realise, “‘Wait a minute. He’s telling a story and he’s pretty good.’ I loved hearing and telling stories and that’s the way I learned – through stories.”

The rest of his school years Redford describes as “a disaster”. He was always in trouble, going off the rails and drinking too much. He believes there is a connection between the Celts – he is Scottish and Irish on both sides of the family – and boozing, and says that some members of his family, although not his parents, had problems with alcohol. He managed to win a baseball scholarship to Colorado University, but was kicked out because of his drunkeness.

Of all the different characters he has played – and critics complain that they tend to be a one-note samba, detached and unknowable, or perhaps played that way, much like his reputation off screen – the Sundance outlaw is the one who, Redford says, feels closest to his own skin. He was originally up for the part of Butch Cassidy but persuaded the director, George Roy Hill, that, “I can identify with that guy [the Kid] a lot more because of my earlier life, and he got interested in that because we’re both Irish and so on…” So the roles were swapped, leaving Newman in the lighter part and Redford as the brooding, more intense foil.

As a bleached-haired Californian surfie teenager, part of a gang of semi-delinquents, Redford grew up despising actors – referring to them as “sissy boys” – and the whole Hollywood scene. On one occasion, he and his older half-brother broke into one of the studio lots and trashed the place. Even at this long remove, when he has achieved so much, Redford still identifies himself with alluring ne’er-do-wells, particularly if they have a death wish – such as the beautiful but doomed alcoholic younger brother, Paul (played by Brad Pitt looking uncannily like the young Redford) in A River Runs Through It, which Redford directed in 2002.

Perhaps this connection with the wayward rebel – who enjoys a certain reckless freedom – also explains his ambivalence about the acting world and made him more determined to define himself in other ways. He tells journalists that he is not of a psychological disposition, though this seems a convenient way of sidestepping awkward territory and may be a legacy of his upbringing – “We never trusted words much in my household.” Yet, he did see a therapist in the Eighties (who promptly betrayed him by selling his story to the press) when his long marriage to Lola Van Wagenen, mother of their three children, finally came to an end.

His real education began, he says, when he came to Europe in the late Fifties. This flight from America, when Redford was 18, followed the death of his mother. “I wanted to get out in the world and experience other cultures and histories and people,” he says. “I wanted to be an artist, so I went to France and Italy and I was living a very low life, you know, in a bohemian area. But what got me was that all the students I engaged with – whether they were artists or medical students – were all extremely political. It was the de Gaulle era, you know, and the time of the Algerian crisis.

“They were asking me questions and I was humiliated because I didn’t know the answers. I was just absolutely ashamed. So I made it a point to begin to look at my country but from another country’s point of view – because in California you’re given a very comfortable view about things. And I realised that I had a high regard for this other point of view because it was very intelligent and very different. So I began to put all these together and when I came back, a year and a half later, I schooled myself on what my country was doing and how I felt about it.”

Were you able to find like-minded people when you returned to the States? “I was not. I was expecting engagement and all people asked me was how the girls were or the food, and that was so disappointing. So it was around that time that I started to put a critical eye on my own country but I also realised, having travelled around, how fortunate I was in the country that I was from and how that country was blessed in many ways, and how do you protect that?”

He landed in New York, enrolled in art school and, “through a series of serendipitous turns”, ended up at drama school at the same time, supported by his wife, and acting was the career that took hold. (It would seem ill-advised, particularly since the Redfords had separated for a good ten years before the press got hold of the story, to comment on his current status. But, with no evidence to the contrary, we must assume he is still with Sibylle Szaggars, a German painter, who has been his partner since 1996.)

Redford’s first roles were on Broadway, where he created something of a stir as the male lead in Neil Simon’s light comedy Barefoot in the Park in 1963, directed by Mike Nichols. It won a Tony Award (but not for Redford) and ran for 1,530 performances, which appears to have put the actor off a career in theatre for life. And then, in 1969, came his big breakthrough, as the Sundance Kid, at the un-Kid-like age of 32.

I have the impression that Redford has a low boredom threshold, as well as a short attention span, which may explain why he turned his back on theatre once his film career took off. He says that he loves going to see plays – of course, he saw David Hare’s Stuff Happens about the build-up to the Iraq war – but he agrees that he is unsuited to the daily routine of performing on the stage.

“You are partly very right. It’s not that I have a short attention span but I do have a low boredom threshold. For me, the joy of acting was in the spontaneity of expressing yourself – and being part of what makes a play ‘happen’ is pretty exciting – but after nine months of doing the same thing every night… you just want it to move to a new place,” he says.

Redford is sensitive to criticism about his acting and, as ever, believes that his appearance has prevented critics from an accurate appraisal of his performances. It’s difficult to know how to respond to his angst about his looks, particularly when one reads about his insistence on photographs being touched up. Even as far back as 1973, The Way We Were, in which he co-starred with Barbra Streisand, became known as “the Battle of the Close-Ups” because both actors reputedly competed to be shot from the most flattering angle. (Redford, who had apparently successfully negotiated to be paid more than La Streisand, allegedly won.)

One has to ask why Redford would be so concerned about protecting his image if he genuinely believed that it has been an obstacle to him being taken seriously. There has been a certain amount of speculation about whether he has had any “work” done on his face, particularly as he has lambasted those who have submitted to the knife. I found one reference to his eyes having been operated on “on medical grounds” – whatever the reason, for a septuagenrian he certainly does have a strikingly open, unlined gaze. But one can equally imagine that Redford would find it demeaning, “sissy” even, to stoop to any surgical enhancement.

He tells me that he still gets drooled over: “Even today. It happened last week when we were on tour. I keep thinking, and I mean this when I say it, when do we get past this? I can’t speak for Europe but certainly in my country, there’s an obsession with youth. People trying to stay young and facelifting and all that, which I haven’t done. I keep thinking that I’ll grow out of being labelled, you know. I just don’t understand it.”

Face to face, it is a shock to see quite how freckly and “ginger” Redford is. Redheads don’t suffer the same stigma in the States as they do in this country, and we have a funny moment when my interviewee attempts to get to grips with the point I’m endeavouring to make. “Bullet?” he asks. No, bullied. “Bullied? Oh, really? Are you being serious? Why?” Nevertheless, although Redford was never exactly tormented on account of his colouring, “When I was a little kid, I had red hair and freckles and I was certainly teased, yeah, yeah – ‘Hey, Red! Hey, Red!’” he taunts.

Surely it was quite pleasant to discover that you were so appealing to the opposite sex. “Absolutely it was,” he admits. “I wouldn’t say it was a shock but it was a surprise and it was something I could enjoy for a period of time. But then it got out of hand and I began to see the dark side of it. Particularly since I’d grown up in Los Angeles and was not enamoured of Hollywood.”

He no longer turns up in cowboy gear – partly because of his age but also, perhaps, because of the way that image has been tainted by Bush in his off-duty garb and on-message rhetoric (“We’re gonna get them bad guys!”). Still, Redford wears his shirt a little like medallion man, unbuttoned to his chest, revealing a sparse-ish crop of carroty hair. When I tell him that the elderly taxi driver who dropped me off said that he hated Robert Redford “because of the way he looks compared to the way I look”, the actor says: “I’ve gotten a lot of that but when you get it from the critics, it’s really rough. You know, they resent you because of your physical self and you say, ‘Would you not judge me for that, please? Would you please judge the performance?’”

Dick Cavett, America’s veteran chatshow host, once described Redford as having “a withheld quality that makes the viewer come to him”. It is this reticence, some might call it subtlety, that has laid the actor open to accusations that his range is limited, as though he were too buttoned down, too afraid of being unmanly, to show overt emotion. One of his directors said that he felt Redford was a natural character actor encased in the body of a matinée idol. He says that when he started out as an actor, “I played all kinds of parts. I played killers and rapists and deranged people and they were great fun as an actor because there was variety. But no one knows that except the people who watch old TV series like Naked City and The Twilight Zone.”

Whatever his reasoning, apart from an early role when he agreed to play the part of a bi-sexual reprobate at a time when plenty of Hollywood actors would have declined, Redford seems to have settled for roles which are safely within his comfort zone – restricting his risk-taking for the higher ground.

His new film, Lions for Lambs, about America’s role in Afghanistan, the first he has directed for seven years, is a case in point. It is worth pointing out here that it is as a director, rather than an actor, that Redford has been honoured with an Academy Award for his debut feature, Ordinary People, as well as nominations for Best Picture and Best Director for Quiz Show.

Although Redford talks at great length about his new project, like the politicians he dislikes, the actor-director (environmentalist, philanthropist, etc) has the same battering-ram tendencies to repeat himself, albeit in a variety of ways, in the hope of getting his point across. There appears to be a certain level of anxiety behind the scenes, judging from the number of times I was asked what I thought of the film by various personnel.

Well, it may have its flaws – as commentators have already noted – but I would say that it is essential viewing, particularly for American audiences. The story unfolds in real time, during the course of a single day, and explores many of the issues that are dear to Redford’s heart via three separate strands – the role of the media (how, in the present climate, can it step away from being the Government’s propaganda machine?), the politicians’ justification of the War on Terror, and the losing battle of educators (Redford plays the anguished professor) to prevent students retreating into a torpor of cynical lassitude because they feel helpless to effect change.

The power of the film is the juxtaposition of two injured soldiers – former students of the professor – waiting to be killed by the Taleban on the snowy mountains of Afghanistan, while in the safety of lecture rooms and living rooms and White House offices, politicians, professors and students, reporters and editors, argue about how to end this war. The scenes between Meryl Streep as the veteran journalist and Tom Cruise as the ambitious senator are as dazzling as they are daunting, with the senator saying: “You sold the war, now you have to help sell the solution.”

You just have to look at the level of debate – so ranting and knee-jerking and, frankly, moronic – in response to Lions for Lambs on the website of Variety, America’s newspaper for the entertainment industry, to see what Redford is up against and why he feels the need to make such a film.

There may be a sense in which Middle America could feel betrayed by Redford – how could the denim-clad cowboy and lover of the great open plains be such an unpatriotic turncoat? But despite his lack of polish and uneasy way with words, since that early “lowlife” European education, Redford has remained true to what he holds dear about America. It is only now, as he enters the last chapters of his life, that he feels his country has lost its way.

He is not at all optimistic about the future: “The bottom line has taken over everything, including journalism. It’s surprising, frankly, that the studios would take a chance on this film. There has been so much damage to our country that it’s going to take a long, long time to pull ourselves out of it.”

Can you see it happening in your lifetime? “Anything’s possible,” he says. “It’s just that there’s so much damage and there’s such a negative impression of America throughout the world and for these people to be talking about democracy while practising policies that are so undemocratic…”

Does he feel angry? “You know, what I can’t forget or forgive is that we were asked to give up our freedoms and let them do what they needed to [after 9/11] and we zipped our lips and gave up challenging the election because they had a difficult job. And it sure was good timing for them.

“And we gave up criticising the administration and our president, and we all saluted and marched in lock step in support, only to be lied to and cheated and send young people in harm’s way and unnecessarily risk losing their lives. That made me angry. And now I’m past anger and in a state of mourning.

“Freedom of opinion, freedom of debate and dissent, that’s what democracy means, but it’s all been shut down now and it’s ‘If you’re not with us, you’re against us,’ and we don’t even have to talk about how dangerous that is and where that leads if it’s not corrected. And I know that [with this film] I’m probably not going to change anybody’s opinion but at least as an artist I can try to dramatise what my feelings are about.”


Lions for Lambs opens nationwide on November 9


All Hail the King

Times Magazine – March 31 2007
– Ginny Dougary

The role of snowy-bearded Gandalf in Lord of the Rings reinvigorated Sir Ian McKellen’s career and afforded him national treasure status. Now he’s taking on the father of all grumpy old men – King Lear. Ginny Dougary meets him on a break from rehearsals

Sir Ian McKellen is in his underpants, which is surprising in all sorts of ways. Since the room is not very large, one can’t help clocking his various attributes – shapely blemish-free legs, a manly chest, sinewy arms. If there is a message implicit in his invitation to witness this costume-fitting for King Lear, the father of old-men roles, it is this: I may be playing the part of a man “crawling unburdened towards death” but wouldn’t you say I was in good nick? To which the answer – particularly since McKellen is pushing 70 himself – has to be a resounding “yes”.

He is relaxed, good-humoured, almost playful – helping himself to bites of the wardrobe-ladies’ custard tarts, like a favoured child secure in the knowledge that his naughtiness will be indulged. “I want lots of medals,” he pronounces. (In this forthcoming year-long Royal Shakespeare Company world tour, McKellen will also be playing another eccentric old man, fighting against fading, Sorin in The Seagull.) He’s thinking of bringing in one of his own, which worries the costume chief, a former master tailor – “You don’t want to do that, do you?” “Why not? It would amuse me,” McKellen says. “It’s only a knighthood – or perhaps I’ll bring the CBE, which is a much more beautiful shape.”

This McKellen could not be more different from the one I met 18 years ago. That interview took place not long after he had come out on Radio 3, two years before the knighthood, and not much seemed to amuse him then. He was prickily defensive, refusing even to look me in the eye, and negative about almost everything. The overwhelming sense he projected was that he had been left on the shelf, personally as well as professionally. What made him really sore – forget the scores of awards and his undisputed mantle as the leading classical actor of his generation – was that he was not recognised in the street, unlike his theatrical confreres the late Alan Bates and Anthony Hopkins, who had made the breakthrough into Hollywood. “It’s a slight mystery as to why bigger film roles haven’t come my way,” he said plaintively, “but now I’ve been left behind.”

Everything has changed in the intervening decades, and it doesn’t seem too preposterous to suggest that McKellen owes his newfound sunniness to another quirky old man, the snowy-bearded wizard Gandalf.

We bump into one another unexpectedly before the interview in a café close to the RSC rehearsal space. It’s an interesting look that he’s put together: Seventies dude, pimp from Shaft, meets Berkeley ageing hipster: tousled hair, spectacles, a long leather jacket (charity shop or possibly some very expensive designer), blue polo-neck (he’s sufficiently self-conscious about what he refers to as “the nastiness” under his chin to have considered and rejected undergoing the knife – “I’d be too scared”), a medallion of some sort of green stone, artfully faded jeans with a brown velvet stripe on the outer legs.

Later, I ask if he’s vain and he repeats back, “Vain? I dare say. What do you mean, vain?” When I comment on how stylishly he’s dressed, for example, he says: “Oh, I see. Heh heh heh. Thank you. Well, I’m all done up for a photograph.” The trousers, he says, are by John Varvatos, “A very nice designer for middle-aged men… or old men. I mean, do you think of me as an old person? I don’t mind you saying ‘yes’.”

He is all smiles and benevolent chuckles, endlessly amused and upbeat. I wonder, perhaps, whether he is in love, so rose-tinted is his view of the world, but he says the only man he has time for at the moment is King Lear. What I think is that he may be in love with life itself now that he is at last an international household name, and all questions seem to lead back to Lord of the Rings. Is it strangely neutering becoming a national treasure, the people’s favourite gay and all that?

“Hmmm. Heh heh heh. I’m going to take that as a compliment. However, when strangers come up to me they don’t, on the whole, talk about gay issues – although some do. But usually it’s “Oh, you played Gandalf” or “You played Magneto.” (In another Hollywood blockbuster, the celluloid adaptation of the X-Men comics.) To which he can also add, presumably, his Sir Leigh Teabing in the Da Vinci Code.

“But national treasure? I’m not sure. I think most people treasure me for being Gandalf… You know, what I like most about being famous is that after a lifetime of going into a room and almost sweating and wondering how long I can stand it and not enjoying parties – now if I go into a room with strangers, actually I’m not a stranger any more. It’s a point of reference which means you don’t have to talk about the weather and you can very quickly get off talking about yourself. It breaks the ice and that what I like most about it.

“And it’s nice being said hello to in the street as well, because if you lived in a village you’d be saying hello to all day long, wouldn’t you? But that doesn’t happen in London, so it’s very, very nice to feel I’m in a community.”

Has he become grand, post-knighthood and mega-fame, I was wondering, but after traipsing through the grotty rubbish-strewn alleyways of Clapham High Street, dismal stairwells and up and up and up into a most unstarry room for our interview, the question seemed redundant. Working with the RSC is clearly a levelling antidote to the pampering excesses of Hollywood. Not that McKellen is in all that much danger of being seduced by the latter.

His partner for ten years, from 1978 to 1988, was the actor-director Sean Mathias, who got rid of McKellen’s scooter and made it a mission to get him into decent clothes and generally smarten him up. “Sean couldn’t understand why I didn’t spend money on real Champagne,” he says. Cava? Prosecco? “One of those. It was just that I don’t have a great taste for Champagne, so one fizzy white wine is much like any other to me.”

He doesn’t really know how to spend money, he says, and people who do are always saying: “Ian, you have to be more generous with yourself as well as to other people.” Do you think you’re a bit mean, then? “Well, judging by how other people live their lives, yes, I think I must be.” How interesting, I say (thinking, “That’s not very appealing.”) “Heh heh heh,” decoding “interesting” instantly. “I would say that I’m more mean to myself than to other people. I would happily pay for someone else to take a taxi in the rain but I would walk down to the Tube.” Really, he says he despairs of people who like to spend money because: “I love a bargain and I adore my free travel and free prescriptions, now that I am an old age pensioner and old, definitely old. Adore it. And I’m not the only one. It’s such a…” words almost cannot express the joy. “Oh, you cannot believe your luck that it’s all free!”

For a long time, he used to say that hardly any of his real friends were well-off. Has that changed? “Well, I’m not in George Michael’s league or Sting’s or Elton’s and I call all of them my friends or acquaintances, and I’ve seen the way they live and I’m as gobsmacked as anyone else. I’ve lived in the same house [on the Thames, in historic and now very fashionable Limehouse; Gordon Ramsay has recently opened a restaurant there] that I bought for £95,000 26 years ago and I’ve no intention of moving because I can’t imagine anywhere more appropriate for me to be. It’s perfectly possible for me to buy another house if I wanted one, but what would I want another house for?”

It bothers him in a way that he has absolutely no interest in money, “but then anyone can say that who doesn’t have a crippling mortgage or any responsibilities, and I’ve never had a family so of course you retain an awful lot of money for yourself”. The one extravagance he allows himself is to travel first class “but on this tour I don’t think we’ll be able to. We’ll all be in coach – and coach to Melbourne is no fun, is it? And then doing Lear when you get there… so I’m rather dreading that.”

McKellen’s upbringing has clearly left a residing imprint on him. He grew up in Wigan where his father was a civil engineer and both parents were committed Nonconformist Congregationalists. His grandfathers were preachers and other family members were missionaries. When I spoke to him all those years ago, he told me that the family credo was that life is not just for enjoyment’s sake and that it was important to help people and challenge received opinions. His mother died when McKellen was 12, but he was very close to his Quaker stepmother Gladys, who loved the theatre and saw every one of her stepson’s plays until she was no longer able to travel.

“My success, at least in our relationship, was scarcely referred to really,” he says, when I asked whether she was thrilled by his achievements. “She didn’t much like it if people she didn’t know frightfully well would come calling because they heard that I was around and wanted an autograph,” he says. “She didn’t approve of all that. Quakers aren’t puritanical but they are very level-headed about what’s important, and what was important was that I was acting well – not that I was famous. Do you see what I mean?”

I do, and that’s why it is slightly puzzling that someone who seems as, well, level-headed as McKellen himself hankers after Hollywood acclaim and that elusive Oscar; particularly since he despises so much of what the industry stands for. It is also strange, and a little bit sad, that all those years of bravura acting – his electric peformances on stage, from any number of Shakespearean roles to his mesmerising Bent – is clearly eclipsed for him by the high of his recent blockbuster breakthroughs. And isn’t it ironic that while all the bigtime movie stars – from Kathleen Turner to Nicole Kidman to Jessica Lange to Christian Bale… well, it’s a long list – are desperate to strut their stuff on our London boards, McKellen only really believes he’s made it when he’s a big-screen success over there.

But perhaps this is all part of the actor’s special brand of non-conformism. “Nonconformists, as opposed to puritans – and it’s an important distinction – have certain attitudes about how you live your life,” he says. “You relate to other people in a neighbourly and Christian way and you work hard, too. That’s an important ethic. But you also don’t fit in necessarily; you are critical, you don’t conform. So that is probably one the words you would have to use to describe me. So even if I’ve had a very obvious career in the British theatre and have not been rebellious, I don’t think I have conformed. I have surprised people by doing panto, for instance, or Coronation Street – which doesn’t seem at all surprising to me but it does to other people.”

Of course, he’s right when he says that you can be in two minds about things, and what could be more human than hankering after those rewards that come less easily. “It’s very rare to meet someone who says, ‘I’m in the perfect job and couldn’t be happier’,” he says. “There are always things you don’t like aboutyour work and I’ve had some wonderful times in Hollywood and made Gods and Monsters there [for which he got the first of his two Oscar nominations; the second was for Gandalf] and Apt Pupil and The Shadow. But as for the local industry and its attitudes… well, I wouldn’t like it to be my only source of intellectual nourishment.

“They do behave very oddly indeed there, and when you get caught up in that you can do it with a vigour and even an enjoyment… you know, playing the game, doing what you’re told in order to win the Oscar. But when you don’t, you do feel pretty stupid thinking, ‘I’ve wasted all my time and effort wanting something that, frankly, doesn’t matter whether I have or I don’t.’ You go through with it because that’s what people out there do.”

He’s quite funny, in an acidic way, about Jim Broadbent’s response when he won his Oscar. “The point was that he had done nothing for it – just came out and picked it up! Afterwards he said, ‘I am so sorry you didn’t win” and I said, ‘Oh yes, I’m sure,’ and he said, ‘As I was going up the steps, I said to myself, “This should have gone to Ian because he really wanted it”’, and I thought, ‘Well, that’s the sort of speech that someone who has just won an Oscar can make.’”

The angry McKellen of old was known to rail against the closeted Hollywood stars, complaining that it was “disgusting” and “distasteful” but now he reserves his judgmentalism for the industry itself. He finds it baffling and beyond hypocritical that West Hollywood is so gay-friendly – one of the first places in the world where openly “out” policemen patrolled the streets – “and, yet, cheek by jowl with all that liberal attitude, you have a local industry which is saying to local people who live in the area – ‘When you come to work, you are not gay.’ And I think to myself, ‘Can people whose minds work like that make good films? And if at the heart of Hollywood there is that lie, how many other lies are there?’

“And it’s the producers who have this problem – God knows what sort of people they are – who think that it’s impossible for you and me to fancy the same person. Well, what dull lives they must have. And then to think that one’s initial reaction to the romantic lead is to want to get into bed with them – when that may not be the case at all. Why do you have to fancy the romantic lead? But these people think that’s what films are about: titillating the genitalia of the audience.”

There’s an element of fantasy in fancying anyone anyway, isn’t there? “Well, of course. Who’s going to get the chance to sleep with Brad Pitt? You’re not going to meet him. Stop it. So it doesn’t matter whether he’s gay or whatever he is.”

Gayness, as a subject, seems to bore him rather these days. He is jaded, perhaps, after the long haul of activism (he was a founder member of Stonewall UK in 1989, and two years later made a high-profile visit to No 10 to discuss gay rights with John Major), fundraising and defending himself against the likes of the late Derek Jarman who knocked him for being a “gay man in straight clothing… well, I see what he meant but should have been generous to people who have gone through problems, he had some of his own.” It’s the only time in the interview when he grumbles about going over old ground but, as I point out to him, that ground is always shifting, which calls for new responses.

It’s a subject, after all, that is currently dividing the church and the climate in America under the Bush administration does not exactly favour gay equality.

The new glass-half-full McKellen prefers to focus on the liberal states of the USA. “If you’re living in Massachusetts you’re fine; if you’re living in California, you’re fine.” But you’re probably not all that fine if you’re living in the South or in Middle America? “No,” he agrees, “you’re not fine then and you might find yourself crucified on a fence one day. [In 1998, Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old political science student at the University of Wyoming, was severely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die. His funeral was disrupted by “God hates fags” protestors, and under the US federal law and the Wyoming state law, crimes committed on the basis of sexual orientation are not prosecutable as hate crimes.] But, equally, you might find yourself being murdered on Clapham Common [where Jody Dobrowski, a 24-year-old barman, was kicked and punched to death in 2005]. So these are appalling cases but they are the exceptions.”

It is surprisingly hard work to get McKellen to talk about King Lear, which is disappointing since it is my all-time- favourite Shakespeare. He says he’s struck by how many people he comes across who studied it at school (as I did), and it is odd that the play can speak to so many young readers since not many 16-year-olds are acquainted with the indignities of old age, betrayal and loss. Never has “never” sounded so inconsolably final as when Lear, cradling the body of his youngest and best-loved daughter Cordelia, repeats them those five times.

For the past seven months, the actor has been leading a monastic life, immersing himself in the play and for the past six weeks, retiring early every night, after fixing a solitary bite, to examine the text line by painstaking line. On the last occasion we met, McKellen was playing Iago (to Willard White’s Othello and Imogen Stubbs’s Desdemona), directed by his old friend and Cambridge contemporary, Trevor Nunn. This production reunites the two, and the actor says that there will be no gimmicks or peculiar settings for this Lear, other than it will have a modernish Russian look to it: “I think the merits of Trevor’s method of working is that it’s always to do with the words and it’s rather like having the play rewritten for you – no, written for the first time – as he explains it.”

He can’t talk objectively at the moment about Lear, the play, because he’s too involved in identifying with Lear, the man – and he hasn’t quite got a handle on his character yet, other than to say that he’s always talking to the Gods (aren’t they all?) “Yes, but he is a God king – an Inca – a man with total power… so you start defining him in terms of leaders and monarchs whom you know, with visual references to alert the audience to the fact that they are still around – people who have absolute power and who run countries. And Lear thinks he has a special line to…” he looks up to the skies. Ah, like George W? (McKellen famously based his Macbeth on another American president, Kennedy, although he thinks that line was slightly overstated.) “Well, there you go – or think of Mugabe.”

When I say that Lear may be a man more sinned against than sinning but he’s still a difficult bugger who would try the patience of the most forebearing child: “Well, that’s your view but I can’t think of him as a difficult bugger. I have to think of him as he says of himself – “so kind a father” – he’s thinking ‘What are they [his daughters Regan and Goneril] going on about? I’ve been so nice to them.’ I have to think about it like that.” I wonder whether he minds being on his own or prefers being in a couple. “Well, I like being with another person, yes, I do. But I don’t often go into my house and wish there was somebody waiting there. Sometimes I do.” Does he find the gay scene difficult as an older man? “If I go to a bar I feel all right. Actually, I’m welcomed there – old gays are treasured by a lot of young and middle-aged gays. No, we’re rather nice to one another I think.
Besides, there’s a tour coming up and who knows what can happen.” It was on his last protracted stint of working overseas – a year in New Zealand filming Lord of the Rings – that he met a 22-year-old young man, Nick Cuthell, who came back to live with McKellen for a year before the relationship ended.

After the costume fitting and the photographs have been taken – the only time he looks vulnerable and awkward – McKellen says that we can have lunch together so I can extend the interview, if I like – and, naturally, I do like. He suggests a fish restaurant, explaining that he’s no longer a strict vegetarian and has always eaten meat, in any case, whenever someone has gone to the trouble of cooking it for him.

There’s a funny moment when Frances Barber (Goneril) comes in with a fellow member of the cast, and after polishing off a bottle of wine thinks about ordering another glass. McKellen, overhearing this, breaks off the interview to say, “Oh, I don’t think you should, sweetheart.” “A glass of water, Ian,” Barber answers smartly. “Oh, hah hah hah hah, I do worry about Frances,” says McKellen, headboy to Barber’s naughty schoolgirl, “I’m so sorry, now were where we?” (The waitress told me later that McKellen’s a right one to talk since he and Barber often come in to have their own boozy lunches.)

We had been talking about his knighthood which he admits he accepted – quite apart from its usefulness to open doors for his gay activism – because he was flattered and “if you’re the sort of actor that I am – an Establishment actor, and the Establishment doesn’t honour you then you do feel slightly put out”. He says the Americans, in particular, are impressed by the title and love to put it on posters and the credits, only for McKellen to insist they take them down: “Sir McKellen [and, indeed, Sir Ian, which he is also called over there] is not my name. It’s the title I’ve got. You wouldn’t expect to see Mr McKellen on the poster, would you?”

Neverthless he uses it for what he calls his “Sir paper”, when he’s trying to impress someone who would be impressed by something like that: “like suggesting someone for a knighthood or if I were writing to the Prime Minister. I am very pleased to have it, I should say, and I am not careless of the honour but it is an oddity in our society and it would be better if we didn’t have titles and so on those grounds I probably should have turned it down.”

If he had, of course, we would have been robbed of the nickname Stephen Fry dubbed him – Serena. McKellen says that he doesn’t mind it (which is just as well since it has proved so enduring) but he would rather prefer it to be Serenissima.

Has he changed much as he’s got older? “I would feel a little miffed if I hadn’t, but on the whole I think I’ve got better. Grander? Well, I’d be careful not to be that, I hope. No, on the contrary, I think I’m less grand than I was when I played Richard II and Edward II [back in 1970] when I got rather – no, very grand.” Really? “Well, suddenly playing leading parts you can become a bit selfish and get your own way. Now I very very rarely make a suggestion to another actor in rehearsal, whereas in days gone by I wouldn’t have hesitated to interfere. You mustn’t take advantage of your position if possible.

“It’s difficult to be self-analytical but – er – well, you might well find people who would say that I’m terribly pompous and on the few occasions when I do see myself as myself – although under rather strange conditions, such as on a chat show – I don’t really recognise the pompous – no, not really pompous but the old stick.”

There is, in truth, something of the old stick about him – when he talks about how rarely he goes into “town” to see “the pictures”; hiring a DVD just the one time (King Kong) and finding that the image was all shaky “so that’s the end of that”, and the dangers of becoming addicted to needlepoint. “I can’t trust myself with a needle – it’s too obsessive, I’d be doing it now. It takes over your whole life.” He was taught by his late sister, “a serious needlepointer… No, I wouldn’t say we were close,” and the one he did complete (a Lowry) has ended up on the walls (“probably the outer walls”) of Paul O’Grady’s house – “it was sent to him by mistake when I was clearing things out AND I WANT IT BACK!”

But he can still be persuaded to go clubbing (as long as there is an armchair or two and you can hear yourself speak), and he was very early to catch on to the power of the internet, electing to write his autobiography, of sorts, most democratically for free on his website rather than landing a big publishing deal.

He doesn’t appear to be over-enamoured of children – describing himself as a “dreadful godfather – I have three godchildren [including one of Trevor Nunn’s] and I never see any of them.” He’s always been frightened of them, he says: “unless you know them very well, they’re very independent of you and that’s difficult to cope with. I’m alert to the wonders of having children and watching them grow up and so on but there are a lot of really, really bad parents around. Which is why I get so annoyed when they say that gay people aren’t fit to bring up children. A gay couple will have thought harder about whether they should or shouldn’t bring up a child – and from the child’s point of view – than most couples who are married, precisely because they don’t take it for granted.”

I wonder whether he has been accused of taking himself too seriously. “Oh yes, by myself and by friends.” But, as he says, it’s hard to tell himself to “lighten up, it’s only a job”, particularly when you’re going on a really big expedition. Lear can’t really be compared to Everest but it’s a bit like that, with your whole life being organised around it.”

There was a time when acting was his whole life, per se, but that’s no longer the case: “I think that what will probably happen is that I will take six months off [as he does most years] and then I will discover that I’ve had a year off, and then two years and I will think, ‘Oh, I seem to have retired.’ And the idea of never working again isn’t a horrific one; in some ways I would be rather relieved.” What would you do with yourself? “Get up later, shop properly, get some proper food. Have people round, go out, stay up too late…”

Goneril and Kent have long since gone back to rehearse. McKellen has tried and failed to fix my wonky spectacles and kindly illustrated an autograph for my younger son (so much for him being hopeless with children) by drawing a rather good quick sketch of himself in his most familiar role, a pipe unfurling the letters of my boy’s name. It’s now clearly time for him to go but I have one last question. Back in the Eighties, he had told me that his epitaph should read: “He didn’t do half as much as he would have liked to do.”

McKellen’s grimace softens into a look of genuine surprise: “Oh really? Well, I wouldn’t say that now. ‘Here lies Gandalf’, that’s what it should be – but then Gandalf doesn’t die, fortunately.”

Actors, Celebrities

A suitable case for treatment

IRISH INDEPENDENT – November 12, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Few lives are as dramatic or traumatic or just plain strange as Kelsey Grammer’s. From the violent murder of his father and his sister, to his own drug addiction and vicious physical and mental abuse at the hands of a string of ex-lovers, the star of Frasier could well do with some therapy from his alter ego. And yet there remains a childlike innocence and genuine kindness about Grammer. Ginny Dougary went snorkelling with him

DR FRASIER Crane hands me a towel, pats the sand between us on a glorious beach in yes! Hawaii, and says in that familiar sonorous boom: “Shall we begin?”

“Oh, hello. I’m Daphne. Daphne Moon,” I say, adopting my best cod-Mancunian accent. “Frasier Crane. Won’t you come in?”

I am introduced to Frasier’s father, Martin, and Eddie the dog. Soon it is time for the psychic routine. Frasier is describing my duties around the house, when … “Wait a minute, I’m getting something on you. You’re a florist.”

“No, I’m a psychiatrist.”

“Well,” I sigh, “it comes and goes. Usually it’s … strongest … during my time of the month … ”

Oh God, I’ve committed the cardinal sin of unscripted laughter. Frasier, ever the professional, presses on.

“Well, I think we’ve learned everything we need to know about you. And a dash extra.” Owlish look. That does it, I’m off again. What a bummer. Now I’ll never be able to leave the day job for Hollywood. Or, more particularly, for that cameo appearance in my favourite programme, which might lead to an occasional walk-on role that’s not asking for much is it? so I could spend my days hanging out with Niles and Fraze and Roz and Bulldog, making witty apercus over the double-skinny lattes. I mean, Simon, Daphne’s gruesome kid brother, is soohhh not right. Now what if her long-forgotten older sister were to show up, instead, and maybe she could be a psychiatrist, too? That, of course, might be a shrink too far. Or perhaps she could be a nanny and look after Roz’s child? Well, there’s a promising new plot line … Sorry, where was I?

You see, that’s the secret of Frasier’s success. Not only is it brilliantly written (and it has got better and riskier, for the most part, since that first episode) but once hooked, you are drawn into its world because of that rare alchemy between the players and their roles.

So although you knew that it wasn’t your actual Dr Frasier Crane sprawled out in the beach chair beside me, but the actor who plays him, Kelsey Grammer, I wonder whether most Frasier fans wouldn’t be more tickled by the idea of it being the character rather than the man behind him. (The very thought of Frasier snorkelling, for instance, is intrinsically funny.)

If we are guilty of the tendency to conflate life and art, so too is the actor. During the days we spend together in Maui, one of Hawaii’s most beautiful islands, where Kelsey and his wife, Camille, have just built a new holiday home, I am struck by how much more easily we engage when we talk about this or that character from the show, and how likely or not it would be for them to take a certain line on something. As if it were real.

The only times Grammer tears up to use his American parlance are not when he’s talking about Karen, his beloved, murdered younger sister, or his murdered father, or his half-brothers eaten by a shark, or his terrible childhood, or the wives who battered him and broke glasses over his head, or his cocaine and alcohol addictions, or his spell in prison, or his court case involving a teenage babysitter … but when he recalls a particularly emotional scene from Frasier. Which happens on no fewer than three occasions. But if you’d had a life like his, I found myself thinking, you, too, might find it more comforting to believe in the reality of a television show.

We first meet in Manhattan, backstage in The Music Box theatre, where he had just completed a gruelling couple of hours playing Macbeth. Gruelling, principally, because the production had been universally trashed by the New York critics. A couple of nights after our encounter, the play closes, a mere week or so after it had opened on Broadway.

Grammer started out in the theatre, after training at Juillard, on a repertoire devoted almost exclusively to classics, so it was particularly tough on him that Frasier’s unprecedented crop of awards coupled with its popularity meant that he couldn’t be taken seriously in a Shakespearean role.

The production, in truth, was hopelessly mismatched to a Broadway audience. It was uncompromising in its austerity; with no interval, the stage plunged into darkness throughout, the actors all in black contributing to the claustrophobic gloom. It is possible that it would have gone down better in an Off-Off-Broadway theatre; certainly Grammer would have been less vulnerable to hostile comments about his overweening ambition.

There is nothing in the least bit overweening about the actor I meet backstage. He seems sanguine about the appalling reviews, although obviously pleased when I tell him that I enjoyed his performance. I say that I was particularly struck by the visceral punch of witnessing Macbeth, the great warrior, unmanned by the force of his wife, and he walks over to give me a bear hug. We arrange to discuss the play further over coffee at his hotel the next morning.

The first thing you notice about Grammer, as he appears in the foyer, is that he doesn’t have the heft of Frasier. Even allowing for television’s tendency to exaggerate people’s weight, I did not expect the actor to be quite so slim and well-toned. Neither did I expect him to be dressed like an American golfer, in fawn slacks, a short-sleeved check shirt and sporty shoes. Frasier, of course, wouldn’t be seen dead in casual leisure (“leeeesure”) wear. And there were other little things which jarred: the way he walked into the restaurant before me, then ordered a black coffee for himself (sans caramel or cinnamon) without asking what I might like. It seems mean to flag these slight oversights, particularly since Grammer was so incredibly generous both as a host and interviewee in Hawaii, but they were the first outward signs that the actor was a very different creature from his fastidious creation.

We next meet, a month later, in the summer house in Maui. Grammer comes to the door wearing shorts, a Lacoste-type shirt and a baseball cap. He looks honey-brown and relaxed. Camille is upstairs taking a nap. I am taken on a brisk tour, and clock the large open spaces including a movie room, a gym, a courtyard with a giant tub, a sheltered area where the couple work on their all-over tans, and the landscaped garden with its infinity pool and infinite views of the horizon.

Then it’s into the golf buggy and down to the golf clubhouse where we are to conduct the interview, away from the distractions of home.

DESPITE the setbacks he has had the lovers who have betrayed him, the one-night-stands who have sold their stories to the papers, the family members who have attempted blackmail, and the rest the actor has the quality of an innocent. It is not that he is naive, exactly, more that he has this childlike enthusiasm for life. Yet, and this is awkward to express, one cannot escape the feeling that what makes Grammer such a refreshing change from so many stars his accessibility, his lack of pomp and circumstance, the pleasure he derives from pleasing others also enables one to catch a glimpse of what it was about him that laid him open to being so roundly abused.

The details of this abuse are listed in his unghosted autobiography, So Far … , which was published five years ago, when he was apparently through the darkness and into the light, with his then fiancée Tammi Alexander. In it, he recalls marrying Leigh-Anne Csuhany, a stripper he had met in a bar, right after the first beating, “just as soon as my black eye was gone”. He was attracted to her because she was strong, sexy, independent, outspoken, unafraid of anything and, most importantly, because she had no respect for or need of him. She repaid him by telling him that he was “so f**king” ugly”, that he was “so f**king stupid”, that his “acting sucks”, that he was “a piece of s**t”, that he made her sick.

Then: “She’d spit in my face. Slap me. Punch me. Kick me. Break glasses over my head. Break windows. Tear up pictures of my loved ones. Threaten to kill me, kill herself. Cut my balls off. Chop me up. Put a bullet in my head.”

Grammer filed for divorce, nine months later, just as Frasier was being launched. Csuhany tried to kill herself in a Malibu motel, swallowing five bottles of Tylenol pills. She survived, but their baby she was carrying did not. How on earth do you cope with such an extreme personal disaster when your professional life is taking off?

“It was very difficult,” Grammer says. “I thought I was going slowly insane. That my mind might explode. I don’t know if you’ve ever had that feeling, but it felt like I had a spike in my brain.”

I wonder whether that lack of self-esteem, which he has spent so many hours in therapy to overcome, may account for Grammer’s partiality for women who have made their living, in one way or another, by stripping off for men. I ask him, directly, if he is aware of that pattern? (Which, it hardly needs saying, is a somewhat tricky question.)

“Hmmmm,” he murmurs non-committally. Well, I wonder why that is? Have you never been attracted to women who are bright and classy and intellectually your equal, as well as being beautiful and sexy? “Certainly, they would appeal to me,” he says. “I’ve just never met them. It’s pretty rare that I would meet such people.”

Then he completely changes tack. “Maybe where you’re a little bit off-base is the assumption that a person who may have taken their clothes off for a magazine is not an intelligent, informed, compassionate human being,” he says.

“That might be an unfortunate presumption. Ahh. I’ve been with women for several months, even a year or so, that were educated who seemed to think that was more important than … being human.”

And, by the way, he says, his wife never posed nude for a girly magazine. “This is very important, because if anything was written like that, my wife would be very hurt. Deeply, deeply hurt.”

He goes on to explain rapidly, with a measure of sadness and distaste how Camille came to be filmed topless. He says she was a dancer on an MTV show, who had moved to New York in the hope of becoming an actress. Finally, she gets offered a part, only when she turns up for the shoot she’s told that it’s her breasts which are to play the major role in the movie … Oh, and, by the way, baby, if you don’t do it, you won’t get paid.

“Other than that,” Grammer says, “she hasn’t done anything I think she should be ashamed of. She has a beautiful body. She is a lovely woman. She’s also probably the most intelligent girl I’ve ever known. And she’s certainly an intellectual challenge to me.”

At some level, he seems to have forgiven Leigh-Anne, partly because she obviously had her own emotional problems, but principally because she has not sought to capitalise on their brief marriage.

Tammi, in contrast, according to Grammer, has been making a tidy sum selling titbits of their time together some real, some fabricated or exaggerated ever since their break-up. The more he talks about her, the more incensed he becomes. It is quite unnerving to witness the transformation; his easy-going mild manners replaced by a cold fury.

What about all those lovey-dovey articles you appeared in, you and Tammi at home in LA with your family of animals, proposing to her on the set of Frasier, and all the stuff you wrote in your book about how she was quite the nicest, most wholesome girl you’d ever met … ?

“Well, it was just my way ah I supported that because that’s what she needed to be in the relationship,” he says. “But she was a horrible, horrible human being.” As for her blabbing to the press including her most recent revelation that Kelsey was wearing Tammi’s knickers (a la Beckham) when he met the President “I’m disgusted with her,” he says. “I’m absolutely devastated. I find her to be one of the most reprehensible human beings that ever lived.”

Grammer finally called the engagement off when Tammi announced that she was intending to pose naked for a centrefold. “I mean, Camille wants to be a rocket scientist. She wants to be a person of substance who contributes to the world. This person just wants to be … a piece of ass! And I thought, ‘What are you … nuts?”‘

Before we move on to different terrain, we talk a little about politics (he’s conservative) and I ask Grammer what his view is on the death penalty. The question is out before I recollect that he has more than one reason to take a personal position on the issue.

“I have mixed … but that’s, of course, because my family has been murdered. I am still, however, reluctant to advocate the death penalty even though … ” he falters.

Karen Grammer was raped and stabbed to death in 1975 by three teenage boys outside the Colorado Springs restaurant where she worked in the kitchen. She was 18, two years younger than her brother and very much the kid sister. When she got into scrapes it was Kelsey who would bail her out. One doesn’t have to be a shrink to see why he would blame himself for not being there to protect her.

SO WOULD you like to see those men put to death? “Absolutely,” he says, “and I would like to pull the switch. And I’d be fine with it.” Have you ever thought about it? “I think about it almost constantly.” Would you prefer something more visceral? “I’d prefer to do it with my own hands. A gun wouldn’t be good enough. Eviscerate them. Cut them up. Yeah. That’s what they did to my sister, so … ”

All the while he is saying this, he is grinning. Which is odd until I realise that what I’m seeing isn’t a grin at all, but a terrible rictus of grief.

Is it true that they did it for kicks? “I guess. I can never get inside their minds, really. But she was the sixth or seventh person they’d murdered that night.”

It is extraordinary that all these tragedies have happened to one person, I say. I mean, no wonder there was a descent into “my cocaine and booze hell”!

“Hey,” a great release of laughter. “No, let’s not begrudge the man a drink! Please.” He says that the other deaths in his family were nothing like so deeply felt as the loss of his sister. “My father? Well, I did feel the growing impact of his death as I approached his age.”

Grammer’s parents met at a music school in New York, where his father, Allen, fell for Sally Cranmer who was training to be a singer. After leaving college and the army, Allen Grammer started a dance band with his girlfriend as the chanteuse. The couple moved to St Thomas on a kind of Dice Man whim. Allen opened a bar, played in a band, taught music to the islanders’ children and later went on, one reads with a certain measure of interest, to present his own radio show.

His wife, meanwhile, spent her days on her own with a three-month-old baby in a rat-infested home, and her nights listening to knife fights in the bar. When the marriage failed, she fled back to her family home in New Jersey where she gave birth to her baby daughter. Grammer’s father was murdered, when he was not yet in his 40s, in 1968; the killer surrounded Allen’s home with a circle of flames and then shot him.

The details of the rest of Grammer’s childhood help to provide the answer to that earlier question which had troubled him: “How did I get to the place where I felt that bad about myself?” His grandmother conjures an image of Bette Davis in one of her more terrifying roles: abandoned by her parents as a child, brought up by her aunts as an outcast, punishing her newly extended family for her own bitter legacy.

“She needed help. She needed attention,” Grammer recalls flatly. “My mum was going out to work selling men’s clothes, and I would go to school and then, from the age of about 12, I’d take care of things in the house. I’d make tea for Karen and me, and mix a drink for my grandmother, and then I’d make dinner.”

It is not a huge leap to see how a boy who was brought up in a matriarchal home to believe his role was to serve might grow into a man who was attracted to women who dominated him in whatever way they chose. He tells me that he was beaten not only by Leigh-Anne but also by his first wife, Doreen. When I ask him whether he is capable of violence himself, he says, yes, but that he has never inflicted it on women. “No, no. I’ve sat on them,” he laughs as though this is hysterically funny. “I’ve held them down. You know, asked them to stop hitting me.”

It is significant, he thinks, that his therapist for the past seven years is female, since so many of his problems stem from the difficulties he has had with women. “She’s really extraordinary but she’s also ahhhh,” a big pause, “probably the first relationship I’ve had where the person didn’t lie to me. The first person who stuck by what she said. Did what she said she would do. And that’s been an experience which is new to me.”

The Frasier shows that make his eyes well up are all to do with family loyalty, where one of the characters demonstrates the depth of his love for a sibling or parent. And it’s usually, I notice, Frasier who heals the rifts or cements the ties. He recalls a couple of episodes, his voice wavering.

I tell him that my personal favourite was the one where it emerges that it was the Crane boys’ late, saintly mother, rather than their father, as they had believed, who had had an affair with an old friend of the family. The man had just died, and Martin and his sons are looking at their old photo albums, and somehow inadvertently the truth comes out, and we see that the burnished innocence of the snaps told a lie. Oh no, you’re off again, I say. “I know. I know, that was a big one for me.” Gulp. “Because Frasier was dealing with the fact that Lillith had cheated on him, and then oooooohhhh he and Martin saw that they’d both had this experience in common.”

With all this talk of Frasier’s family, one wonders what Grammer’s relations are like, these days, with his own family: that is, what is left of it, namely his mother. He tells me that she comes to see the show every week: “She’s a fixture of appreciation. And she loved Macbeth.”

He says that she was not affectionate to him when he was growing up, but they are close now.

“She’s kind of quiet and she endures. Losing a child is probably one of the worst things that can happen to a human being, and I’ve always respected her for just surviving that.”

There’s a lot to respect in her son, too. Grammer’s been sober as they say for four years now, ever since he’s been with Camille, but he’s not about to trot out pious warnings about the perils of his former lifestyle. He used to do the odd “bump” (line of coke) when he was on Cheers, but mostly the cast would restrict their partying to after the show, and he says he had a ball. Eventually, however, he didn’t know how to have fun unless he was loaded and wired. “What started out as a small dull ache became more of a raging persistent agony, and the addiction was the only thing that tempered it.”

In the final months before he went into rehab for the second time, in 1996, he was snorting and drinking on his own, and that was no fun at all. “I hate talking about being sober,” he says ruefully, “because it’s so stoopid. But sobriety is a better trip for me. Now. I wouldn’t have liked it before. I was happily f**ked-up before.”

He has described his short spell in prison, for a drink-driving conviction, as a relief. Because you got beaten up less than at home? “Yeah, right!” he wheezes good-humouredly. “At least I wasn’t a punching-bag. Hohoho. That’s very funny.”

ON OUR last day together, Grammer took me snorkelling at his favourite beach. Flinging off his tennis shoes, he drew my attention to his buckled feet which are responsible for Frasier’s famous duck walk and said, “So there they are. Horrible, aren’t they?” And I thought, gosh, is there nothing you wouldn’t wish to conceal? And, indeed, during our long interview, the only subject he would not be drawn on was that messy business with the 15-year-old babysitter. (He was accused of having sex with the girl some years ago and although it didn’t lead to criminal charges, one can appreciate that it is not something he wishes to pick over.)

I was left with the impression that Grammer has, perhaps for the first time in his life, reached some sort of equilibrium. He plainly adores his wife and one hopes that this time he has found a woman who won’t let him down. Who does what she says, and says what she means.

Despite his fortitude, there was one comment he made which I found disturbing. Perhaps because it taps into the viewers’ strange relationship with television, where the line between what is real and what is not is increasingly losing its edge.

When he was talking about the negative reception of Macbeth, Grammer admitted that what alarmed him was the thought that, “‘Gosh! Is Frasier all I’m ever going to be allowed to do again?’ You know, that fear exists.” Which goes beyond mere typecasting. For what could be more existentially panicky than being trapped in a character whom you have played so successfully for so many years that your own personality has been somehow subsumed by your fictional self?

WE repair to the house to watch the sunset spread, like a beautiful bruise, across the skies. Camille comes out to join us by the pool. She’s a tiny-boned, pretty young woman, with an arresting brown-eyed gaze. When she’s not being animated, clapping her hands and beckoning Kelsey to watch the dog show on the TV (they are both animal nuts), she has a still, watchful quality about her.

He tells me that his wife is known by his friends as Camille The Real Deal: “She’s so brave. She’s taken so much flak, you know, for having the bad judgment to marry Kelsey Grammer, and she became the subject of a lot of tabloid nonsense. And she’s just a dear, sweet girl.”

She has certainly been brave enough to come out publicly about her Irritable Bowel Syndrome, which was diagnosed three years ago. Even her husband was momentarily shocked when she announced it on the Howard Stern show. But now he goes into rather more detail than I feel I need about its explosiveness, and the public embarrassment, and the way it makes people afraid to go out, including Camille since the couple are united in their campaign on the issue.

GRAMMER already has two daughters one from his first wife, the other by an estranged friend but he’s hoping to have more children with Camille. She has retired to the movie room with her parents, warm, friendly Italian-Americans, who are staying with the couple. Wrapped up in a blanket, her blonde hair tucked in at the nape, Camille looks almost childlike herself. Grammer glances her way, and his face softens.

“You see, my whole life I’ve been chasing the dream of having a family,” he says. “A mum and a dad, and a daughter and a son, living at home and coming home from work. And, granted, life as an actor is never going to be what you might call normal or stable I mean, dad disappears for three months to do a film but it is better to be a nuclear family. I never had that. And I want it. And so I’m gonna do my best to get it.”

Actors, Celebrities, Women

One tough kookie

The Times Saturday Magazine – November 5 2005
Ginny Dougary

From honorary Rat Packer to early-adopting New Ager, Shirley MacLaine has always been an unconventional broad. In a wonderfully frank interview, she talks to Ginny Dougary about politics, sex, and brother Warren Beatty.

Shirley MacLaine is holding court on a Malibu cliff-top terrace with plunging views of the ocean far below. It is she who has picked this restaurant location – principally because of its proximity to one of her homes, and something about the setting, as well as her untrammelled personality, lends a certain cheerful anarchy to the proceedings.

She has the most penetrating stare, which could intimidate the faint-hearted – for whom she would have no time anyway. MacLaine, herself, is lion-hearted… always steering her own path, way ahead of the rest of us, or in a league of her own: a civil-rights agitator before the great swell of the civil-rights movement (she risked being lynched when she attempted to check into a motel in Mississippi with her black friends); the only female who hung out as a buddy rather than a broad with Sinatra’s Rat Pack and Mafia boss Sam Giancana; an unconventional, long-distance marriage (her late husband, Steve Parker, lived in Tokyo with their daughter, Sachi); she was open about her affairs with spoken-for men – Robert Mitchum, Yves Montand, whom she shared with Marilyn Monroe, Danny Kaye – which, if she were anyone else, would surely have played awkwardly in hypocritical Hollywood; a Democrat campaigner, along with her brother, Warren Beatty, for George McGovern – if he had won, she would have considered going into politics herself; an intrepid solo traveller; an early and abiding New Ager, before the term was invented, who has been mocked for her beliefs in reincarnation, UFOs and other such other-worldy stuff.

To explain her directness at one point in our interview – in something which comes suspiciously close to an apology – MacLaine excuses herself on the grounds that she is old enough now to speak her mind with impunity. A wearer of purple from way back, there doesn’t seem to be much evidence of her ever feeling constrained by convention or the need to bite her tongue. She has always appeared younger than her age, and that hasn’t changed. It’s something to do with the curiosity in those startling blue eyes with their spiky lashes, her freckles, “Oh, I’ve always hated them; still do. They used to call me Freckle Face”; the quick turn-of-phrase; the slightly teenage counter-culture bolshiness.

Today, as she moves between tables of expectant journalists, she still has the gait of a dancer. At the end of our rumbustious one-on-one, I ask her to give me a flash of her famous legs. “They’re very white,” she says, and then grabs the hem of her loose trousers to roll them up… and up and up. They are ridiculous, I exclaim. Very slim, seemingly never-ending, taut almost to the very top, not a trace of cellulite or blemishes of any kind. My God, you’re 71! “That’s why I don’t mind telling anyone my age,” she says. “Mind! I love it.” In this spirit of mutual Shirley-worship, she also confesses that she doesn’t have to wear a bra: “I hate wearing a bra.” Didn’t you breastfeed? “Yeah, but she didn’t eat much! Ha ha ha.”

In her new film, In Her Shoes, MacLaine is the grandmother to two motherless and very different sisters (Toni Collette and Cameron Diaz) and plays a pivotal role in patching up and explaining the various estranged relationships. It is an unusually quiet performance for MacLaine – rather English in its reserve – of guilt, subdued regretfulness and long-buried emotion that gradually comes to the fore. It has no trace of the “bombastic serenity” – the apt phrase MacLaine has coined to describe her relationship with the world. As a senior care worker in a Florida residential home, her character – who dresses with tasteful restraint – in no way resembles the colourful woman in front of me, with her pinky-auburn gamine haircut, cerise Indian kurta and layers of turquoise ethnic jewellery.

We decide early on that I shall call her Empress – and it really does rather suit her. She is a powerful presence with an occasionally imperious manner: “Hey! Can I have some ice-tea?” she bellows to her elderly personal publicist, Dale, at one point, and then to the film’s publicist, Hilary. “I asked for some ice-tea. I don’t know where it is! Maybe they went to Starbucks to get it!” But she is also an absolute trouper; submitting to hour after hour of interviews, eating lobster and mussels as she speaks, with no break or discernible outbreak of ill humour.

The director of the new film, Curtis Hanson, wanted no wigs (MacLaine’s hair is thinning at the back) and no make-up, even for the close-ups – and MacLaine admits that was daunting at her age. I liked her performance, particularly for its quality of watchful distance, so subtle you find yourself sharing the character’s apprehension about opening herself up to the pain of feeling again. I’m not all that surprised to hear the actress say that she found motherhood tough; Sachi was only five when she went to Tokyo to live with her father. “It’s very hard, but I gave up the guilt,” MacLaine says.

And then a second later: “I beat myself up still.” I wonder to myself if she drew on these feelings for her role as Ella, who holds herself responsible for her daughter’s death. But she says that playing the part made her understand her own mother better: “Because she was so contained. She was Canadian, you see, so she never told you what she was frigging thinking.” Oh, I didn’t know that’s what Canadians were known for.

“I’m serious,” she says. “They live in snow. They don’t talk.” Sounds more like the English. “No, the English are more perverted. Ha ha ha. You know exactly what you’re dealing with. With Canadians you never know what you’re dealing with.”

Did MacLaine feel that she missed out on her daughter growing up? “Yes… and so did she.” Was she cross and resentful? “Little bit. Little bit. But now she’s learning, because she’s got two kids – a boy and a girl, nine and seven, and she’s seeing you can’t do anything right. She’s a little over-attentive.” MacLaine leans over to pick up an enormous wide-brimmed hat decorated with antique roses, to protect her pale face from the Californian sun.

“I look like a bag lady now,” she snorts when I compliment her on it. So does she enjoy being a grandmother? “Of course, because I can spoil them and I can say ‘You really shouldn’t do that’ or whatever and send them back to their parents in Connecticut… Oh, it’s totally liberating. And I also like being an aunty. Although everyone thinks I’m their grandmother anyway,” she grimaces.

There have been periods of estrangement between MacLaine and her younger brother. My guess is that there may have been an element of professional competition. MacLaine’s longterm ex-beau, the writer and journalist Pete Hamill, who left her for Jackie Kennedy, was uncomfortable with MacLaine’s attachment to the mystical – and I would imagine that Beatty, who is still very much concerned with the inequities in this world, would be in the same camp. And MacLaine, despite her own sexual adventurousness, was probably uncomfortable with her kid bro’s conquesting reputation.

When I ask her how they’re getting on these days, she says: “Look, I understand the workings of a family better now – brothers and sisters, sisters and sisters – I mean, come on. We’re in a very good and cordial period now… I don’t know how long it will last but we’re there now.” Is it stretching it to find anything about the difficulties between the two sisters in the new film which might correspond to the history between her and her brother? “Oh, I think there can be sibling rivalry between brothers and sisters. I was always watching the way he treated women.”

Aha, and…? “I think he was interested in women because of mother, you know; he could never hear her. Therefore, I think he’s very good with women and understands women. Maybe he didn’t have to understand as many as he did…” her voice goes up. Do you think he has a strong feminine side? “Oh, very. He does, but I think he was searching for what a woman means and needs and loves and hates and wants and is afraid of.”

I say that I had spoken to him at some length on the telephone a few years ago, in an attempt to persuade him to be interviewed. We talked about politics, mainly, but what was alluring about him, compared to most actors I’ve encountered, was his informed interest in the world about him. “He’d have loved to get you into bed,” is her bizarre response. Oh! “Are you kiddin’ me or what?” she squawks. Well, gosh, you know, I feel sort of insulted and embarrassed, and also rather flattered. “You see, he knows that he has that appeal which overcomes the sensibility that you know that he has, and it makes you forget that you know he’s doing that to you.” Hmm. How complicated. Moving on swiftly… What do you think of our new English national treasure, Madonna? “I’d like to bronze that horse.”

I take it you were not all that thrilled when your brother and she became an item? I think you said something quite rude at the time? (Asked how she would feel about having the singer as a sister-in-law, MacLaine’s response was that it would be as easy for her “as it would be for me to nail a custard pie to the wall”.) “I said it would be like hanging bubbles on a clothes line, or pissing up a rope,” she says, in case one were in any doubt about her feelings.
MacLaine is still sufficiently concerned with this life – I feared that she had completely retreated from the here and now – to care about who is holding the reins of power. I wondered whether she was still friends with Julie Christie, a famous Beatty ex, who shows no signs of political apathy. “I liked her a lot. I thought he should have married her.” Do you approve of this one? (Annette Bening.) “Love her. She’s smart; she wants to be a mother; she certainly is a brilliant actress, but if the roles don’t come along – that’s all right, too. I was just over there last night. We had a wonderful time.” I ask her whether she will intercede on my behalf to secure that interview with her brother. “I’ll do it on one condition,” she says sternly. What? (I’m thinking: copy control; I have to become a Buddhist…) A very big pause and then: “You have to go to bed with him.” Hysterical laughter on both our parts. What is she like?

It is as well to mention, perhaps, that neither MacLaine nor I have been drinking. So this drift towards bawdiness – at poor Warren’s expense – is merely his sister’s idea of natural ebullience and fun. The only occasion I have come across such ribald behaviour, in this context, was with another great celluloid diva: Elizabeth Taylor, who was equally outspoken and shameless. They make the present crop of female megastars seem colourless in comparison.

I tell MacLaine that I had been warned that she would be on her toes and quick with the verbal come-back: a legacy of her upbringing. “Nooooh,” she says. Her parents, Ira and Kathleen – the name of Warren’s oldest daughter – Beaty, had a long but difficult marriage. MacLaine once described it as a partnership of “blended neuroses”. Her childhood home was full of “disappointment and longings”. She has also compared her parents to the drunk academics in Who’s Afraid of Virgina Woolf. Now she says: “They weren’t that bad and therefore not that funny.” Her father was a bad enough “cyclical” drunk – to make her wary of getting involved with any man with similar tendencies. Which is interesting, since the only man who seems to have dented her heart – Robert Mitchum – always conveyed the impression of being over-attached to the bottle.

She was born in Virginia, a southern gal but not a belle – which meant that she was never burdened with the anguish of losing her looks. One of the many astute comments MacLaine has made about herself was this: “See, I wasn’t afraid of getting old, because I was never a great beauty. I was never a sex symbol. I did, however, have great legs because I was a dancer. But I didn’t have that baggage. I wasn’t interested in my stature as a star. Ever. I was just interested in great parts.”

MacLaine adopted her mother’s maiden name when she became frustrated by a director who seemed unable to pronounce her surname correctly (Bait-y not Beat-y). Warren merely chose to embellish the family name with an extra “t”. The two siblings could not look more disimilar; it must have been vexing, I think, to have a brother who was considered prettier than yourself. MacLaine says that she’s not even sure that she is the offspring of her parents. You think you were adopted? “I always felt I was so different from anyone in this family.” Different from anyone, full stop, I say… and she laughs.

There seems to have been a rapprochement between parents and daughter in later life which was partly to do with their shared interest in the unknown. “My mother’s metaphysics had to do with nature: her rose garden, for example. ‘I understand reincarnation,’ she would say, ‘because the rose’s stem is the soul which has a different rose every spring’. Dad was a serious metaphysician – which he never told anybody. His best buddy died in the Second World War, and at the moment of being shot, appeared at the bottom of my dad’s bed. And he told me about one night when he was drunk and crashed the car and had an out-of-body experience. ‘So,’ he said, ‘I know what you’re talking about.’”

For those of us who remain sceptical about the beyond, it would seem more constructive for MacLaine to apply her considerable energy to addressing the problems coming out of America. Does she actually feel American? “Oh, yeah, but an American that is the result of the founding fathers’ wish. I’m very ashamed of being in this country and of what we’re doing.” Of the war specifically? “Our imperialistic attitudes, our desecration of the environment, the whole Christian crusading that the Bush administration is doing, the marketing economy… it’s a freakin’ disaster!”

So why not re-enter the political fray? (Her brother has been reported to be considering taking on Arnie.) “No, I’ll sit back and…” But why sit back? “Politics are not what it is about now. What it’s about now is really what I’ve been writing about and thinking about for most of my life. Who are we? Where did we come from? Are we alone in the universe? What is God? We might have an apocalypse with everyone involved and armies killing each other over God.”

Has MacLaine ever fooled herself about herself? “Yeah, now this is interesting… I fooled myself that the country would wake up to Richard Nixon. I fooled myself that we would see that in the name of, quote, ‘Democracy in the Arab world’, we’re losing it at home. I thought we would be more aware than that, and we’re not. I fooled myself for a while that people would understand the nature of my metaphysics. It is now mainstream but I thought they would be ready for it sooner.”

Mainstream? Well, only up to a point. My partiality to MacLaine – an admirer of her talent, sassiness, and courage in forging her own way – meant I found myself editing out the parts of her that alienated me. From kooky to cuckoo, after all, is but a short UFO-mystic hop. I had not read her copious volumes of spiritual travels and tried to brush over the outlandish musings on her past lives: as Charlemagne’s mistress; an orphan brought up by elephants; Nefertiti’s handmaiden; a model for Toulouse-Lautrec. I was doing pretty well, but then I came to the most recent cutting in her many files and my heart sank: four pages in Hello! publicising a new book, Out on a Leash, Exploring Reality and Love, which she has “co-written” with her dog, Terry. Shirley, I read, has Terry the terrier “sign” documents for herself, and says that she talks with the dog in a “purer, more direct form of language”, which she calls “Humanimal”.

She lives alone in her main home in Santa Fe and I had been asking her, as she has become older, whether she finds herself becoming increasingly reclusive or more reliant on friendship. “I’m a phoney recluse,” MacLaine says. “Because I like being alone. My idea of being really alone – no, of being lone-ly – is never to be alone. I love my own company. How I would feel now about my own company without Terry, my dog, is another question.

“But she and I have an arrangement that when she goes, in about ten years, she’s going to come back right away again. So I will wait until I’m drawn to the right puppy. I know more about the meaning of love with her – this is important what I’m saying now – nature and animals have taught me more about love than people.”

One might be tempted to say this sounds barking – ho ho – but MacLaine is in full Empress flow and not in the mood for jests. I say, instead, that it’s quite common for older people living on their own – particularly women – to form extremely strong attachments to their pets. “I’ve noticed that, too, and I do feel very much in the ranks of older women who have their pets,” she concedes. “But maybe it’s because we are really searching for the definition of love. We know that what we’ve experienced before comes and goes – came and went. The child thing is another thing, of course, that’s love – in that you can’t help but love, but you’re always worried about whether you’re doing the right thing.” And so we keep circling back to this niggle of long-gone decisions returning to haunt MacLaine in some way.

I wonder whether she had worries at the time about sending her daughter off to Japan, or did she close them down? “No, Steve and I had arguments,” she says. But there had been kidnap threats and a drunk nanny sleeping with her boyfriend, while Sachi was left sitting outside on the doorstep, and MacLaine was concerned about the general perils of Hollywood life and, in any case, her husband – a dancer turned director turned producer – did not want to stay in a town where he was known as Mr MacLaine.

The couple finally divorced in 1987 after 27 years of marriage. MacLaine’s father had died the previous year and I wondered whether this had been the catalyst. “Oh no, it was because I found out that Steve had been stealing all my money,” she says. The marriage had been amicable till then; more of a long-distance friendship than a partnership. “Yes, that’s right. He had his affairs and I had mine. But take my money and you’re outta here! I’m far too Scotch for that. Ha ha ha.” When Parker died in 2001, MacLaine did not attend the funeral: “He didn’t want me there.”
Passion doesn’t feature in her life any more: “I think it’s the ageing process and also wisdom.” She says that she feels completely peaceful, and happier than she’s ever been. “I have zero stress. All that over-achieving has been transformed into not planning,” she says. “It’s daunting but you should try it.” Instead of going to swanky dinner parties, with place settings and fabulous wine – and where it’s all over in three hours – she prefers to have her friends stay with her for three days in Santa Fe, where they go hiking and riding, feed the chickens and talk. She says that, although she doesn’t like to socialise or go to parties, when she does go, she’s always the last to leave.

So you like to drink martinis and kick up your legs? Oooh, what kind of look is that you’re giving me? “What does having a martini and kicking up your legs mean?” I suppose it’s shorthand for asking you whether you turn into the life and soul of the party. “No. I’m over in a corner talking deeply with someone who no one else is talking to.” Did you object to the suggestion you drink, or the idea that you kick up your legs? “I just thought it was a stupid question.” Oh. “I thought it was a clichéd question.” Oh. “I hate cliché. Hate it. But I have to get over this because now everyone is speaking in cliché.”

I wonder whether, perhaps, MacLaine has turned into one of the Californian New Puritans. But she only stopped smoking last December, and she still wants a cigarette every day. Pot wasn’t for her because, like the ex-Pres, she never inhaled. And now, since her hiatus hernia, drinking’s pretty much out, too. How very boring for you. Yes, particularly since she loves a good martini, she says, especially a Dirty Gibson. This is an evil-sounding concoction: gin (it has to be Tanqueray), a tablespoon of onion juice and a great big pickled onion. “I’ll go make one for you because I make really good ones,” she says. Lovely, I say, but possibly not quite yet. (It’s 11.30 in the morning.)

A few questions on and MacLaine is fretting that she spoke too harshly to me. “You know, I had a pang of guilt when I said that was a stupid question. In my head, I didn’t think that out, and I am guilty over things like that. But I explained myself and it was all right. Still feel guilty.” It was a bit mean? “Mmm. I do that. With age and the right to tell the truth, and then people have their feelings hurt…” Do you mind that? “I do. It bothers me because I’m kind, but I’m also extremely direct and I can’t stand being a phoney diplomat.”

She may never have been a sex symbol, as she says, but that didn’t stop some pretty hunky men finding MacLaine sexy. When we go on to talk about romantic love, there is something about her that reminds me of her character, Ella, in the new film. For all her apparent transparency, there is also a sense of something buried or unacknowledged – which makes me wonder whether the actress really is as tough, deep-down, as she likes to make out. In her youth, and later, she considered herself to be a sexual person. There were liaisons with a number of politicians: the assassinated Swedish prime minister, Olof Palme; Australia’s urbane Andrew Peacock, twice leader of the conservative opposition – are you still friends? “Oh, yes!”; a British Labour MP who remains anonymous. Were you attracted to their brains or their position? “I was probably slumming in power,” she says. There were also a couple of truck drivers whom she found sexy, she would like to point out, possibly in the interests of egalitarianism, “but only for one-night-stands”.

Now, she says: “It wasn’t really about sex. Never is. It never really is. What is sexual attraction anyway? When you think about it, it’s not about sex, it’s not about f******, it’s not about how big it is or anything like that. It’s about the person inside that body. It’s to do with a certain energy and values and sense of humour. And I was always attracted to a man who was basically a mystery to himself, because that kept my interest and gave me something to do.”

Were you ever romantic? “Basically not. I understand that romance will kill a relationship.” Did you ever have your heart broken? “No, but there were some periods with Robert Mitchum [they had a three-year affair] where I just wanted to kill him… does that mean I had my heart broken?” she seems to be asking herself. “No, I’d kill a man before he broke my heart.” How did you manage to insulate your heart and still be an open person? “I didn’t insulate it. But…” Then I believe you must have had your heart broken. “But I don’t see myself as a victim. I turned being hurt into action: ‘What did you do this for? Why? What is on your mind? Let’s talk.’ Yes, I am a good communicator.”

You’ve written about flying halfway around the world to meet your lover in hotels. “And he wouldn’t be there.” So what on earth did you do? “Ask myself, ‘What am I doing this for?’ See, I was fascinated by how weak he was… this big guy. I couldn’t stay away from investigating the passivity.” I liked that beatniky phrase about Mitchum having the soul of a poet; a poet with an axe. “That was his description of himself,” she says. “I think he was lying about the axe.”

Our time is up, but MacLaine is damned if she’s not going to show off her martini-making skills, which throws Hilary the film publicist into a state of some alarm. I follow the Empress, tape recorder in hand, and watch her create havoc in the restaurant. The young staff are so far from being obsequious that their attitude is almost rude. MacLaine rolls her eyes but carries on indomitably till she has mixed me her Dirty Gibson. Oh God, I gasp, reeling from the neat alcohol, perhaps it needs a bit more onion juice. “Ha ha ha… this girl is really Dirty!” she says.

I mention Elizabeth Taylor whom I interviewed in Beverly Hills where I also interviewed Madonna, and say how much more gracious one was than the other. “Why would you even mention them in the same breath?” she asks. “Did he screw them both?” Screw? Who? What? Him? Your brother? “Did he do Elizabeth? I don’t know. I think he tried to on that picture in Paris.” Well, honestly! What is Shirley MacLaine like? I think the answer has to be: like no other.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Funny girl

THE TIMES – July 9 2005
Ginny Dougary

Jennifer Saunders is the unrivalled queen of British comedy. Here she talks, absolutely frankly, to Ginny Dougary about age, Eddy, shyness, weight – and the importance of being English.

Poor Jennifer Saunders. How can she possibly be expected to live up to her creation? As a fully paid-up member of the Edina Fan Club, I want the queen of comedy to lurch into the room in a pair of mad platforms, clutching a bottle of Bolly, call me “sweetie dahling” and go mwah-mwah somewhere in the vicinity of my cheeks, before passing out.

The initial signs are quite encouraging – the Ab-Fabby rendez-vous of Soho House, and an Ab Fab-sized entourage of personal make-up artist, personal assistant, advertising agency publicity assistant, our photographer and two assistants, as well as a charming, most unSaffy-like 19-year-old mini-Saunders daughter. At first, dauntingly, all nine of us crowd into a tiny room around a table covered in empty ashtrays just asking to be filled. Offered a drink, Saunders orders a post-lunch glass of white wine. Thank God – if she’d ordered mineral water she might never have been forgiven. The entourage melts away into MediaLand beyond our door and we settle into a thoroughly convivial time.

There is something quintessentially English about Jennifer Saunders, as opposed to her overblown characters; English, as in pony- in-the-paddock, self-deprecating, shyness-mistaken-for-aloofness sort of way. When Dawn French first met her future comedy partner at drama school, her opinion was that Saunders was a snooty, upper-class girl… “And her opinion hasn’t changed,” Saunders says drily. Both their fathers were in the RAF but in different ranks, and French has always placed herself firmly in the lower-middle classes. “She’s obsessed with class,” says Saunders, with eye-rolling affection.

No, as it happens, she doesn’t believe that she is snooty but she is aware that her manner can be forbidding. (Although she is never even remotely so, I must say, in our encounter.) It seems that she has had to work hard in adult life to overcome her innate shyness. As a child, Saunders would stare at people so intensely that her mother would become quite mortified. From one or two of her comments, I think Saunders is still a bit frightened of her mama, interestingly, even at the reasonably ripe age of 47.

“My mother says that I’d have to be taken away in restaurants because I’d be standing in front of tables just looking. And I had quite a cross face. In most of my pictures of me as a child, I’m frowning, and it’s taken a long time to get rid of the frown because it seems to be my natural expression.

“People are always telling me to cheer up and I’m, like, ‘I’m really not sad, I’m just thinking.’ But I do still frown and generally have my head down.”

For such a bright spark, coming from a family of Oxbridge high-achievers, it must have been puzzling, if not a little dismaying, to have failed to get into any universities. I have the feeling that Saunders’ mother, a biology teacher, was not amused. Did the rejections make her feel thick? “No, I’ve never felt thick.” Did she know why she was so unsuccessful? “I knew exactly why. It was because I was slightly sullen and unable to engage. Even though I would say I’m not shy now, I used to go bright red the second someone spoke to me and I couldn’t look at anyone, ever. But I did sort of overcome that.”

Part of the problem, I think, must have been Saunders’ aversion to self-promotion. She may even be allergic, possibly, to the idea of selling herself, which is why there are relatively few interviews in such a long and successful career. Saunders, one suspects, would just shrivel up and die were she ever to be persuaded to appear on Oprah. Her guest appearance on Parkinson was described as an historic moment in non-disclosure.

“The big, overriding thing in our family was that any kind of taking yourself seriously was the biggest, biggest crime, and that went for religion, for everything. You just didn’t do that,” she says. “It’s like my father didn’t keep his RAF title [Group Captain R. T. Saunders] once he left. All that sort of thing to him was just a little bit… no, not bad form, it was pompous.”

Until recently, Saunders considered herself only borderline as opposed to hardcore English. Her mother’s father was South African and her maternal grandmother a Scot, and compared to Group Captain R. T. Saunders, who was “very English”, his daughter believed she was not, you know, “English English”. But she has had to revise her opinion on reading a book, Watching the English by Kate Fox, recommended by Ella, a 19-year-old singer-songwriter and the oldest of the Adrian Edmondson-Jennifer Saunders’ triumverate of daughters.

“It’s an absolutely brilliant examination of English culture and how foreigners take as a complete mystery the things we take for granted. You know, how awful it would be if people walked into a business meeting and started business without making friends and having a bit of a tea party first. The English bonding thing which is to compliment someone on what they’re wearing, and then that person says, ‘No, don’t be ridiculous, it was terribly cheap but you… look at you!’ ‘Oh, I just threw this together’, that whole thing.”

She applauds Kate Fox’s example of an American going up to someone and saying, “Hello, my name’s Jack and I’m from Idaho,” and the English person recoiling in horror that anyone could be so forward. Which is entirely Saunders’ position. The English art of social intercourse is to start with general small talk, “and then, sideways, you gradually find out what they do and whether you might in any way be interested to know them at all [slurred, rather like an American, actually, into ‘adall’], and at any point you can cut the conversation off. You don’t have to know who they are or where they’re from. It’s just awful to know that sort of thing.”

Saunders is being only slightly humorous at this point, and I think – if I closed my eyes – she could be an English actress from another era: Celia Johnson, perhaps, or Joyce Grenfell. There’s a trace of Penelope Keith’s Margo there, too: the wrinkle of the patrician nose, the little moue of distaste.

But with my eyes open, what I see is how very comely Saunders is in person, with her artfully highlighted blonde hair, handsome jaw and fine, rather delicate features. She is much more small-boned, too, than she appears on screen, although, like most women who submit themselves to the merciless gaze of the camera – or, perhaps, most women full stop – she inevitably thinks she’s overweight.

We take a small break from the enjoyable pastime of bashing Americans to discuss girlish matters such as diets and clothes. She knows that she’s precisely half a stone heavier than her usual weight of between ten and ten-and-a-half stone. Today her 5ft 4-ish, 5ft 5-ish height is stacked up with a pair of red shoes (could they be platforms, indeed?) under her jeans. She blames her new avoirdupois on a recent holiday: she and her girls with Peter Richardson, her old friend and director of the Comic Strip, and his family in a house in Spain: “The most wonderful no-exercise, drinky, eat, eat, eat, lovely holiday. Get up, sit by pool, have giant Pimm’s and then giant lunch and giant supper. And there’s nothing I like more in the world than that.”

However, Saunders also likes “the ability to get up in the morning and do something without feeling really puffed out by the time I get to the top of the field, and at the moment I have to stop quite a lot because my legs are hurting… and I don’t enjoy that.” In decamping from Richmond, London, to Dartmoor, Devon, Saunders has returned to her childhood pleasures of riding and country walks.

There’s also the business of how you look on TV, presumably? “Well, I’m towards the end of my career now,” she says. What? “I mean, the end of being on telly.” What? Surely not? “I would like to write and direct. That would be my joy.” But why can’t you carry on being on telly? “I don’t know, it’s so bloody… six o’clock calls to go to bloody make-up all the time.” That must be a drag, but all the same…

“I mean, always the first there and the last to bloody leave and it does wear you down. The little things wear you down. You do think, ‘Oh, just get on with it.’ And then having to publicise everything and the endless business of…” Like this, I suppose? “It’s not that I hate doing interviews and this one is nice,” she says, diplomatically (the real reason she’s here is to promote a new ad campaign for Barclaycard). “But it can become an endless treadmill of stuff. And the endless pressure to buy more clothes. Find some more things to put on. In my normal life, I wear the same clothes for a year and then decide the boots are a bit worn out, better get some new ones.”

Although I like the way this conforms to my idea of Saunders turning into one of those careless upper-class beauties who stride around their massive country piles in threadbare old cords, the woman in front of me is too thoughtfully kitted out for me to believe she is quite as insouciant about her appearance as she makes out.

Her lovely mossy linen jacket is by the English designer Margaret Howell: “I used to buy her and then she went out of fashion for a bit and now she’s back with these fantastic clothes, great little collarless shirts… and it’s completely my uniform which is what I used to wear as a child: sort of jodhpur boots or cowboy boots, with a trouser generally with a slight flair, a good shirt and a nice jacket. Basically, riding clothes is what I wear.”

The very idea that Saunders – one of our most popular comic actors – is talking about retiring from our TV screens is plainly preposterous. French and Saunders are the Morecambe and Wise de nos jours – in other words, a venerable British institution. But for me, it’s the thought of no more Eddy and Patsy that is unthinkable. The appalling duo have surely embedded themselves in our comic consciousness as firmly as Basil and Sybil, and the shows are still cult viewing in America and Australia. It will be some time before the Alan Partridges or David Brents or even the much-garlanded Little Britains can claim that.

Anyway, don’t you just love Eddy? “Oh yes, I can’t tell you how much. I absolutely adore her and I adore being her.” Do you think she’s allowed women to feel better about behaving badly? “Yes, I would say that Eddy has legitimised quite a lot of… behaviour.” Is it a great escape being her? “It’s the most lovely thing. It’s hard to describe – but when I’m being Eddy and Joanna becomes Patsy and we’re sitting there, I think there’s no happier place to be because it is a total escape. It must be for us like meditation is for other people who can lose themselves through it,” she says. “You become these people and you think of funnier and funnier things. And Joanna and I will sit for an hour and just have a conversation about whatever Patsy might do, how they would end up, where they might have gone, what would happen if they did this or that. And it’s like eating the best chocolate, do you know what I mean?”

As Saunders goes on, she begins to metamorphose into her creation. She is laughing, quite brilliantly, at her own jokes – remembering how one of the sketches came about. She had the lines but no theme, and Lumley started talking about how movie stars marrying other movie stars didn’t really work. Why? “‘Darling, race horse.’ ‘Race horse?’ ‘She [glam actress] doesn’t want another race horse for company, she wants a donkey or a goat. Doesn’t she, darling?’” And as Saunders and Lumley riffed on, they began to twig that within their own on-screen relationship, Eddy’s always the donkey. “So eventually Eddy was sitting at a table with donkeys – hahahahahaha [wheezing with laughter now] and they’re trying to Sex and the Ciddee up their lives a bit and just being more thin and more everything… yah, more Sex and the Ciddee kind of thing,” she swings from Eddy back to sensible Jennifer, “And it’s just totally impossible. At her thinnest, Eddy would still be too fat, you know… because it’s a whole career to be that thin.”

To stick with the donkey theme, Saunders does have quite a marked, Eeyore-like strain of gloom in an otherwise sanguine personality. This is not the first time, for instance, that she has hinted that her on-screen days are numbered. That she is more emphatic in this encounter may simply be a case of her being a year or two older – or closer to incontinent senility, as she might put it.

She seesaws wildly between writing off Absolutely Fabulous herself to saying that there’s nothing she wants more than to do another series. There have been five to date, plus specials, but the last show was filmed about two years ago. She says the negative reviews, which have been proliferating with each series, don’t really affect her life because by the time they’re screened: “You’re moving on, you’ve got some more chickens and you’re quite happy.

“I actually have finished with it now, I think,” she says. “You have a sense of when something really is past its sell-by date and it might just be now. I’ll have to burn the wigs because otherwise it’s all too convenient.” Everyone’s too old, she says, and Eddy’s developing into someone who’s going to become very needy and require a lot of looking after, “and it’s a slightly sadder sort of place to go”. But this is mad, surely; Eddy and Patsy are only in their fifties. There’s a good 20 years in them before they’ll be reaching for their Zimmer frames.

Part of the problem may be that Saunders wants to see if she has it in her to be able to invent something fresh to match the success of Absolutely Fabulous. She did have a go at writing a brand-new series, Mirrorball, which came out as a pilot a while back – but all it made her realise was how much she missed Eddy and Patsy et al, and so she retreated to her old creative comfort zone.

It was Ab Fab’s unexpected success in America – where it went out on cable after Steven Spielberg and then Roseanne Barr failed to convince the major networks that it wasn’t the work of Satan – that convinced Saunders to give the old dames a new lease of life.

“It was at a time when the critics here were being sniffy and I thought it would be too embarrassing to do another series. And then America was so cheerful about it, because in America they just think things go on and on, and why shouldn’t you? And you get infected by that and you think, ‘Yeah. Why the f*** shouldn’t I do another one?’” she says. “Because if you can think of enough good jokes – and generally I think there’s more jokes than in the average sitcom – then why don’t we do it? And we generally have a really great time making it. We have such a bloody laugh. And if I could just do that and it never went out, I would be so happy for the rest of my life.”

So what does her husband think about the future of Ab Fab? “I don’t know.” Really? But doesn’t Ade love it? “He must have an opinion, but I’ve no idea.” Hmmm. What does one make of that, I wonder. And then she says that he would like to keep the series going from a business point of view: “You think, ‘Keep it going for as long as you can,’ because, you know, TV’s so hard to break into now. Why give up something that people actually want to see or that they [the TV chiefs] actually want to commission? Why would you give that up? Because it also gives you slight leverage into people wanting to commission other stuff. It keeps you there. And that’s a horrible thought, really, because it means that you’re thinking about things from the wrong perspective.”

The quandary for pioneers is where to go next when everyone else has caught up with or overtaken you. Saunders was startled by the reaction to the first series of the show, since for her it was merely an extension of the kind of work she and French had been doing. “In England, it was, ‘Oh bloody drunk birds… there you go.’ But in America, it was as if some kind of revolution had taken place. American women are so straight. They were going, ‘OMYGAHD! These women are so CRAZEE!’ And I was like, ‘What? You mean, you don’t know anyone like that? You’ve never been like this yourself? You’ve never got drunk and fallen in the street? I don’t understand! Where have you been?’”

But that was in the days when you never saw anyone smoking or drinking on American television, before HBO transformed what you could show on the small screen and ushered in Will and Grace and Sex and the City and now Desperate Housewives… “and they’ve all taken that kind of idea and run with it. And in a way, that’s why I feel I can’t go on, because if we went even more extreme, it would sort of cheapen it in a way and look a bit desperate,” Saunders says.

Reality television has also shifted the definition of extreme: how can the imagination compete with real-life grotesques such as Jackie Stallone or the Almodóvar drama of Nadia? She says that although The Office and Little Britain new bods are huge and sell millions of DVDs, they’re still slightly peripheral to mainstream entertainment: “They’re not 7.30, BBC One Friday night. Not yet, although they will be, because everyone naturally progresses that way. Like we have. You don’t progress yourself, actually, you get progressed until you suddenly realise, ‘I thought we were BBC Two still.’ And it’s, ‘No, no, no, you can’t do that, you’re BBC One now.’ ‘Oh, I see.’ And it fits uncomfortably sometimes, but that’s the way television has gone now. Television prescribes the product before you’ve written it. That’s a big change and it’s very difficult, and it often makes us feel that we should just give up because you think that you can’t quite squeeze yourself into the mould.”

At the time, Saunders’ delivery was so breezily matter-of-fact that her statement didn’t make much of an impact. Yet writing this now, it sounds almost like professional suicide. She definitely hankers after the old days when she was allowed to take risks and the powers-that-be did not interfere. Now it’s “where they want you to pitch it; it’s the material they want you to cover. Yes, it can be topics, but you’ll also get suggestions about sketches and that never used to happen ever at the BBC. It’s the way most television has gone: they decide what slots they’ve got and what they want to go into it. So if you bring a product to the table, they will try to mould it into the show to fit the slot.”

The last French and Saunders, it turns out, wasn’t quite what the BBC wanted… “because there weren’t loads of parodies and it was a little bit too loose. It didn’t have enough to grab people immediately. It didn’t have enough very obvious stuff in it.” Ergo French and Saunders themselves loved it: “We enjoyed it as writers and lots of writers love it because it’s a proper writers’ show. But now, there’s a feeling that if it doesn’t work first time, it can’t work. Cut it. Change it. Do anything.”

Oh dear. It does rather look like Saunders is trying to get a message across to someone at the Beeb. Perhaps this, too, with her newfound sense of English Englishness is a convenient way to avoid the simply awful business of being direct.

In Los Angeles, in contrast, she seems to have found a way to overcome her reticence. She sees the formula now from the moment they love you to the moment they don’t even know “who the f*** you are. And it’s quite a short time space.” So now when she goes into LA meetings, she says: “‘Listen, while we’re still speaking to each other, can I say…’ ‘Whaddya mean?’ I’m going, oh forget it. ‘While we are still speaking…’ ‘But you’re my best friend,

I love you. I wanna adopt you.’ And I say, ‘Yes, while we’re still speaking, could you just…’ And you can just time the moment when they’ll actually blank you altogether.”

Saunders is fantastically proud of her daughter Ella’s voice and songs, which she describes, intriguingly, as ballads under the influence of Marilyn Manson and Nirvana. Her own musical preference is country and western, and her heroine is, of course, Dolly Parton. During the time that Roseanne Barr was attempting to recreate Ab Fab in America, Saunders became quite chummy with Eddy’s foul-mouthed US counterpart. And one jetlagged evening, through Roseanne’s auspices, she actually met The Dolly. Barr had offered Saunders dinner “without an entourage. Hurray. That is quite rare in America”. And there they were in Morton’s, home of the famous Vanity Fair Oscars party, which Saunders describes as a giant aircraft hangar: “All you can see from the outside are air-conditioning systems, and you think, ‘Where are we going? A car park?’” Several bottles of wine arrive at the table “because Roseanne thinks, like everyone does, that I’m like my character and must require not just one, but two or possibly three bottles”.

Then plates of mashed potato arrive because obviously since she’s English, that must be what she wants: “And I was in a sort of heaven. But not quite realising that I had now floated at least six inches off the ground with jet lag and bottles of wine and I’d examined all Roseanne’s tattoos, and then she said, ‘Oh, by the way, Dolly Parton is here. Do you like her?’ And I said, ‘I worship Dolly Parton. Dolly Parton has made my life such joy. I know every single song, every single album.’ And she said, ‘I’ll ask her to come over and sit at the table.’ And I was, like, ‘OHMYGOD!’

“And then Dolly Parton – DOLLY PARTON! – is sitting at our table, and it’s one of those moments when you think, ‘Oh God, I wish I wasn’t so drunk because I really do like Dolly Parton and I want to say how much I like her but maybe I’m too drunk.’”

So Saunders staggers off to the loo in an attempt to sober up and it’s a long, long way away. She’s sitting on the loo thinking she may by now have been gone for half an hour but what she feels would be a fitting mark of respect would be to sing a medley of Dolly songs to Dolly: “Because, you know, she needs to know how much I like her.

“By the time I’d negotiated the aircraft hangar back to the table where Dolly was sitting, actually quite merry herself, she was absolutely up for anything, lovely – I’d forgotten every single thing she’d ever done. I never got to tell her that I thought she was really… quite good. And she was sitting there, thin as a rake, huge tits, looking great, and I thought – in that slightly above-your-body-looking-down way – ‘I am sitting at a table with Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr. Dolly Parton and Roseanne Barr.’ And I thought, ‘I must not forget this moment.’”

A few years later, when Dolly did her show in London, Saunders sent her a present backstage: “But she didn’t remember me.”

And what could be more English, or more Jennifer Saunders, to end on that note.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

All by herself

THE TIMES – June 11, 2005
Ginny Dougary

Despite her frail beauty, Naomi Watts has overcome the pain of her father’s untimely death – and the label ‘Nicole Kidman’s best friend’ – to become a star in her own right.

naomi watts

Naomi Almost-Mega Watts is quite right when she says that she’s not the sort of actress who lights up a room. Admittedly it would take a Day-Glo aura to penetrate the dungeonesque gloom of the Manhattan hotel foyer we meet in, but it does take a while to register that the childlike figure approaching me – fair hair scraped back in a stubby ponytail, pale face with no make-up, jeans, flat silver pumps, baggy bleached-blue cardigan, clutching a takeaway coffee – is a Hollywood star.

Her prettiness is often commented on but what impressed me in the films I’ve seen her in is her grittiness. Even in a schlocky- horror teen movie such as The Ring, the intelligence of her acting makes the viewing more compelling. In genuinely interesting films (David Lynch’s Mulholland Drive and Alejandro González Iñárritu’s 21 Grams, which won her an Oscar nomination), Watts fills the screen with her raw, almost uncomfortable portrayal of despair, anger, bitterness; a palpable willingness to mine whatever it takes from her own life to realise the truth of her character.

There’s courage, too, in the way the actress wills herself to go to places creatively that she finds horrible to visit – masturbating in front of an all-male film crew on Mulholland Drive, for instance – and her apparent indifference to being made to look quite plain sometimes, snot and tears streaming down her face, a strange little bulge forming next to her cheek usually when one of her characters is in extremis.

Certainly in her work of the past five years, all the women Watts has played are either downright edgy or battlers or on the outer margins in some way. In The Ring, she is a single mother and single-minded investigative reporter; in Mulholland Drive, she plays two different women: Betty, a nicey-nicey wannabe starlet who falls for a mysterious woman, and her mirror image of Diane, a not-very-nice love-sick lesbian and ravaged Hollywood failure; in 21 Grams, a reformed junkie who relapses after her husband and two young daughters are run over and killed; in I § Huckabees, a model who rebels against her bimbo straitjacket, trading her bikini for dungarees and a mad Amish bonnet; in We Don’t Live Here Anymore, a depressed, adulterous housewife who betrays her best friend in her desperation to remind herself what it is to be alive.

Even as the Fay Wray character in Peter (Lord of the Rings) Jackson’s forthcoming King Kong – a role which should definitively caterpault Watts into super-stardom status – one feels that she is likely to find a way, against the odds, of investing her part with something surprising and psychological. At 36, Watts is no overnight success. She has been toiling away at the Hollywood coalface for a good decade. Until relatively recently, she was simply (but surely irritatingly) known as Nicole Kidman’s best friend – accompanying her in those tricky post-Cruise months to various Academy-type functions. In photographs, the decorative but diminutive Watts is dwarfed – physically, at least – by Kidman’s towering stature.

Hey, I say, how come Nicole has so little influence in LaLa Land? I mean, surely she could have landed you a good part or two? What kind of sad sack of a mate is she? “You can’t really have that done for you,” she says, so seriously it is rather endearing. “Ultimately you’ve got to drive it yourself. I mean, now I’m lucky enough to be in this great position and some of my friends are struggling, you know, and you know, sure, I can introduce them to people and I have done that – as Nicole has done or did for me – but you can’t just call someone and say, ‘You need to hire this person.’ Ultimately, they have to get it on their own merit.”

Part of the problem was that Watts never seemed to have access to the right people: “A lot of the time I couldn’t get to meet the director; it was more like the assistant of some casting director. [She was commonly rejected for being ‘too intense and stressed-out’ or for being ‘a little too old’; on one occasion, a major Hollywood player actually fell asleep during her audition.] And when you’re up against all those things, how can you shine? How can you show anyone that you have something? You just feel like it’s too big a challenge.

“But, you know, it wasn’t their fault. I don’t blame them. I was unhireable! I’m not someone who can walk into a room and just light it up. It’s not who I am. Lighting up a screen and being good in a scene or a moment is very different to walking in and making people’s heads turn. Really, what I am is an observer.”

Los Angeles is such a soul-shrinking hologram of a place to pick for a home, where no one walks, and the bodies – pool-side – all seem to have been honed at the same gym; so many young, beautiful people chasing after the elusive mirage of one big break. Watts had her own share of rejection and depression and loneliness, weeping in cars, unable to pay her health insurance – which is a truly alarming predicament in the land where opportunity quite often fails to knock – struggling with debts and the prospect of imminent eviction. She once made the mistake of telling a reporter, “I remember driving along Mulholland Drive, thinking, ‘Maybe I’ll just go over the cliff because I can’t take it any more.’”

“That wasn’t literal. For the record, I am not a suicidal person,” she says, not at all sternly. In fact, with an easy laugh which is something she does often. “But I understand depression and I’ve lived it and I felt really badly when I read that and suddenly it’s everywhere, ‘Naomi contemplating suicide’.” It was always an option, in theory, to return to Australia where she had played a paraplegic in the soap Home and Away, and a schoolgirl in John Duigan’s film Flirting, in which she and Kidman cemented their friendship. (They had originally met at a casting for a film where they were asked to pose in swimsuits.) But, in practice, going back would have meant going backwards and that might have been as frightening as staying put and going nowhere: “Yeah, oh yeah. Because in Australia we’re very, very full of pride and, you know, it was always an option I was trying to avoid.”

In the end, it was David Lynch who rescued Watts in 2001 from her own Hollywood margins by taking a rather inspired, instinctive punt – he picked her on the basis of a snap taken by her photographer brother Ben and a half-hour meeting, never having seen her on screen. Mulholland Drive was initially a TV pilot – along the lines of Twin Peaks – but ABC balked at its dark weirdness and Lynch felt there was enough footage, with an additional story-line, to extend it to a feature-length film. The corporation’s rejection enabled Watts to show her stuff in the more challenging role of Diane.

Lynch was rewarded with best director at Cannes, and Watts, as the lead actress, soaked up the reflected limelight, but – from her point of view – she had certainly had to show more stuff than she had bargained for. We had been talking about Michael Winterbottom – an English director she admires – and the explicit sexual scenes of his most recent film, 9 Songs, when she mentions her Mulholland masturbation scene. Was that awkward? “Er. Yes. In a word. Yes.” Really? (Thinking of Winterbottom’s oral sex and full penetration and how that has shifted acceptable sexual boundaries in a mainstream film.) “I was mortified. Completely mortified.”

Is it because you’re shy? “Well, yeah. Yeah, I am. I mean, masturbation is a private matter!” A big laugh. “It really is… for goodness sake! You know, you might share it with one other person but a whole film crew who you’ve spent a good portion with, well, it’s a whole other experience.”

So did you get drunk? “Well, I have done that before with sex scenes, had a little hip flask by me to calm the nerves. But in this one I didn’t. In fact, I had terrible, terrible… my nerves were so bad that I had to keep going to the loo. The thing is that you trust David and you know when he keeps going it’s because he’s looking for something very specific. I found it so humiliating that I kept on crying and he didn’t want that… it wasn’t reaching this particular place of emotion which he was desperately chasing, trying to connect with myself and all the memories I had of this woman and it became quite violent and… vulgar.” You were crying because you couldn’t help yourself? “Yes, it just felt so awful to be sitting with my hands down my pants in front of, you know, a bunch of men. And eventually he built this sort of tent around me and the camera was just peeking through, blocking out the crew.”

Did that help? “Yes, but still I kept crying and I could hear him speaking though his little thing saying, ‘Okay-ee, Neigh-o-meee. Don’t cry-ee. Don’t cry-ee.’ And I was, like [gritted teeth], ‘You try this, you f****** arsehole,’ and then I’d say, ‘David, I can’t, I can’t’ and I was thinking, ‘OK, he’s gonna call “Cut” now because I’m hysterical, you know, I’m bombing here.’ And you’d hear him go, ‘Ok-ayeee. Okayee. That’s right.’ And he just kept rolling and rolling and rolling until eventually I guess I just got it because, I mean, I was so angry.”

The film we are supposed to be talking about is We Don’t Live Here Anymore – a sort of Ice Storm but with sunny spells – directed by Watts’s friend, John Curran, based on stories by Andre Dubus written in the Seventies, adapted by Larry Gross who garnered the top screenwriting award at last year’s Sundance Film Festival.
The New Yorker’s David Denby gave it a rave review, claiming it was “easily the best American movie so far this year”. It’s a low-budget (made in just three weeks) ensemble piece – Watts’s co-stars are Mark Ruffalo, Laura Dern and Peter (Six Feet Under) Krause – exploring marital breakdown, friendship, betrayal, boredom, infidelity, creative frustration and how do you keep it all together (or not), when you’ve lost your way. The performances are all terrific, particularly as the characters are not all that likeable, but it’s Laura Dern’s which stands out.

I wonder, slightly carefully, whether Watts feels that she was eclipsed by Dern. “Oh definitely, definitely,” she says. As it turns out, it was Watts’s decision to play the less “showy” role, knowing she would arrive on set exhausted from just having completed 21 Grams. “Initially, I wasn’t even going to read the script because I would say – even though I’ve never been married – that reading a script while you’re making another movie is like cheating on your husband. Especially if you know it’s going to be quite good, you imagine yourself doing the film and you play it out in your head and see yourself on the set, and I did end up reading it – because John is my friend and he kept on passionately pursuing it – so, yeah, I am a cheet-ah,” she says, sounding very Aussie.

What really lured her was when Curran offered her the opportunity to be creative producer – a direction Watts is increasingly interested in pursuing. At Sundance this year, she produced as well as starred in a film called Ellie Parker – which revolves around a day in the life of an actress going from one audition to another: “Making the transition in and out of character, getting dressed and changing in your car, dealing with bad news on the way, subjecting yourself to constant judgment… yeah, it’s very much about how I spent my early days in Los Angeles, but you know it’s not just my story,” she says.

Despite Watts’s clear, even gaze and straightforward manner – along with her evident staying power which suggests a degree of dogged self-belief – there are times when her confidence seems to evaporate. She says that she would love to write and even direct, although she’s not sure whether she has the confidence or discipline to do either: “That’s a long way off and I’d probably be way too stressed out. I mean, I can barely make decisions for my day-to-day activities at the moment.” Are you neurotic? “I think I probably am!”

It is her role in 21 Grams that is the most self-revelatory of her work, and one which led her to explore a hitherto – I suspect determinedly so – unexamined part of her life. Watts’s mongrel accent – Australian at the forefront, English lurking not far behind, punctuated by the odd transatlantic slur or upward beat – is a legacy of her upbringing. She was born in England and lived in different parts of the country, for a couple of years on a farm in Wales with her maternal grandparents (“while my mother – whom I wanted to be around – was trying to piece back her life”) and moved to Sydney when she was 14. Her father, Peter Watts, was Pink Floyd’s sound engineer – it is his manic laugh which can be heard at the beginning of Dark Side of the Moon. He and Watts’s mother, Myfanwy – known as Miv – divorced when Naomi was four. Three years later, he was found dead, at the age of 30, in a Notting Hill Gate house, of a suspected heroin overdose.

I was struck when I read that Naomi had always assumed that she would not be around beyond her 30th birthday, that Moby – whose father committed suicide at an even younger age – had the same morbid apprehension. I have also observed this among close friends who have had a parent die prematurely.

The back story of Christina, Watts’s character in 21 Grams, is that her mother died when she was a young girl. There is a pivotal scene, to me, in the film when Christina’s father tries to comfort her at the family gathering after the funeral of Christina’s husband and daughters. He tells her that when her mother died, he thought that his life had ended and yet you cope and you endure and you learn how to forge a new way of existing. Christina counters that she knows that she will not be able to survive this tragedy, which makes complete sense knowing her self-annihilating history.

“Oh, I’m so glad you remembered that scene because I really fought to keep it in. Alejandro was going to cut it, and I literally went down on my hands and knees and begged him to keep it in,” Watts says, burning with conviction, even at this remove. “You know, she spent so much time alone and I had been in these rooms full of people [as part of her research, she had spent days in group-therapy grief-support groups], and I had watched how these people grieve and how they hang on to things; they hang on to anger and they blame their existing family members and, you know, years have passed, decades have passed, and yet there are things that stay with them and I just… well, it was important to me. “I always thought that I would die when my father died… that would be when life finished. So I’m reading all these books about kids who have lost their parents, and as I was reading, I thought, ‘Oh my goodness, that is exactly what I always thought.’ And suddenly I felt validated and not crazy any more.”

She has very few photographs of her father but alerts me to one in which the members of Pink Floyd are standing on a beach somewhere “and being completely hippyish” and her father is there, and so is her mum, who e-mailed it to her, and she’s standing there in her bikini holding Naomi as a baby, with her brother alongside. It must be strange, I think, that your father’s laugh – on a huge, bestselling album – is what you are left with in the long years since he has gone. It gives me a little internal jolt when she replicates the laugh… “You know,” she points out. “It’s not just at the start, it comes in and out of the whole album.” And I have a vision of her listening to the record, often, at different times of her life, chasing the ghost of her father; wondering how much of her is made out of him.

She knows that some people find The Laugh haunting, or a bit frightening, but it isn’t to her. And she likes it, finds it consoling even, when it comes to her unbidden: “I was doing yoga the other day and the guy who was teaching the class just put on the track. And I thought, ‘Wow! Isn’t that bizarre?’” Does it never make her feel sad? “Well, it gets to me. Whatever I’m feeling at the time, I think, it tends to connect with me. I mean, there have been times when I’ve laughed out loud with him and got the joke – whatever that was, but I was right there. And then there have been times when it’s just been incredibly mysterious… like, who is this person? How strange. And I wonder if we would have got on. What would he think of me and what would I think of him and are we the same or are we… you know.”

Does her mother talk about him? “Oh yeah, there are times when she tells great stories about him. He was very hardworking, apparently. And she always says that both my brother and me are very, very focused – like him. Driven but not ruthless. But, you know, yeah, we like to work hard. It’s a survival instinct, I think.”

Anything else? “His sense of humour – we both have that, too; that’s what mum says.”

Watts does not talk about the circumstances in which her father died but, she says, of course: “You want to know why he didn’t stay and why he chose a certain life over us. And you have moments of anger, but then you also have moments of turning him into a hero. And that’s another thing I read about – the missing parent becomes the hero and you end up blaming the existing parent.” No, her mother – to whom Naomi is very close now – was not of the mind-set or money-bracket to suggest counselling: “I didn’t come from a family like that. My mother would hold me and let me cry but it wasn’t like: ‘Let’s get you down to the shrink’s office.’” When her mother saw 21 Grams for the first time, she was unable to speak for a good 40 minutes. Back at the hotel, she told her daughter: “I always thought you were so resilient. I had no idea you were holding so much pain. And I’m proud of you for utilising it in such a meaningful way.” At the time, Watts said: “It was a big thing for my mother to say, and there were a lot of tears.”

Growing up in such a bohemian, nomadic lifestyle, I wondered whether Naomi had reacted against her mother. Or am I making too much of Watts saying that Absolutely Fabulous is one of her favourite series? Did she have her Saffy moments? “Oh yes: ‘Mu-u-um. Please stop embarrassing me!’” she hams obligingly. And then: “I always knew that my life was filled with adventure. That my mum and all her wacky, hippy friends – despite the distinct lack of underwear – were great people and that they were stimulating not only me but everyone.” And then she adds, with distinctly Saffy-like punctiliousness: “You know, when I say that my home was an underwear-free zone, I’m just trying to illustrate the picture.” In most of her recent films, Watts has played the mother of young children and for some years now, she has been talking about her own desire to have a baby; with or without a partner. She says that she doesn’t see anything wrong at all with single parenthood: “Why would I? I’ve seen children from perfect two-parent homes and it doesn’t make them any less neurotic or damaged than… I just think the important thing is for a child to be raised with love.”

She doesn’t really see her stepfather any more – “He was a musician but I don’t think he’s doing that any more. He’s got another family now.” And she seems to like her mother’s partner, Mike Gurney, who runs a popular fish shop in Burnham Market: “All the ladies love him! He’s gorgeous.” Watts has been self-sufficient for so many years – earning her own living since the age of 17 – I wonder, with her career finally taking off, whether she would be prepared to opt out now to start a family of her own. There doesn’t appear to be a man in her life – or not one, at any rate, she is ready to discuss – but she is at pains to point out: “I am quite independent but, you know, I like intimacy, too. It’s not like I have a fort built around me.”
I notice that her eyes gleam when she mentions how much she’d like to work with Johnny Depp and there was, of course, a serious relationship with the Australian film star Heath Ledger, ten years her junior. When I say that I don’t really know much about him, she tells me what a fine actor he is and how many great movies he has coming out this year. “We’re very good friends so there’s nothing controversial,” she laughs. When Watts was subjected to numerous, inevitable questions about the couple’s age difference, she countered, “Well, he’s an old soul.” I ask her whether she would say the same of herself: “Well, yeah,” she grins, “I feel like I’ve been around the block a few times.”

After we say goodbye – Naomi is off to Africa via London to do charitable works – I wander down from Chelsea to Greenwich Village and stop off in the Magnolia Bakery. Sitting down to eat a retro cup cake – in homage to Sex and the City, that’s my excuse – I glance up and am startled to see a laddish magazine cover on the wall, depicting a younger Naomi Watts with smouldering black-shadowed eyes and glossy magenta lips, her finger placed lasciviously in her pouting mouth. It’s a pure David Lynch doppelgänger moment. Yes, I think, this is definitely a few blocks away from the scrubbed-faced woman I’ve just interviewed.

Actors, Celebrities, Politicians, Theatre, Writers

David, Kimberly, Boris and Petsy: it’s showtime

THE TIMES – April 13, 2005
Ginny Dougary

The lyricist for David Blunkett: The Musical, reveals how the show was inspired and explains why the real-life characters are perfect for the stage.

THE life of the musical began, in a curious way, last summer before the news about any of the key players had even broken. I had gone to the Bloomsbury office of The Spectator to interview Boris Johnson, who was attempting to publicise his debut novel, Seventy-Two Virgins.

The date was Tuesday, August 10. On Sunday, August 15, the News of the World splashed with its story about the Home Secretary’s long-term affair with a married woman who was revealed in The Sun the following day to be Kimberly Fortier.

Boris was late for our interview and so I hung around the stairwell, as various women of a certain age walked past. One or two had the whiff of breeding and resigned melancholia that made me think of a heroine in an Anita Brookner or Barbara Pym novel. And then Kimberly appeared, bright-eyed and as bouncy as a puppy. We spoke for a few minutes, during which she managed to namedrop several times: “Have you met my husband?” “Do you know Lord and Lady . . . ”

When Boris appeared on his bicycle, soaked from a rainstorm, Kimberly hovered — encouraged by my interviewee — and her manner became even more hectic. Out of the blue, she mentioned Boris’s wife: “Yes! Yes! Yes! He’s got a terrific wife! She’s the best!” For his part, Boris sighed and mumbled and tugged his wet, yellow hair and complained that he was finding the whole experience of being interviewed “harrowing”.

The hero of his novel is a shambling, bumbling, bicycle-riding Tory MP who is worried that his extramarital affair is about to be exposed by a tabloid newspaper. “He’s not me, by the way,” Boris made clear, then added: “but you’ve got to use what you know, haven’t you?”

Speccie columnist Rod Liddle’s affair had already broken and his estranged wife, Rachel Royce, had referred (writing in the Daily Mail, with a swift retort from him in The Sunday Times) to the frisky atmosphere at The Spectator — soon to be dubbed, as the extramarital shenanigans mul- tiplied, The Sextator.

I had asked Boris if he felt that as editor, he was responsible for creating the ethos of his office. “You mean, am I presiding over a bordello? Certainly not!” he exclaimed, giggling hugely. The strangest part of the interview — spookily prescient, given that I had absolutely no idea what was unfolding behind the scenes — was this question: “Would you have any qualms about printing a story about a senior Labour politician’s liaison?” “Got a good one?” Boris asked. And “I tell you what. There’s only one way to settle this moral issue. Bring me the story and I’ll scour my conscience.”

As I said, I didn’t have that story to bring Boris (it turned out that he had one of his own). But in the months to come I found myself gripped by the Blunkett-Fortier saga — and, to a lesser extent, by the disclosures about Boris and his columnist, Petronella Wyatt.

All four characters are con- summate media operators and poli- tical players. Just as the Prince and Princess of Wales had manipulated their contacts to gain sympathy — who were, of course, only too happy to oblige — so did our newspapers seesaw between the various combatants.

The developments had all the makings of an epic drama. Commentators compared Blunkett’s downfall to a Greek tragedy; Shakespearean analogies proliferated. Here was a man who had overcome so many obstacles, driven by the steel of his will to succeed, toppled near the pinnacle of his world by that which makes him most human: love. But there was also something uniquely modern about it, too. A politician — or any man in high public office, for that matter — who risks his career by insisting that a child out of wedlock is his and he wants to see him? Unheard of. Yet it does seem strangely contemporary, chiming in with the protests of Fathers 4 Justice. And there’s something both ancient and modern about a woman who uses her own power and influence to destroy one of the most powerful men in the country.

It began to intrigue me that the publisher I had met at The Spectator — with her breathless voice and cheerleader manner — was being portrayed as a femme fatale. From the newspaper stories, as more and more lovers crowded into her boudoir, she became a fantastical creature from another era. I saw her as Violetta in the opening scene of La Traviata, a gorgeous salon courtesan in a scarlet ballgown, fluttering her fan, captivating all the male guests at the party, her come-hither manner promising them everything. Blunkett, who had never particularly interested me before, became Alceste — the anti-hero of Molière’s 17th-century play The Misanthropist. He rails against the shallowness and frippery of the age but the woman he is besotted by — the young, flirty, faithless Celimene — embodies everything he detests. As he tells his one loyal friend, Philinte: “La raison n’est pas ce qui r ègle l’amour” (it’s not reason which governs love).

Once Boris had been snapped jogging in that skull-and-crossbones beanie and long baggy camouflage shorts, it became obvious what to do with him. He had moaned in our interview about the straitjacket of his shambling, bumbling bicycle-riding persona. Clearly behind that P. G. Wodehouse façade there was an urban rapper bursting to break free. So in our musical there is the ultimate tribute to the man we call The Sultan of The Sextator — The Boris Rap. Yo!

As for Petronella . . . what a joy! The more I read about her, the more perfect she was for our musical. She has posed for the Tatler in satin babydolls and ostrich-feather mules. She loves to sing Cole Porter and her party trick, which she performed for Norman Lamont’s birthday, is singing Lili Marlene in the husky tones of Marlene Dietrich. She has apparently serenaded Boris with arias from La Bohème. She’s a daddy’s girl — her father was Woodrow, the late Lord Wyatt of Weeford (doesn’t that trip off the tongue nicely?) — who lives at home with her mother, Verushka. And she’s obligingly indiscreet.

It is down to Petsy, as she is called by her friends, that we know about Kimberly’s “extraordinarily flirtatious banter” at the dinner where Blunkett and Fortier met, accompanied by Boris and Petronella. Ostensibly reviewing Stephen Pollard’s biography of Blunkett, she informed us that “Mr Blunkett and I ate Dover sole. Ms Fortier ate Mr Blunkett”. And this is where we learnt that Kimberly had informed the new Home Secretary that she had “ always wanted to know what it was like to sleep with a blind man”.

More outrageous lines followed, Blunkett’s gift to the headline writers, “The Socialist and the Socialite”, was one of the best, and it dawned on me that this dramatis personae were calling out for a stage of their own, to express themselves in song. More extraordinarily, I, never having written a song before in my life, would be the one to make it happen. A couple of weeks before Christmas, a composer friend by the stage-name of MJ (short for Mary Jo) started to bash out some lyrics and melodies. Our first number was Blunkett’s theme song. Handily, she had written the tune only a few weeks earlier, while on a songwriting master class in Yorkshire under the tutelage of Ray Davies of the Kinks fame. That was for Cinderella: The Panto but the robust, catchy opening, which moves into a poignant lament before its bracing return, worked brilliantly for Blunkett’s story.

Left to our own devices, who knows how long it would have taken us to write the whole musical? But on the evening before Christmas Eve, my 17-year-old son, Tom, read out a paragraph in The Week about a producer, Martin Witts, who was planning to put on a David Blunkett musical and this news galvanised me into action.

The slightly surreal atmosphere that has attached itself to much of the making of this musical began with my initial phone calls to track down Witts. I spoke to Nigel Reynolds, an old mate who had written the original diary item in The Daily Telegraph. He was sitting in a car park in the dark in Devon and was about to go canoeing. And so it went on, each phone call more bizarre than the last, until I fin- ally found Witts — driving down a country lane in Yorkshire — who agreed to meet MJ and me in the new year in Soho, where we would play him our songs.

Over Christmas, MJ — who was at home with her family in the US — and I e-mailed each other lyrics and ideas and the opening of Kimberly’s Song (Blunkett’s companion piece) was written on her laptop on the composer’s return flight to London.

Around the time of our first meeting, I picked up T2 to read Richard Morrison under the headline “Don’t just read this column . . . turn it into a musical”. Well! “Where are the new Lloyd Webbers?” he asked. “And who will give them the chance to show what they can do, when staging even a small West End musical can easily leave a producer sadder and wiser to the tune of several hundred thousand quid?” (I hoped Martin Witts was not a Times reader.)

Morrison was publicising a Greenwich Theatre initiative to encourage new composers and lyricists to submit works from newspaper stories . . . “The fact is that a huge number of masterpieces — musical, literary and cinematic — have started life as headlines ripped from the morning papers,” he wrote, and listed Porgy and Bess, Rebel Without a Cause, Blood Wedding and Anna Karenina, just for starters.

In the weeks to come, these illustrious antecedents proved a useful rebuttal to the accusation that there is something intrinsically suspect about basing an artistic endeavour on a news story.

Martin turned up for our first meeting almost an hour late — an inauspicious start (his train from York was delayed). It never happened again. The three of us hit it off immediately, but the promised piano was not available, and Leo Alexander of Kettners was persuaded to let us use his baby grand in the private rooms upstairs. Two good-looking boys — I assumed they were Leo’s nephews — asked if they could listen in. Martin whispered in my ear “That’s Simon Anstell from cd:UK.” Now I see his impish features on the televison all the time.

There were gratifying grins when MJ finished singing and, most importantly, Martin was persuaded by the two songs that we could pull it off. We were on! And, almost immediately, rather like the Blunkett story itself, the musical began to take on a life force of its own.

The so-called preview in The Grey Horse pub in Elvington, Yorkshire, was a case in point. The original thinking behind this was that it would be a good idea if the London writer and the American composer visited Sheffield to get a bit of a feel for Blunkett’s northern origins. We would drive around the estate where he grew up and his Brightside constituency and this would illuminate our script and songs. As part of the Yorkshire experience, we would stay in Martin’s friend Dave’s pub and try out some of our songs on his clientèle of ex-miners. A reporter from the Yorkshire Post might come along; possibly someone from the local radio station. Nothing we couldn’t handle.

At this point, I should say that Martin has impeccable showman credentials — he produced last year’s award-winning show Hurricane (about Alex “Hurricane” Higgins), and the musical of Prisoner: Cell Block H (with Lily Savage); he was the promoter for B. B. King and Nina Simone, and stage manager at Glyndebourne. But I think it is fair to say that he was unprepared for “the world’s media” — as The Guardian put it — arriving en masse in Elvington.

They started turning up shortly after breakfast. So many television crews; so much equipment. Press agencies. Newsnight. Ridiculous numbers of photographers with more equipment. The Sky presenter seems as bemused as us that her bosses insist that she keep on filming, when she clearly wants to wrap it up and go home. An independent crew film us being filmed by Sky. I cannot get the hang of someone talking in my ear and feel myself pulling unattractive faces in response to the rather haranguing tone of the interviewer. My eye-rolling and muttering and Martin’s bossy admonishments are all caught by the independent mob, as well as our phoney smiles when we go back on air.

I just want to hang with the guys from The Guardian and the Telegraph but keep having to pose for photographs — which is one of my least favourite activities. The locals are pretty bemused by all this activity, much to the delight of my fellow hacks. John, an old chap, complains about the loudness of MJ’s singing voice, and then threatens to show me his hernia scar but instead pulls out an enchanting sepia photograph of his wife when they were courting.

One of the photographers chalks up a blackboard with a Blunkett: The Musical preview sign and places it in front of the pub. All his colleagues are delighted t hat someone has had the wit to produce a bona fide photo opportunity.

By 8pm, I have completely had it. It is interesting seeing what my press confrères do with the material. They, like me, are as charming as they can be during the interview — but the finished article or television slot will often have a slightly different tone: a coolness and detachment which I recognise in the way I work, too, and which is only proper. But when you are the subject, I now discover, you can’t help feeling a tiny sliver of betrayal: Oh, I thought you were my friend. Which might be true, in some cases, but mostly it’s not.

I have to say that we were as thrilled by the splendid coverage as we were surprised by its extent. Suddenly there were hundreds of stories about the musical from all over the world; Google is full of Italian, Spanish, German and Dutch references to it. We are in the Hollywood Reporter. And Florida, and other rather surprising places. But then Kimberly, of course, is American.

Friends phone with regular updates on the key players — did you know Kimberly had been keeping diaries? Consternation at Condé Nast’s London office over US Vanity Fair’s investigation of l’affaire Blunkett (Mr Quinn being the publisher of Vogue UK); Did you catch Blunkett on the Today programme? My mortgage broker e-mails: “Have you got a tag-line yet? Every musical needs one. Something along the lines of ‘In the Kingdom of the Blind Man there is only one Woman: Quinn.’ Or maybe not.”

A few weeks on and a US production company wants to fly over to film us. MJ gets very excited. This is a big deal, apparently. Current Affair was a famous pioneering series and they want to film us in rehearsal for their relaunch (to be broadcast nationally on prime-time terrestial TV).

The crew from LA do their thing while we do ours in a practice room at the Pineapple Dance Studios. A couple of women from one of the Edinburgh Festival venues sit in. One completely gets the spirit of the thing; the other sits there as sour-faced as can be. Perhaps this is a good cop/bad cop routine. But it is quite lowering to meet such a blank response when we have had really positive feedback to date.

Martin has been approached by two record producers who are interested in producing a Boris hip-hop single. Four different independent television companies are pitching Blunkett: the Musical ideas to the Beeb, etc. Is this all hot air or is it real, I wonder?

Mostly, I find, people are responding to the idea of the show. The majority think it’s a “hoot”; one or two that it’s cruel and invasive. But when they hear all the songs, they are quite unprepared for the impact. Alvin Stardust — one of Martin’s clients — takes a break from being the child snatcher in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang and describes the songs as: “A meeting of Stephen Sondheim and The Little Shop of Horrors”. (Thanks, Alvin; we love over-the-top compliments.) Mark Perry, who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers and will play him much straighter in our show, says: “The songs are lovely. Very accessible. I mean, they’re not Sondheim.” MJ and I exchange a private smile.

The writers India Knight and Andrew O’Hagan have been midwives of sorts to the show. India, who takes singing lessons with MJ, has not only opened up her house for auditions but has found us the two amazing women who are playing Kimberly and Petronella. Lynne Davies (Glyndebourne; ENO) has a nightingale-beautiful soprano voice. Watching her first attempt to inhabit Kimberly — in that Traviata-esque opening — was like some sort of alchemy. I hardly dare to look at India for fear of breaking the spell.

Zigi Ellison, who played opposite Steven Berkoff in the US tour of Salome, is as much an actress as a singer — and she is fantastic as Petronella. And such a fox . . . I can’t help but think that Petsy would be flattered by the portrayal.

Having been a bit snooty about actors in the past, I have now developed a slavish admiration for them. Believe me, when you have written a song or a script and the actor seems effortlessly to bring those words to life — and far more — you want to fling yourself at his feet and moan “I am not worthy”.

When Robert Bathurst came to check out the Boris songs, my jaw dropped as he transformed himself within minutes — can’t you just see him in the role? — into a sort of über-Boris. Watching him grin from ear to ear, like a schoolboy at the most thrilling birthday party, as he heard all the material and the darkening of his face in the sadder songs, was . . . well . . . it was a very good thing indeed.

Behind the tawdry versions of our characters that we have all read about in the papers, we had invested them with souls and an inner life, he said.

So now we have a man who plays Blunkett in Dead Ringers playing Blunkett (he is filming the new series as we rehearse for our opening), and the man who plays a PM (in My Dad’s the Prime Minister — I’m looking forward to the third series) as Boris. We have all nine songs, the four actors, a nine-part choir for our Greek chorus, the script, the five-piece band, and the narrator . . . and, yes, I’m excited (and a bit terrified) as we embark on rehearsals for the real preview with an invited audience at the Soho Theatre.

Martin decided to go for a bigger venue in Edinburgh, not the one represented by the two women who had come to watch rehearsals. We have invited all the real-life characters to check out the musical for themselves, and have yet to hear from them. We think they would be pleasantly surprised.

Actors, Celebrities

Dennis Hopper

Times Online – March 12 2004
– Ginny Dougary

Hollywood rebel, self-confessed wife-beater and brilliant artist, Dennis Hopper is the most underrated actor of his generation. Now married for the fifth time and the adoring father of a baby girl, he’s swapped drink and drugs for golf and Republicanism

DENNIS HOPPER LIVES IN Venice, Los Angeles, 20 minutes from the beach next to beautiful Santa Monica, the Home of the Homeless. It’s an area of artists and writers and bums, rampaging gangs and violent deaths. It also has funky boutiques, designer shops and slick restaurants, palm trees and brightly-painted houses smothered in bougainvillea.

When you drive into the street where the actor has lived for the past two decades, the folksiness hardens into monochrome industrial chic, and Hopper’s Frank Gehry-designed house is the industrial-est and chic-est of them all.

It looks more like a bunker than a home, with its corrugated steel façade and numbers scorched on the front. The crazy paving seems to be ironic with a sort of metallic sheen; a pair of giant cactuses complete the atmosphere of spiky brutalism. Obviously there is nothing as straightforward as a doorbell; instead you punch in a code and wait to make contact with a human.

The human who opens the fortress door five minutes later is Braden, one of Hopper’s two laid-back assistants who are both freckle-faced and smiley and dressed down in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts. Victoria, wife No 5, whom I meet at the end of my visit, also looks as though she may have just come from the gym. Hopper himself, when he appears half an hour later, is meticulously turned out in a dark brown corduroy suit, crisp white shirt and leather boots.

The rooms into which you step are cavernous and quite undomestic. I am reminded of Charles Saatchi’s old house in Chelsea, where I was once invited to inspect Damien Hirst’s sheep in the living room. Behind the elegant Georgian exterior the house was a homage to British art: the walls covered with Freuds and Regos, the floors with outré sculptures by the likes of Gavin Turk and Tracey Emin. You did rather wonder where the living got done.

The art work here is resolutely American: Andy Warhol (a Mao, and a screen-print portrait of Hopper as a young man), Julian Schnabel, Jean-Michel Basquiat, Keith Haring, David Salle, Ed Ruscha. In one room there is a skinny black leather sofa with a red heart-shaped cushion. In another there is a rouched cardboard armchair and chaise longue designed by Gehry.

There are a couple of works to which I’m particularly drawn: a sort of soft-focus Bridget Riley piece of shimmering stripes, and a decorative, slightly Aboriginal, number that reminds me of a length of fabric. As it turns out, they’re both photographs of street graffiti which have been transformed in some way — perhaps silk-screened? When I ask Braden who the artist is, she says they’re by Dennis.

I’m shepherded over a courtyard to one of three Gehry buildings that make up the Hopper residence, up a staircase into a very large white room with an off-white rubberised floor, a king-size bed at one end, a desk at the other and in between a fancy cream day-bed which could be described as lived-in.

In my bag I have a photocopy of a black-and-white photograph taken by Hopper in 1961. It’s called Double Standard — deadpan wit, as it refers to two Standard signs above a petrol station in an island abutted by main roads. It’s a most satisfying picture: the view of the cars behind in the driver’s car mirror, the lines of the telegraph poles — a slightly eerie David Lynch slice of Americana. I’m staring at the original Double Standard outside the bathroom when Hopper appears at the bottom of the stairs. He is wearing shades and holds an unlit cigar in his hand. There is nothing loose about him, but neither could one say that he is exactly coiled. What he has is the stiff strut of a boxer — he is small and compact — along with a sort of vigilant alertness. He walks over to one of the windows that make up a wall of light and opens it, rubbing his finger with mild displeasure over the dirty sill. Braden says she’ll get someone to fix it, leaves the boss with a bowl-sized cup of black tea on his desk, and departs.

It’s an odd way to interview someone. Hopper is so far away from me that I often have to bellow to make myself heard. But other than the two of us sitting on the edge of the bed, which would be equally odd, there is no seating in the room but the day-bed, which is at ballroom length from Hopper and his desk. This could be simply a hazard of minimalist living or it could be a distancing device in more ways than one.

Do you want to wear your dark glasses throughout the interview, I ask. “I can take them off,” he says. Well, I’d quite like to see your eyes (which turn out to be a clear, flinty blue). “Would you really? Can you see them from over there? Harharharharhar.” He breaks into a harsh staccato of laughter.

We are talking about one of his latest films, when he suddenly breaks off — “Oh my God!” — looking as though he’s seen a ghost, which in a way he has. I hike over to his desk and look at the photograph of Helmut Newton which has flashed on to the screen of Hopper’s computer. “It’s the photograph that I took of him the day before he died. I was talking to you and I haven’t been in this room, and I didn’t set this up . . . I swear to God . . . hello, Helmut . . . oh, man . . . that’s weird.”

I’m a bit worried that he’s not qoing to be able to take his eyes off the screen. But he explains that a few friends, including Anjelica Huston and her husband Robert Graham, had spent five or six hours together over a long lunch looking at each other’s photographs, and then the next morning Newton keeled over with a heart attack — “which is just horrendous and it was only two weeks ago. But anyway that’s why I jumped.”

The new film in question, Leo (after Leopold Bloom), is most definitely an art-house movie. It stars Joseph Fiennes in the leading role of a released murderer with a mysterious past and a mission for the future. Hopper plays Horace, one of his nastier psychosexual nutters, who has a hold over the employees of the diner in which Fiennes lands a job on leaving prison. Sam Shepard also has a cameo role as the troubled Christian manager of the diner, and there’s a certain relish both in the script and the playing of it, when Shepard sprinkles Tabasco over Hopper’s food saying, “I know you like a little sin (which stretches out into a great southern drawl of seee-y-uh-nnn) on your shepherd’s pie.” There’s also a horrid little scene when Horace (Hopper) has the abused waitress’s legs splayed apart and he’s stuffing dollars between them, as well as anything else that comes to hand, such as a smashed egg.

“Oh, man!” Hopper gives one of his clenched laughs, remembering his speech: “. . . and whose egg is this?” Horace is not a million roles away from Frank, the asthmatic psychosexual nutter who wheezes into his plastic mask while subjecting his lover (Isabella Rossellini) to unspeakable acts of humiliation. That film was David Lynch’s Blue Velvet in 1986 — Hopper’s comeback year, and first year of sobriety from narcotics and booze, in which he made three films back to back: the other two were River’s Edge and Hoosiers, for which he won an Oscar nomination.

I wonder whether he minds being typecast, since I can’t think of a role in which Hopper hasn’t played some crazy, from Easy Rider to Apocalypse Now to Speed to Blue Velvet and beyond. And then I apologise since I imagine he gets asked that all the time. “No, I haven’t been asked it a lot,” he says equably. “The point is that unfortunately I’ve been trapped inside a system that I’ve been able to eke out a living from for almost 50 years. I’ll be 68 in May and I went into contract for Warner Brothers when I was 18.

“So in over 150 movies, I’ve done just about everything.” As a teenager he was in Giant and Rebel Without a Cause with James Dean, whose acting tip was “Do it, don’t show it”.

“But mostly I get to play heavies, that’s basically what I’ve fallen into. I mean I rarely get offered the other roles.” Does he get bored? “No, because heavies are always interesting . . . usually more interesting than the guy on the other side going ‘What are you doing to him?’ But I would like to be able to play much better roles than I get.” This is said without rancour but is a refrain to which we return on several occasions, with a mounting sense (mutual, incidentally) that it’s curious how much better regarded Hopper is in almost any country other than his own (add to that list Norman Mailer, Arthur Miller and Brian Wilson and you’ve got the beginnings of some sort of thesis.)

I’d read somewhere that he’d have loved to have been a “serious” actor: “Well, you know, I don’t think it’s ever going to happen now but I would love to have played King Lear and I would love to have played Hamlet,” he says. “I came out of playing Shakespeare at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego when I was 13 years old. From 13 to 18, all I did was play Shakespeare.” Somewhat unusual, I ask, for an alfalfa farmer’s son from Kansas, but I find the cuttings have led me astray.

“Well, no,” he smiles tightly. “My mother’s father was a wheat farmer and I was raised on their farm. But my father was not a farmer.” Hopper’s father managed a grocery store in Dodge City before joining the Office of Strategic Services, aka the CIA, during the war. He was posted to China, Burma and India “and was one of the 100 guys that liberated General Wainwright out of prison in Korea,” his son says now with a measure of pride. Your father was a bit of a hero, then? “Well, he was a working person in intelligence.” He was also a lay minister in the Methodist church.

After the war Hopper Sr carried a gun and guarded the mail on trains from Kansas City to Denver. Then, when the family moved to San Diego, he was mananger of the city’s post office while his wife worked for the Red Cross.

It’s always tricky for an English person to know what an American means when he says his background is middle class. I point this out when he tells me that he was first exposed to great art when he was nine or ten and was enrolled in a programme for under-privileged children: “You know we weren’t rich, OK?” Along with other kids from his neighbourhood in Kansas City, Hopper was bussed to the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art where he saw Gainsborough ’s Blue Boy, which made a strong impression.

On Saturdays he went to art classes and was taught by a painter who specialised in Rocky Mountain water colours. “And I was doing this little rock with the river going by and a mountain and a tree, and he looked at it and said: ‘You’re not gonna understand what I’m saying right now, but some day you’re gonna have to git tight and paint loose.’ And have you learnt to paint loose? “I have learnt to paint loose. And I’ve learnt how to git tight, too . . . ” he grins.

Hopper was ousted by Warner Bros in 1957, two years after Rebel Without a Cause, when the 21-year-old actor had a well-documented falling-out with the director Henry Hathaway on the John Wayne film From Hell to Texas.

Rejected by Hollywood, Hopper turned his back in turn on Tinseltown and decamped to New York, where he became a devotee of the method-acting guru Lee Strasberg (whose methods Hopper still extols) and developed a successful secondary career as a photographer, doing fashion shoots for Harpers & Queen and Vogue (his most recent fashion commission was for French Vogue last autumn). It was in the early sixties that Hopper began collecting art. He is now on his third collection: the first two — which included a major Lichtenstein of a sunrise, worth millions of dollars now, he says, but bought for $780 — went towards alimony costs. He says he’s always traded or bartered for his collections rather than had vast sums to plough into art. He describes himself as a third-generation abstract expressionist, and was one of the first to spot the importance of the much-heralded “return to reality” when a dealer showed him a cartoon by Roy Lichtenstein and an Andy Warhol Campbell’s soup can. He immediately visited the artists’ studios and started to build up one of the first major pop art collections.

man loves a bargain. He was thrilled to buy Warhol’s very first soup can for $75, mainly because it was 25 bucks less than a later version he’d been first offered by another dealer. He’s clearly quite pleased with himself for buying his first Gehry building for as little as $90,000; the Gehrys had apparently been sitting empty for five years because the area was so bad.

Now he’s (pleasantly?) shocked to discover that his English neighbour is selling his house next door for $1.2 million: “For that little . . . I mean, it’s not even one bedroom!” And he’s very happy that he gets his clothes for free (Hugo Boss today) as well as his cars, including his beloved Jag-u-wahh.

I can’t help wondering how his artsiness went down with his parents and start by saying, cheesily, that I suppose he loved his Mom. “No,” he says.

“No,” his voice going up. This slightly takes my breath away (I mean, doesn’t every boy love his mum?) — which is a pity, as I had been going to ask him about oedipal complexes, having read an interview in which Hopper said he had been sexually attracted to his mother. “I didn’t love either one of them, very honestly,” he says.

“They weren’t bad — like, this isn’t a monster story — but I just felt out of place. They thought I should be a doctor or a lawyer or an engineer, and that being an actor was a life of becoming a bum — and this was not an acceptable occupation. So we start there, and you can get the rest.”

Well, yes and no, actually. It’s slightly surprising that after his drug-crazed wilderness years in New Mexico, when he really went off the boil after making his hippy-biker-cult classic Easy Rider in 1969, he still had no contact with his parents — even after producing four grandchildren for them (the latest addition is a baby daughter, Galen, who is almost one. Her father is besotted: “She’s the most remarkable baby, all she does is smile and relate and she’s the most wonderful child . . . I’ve never experienced anything like this”). Hopper’s father is now dead: “He was really a decent guy, I just didn’t know him.” His mother is in a nursing home in Los Angeles and he does visit her.

Hopper is similarly unconstrained on the subject of wife-bashing. I ask him about wife No 2, Michelle Phillips, of the Mamas and the Papas. She called it a day after just over a week, allegedly on account of Hopper’s “unnatural sexual demands”. Ah, the kinky handcuff story, I say. “Yeah, first of all, what handcuffs? This is Michelle . . . where did the handcuffs come from? I didn’t handcuff her, I just punched her out! Harharharharharhar.” What did you just say? “I didn’t handcuff her,” he says pleasantly. “I just punched her out.”

Do you regret all that? Beating women up? “I didn’t beat any women up. I mean, I’ve done nothing beyond anything that they did to me.” I suppose that you must have been out of your head on drink or drugs at the time? You wouldn ’t make a habit out of behaving that way? “The point is that no one was ever truly hurt by me. And if there’s any physical abuse by me, believe me it was after days of abuse by them (rueful laugh) so it doesn’t really . . . I have no . . . kind of feeling of any kind of guilt about that. I wasn’t handcuffing them and beating them to death or anything.”

We move on to golf and politics. He’s a Republican who has been voting that way since Reagan: “I liked Clinton but I voted for Bush then and I voted for Bush Sr and I’m definitely voting for Bush again.” All his life, from his childhood on, he’s been surrounded by Democrats and was very much to the left himself in the Sixties, marching with Martin Luther King and protesting against the Vietnam War.

The reasons he gives for swinging to the right are the usual conservative complaints about soft-bellied government and sponging welfare cheats. He was even moved to write a herogram to Newt Gingrich, the rabble-rouser of the far Right, on his withdrawl from politics: “Your resignation saddens me. When you want to run for president, I will be there. You have done so much more than anyone in a long time for our country. Make some money, have a life, come back, kick ass.”

His wife, Victoria, meanwhile, is a passionate Democrat who has diverted her energies from her equine activities — stadium jumping, three-day eventing, and so on — to raise funds for the party, including hosting several parties in the Gehry bunker, with John Edwards and John Kerry as guests of honour.

“How does that work, you want to know,” Hopper asks, unprompted. “Well, I support Bush and I support my wife, and I support what my wife’s involved in. That’s all. We don’t talk politics. I respect her things and, you know, whether she respects mine doesn’t really matter to me. Harharharhar.”

All these exchanges are markedly good-natured. Hopper is never edgy or tense; there are no twitches or ticks or menacing looks. Although some of his takes on life are disconcerting, shall we say, there is nothing rabid about his manner. Those characteristics belong to Hopper’s characters, not the man playing them. He says that when he’s not acting, he’s introverted and shy. “When I get up to make a speech, I am so nervous I really have problems. I have to be Dennis Hopper. Who is Dennis Hopper? I mean, Dennis Hopper doesn’t have an identity.”

The only time he does give me that familar evil eye from his movies is when I’m rude about golf — and he roars with laughter when I point it out. His father used to coax him to play as a boy; Dennis tried it once and thought it was “cissy”. But years later, when he came out of rehab in Texas, his friend the country singer Willie Nelson told him to play on his private golf course to take his mind off going to bars, and now he’s hooked: “What I find really interesting about it is that nobody’s doing anything to you. There’s no interaction between you and another person. It’s really just you and that little ball. And when you start thinking that you’re only playing against yourself, that becomes interesting to me.” According to Hopper, American golf courses are full of former wild men: “Most of the guys who were heavy on drugs and stuff — the rockers, and all that — we’re all out playing golf and we’re all sober. It is weird.” It’s probably not quite what Steppenwolf had in mind.

He was photographed at the Vanity Fair party for the Oscars but all that starry smiling and schmoozing, which is an integral part of playing Hollywood, is clearly a trial for him. “You know, I’ve had a very strange relationship with this town. I’ve always hated Los Angeles and I’m really making a major effort to like the city, and the people. I mean, it’s my home and it’s hard to hate where you live — but I’ve had such a bad relationship with it on a work level that it’s not been fun for me.” He rattles off his last year of filming, two movies in Romania, one on Vancouver Island, a film shot in Australia in which he plays Frank Sinatra: “You see, I’m not here. I don’t work here; I live here. Now that’s weird, man.

“I’d love to be in a Coen Brothers film, or something by Curtis Hanson — did you see 8 Mile? a terrific little movie — but I’ve never worked for Lucas or Spielberg. You could name most of the directors in Hollywood I’ve never worked for. I am not offered any of the roles that Jack Nicholson gets or Warren Beatty gets, or any of these people get, and never have been and never will. So when you ask me about playing villains and would I like to play other things, I think, God, I’m just lucky if I get a villain part every once in a while.”

Finally, I ask him what has made him proudest in his life, and he says his work. And then he qualifies that by saying: “The high points have not been that many, but I’m a compulsive creator so I don’t think of the children first, I think of the work. Let’s see, I guess, Easy Rider, Blue Velvet, a couple of photographs here, a couple of paintings . . . those are the things that I would be proud of and yet they ’re so minimal in this vast body of crap — most of the 150 films I’ve been in — this river of shit that I’ve tried to make gold out of. Very honestly.”

We finish our interview with a tour around the house, after which Hopper goes off to be photographed and Victora returns to her computer to contuinue her good fight for the Democrats. While Dennis was talking about the paintings, Victoria gently warned him that their baby was sleeping, and he immediately dropped his voice to a whisper. Despite how disappointed his words sound, he didn’t really strike me as a disappointed man. He lives in a great house, in an area surrounded by his artist buddies, with a new baby daughter as well as a first grandaughter of the same age, and a marriage that seems both happy and robust. Perhaps this time he’ll be able to hang on to the art collection.

Actors, Celebrities, Comedians

Of make-up, men and fantasies

THE TIMES – February 17 2000
Ginny Dougary

Eddie Izzard is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being an outstanding comedian. Despite his penchant for high heels, lipstick and dresses, women not only love him, they find him sexy, too.

“And ladies, if you are wearing high heels you will be asked to remove them.” The safety instructions on the plane coming back from Paris sounded weirder than usual. Hang on a minute, I thought, there’s something missing here. Shouldn’t that be ladies and gentlemen? This is what comes of spending 24 hours in the company of Eddie Izzard. You may not end up thinking like him – how could you? – but you do begin to see the world a little more through his eyes. Our marathon together had been scheduled to start on the Wednesday morning when Eddie, a member of the Labour Party since 1995, was to join Keith Vaz, the Minister for Europe, at the Gare du Nord. The comedian is passionately pro-Europe and has lent his services to the Labour Party’s “Your Britain . . . Your Europe” roadshow.
The idea is to meet and greet the press, travel by Eurostar to Waterloo – canvassing the views of passengers en route – before heading straight back again for the third night of his show in a sometime striptease joint in La Pigalle. As it was, we had been up the previous evening talking in the hotel bar – switching from French to English to Franglais – until three in the morning. He was still on a post-performance high, although there was nothing feverish or giddy about his demeanour. In fact, he seemed impassive, even expressionless, compared with the electric ooomph of his stage persona. But then his face was so stiff with make-up that it might have been hard for him to move his features. Still, his manner was cordial, if not exactly friendly, and he was relaxed enough to pass time in idle chit-chat.

What was most startling was his Look. I had seen him on television years ago when he made a grumpy appearance on one of Ruby Wax’s shows, and more recently on Have I Got News For You?; watched one of his videos with friends; witnessed him in the flesh playing a serious role opposite Lindsay Duncan in David Mamet’s The Cryptogram; and doing his one-man show in a small off-Broadway theatre in New York, where the audience sat on cushions on the floor, and the fans backstage included Helen Mirren and her American film producer husband. Each time I saw him I thought: Wow! Isn’t he sexy! A sentiment, incidentally, that is shared by every woman I know. Straight men have a right to be puzzled by this phenomenon, since Eddie is as famous for being a transvestite as he is for being funny. What he calls himself is a male lesbian; so I suppose that makes all us women gay.

For anyone who was reared on the androgynous rock of the 1970s – Bowie and Jagger et al in their make-up and girly blouses; the Transsexual Transylvania of the Rocky Horror Show – there’s nothing all that traumatic about the sight of a bloke in eyeshadow and a spot of nail polish. And there is something quite rock ‘n’ roll about Eddie, from the pounding techno that builds up the atmosphere before he careers on to the stage, to his PVC trousers and spiky peroxide hair. The style he favours – the one that suits him best, he says – is “the boy/girl-type thing.” With the vogue for perfume ads featuring crop-haired boyish-girls and girlish-boys, Eddie’s image – admittedly with a bit more slap than the norm – has a distinctively contemporary feel. This must be why, at first, I don’t recognise the slim figure who appears in the foyer of the hotel.

Odd really, because unless the hotel was hosting a transvestites’ convention, the likelihood of there being two trannies – or TVs as Eddie prefers to call them – staying at the same time was rather remote. The point was that this was Eddie as I had never seen him before: in a skirt, albeit a rather smart black Gaultier kilt, stockings, perilously high spike-heeled, knee-length boots and dated drag-queen make-up. When I told him that this, for me, was A Look Too Far, he seemed genuinely interested.

Although he has been “out” for a long time, he hasn’t had as long as the rest of us to fine-tune what works for him and what doesn’t, and so he chooses to value what people have to say rather than to take offence.

The next morning, at the Gare du Nord, Eddie is the closest he gets to looking straight. Which is still pretty out-there for most people. His maquillage is minimal: tinted moisturiser, powder and mascara. Helen, who is doing his make-up on this tour, says he has got the best skin-care routine of anyone she knows.

Inevitably, the Paris correspondents, mostly middle-aged men, confronted with the sight of sober-suited Vaz and high-heeled Izzard, go for the Odd Couple angle. Reading the reports later, I am struck by how inaccurate men are when writing about clothes and make-up. For the record, Eddie was wearing bronze nail polish on his long nails, a jaunty red and black plaid jacket, slim-cut black tuxedo pants and a black T-shirt.

Later, on the radio, when Keith Vaz is being quizzed on the complexities not of the euro, but of Eddie’s wardrobe, I am amused to hear him describe his fellow traveller’s get-up as “the kind of outfit I often see in the House of Commons”. He was, of course, being non-gender specific.

Everyone wants to hear what Eddie has to say, and poor Keith has to battle to get any attention. Eddie deals in sweeping generalities – “I like the idea of us all working together. . . if we can do it, it might mean the end of war . . . a blueprint for the rest of the world . . .” – the big vision-type thing, as he might say, leaving the Minister to cope with the boring detail which, predictably, no one is interested in.

The Minister says that Tony (Blackadder) Robinson and the chief executive of Monarch Airlines have joined Eddie Izzard as unofficial champions of Labour’s push on Europe – “the kind of people that ordinary British people relate to” – and presents the people’s transvestite with a plaque.

On the Eurostar a miked-up Eddie and Keith are accompanied by two TV crews, one from the BBC, as well as an assortment of young men from the Foreign Office – policy wonks and chaps from the press office – and me. Despite our previous night’s conversation into the early hours, Eddie has yet to show me the slightest flicker of recognition.

As we make our way down the carriages, I lob a few comments his way but he barely acknowledges them. Although I can see that he is both exhausted and focusing all his energy on the job at hand, this blanking or blocking off – a phrase he uses a lot about his survival technique when we finally get down to the interview at midnight – is rather unnerving. On one level it makes sense if one considers this interaction with the public as another performance and that he is suffering from pre-show nerves. On another, I wonder if his transvestism – and the aggro that he still gets from wearing women’s clothes – has trained him not to respond to people on the periphery of his vision. Or maybe he just doesn’t do small talk.

It’s a funny old day. When Keith Vaz asks me what I’m doing on the train, I say I’m going to interview Eddie and he says: “Eddie who?” Er, Eddie Izzard, you know, who you’re doing the roadshow with. “Ohhh,” he says, “I thought you meant Eddie George.” How new Labour to have the Governor of the Bank of England at the forefront of your mind. Eddie (Izzard) is definitely the euro star. English and French businessmen and students ask him for his autograph.

While Keith has the politician’s knack of saying a few words and moving on, Eddie can’t tear himself away. When possible, he launches into French. Since he is doing his entire Paris show en français – remarkably, since he has never got beyond O-Level standard – he probably needs all the practice he can get.

By the time we draw into Waterloo, Eddie’s face has taken on a ghastly veal-coloured pallor. We are greeted by a pesky press agency journalist who is going for the provocative angle: “Some might say that having a comedian on the roadshow speaks for itself.”

Eddie, who is a lifetime member of the European Movement, bridles: “I am a comedian, as you say, but I’m also someone who can speak my mind.”

In the sanctuary of the Eurostar press lounge, we are joined by Angela Billingham, a former Labour MEP, who says she is still spitting blood and stone after losing her seat at the recent European election. “I’m sure you’ll find it again,” Eddie says like an arrested eight-year-old. Angela chides, “You’re not too old to be smacked,” and then wonders whether she is the token woman in the room.

Angela compares her finger-nails (frosted pink) to Eddie’s muddy talons, and pronounces: “Oooo, I don’t like yours at all.” An exceedingly dapper Foreign Office man asks Eddie to sign a programme from Lenny, apologising for doing such a creepy thing. “It’s the first time I’ve ever asked for an autograph,” he confides to me. “I’m a huge fan. I’ve been to see him live four times.” Eddie does another radio interview: “I know that Europe is not a very sexy subject . . . but the things you can do in Europe are sexy . . . like travel and having sex. In fact, More Sex For Europe is the government line, I think.” We all laugh hugely.

But not everyone loves Eddie. Passing through security before re-embarkation, I am frisked by a jolly black woman who chortles at my Diana Ross joke, although she has heard that one a lot recently. Eddie totters on ahead and she turns to her male colleague and says: “Disgusting that is, and a man of that size.” There is a look of real revulsion on their faces, and as I watch them watching Eddie’s retreating form – a man in make-up and high heels who they have no idea is a star – I catch a glimpse of just how plucky he has had to be to be the way he is.

In the back room of La Boule Noire, behind a velvet curtain, Eddie is having a last-minute French lesson with his young teacher. It is hard to imagine anyone shining with the handicap of a foreign language – and after such a punishing day. He was up at 6.45 after hardly any sleep, had breakfast with various British Embassy bods, an interview on the Today programme, a rendezvous at the Senate for the 40th anniversary meeting of the Council of Europe, and that was all before we met at the Gare du Nord. But he does shine – mostly anyway, and with the help of a forgiving audience.

He wisely decides to address his transvestism straight away – saying, since we are in a notorious red-light area, that he is not “un travesti pute”, ( prostitute) but “un travesti exécutif” (puffing out his chest) and, indeed, “un travesti action”. It may not be widely known that Eddie’s alternative career possibilities were civil engineering – although the word “civil” worried him – or joining the Army.

The audience seems slightly bemused but willing to fall for him. One of the reasons why his humour travels well is that his subjects are both epic and mundane enough to cross most boundaries: supermarkets, the Royal Family, the merits of Vanessa Paradis versus those of Johnny Depp, Aristotle and Socrates, dinosaurs, the Renaissance, the fall of the British Empire, Stonehenge, and a great riff on why whales are the DJs of the ocean, all woven together in a characteristically ingenious Eddie loop. Actually, his French is pretty good and getting better every night after the day’s swotting. Nevertheless, when I ask the three women behind me what they thought of the show, they said that although it was “extraordinaire”, there were just too many mistakes to carry off the big ideas.

Back at the hotel Eddie is sitting in my room, smoking for Europe and wearing my bathrobe because I have insisted on having the window open. He is clearly running on empty and still rather down about his performance, disappointed with himself for losing it on a couple of occasions (trying to master a Welsh accent in French proved particularly troublesome). When I remind him that he said the same thing about his New York show, he says that here the fear is much greater than usual, “even though you might have ideas that are nice to play with – ‘the universe is, er, ugh, vairy beeg’ – you are talking with the command of an eight-year-old and you’re just not getting the curves on it.”

At first he mutters away, very fast and very low, with a slightly sullen expression on his face. But the more up-front I am with him, the more engaged and engaging he becomes.

I wonder whether before Eddie came out in his true fantastic colours he might have come across as a bland, rather inspid character. I have interviewed a number of transsexuals and transvestites, and when they showed me old photographs of their pre-operative or blokey selves they always looked supremely dull fellows – almost as though their public selves were an exaggeratedly toned-down counterpoint to the flamboyance of their private compulsions. What would I have made of Eddie, for instance, if I had come across him when he was studying accountancy at Sheffield University?

He says he was a slob in a camel coat who didn’t give a flying monkey’s about his appearance. “I didn’t really bother buying clothes because I felt that everything somehow looked wrong on me.” But did you always have this surreal way of thinking? “In the sense of working out what I wanted to do type-thing?” No, the way you talk. “This way now or the way I am on stage?” Well, you’re a bit like you are on stage off stage as well.

I try another tack. Would I have thought you were just an ordinary, boring boy if I had met you when you were a 17-year-old doing maths, physics and chemistry A levels?” “No,” he says. “I would have attempted to make you laugh because this comedy has developed as a social tool.”

Ah, the classic scenario then: lonely, isolated boy who finds popularity through becoming the class clown. But Eddie says it wasn’t like that at all. It was not until he went to a school where, bizarrely, they didn’t play football – a sport at which he had excelled at his previous school, where he played in the first team – that he showed any interest in becoming funny. He was never bullied, he says, because he was such a ferocious arguer: “I would do that small dog, bigger dog thing – ruffruffruffruffruff [he barks like a terrier] – and make a helluvalotta noise and the bigger dog would go ‘Well, I won’t bother with this one’,” he says in his Sean Connery accent.

By the time he got to Sheffield – choosing a northern university to escape from the South – the only thing he wanted to do was to become a comedian, but he was dismayed to discover the student union would not support him taking an act to the Edinburgh Festival. He went anyway, writing and funding the gig himself. “It was a huge psychological thing and it was a crap piece of work, but we did it.”

He dropped out of university and had a miserable 1980s, living in a “bungalow thingy” near Streatham Common with a bunch of fellow street performers, waiting to be discovered. At his second school he had begged the headmaster each year to give him a role in the Easter musical, but it was thought his talents were better employed playing the clarinet in the orchestra, and so there he remained.

Although he is still perplexed by the headmaster’s obduracy – and told him so when he revisited the school – he reckons it was useful training learning how to endure setbacks. “I got to 18, 19, 20 and said ‘OK, let’s go, I’m ready, I’m cookin’. I’ve been waiting for this. I can make people laugh. I’ve been writing sketches . . . someone’s bound to discover me’ – but it just kept on not happening.”

And when it finally did happen – after he graduated from the streets, to the Comedy Store, to his own sell-out show – that was the moment Eddie chose to come out.

Some commentators have erroneously linked Eddie’s transvestism with the death of his mother when he was six, at which age he was dispatched to boarding school with his older brother. Eddie believes that his sexuality was genetically pre-ordained, and his earliest memories – as far back as the age of four – were of him wanting to wear girls’ clothes.

But his mother’s early death has certainly affected him in other ways. He describes himself as “emotionally compressed” and says he does not get too high or too low: “It’s kind of a survival thing.” The stand-up gives him the opportunity to get a lot of the highs out of his system, and he uses his serious roles (most recently as the late American comedian Lenny Bruce) to explore his anger and his lows. He has always needed his own space, physically and emotionally – long before he was famous – and lets people come to him rather than risk approaching them.

There is something so essentially detached about his presence – despite him having warmed up considerably by now – that I imagine he probably finds any kind of intimacy difficult. He says he inherited his reserve from his father, but the effect of his mother dying when he was so young was to make him emotionally stunted.

“In the scheme of things people lose entire families in concentration camps and so on but . . . I cried a lot and was caned a lot and just lost it at school, and then I got into this boy thing and couldn’t kiss my Dad anymore.”

The tears stopped abruptly at the age of 11, when he thought he had lost a fight because he cried. “So I blocked all that up and remained blocked until I was 19.”

The turning point for him was in Sheffield when he tried unsuccessfully to stop a feral cat running into the road and saw it being run over. “It had broken its back; I picked it up and it struggled to breathe and then it just died, and I felt nothing.

“So I thought ‘My God I am dead, I feel nothing. This is not good.’ I took it to the vet’s because I didn’t know what else to do, and I forced myself to cry.”

Do you still block stuff off? “Yes. There’s still a natural compressed emotional state which isn’t a great place to be, but then again I can be like this [he gestures to his appearance] and when people say negative things I’m not that bothered. It’s a good survival technique.”

In his show, while musing on the ghastliness of adolescence, Eddie had told us that he managed to lose his virginity only at 21. “Ce n’est pas cool,” he said, before affecting to change his mind. “C’est cool, mais dans un style très sad-f***er.” He has always been attracted to women and has had several long-term relationships. He used to turn up to Have I Got News for You with a girlfriend, and he is with someone now – though she does not wish to be discussed with journalists for obvious reasons.

I ask him if he is able to express himself and have rows and so on. “Oh yeah.” And are you able to say weedy things? “Weedy things?” You know, be soppy. “Oh yeah. I wanted to make sure that I wasn’t the kid who had been to public school – because they wouldn’t ever let themselves cry or get in touch with their emotions. So I am in touch with my emotions, although I will steel over them.

“I mean, the whole thing of coming out as transvestite is a big key to how I work. Because the – arrrgh – amount of guts it takes to come out, and what I or any person who does come out has to go through – it’s tough. And it’s so visual as a TV and you get so much flak and you look such a mess initially in the frumpy transvestite phase when you’re not out enough to say ‘I wonder what this would look like?’, which is what a normal boy or girl or man or woman would do.”

Before we get into the grittiest of the nitty-gritty about what makes a TV tick – or, at any rate this TV – I feel that something must be cleared up. At which point, may I suggest that readers of a delicate disposition STOP READING NOW – after which warning if you do cancel your subscription to The Times we will know that you have been unable to resist temptation.

Right. Now if all of us women fancy Eddie, it is likely that somewhere down the line some of us must have imagined what it would be like to be physically entwined with him. And once one goes down that route, inevitably what enters one’s mind is the penis-type thing. And so Eddie, I ask, do you use your penis penetratively? A question, incidentally, that I do not recollect ever having asked a man before, interviewee or otherwise. Perhaps being with someone who has to be brave every day of his life has an emboldening effect. And mercifully, he doesn’t bat a (smokey grey and kohl-lined) eyelid.

Yes, he says, he does, “if the other woman is into the penis but if not, fine.” I had always understood that transvestites were heterosexual men who simply had a fetish – a word Eddie dislikes, as I am to discover – for women’s clothing. Transsexuals, on the other hand, were men who felt they were a woman trapped inside the wrong body, men who loathed their maleness and saw their penis as a constant physical rebuke.

But Eddie says TVs and TSs are on exactly the same path, it is just that the latter are farther down it. Until recently he described himself as a heterosexual, but got fed up with journalists writing that he insists on calling himself hetero, as though it were a mask for his gayness (he has never attempted to go to bed with a man) and drag queens accusing him of being a liar. Male lesbian, he thinks, fits the bill and avoids any suggestion that he is distancing himself from other sexual minorities.

But does he, like transsexuals, hate his penis? “The penis is immaterial,” he says, which certainly sets him apart from the way most men view their equipment. “I don’t think it’s at all an aesthecically pleasing thing. I don’t think, ‘Heyyy, this penis, Gahhd, I’d like to put it on the mantelpiece. Isn’t it hard, I venture, to use the penis in a feminine way? “Er, yes,” he says. “So that’s probably why we don’t want penises. I’ve got breast envy.”

You’d like a bosom? “Oh yeah. Just like teenage girls or some women think ‘Oh, I wish I was bigger’. That’s exactly what’s going on with me.” Have you ever tried putting a false bosom in? “I have and I did and I do,” he says. So would you rather have a bosom than a penis? “Um. I’ve never done the either/or choice but, yeah.” I don’t understand, I say.

As Eddie is the only famous “out” transvestite in the world (he thinks, though he has heard that there might be a New Zealand politician who is also a TV) he does believe he has a mission to explain the way he is in order to promote a better understanding of less fortunate, more shamefully closeted men than himself. That is why he is always game to try out new theories and also, I sense, because he himself is still trying to grapple with the mystifying psychology of transvestism. So here, unveiled for the first time, is his new theory:

“Men – and disagree with me whenever you want – are stimulated visually. If women do the black dress, the high heels and the lippy, men go, ‘Hey! Wow!’ And it could be the same woman they haven’t paid any attention to. The woman could be a complete bimbo and have no conversation and the man could be very articulate but still – Bam! – would wish to shag. Women? Not so much. They’re stimultated more by . . .” Touch? “Touch and also personality. By a bloke who might be a curious-looking bloke. So the key points are the triggers. OK?” OK thus far.

“Now let me stay on the point because I think this is a bit of a breakthrough in explaining things. So TVs have an urge to be a woman. They’re at home and they get the clothes and the make-up right and maybe they’ll turn the lights down low so that the look is good, and they’ll say ‘Hey right, I look like a woman.’ But then this two-step effect happens. Because they get visually stimulated – like clockwork – just like all men do. They have created this sexy image that they are then attracted to.”

So it’s masturbatory? “Yes, absolutely.” So it’s “I love . . . me”? “No. It’s ‘I love that image’. What they’d prefer to do is to make love to another woman and have lesbian sex. They’d like to be a woman and make love to another woman.” Right, still with him, just about.

What I still find quite hard to understand is the clothing. In the past you have said that your desire sometimes to wear a provocative skirt rather than boring old trousers is no different from the way a woman dresses to please herself. But isn’t the relationship of the transvestite with the actual gear eroticised? And if so, this is not the way most women relate to their wardrobe. He says he has watched women, something he does a lot, and has noticed the way that they will stroke a new pair of boots and though they are obviously not getting wildly turned on, they will say ‘I love the feel of this. It makes me feel sexy.’

But it’s not the same thing, is it Eddie? He says there are no sexy men’s clothes apart from, say, a leather thong. Men’s satin dressing gowns? “You find those wildly erotic?” he says, with disbelief. “There’s nothing sensual or sexy for men. Male lingerie does not exist. Stockings do not exist. Socks are not going to get you going, ‘Hey maaan, great socks, let’s go!’

“Women have this vast variety of lingerie, stockings and tights and different patterns, and shoes, with different-sized heels, in red and black, and skirts – short, long, with slits – push-the-boob things . . . there’s so much around in women’s things that is erotic.

While men have: shirt shirt shirt jumper shirt jumper jacket jumper shirt jacket trousers trousers short trousers trousers flat shoes.”

He says that while women wearing men’s clothes confers on them a certain sort of power – and cites Marlene Dietrich as an example – men attack other men for wearing women’s clothes because it is seen as a weakness: “And it’s seen as being weak because they equate the clothing with being female, and female equals weak – which is wrong, because women have strong and weak characters, and so do men.”

I say that part of the problem with transvestism is that there is an image of shame and humiliation and solitariness, and husbands ejaculating over their wives’ clothing, and it’s not a very attractive image. “Mmm. Absolutely.” And then you come along and mix it and match it and have this very male way of being and it’s no longer seen as something pathetic. “It’s because it’s out and knitted into society,” he says thoughtfully.

I ask whether he’s aware of how many women find him attractive. “Yes, it’s off the scale,” he says. “And very sexy women, too.” He’s attracted to all sorts of women, from boyish girls to those with Marilyn Monroe curves. He thinks a lot more women would be attracted to TVs if the men were as out and calm and relaxed about themselves as he is. Also women are turned on by the fact that it takes balls – so to speak – to go out there and be himself and not give a damn. And if he’s given stick, he gives it right back – as a group of thugs discovered when they set upon him, and he not only fought them off but took them to court and won.

But he has noticed that a lot of the female fans who write him letters seem to feel compelled to explain why they are attracted to him. He compares it to women who sleep with women but insist they are not lesbians. (The same applies to men, presumably.) “So there’s denial and we’re not at the end of explaining things,” he says. “But getting the truth out of people is difficult. They’ve got so many blocks in their heads that they can’t tell themselves the truth. It’s something right at the back of the quiet mind.”

It is only towards the end of our conversation, and almost by chance, that I finally find an image for transvestism that works for me. I ask Eddie whether the erotic nature of transvestism isn’t essentially narcissistic, and he reminds me that when Narcissus fell in love with his image in the water he didn’t know that the face staring back at him was his own. And there’s the key, I think. The transvestite at his most private, most sexually engaged, is actually disengaged from himself. He looks at his femaleness from the outside, rather than feeling it from within. And if that splitting of oneself is fundamental to your make-up, it might explain why there are other areas of detachment as well.

For most of our time together, despite the emphasis on sex, there is nothing charged or erotic about the atmosphere. Quite the opposite, if anything: it is more clinical, scientific and oddly impersonal. But very occasionally, when one becomes aware of holding a gaze for a fraction longer than is necessary or when Eddie turns an intimate question back to me, it feels for a moment as though something else is going on. Perhaps it’s the dreamy lateness of the hour, the man sitting in your dressing gown, the shadow of his false eyelashes on his cheek.

At the end of the interview, Eddie says that what you need to do is to look at everybody’s fantasies and line them all up and only then can you see what is normal and what is not. “Who doesn’t have fantasies?” he asks. I don’t think I do. “Actually, I’ve heard other women say that.” Don’t have time to…

“So you don’t really have fantasies?” he asks softly. Not really. “You should get some,” he breathes. Because they’re fun? “Yeaaaahhh.”

Like I said, he’s sexy.

Actors, Celebrities, Women

Elizabeth the first

THE TIMES MAGAZINE – October 10 1999
Ginny Dougary

There’s never been a film star quite like Elizabeth Taylor: the eyes, the diamonds, the men, the myth. And at 67 she still reigns supreme in despite her self-imposed celluloid exile. Ginny Dougary of The Times (London) is granted a rare audience.

The Russian taxi driver is the first to see her. “Look, there she is. OmiGod. I cannot believe it. Elizabeth Taylor! Today is my birthday. I will never forget this.” We had left behind the Great Gatsby mansions, gleaming white against the lime-green lawns, the pseudo-gothic and baronial mishmash of architectural styles favoured by the millionaires of Bel Air, and driven up a vertiginous road, all lush undergrowth and garlands of bougainvillaea, to reach Miss Taylor’s residence.

The gates open silently and almost immediately we are in a courtyard, with half a dozen cars, and an L-shaped complex of buildings which consists of a long low bungalow and a garage. My initial thought is that these are the servants’ quarters and the star must be in some whopping great palace beyond our view. But no, there she is in the doorway, a tiny figure in black, that famous face with the dark eyebrows, framed by its halo of spun white hair, white pooch at her heels, smiling and walking towards us. “Hello,” she breathes, “I’m Elizabeth.”

As if we didn’t know. This interview was the culmination of three years of letters, phone calls and faxes, during which time she had suffered numerous health set-backs, including an operation to remove a brain tumour the size of a golf ball, her hair had turned from black to white and for a while an elfin crop replaced the trademark bouffe; her long-term New York agents and management had been replaced by a firm in Los Angeles, so we had to embark on the process all over again; she had come out of a period of reclusiveness; she had won a BAFTA award for lifetime achievement; I had written an essay about her which seemed to me to be, in part, an acknowledgement that I was never going to get to meet her. And yet, here, finally, we are. Was it worth the wait? Oh, yes.

Firstly, she is still astonishingly beautiful. She fixes you with those dazzling eyes of hers and it can be quite hard to concentrate on what she is saying. She hates being called a legend or an icon – since, as she rightly says, they are labels which are usually reserved for the dead. “And I’m not dead,” she pouts. “I’m very full of life.”

But part of the undoubted frisson of sitting face to face with her is that there are very few actors of either sex who have become so shrouded with mystique as she has in their own lifetime. Unlike Lauren Bacall or Katharine Hepburn, age has withered her acting career. She hasn’t had a major film role in years, and because we have not grown accustomed to seeing her grow old in Technicolor, there is a sense in which we can still think of her as a screen goddess, frozen in the past.

We are constantly reminded that she is alive, if only because of her frequent brushes with death. But the woman who was Malcolm Forbes’s best friend, who has worked so hard at raising funds for and the profile of Aids charities, who once said that Michael Jackson was the least-weird man she knew, who bottles her allure in a top-selling scent, is someone quite separate from her youthful screen persona. And this is the curious excitement of being with her; that you are, at once, abruptly in the present with one of this century’s most celebrated women, but also, intermittently in your own past, as a child and an adolescent, watching the peachy Elizabeth Taylor, on the small TV screen with your parents, playing opposite Montgomery Clift, James Dean, Rock Hudson, Richard Burton, all of them dead. It is dreamlike, listening to her satiny voice telling stories of Bogey and Coop and Monty and Marilyn and JFK – one’s mental screen flickering with Hollywood’s ghosts.

She is a beguiling mixture of kittenish femininity and bar-room broad, with her salty language and a thrillingly vulgar laugh. She is flirtatious, conspiratorial, funny, down-to-earth with occasional, slightly worrying lapses into la la land – when she closes her eyes or looks up to the heavens, circles the air with her hands, and talks in a frankly batty way about some experience or another. Occasionally she freezes – when she doesn’t like the line of inquiry – and one is left in no doubt that the charm is underpinned by steel.

Most striking of all is her willingness to talk openly about all sorts of subjects that one might have thought were taboo. On plastic surgery: “It is an impertinent question, but I will answer it. I have had a chin tuck.” On sex: “I think it’s very important… and it’s such F-U-U-N!” delivered with a great gleeful whoop. On drinking: “Loved it. Loved it. And I loved drinking the boys (including epic topers Burton and O’Toole) under the table.” On taking recreational drugs: “I did it for a bit… oh, I had a ball being bad!” On up-keep: “I think beauty products are a bunch of… I use hand cream on my face, and always have!” Her weight: “Everybody tells me I’m fat, but I don’t care. I’m 67 years old! I have the right to do what I want to do.” On the joys of the elasticated waistband: “Baby… it’s here!” thwacking her trousers to demonstrate.

The modest facade of the bungalow masks an opulent interior. We walk through the hall past a huge portrait, circa 1951, of Liz – or Bessie, as she prefers to be known. Monty’s name for her was Bessie-Mae which she particularly liked: “I think it’s sweet and country.” Actually, she says, she cannot stand Liz. When she was a little girl, her brother used to tease the living daylights out of her, chasing her around the garden, dangling lizards in her face and calling her Lizzie the Lizard. Lizzie became Liz and it was all associated with stuff way back then and, as it happens, she doesn’t think it’s a very pretty abbreviation anyway.

Into the living room, white carpet and chairs, a wall of important Impressionist paintings, french windows opening on to a pretty terrace, which leads down to the swimming pool. The tables are laden with great rocks of amethyst and pyramids of crystal and luminous amber obelisks – a collection so vast and impressive it would not look out of place in a museum of natural history. We look at a piece of shimmering violet on the table between us, which both contains and sheds a rainbow of colour. “Michael gave that to me,” she says. “It’s a major piece of crystal. That’s what a pure diamond does. Reflects all the colours.”

Ah, Elizabeth, and her diamonds. When did you first start liking jewellery? I ask. “When I first started opening my eyes,” she says. Later Tim, who has been Taylor’s personal assistant for the past seven or eight years, takes me on a tour of the house and standing in the loo, in front of an etching of a pair of lips (To Elizabeth – a big kiss Andy Warhol) he opens a box and shows me a ring on which is mounted the biggest, purest diamond I have ever seen. Shall I try it on? I ask. “Go ahead,” he says – so I do. Fortunately, it does nothing for me.

The star’s new management had warned me that on no account should I ask Miss Taylor about her jewels, but the first thing she says when we sit down is “Do you like my earrings?” She designed them herself and is inordinately proud of her efforts, drawing attention to them several times during the interview. They are very Liz – or Bessie, as I must now think of her, which sounds plain wrong somehow (Bessie Bunter? Bessie Smith? Queen Bessie?) – dangly, large and far from understated. They look like a string of daisies weighted down by a bell, and they do most definitely suit her. I think we can safely say that the diamonds and pearls are the real thing, I jest. “My dear. Who do you think you are talking to?” she breaks into her crazy laugh. “This is white coral (pointing to the flowers). These are white diamonds (the anthers), yellow sapphires and little pearls. I love the way they swing. They feel like they’re in the breeze.”

In her speech at the BAFTA awards earlier this year, Taylor said that she had never really considered herself as an actress. Even at the height of her acting fame, when she had received Oscars for Butterfield 8 and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (her favourite performance), she always maintained that she felt more like a movie star than a serious thespian. “I know I am an actress, and that I’ve been paid as an actress,” she says, “but when I listen to actors who are so taken away by the whole thing, I look at them and I think, get a life!” This is music to my ears. “Now I don’t mean to be rude,” she joins in the laughter, “but there are other things… and maybe living in Washington DC helped my perspective on that.”

After the BAFTA hoopla, there had been numerous reports that Taylor was so thrilled by the tributes that she had decided to relaunch her acting career. Her name had been linked, as they say, with Rod Steiger and various projects he supposedly had in mind for her. He’s a boy and a friend is how she describes him, and no, she squawks, she is not going to get hitched to him. In fact, after seven husbands, she is through with marriage altogether. “I am not going to marry anybody who is on the face of this earth or any other planet!” she says robustly.

As for the comeback, she seems decidedly half-hearted about it. I ask her about her rumoured role as Lady Bracknell. “The Importance of Being Earnest?” she asks. “That’s the first I’ve ever heard of it.” Do you want to act again or do you think you should because everyone else thinks you ought to? I ask – I can’t make it out. “I can’t quite either,” she says, truthfully. “It’ll happen when it happens. I’ll just let it flow.” The reason she gives for not making a major film for the past 20 years is that most of the scripts she has been sent have been dreck – “a good Jewish word. Let the reader figure it out”. She continues: “If I go back, I want to go back in something worthwhile – not just because it’s something to do. And the most important thing in my life is Aids.”

It is Elizabeth Taylor, more than any other celebrity, politician, activist or world leader, who was responsible for turning around public opinion towards Aids, certainly in the United States and probably beyond. Her involvement came at a time when little was known about the virus and any association with it was the social kiss of death. She wheedled, coaxed and badgered her powerful, wealthy friends to support her first big fundraising event – drawing in the likes of Sammy Davis Jnr and Frank Sinatra, and making front-page news. “Here they all were attending this dinner for Aids? What’s Aids?” she recalls. “Let’s turn on to the inside pages to find out. So it was an enormous coup and a way of letting people know what this thing was.” Since then she has raised millions of dollars for research and medical care, through her own self-funded Aids foundation as well as helping others, and she has stuck with the cause despite receiving a number of death threats. She acknowledges her position as a leader in the Aids fight, saying, “I am very proud of it, and I’ll take any flak they want to give me.”

In the early days, before anyone in the film community – including Elizabeth Taylor – knew that Rock Hudson had contracted the virus, she would be incensed by the kind of attitudes she encountered over the dinner table. “Well, it serves them bloody well right,” she affects a pompous swagger. “They should be wiped off the face of the earth and this is God’s way of doing it.”

When the news got out about Hudson, Hollywood was suddenly convulsed by the implications. “My God. It’s hit one of our own. It’s one of the family,” Taylor recalls. “And everybody loved Rock. He was one of the most enchanting, funny – ach, just so adorable. He was so cuddly and he loved to cuddle back.”

For all Taylor’s emotionalism on the subject, which is perfectly understandable to me, what impresses is her ruthless pragmatism about keeping the organisation lean and cost-efficient, so that every cent raised goes directly tothe Aids patients, whether in Nairobi or New York. Acting is only interpreting other people’s words and work, she says, but what she wants to do is make some contribution of her own. “This is not mimicking something else. It’s real tragedy. There’s no Greek chorus. We’re living it.”

It is not the first time in her life that Taylor has drawn flak from America’s Moral Majority. When she and Richard Burton became a couple, while they were both still married, there were more death threats and even attempts, she tells me, to run them off the road. “Oh yeah,” she says, “we had been evil and broken commandments. All the religious zealots came out and wanted to hang us. The Pope – who is not a religious zealot but, er,” she giggles and adopts a hokey accent, “He mighty big up there. He one of the big boys. He wrote a letter in the Vatican newspaper saying that my children should be taken away from me. Those were not easy times. I was sickened, maddened, saddened and heartbroken that those kinds of thoughts would be in people’s minds to such a degree of vehemence. Isn’t the Pope supposed to be like a descendant of Jesus? And didn’t Jesus forgive Mary Magdalene? Where is the love in that?”

I ask her whether she had a favourite husband, and her response is so theatrical I am tempted to see if the cameras are rolling. “I have had two great loves in my life. I have been doubly blessed. And I consider myself soohh lucky. Some people never find that kind of love that I’m talking of… I had it twice,” this delivered in a stage whisper. I do hope one of them was Richard Burton. “Of course… and Michael Wilding. I loved him with my life. We had 13 months together and our daughter, Eliza, was six months old when he was killed in a plane crash over the mountains of Albuquerque.” Taylor was left a widow at 26, a mother of three, with a film to finish – Cat on a Hot Tin Roof.

And did she consider that any of her husbands were a complete waste of time? She yodels with laughter “Yesss. But I’m not going to tell you. I’ll let you guess. I’m a gentleman.” Listening to this exchange afterwards, we sound – and not for the first time – like a couple of tipsy molls painting the town red. And yet Taylor, after years on the razzle, is now teetotal (she still indulges her taste for beer, but these days it’s non-alcoholic) and I am on the mineral water. For the most part, I get the impression that she enjoys being a bit risque and bawdy and that is why, unlike many reformed drunks, she is a lot of fun to be with.

The more cheeky the question, the better she seems to like it. She is homely rather than high-handed, without a trace of grande-damery. At one point, she offers to refill my glass of water herself, unlike most of the bigwigs I have encountered who simply yell or ring a bell for a servant. Standing up, she loses her balance, and apologises for her clumsiness, saying that since the brain surgery she has been left unsteady on her feet. Several weeks after our meeting, Taylor has another of her falls and is obliged to recuperate at the Cedars-Sinai hospital, a place with which she is so familiar that Burton once referred to it as her second home.

High on the list of dud husbands, I suspect, was the last one, Larry Fortensky (that hair!), the construction worker she met in rehab. Later when we talk about how she would still like to live with a man – “I like to cuddle and the companionship and all that, but not that blasted piece of paper” – I ask her why, in that case, she had not forgone marriage sooner. “Well, first of all, John (Warner) was running for Senate, so that explains that one. Fortensky? God only knows. His mother was dying of cancer, and she wanted us to get married so badly… and I got carried away in a moment of sentimentality.”

She suddenly breaks off and shrieks: “Shhhugggarr! You just come here to your mother!” The miniature dog, which resembles a bedraggled Slinky, comes into the room and Taylor leans down to cuddle her, making a series of mewing, infantile bleats including, stomach-turningly, “Has Sugar done a poo-poo?” You really love your dog, I say redundantly. “Oh I worship my dog,” she replies, “she’s an extension of me.” Looking at their fluffy white hair, together, I am struck by the fanciful notion that perhaps Taylor’s new hairdo has been modelled on her dog’s. Sugar is not simply a canine accessory but part of a double act – she is featured with her owner in the perfume ads, for instance, and is in Taylor’s arms at press conferences. It’s only later that I realise how rude my question sounds, but fortunately Taylor does not take it that way.

The only time she does get cranky with me is when I ask her about being beaten. I reviewed a couple of trashy biographies of Taylor some years ago, which left me with the impression that she had been physically abused by several husbands. When I raise the matter, she says, stony-faced, “Not plural. That’s all I’m going to say. I have never been beaten or abused by more than one man, and if someone out there wants to say, ‘Oh God, it must have been blah, blah, blah,’ I will say, ‘No it was not blah, blah, blah. It was Nick Hilton, who drank himself to death by the age of 33. And alcohol was a great part of this behaviour.” So you wouldn’t consider lending your support to a refuge or anything to help other battered women? “No. Because it makes me sound like a battered woman,” she replies. “I had a very unfortunate marriage and part of it was being beaten up. I’m not going to make that one of my crusades.” (It emerged in a recent American interview that Hilton had once kicked her in the stomach, causing her to have a miscarriage.

Her reluctance to discuss this period of her life may well be that it summons memories that Taylor would rather were not revived, but I think something else was going on as well. The uplifting message of our interview – and one which the star seemed keen, in an unforced way, to promote – is that despite all her adversities, the illnesses, the addictions, the tragedies and deaths, Taylor has not only survived, but in her late sixties, she is on top form. “With age, if you set your mind on the positive,” she says, “you can have more fun. You can be more in control and you can make things happen.” So let’s not spoil it all by focusing on a time when she was a victim of something out of her control.

And while we are on the subject of rejuvenescence, Taylor’s libido, she informs me, is as lively as ever. I ask her whether it’s important to her to have a good sex life and she exclaims: “Yesss. God! Yes! I have some girlfriends who are my age and they say, ‘Oh Elizabeth, (breathy dowager voice) sex isn’t important at our age.’ And I say, ‘Bull-shee-ut.’ Well, each to his own, but I have as much desire as I did in my twenties and thirties.”

She is tight-lipped about Michael Jackson presumably because they are the best of friends and perhaps something more. By which I do not mean anything romantic, although there is a framed poster of the singer, in one of the rooms, with the inscription: “To Elizabeth, my true love, yours eternally”. What they seem to share, more than anything, is a sense of communality, of being kindred spirits. I put it to her that perhaps the reason she said Jackson was the least weird man she knows is that her own upbringing was so weird.

“Oh my childhood and Michael’s childhood are so similar and so strange,” she agrees. “We had no chums our own age. I, thank God, adored horse riding and had that for my release and I loved my horse, King – the one they used in National Velvet – with a total passion. But Michael had nothing! The rest of the kids – the Jackson Five – would, um, I shouldn’t be talking…” I say that if we look at what he has done to himself – a perfectly attractive young black man who has disfigured himself in his desire to be something other than he is – well, it’s sad, at the very least, isn’t it? “It is,” she agrees. Does he see himself that way? “I can’t talk about him,” she says. “It’s not my prerogative, other than to say that there are reasons that would explain to you and the public… why he looks this way, or whatever. But it’s not my position.”

The more time I talk to Taylor, the more struck I am by the thought that she could have been a formidable force, had she been born in a different era. She has the courage of her convictions, a hatred of injustice, and the ability to apply her considerable will to get what she wants: qualities that have been amply demonstrated in her Aids work. Party politics don’t interest her, but issues do. She was an active pro-choice supporter and of the Equal Rights Amendment, for instance, despite being married to a Republican senator. She says that it would be fascinating to be a politician… but being a politician’s wife was not.

“It was one of the most boring experiences I’ve ever had,” she recalls. “You are told what to think, when to say what you’re supposed to think, and you have no opinions of your own, supposedly. If you cut out of the cradle and blurt something out, you’re looked down on – ‘Naughty, naughty.’ Having been very verbal all my life and independent – even before it was fashionable – I found it soooh difficult to keep my mouth shut.” Did Warner ever get cross with you, if you were indiscreet? “He’d give me a look that could kill a cat,” she says, matter-of-factly. “Never anything out loud, but I could get the vibes across the room.”

Taylor was born at a time when a woman’s power tended to reside in her ability to manipulate her sexuality. She has no qualms about using a little charm or flirtation for the sake of a good cause, saying that’s it’s no more dangerous or obnoxious than taking off your bra; shorthand, one takes it, for bra-burning Women’s Lib. Then she examines her poitrine with a quizzical look and says: “Maybe if I…? Well, I did have pretty good tits in my day.” Another cackle of laughter.

As a young woman, at least into her thirties, Taylor was dismissed by her directors and fellow actors, particularly those who had come from Shakespearean backgrounds. If you were pretty, naturally, you couldn’t have any brains. “And that hurt me enormously,” she recalls. “Because I don’t think what you look like has anything to do with what you are. But I rode right over it, because I know who I am. I know what I’m capable of and all I have to do is go out there and prove it.”

She was not always blessed with this unshakeable sense of self-belief. I had imagined, partly because of the luminous sheen of her screen presence, and the precocity which goes along with being a child star, that Taylor had always been confident about her allure. So it is a surprise to hear that she was once such a passive little woman that Humphrey Bogart, no less, felt obliged to take her to task. “I’ve been watching you,” he told her. “All you do is follow Michael (Wilding) around like a puppy dog. Don’t you realise that you are your own being? You’re a very beautiful woman. And when you get up the nerve and open your mouth and make a remark, you’re a very funny woman.” Bogart insisted that she go off and sit on her own and within ten minutes, he predicted, she would be surrounded by a crowd of men. “Oh Bogey,” she said, “don’t make me do that. I’m too shy. I love listening to Michael talk.” He threatened that if she didn’t, he would never invite her round to his house again: “This is a lesson. It’s a test. Treat it that way.”

“So I got up, walked over, smoked a cigarette, smiled…” Elizabeth Taylor is performing for me “…and eventually somebody came over – a very attractive somebody – and in five minutes there were about five men around and Bogey walked by and went…” she winks at me. She would often think back on that moment with Bogey – the teacher with his pupil done up in Christian Dior – and it would make her laugh inside. She would test it out and the more it worked, the more confidence it gave her… “and all I did was just sit there.”

While we’re in the past – and they certainly did do things differently there – I ask about her relationship with Montgomery Clift. She says that although they were attracted to each other – “We would kiss and stuff” – she knew that they were not meant for each other: “I loved Monty so much, he was beautiful, and he loved me so much, but one night I looked at him – and this was before I knew what gay was or anything about closets – and I thought, my God, he should be with a man, not a woman, and I know who.” Who? I ask, of course. But, alas, she won’t say. So did you matchmake them? “Yeah, and they were together for about three years,” she says.

David Heymann, in his biography, Liz, had interviewed a man who had claimed to have slept with Taylor’s art-dealer father. But when I ask her about this, she goes mad: “Whhh-aa-a-t? My father was g-a-a-y? Bull-sh-it! I know he wasn’t. He was my father. And especially since I seem to have a sixth sense about this…” She says she didn’t read the Heymann biography, or any of the others, including Kitty Kelley’s, but that if her father had been gay, “My answer would be, yes, and that’s why I think I learnt to understand homosexual men. But it isn’t true, so don’t put something on the man that isn’t true.” And then, in a low, confidential voice: “But I know he had an affair with his girl secretary.”

She tells me about Jack Kennedy – “I went out with him when he was a young congressman and I was 17, doing A Place in the Sun. All he could talk about was politics, it was one of the more boring dinners of my life.” And Marilyn Monroe – “I adored her. I felt very protective towards her and there was no way of protecting her… she had brought this net of negativity and self-destructiveness around her that anyone could put their Machiavellian fingers through. She drank and took too many pills.” You’ve done that and survived. “But she didn’t have the grit.” And Edward and Mrs Simpson who used to entertain the Burtons on Sundays in their house in Paris. I could listen to her talk like this for hours more, but our time is up and she is flagging.

The previous day, Taylor had cancelled our interview because of an urgent dental appointment. I was not particularly convinced by the excuse, and suspected her of prima-donna malingering. But when we meet she is still suffering – she clutches her jaw every so often, and gives a ladylike moan – and I half-wondered, whenever there was the odd slurred word or glassy look, whether she might not be a little high on medication. But gone are the days, she says, when irresponsible doctors would hand out as many pills as she wanted. This lot keep her in line, and admonish: “A little pain won’t kill you.”

She signs an autograph – “It was fun!” – pecks me on the cheek, and retires for a rest. I wait in her office for a taxi, and look at all the old photographs on the walls and tables. There she is with Jack Lang, who thanks her for “un jour lumineux”, with Michael Jackson, and with Michael Caine. The years peel back, and there she is in National Velvet, her hair tied up in a bow, beauty spot on cheek, already too sophisticated to look like a real little girl who loves horses. On one wall, there is a safari series of her with Burton, black eyeliner and Jackie O specs on her long dark hair, him grinning craggily into the camera, the two of them cuddling up to a baby leopard. On the table, there’s a photograph of her squashed on a sofa alongside all her hippy offspring and their babies, in which she looks so young you could mistake her for one of the children. And then I see a picture of her that I am unlikely to see again – it is a recent one of Taylor sitting in her hospital bed, cuddling Sugar, with no make-up and no hair, none at all. What a woman. If there were any evidence of her lack of vanity, this is it.

I had seen her at close quarters once before. It was when I was about ten, 30 years ago, and she must have been about the same age I am now. My parents and I were staying in a hotel in St Jean-Cap-Ferrat, and one lunchtime Taylor and Burton and a couple of teenage children – a boy and a girl, with the same tar-black hair and lavender eyes as their mother – walked into the dining room. They sat at the next-door table and my mother, who had her own movie-star glamour, was determinedly unimpressed. Sitting on the verandah afterwards, she turned to my father and said, “Rather a dumpy little thing, didn’t you think?”

“Well, Dougie,” he said on cue, “She’s not a patch on you.”

I love Taylor’s old movies, particularly A Place in the Sun and Suddenly Last Summer: the suggestion of something corrupt in her beauty, that it was both damaged and damaging; the hint of moral decay behind her succulent bloom. Now that both my parents are dead and a huge span of my life resides in memory, being with her in some odd way reminded me of them. Her face is different now; her features have coarsened, but she looks fresher and somehow cleaner with her freckles and minimal make-up. My friends warned me that she was bound to be a disappointment. I would discover that the goddess had feet of clay. But it was her very ordinariness, if anything, which was captivating. The idea that she would be happy to let herself go, if it weren’t for all those darned well-wishers in her entourage, constantly nagging her to dye her hair and lose weight, even to have a breast reduction to ease her back problems: “But I’m fond of my old boobs,” she said, mock-forlornly. Still, as a journalist, I know that the fan interview does not always make for the most satisfactory read. So, perhaps, it is just as well there was a sting in this tale.

When I got back to my hotel, still glowing with pleasure from the encounter, I received a phone call from Tim, the friendly assistant. He was wanting to finalise the paperwork, and wondered why I hadn’t left a particular document. “You didn’t leave it, you dog,” he said. I’m sorry? “You dog.” Well that’s not a very nice thing to say, I say, and since it was your job to deal with it, if anyone’s the “dog”, it’s you.

Dog insults out of the way – an odd way of doing business, one might think, even in Los Angeles – I take the opportunity to check on a few details. When was Taylor’s last interview published, and when is the next scheduled to appear in an American magazine? Bam! Another gratuitous swipe, along the lines that the other bunch are much more thorough and professional than The Times. “Oh, ha, ha,” I say, assuming this is some kind of off-joke. At which point, a new purring voice comes on the line: “Ginnyeee.” My hairs stand on end as I realise that Taylor has been listening to this conversation all along, quite unannounced, tacitly or explicitly egging her assistant on.

In an instant, the heroine of my imagination has become a horrid hybrid of Gloria Swanson in Hollywood Boulevard and Bette Davis in Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?

It was a mistake to think we were on the same planet. Whatever Elizabeth Taylor says, she is a great actress.

Actors, Theatre

Oh, what a roguish and pleasant slave

LONDON TIMES – November 22 1992
Ginny Dougary

Kenneth Branagh appears to think he is in a comedy sketch in which the interviewer is cast as the fall guy. Our question and answer routine is like something scripted by Peter Cook and Dudley Moore. All the punch lines hinge on the same word. ”Isn’t it stressful”, I ask, ”directing the woman you live with?” ”Well, as Hamlet would say…” ”Can you only achieve public success at the cost of private happiness?” ”You know what really fascinates me about Hamlet is…” ”Do you take part in the showbiz circuit?” ”I’m no good at small talk. Playing Hamlet reminds you of how precious life is.” Is he taking the mickey or what?

Branagh is 31. This production, directed by Adrian Noble for the Royal Shakespeare Company, is his fourth attempt to conquer the colossal role of Hamlet. His last essay was in 1989, with Derek Jacobi as director, the same year he married Emma Thompson at Cliveden, filmed and starred in Henry V, set up his own Renaissance Theatre Company and wrote his autobiography. His critics found the breadth and prodigiousness of all this activity perfectly nauseating. To attempt so much and at such a tender age was not only impertinent, it smacked of overweening ambition and a monstrous ego. How dare the whippersnapper challenge Lord Olivier’s epic Henry V with his own celluloid version? How tedious the Ken and Em show had become: a one-note samba, the couple endlessly playing different versions of themselves in The Fortunes of War, Look Back in Anger, and on and on; he appearing in her television series, she appearing in his plays and films.

But those seeking the comfort of schadenfreude were to be disappointed. There was no fall and, even more disconcertingly, whenever Branagh submitted himself to the scrutiny of the press, there did not seem to be too much pride either. If anything, he came across as such an unassuming, nice bloke, it was a bit of a letdown. Even his fans, however, must have wondered how a 28-year-old, regardless of his achievements, could think he had been around long enough to justify writing an autobiography. His response to the cavils was that he needed the money to buy office space for his theatre company. The book illuminates Branagh’s obsession with the part of Hamlet. It was seeing Jacobi in the role at the Oxford Playhouse that sharpened the starstruck schoolboy’s appetite to act. Not many years later, he chose the play for his final performance at Rada, taking note of Tyrone Guthrie’s advice, in A Life in the Theatre, that young actors should tackle the great roles at the start of their careers, so that there would be more chance of getting them right early on. ”I wanted one day to be a great Hamlet,” Branagh writes. ”I wanted to play Hamlet as many times as possible, so that each time I played it I would get better in the role, and would get closer to the truth of the character.”

”John Gielgud said that the play describes the very process of living.” Branagh is warming to his theme as we sit in a tiny, rather squalid eyrie in south London, during one of the company’s rehearsal breaks. ”I would compare Hamlet to a great piece of music or a poem. It’s something that you respond to with your insides. And that response is a little deeper, and a little richer, as you get, perhaps, a little older.” There is something puzzling about Branagh’s delivery at this early stage of our meeting. Each phrase, regardless of its insignificance, is carefully weighed and balanced before the next is pronounced. As he speaks, he stirs the air with his hand, in a precise little movement, like someone folding a cake mix. It is as though he is parodying Alan Whicker and Fanny Cradock simultaneously. It is the very reasonableness of his tone that appears artificial.

Perhaps because we suspect that actors are never not playing a part, it seems more natural when they are arch or mock-heroic, fantastically dotty or over-the-top camp. Why bother being Mr Ordinary, after all, when you can be Peter O’Toole?

It feels churlish to quibble about an actor’s lack of theatricality when it should make a refreshing change, and particularly since Branagh is such an affable interviewee. He is effortlessly courteous springing to the door every time anyone knocks, scrabbling around on the floor to fix the wonky table so that I can write my notes and he does something with his eyes which makes one see, despite what he describes with some accuracy as his nondescript features, why he has a reputation for being a ladies’ man. It is only, however, when he drops the measured pontificating to let off steam that one senses he is being himself.

We are discussing The Wedding. Had the couple intended it to be quite such a public spectacle? ”No, no, very much the reverse,” Branagh says. But it was not exactly a quiet, understated celebration, was it? The marriage even featured in Hello!, although the magazine did not attend the ceremony. ”The wedding was not quiet because there was nothing else going on in the country at the time,” he says. ”There was absolutely I’m here to tell you no pursuit of publicity for that wedding whatsoever, may God strike me dead now. The more we said, ‘Look, we’re just havin’ a do’, the more interest there was in it. The press was overdosing on us at the time.” (Thompson makes another appearance in a recent issue of Hello!, under the teasing banner ”Caring Actress Who Hopes Her Future Family Will Share In Her Commitment”, to publicise Oxfam’s fiftieth anniversary.)

There was no question that the couple would get married in a church because of Branagh’s antipathy to conventional religion. (His parents are Irish Protestants. The family moved from Belfast to Reading when Branagh was nine years old.) He starts off languidly enough: ”I don’t like churches. Never have done. I associate them with fire and brimstone. I find them oppressive places. They are the most joyless, soulless places. I hate them. ” And suddenly he is off, in a crackle of anger: ”I really hate them. I hate all that religious stuff. I hate what the Church of England does. There’s so much hypocrisy about what God is supposed to do. I come from a province where the whole place is divided because of it. Inevitably, there’s a personal connection with it. And what’s this about the Vatican having just endorsed the death penalty the other day? Great. Thanks. That will help promote human understanding, won’t it? Let’s kill the buggers. Then we could have hung the Guildford Four, couldn’t we?”

An animated Branagh can sound like a slightly arrested, bolshy undergraduate. The ”kind of”s, ”y’know”s and expletives come so thick and fast, they are in danger of obscuring the words in between. The effect is oddly reminiscent of the character he plays in his new film, Peter’s Friends. Come to think of it, he even seems to be wearing the same clothes: grey and black, an open-necked shirt, revealing a tuft of mousy chest hair, a casual jacket.

The film (produced by, directed by, and starring Branagh) is a sort of Oxbridge version of The Big Chill: a group of friends who were at university together meet up ten years later for a weekend reunion. Since Hugh Laurie, Stephen Fry, Tony Slattery and Thompson were all at Cambridge together, as well as Martin Bergman, who co-wrote the script with Rita Rudner, one can guarantee the audience will be searching for autobiographical clues.

This process of identification can prove too elliptical. Many people assume, for instance, that because of the company he keeps and his glittering career, Branagh was part of the Footlights set. In fact, he went straight to Rada, with a set of undistinguished A-level results from a Reading comprehensive. He visited one of the Oxford colleges with a girl friend from Reading, and wrote about the experience in his autobiography. ”We sat in some ancient rooms at midnight, drinking port. Our host put a violin concerto by a little-known composer on the record player. The smooth-talking undergraduate next to me turned and spoke as if the effort might kill him: ‘They’re taking this at quite a lick, aren’t they?’ I smiled and shifted nervously in my seat, moving an enormous working-class chip from one shoulder to the other, and thought that this definitely wasn’t the place for me.”

”One of the myths about this film”, Branagh says, ”is that we are all as thick as thieves. I’m sure that some people will say it should be called Kenny’s Friends, when in fact I have no past history with them at all. It’s Em who goes way back with them. The other thing I’d like to say is should this company the RSC be known as Adrian’s Friends because vast numbers of people work regularly in this organisation? And look at Martin Scorsese’s films. Are people annoyed because Robert de Niro has worked with him six times? And, ‘Apparently, he knows him!”’

This is said, partly I am sure, as a pre-emptive strike to ward off the inevitable question about the Ken and Em partnership. How does the power dynamic work offstage? ”Um, um, um… the bottom line is as a director I wouldn’t be employing her if I didn’t think she was a fine actress,” Branagh replies, which is not exactly an answer to my question. ”I feel very lucky to have her. She’s one of our best. She is very much her own woman. She doesn’t back down from what she would normally say as an actress in response to a director. And I don’t back down either. She’s very good at being specific. She’ll say, ‘No, I don’t know what you mean. You’ll have to tell me again.’ It’s good for the other actors because it sets the example for a certain level of communication. In all honesty, it is very professional because I’m not interested in parading my personal life in front of the people I work with. Obviously our professional life is very warm, but we have our married life, as it were, away from work.”

Branagh is as evasive as a politician when he is asked questions he prefers not to answer. The more personal the enquiry, the more general his response. This probably explains why he persistently steers the conversation back to the comparatively safe terrain of Hamlet. When I point this out, he practically chokes on his sandwich and then mumbles something unintelligible about a walnut. Sorry? ”Em sometimes calls me a walnut because that’s how unemotional I could be.” Could you elaborate, please? ”I’ve always felt that ‘You’ve got to be strong’ male stuff. My dad’s very much like that. I think it’s a very natural thing to be protective of your own emotions, so that you make an advance decision not to involve yourself as much as you might. But I’m much less like that now.”

On one of his many forays into Hamlet’s character, Branagh mentions that everyone knows what it’s like to suffer from a broken heart. So what was his experience? This is probably below the belt, since one knows that he will be far too polite to say, ”Mind your own business.” Instead, he scrunches up the discarded wrappings of his sandwich with such deliberation, that we both crack up. When I ask whether the couple plan to have children he becomes spectacularly inarticulate: ”Yeh er that would be nice, that would be nice. Er. Er. I I I. You You You hope that you’ll have them and we do. Yeh.”

I wonder, since we must talk about Hamlet, whether it’s principally the pyrotechnics of the part, the fabulous rolling arias of the speeches, that explain the pull. ”I don’t say that it’s completely without ego”, Branagh says, ”but it isn’t just about putting on the tights and being a kind of mincing luvvie. For me, the part expresses doubts and concerns about whether there is any point in being alive at all. And I believe that everybody has those doubts, however embarrassing it is to talk about them.”

Branagh proceeds to launch into one of his key speeches, which convinces me that, if nothing else, he knows his lines. ”I mean, you’ve only got to say, ‘Well, what about Somalia?’ And that’s fine because we do feel and Hamlet feels, indeed, the extraordinary pressure of world events. ‘To be or not to be…’ is full of that. ‘Who would bear the whips and scorns of time?. Th’oppressor’s wrong (Yugoslavia), the proud man’s contumely (John Major), the pangs of despis’d love (everyone’s had their heart broken), the law’s delay (Guildford Four and the Birmingham Six) and the spurnsThat patient merit of th’unworthy takes (Anyone who’s had anything to do with the government or whatever). I mean, who would do this, you know, if you could actually take a dagger and kill yourself?”

It is tempting to invest our artists with damaged psyches, to somehow believe that they are making themselves whole through their art. But this is particularly wrong-footed in the case of Branagh. Unlike Daniel Day-Lewis, for instance, he has none of the existential angst of the young Danish prince he loves to play. He is an optimist who is fascinated by the preoccupations of the pessimist. But he is also more reflective and inward-looking than one might imagine he has time to be. (His current schedule is fairly typical: the days in punishing rehearsals; the evenings devoted to editing his forthcoming film of Much Ado About Nothing and planning his version of Frankenstein.) Last year, Branagh and Thompson went on a four-month walking holiday, staying in bed-and-breakfasts in Ireland and Scotland. Branagh says he desperately needed a break, an unencumbered period that was not at the end of one immense project and at the beginning of another. ”One is exercised by our inability to be happy; we have very unquiet minds. It is a dangerous game with actors. You can’t pretend when it suits you to be ‘in life’. Sometimes you just have to stop.”

It is this desire for inner stillness which attracts him to eastern religions. Towards the end of the interview, when he had loosened up considerably, Branagh talked about this inward journey. ”One of the wonderful things about those people, and I am not among them, who can meditate well, is their ability to achieve that sense of being absolutely nothing. To just ‘be’ and not to have your head full of ‘Oh God, I’m late’, ‘The gas man’s coming’, ‘Oh Christ, Somalia’.” He is particularly taken with one Buddhist tract: ”There’s this grand master, 100 years old, and he’s asked to sum it all up. ‘Just be cheerful’ is what he says. It sounds glib, on one level, but it’s also delicious. It’s the kind of thing that Shakespeare does all the time.”

Branagh’s obsession with D.H.Lawrence, rather than Hamlet, may yield more clues about what drives him. He started reading Lawrence’s letters in a moment of emotional crisis, and has been hooked on the man and his work ever since. ”There’s this character from a working-class background who went away into a different kind of world, and I felt a deep connection with that. It’s very romantic to someone like me, that he achieved a great position and accomplished so much, and that he came from Nottingham. I like the idea of him being on his own when he first came to London, and suddenly being on the edges of the whole Bloomsbury caboodle. He was so single-minded about what he wanted to do. I’ve even got a bunch of books that he and Jesse Chambers had back in the early 1900s in Nottingham. I have spent some considerable time touching his signature and thinking, ‘God, I wish I had met him.”’

Olivia Manning’s phrase about the Anglo-Irish sense of ”belonging nowhere” has a special significance for Branagh. The passage in his autobiography in which he describes his transformation from a cocky Belfast lad into a solitary teenager in the English suburbs is surprisingly affecting: his mother suffering from loneliness and a loss of confidence which took years to regain; the young Branagh, surrounded by fellow pupils whose older brothers were in the army, straining to mask his Irishness at school and then suffering from guilt at home. ”For as long as I could, I kept up the double life”, he writes, ”but my voice gradually took on the twang of suburbia. However, I still sounded different, and was very careful when the subject of English casualties in Ulster came up in school.” Between the age of 12 and 15, he coped with his predicament by retreating into himself. It was through acting, a legitimate method of reinvention, that Branagh discovered a way out.

Branagh seems to be at his happiest in a culture where actors are not made a fuss of. He fell in love with Australia when he spent several months there filming an adaptation of Lawrence’s The Boy in the Bush. He has used return visits in much the same way that other people go to health farms. He is similarly restored by trips to Ireland. The premieres of his three films have been in Belfast, and the Renaissance Theatre Company performs in Dublin and Belfast each year. He is recognised there, but not gaped at. ”There’s a different attitude. They’ll say ‘Hello’, or breaking into an accent ‘Very nice on the television there, ah Kevin, very good.’ In a pub in Ireland you can talk about a football match and you can talk about a poem. You can get very deep very quickly, in a way that you can’t quite over here,” he says. ”It has something to do with the unaffected knowledge and curiosity across the social classes and sexes which I like.”

Branagh’s conversation is littered with references to the way actors can get marginalised into a self-obsessed kind of ”luvvery”. Some of his best friends are actors, but he avoids the theatrical hoopla of first nights and the right restaurants. ”It’s very easy to get into a scene where your feet never touch the ground…Where you’re only ever having conversations with people who are looking over their shoulders to see if there’s anyone more interesting to talk to. Your vocabulary narrows into ‘How are you?’, ‘Good’, ‘Oh good’, ‘Lovely’, ‘It was marvellous’, ‘No, you were great’, ‘I was great’, ‘Let’s not talk about me. What did you think of my performance?’ So one tends not to do it.”

Branagh strikes me as thoroughly likable, and a good deal cuter and more larky than his bland image. He is so unpretentious, indeed almost gauche, that it is easy to forget how much he has accomplished for such a young man. At the end of the interview, a rather harassed stage manager knocks on our door for the second time. Hamlet is very definitely needed back in the rehearsal room. Branagh says: ”I’ll be right with you, darling.” And it doesn’t sound right at all.