Iconic British actor Terence Stamp is calling me from his "temporary" home in Ojai, California, north of Los Angeles. He is west coast–based while he works on a couple of projects including what he refers to as a mere "cough and a spit" role as an art critic for The New York Times in the new Tim Burton film, "Big Eyes," about painter Margaret Keane. He is also in town to promote his new British film, "Unfinished Song," in which he plays a curmudgeonly pensioner caring for his ailing wife (Vanessa Redgrave), who finds joy in her rehearsals at the local senior's choir. The comparisons to a senior "Glee" are inevitable but Redgrave and Stamp elevate the film beyond a cliché feel-good flick.
It's early morning and I hear classical music blaring in the background. "It's Elgar's 'Enigma Variations,'" he tells me as he offers to turn it down for our chat. He is quite happily living the life of a gypsy at the moment, having rid himself of many of his possessions, and storing others at various family member's houses. "I am a home-loving archetype, so I thought it would be interesting to be without a natural house for while," he says. "There are amazing advantages living in hotels and staying but the metaphysical advantage is my home is myself."
I hope you didn't get rid of too much movie history with your clean out!
Terence: I have many photographs and I have every screenplay of every movie I have ever made. I didn't get rid of them — they are in my youngest brother's basement. Don't worry I still have relics of the hoardism gene.
You sing in your new movie "Unfinished Song." Not something you often do?
Initially it was nerve-racking. I had reservations about doing it, but I had turned down "Camelot" and I regretted it my whole life and I didn't want it to happen again. When I heard Vanessa was playing my wife who had played Guinevere in "Camelot" and my character was named Arthur and he had to sing it convinced me that the universe was giving me a second chance.
This is a relatively new director, Paul Andrew Williams — what was that experience like?
It went incredibly well. I don't usually like to work with new directors but I read the script, which he wrote, which was exquisite and then they showed me a movie he made called "From London to Brighton" which was a masterpiece, so I took the risk and I must say he really came through.
Did you feel a personal connection to the role?
Well he is around my age, but I don't really relate to him. I think I am much fitter and active so I saw him as much older than me. But I felt the story was about a twin-soul relationship and what made it really unusual it was a twin soul relationship about two very ordinary people — Arthur and Marion, not Romeo and Juliet. It was really my mum and dad who were totally devoted to each other. He was a very emotionally closed down guy. I really only consciously remember him when he came back from World War II and the grace from his character had been eroded and I don't remember any emotional display from him ever.
Did that make it a difficult childhood for you?
Now that I am older and my friends have got sons and I see how amazing their relationships are then there is a realization of what my life could have been. Having said that, behind every successful man there is a influential mother. She was truly exceptional and made up for everything I didn't get from my dad. She was completely supportive. She made me what I am.
Didn't she take you to your first movie?
She took me to see Gary Cooper in "Beau Geste." That was the first movie I ever saw and because my mother was a moviegoer and when I was 4 she took me with her. I think I realized my destiny with that.
You received an Oscar nomination for your first movie "Billy Budd" in 1962 — too much too soon?
I'm not sure. I think it gave me the kind of undeniable realization that I could make a living doing this. That was the biggest thing that happened. Peter Ustinov was such a great man. Not only was I discovered by him, I was kind of exposed to how he lived his life which was exemplary. He asked me did I have any offers for other work and he told me that if I do good things, good things will come to you. I may have taken that too much to heart, because all that happened I was virtually out of work for eighteen months but then I caught the eye of William Wyler to make "The Collector."
You have had a lot of highs and lows in your career. How did playing General Zod in Superman change that?
Well I couldn't get arrested after 1969. I did odd jobs but nothing major but what happened in those years in the wilderness, I was transmuted from a leading man to a character actor. It was painful to be out of work but I always dreamed that I would come back. I normally would have never considered a Zod, but I was just hungry for work.
Is it true Marlon Brando said to you when he first saw you, "Where have you been?"
I came almost directly from India so I was still wearing my orange clothes and I hadn't cut my hair for seven years and I had this long beard. Marlon came up to me and fingered my orange clothes and asked : "What's this man" (note: delivering a perfect Brando impression). I told him I had just come from India and he said: "I really like dark women, would they like me there?" What was so charming about Marlon, he was probably the greatest film actor ever but he was so happy and modest in a way that counts. He didn't have any kind of illusions or false ideas about himself. He was no egoist — he was just a funny man.
Did you expect it to have such a following?
You have to give to Richard Donner. His Superman was a benchmark. Everything that has come since has ripped him off and very few people have got it right. He got the comic-book action and the comedy right. I was really hesitant to play such a hideous villain but people grew up with him and they love him. Anywhere I go in the world, there is a rarely a day that passes that someone doesn't approach me about it. I say "Kneel you Barstards" and they love it!!
Well, to take you to something completely different, I want to ask about your experience on "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert." That was a real gamble for you to do that role.
I was incredibly frightened about it — it's not anything I have ever done, but I happened to be having an afternoon tea with a fellow actress who was a very wise woman and she was flicking through my script and told me to do it. She said this isn't a career move, it's a growth move. I never wanted to go back to Australia because I had such a terrible experience in '66 when I was with Jean Shrimpton. She was opening the Melbourne Cup and we were harassed by paparazzi. It was my first experience of them - they were like animals with cameras so I never wanted to go back. But making the movie I never had such a good time and I ended up going back repeatedly. I love it there.
Can you talk about "The Limey"?
I would put Soderbergh up there with Wyler and Fellini because as a modern-day director he is it. And I bonded with him because he is a one-take guy and the whole of "The Limey" with the exception of one sequence is all one take. He is just a visionary and it is such a masterpiece. That film doesn't follow any beaten path. I'm kind of destitute that he has retired. I dreamed of working with him again in the future.
I remember the movie vividly. My ex wife said it was the best I have ever looked in a movie. It was a wonderful movie and a ground breaking western if you look at it now. I had a retrospective last May at the British Institute and that was the only film I really wanted and they couldn't get a print of it.
If you had to pick a movie that is not big on the radar but a personal favorite what would it be?
There is a movie I always ask for in a retrospective and it was the only film I made with a great woman director called Pilar Miro, called "Prince of Shadows" (Beltenebros) in 1991. She shot it in black and white and it was really tough. Hard to believe its a vision made by a woman, but she was a genius director. I really had to work to get the part, and I remember one bit of direction in particular. Patsy Kensit was playing a hooker and she is convinced I killed her lover and she hates me and in one scene in a hotel room Pilar just told me to knock her down and it totally worked. I don't think a male director would have said that.