Photo by Betina La Plante
Calm in the Eye of the Storm
Writer based in London
08/03/2012 04:29 pm 16:29:46 | Updated 03 October 2012
08/03/2012 04:29 pm 16:29:46 | Updated 03 October 2012
Londoner and Sixties film icon Terence Stamp talks to Jason Holmes about how his love for his craft remains undimmed.
Beneath the Californian sun, Terence, 74, is tanned and fit, his keen blue eyes unwavering. “I love acting, always have. I’ve just finished a screenplay which is being changed into a graphic novel,” he says. “I’m tinkering with that, but basically I’m relaxing.”
Stamp began his film career in 1962 with the Peter Ustinov-directed Billy Budd and recently completed Song for Marion in the UK. “I was thrilled with Song for Marionbecause I was in a very good space with two superb actresses in Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton. Our interaction had a silkiness. Paul Andrew Williams, the director said ‘Wow man, you and Vanessa, you nail everything on the first take!’ I replied ‘When you’re talking about Redgrave and Stamp you’re talking about 100 years of movies!’”
But Stamp’s path through life could have been very different. For an East End lad growing up in post-war London, acting was not on the cards. “I left the East End quite early in terms of other kids my age. My mother made a terrible fuss, but my dad didn’t mind at all. But if I was going to try acting, I couldn’t have done it had I stayed at home.”
“There were a lot of us in a very small house, so when I left home I think I was subconsciously compensating for that lack of space by gravitating towards big rooms and high ceilings.”
While his father was away with the navy during the war, his mother would take the young Terence to the local cinema. “Two actors made an indelible impression on me. Gary Cooper in Beau Geste (1939) was the first. I actually thought he was in the Foreign Legion,” he says, laughing. “It wasn’t until I was 18 when I saw James Dean in East Of Eden that the realisation came. I had great empathy with his performance. I thought Brando was extraordinary, but I couldn’t compare myself to him.”
At this time, Stamp was working at an ad agency as a junior copywriter and messenger on London’s Cheapside. ‘It never occurred to me to talk to anyone about my desire to act; it was too outlandish. It didn’t manifest outwardly, it just increased in intensity inwardly.
“Careerwise, I never had direction. When I was at grammar school they had a careers lesson and I remember wanting to be a surgeon. Then I realised I had to cut, and I couldn’t do that. Years later, after I’d been famous for a couple of years, I went to see a friend in hospital. When the surgeon came in, he shook my hand and said ‘My god, you’ve missed your calling’. Our hands were identical.”
Stamp is quite sure as to why the 60s was such a fertile time for the arts. “It was Rab Butler who introduced the 1944 Education Act and the 11 Plus exam, and this enabled bright working class kids to go to grammar school. Consequently, at the beginning of the 60s, that bore fruit. Great writers came to the fore like Arnold Wesker and [Wolf] Mankowitz and their plays required a certain kind of performer. Actors like myself fitted the bill.”
But why concentrate on film acting and not the theatre? “I kind of lost the knack for theatre acting over the years. It’s a different profession to film work. I liken it to flat course horse racing and over-the-jumps racing. It’s rare you get a horse that can do both.”
Stamp is a man who made his name at perhaps the zenith of western popular culture when talent and genius were almost commonplace, but for whom does he have the greatest respect? ‘Peter Ustinov was a gentleman. For the first year or two of my career, I was under his protection. He and his wife, Suzanne Cloutier, kept an eye on me. I travelled with them when on the road promoting Billy Budd. I was in the company of a master, so very early on I had an understanding of how I should conduct myself.
“When I got the Billy Budd role, I thought now I can earn my living doing this. Then I realised I wanted a long career. I didn’t want to have to become an interior decorator.”
On average, Stamp has made one movie a year throughout his career. “I feel that I could work much more, but in order to do so I would have to do rubbish. I tell people that if I haven’t got the rent, then I’ll do anything!”
A film that gained Stamp new fans was The Limey (1999). “With The Limey, Steven Soderbergh and I had a great harmonic. The film was almost a result of take one. He doesn’t hang about, especially since he’s the camera operator and the director,” he laughs. “I’ve always passed on a lot of projects because I’m only interested in getting the best out of myself. It’s difficult for good quality material to be produced. I realised a few years ago that I was going to be making fewer movies because of this.”
When in Italy in 1968 to make films for Fellini [Toby Dammit] and Pasolini [Teorema], Stamp found himself at lunch with a man who was to change his life. ‘Fellini introduced me to [Jiddu] Krishnamurti in Rome. At the time I didn’t understand the significance of an encounter with this sage. The only sage I knew of then went with onions!
“There was a refinement in his being I hadn’t encountered before. I went for a walk with him the next day. After a while he took my arm and stopped and said ‘Look at that tree’. I looked at it. It wasn’t even a beautiful tree. I smiled, he smiled, and we walked on. Then he stopped and said ‘Look at that cloud’. I looked up and saw a cloud. That was my first encounter with him. He put the sound on for me. I was made to understand that before thought, I was!”
“When I didn’t get any work in the early 1970s, I left London and began to travel. I went to India and travelled extensively in the Far East. By the time I came back to do Superman (1978), I had acquired a broader understanding of the world and of myself, and I’d become more spiritually endowed. I had grown as a person.”
I suggest that considered artistic purpose is a thing of the past. “Yes, today artistic ambition has changed. Young would-be artists are more interested in being famous, rather than being artists. There is no longer the hunger to learn the craft, so I don’t know if there’ll be another generation [of actors] who will be like Olivier, Gielgud, Scofield or Richardson. I can’t see anyone around like them.”
“I’m not political. But to paraphrase Kahlil Gibran: ‘When a leaf on a green tree turns red, the tree is different’. All I can do is change my own life and hope I can in some small way influence the world around me.”
“In the US there is a company called Monsanto which genetically modifies seeds. From a political point of view, there would seem to be nothing to be done about this. The only thing one can do, as I do, is eat organic. If you want to effect any change, you can only become that leaf that turns red. I call that being selfishly intelligent. If I get the best out of myself, then I assume the whole is changed.”
Stamp’s career has been an individualistic one. “A funny thing has happened in the past couple of years: I’ve become very recognisable wherever I go. A lot of people want to talk about my work, and I think it’s because I’ve tried not to do shit,” he says, making himself laugh long and loud.
But what of being British? “Britain has always been a nation of eccentrics, but now it’s hard to get the finance for anything that is interesting. So Britain is in a lull, but there will be an artistic resurgence. Culture is a moveable feast, as other European countries prove with what they produce in theatre and film.”
“I recently saw the new Sherlock Holmes series on the BBC with Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman and I thought it was wonderful, so I can’t say things are finished in England on that basis. Thank god for the BBC, frankly.”
And what gives him comfort? He replies after a long moment of contemplation. “I derive happiness from the present. I’ve become aware of life’s timelessness, and life still has the capacity to surprise me. I wake up in the morning and if I’m meant to carry on acting, then something interesting will show up.”
Spoken like a true Londoner. Calm as you like.