One of the iconic actors and faces of London's "swinging" '60s; Terence Stamp was discovered by actor/director Peter Ustinov for the titular role in his adaptation of Melville's Billy Budd in 1962. The Cockney lad from London's notorious Bow district was thrust into the limelight almost overnight, becoming a symbol of the English working class "intelligentsia," which helped shape that decade's pop culture. Along with game-changers like Joe Orton, (Stamp's former roommate) Michael Caine, and the Beatles, Stamp et al proved to the world that one needn't have graduated with a First from Oxford to make a mark on the world.
Terence Stamp marked his 50th year in show business with the release of last year's Unfinished Song, being released September 24 on DVD and Amazon Instant Video by Anchor Bay Entertainment. Stamp plays grumpy pensioner Arthur Harris, who honors his recently deceased wife (the great Vanessa Redgrave)'s passion for performing by joining the unconventional local choir to which she used to belong, a process that helps him build bridges with his estranged son, James (Christopher Eccleston). Also starring Gemma Arterton and helmed by writer/director Paul Andrew Williams, Unfinished Song is a charming slice of "kitchen sink" life.
Terence Stamp spoke with us recently about his legendary career in front of the camera and other topics. Read on:
It was a treat to see you playing a normal bloke in Unfinished Song. I thought back to the early chapters of your autobiography Double Feature, where you talk about your childhood. Even though this was shot in the northern city of Newcastle, you must have felt many parallels between the working class neighborhoods there and the Bow district you come from in London.
Yes and I think it was meant to look like a working class London area. What was interesting for me is that I based my character on my own dad. My dad was emotionally closed down and the only emotion he showed was to my mother. There was no other woman in his life. She was his great love. Once I hit on that idea, it made a lot of things very clear, such as my relationship with my son in the movie. It was one of those curious movies where everything just seemed to gel. People are mystified by the fact that Vanessa and I never discussed our characters or the story, because we both understood so clearly what was being asked of us.
It amazed me that this is the first time you and Vanessa have worked together on-screen.
Yeah, that's right. We did an Ibsen play, The Lady from the Sea, about twenty years ago at the Roundhouse. I never really got to know her. We're very different personalities. But the fact was, there was always magic on the stage. We got incredible press for what was a very difficult play, so I felt completely confident and I was just thrilled to be able to work with her in a medium that I felt was my specialty, which is film. Vanessa is, I think, our greatest theater actress. She a wonderful all-around actress, but made her reputation on the stage. I adore Vanessa.
The Collector holds up beautifully today. I actually watched it very late at night on TV when I was about seven, and it left deep scars on my cerebellum.
As it would. Serves you right for being up past your bedtime. (laughs). The thing about (director) William Wyler, really, in my life was at the time I got to work with him, I thought he was one of the greatest directors in the business. I was in awe of him. To be chosen by him gave me an amazing kind of confidence. In truth, Wyler saw something in me I wasn't aware of yet, myself. It was the first real big shift in my life. It's like I was a ship that bound for Scotland and Wyler was able to adjust my bearings just so that years later, I wound up in Iceland. It was an incredible moment for me. Wyler was so spontaneous, which made him incredibly modern, although he was in his mid-60s at the time, but he was completely in the moment, like one would expect from a young director. It was a film that was really twenty years ahead of its time.
In 1968 you had two amazing cinematic experiences working with the two greatest directors in Italy: Federico Fellini (Spirits of the Dead: Toby Dammit) and Pier Paolo Pasolini (Teorema).
To be frank with you, I do think about my career as before and after Fellini, because that was such a landmark for me. I knew he'd written Toby Dammit for (Peter) O'Toole and I knew Peter wouldn't do it. I knew I was the second choice. But he loved me and the price was that I love him back, which wasn't hard. So those four weeks were a real rush for me and it was only because of what had happened to me during the Fellini shoot that I was able to give them kind of performance in Teorema that I was able to. Fellini got the best acting out of me I'd ever done at that point. So by the end of that experience, I was no longer acting. I was just being, which prepared me for the experience with Pasolini, who didn't want acting. Pasolini used to film me without me knowing with his own camera, when I wasn't on set, when I wasn't acting. It didn't take me long to realize what he was doing. He just wanted me being, just being myself. Being present in the present. That was a new strata of performance for me.
Did you feel you got to know Pasolini as well as you did Fellini?
No, not at all. He was very cold, very distant, very closed down. He was very gay. He wouldn't speak to me at all, really. If he had a piece of direction for me, he'd tell (actress) Laura Betti to ask me to do something. "Tell him to play this scene with an erection." (laughs) "Tell him to play this scene with his legs spread astride." He came to London to meet me with the producer, Franco Rossellini, who was Roberto Rossellini's nephew, and they were staying at Claridge's, which was a strange choice of hotel to stay at, and he told me the story of the film. "It's the story of a bourgeois family: father, mother, son, daughter and maid. A guest arrives. He has a divine nature. He seduces everybody and he leaves." I said 'I can do that.' (laughs) He was just very intellectual. It wasn't that he was being cold or mean to me. I think he wanted to isolate me, wanted to throw me back on myself in a way I hadn't acted before. There was virtually no dialogue, so that made it easy.
Pasolini's murder is like the JFK assassination of Italy, with loads of conspiracy theories and so on. Any ideas of your own?
Apparently he was that kind of gay guy where what turned him on was heterosexual youth. It was always very dangerous, his sex life. I've met lots of gay guys like that, especially in my youth. I come from a very tough part of London and what turns those guys on are these very sort of rough, good looking kids. And those guys get beaten up a lot. That was all a part of it, I guess, and from what I gather, that's what happened to Pasolini. I guess you can't get that kind of sexual satisfaction without the risk. I'm not familiar with any of the conspiracy theories you mention.
One last Toby Dammit question: how much did you actually get to drive that amazing Ferrari?
Oh, I drove it a lot! (laughs) It was absolutely wonderful. It was very heavy, with quite a heavy gearbox, not like the Ferraris of today. I had quite a time in that car, let me tell you. (laughs)
Before we wrap up, we have to talk about Steven Soderbergh's The Limey and the sequel that you wrote yourself.
It's not a direct sequel. When I reviewed the movie after a lot of writers passed on it, including Tom Stoppard, I saw that The Limey was a real complete circle. So what I did was, I took the character of Wilson and took Steven's idea of a vehicle for Julie Christie and myself. Wilson has just completed a 25 year sentence, having been put behind bars by his best friend, who betrayed him and while he was behind bars he's married the girl he was always in love with. So he's had 25 years to think about how he's going to wreak vengeance upon this guy and how he's going to get the girl back. We start with the first day of freedom and those two agendas. It's like a canvas, the story of enduring love, but the canvas is stretched over this very violent revenge story.
I understand you were offered the role of James Bond after Sean Connery stepped down and you've regretted it ever since. True?
No. What happened was, I was taken out to dinner by Harry Saltzman, who was Albert Broccoli's producing partner at the time, and over dinner he put it out there that he'd be interested in me doing it. I was flattered, but felt so self-conscious because Sean had been so successful in it and so identified with it. I suggested to Harry that if he started the movie with 007 disguised as a kind of Japanese warrior, by the time the new actor was revealed, the audience would have become accustomed to the fact that Terence was doing it. Needless to say, I never heard from him again. (laughs) Listen, I've got to ask before you have to go, is Arianna still in charge of the Huffington Post?
As far as I know she is.
Well, if you can get a message through the proper channels that Terence sends his best, I'd be grateful.