Terence Stamp has an unmistakable voice and he knows how to use it, whether in movies or in person. In our interview he mimics people he has known and worked with in his illustrious career, from Marlon Brando to Laurence Olivier, and he also does a great impression of a woman at the front desk of Sydney's Sebel Townhouse.
That bastard Stephan Elliott made us all get dressed up in drag and go out clubbing in Sydney
Ultimately, it's hard to imagine that he hails from the same part of East London as Michael Caine as he retains no trace of a Cockney accent. It's hard to imagine too that the mild mannered gent before me stole the show as the transsexual Bernadette in Stephan Elliott's 1994 box office hit, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, but then again, the 74-year-old child of the swinging '60s has always been known for his dashing looks and smart dressing.
Like Caine, who is masterly at entertaining in interviews, Stamp has an incredible story to tell. What other celebrity became a sannyasin in the Rajneesh movement, the orange people, and lived on an ashram in India?
In his new movie, Song for Marion, Stamp plays Arthur, the dour husband of a very tolerant Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) who loves to sing in the local senior's a cappella group to get away from her dreary life on the housing estate. When she becomes terminally ill, the group's perky leader (Gemma Arterton) attempts to take Arthur under her wing—and to get him to sing.
Where does your wonderful voice come from?
It was a potential that I have worked ceaselessly to develop and, in fact, if you hear it in any of my first films, there is a noticeable difference. When I left drama school, because I was discovered after I had been there for three terms, the voice teacher said, “Terence, you must continue working on your voice”. And I did.
So you come from East London like Michael Caine?
Yes. And he is indolent about his voice. As an actor I wanted to feel that I had huge range. I didn't want to be limited to London parts and while Michael has a wonderful ear, he is a wonderful mimic. I would rather have a centre that is more what we call RP or Received Pronunciation. I'd rather have a standard English centre and I would do my dialects from that.
Do you keep in contact with Michael Caine?
No, no. We've just done such different things. The curious thing about my relationship with Michael was that we were great friends, we were flatmates and we shared everything. He also gave me a philosophy about acting and my career and about life itself, which I took on board because he was more than six years older than me and he had been in the business a long time and I was just out of drama school. The curious thing was that I more or less lived by the philosophy that he gave me and as soon as he got his break he did exactly the opposite!
He went for the money?
Which is all he talks about now.
Sure. To me, it's fascinating. But I've never spoken to him after the fact because as soon as he made it, he wasn't around.
The rumour mill has it that you had a 10-year break because you broke up with Jean Shrimpton. But were you tired of the business? What was it?
I should put you straight on this. I am sure Jean would be very flattered by that very romantic notion, but I was just out of work. I couldn't get arrested. That was 1969 and it was a great mystery to me, a huge mystery because I was only 30.
And you were very good-looking.
I was good-looking; I was in my prime. My ex-wife (Australian Elizabeth O'Rourke, a pharmacist 35 years his junior, to whom he was married for 6 years until their 2008 divorce) always thought that I looked my best in a film called Blue, which I made in 1968. I was out of work from '69 to '77. I thought I shouldn't stick around in England facing this rejection and that I should travel. So I lived in an ashram in Pune, India. In '77 I was a swami, Swami Deva Veeten, I was in orange robes, I had a full beard and I hadn't cut my hair for seven years.
Have you photos?
I've got a couple. I'd been staying in a local Indian hotel called The Blue Diamond when I was asked to live in the ashram. One Sunday morning, I went with a group of English sannyasins to the hotel for what's laughingly called Full English Breakfast. You can imagine it was anything but English. Anyway, as I go in, the concierge goes, “Mr Terence, we got a cable for you sir [Indian accent]. I looked and it and it said: “To Clarence Stamp, The Rough Diamond Hotel, Pune, India.” May God strike me dead, that's exactly what it said. I opened it and it was from my long suffering agent who I had probably sent a hotel postcard to when I checked in. it said, 'Would you be prepared to come back to speak to Richard Donner about the part of General Zod in Superman I and II? You have scenes with Marlon Brando and could you stop in Paris on the way and talk to Peter Brook about Meetings with Remarkable Men, a film he is making of Gurdjieff's book.” I couldn't believe it. It was like I was back in the world. I said goodbye to the guru and I left and when I arrived in London and I was still in orange and Marlon Brando was very curious. What's this orange? (Brando accent) And I got both parts and I did them both at the same time. So it was like a big re-entry but it had been eight years.
What did that teach you?
In retrospect, it was the making of me, really, because I developed different dimensions within myself that as a working actor would never have occurred to me. The kind of things that I was doing in India and the kind of things I was studying, breath and yoga and being present. So in fact when I walked on the set of Superman the first day—given I'd been living in an enclosed ashram where everything was adjusted to make you stay alert—I just felt everybody was half asleep.
Actors always worry about where their next job comes from. Did you lose that permanently or did you get it back again?
No, I really lost that permanently because when you spend that much time in a place like India you allow for the workings of the universe. You don't completely submit to them but you allow for them. I have a kind of philosophy and it's based on one of the sayings of the prophet Muhammad. He was asked about that. One of his devotees asked, 'What about Allah? What about Inshallah?' Muhammad thought for a while and he said, 'Trust in Allah but tie up your camel first!' [Stamp lets out a deep guttural laugh]. Tying up my camel means I have got rent for the year. If I haven't got rent for the year, I phone my manager, the lovely Beth Holden, and I say, “What's on your desk?” Then I will do it. But if I've got money for the year, I just don't worry about it.
What made you want to do Song for Marion? Had you worked with Vanessa Redgrave before?
I did an Ibsen play, The Lady from the Sea, at The Roundhouse in London [in the late '70s] and I loved working with her. She is rare in the sense that she is able to perform in theatre and in film and not many actors can do that. Certainly not me, I am no longer a stage actor. In fact, when she was born in 1937, Olivier was playing Hamlet at the Old Vic and Michael Redgrave was playing Laertes and when the curtain came down, Olivier walked in front of the curtain and he said, “Ladies and gentleman, a star has been born. Laerte's has a daughter.” So, in a way, her career was really destined. I thought it would be wonderful to work with her again, but I was more nervous about my part.
Why was that?
While I have no problem being mean, I was worried about playing an old age pensioner and owning up about my age. I thought it would be more moving if the character was an ordinary, run-of-the-mill guy who had this one thing happen to him that was this woman who he was madly in love with. And I don't do ordinary very well. I have tried. I tried in The Collector and it wasn't very successful. It was almost like an unspoken reservation that I had. I went to meet the director, Paul Andrew Williams—I'd seen wonderful movie, London to Brighton—and during the meeting he realised that I wasn't saying yes, I'd love to do it. Then he suddenly asked, “Are you worried about your looks?” And although that wasn't exactly how I perceived it, I was amazed by his intuition about the area in which I had reservations. So I said, “Yes, I am really,” and he said, “Well, you shouldn't be because it's about my dad and my dad was as good-looking as you.” Then I thought that if it's about his dad, it could be about my dad because my dad was unusually good-looking as well.
What did he do?
He was a stoker of a tugboat in the merchant navy and later a tug driver; there's not a lot of difference. He was unusually good-looking and funny but he was kind of morose and stoic and he didn't speak. It seemed to me that all of his emotion and affection was focused on my mother. He didn't treat us badly, he was a very good father, but we never felt love from him. We never felt attention from him. He never did not come home; he always turned up with his £12 a week salary, on which we all grew up. It was a big family. I was the eldest of five kids.
With the song and singing that was a real concert situation for you. Was it as intimidating as it seemed?
It was less intimidating because I'd turned down Camelot in my youth and I'd regretted it ever since. I turned it down because I was frightened I couldn't sing. I thought I was going to be re-voiced. It was a big score. Larry Harvey had played it, Burton had played it. I didn't feel up to it. Vanessa, of course, was always up for everything, so the fact that this was Vanessa and it was a character called Arthur, I thought the universe is giving me a second bite of the cherry. I'd better not falter. So I didn't think about. I just learnt the words. I only had two lessons to prepare the song but I'd been preparing my voice for 50 years. I can't say it wasn't intimidating but it was kind of thrilling in a way; that wow, I have really travelled here. I was singing in public for the first time but I wasn't unprepared like I was when I was 25.
What about the Sebel Townhouse, is that gone?
It's been turned into luxury apartments and is no longer a celebrity haunt.
I heard rumours.
You have memories of it?
Yeah, of course! That bastard Stephan Elliott made us all get dressed up in drag and go out clubbing in Sydney. Guy Pearce and I went to Hugo Weaving's house and he had all our make up team there, he had all our wardrobe there, they got us fully made up and dragged up and he dropped us off at some nightclub right on that main drag.
Yeah. It was a punishing night. In high heels and so on. I said, “Look, I am not a method actor.” “No, no darling! You are gonna do it!” (Aussie accent mimicking Elliott)
When I was on my way out on this night, the girl at the Sebel Town House front desk said, “Oh, good evening Mr. Stamp, I hope you have a lovely evening.” (Oz accent). I said, “Listen, love, when I come back I may look a bit different.” She said, “Different?” I said, “Yeah, I may be a bit sort of dragged up. But don't worry, it's for a movie.” She said, “Oh, they all say that!” [Huge laugh] How Aussie is that!
Initially, you didn't want to do the film.
One of the reasons I didn't want to do Priscilla was because it was in Australia and I'd had such a terrible time when I went there with Jean Shrimpton in '65. She was asked to go and open the Melbourne Cup and I went with her and we ran into paparazzi, and to my mind, paparazzi was an Australian invention. Obviously, it wasn't but they were the first paparazzi I had ever encountered and it just ruined my whole impression of Australia and I never went back until when I was obviously destined to go for Priscilla. It was probably also me that changed, but I felt that Australia had changed enormously from the early '60s. I thought it was just fab.
Have you been back much?
Yes, yes, quite a lot. As a matter of fact, I'd just landed in Sydney when I got a call to go and do a couple of days on Star Wars and I had to get on a plane and go straight back. That was a wasted journey, and then after I had done them I went back to Sydney. Then I did Red Planet. Australia is one of the great countries in the world, to be honest with you.
Song for Marion is released in cinemas April 25.