Interview with Terence Stamp
Terence Stamp was in Cambridge last night, promoting his new film SONG FOR MARION which screened at Cambridge Arts Picturehouse. TAKE ONE’s Ferry Hunt spoke to him about his time spent in Indian ashrams, where he learned tantric practices and meditation techniques; about the controversy surrounding SUPERMAN II; about his stormy introduction to mentor Laurence Olivier, and about the way TV is attracting so many of today’s greatest actors.
Ferry Hunt: How did the techniques you learned during your time in ashrams shape your craft?
Terence Stamp: I spent eight, nine years travelling in India. I was in various ashrams, but the thing was, I was there really to study. To find out more about myself, and consequently, life, you know? And because I was a young man at the height of my career – you know, weeks became months, months became years, and I was always imagining that the recall would come. And when I was studying all these kind of esoteric subjects and techniques, I was invariably thinking, “when the call comes, you know, this is really gonna help me,” you know what I mean? Like, I’m really learning about presence, I’m really learning about breath, I’m really learning about physical… so I was always thinking that, and such a long time passed and I thought to myself, “maybe this is my life, maybe the call is not gonna come”. And that’s when the call came. But I guess the short answer to your question is that during those years I would transform myself and it wasn’t a conscious thing. It was just that when I left, I was a leading man. And when the recall came, I was a character actor.
FH: So it did change you. I recognise from the characters that you’ve played that you’ve got a great mindfulness and respect for the character. Is that perhaps something you learned during those years?
TS: Yes, what I learned, really, was that there’s an element of life that’s so subtle that it’s overlooked. It can be overlooked for a lifetime, you know? And the reason it’s so subtle is because it’s kind of … the purest part of oneself is possible for the mind, you know? Because the mind comes out of it, it’s like the mind, thought, feelings are kind of after the awareness, after the consciousness. So when I was in the East, the main thing was that I became aware that there was a kind of a, seeming absence within myself, that wasn’t vacant. It was kind of a cognisant emptiness, as it were. So when I came back, it was really ironic that my big comeback role was like a super-villain, you know? [laughs]
when I walked onto the set, I just felt like I had a kind of magnum strapped to my leg [...] I just felt so present, you know?
When I went to do the makeup test, I hadn’t cut my hair for seven years, I had a long beard, I was in orange, Brando was just laughing all the time, but when I walked onto the set, I just felt like I had a kind of magnum strapped to my leg, you know what I mean? I just felt so present, you know?
FH: Richard Donner and Richard Lester made the first “Superman” films. Do you feel that Lester cheapened your role for the second film? He added gags and jokes with your character…
TS: They’re both wonderful directors, but the truth is that it was Richard Donner’s baby. And what happened was that we were shooting both films simultaneously, and he had a budget which was a big budget in those days. Like, about eight million or something. A lot of money. And when he’d spent about 25 million, the producers said, “Wait! Finish part one! Forget about two. Finish part one!” And he said, “OK”. So he finished part one, then he cut it and they released it. And it did so well that Brando, who had been paid a million bucks for twelve days, sued them for his [profit] points. And what they did was they brought in Richard Lester to finish part two. And they said to Richard Lester, “Cut out Marlon, to weaken his case against us”. So they replaced Superman’s father with Superman’s mother. I’ve got great respect for Susannah York, but – replacing Brando?! And none of us were wanting to go back to finish with Richard Lester.
FH: In protest?
TS: Because it was Dick Donner’s vision. It was so awful because we felt that we were being unfaithful to Richard Donner. So consequently, part two comes out with no Brando. So all my scenes that I loved were with Marlon. So consequently, when Dick Donner – after fifteen years of him trying to find the old footage, Warner Brothers gave him a director’s cut.
FH: I was watching it today, yes.
TS: And it was totally different, I mean, a totally different movie, and nobody had seen it.
FH: Laurence Olivier, who you spent some time with, was one of the greatest actors. And you’ve hinted before that there aren’t any really great actors of that kind around any more. I wondered if you thought, perhaps, TV has attracted them? Maybe they’re just not seen in film quite as much?
… when I say I don’t do TV, I mean I couldn’t do TV, I mean, I’m not good enough to do TV.
TS: I think probably that’s the case, you know, and I think the problem for my generation of actors is that the quality of attention that is needed to watch TV is qualitatively different from the kind of degree of attention that’s asked for in the theatre or film. I can’t see Larry [Olivier], you know, in a TV series. I mean, for example, one of the great actors now is this guy called Vincent D’Onofrio, who’s in a series called Law & Order: Criminal Intent. And the first year of those shows, he was just – he was with a wonderful woman called Kathryn Erbe – and they were just brilliant, I mean they were just riveting, you couldn’t take your eyes off them. And I thought, “Christ, these guys are fantastic!”. And over the series, this guy has just blown up, you know? He’s just got bigger and bigger and bigger. And I’m completely sympathetic, because just learning the words to do a show every week, I can’t imagine… I mean, when I say I don’t do TV, I mean I couldn’t do TV, I mean, I’m not good enough to do TV. D’you understand?
FH: What’s the most impressive thing that [Laurence Olivier] has taught you, do you think?
TS: Initially we didn’t hit it off. I mean, he was something of a bully, you know? And he tried it on with me and it wasn’t gonna wash, you know? He was starting a new theatre company in Chichester and he’d enquired if my agent… and I was unknown, it was just that I’d had a lot of publicity. And he came on to the agency and said, “Would Terence be interested in coming to Chichester?” and I’d said, “Oh, what parts?”. And apparently he said, “What parts?! I’m not gonna tell him what parts – either he wants to be in the company or not!” and I said, “No! I don’t wanna be in the company!”. I’d never met him, of course. So when we got on this movie [TERM OF TRIAL (1962), pictured left]which was after this conversation, and he’s playing with Simone Signoret and Sarah Miles, and I’m introduced to him and I’m just being polite and stuff, and he suddenly said to me, [impersonation of Olivier's voice] “Well, I’m very glad you didn’t come to Chichester because your voice is just not up for it.”
TS: And I said – I’m like an East End spiv, you understand? And I said, “My voice? What about your voice?” I said, [impersonation of Olivier's voice] “Talking like that, you think that’s proper?” And he was really shocked! And he said, “But that’s only since ‘The Entertainer‘…” I said, “Nevertheless…!” you know? So he thought, “That won’t wash with this guy”. So a few days went by, and then he was just talking to me like an equal, but younger, you know? And we talked about things like profile – I said, “I’m really worried I haven’t got a classic profile,” and he said, “No, no, no, but as you get older your face gets more shapely. Don’t worry about that. You’ve got great bones, it’ll happen.” He was very supportive. And then he said to me this wonderful thing which I will remember. He said “You know, it’s worthwhile continuing your studies with your voice, because as you lose your looks, your voice can become empowered.” And I thought, “Yeah.” I mean, I knew about ‘is ‘Enry Five, I knew about ‘is Richard Third, I was just not gonna let ‘im walk all over me.
FH: It could have gone either way, but you did pretty well.
TS: Yeah! So that was the thing I really learned. I mean, there were other things that I’ve forgotten, but that was the thing I remembered.
FH: So as an actor, you’ve always wanted roles that stretched you as much as possible – not to play yourself. Which has been the biggest stretch for you?
TS: Well, as I say, when I came back to play General Zod in “Superman”, that was a stretch because I was a leading man. I was under forty, you know? So that was an incredible stretch. It was my first big stretch. D’you understand? I was a matinée idol, that’s how I thought myself. Like Sergeant Troy [FAR FROM THE MADDING CROWD (1967)], you know, so it was a big stretch for me to play General Zod and do it well. But in the later part of my career, I would say Bernadette in “Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” was quite a big stretch – from a man to a woman, you know, that’s quite a big stretch.
FH: There seem to be about five or six films that you’ve sung in – is that just by coincidence?
TS: It’s by coincidence, and the only time I took it seriously was when I was singing at the end of “Poor Cow“, which Soderbergh used in “The Limey” [as a flashback]. And the reason I took that serious was because my brother had discovered “The Who”, and he was the guy who recorded Hendrix, and Pete Townshend showed me how to hold the guitar like I was really playing, so I had to make an effort with that. But the only time I’ve sung seriously was with “Song For Marion”, and that was made less difficult by the fact that he was never intended to be somebody with a wonderful voice. He was just somebody who was expressing a deep part of himself by breaking into song. So it was like, what I did was I just learned the words and I just sang it to myself all day. But on the day, it was live and we only had time for one take. Possibly we could have done two takes but I got it in one. And what I was concentrating on, really, was kind of the feelings that were arising in that moment. There was awareness, and there was a presently arriving content, and so I was mindful of the emotions and I was just kind of letting the song settle on the emotions. So the song was always tethered to what was going on inside the character – or me, you know.
FH: Sounds incredibly hard.
TS: It’s not hard but you have to be mindful. Very often in my career they’ve said, “Cut!” and I’ve thought, “Where was I?” You know? It wasn’t like that!
SONG FOR MARION is on general release from February 22nd.
- Interview with Paddy Considine by Ferry Hunt
- Meet the Cambridge APH’s new programmer! by Rosy Hunt (Editor-in-Chief)
- Song for Marion by Gavin Midgley (Associate Editor)