Idris Elba (Sunday Times Magazine, Aug. 13, 2017)

Chrissy Iley & Idris Elba
Chrissy Iley and Idris Elba

What is it about Idris Elba? Everyone seems to be in love with him. Certainly I was hooked on his TV series Luther where he played good copy/bad cop all in one.  Luther was tough and smart but also haunted. You see this haunted quality in his work and in the man himself quite a lot. You also see that he likes to deliver dichotomy to his roles.  In The Wire he was a vile Baltimore drug kingpin but utterly beguiling. His Mandela was as ruthless as it was heartfelt (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2014).

His latest role as the gunslinger in The Dark Tower also shows him as haunted but extremely violent – a hero with brutality. He enjoys al this multi-dimensional stuff. He enjoys not being pinned down. It’s his art form. The Gunslinger is based on the Stephen Kings books and King himself talks about the Gunslinger as being a concentrated force, a reticent hero and that Elba was perfect for the part.

When you meet him you see that force.

He’s a thinker, onscreen and off. He’s always weighing things up, eyes rolling. I met him several years ago socially. He was a friend of a friend, we were in the Soho House Los Angeles. It was post Luther, pre Mandela, TV star, pre film star but he carried himself with a shuddering presence. We talked about being only children – probably my attempt to bond or flirt.  All the obvious things like if you’re on your own it’s good for developing imaginary characters, a sense of self, a sense of independence but it also makes you selfish and not good at sharing.  He remembers the next part of the story slightly differently. There was a plate of cookies which we both pounced on and both announced that we never share dessert. He says he let me have them.

Today I’m waiting for him in a chic London hotel in Soho, the waiting room has a cookie plate but only the chocolate macaroons are good so I order a plate of just the chocolate macaroons. Then I’m summoned to Elba’s suite. Guess what? He has a plate of only the chocolate macaroons. Nobody has to share. Good.

He doesn’t look like he’s been indulging in too much chocolate recently. He lost a lot of weight when he was on an extreme diet for a year of kick boxing – proper matches, the lot. He looks svelte in his stone coloured ribbed sweater and navy slacks. He’s narrow hipped. I tell him he’s much thinner than I expected and he complained that I was inferring he used to be fat in that typical I’m not going to take a compliment from you kind of way.

He’s chatty and distant all at once. Extremely tired because two days after we meet he is to start shooting on his first film in a directorial role, Yardie, based on the book by Victoria Headley set in London in the late 80s, charting the life of a boy who comes from Jamaica. Maybe he’s a little daunted.

“No not really” he shakes his head. And there’s the thing. He is available then unavailable, all in a moment. It’s completely tantalising because when he’s there he’s 100% there, present, fills the room, fills every pore of himself and he fully connects with you. His presence is so strong and so sexy you could bottle it, call it Idris and it would sell out, but the unavailable thing – he courts it, treasures it. He has over one million followers on Instagram yet follows no one. Connected and disconnected, see what I mean. Elba grew up in London, Hackney on an infamous estate called Holly Street – later on the family moved further east to Newham. His father, originally from Sierra Leone worked a variety of poorly paid jobs. His mother from Ghana also worked hard at many unrewarding jobs. They were strict and aspirational as parents. They liked rules and had hard work ethic instilled into Elba, who’s always throwing himself into something. No switch off button. Life was hard and rough. The kind of place where, “I got run over once and they just drove off. But I stayed out of trouble on the straight and narrow and my parents were very protective.”

His father wanted him to be a footballer. “Even though he didn’t think English kids were as good as African footballers.” Was he any good? “Yeah but if I hadn’t been into acting it would have been music. Although I was in all the sports teams, drama was more cool. He passed the audition to get into the National Youth Theatre but his mother said he couldn’t go because he didn’t have the money.  His drama school teacher advised to him to apply for a grant from The Princes Trust. “Without that £1500 I don’t know what I would have become. It got me into drama school.”

When he prepped to become Mandela he ended up recording an album with some South African musicians which inspired the documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me.  His father died just before the movie was released and he linked Mandela, international freedom fighter and his dad, the union guy, to be the inspiration for it. Mandela’s family invited Elba to the private funeral. There he was with every world leader and when it was announced that here was the man who recently portrayed Nelson Mandela, people clapped. “All I heard was Elba, my old man’s name…”

As an only child he was close to both of his parents. I don’t detect anything but love and respect when he talks about them, although he is happy on his own. “You make up your own language. You make up your own friends.”

He tells me softly, “I’ve become less selfish now. I like sharing. I like the feeling of sharing more.” Why is that because it’s a new feeling? “Yeeeah,” he laughs, a big old laugh. “It’s different!”

How different? We have our own separate plates of chocolate macaroons. “Well it would be rude of me to offer you any of those they’re just a bunch of crumbs now. You’d be ‘no thanks mate!’” On the contrary. I’d take his crumbs.

He looked in splendid form as the gunslinger Roland Deschain in the Dark Tower. In the movie he says things like “I shoot with my mind and I don’t kill with a gun. I kill with my heart.” He is a gunslinger with depth and troubles. A similar kind of vibe to his character in Luther which he’s about to start making another four part series. Even though we all thought Luther had ended, The BBC tagline to the new series is “The face at the window. The hand under the bed. The shadow at the end of the street. Who’s going to stop them, if not John Luther?”

“Interesting you saw them both that way and you’re right. Luther is a haunted man, character and Roland Deschain is a haunted man. It’s true. He’s also a loner and he’s a very good gunslinger. He’s haunted because he’s the last of his kind which makes him responsible for the salvation of Dark Tower.  “Everything has been taken away from him and he is on a quest for vengeance – it’s become part of him and his consciousness. I do like the action and I really get into that. I’m really into the fight sequences. I love the choreography of it. Being able to work out these really complicated moves and then learning it and doing it again and again. I really love that!  It was a tough film to make but after all is said and done, I’m very glad that I made it.”

Do you know the Stephen King books at all? Not that the movie’s anything like the books. The books are very cerebral, very descriptive, very deep. You can really get into the wormholes. It’s based on eight books, each one of them 700 pages.”

Elba is undaunted by this. He’s very much a reader.  Our conversation wanders to discussing Netflix. We think we’ve seen everything on Netflix as well.  Elba is a man with an appetite.  At one stage of his life he read the book The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo twice a year because he found it transformative.  Every time?  He nods.

“It’s a story that reminds me to pay attention to being present. There are things to remember in your own life, sort of counting your blessings. Seeing something that you might deem as a bad thing at the time actually propels you forward. It’s clever and I think it can touch people. I first read it when I was 22/23.”

Was that the living in a van period? He spent a while homeless in New York looking for acting work. He did this because he thought the Big Apple had more diversity, more parts.

Back then in the early nineties, British black actors seemed to struggle to land leading roles. They were always the drug dealer or the gigolo.

He recollects. “My van period in New York was later.” Early in my acting career was when the book was really good to read.” Was that because it was hard starting out and he had to see disappointments as opportunity to survive? “That’s right.” He pulls at his beard. It’s an unconscious twiddle. And then he suddenly looks nostalgic, sad even and I wonder the haunted gunslinger, the haunted Luther – how much of this is haunted Idris?.  Is it just because he loves identifying with other people’s hauntedness? Or perhaps because he seems not to prefer not to answer questions in full sentences

“I’m not sure. If I think honestly about my characters…” his voice trails.  He’s thinking. “Luther is haunted and now this character, but I don’t think I am haunted so it’s not a trait, but I like to think that characters who have something of a past they suppress are interesting to play because there are a lot of different dynamics.”

He even made the sea lion in Finding Dory seem like an angry outsider. He laughs and does his cockney sea lion performance where he played up against his Wire co-star Dominic West. “No I’m not haunted. I feel I’m an open spirit. I’m not really afraid of anything.”

He certainly likes to test his fear muscles. In 2015 he not only entered the arena of kickboxing, he learnt how to drag race and broke a land speed driving record. As well as this he writes, he directs, he DJ’s, he raps, he sings, he lives dangerously.

“I feel like fear is a really boring waste of time.” Logically of course it is but fear is illogical.  How does he rationalise, diminish it? “It’s a muscle. It’s an exercise. It’s pushing the uncomfortable zone, going past the comfort zone. I think being an actor you get asked to do lots of things that are outside your comfort zone. Trepidation happens when you’re in your trailer and you go onset and do it. That’s the process and I’ve gone through it a few times.” And you’re saying it served you well? “Yes, I suppose so.” But isn’t the risk too much? Kickboxing is very dangerous. I read that his mother could scarcely watch the hits and he could have been a gunslinger with broken legs.

“And I could have got run over on my way here today. You can’t live a life thinking it could go bad. You go into things thinking what’s going to be great about this?

I’m directing a film at the moment. That’s what I’m really doing so I’m sort of low energy today. My brain is a little fried.” You can expect first time directors to be a little haunted but Elba doesn’t come over as quite that, just simply tired from learning how to work the new demands of the film director.

But there again Elba has a kind of super brain.  He once read that we only use about 12% of our brains so he began working on how to access the rest of his brain and become superhuman in the process.

“Well yes. I’m not sure whether doctors think it’s possible to expand your brain capacity, but there are certain exercises – rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time that extends capacity.”

I had a friend recently who did brain training. It’s all the rage in LA. My friend showed me some exercises that were crossing one arm and using the other to tap his ear.  Elba nods enthusiastically. “If you push that even further and do more, do everything that you can, all the different things that you can do, I feel you can push capacity. So putting the same amount of detail into DJ’ing as you do acting means that you can push the capacity of the brain a little bit more. I’ve got a theory that the answer is yes. People think I’m good at this and that’s all I can do and I’m saying if you did something else you’d be good at that as well.  Listen I’m going to be 45 this year. Life expectancy is about 80. I’m over half way there so I just wanna live – live more. I just wanna do everything.”

So that’s one reason he’s directing. “Yeah… It’s a human story about a kid from Jamaica who comes here. I play a small part in it as well. It’s being shot here and in Jamaica. I’ve written parts of it. Well I’m not really a writer.  I’ve rewritten parts of it. The writers have written it but there are things that I’ve jigged about. I’ve also got The Mountain Between us (with Kate Winslet) and Molly’s Game (with Jessica Chastain) and Thor (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett)  coming out this year. It sounds a lot but they were shot over the last 2 years and with the exception of Thor they’re all leading roles.”

So how was being stuck on a mountain with Kate Winslet? He laughs very naughtily. I’m not sure why. “You’ll have to wait and see,” he says.

The kickboxing overlapped the movies. They weren’t all planned to come out at the same time. It just happened that this is the summer of Elba.

“The end of my fighting was the end of last year but I’ve been doing a lot of DJ’ing. It’s a reset button. I love it. I’m falling in love with it more and more and I’ve been making music as well.” Yes, there’s one track called Sex in your Dreams where the lyric talks about ‘a dick thick like homemade butter’. I ask him to explain.

“Homemade butter,” he says deadpan, very serious. “You won’t get me going on that one. “Homemade butter is what is says it is on the can.” But butter is soft. He says, “Homemade butter?”   I’m slightly confused. I tell him I don’t’ get it.  I don’t get it at all. If he made it would it be runny or thick?  “Thick because that’s the way you like your butter.”  He pauses then laughs.  I’ve really no idea what we’ve been talking about but it feels like it was very filthy. He tell me that when he went on James Corden’s show Corden asked him about his homemade butter lyrics so when I met Corden I asked if he could shed any light. He didn’t know either. Maybe that’s an only child thing. The need to have thick butter? “That’s right that’s right. You need that butter.”

I wonder if being an only child influenced him as a father. He has two children – a daughter Isan now 14 (born 2002) and a son Winston aged 3 with different mothers. “I don’t want to talk about my kids today. I can’t talk about being a father without talking about my kids. I love being a father. It’s my favourite thing.” But then we would talk about how busy he is and how he’s away a lot of the time and how he probably doesn’t see much of them and he wouldn’t want to talk about that that. “But I DO see my children. I see a lot of them.  I live a busy life. But I love being a dad. It’s very fulfilling.”

There’s a pause of non-flowing conversation and to make it even more awkward I ask him to clarify details of his wives and girlfriends. He was married to make-up artist Hanne Norgaar in 1999 and they split up shortly after she gave birth to Isan after 3 years. He was going through a very transitional phase and then he had a very brief marriage of only 6 weeks to real estate attorney Sonya Nicole Hamlin and his current girlfriend Naiyana Garth is described as being on/off. Is that correct?

“On an off with who? I’ve been married yes, married again, yes and I’ve had a girlfriend for a long time. That’s right.” Long pause. “But I’m also human. That’s normal I think.”

I’m not sure exactly what’s normal, all the details about his being human but one certainly sees or hears of him linked to various beauties like Jourdan Dunn (actress and model) and he’s also got about 35 years left and lots of women want him. He said recently that suddenly his demographic of women who fancied him had increased. That it used to be one demographic, now it’s older women, younger women. Basically all women.

He laughs, not bashfully though. “A lot of people find actors attractive. They find a certain man attractive and he’s an actor. He’s very attractive. It’s amplified because of what we do for a living. The point I was making is it’s not just the girls in my neighbourhood but everyone. Well not everyone but a lot of women.”

We’re staring at each other. It’s one of those very connected and not connected at all moments and the PR pops her head round the door. “Last couple of minutes.” OK, the moment, if there was one, was gone, so I change the subject completely.  Apparently President Obama is a fan. “Oh yes Mr Obama. What a lovely man. What a kind human being. What a good leader and he was a fan of The Wire, or he liked the character called Omar, not my character. But he had the grace to tell me I like you too and I’m just getting into Luther. His wife Michelle was well into Luther.”

I can imagine. Why do you think Michelle liked Luther? Because he’s complicated.  Because she likes complicated?

“OK, yes, yes, you’re right.” So where did you hang out with the Obamas? “We had dinner at an event he threw.” Did he share dessert with him?

“No I didn’t have dessert. I was on my regime where I had to lose a lot of weight.  I had to cut out certain food groups like sugar and gluten, very low carb and I had to eat fish and chicken.”

Was he forced to have it steamed? “No, baked and every now and again I had it…” long pause, eyes roll, “I had fried chicken.” I’m not sure why but the way he says fried chicken is as if he’s saying fried sex, he makes it sound really, really naughty. “I’ve lost a few pounds. Are you saying that you remember me really chubby?”

No, I’m saying. that he is now looking very fit. “I’m only teasing you. I do remember the whole plate of cookies that we demolished. I think if you remember, it was you who ate the cookies. And I was like I don’t share desserts, you have all of them……. I like your bag,” he says. My Bag has a cat on it and says Meow. He sits on his couch, still looking a little tired, purses his lips and says “Meow”.

The Dark Tower is out Aug 18

James Corden (Sunday Times Magazine – July 2017)

Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building.  Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.

I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy.  The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender.  And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.

Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it.  The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.

The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”

The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.

With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.

Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems.  What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”

Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him.  “I guess, maybe but not really.  I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”

So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”

Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful.  We couldn’t book anyone for a long time.  The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”

Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.

“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best.   Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.

Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad.  You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little.  Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”

I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”

The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone.  Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.

I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”

This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true.  I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”

And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK.  To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK.  And I think he returns to feel the love.

Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”

His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know.  I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”

Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).

They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”

He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”

I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh.  It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”

At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”

Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it.  Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey.  Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.

He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.

“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play.  I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die.  We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”

Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”

In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write.  That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey.  There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”

His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying.  There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”

And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.

He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”

Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”

I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”

He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.”  Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”

Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know.  And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”

So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful.  We certainly dated for a while.”

Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”

It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working.  Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”

Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.”  He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.

Boy George (July 2017)

When I first met Boy George – lifetimes ago – in the early nineties, everything about him was a melodrama. He could be charming but he was also outrageous. He was always in trouble for saying the first bitchy thing that came into his head. He definitely did not understand boundaries. That was what brought him success but it also brought trouble. At the height of his fame, he was hooked on heroin. Friends and family didn’t expect him to survive. His younger brother even went on national television to expose the addiction, a desperate cry for help. George was always extreme.

We are astral twins. Born on the same day June 14th. We share this bond with Che Guevara and Donald Trump.

After the plea for help, George was arrested for possession. Over the years, his life continued to spiral. The arrests and run-ins with the law stacked up – all awful, predictable stuff. Then, in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for false imprisonment – he chained a male escort to a radiator.

A decade after this rockiest of rock-bottom moment, he is back on top of the world. After first appearing as a judge on the Voice UK, George has somehow rehabilitated himself via the unlikely medium of mainstream reality television.

In the US earlier this year, he was the runner-up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. In Australia, he has become a household name once again after a feisty role as a judge on their version of The Voice.  In supermarkets down under, kids who are far too young to remember Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me ask for selfies. “It’s funny that I’m so popular with seven, eight, nine years old,” he says. “These kids were really sweet – no attitude. There’s this niceness about Australia, it reminds me of England in the seventies.”

He also finds himself settling back into life on the road. After sporadic reunions, he and the original members of Culture Club set off to tour on a  wave of 1980s nostalgia, first in North America (“land of second chances”), now the UK and, towards the end of the year, Australia. “We haven’t had a big row for years,” he says of his bandmates. “Even when we do argue, it gets resolved quickly.”

“I could be more fluid if I did my own tour. With Culture Club, the view is that the audience expects certain things and that’s what we’re going to give them. Rampages on stage are a thing of the past. It’s not that everybody loves everybody but we’re very structured.”

Structure is clearly a new thing in George’s life. After a lifetime of undoings, accelerated by drugs, his years of sobriety have given him clarity.  He looks back on the old days with amusement, bemusement and, for the good times, a fair dose of nostalgia but now, as he puts it, “I’m happy.”

Are you in love, I ask the man who sang I Just Wanna Be Loved

“No.”

Maybe that’s why you’re happy.

“Yes, maybe. I’m not in love but I’m open to persuasion. But I’m quite busy at the moment and I’d rather be working than loving. I’d rather get paid than laid.” Just like the old Boy George. The one who said he preferred a cup of tea to sex.

Work, work, work, then. When he’s not touring, he’s working on his new album. Next year he will have a residency in Vegas with Cyndi Lauper. He’s excited about being a star in Sin City and just how “fluid” that show will be.

But the fluidity has strict limits. Today, he is as dedicated to life as he once was to destroying it.  “I talk a lot with my closest friends about happiness,” he says. “I try to find happiness in almost anything. Going to Starbucks, watching videos about new exercises, like ones you can do on a flight when you clench your buttocks.” We practice clenching and he bursts into laughter, neatly exemplifying the point. He likes to fit in a few moves as he walks down the street to Starbucks – if you cross your arms over your chest you burn more calories as you walk. “Finding happiness instead of misery at any given moment is not always easy but I do think it’s the key to survival.”

Food was the last excess to go and, after years struggling with his weight, he’s now back to his skinnier original self. He’s on a regime where he has to wait several hours between eating. Sugar is banned and exercise must be regular but, again, there are limits. “I have been reading articles about naked yoga classes,” he says. “Nudity is the enemy of style and I would never do it.”

George has always been about individual style. He is very anti the selfie generation. “Everybody on Instagram looks the same. Everybody looks like Kim Kardashian.  I suppose we had a version of the selfie in the eighties when we would dress up and go to a photo booth but you had to make an effort. You had to have a bit of pioneering spirit. There was never the opportunity for such narcissism before.

Today, he’s using what he learnt in the photo booth to build a burgeoning modelling career.

“I thought if I could do some modelling in my fifties that would be a real triumph,” he says. “You know, you’re always looking at these things as a measure of where you are.”  So at 55 he became a model for Dior. “I like to start at the top.”

He’s even taking up a new career in art and he’s planning an exhibition. “It’s a mixture of painting and graphic stuff with a narrative starting in the seventies, being the decade that really shaped me as a person. Glam rock, punk rock, all of the things that have remained my aesthetic. I’ve never lost my love of Vivienne Westwood. I don’t know where the exhibition is going to be but I’m very serious about it, even though it just started off as me doing stuff and people really liked it. A lot of my career moves have been accidental.”

There’s no doubt George looks good but be careful how you tell him that. “It really annoys me when people say you look good for your age,” he says. What does that mean? I’m like fuck off.”

Back in the very beginning of George, there were almost no gay pop stars. Obviously he was gay. He came out to his mum when he was 14.  During his acceptance speech for best new artist at the Grammys in 1984, he said: “Thank you America. You know a good drag queen when you see one.” It was, of course, the first thing that came into his head and, even though it was obvious that he was gay, it still made his press agent weep. “It was a period in history where people didn’t want to have it confirmed,” he says now. “Radio stations stopped playing my records. Oh well. Can’t turn the clocks back now.”

George has never hidden who he is, unlike the other eighties George, George Michael. In the eighties, the two Georges were compared constantly “We both were called George. Of course we were rivals.” Boy George had plenty to say about George Michael’s reticence to come out. “It was the eighties. That’s what people did. They were bitchy.”

Boy George said everything that came into his head. George Michael was the opposite.  He didn’t use drugs flamboyantly but he used them consistently, and never attempted a clean-up. He only came out after his mother died because he knew she would have worried about AIDS.

“I cried when George died,” he says now. “I felt very sad. You know I was never close to George. We never really became friends. We tried a few times.  We had a lot of mutual friends. There were a few evenings where the girls from Bananarama tricked me into going for dinner and he was there and whenever we met we got on great.  We had more in common than we didn’t.”

“Don’t you think that there was lots of stuff that was manipulated about him? If shower them with luxuries you are partly to blame as well.  I feel you can always separate what you think about somebody on a personal level from what you think about them artistically.”

“I’ve been listening to a lot of George Michael’s music recently.  I made a playlist the other day as a reaction to when someone put the boyfriend’s 999 call online.  I just tweeted ‘I’d rather hear this’.”

People always thought of George Michael as an outsider but Boy George was just as much of an outcast, albeit for different reasons. “Back in the day I used to be not invited to quite a lot of things. Remember that song, Don’t bring Lulu she messes up a party? That was me.  During the eighties I would hear about these fabulous Elton parties that I was never invited to. There’s a price for being opinionated.”

Today, he is far from reticent but he is certainly slower to unleash his feelings. “As I grow older I think I get better at being a human being,” he says. “I’ve got better at not saying everything that I think because I do believe in our most intimate relationships, we are held together by the stuff we don’t actually say.  I try to not put myself in situations that are bad for me like eating the wrong things, being unreasonable.  It doesn’t necessarily stop you doing A, B or C but the clean-up is quicker.”

It’s taken him all of his 56 years to get to this point. For most of his life, his first reaction was an extreme one. He was quick to explode with pain, anger, rage, whatever, and just as quick to get over it.  “Perhaps that’s because I grew up with a father who would throw the entire Sunday dinner on the floor and then be, ‘OK let’s put the kettle on.’ He would be fine so everyone else had to be.”

His father Jerry was a boxer and a violent man. When he walked out on his mother after three decades of marriage in which they raised six children, their relationship broke down altogether. They made up shortly before he died and these very different days, George enjoys boxing as part of his fitness repertoire. But he has had plenty of time to process his feelings on fame and bad behaviour.

“When you are successful, people allow bad behaviour just to get things done,” he says. “For instance if a record company is trying to get you on a TV show and you are behaving appallingly they condone your behaviour just to get you to the microphone. If that is repeated over a period of time, you start to think it’s OK. The good side of things that I learnt from my father is don’t dwell. I don’t hold grudges. There isn’t anybody in the world I wish harm to but I said some things that I shouldn’t have just to get a laugh.”

One thing he hasn’t got over easily was the death of David Bowie. Without Bowie there would have been no Boy George, no Culture Club. He was the major influence on the teenage George O’Dowd. “I knew he wasn’t well but you never know how unwell,” he says. “He first got ill in 2002. We were talking a lot during that time and then, quite suddenly, communication halted. I never really understood why. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong so I took it personally.  We were never big mates but I did feel like he was my family. The first time I met him I’d just been dropped by Virgin and I was backstage at a Nine Inch Nails and Bowie gig.  All the heads of Virgin were there so it was awkward and then Bowie opened his dressing room door and shouted “Georgie Boy!” and gave me a big hug. He was very real, very genuine but, of course, he was complex too. He managed to create this mystery around him. The worst thing that could ever happen is that people think you’re ordinary.”

Of course, he’s right. Ordinary is bad for business, but isn’t it also important if you want to stay sane, saty balanced?

“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “Maybe nowadays, I can be ordinary.”

To the point of settling down.

“No, that’s not for me. Everyone thinks I’m alone and miserable but I have suitors. I’ll never go hungry. When people say where is this going, I say why does that matter? In that respect, I’m an old-fashioned gay man. I like that fact that being gay exempts you from the military. Gay marriage?  Of course you should be able to do whatever you want but I don’t want to marry anybody.  I’m happy with my own company. I can close the door and watch TV. I can have people come to stay but I like to see the return ticket.

“I don’t do the App thing. The worst thing that could happen with one of those is ‘Do you know who you look like?’ I prefer a cool customer. I’m not interested in anyone who’s a little bit eager.  If there are 30 people in the room I’ll be interested in the one who isn’t giving me attention. “

With sobriety comes emotional self-sufficiency. Or maybe that was always there. “I think I am emotionally self-sufficient. I think you have to like yourself.  I’m quick to judge and quick to say I was wrong about all sorts of things. Of course I make mistakes. Some people are exciting to be around and that’s fun.  Too much of it is exhausting.”

I leave the new Boy George checking out the contents of the many hat boxes in his room, just a small part of his distinctly unordinary collection of beloved, bejewelled head gear. He is still exciting to be around. He is a long way from ordinary but he’s a long way from the old Boy George too. He’s survived the dark years, he’s paid the price of fame and he’s happy on this side of the boundary.

Shirley MacLaine (The Sunday Times Magazine – July 2017)

The last time I met Shirley MacLaine, she told me that the only thing that could ever break her heart would be the death of her beloved dog Terry. She felt such kinship with the rat terrier, she was convinced they’d known one another in a previous life.

This time, when we meet in the restaurant of a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, Terry is no longer with us. “She had come to the end of her time,” she says, lowering her voice. “I was full of guilt about having to her put down but she just began to disintegrate. She tried to do away with herself. I wouldn’t let her and she resented that.  She let me know in no uncertain terms that she was ready to go so I finally did it.”

Terry’s death has taught MacLaine so much that she’s rewriting her memoir of Terry, Out on a Leash: Exploring the nature of reality and love.

“I’m writing now about what I had to face in myself in order to do that and to celebrate her passing, not contaminate it with sorrow and loss. I sent love out into the universe. Apparently love attracts guides and teachers that I’d never let in before.”

The Oscar-winning actor has this advice for everyone who has to put down a beloved pet.  .“Don’t dread it,” she says. “They are just following their destiny. I didn’t allow Terry to follow her destiny. It was so hard to separate from her.”

Is she waiting for Terry to come back? “It’s up to you to recognise their souls and if you want to reconnect with them. Dogs are actually not permitted to come back as people or people as dogs. There’s no transmigration of souls. You have to come back as the same learning soul.”

MacLaine believes her whole life has been destiny. Her career began on the chorus of a Broadway show The Pajama Game in the 1950s. She was understudy for the lead Carol Haney, a woman who was only sick twice on the whole run. The second time, Alfred Hitchcock was in the audience and he immediately cast MacLaine in what is now often referred to as his “lost masterpiece.” The Trouble with Harry.

“Hitch wanted me to be his eating partner for the whole shoot,” she says. “I couldn’t really afford much food when I was in the chorus so I thought, ‘No, I’m not giving this up. I don’t care what I look like’.” She gained so much weight that the studio insisted she went on a diet. She refused. She was never going to be told what to do, not by anybody.

From the beginning, she was one of the boys, albeit with killer legs. Adopted as the only girl member of The Rat Pack, she was soon co-starring with Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin and Sammy Davis Jr.  Her first Oscar nomination came in 1958 for the crime movie Some Came Running. Her sixth came in 1984 for Terms of Endearment — and she won. In her acceptance speech, she said, “I deserve this.”

Her new film is the story of Harriet Lauler, a self-made advertising executive, now retired but still something of a perfectionist. The character asks the obituary writer at the local newspaper to write her obituary so she can approve it before she dies. I ask if it’s a character MacLaine can relate to.

“I think I am somewhat controlling,” she agrees “I think when you work on stage and on screen you have to be efficient. I am efficient but I’m also low maintenance.”

Would MacLaine want to approve her own obituary? “Oh my dear, no! I barely have a will.”  There’s a pause while she thinks it over. “But I would like to be respected.”

There are other real-life parallels between MacLaine’s life and this movie. Like MacLaine, her character has a daughter who refuses to speak to her. In 2013, Sachi Parker, MacLaine’s daughter, published Lucky Me, a memoir that MacLaine assures me is mostly fiction. It was deeply critical of her as a mother and it came over as petulant and jealous, but, of course, it hurt. As the film was written especially for her, I assumed that was all part of writer Stuart Ross Fink’s piquancy. “He says he didn’t write this with any knowledge of me, just that he thought I’d look good playing her. That’s what he tells me.”  When I ask if their relationship has resolved itself since the memoir, she says, “Well she’s leading her life and I’m leading mine. Let’s put it that way. She’ll be 61 in a month, not 22.” In the book, Parker blamed her mother for sabotaging her career as an actress. It can’t have been easy having a famous actress as a mum.

“I think it’s a very interesting take on the hallucinations of fame. So many young people today when they are asked what they want to do, they say “be famous”. This compulsion is very disturbing.”

She has also had rocky periods with her brother, Warren Beatty. At the moment they’re close. She was at the Oscars earlier this year when he and his co presenter Faye Dunaway gave the best picture award to the wrong film and she felt the horror. “What can you do in a situation like that? I don’t know what I would have done. No one knows until it happens to you. He is fine now. I just spent a couple of days with him and his family.”

We talk about his recent movie Rules Don’t Apply which was a critical and c commercial disaster. Honest as ever she says, “He gave a stunning performance but the movie was confusing. You don’t say to people you’ve got to go and see this confusing movie.”

MacLaine herself never wanted to be a film star. It never occurred to her.  She wanted to dance.  She grew up in Richmond, Virginia and her mother sent her to ballet lessons because she had weak ankles. She was surprisingly good at it and danced her way to Broadway.

She might not have wanted the fame but she was always incredibly driven. Her father was a musician who told her his dream was to run away with the circus. Her mother wrote poetry. They gave up their dreams in favour of convention, being available parents. MacLaine felt pressure to fulfil their dreams too.  As a result, she was a very different parent. She did not give her daughter convention and rules. In turn, her daughter became more conservative than her parents – and the relationship soured.

Despite this, she says she is happier now than she has ever been. “I’ve discovered independent film makers have found a demographic called seniors,” she says. “Seniors have money to spend and nothing to see. That may not be the opinion of the big corporate studios but the independents where the real acting and the real writing is are asking me to put together movies because I’m still standing and I can serve that senior community so I feel that it’s almost like a resurgence of something that they have been blind to for a very long time in our town.”

“I’m all for helping people not feel invisible. The older generation have been marginalised. Nobody recognises they’re even alive. It’s an unmined territory and I’ve got five movies lined up.”  Then she tells me with great gurgling laughter, “In almost all of these movies I die. I keep dying in every movie then coming back in another one, just like life. ” Does she think about death? “My concerns are making sure that I’m healthy. I eat what I want to eat but at the same time try to eat right. It’s a real balance. I have good physical endurance. Nobody expects someone who’s 83 to be anywhere near model size and I’m glad I’m over that..”

She doesn’t want to talk too much about these new senior movies yet, but the first one is  set in a retirement home. “In fact in almost all of these movies I’m some kind of assisted home environment. I keep dying in every movie then coming back in another one, just like life. Anyway the first one, my character had been a personal assistant to five presidents and fxxxxxx three of them.”  There’s another art reflects life scenario. How many presidents did MacLaine sleep with? I know there was the Canadian Pierre Trudeau and the Swedish Olof Palme. Was there a third? “I’m not going to get into that. I’m a little bit sensitive.”

When she was in her forties, MacLaine had a face lift and, a few days later, had an orgasm which broke the stitches. “It was a very good orgasm because there was some pain involved,” she grins. Her affairs were usually intense. As well as the political lovers there was novelist Pete Hamill, handsome French actor Yves Montand and the brooding Robert Mitchum.

“I liked complicated men and that was certainly Mitchum. It gave me something to do to try and figure them out.” Danny Kaye was besotted with her. He flew her around in his plane. He flew her to Texas for a steak dinner and once when she was filming in Paris, flew her to New York where he made her Chinese food and flew her back again. “I was always a serial monogamist — I learned what I needed to learn and then I would move on. Or rather I fixed it so that they would move on. I didn’t like the guilt of leaving.”

All the while, she had an open marriage with the producer Steve Parker.  It came to an end in 1982 because, she thinks, the distances were too great. “He was living in Asia and I wasn’t.  I do wonder about marriage. Unless you want your children to have legal parents, what is its purpose? To own someone else? To possess someone else? For materialistic gain? ”

MacLaine once famously said, ‘I don’t know what it’s like not to have what I want.’ Today, to a degree, she qualifies it. “The point I was making is that I want very little. There’s really only one thing I want now that I don’t have. I need a plane with a pilot who can cook and take care of dogs. I don’t like airports with all the security problems. I don’t like the scramble of getting on a plane and the seats are getting more and more narrow.”

This is classic MacLaine. Don’t like commercial flying? Find a man with a private jet. Yes she’s bossy and she knowns what she wants. But she has a lighter side too. When she laughs, she really laughs with her whole being. She’s always been unconventional and she’s done the ageing thing very cleverly. She has accepted and embraced exactly who she is. In Hollywood, that’s rare.

The Last Word is out now

Goldie Hawn (Sunday Times Magazine, April 17, 2017)

Chrissy Iley & Goldie Hawn
Chrissy Iley & Goldie Hawn

I meet Goldie Hawn in Santa Monica. It’s one of those Hockney-esque days – blue sky and palm trees. Everything you’d expect.  I expected Goldie to be blonde and cute and somehow frozen in time.  I expected a little facial landscaping, but there’s none of that It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since Goldie Hawn made a movie (The Banger Sisters), because somehow she’s one of those actors who has a continued presence. People are always being compared to her and she’s often photographed with her very famous (Almost Famous) daughter Kate Hudson.  You never know which on screen star is going to be frosty and who’s going to be lovely. Goldie does not disappoint in the warmth department. She radiates it along with calm and Zen.  

      She’s back on screen playing Amy Schumer’s mother in Snatched. It’s already been touted as the funniest film of the year – Hangover style comedy but women driven.  Schumer fought hard to get Hawn to play her mother.  They didn’t know each other before. Schumer just knew it would be right and when you think about it, although Hawn didn’t give birth to Schumer, without Hawn Schumer could not have existed.  Hawn was the Schumer of the seventies. She did it in a quieter, defter and more svelte way, but nonetheless she was a woman allowed to be funny, in control and take the lead in movies.  For instance, if you wanted to remake Private Benjamin, you’d get Schumer to play Hawn’s role.  Biologically no relation, but there’s something filmically genetic about these two. 
     Hawn is in a little black dress – slash neckline, bare, pale, freckled legs, strappy sandals, I glimpse a heart tattoo peeking out on her foot.  The hair is the same – Goldie hair. It’s long and it’s blonde and it’s tousled. The lips too are still as pouty. You notice her face is real, not plastic. You notice multi-coloured grey blue green, sparkling eyes. Orbital.  She’s just had room service delivered to her hotel suite. It’s your typical Los Angeles fare.  Green juice, almond butter with gluten free crackers – except she’s been drinking green juice for 20 years.  “I make it at home and sometimes I put mint in it, sometimes zucchini, always apple and ginger. It’s so cleansing.”   Somehow when she’s describing it, it sounds cosy.  She didn’t jump on the green juice bandwagon. She created it. She was always ahead of her time. 
     Born in 1945, 71 years ago to a Jewish mother and Presbyterian father, Hawn never dreamed big for herself. “I came to California to dance. It sounds silly because everybody wants to be a big deal and I just wanted to dance, to be married. I was very connected to my family and I was fully prepared to go home at some point.”  In fact she was rather surprised when she found herself being applauded in Hollywood.  She says she didn’t have drive, so it was confusing and it actually made her feel anxious and misplaced. Other people saw in her something she didn’t see in herself. A very rare commodity of someone who is extremely funny and extremely pretty. By that I mean she looked too pretty to be funny but she was. 
    Discovered on popular sketch show Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In – she came to Los Angeles at the age of 22 to make her first movie There’s A Girl in My Soup.  She found her success baffling.  That’s why she was not distressed in the least by her absence from the screen for the past 15 years. She’s been busy doing other things that interested her more.  The Goldie Hawn Foundation is a foundation for children to help them triumph over trauma using her meditation techniques.  “A frightened child can never learn,” she has said. Her mindful techniques have been used in schools all over the US and Australia. 
     She’s also been a devoted grandmother to Kate Hudson’s boys Ryder, 13 and Bingham, 5, Kate’s brother Oliver and his children Wilder, 9, Bodhi, 7 and Rio, 3. And now without even trying she’s back, blockbuster back. “I’m excited. It’s very funny and it’s also very heartfelt.” That’s what she does best.  Mixes the fun with the heart.  “It’s a fine line you know.” 
    Schumer and Hawn’s onscreen chemistry is remarkable. Did she end up wanting to adopt Amy at the end of the movie? “Oh, I have adopted her in my heart anyway. I love her.”  And they didn’t know each other before? “No, I didn’t know Amy although we met on an airplane once.” (Hawn didn’t really recognise her). She seems to meet quite a few people on planes.  She met her ex-husband Bill Hudson on one and it went from a glint in the eye to full passion, marriage, envy, divorce. But more of that later. 
     “When I met Amy on the plane I didn’t recognise her. I’m not much of a TV watcher but then we met at an event in London – the Glamour Awards. I was there because my daughter Kate was getting an award and Amy was also getting an award. She came up to me and said “There’s this movie I read and I’m helping rewrite it but I can only see you in it and I really want you to do this movie.” Hawn indicates that she seemed quite surprised and then thought about it.  “I had been working with my Foundation for around 13 years so I thought let me turn this baby into a teenager and I can go back to work and have some fun.”
     So there was never a conscious decision that she was giving up movies and concentrating on the Foundation? “That’s right. There wasn’t. And was there a decision to give up the Foundation and return to acting? “No. The movie was 3 months. It was the right time. I was ready to go back and do something funny. When you’ve been working for 40 years at being funny there comes a moment where you look at your life and say who am I now and where do I want to go?  Do I want to continue to repeat myself or do I want to do something different? I want my life to be enriched by different actions, not just by one thing. That’s why I have developed and produced scripts for children that can go into schools.  It was exciting to me. And now it’s exciting to be back.”
     Did she ever feel like she’d been boxed into being the funny girl? A pressure to amuse? “Oh no. I never felt that it was a pressure to be funny. I don’t look at myself as someone who has to entertain people, who HAS to be funny.  I’m an actress who can be comedic. I’ve never done stand up or anything like that. I started off as a dancer.  First of all ballet and then jazz and I was that girl who got pulled out of the chorus line.  The next thing I knew I had an agent and I ended up on a big television show (Rowan and Martin’s Laugh In). It really was just a shocker. My career took me.  I didn’t take my career.  And what happens when you get older happens to everybody – the roles start changing. I worked into my 50s and I thought – wait a minute. There is a finite amount of life left. What am I gonna learn? How am I going to help? What do I care about? And that’s when ideas began to percolate of how to create a different life. Not for me but for children. That has always been my plan.  It’s been the most exciting part of my life and the hardest. I wanted to help children who are afraid. I wanted to stabilise my emotions and therefore I wanted to help stabilise children’s. I know about being scared, whether it’s bullying or something outside for that. When I was little I feared the bomb.”
     She grew up in the Cold War period and her school showed one of those Cold War propaganda movies when she was 11.  After that she was then terrified to go to school and woke up every day thinking it was the end of the world. “It stayed with me. It was very impactful. I wasn’t ready for that, all the devastation and people bloody and children crying.  How is a child going to react to that? I was 11 and I remember thinking I’ll never live to kiss a boy, I’ll never live to be a mum. I was very anxiety ridden.”
     It was a similar anxiety that made her feel misplaced stayed when she had her plucked out of the chorus line moment. She felt her life wasn’t her own. Somehow there was a link between not having control of her life and a fear of death. “Yeah it was fear of death and violence. What could be more scary than a bomb falling from the sky and falling on you?”
     Her early success was a metaphorical bomb. She had felt anxious most of her early life and that’s when she discovered meditation therapy.  The success meant she didn’t know who she was anymore. “I felt unstable. My life wasn’t working out as I planned. I wanted to have a dance school for children, to be married and have a house in Washington DC. Being married was my dream. It didn’t happen that way. I did one show and boom. I’m away from everybody I love and I’m in LA and my mom and dad were in Washington. I thought I would go back to them but life kept keeping me away. 
     And then I realised, Goldie, you are literally never going home again. My dad would write me letters and say “The umbilical cord has stretched 3,000 miles.  Just know we love you. We are always here. Just try to enjoy this.” That was it for a while then everyone moved out West – my mom, my dad, my sister.  
     My dad was Presbyterian.  He didn’t go to church. My mother was Jewish. We rarely went to the synagogue but oddly enough I was the one most interested in religion. It was very clear that the Jewish part was strong because it had all the rituals of our family.  It was a cultural thing.  At the same time my best girlfriend was a Catholic. I went to the Catholic Church with her more than I went to the Synagogue, but sometimes I would go to both.  Friday night Synagogue and Sunday church. I find religion so interesting.  Now I’m interested in Buddhism, Hinduism and Jain. I also like the Kabbalah but more than that I’ve always been very connected to the idea of meditation.” It seems that meditation gave her answers, or at least some answers.
      It’s as if she was always trying a place to fit and at the same time she was rather a contradiction.  Everyone thought of her as the hilarious blonde.  Meanwhile she was thinking about death and eternal life.  Was she aware of that juxtaposition?  “Yeah. Unexpected right and then I took a course in neuro science because to me that was the answer to the brain’s function. How you shift your brain because of neuroplasticity.” Er, what? “Neuroplasticity is all about how you grow new connections in the brain. The brain is plastic. We can move the brain by our thoughts, our actions by often repetitive actions so you can train your brain to grow new cells.”
     I saw this on an Andrew Marr programme about how was retraining his brain to walk after a stroke. Hawn nods enthusiastically.  “You can train your brain to become conscious of certain things just like the mind and body are conscious of one another. There is communication between them. I love the idea that there is a communication between thought and remoulding the mind – the brain if you will and how that begins to help you be more in control of your brain rather than it controlling you.”
     She continues with another couple of sentences involving the word peptides but I’m way out of my depth. This is not what I was expecting to be discussing with Goldie Hawn.  I try to simplify, take us away from science.  Is she saying if you fear something, the fearful thoughts make it happen? “Exactly. You can look at a painting. You can see different things. I was I India many years ago and they have these beautiful caves dug in the salt rock. One cave was the Jain, one was the Buddha and one was the Hindu cave.  In the Buddha cave, they held a light to the Buddha’s face and he looked peaceful.  When the light turned in the other direction he looked angry.”
     Suddenly there’s the sound of Indian chanting and I realise it’s Hawn’s mobile ringtone. She laughs.  “Isn’t it perfect? Anyhow, that’s how I started looking into how the brain works.”  
     In which parts of her life did she find her meditation therapy and her knowledge of the brain’s workings to be most useful? The blue grey green eyes glitter. Dealing with being suddenly famous? “Yes.” Divorce. “Yes. It helped me through my mother’s death. It helps every day. We have a tendency to want a miracle to happen when we’re suffering but I think we need to suffer for a limited period of time. When someone dies who is close to you, you have to go through it. I don’t believe in jumping over the river to try and cleanse yourself through it.  That’s kind of a denial.”
     When her mother died – she says it was in 93 or 94 – she took time out of acting just to be with her. They were very, very close.  She saw the pain and suffering of her loss as a way of remaining connected to her mother. She nods.  “In some form yes and that’s what it was. I spent a lot of time on my spiritual journey when she died.  I’m not over it. I miss her every day, but it took a year of really not being over it.  The Jews believe it takes a year. That’s why they have a stone setting a year after the death. I swear to God she was there at her graveside. 
     The Rabbi did his prayer, our family were holding hands and a wind came out of nowhere, whoosh and it was as if my mother was saying it’s OK now. I cried. It was the end of mourning and the beginning of my holding my mother close to me all the time. It was just different.  I want to help people through things like this. You have to feel it, not deny it. Take it with you and work it out. Meditation has helped me through tiredness, stress, work issues, relationship issues. You know when we react to a situation that we wish we hadn’t reacted to – we were just firing off.  It helps you with that reacting because if you can take 10 seconds more to think about things it’s an amazing tool.” 
    It seems like by the time she got to her relationship with Kurt Russell she’d worked quite a few things out.  It continues to compel people – Goldie and Kurt – the longest lasting Hollywood couple – 34 years but never married.  In the past she said that maybe it wouldn’t have lasted so long if they had been married. “Definitely,” she nods. “Relationships are hard. None of them are easy. Both Kurt and I had gotten out of a relationship that was basically all about money and we both looked at each other and we were like ‘marriage – no way’.  What’s yours is yours, what’s mine is mine.  We’re going to do this thing separately and we’re going to be together. We’re going to enjoy each other. There’s no marriage here. Marriage binds you lawfully that in a way that suddenly you’ve got to give up your money.  Kurt was married for three and a half years and he had to give up all his money, his house and hundreds of thousands of dollars. I was married and my ex sued me for everything after 4 years. The laws are like that.”
     I had heard of a book that Bill Hudson wrote, a kind of kiss and tell without many kisses. I read an extract where he was whining about money.  Did she ever read it? “No no no. It’s too bad. I mean it’s over.  But these things make me feel more compassionate. Isn’t that interesting? The kids are great and it’s forgotten.  But that was a funny story how you met him on a plane and ended up marrying him.  “My God he was great.  He was a lot of fun. He was very, very funny.  There were really good qualities about him but then he was gambling and all sorts of things and it didn’t work.”
     It was very different when she met Kurt. There was no crazy coup de foudre.  It was a slow burn of boiling sweetness.  They met when they co-starred in the movie Swing Shift.  “Yeah,” she says tinged with a dreamy nostalgia.  “You know when we fell in love? It was when I realised loved the way he looked at my children. Frankly that was it. That’s what made me fall in love with him.  It wasn’t one of those…” she’s searching for the word “lust at first sight things. No. not that at all. I mean we were very sexually attracted to each other but I was at a stage of my life where I had finally excepted my little white picket fence dream did not work out. I’d had two divorces and I wanted something that was going to be good for my life and my children.”
    We’re inside but it had been so sunny I was wearing my sunglasses. “Who made them?” she wants to know. “Kate was only 3 and Oliver was 6.  Kurt is very special. We raised the children together and we’ve been together 34 years and had a great time doing it. We lived 3 years in Vancouver (because Kurt and Goldie’s son Wyatt was playing ice hockey there) and we’ve spent two and a half years building a house in LA and I had my third night’s sleep there last night. All kinds of stuff needs doing.” They moved back to Los Angeles for Wyatt’s career.  “Wyatt’s an actor now. All my children are amazing and very, very talented. Oliver’s had some successful TV shows and he’s got 3 children. I’ve got so much to be grateful for and everybody’s excited that I’m doing a movie.”
     Will this be the start of more acting work for her? “It’s hard to know.  It depends what comes up. Careers have resurgences but you don’t recreate your career.  Not at my time of life.”  She’s 71.  Of course she doesn’t look 71 and she doesn’t look a Hollywood 71 either.  Jonathan Levine, the director of Snatched announced that Goldie Hawn was the fittest person on the set. 
     So how did she get to be the fittest person on the set? Does she have a ballet routine to keep her in shape? Does she still dance? “I don’t, but I did have a ballet barre put into my workout room this time so I will be doing more plies and working at the barre.” I tell her I did that for a couple of months and it was tell. “It’s very hard. Those slow plies, they’re hard. There was nothing like that in the movie. There was lots of running around and whatever but I’m used to that.  Nothing new.”
    It ends in a way that there could be Snatched 2.  “Yeah there could be. You never know.”  In 1996 she, Bette Midler and Diane Keaton did the movie First Wives Club.  At the time when most big earning movies were sci fi movies or movies that were tailored to the adolescent male audience. It was quite a brave time to make a movie with three women in their fifties.  “Yes it was.” They all did it for minimal money.  Small front end, small back end just to get it made. When it was a huge hit, the studio wanted a sequel and they expected them all to do it for the same low fees.  Were they insulted? “Yes. I couldn’t believe it. We’ll just give you the same amount of money and I thought to myself, no.  Everyone negotiates for a sequel because you’ve already built a constituency.  People love your characters, they know you.  That’s a value.  You can’t put anyone else in that movie.”
     Do you think they would have treated men like that? “Not at all.” We ponder about what’s changed in the last 20 years in Hollywood. Ostensibly can women be sexy and funny and earn as much as their male counterparts? My theory is that Amy Schumer has been quite a game changer. She’s the one who can get movies made. She can negotiate a good sequel, she’s made it possible for a new generation of women to be laughed at in a good way. 
     “Exactly. She has. We keep inching along, two steps forward, one step back. It’s not even that long ago when women weren’t allowed to vote but there’s still some of those diehards that look at women as objects and also find them in many ways a threat. So many men today have changed. Young men today are very different but some of the old dogs still have that lack of regard for a woman who has got, how can I put it? A woman who has got power. Because if you don’t use your power just right…” she whispers. “They go mad and I go did I say something in the wrong tone of voice?  In other words, did I have a look on my face that looked determined? Was that a look you didn’t want to look at?  It’s fascinating.”
     Do you think that women are still put in boxes like if you’re beautiful you’re supposed to be stupid? If you have a PhD you can’t have a manicure?  “I think that sort of thing still exists.”
    Hawn was never the type of woman who was called a ‘Biatch’ for taking control, for producing a movie, for speaking her mind.  She was cleverer than that.  She spoke her mind carefully, never angrily. She always appeared sweet. You never thought of her being the one with power. “But I can tell you that I never kept my mouth shut.” But she didn’t ever shout. “No I didn’t and that’s how it worked. I wasn’t fighting anything.  But I can tell you I did frustrate a lot of people.  I was not happy about the way First Wives Club was handled. The other girls were saying ‘You talk, you talk.’” 
     That’s interesting. Midler and Keating are both strong, intelligent women. “I’m more confronting. Bette hadn’t done a movie in a long time and Diane is smart as a whip but she’s just not confrontational.  I had the mouth so I could articulate what was wrong.  Also we were given a script that they guy who was supposed to write it hadn’t written. They had switched to somebody else and I had to say wait a minute. We have script approval. It’s not unusual for movies to have a bumpy start but getting back to whose voice is the loudest, it’s just the voice that says ‘I’m not going to do this.’ That’s when that person becomes powerful.”
     Doesn’t that person get mocked and made to feel like a Prima Donna? “Yes and then that person says fine, I’m not angry but when you breach the contract you breach the contract. And they end up having to listen.” But then they’re not in a hurry to employ that person again.  “That’s a different story. You could be absolutely blacklisted. I could have been, but I can look at that movie and feel extremely proud that I used my voice.”
     And that women are now allowed to be funny. Warily she says, “I think more women are funny, yes…” In the past women weren’t allowed to get the biggest laughs. “That’s right.” Especially not pretty women.  “Right.” Because men don’t want to laugh at you if they want to fuck you.” Exactly.  A funny woman is not sexy to most men.” But not anymore. That is changing.” But you have been allowed to be funny and beautiful.” Oh thanks honey. The beautiful part is appreciated but I never thought that about myself.  And Amy too. Neither of us felt we had that pretty thing. We both grew up doubting ourselves.”  This I find textbook shocking. Goldie Hawn in Private Benjamin/Shampoo period is unmistakeably gorgeous and the first thing I noticed when I came into the room were those eyes.  So much deeper and more soulful in person.  “I don’t know about that but I do know there’s no such thing as a sexy clown. But I like the idea that there has been a paving of the way for more women to get out there and produce movies.”
     With Hawn the power is all on the inside, the unexpected.  She’s always liked to eat healthily, green tea, green juice, almond butter, vitamin Q10, baby aspirin and some weeks she works out every day, but it’s not as superficial as you might think. It’s not about being thin or beautiful anymore. It’s about being in control of her own body and her own mind. “But some days I’ll have wine.  I’m allowed. I write my journal when I feel I’m meant to.  It’s a wonderful way of resolving something.  You write it and you expel it.”  
     And then the phone rings with its Buddhist chimes. She doesn’t pick it up but the chime itself seems a fitting enough end to our meeting. It’s like the end of a massage when the chimes say you’re calm now, the tension has expelled and that’s what my meeting with Goldie was like – a massage.

Michelle Williams (Sunday Times Magazine, February 19, 2017)

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams, Sunday Times Magazine, February 2017

Michelle Williams arrives at the restaurant.  Her ultra-blonde boyish cropped hair strangely seems to make her look uber-feminine.  She’s straight off a seven hour flight from New York to Los Angeles – and I mean straight.  No make-up whatsoever, her skin has a luminosity that captures the whole room. Even the hip LA crowd can’t help but gawp.  There was a time when she minded this.  She minded it quite a lot.  There was a time where she was hounded and hunted by paparazzi with giant lenses wanting to get a glimpse of her pain when her ex but much loved boyfriend and father of their daughter Matilda, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose in January 2008.  She’s wearing a denim jacket and a loose boho dress.  Waif like, sure but even in her somewhat ordinary outfit and big bulging flight back there’s something about her.  We hug hello. I’ve met her only once before but I feel that I want to.  I love a Michelle Williams performance. Something about it stays with you long after the movie.  She has flown to LA for the weekend of the SAG awards where she is nominated best supporting actress in Manchester by the Sea.
Her performance in Manchester is extraordinary.  Not much screen time – it’s been estimated at only ten minutes –  she manages to pack in a lifetime of emotions, grief, despair, loss, survival all into her character Randi: a woman whose husband was drunk (Casey Affleck) and accidentally set the house on fire, causing the death of their three children.  What she brings to this part is her real life experience of loss that she was ready to confront and cauterise into her art for the very first time.  Affleck said she told him that this was the part she wanted to leave as a record of herself for her daughter.  She snuggles into the booth “I spent a lot of time preparing for it and I tried to squeeze a lot into those scenes.”
Sometimes her big bambi eyes look right at you, unafraid.  Sometimes she closes her eyes while she’s thinking without any self-consciousness.
“I figured in my imagination over the years how much I wanted to work for (director) Kenny Lonergan (Margaret, Analyze This).  While I was preparing for this I wasn’t doing anything else so I had time to spare.  I spent hours and hours. It was my obsession, my daydream.  You know you spend so much time waiting in lines, getting something fixed or cooking a simple recipe and SHE was what I thought about ALL of the time.  I never treated it like a small part.”
And in this sense it wasn’t.  Her characters’ presence was the essence of what Manchester was about – loss and how to survive it.  She invaded every screen moment by not actually being there.   “I like to spend as much time as possible before a project just easing myself in.”  Because she wants to get it perfect or because she feels that she need to work so hard? She is after all one of those all thinking, all analysing Virgos.  “I think research is helpful and it bears fruit, even in the most circuitous parts you take. I think it’s a way to work through anxiety.  It’s also the only way I know how to construct a character.”  Does she think it was kind of therapy to live out someone’s grief onscreen rather than her own private grief? “I never look at it like that.  I look like how can I be of service to this character.  Kenny wrote a character who was very different to me so it was interesting to find out more about her, not about myself.”  But in so doing does that make her feel more or less of who she is? “It has nothing to do with me.  I don’t think I understand myself through exploration of these characters. I use my life to understand myself better.  My work is to understand other people.”
Of course it is.  Williams is not a narcissist in any way. She’s all about other people.  For instance, she’s worried how I felt waiting in a restaurant for her on my own, not about her eight hour plane ride and how she fell asleep with her neck in a funny position and now it hurts.  She mentions it only when I notice she is cocking her head to one side unconsciously.  Partly I’ll admit it.  I have a girl crush on Michelle Williams and party because she’s the kind of girl who’s smart and funny and I think anyone would want as a girlfriend.   Talking to her is easy.  When we talk about risks she’s fascinated by the risks I have taken in life that she hasn’t.  “I never want to go above the speed limit, that’s true, but obviously I’ve taken some risks in my life.  I try to keep things simple, be at home a lot and only take the risks when I work.  I knew there was a lot riding on my scenes in Manchester.  Those scenes feel very loaded.” Was that what drew her to the movie? “I hadn’t worked in a very long time on a movie. And what drew me into it was the writing. It was Kenny.  He was on my bucket list. Before I die it would be my dream to work with him.   I like the feeling in life when you see circles close.”
She’s not very hungry but she doesn’t want me to eat alone.  We order salad even though I see a box of supermarket salad in her bag, which she’d intended to eat on the plane but didn’t.  It was a huge risk for her to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 2014 and then return to Broadway for Blackbird in 2015, singing on stage, certainly one of those work risks that paid off.  It was also designed to keep her close to home and Matilda.  It’s been an interesting and continuous transformation for her.
We next see her on screen in Kelly Rheichardt’s Certain Women.  She worked with Rheichardt before (Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff) and has always been attracted to her poetic film making skills.  Williams is a big poetry fan.  When she wakes up she doesn’t go on Instagram or Twitter, she reads a poem.  She likes the idea of a lot happening in a short space of time.  And she likes to constantly challenge her intellect.  Perhaps that’s something to do with leaving school at fifteen to come to LA to act before eventually ending up in the long running television series Dawson’s Creek. Her best friend form that show, Busy Williams, calls her now. She talks to her excitedly and says it’s the best part of coming to LA for awards.  She gets to hang out with her friend.
Williams turns down wine.  I ask her is that because she wants to look non bloated in her dress at the event? (And what a dress it turns out to be.  Who knew sequins could look so cool).  “Usually I’m a partaker of alcohol but I feel like I have more energy and it’s easier to get up in the morning and be bright eyed and bushy tailed without it.  It’s also nice to have inhalation and exhalation.
There’s a few different ways to take care of yourself and sometimes it means indulging your desires and sometimes it means the opposite.  I’m usually an indulger because I find it’s so comforting when life is stressful.  Sometimes I think I’m going to take care of myself by letting myself have what I want, but recently I’ve been working with the idea that taking care of myself would be to give myself things that are healthy for myself,” she laughs, as if to imply she’s not been very good at it.
Certain Woman is based on the short stories of Maile Meloy.  It’s three interwoven, loosely connected tales and Williams plays a wife and mother who wants to build a new home and keep things really authentic with natural sandstone but she’s less authentic on the inside.  It’s the kind of ambiguous character that Williams thrives on.  Also Certain Women is set in Montana, but for Williams it wasn’t just about the awe inspiring, bleak landscape and the vintage trucks.  It was her childhood.  She lived there until she was eight. “I have very, very, very happy memories.  The happiest.  I really loved being a kid there – lots of space and freedom.”  Thereafter the family moved to San Diego.  Michelle’s home maker mother, brother, sisters and father who had his own commodity trading business ran for Senate as a Republican twice and lost.  “It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen hears which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go.”
At fifteen she got a legal emancipation from her parents.  The primary reason was so she could work unrestricted hours as an actress in Los Angeles but there is sense of fracture.  Her need to be alone yet she admits to being terribly lonely and that she had no idea how to look after herself, even by her Dawson’s Creek days.  “I’d eat McDonald’s as a matter of course – cheeseburger, fries and I’d order two pizzas.  One for dinner and one for breakfast with orange juice.  I didn’t go to the dentist for ten years.  I was a kid.  I didn’t know going to the dentist was a real thing.  I thought it was a scam.  I had so many other things to take care of I wasn’t thinking about my teeth and then they started to hurt.”
We share experiences of dental trauma.  “I am so dentist phobic I cry as soon as I sit on the chair.  I found a dentist who gives you gas so you’re completely and totally out of it and you have no idea what’s going on. You get sleepy, warm and cosy.  You should do it.”  She’s worried that I have PTSD from a barbaric visit to the dentist when I was six.  At this point we discover how delicious the flat bread is. “Surely it must have been fried.”  We pluck bits off it so that it looks like a man with a beard and then we pluck off another bit and it looks like a bird with a beak.
“I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Montana is.  It’s truly majestic and felt like home.  Of course I admire Kelly so much as a film maker.  I always want to surprise her and come up with things that she might not have expected.  But ultimately Kelly has a very clear picture in her head and I’m just trying to understand what it is so that I can give it to her.”  Her character in Certain Women is not very likeable.  “I don’t care at all if people like me as a character because that’s real love.  Real love is when you accept the totality of someone – when you see their darkness and their lightness.  Real love is saying I see you for you and I still love you.  I guess that’s what I’m still looking for.”  In this instance the words are so resonant I’m not sure if she’s talking about a character or herself.  Her intelligence is fierce and I think she enjoys a little ambiguity.  “When you don’t pin something down directly it opens up to so many interpretations.”
Williams strikes me as a woman who can love fiercely and deeply. She has been romantically linked to Spike Jonze, Jason Segal and Jonathan Safran Foer.   And while she’s happy to talk about what love means, the concept of love, she doesn’t want to talk about these individuals.  You can see it’s a conflict for her.  She rarely gives interviews and she wants to give her all in every moment in everything she does but she has learnt there has to be boundaries.  After Heath Ledger’s death she almost gave up acting all together, then she realised it was just the attention she didn’t like.  It was a double loss for her.  She lost him when the relationship ended and then he died and she lost him all over again.  They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain which she has described as “a very charmed time in my life.” They both got Oscar nominations.  They fell in love, she fell pregnant.   The paparazzi were fascinated by this couple because of its normalcy.  They went out to breakfast with their Stroller to local diners in Brooklyn, their kid cuddling giant stuffed animals in her McLaren buggy.  It seemed real, grounded and like it would go on forever.
In a statement shortly after his death she said, “My heart is broken.  I am the mother of the most tender hearted, high spirited little girl who is the spitting image of her father, all that I can cling to is the presence inside her that reveals itself every day.  She will be brought up with the best memories of him.”
She’s checking her phone to see how her daughter is.  “She’s with friends.  Everything is OK. OK. She’s eleven so we’re not quite pre-teens yet.  She’s just a kid right now.”  So what is she like? Do you think she’ll want to act?  She has the genes. There’s a pause and Williams is thinking.  She’s very careful what she says about her daughter because there was a time when “men and women in suits were cashing cheques off my daughters face.”  There were also other horrible moment where a little girl at Starbucks approached Matilda and asked her what it was like to be famous because she had a daddy who died like Michael Jackson.
“She’s not looking to declare herself.  She’s really still a little girl.” Williams was ready to declare herself as a kid but maybe Williams was never a kid.  She’s told me before that she thinks we have many ages within us all the time.  She strikes me as someone who is both young for her age and old.
She knew growing up that she wanted to be away from San Diego.  Acting wasn’t always her passion.  She wanted to box.  “I wanted to be a boxer.  I think that was kind of sad because at the time I didn’t distinguish between sexes and weight categories. I was going to go out there and fight the champ Mike Tyson.  I was a big fan of his growing up and I wanted to be against someone really tough.”
“Matilda has all kinds of hobbies and passions. I don’t want to make a strong statement on her behalf in one direction or another.”
Her daughter is the reason that most of her projects have remained on the East coast.  She lives in Brooklyn and has another place in upstate New York. “We have stayed home.   I haven’t made a movie that has taken us on the road for five years.  I’ve been doing plays and small parts in movies.  For Manchester I would just go to Boston for little day trips and for Certain Women it was shot over the Spring break so she came with me.”
It’s extraordinary to think that Williams has garnered so much critical adulation and awards nominations over the last five years and has rarely been far away from home.  That requires extraordinary juggling skills.  She was Oscar nominated for Blue Valentine in 2011 in which she starred with Ryan Gosling – a relationship that went from happy passion to toxic chaos – and again for playing Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn. Certainly she must have identified with the much loved tragic heroine.  For Marilyn she would go to sleep watching her movies.  “Like when you’re a kid and you put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it via osmosis.”
Williams is a pretty powerful sponge.  Even jetlagged and exhausted she seems able to absorb everything.  It’s not long before she is dissecting my love life and is giving me advice.  At the moment she’s working in Brooklyn again on a movie called The Greatest Showman in which she plays Charity, the wife of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman.  It’s a musical.  She says, “Have you ever interviewed Hugh Jackman?  I love that man.” I tell her we sang during the interview – An Englishman in New York, except I can’t really sing.  “But I bet he made you feel good about it.”  Apparently Jackman made Williams feel good about her singing because her next role is playing Janis Joplin.  “Nothing like a challenge. It’s gonna get me going,” she says, pulling a scared face.”
Her desire to challenge herself with singing happened when she sang in Blackbird on stage.  “I fell in love with singing and now I just want to sing.  I find it terrifying too but once you do it it’s not like the dentist – it’s kind of fun. Don’t you ever sing to yourself in the shower and it kind of makes you feel good?” No, sadly not.  “OK what about dancing? There are just certain things that make me feel I’m a kid, that make me feel I’m a little bit free and a little bit unbound and I love it.  “I dance with Hugh Jackman.”
I tell her my parents were champion ballroom dancers.  Her eyes open wide. “Were they really in love?” Only when they were dancing.  “Dancers always look so in sync with one another.  There’s so much communication that happens when you dance.”  Then she looks sad for me.  “And you never felt the rhythm?” No, not at all.
I want to talk about her family, not mine.  “I have an older brother, two older sisters and a little sister who just had a baby.  My parents are divorced, each doing their own thing in different places.”  Were you more like one parent than another or an alien?  “Nobody in my family ever acted or wanted to act.  My mum sings though. She has a lovely voice and her dream when she was growing up was to play the cello on the Lawrence Welk show, so I like to think in some small way, me singing and dancing with Hugh Jackman is giving her something she missed out on.”  And her father, what does he do now?  There’s a sticky pause for the first time.  “I really don’t know,” she says and shakes her head and she shakes it a second longer to be emphatic in a quiet way.  You can see there’s something painful that went on before but the ‘I don’t know’ is as far as she takes me.
This is a woman who has turned her vulnerability inside out to survive it.  A woman who was on her own in Los Angeles when she was fifteen.  It’s a place of broken dreams and nasty egos.  She must have felt alone, lonely and then of course there’s her more public loss of the partner, months after they had split up.  And if that loss itself didn’t tear her down, being hounded by the paps almost did.  “If you’re never left alone to live your life, you don’t feel alive.”
Anyone else I might push a little harder to find out what went on with her dad, but Williams feels everything so sharply and it feels cruel. Instead she spies me looking at her big plane bag, stuffed to the brim.  “I bought this book of poetry with me.  I’m very excited. It’s one hundred poems. I truly love them.  When I don’t have time to pick up a novel or I’m doing other things I can dip into a poem. I always have time to read a poem – that’s what I tell myself and I get an email from Poem a Day that I subscribe to. Does she ever feel like writing poetry? “No. I’ve read enough to know that I’m not capable of writing one.  Where would I start?”
One gets the impression that Williams could tackle anything.  I like the metaphor of this waif like creature wanting to be a boxer.  She’s ready to fight for anything.  She’s ready to plunge into something that terrifies her, like a biopic of Janis Joplin.  “It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m thrilled.
“I do like to fight. Not with people but for things that I want.  I really enjoy the experience of wanting something and crossing the distance to get it.  I don’t want a lot of things but the things that I do want burn me up inside and I get very excited about trying to reach them.  I wanted to play Janis badly and I reached for it.”
“I don’t mean I want objects.  I want experiences and people.  It’s nice to want something and think about what you could do to pull that thing closer to you.”  She’s a dazzling presence, this waif like creature that seems such a fighter and very far away from that time where she felt it was hard to be alive because she was being watched all the time. “That was hard. You feel self-conscious.  You don’t want to jump outside the box.  You don’t want to embarrass yourself. You don’t want to make a bold move.  You just want to spend your life staring at your feet so people can’t catch your eyes.  Not a nice way to live.”  Especially not if you’re already sad.  “Yes.” She closes her eyes again as if to remember the pain so she can digest it, expel it.
How did she get out of that? “We moved outside of the city.”  There’s a little pain when she says the words and I recall an article in a glossy where she talks about when she had to move and she worried “How would he find us?” meaning Ledger.  It wasn’t an easy move but it was a move that was needed. And now they have another place in Brooklyn in a different area. “We don’t get hassled in the same way. It’s really quite manageable.” How did she succeed in getting it to be manageable? “I really try not to attach any feelings to a state of being, not success or failure.  So when somebody says I’ve succeeded I don’t hang onto it because I know that life is long and things are bumpy and when somebody says I’ve failed I don’t hang onto that either.  I try to let things bounce off me so I don’t become locked in one identity.  I’m too afraid to let things go and be comfortable. It’s a fact of life.  Everything goes up and down.”
Wise, heartfelt, vulnerable, strong.  And off she goes to bed with her book of poems.

Shirley MacLaine

There’s no entourage, no publicist, no hotel suite, just Shirley Maclaine sweeping in to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica with a big floaty scarf and lots of turquoise and diamond jewellery. Her greeting is a stare with the big twinkly spidery eyes. She exudes an aura that is powerful, certain, and a look and sharpness that can be instantly withering.
We can’t find a place to sit where our conversation is not drowned by a trumpet playing band so we go to the restaurant where everybody is extremely old school charming to her. It seems she’s well known in there. Well enough so that when she asks for cappuccino and an extra cup of just foam it arrives fast and fluffy, no questions asked.
The last time I met her she’d been wearing a wig, a good wig, but nonetheless a wig. This time it’s her own hair styled in the pixie cut that fell so beautifully into place in her Bob Fosse 1950s dancing days. Her skin looks plumped up and smooth. She had a face lift when she was around 50. The rest of the face lines have settled in around it amicably. She’s now 76 (77 April 24).
“My skin’s always been good, but I’m old now and I’m gaining weight and I hate it.” In her latest book I’m Over All That gaining weight is one of the things she’s not over. Dressing up, paying attention to fashion, scheming for film roles, feeling anger at world leaders, caring what people think of her and high heels are all part of the stuff she is completely over. Along with being polite to boring people. God forbid she thinks you’re boring. She would have no time at all, and no problem simply “meditating” right there and then or perhaps she means falling asleep.
Today though she’s very awake, very alive and animated. The voice in her book is always sure of itself; occasionally cruel, always brutal in its honesty. In the book she talks about having loved her ride and appreciating relinquishing the reins. In person though there’s none of that aching nostalgia and feeling that it’s the time to grow old and invisible.
Her book is a mixture of Hollywood gossip, sex on set, tales of Elizabeth Taylor sparking in diamonds and crying into champagne, and other such manipulations. Plane rides on Frank Sinatra’s private plane where there’d be fights with jelly beans.
Her relationships with world leaders, Pierre Trudeau, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The night she spent in a suite that had been rented for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and when she was sleeping a man entered and climbed into bed with her. She had no idea who he was so she rolled on the floor away from him. It happened repeatedly the same night so she didn’t know if it was one persistent man or several.
Alarming revelations are tucked in between her thoughts on religion, nature, UFOs, reincarnation, fame and ageing. She doesn’t pine for the good old days. She sets them out quite brittlely, fragmented, as if they happened to someone else. Understandably she talks a lot about getting older and fatter.
“I’m not talking vanity. It’s health wise. I don’t want to buy more clothes that are bigger. I’ve been putting together a live show because I miss the live audience. It’s a retrospective of my stuff, not just the acting but the dancing, footage from my shows and television specials. I’ve been cutting it all together and that’s what’s got me in this frame of mind. I am looking back. Look at those legs.”
When you look back at the young Maclaine she was super alluring, but not in an overt way. She had a dancer’s body and a distinctive haircut that made her look like she wasn’t trying and didn’t care. Think Sweet Charity, Can Can, The Apartment.
Did she think of herself then as sexy? “No, never, never, never. I’m a dancer. You have to be a team player and never think of yourself as a diva. And that’s held me in pretty good stead. I’m easy to work with except I’m very disciplined and I want efficiency.
“I should be doing my yoga but I can’t any more, I’ve a spine problem. Really I should pay attention to my posture.” She rises up theatrically in her chair. “I got the bad back from wearing heels and dancing in them. The things that seemed so important don’t matter now.”
I mentioned that I saw Annette Bening, her sister-in-law, at a party and she was carrying her Louboutins. “Yes, she and I talk about how hard it is to wear high heels all the time.” Does she see much of her brother, Warren Beatty. “Sure… he’s very complicated. We’re friendly. They’ve got four kids. We interact. I love Annette.”
Wasn’t there a time when she wasn’t close to her brother? “Oh yes. You know, families go in and out, up and down, I can’t remember when, just like all families.”
Annette is very thin, isn’t she. “Don’t you wish you could be like that, that thin?” I stop thinking about the fried calamari appetizer instantly. Maclaine doesn’t mean to be insulting. That’s just her way. She continues, “To do that you don’t eat much.”
She shows me her Louis heels. The highest she goes these days is a couple of inches.
In her back there’s a chapter: I’m Not Over Vanity, But I’m Trying. She talks about her body a lot. Perhaps because she grew up in the kind of Hollywood that created body fascism. Was it as harsh for actresses to be in shape then as now?
“Probably worse, because it was studio time. On the set of Trouble With Harry (1955), her first movie, Hitchcock wanted me to eat every meal with him. So I put on 10lbs in the first week.”
When she was an actress on Broadway she lived off her own lemonade made at cafes with quarters of lemon and sugar that were on the table, and peanut butter sandwiches. So obviously going from that to the multi-course Hitchcockian meal might add a couple of inches.
“The head of the studio called me in and said ‘What are you doing? We are trying to cut the scenes and you are a different person’. I had gone up to 136lbs. when you are under contract they did that because they owned you they thought, but I wasn’t owned. I didn’t stop eating for the rest of the picture. I said now I’ll have to keep eating so that I would match.”
Does she think Hitchcock had an eating disorder? “”Doh. Just look at him. He had trouble with food. He would lose 20lbs before a shoot. He knew the food would be catered by who he specifically asked to cater it and he would just eat his way through the film. It was very fine good food.”
She says with admiration, “Marlene Dietrich ate only every other day. She taught me how to put a very fine gold chain under your chin to keep it lifted.”
Maclaine talks about her own facelift and when she came home with stitches in her face she couldn’t have energetic sex. “That’s when I got into gentle sex, gentle orgasms.” She’s laughing a big dirty laugh. “Some deep emotions called don’t pop my stitches.”
Who was your lover at the time? “Oh he was very respectful, but no names babe. He’s gay now. Such a lot of people are bisexual.”
After talking about the gurgling gentle orgasm she says that she didn’t love sex so much unless she was emotionally involved. ” It wasn’t that interesting to me. I could never do it unless I was emotionally interested.”
What’s more interesting is how she stayed emotionally interested. Throughout most of her sex life she was married to a film producer turned businessman, Steve Parker, twelve years her senior. For most of that time he lived in Japan with their daughter Sachi. They divorced in 1987.
While married she had passionate, tumultuous affairs. None of which lasted for more than three years. Thus the marriage itself provided both the freedom and the barrier, the protection if you like. “It was an open marriage. A very open marriage.”
It went on for 28 years while she had what she calls “serial monogamous relationships” with many others including Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand, Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
“Being married was a protection not to marry again. If I had been single then it would have been discussed with the people I was with and I really don’t agree with marriage. It’s not something I would do.”
When you she married in the first place did she think differently? “No, I felt the same way. That’s why it was an open marriage. I was 19. He was my helpmate, my friend, my counselor. When I came to California from the east he was there, so I didn’t go into the world of Hollywood single.”
Somehow not being single in Hollywood was important to her. It’s as if she were in some way vulnerable or prey. Maybe on a very basic level she feared losing herself. Her parents Kathlyn Beatty, a drama teacher, and her father Ira, philosophy teacher turned juvenile detention officer and heavy drinker, had a claustrophobic and dysfunctional marriage.
In her book she tries to explain the contradiction. “What was I doing with all my hormones and attractions and longings when I always felt so strongly the need for freedom. Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was already married and I stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.
“My husband and I had a liberal arrangement regarding each others’ lovers. We were friends. We stayed married so we wouldn’t be tempted to marry again. I don’t understand the need for the institution and I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise just because my love hormones were raging at the time.”
Why did she divorce from Parker? I read it was about money. “I thought that it was, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want anything. But by the time we separated it was really just over.”
For a long time though if other lovers “got serious with me about divorcing Steven and marrying me, that was not good. All of them did that, and that probably took three years. That was their cycle. When you start looking back you see your behavior patterns and you realize you unconsciously conducted yourself to give them three years.”
Does she not think she should have given them any more than that? “Huh. To do what? I don’t think so. You can’t really control or not whether you have freedom from emotional intensity. It’s just a rhythm. I was kind of shocked myself. How do people do it for 25 years? I guess I did it one year for the body, one for the mind, and one for the spirit. It started with the body, then the mind, then the spirit, then it was done. Ha.” Loud dirty laugh.
What about the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was assassinated in February 1986? “We had broken up but we made arrangements to get back together, then he died.” You were about to break the three year rule? “No, it had been two and I thought we could add another year. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant leader. He didn’t believe in any of the stuff I believed in. we didn’t argue but he thought it was ridiculous. I liked his intelligence. Very left wing intellectuals always interest me. And they are always the most suspicious of my metaphysics. He was planning to come to New York and hoping to be Secretary General of the UN.” It must have been terrible when he was killed? “It really was. I talked to him a week before he died. We were planning on seeing each other. He was an extraordinary person. Not good looking. Not a big man, which I usually like.” We get very very sad talking about it.
Robert Mitchum was a big man. “Robert Mitchum was so complicated. My dad was complicated. And I like complicated men. But he was not exactly like my dad. He was very intelligent. He was intense, he was light, he was funny, he was impossible. Interesting to me. Good ground to plough. So much was under there.”
Did she ever get to the core of him? “Mmm, maybe. No, I would have got bored if I got to the core. Once you’ve got to the core what’s the point of ploughing anyway. I wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship, I never have.”
She speaks with sparkly-eyed fondness for Danny Kaye who came to visit her on set in Paris and flew her to New York and cooked her Chinese food. “He was a great pilot. He used to take me to dinner all over the place, not just across the Atlantic. If he wanted a steak he would fly me to Texas. He was a fabulous cook. That was three years. I can’t remember how that ended, but there was someone right after him. I think we’re all kind of cyclical. We have a rhythm and three years was mine.”
There’s an absence of sentiment and nostalgia in the way she speaks. It’s all very matter of fact. Perhaps that’s why her most intense love relationship now is with her dog, a rat terrier called Terry. Her eyes fill as she speaks of her love for her. She seems utterly contented. Certainly not lonely for any man. She chats on about her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives most of the time. Laughing with good friends and coming home to watch DVDs in bed with Terry.
She’s working on her one woman show – An Evening With Shirley Maclaine – and has a new movie out, Bernie, with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey “I play a woman who’s a real bitch. She’s very wealthy and everybody hates her. I love playing those parts.
“Jack plays the head of an undertaking firm. We have a relationship and I become very possessive. I make life impossible for him so he shoots me and puts me in the freezer under the frozen peas.
“I’ve got other things coming up but I don’t know if I’m going to talk about them yet.” That’s great I say. A lot of people when they reach a certain age and they’re not leading ladies any more they find that difficult. You know how that goes? “No, I don’t know how that goes.”
Did she never find it difficult to reach a certain age and get offered different sort of parts and then get offered less parts? Did she never reach a point where she felt invisible? “No,” she says loudly and defiantly. I’m not sure if she’s going to snarl at me, but then she just laughs. Moods and shapes shift with her pretty quickly. One minute she’s laughing with you cozily, the next looking at you as if you’re something on the sole of her shoe. And then she’ll do that just kidding face and we’re laughing again.
Her book swoops like that too. From serious to angry, political and metaphysical, to Hollywood insider. And she manages to talk about people with love and disdain at the same time and in equal measure. Such as how Elizabeth Taylor got diamonds to go on a lunch date. You’re not sure if she’s talking in awe or contempt. Or both. Although she says she loves Elizabeth Taylor.
Did she herself get diamonds? “Sure, I got bribes to get married. No names. I said no, but I did not give the diamonds back. They’re in the bank. They may come in handy if I want to get more water rights.”
In the book there’s a chapter called I’m Not Over Making Money. “I think it’s going to cost money for what’s coming up. I want to make a huge garden. I want to collect rainwater. Solar is expensive. Who knows who else might need help. That sort of thing.”
She has always been unafraid to speak her mind. A lot of actresses are driven by insecurity. But not her. She says that she’s never manipulated to get a part.”
“I’ve given up more parts than I’ve been afraid of losing. If an actress called me and I was up for a part but they were so in need of that part it meant everything. To me it meant something, but not that much. I’m basically not competitive. I like the idea of playing a part that required a lot of thought, so there were parts that I wanted because they were interesting.”
What were the ones you gave away? “Oh, I should have played Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More but Ellen wanted it so much. I should have played Breakfast At Tiffany, but I gave that up because of Audrey. I didn’t take these things seriously.”
Why didn’t you take Breakfast At Tiffany? Because you didn’t want to be a hooker? “Oh no. I went and did something called Two Loves with Laurence Harvey. Some terrible thing that three people saw. I liked the script. It was about a teacher in New Zealand working with Maoris.”
You got to go to New Zealand? “No, we filmed it in the studio. I thought that Breakfast At Tiffany was too souffleish. The Apartment started with 29 pages. I just liked the idea of working with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, neither did he. He wrote it based on the chemistry Jack and I had on set. It didn’t seem amazing at the time. We didn’t know anything when we started. When the first review came out it said they don’t know if they’re making a comedy or a drama.
“After the first screening Marilyn Monroe was standing outside the screening room wearing a gorgeous fur coat and leaning up against the wall. I walked up to her and she walked up to me and she opened her coat and she had absolutely nothing on and told me, ‘You were wonderful.'”
Why does she think she did that? “Well, she didn’t get along with Billy Wilder.”
So she did it to punish him? “Probably. Isn’t that interesting.”
Such a punishment. The first screening of a brilliant movie ends and there’s no attention for Wilder or MacLaine or Lemmon, it becomes not about The Apartment but about Marilyn. “Yes, it really tore up the whole place. I don’t know what that was about. He was awful with her and she was with him. That was not a good relationship.”
What was it about their chemistry? “She couldn’t act. I got along with him. He was very autocratic. He was Austrian. You don’t tell Billy Wilder his script isn’t right. I feel he always needed a strong woman character in his pictures. When he started doing them without it just didn’t have the tension.
“He used to have this editor, Dylan Harrison, and he’d see the dailies and say ‘Billy, you’ve got to shoot the whole day over because you didn’t break my heart’. With men only he didn’t break hearts. Dylan died after our last picture. Dylan was the real Billy Wilder. Without him he was too harsh. He hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes I minded it. I tended to dig my foot in – let me do this, let me do such and such. But after a while with him it’s the law of diminishing returns.
That’s what happened with Marilyn. She couldn’t remember dialogue and he’d be very harsh and she’d forget more. Although I didn’t know Marilyn, that was the only time I saw her and I saw all of her.
“There was one other time when she was doing Something’s Got To Give. She had lost weight and got into shape, but she was doing her number which was not showing up on time and Fox called me to replace her and I said ‘No, I’m in the same union as she is’ and then she died.”
Well that would have been weird to replace her. “Well, it all happened before the picture got started. They did tests. Of her in a swimming pool and Dean was cast in it. I’m not sure if they ever did the picture with anyone else. Maybe it was not made.” (It wasn’t. Marilyn was sacked from the film. She was rehired, but then died).
Her voice and entire body language softens when she talks about Dean Martin. He was never neatly packaged into a three year cycle. Martin was the one man she couldn’t get. “I had a crush on Dean. He was the funniest. His imagination was funny. His brain, I’m not so sure.
“Frank wasn’t funny. Frank would get extremely autocratic. He could and would run the show in every which way, and he didn’t want to work hard.”
MacLaine became a non-sexual mascot for the Rat Pack. One of the boys. “I never had a thing with Frank or Dean or Sammy or Joey Bishop, but I couldn’t have an affair with someone if I was hanging out with them if I wanted to. I was the one they protected, like I was their mascot daughter.”
She says that they didn’t even drink very much. “It was all a show. It was like an adult kindergarten. I was one of the boys. We all played together. But I would always clean up the trashed room.”
It’s the only moment in my whole time with her where she seems uncertain of her role, of who she is. One of the boys? Or caretaker, love object?
She talks in her book of an unrequited longing for Martin and once she even went round to his house to tell him how she felt. But his wife and kids were there and she ended up playing with the kids and had a kiss on the cheek goodnight. And the unspoken sweetness continued. Probably it meant more to her that way.
Does she ever wonder what would have happened if she’d had the affair with Martin? “No,” she says sharply. Does she ever think that about anyone? “No.” She doesn’t fill the silence. There’s nothing unrequited or lonely in your life? “No. I’d had enough. Come on. I’m nearly 77, I’m not interested in that any more…” Then there’s another pause, and a softening. “I mean if something came along.”
She smiles a crooked smile. Hard to tell if she’s serious. “I’m very content. I’m very busy and creative. I have a wonderful life. I have a lovely home in New Mexico. I come to LA and I go to New York and I have wonderful times.
“I think with someone who is as independent as me I don’t think men are all that interested. Unless a man has got a control trip going on, but I’d see that right away. This subject is boring,” she announces.
I wonder if it’s all been about her strong desire never to be controlled. Before I can formulate another question I can see she’s moved on.
She doesn’t mean to be offensive. In fact she’s very charming when she wants to be. She just wants to speak exactly what’s on her mind.
It’s getting dark in the Shutters restaurant and her twinkly eyes squint to see what’s written on my notepad. She orders more foam for her cappuccino. The waiter goes off and brings back a cup of pure foam like a cloud.
How close is she to her daughter? “You know, she’s 53, she’s doing her own thing. She’s doing a little theatre. She’d like to do more. I’m close with my grandkids. They live back east so I have to wait till they’re here.”
For most of the time when her daughter was growing up she lived in Japan with her father. It was deemed a healthier environment than Hollywood and dragging her from film set to film set. But there were long gaps in communication. Does she try to make up for lost time? “Yes, we try to, but she has her own life. She wants to be on her own. She’s going through a divorce now and I don’t want to talk about it.”
As if by magic at that moment Antonio Banderas, looking super svelte, and Melanie Griffiths, looking super baby-faced, appear to meet with her. Although it felt like me and MacLaine could have talked for hours, I realise with the arrival of this Hollywood couple she is in her true element. This is her Hollywood life and I have merely been a guest. I hope that we’ll meet again in this life or another.

 

 

Nuns Aloud

Last year Decca Records asked me to help them on their search to find a supergroup of singing nuns. I’m not really sure what qualified me for that particular job – perhaps because I got on very well with a group of Austrian monks who sang Gregorian chant and sold over a million records worldwide.
I was tortured by nuns at convent school and I’ve always had a fascination with them; a lifelong quest to find a different experience. Plus, who isn’t fascinated by a woman who has given up every essence of herself for God and lives in such an extreme way, cloistered in a habit among her sisters?
The search was long and fascinating and it answered my questions. Are nuns authoratitive and frightening? Or are they beatific and enlightening? Each community is startlingly different.
It took in over 70 convents in 15 countries (including Ireland, Spain, Wales, USA). The first thing we learnt was that nuns are extremely difficult to get hold of because their lives don’t revolve around everyday deadlines, and a lucrative recording contract seemed not to be of great importance.
First off we visited a remote order of Benedectines at Abbaye Notre Dame de L’Annonciation du Barroux in Provence. They are a cloistered order and may never leave their stone abbey. They are very traditional and we had to talk to them and photograph them behind a grille. No close-up photos allowed. It’s about the group, not the individual.
Also with us in front of the grille were the nuns lawyers hoping to sign an immediate contract. The Mother Abbess had a commanding presence. Immediately fascinating that this authoratitive woman would give a vow of obedience. She said, “It’s a paradox; obedience is freedom.”
The sisters range in age from 19 to 88 and they all have beautiful skin. Their sound is pristine and pure. I could tell that Tom Lewis and Oliver Harrop, A&R for Decca Records, felt that these were the perfect nuns.
My perfect nuns were in Wales – Poor Clare Colettines at Ty Mam Duw, Hawarden, north east Wales. They write their own songs, channelled from the source. There are 14 of them. They wear brown habits, are vegetarian and don’t wear shoes. They too are an enclosed order behind wooden bars, but from the minute I met them I felt no boundary.
Sister Juliana in particular draws you right in when she speaks. Although she is 55 and hasn’t heard any contemporary pop songs, the songs seem very of the moment. Mother Damien explains, “If you live a life in prayer you are never far from the world. God keeps you modern.” Their songs do not have the cool detached ambience of the French nuns who are pure Gregorian chant. The Poor Clare’s songs are intriguing, inviting and have wonderful lyrics. The sisters here write poetry and draw.
This community all had an interesting past before they joined. Some of them were not even Catholics. Sister Juliana’s conversion came when she was working for her gap year in a hostel for the homeless in Notting Hill, London. “A few houses down there was an old prostitute. Her name was Ruby. She was very ill, very drunk and very maudlin. She seized my hand and said ‘Pray for me.’ She taught me the rosary. After that I didn’t want to go on to university. I felt life was more urgent.”
I love them because they are as much of this world as separated from it. They talk inspiringly about the power of prayer. They get up at midnight for the first prayer of the day. Recently it’s been the feast of Saint Colette who you pray to if you want to have a baby. They’ve had many emails saying prayers worked better than IVF.
Their latest song Mother of Millions is inspired partly by this and partly by an underground Catholic leader, Bishop Julius Jia Zhiguo, in China, who has been constantly incarcerated and subjected to interrogation because he doesn’t support China’s state-sponsored Patriotic Church. Says Sister Juliana, “If you haven’t got a certificate you haven’t got the right to bring your baby into the world. If your child is handicapped it is also forcibly aborted.
Twenty years ago somebody left a badly damaged new born on Bishop Jia’s doorstep. He took it in and then others appeared.” Thirty nuns help him look after these children.
“In between prison and re-education camp and house arrest he has cared for these orphans. The Chinese authorities now demand the bishop should sign over the children or spend the rest of his life in re-education camp.”
The song is a prayer for help and to attract media attention to save the children’s lives. “In a way in our lives consecrated in chastity, we are mothers to millions.”
My final convent visit was to the west coast of Ireland in the Connemara countryside. We went to the beautiful Kylemore Abbey. It used to be the home of one of Ireland’s most exclusive convent schools. It is not an enclosed community and the sisters are very embracing, clever and funny.
They need a new roof and several of the older sisters have had to move out, some to a farm and the older ones to a retirement home. They really need a record contract. I felt incredibly touched by them. They talk about real things; relationships, depression.
Harrop and Lewis felt they simply didn’t sing well enough to be awarded the contract. I made a passionate plea that Madonna doesn’t sing well but she knows how to make people connect to her. The problem was I wasn’t connecting to anybody.
I had specifically asked that the documentary crew didn’t film any of my meetings with nuns. But if they’d filmed my meetings at Decca Records they would have had explosive television.
Decca wanted the French nuns – they sang Gregorian chant – they wanted to repeat the success of the monks. The brothers though could leave their convent and sit on a TV sofa. Plus their depth and timbre made Gregorian chant sound earthy and warm. I thought that people would not connect with the nuns who could never leave their convent walls. And not only had they taken a vow of silence – they are French!
The nuns in Boston are all about communication – make apps for iPhones and have a consistent Facebook presence. Lewis says, “Nothing ancient or mysterious about them. With them it was about how quickly can we get the next gizmo. They already have iPads. They are the complete opposite of Avignon. There is no mystery. We want a record where even if you ask an atheist you will be transported to another world
“The French nuns are a well-oiled machine. They move together and have a sense of overall oneness.” He felt their austerity and separateness was an appeal in itself.
For me the compelling hook was the paradox – being separate from this world but very much part of it – that’s real mysticism.
I have stayed in touch with the Irish and Welsh nuns because I wanted to help them. I had been in talks with another major record company about signing Kylemore Abbey.
Louis Walsh helped put together a list of great Irish songs for an album. The musical director, Sister Karole, is studying in Hungary for a year, so we await to see if the record will go ahead when she returns.
The community in Wales continue to write songs and have been asked to contribute to a record with the Welsh Guards celebrating the Royal Wedding, along with Shirley Bassey.
The French nuns record managed to do well internationally. How well remains a topic of debate. Industry insiders say that more money was spent on the record than was made. But a voiceover at the end of the documentary says they went to Number 1 in the classical charts. I am told it sold 100,000 internationally ( rumoured only about 15 per cent of that in the UK). So a happy ending, for the documentary at least.

Naomi Campbell

Towards the end of my afternoon with Naomi Campbell I ask her, ‘Do you think you are beautiful?’
“Mm, no… But I think I’m a bit of a character.”

I fall about laughing, but she doesn’t even realise she is being funny, and that kind of sums her up. She has absolutely no idea how the world sees her, mostly because she’s operating in her own universe where she is in equal parts cossetted and searingly insecure.

What protects her also destroys her. She says she’s never happier than when she’s on a plane. Puts on her iPod, shuts out the world. And her home is in fact, “an aeroplane seat, not a country.”
Two days ago she was in Brazil, yesterday New York, today Claridges, tomorrow Kenya.

If you wonder why after 20 years the woman who doesn’t think she’s beautiful is still at the top of her game, it’s because she works hard. She’s driven by not being good enough.

While her career is splendid, her love life is not even intact. A bit difficult when your home is an aeroplane seat. But she knows she’s made some terrible mistakes there and best not to be looking, best just to get on with her “recovery.” Which would all seem sensible if Naomi was the kind of girl that didn’t need a man to love.

Oftentimes people comment about meeting Naomi and you can see they are just waiting for the fireworks to go off. It’s easy to light a little sparkler or two and watch her flash with a hot line of invective or blink a kind of lunar remoteness.

Fortunately Naomi has never been that way with me. Maybe I see a different Naomi to the world as well. Sure, she’s always late. In this case, a day late because she missed a plane. But the thing is, she always makes up for it, she’s always worth it, even if she doesn’t think she is.

I see Naomi as a woman with a heart of gold always trying to explain herself and getting herself into worse trouble if people don’t get her immediately.

We first met over a decade ago after an unfortunate flight to New York. A police escort was waiting at the gate because there’d been an air rage incident, mine not hers. I was flying to New York to interview her but she was actually on the same plane. When we eventually met I think there was huge empathy just because nobody likes to be alone in their anger.

Naomi has done anger every bit of the spectrum, from righteous indignation in the case of being papped by the Mirror outside an NA meeting and called a “chocolate soldier” to mobile phone throwing at friends, assistants and the floor, now channelled into daily boxing. In a gym at 7am. She says she’s never late for that although she is late for everything else. Angry, late, gorgeous and a national treasure.

She is just out of her bath. Last night she got straight off the plane to go out with Alexander McQueen and Jasper Conran to Nobu Berkeley. Got in at 2am, woke up at 4am. She says she doesn’t need much sleep.

She is wearing dark skinny jeans, high strappy boots and a black angora fuzzy shrug and flashes with sparkly diamonds. She wants to go to Churchill’s bunker. It’s all arranged. “You’ve got to see it. He controlled World War II from there. Every hotel I’ve gone to in the world as a Churchill suite – Thailand, Morocco, Paris. I’ve just always had admiration for him, the way he lived his life was to do with what he wanted to do and live to the fullest, and he travelled.”

Do you identify with that bit?
“The travelling part.”
And the living life to the fullest?
“Mm, no.”

She’s got a day in London and she wants to fit in Louis Vuitton and Churchill and me. She was recently in St. Petersburg with Marc Jacobs which seems to have given her a taste for museums and monuments.”Catherine the Great. Her carriages freaked me out. Diamonds in the doorknobs and in the spokes of the wheels.”
Perhaps she’s more Catherine than Churchill. She shows me the pictures of the diamond wheels and of Willie Nelson’s bashed up guitar.

“I just love taking pictures, documenting everything I see. Showing people where I’ve been. I love to travel and I love planes. A plane for me is peace, no-one can reach me.”

And this is just the start of the contradiction. No-one can reach her yet she badly wants to be reached. She wants stability, but she only finds that by getting on a plane. This summer she was based in New York because she took her mother there to help her recover from breast cancer.

“I stayed put until she got in remission and we’re basically crossing our fingers. I’m very positive about it,” she says, and there’s a certain pleadingness. She needs to be positive about it.
“I lost my stepmother last November, Mary Blackwell.”

Mary Blackwell was the wife of Chris Blackwell who she calls “my dad Chris.” She has several adopted father figures and one adopted grandfather, Nelson Mandela. But more of that later.

Now she wants to talk about her loss and death and Deepak. She has a curious way of monologuing; random, urgent, and although often the thoughts don’t connect up in a linear way they are fuelled by her internal logic which is in itself breathtaking and endearing, so you go with it.

Mary Blackwell had melanoma. “Which is very rare for a black woman. She decided not to do chemo. I went to visit her in this cancer hospital and I was disgusted with the way her room was and they were telling me to put on a green mask, and I was like, I’m not doing that. I was wearing a Chanel coat. I didn’t mention the word cancer to her, we were just catching up, and then I said I hate this room, I’ll give you this coat if you can get out, you’re strong. Three days later my dad called and said, ‘She’s out.’

“She was a big fan of Deepak. I thought he was like just a fad, but she went to his retreat in San Diego and she came back so strong. And I think now I respect everyone’s decision to do what they do. I used to do kabbalah, and it’s very much like the AA to me, a spiritual programme. It helps you, you just do whatever helps you. Anyway, the Deepak helped her, and I organised the wedding for her and my dad even though they’d been together for 18 years already.

“She was shopping till two days before she died. Then boom. They took her to some funeral home and it was awful and I thought I’m not having her here. So I was like, ‘Dad, we have to take her up to Harlem. That’s where her church is, I want orchids and candles and an up service.

“The funeral home had done this make-up for her, it was awful. I wiped it off her, I redid everything, fixed her hair. I’ve never spent so much time with a body before. I knew her soul was already gone and it was a big learning experience because it made me not afraid of death any more and now I know she’s still around me all the time.. Not afraid of my own death,” she says quietly, but as if it’s a matter she’s thought about a lot.

“I was already halfway there, but this was a big confirmation for me. When it’s your time, it’s your time.”

The image of Naomi painstakingly re-doing the make-up on the body chills me because she speaks about it with such warmth. She means it to be uplifting, which makes me find it the more dark.
Can we talk about something trivial?

“I just want to say that I feel Mary is always guiding me. And you know I was with Jasper last night and he loved her energy and she had this great eye and she had a home line that she was trying to do and I’d love him to be able to put it out so that everyone could share a piece of her.”

I ran into Naomi at a party of Jasper’s and she was vulnerable and I said a few kind words and the thing with Naomi is she likes to pay you back treble, a million fold, for any act of random kindness. It was her idea to do the interview, not because she has anything to promote, although she has endless charities. It wasn’t about that, it was just about doing me a favour. She is a loyal girl.

“My mum’s doing so much better. It was the hardest thing for me to make decisions about her. The hardest thing was me getting my mother to come to America. I understand she didn’t want to leave her sisters and her brothers and her mother, but I just thought the American hospital would be better for her to recuperate in and I wanted her there and she liked it in the end. My mum’s a fighter, I’ve got that from her, I know she’s a fighter.”
Speaking of fighting.

“Oh, no, perlease.” She looks at me a little bit fierce, a little bit hunted animal. She doesn’t know which fight I’m going to bring up.
“Nicole Ritchie. That was all bullshit.”
Actually, I was thinking of your friend Yvonne Scio.
“I have no comment on that.”

This was an alleged mobile phone throwing incident after the friend turned up late and in the wrong outfit, according to the tabloids. According to Naomi, “She didn’t respect my recovery and I don’t want to go into it. I like Yvonne. She’s been my friend for a long time. I’m surprised at the angle she took on this. I would love to speak with her, I was just so surprised.”

She doesn’t actually confirm what did or didn’t happen. I think genuinely because she doesn’t want to make anything worse. She’s often said things like, “Anger comes from insecurity.” Is that what it was about?

“Not so much. I’m at a point where I won’t let people push my buttons, I just want to walk away. It’s taken me God knows how many years. I’m 35 now and it hurts sometimes to think, ‘Do you really know me. You don’t really know me at all. It’s hard.”

She raises her voice for emphasis. “But when you do walk way you feel good about it. Robbie Williams told me, ‘Always put your headphones on.’ It’s a good little trick, play music, phase it out. That’s not to say I don’t have wonderful people in my life who can give me criticism. I don’t phase that out. But if somebody I trust says lay low, I will.

“I’m not into the club scene any more, I’m too old for it. I enjoy staying home or in a hotel room watching DVDs.”

The more abnormal her life is the more normal she seems to try to be, although normal for her is deciding she needs to do a charity show for New Orleans calling her friends Beyonce and Puffy, Christy and Cindy, and putting it on overnight.

This year is her 20th anniversary. Twenty years since she was scouted as just a gangly girl from Streatham. Her mother was a dancer, all sequins and cruise ship. She went to Italia Conti. Whatever drives her round and round the world seems to be rooted in being a south London girl. She says what she thinks, she means what she says. Sometimes, especially when she’s explaining herself, you get carried away in her monologue. You detect the yes but no but. If she wasn’t Naomi Campbell she could have been Vicky Pollard.

She was brought up single-handedly by her mother and has always been attracted to older men, mentor figures. Sometimes they have been boyfriends, sometimes she’s adopted them straight away as dads. Azadene Alaia once said, “Naomi really is my daughter. She can be quite defensive, but she’s a fragile person who needs affection.”

She says, “And I’ve got my dad Chris Blackwell (Island Records founder). My dad Quincy (Jones). And I’ve got Flavio (Briatore). And I’ve got Mr Mandela, my grandfather.”
You collect them.

“I don’t know if it’s that I collect them,” she corrects, flashing a defensive face. “I love their wisdom, their business savvy, and I love to learn.”

She once said to me that what she looks for in a man was someone who is stronger than her, a bull, a fighter, someone who wore the trousers. She said that she loved to surrender herself. This is particularly piquant because she also loves to get what she wants. An almost impossible conundrum, especially when you don’t know whether you’re attracted to someone because you want them as a lover or a father.”

Flavio Briatore was her boyfriend and now her mentor. She recently introduced him to her other former boyfriend Robert De Niro. Past boyfriends have also included Mike Tyson, Joaquin Cortes, Italian supermodel Matteo Marzotto. She likes all things Latin, passionate and more exotic than herself, although she was engaged to Adam Clayton, and although that ended badly and dramatically with the interference of a tabloid. They are now friends again.

“I am friends with all of them,” she says. “I am attracted to wisdom. You can’t get any more wisdom than Mr Mandela and Quincy is on the same level. I always think why do they want to know me.”
This is a genuine question. Maybe they like to hang out with you?
“When you say hang out, it’s not a casual thing. When I go to LA I live in Quincy’s house and I call him papa, and he says anyone you want to date they’ve got to call me first. If they don’t call him they’re a coward. He’s had a few phone calls.”
Has he axed anybody?
“Oh yeh. I am blessed, you can’t pick your family but you can pick your friends.”

It seems like you’ve done a good job of picking your family as well. She carries on about Quincy’s choice of boyfriend for her. It seems that he’s looking for something different for her. But what are you looking for?
“I guess father figures, always.”
Is Quincy looking for something stable and you’re looking for something exciting.

“No,” she says urgently. “I’m looking for the stable. I don’t want excitement. I don’t even want vacations that are exciting as in hotspots. I mean I want someone who’s busy. The right person will be busy, but I’ll compromise, I will. And you know I’m not the kind of girl to have a big wedding. Weddings are not to impress anyone, it’s your day.”
You’re talking about the wedding and you don’t have a boyfriend?
She almost curls into herself. It’s as if she’s been having a random daydream which she suddenly realised was out loud.
“I am willing to change my life, you know. When I was with Flavio, when I was with Robert, I didn’t travel, I just wanted to be with them. I mean I am always going to work in some way, but I would gear my work around them.”
Are you the person in the relationship that likes to love more or be loved?

“I have given more. I also tend to wreck it for no apparent reason. When I was dating Matteo I flew home every night from wherever I was, but some men are not ready for that, and he wasn’t. We are still great friends and we still go to Valentino to shop together,” she laughs. “And I’m still great friends with Adam.”

I pick up a certain sadness here, that Adam was the right man at the wrong time. She whispers, “A lot of people say that, but Adam’s happy now. He was very upset about my mum and my stepmother loved him. He always sends them flowers without calling me to do it. He always sends my mother flowers and he doesn’t call me to do it, he’s a good man.”

She orders a tomato juice, smokes another cigarette, and doesn’t want me to forget Gianni Versace.

“He always said I was family. He never used to let us go to nightclubs, so he used to bring the nightclub to the house.”

She tells a story of how a dress she was meant to wear for the Anna Wintour Young Designers Award in Milan ripped. And she got given a Versace dress instead which fitted perfectly.

“I remember once the curtain wouldn’t open at Gianni’s last show (after his death). There was a butterfly flapping around and stuck in curtains and I knew it was like Gianni. Stop it, open the curtains. That butterfly was him and when I put on that dress I saw the butterfly.” She is not speaking metaphorically. Her eyes are dewy with pride that he’s still looking after her, guiding from a mysterious place.

You’ve had all these protective father figures – Quincy, Gianni, Alaia. Do you think it would have been the same if you had known your biological dad?
“Mm, mm,” she says. She has a habit of saying mm when she means no way.
“I can’t think about what I don’t know. My mother is my father.”
Don’t you think you collect all these other ones because there’s this huge chasm which you can’t even recognise.

“I am not someone who is tricked by sleazy old men. I don’t let sleazy playboy types come anywhere near me. I’m just blessed to have Quincy in my life. His mind is just incredible. His Listen Up foundation, it’s amazing what he’s done.”

Yes, but do you think if you had a regular father.

She interrupts. She’s gone from vulnerable and fearful to fierce. “I will tell you right now I am not a regular person and I won’t pretend to be. I’m not the girl next door. If I love diamonds I love diamonds. I’m not afraid to say I love diamonds and I don’t ever want to be like I’m down with being a regular girl because I’m not. Even without diamonds, without money, I’ve always been opinionated. I’ve always been very clear about what I will do and what I won’t do and some people get pissed off with that. They call you a bitch without even knowing you and some people they just understand. That’s why I love businessmen, they relate to you, they teach you.”

She adds, “It’s not like I’ve made diamonds the basis of my life. It’s just like some people pretend they don’t like trinkets because they’re ashamed.”

Would you say you were high maintenance?

“With a man? No, I’m very giving. But I’m also very demanding of emotions, of course I am. I’ve cracked a lot of my boyfriends emotions, but it was good for them.” She explains the cracking of Flavio. He’d given up Formula 1 but she could see he was missing it. “So I decided to have an intervention dinner with Bernie (Ecclestone), John Todd from Ferrari, and Jeremy Thomas, a producer who’s a big fan of Flavio’s. It was at that dinner where they all persuaded him that he had to go back.

“People can’t figure out why we were ever together. And when he started back with Formula 1 it seemed like in a way it was sending him away from me. There was no fight. I wanted to be in America and he wanted to be in Europe. I knew that was important to him. He was important in my life and in my recovery. He helped me through it. So you forget squabbles and things like that. He’s so smart and very good at making people feel appreciated.”

You get the impression that Naomi is a person who spends a lot of time trying hard to give back, as if to make up for everything that has gone wrong.

“I think it’s good that I’m insecure, it makes you try harder. It drives you more. If I didn’t have insecurities, I’d been worried. I wouldn’t want people to think that I think I’m the best at anything. That keeps me wanting to try my best.”

But she’s also driven by a need to explain. “I’d like to write my book. I don’t have a problem being honest. Oprah Winfrey said she’s going to help me, but I’ll write it myself. I just would like to put down everything so my kids can understand me.”

Kids, are you feeling broody?

“Yeh, I’m 35. But I want people to read it and identify with what I’ve been through. I’ve made mistakes.”

I tell her people do identify with her, even though she might seem remote and crazy and always on an aeroplane, they root for her, they understand. They might like to see her lose her temper because they might want to lose theirs. Everybody wants to be believe that you can come from Streatham to become diva grandaughter to Nelson Mandela.

“That’s nice to know. I’m 100 per cent behind Kate. I’ll do anything to help her. There is a girl that sells stories on her that used to work for me and sold stories about me. From the minute I said I wanted to have privacy in my recovery there were all kinds of stories. So you know, give Kate a bit of space to do her recovery. She was hurting herself, now she needs to mend herself, that’s why she had to go to America. It’s a damned disgrace that you can’t go to rehab in this country and have privacy.” She’s shouting now. “And you know what made me go for that court case (the Mirror). When I walked out of rehab I had this bright smile on my face, it was a nice (AA) meeting. But these things are private and then there was the chocolate soldier thing.”

She was described as a “chocolate soldier” meaning apparently a useless campaigner in the context of fur.

“I was dying and I was frightened but it was important for both those things.”

I’ve certainly never heard of anyone being described as a chocolate soldier and that phrase meaning anything. I think it was racist, she certainly took it as so.

She is also particularly sensitive to the idea of being set-up as black model fighting black model for the titillation of the tabloids. It was her idea for instance to do the Tyra Banks TV show after Tyra said she gave up modelling 50 per cent because she didn’t want to eat carrot sticks forever and 50 per cent because of Naomi.

“I never at any point in my career said I don’t want Tyra Banks on this job, even though she thought that. I would never do it. I went on the show to say I am proud of you as a black woman doing what you’re doing. I don’t want to see black people fighting against each other, there’s enough fucking fighting as there is. I’ve had to fight for so many things up against white models, I just would never do that. I chose to do her show, I don’t know if she even knows that. But I didn’t know that she’d put me on a pedestal.”

The fashion industry like any other has its moments of abject racism which is why Naomi, who spends so much time in Brazil, has been asked to find a new Brazilian black supermodel, but not on Brazil’s next top model TV show (like Tyra did for America).

“I found a girl just by going out on the street. She’s called Gabriella. Premier have signed her. She’s 16 and beautiful. Not that there’s anything wrong with Tyra’s TV show. Please don’t compare her to Oprah because you’re pitting two black women against each other, that’s how it starts.”

Once she’s relaxed though she’s a different kind of feisty. Outraged with people who’ve worked with her but have sold stories. For instance the assistant she was supposed to have hit, “made me laugh. She said I hit the right side of her face and in all the papers she was clutching her left.”

And then there was another person in her employ that suggested she’d had work done.

“Pah, I work out two hours a day, I’ve never had any plastic surgery. Black don’t crack. And ah, there’s that doctor, Dr Sebagh, who wants to sell stuff so he said I’m a client. Yes, I went for a face glow and got second degree burns. I never sued him for that because I’m with Proctor and Gamble and there’s a conflict of interest. But I couldn’t go in the sun for a year, I couldn’t work for two months. I had to travel with a make-up artist who could cover me. That was an emotional crisis. I was hysterical. I had pink skin, it was a disgrace. I’m only just able to go out without foundation. Here, feel my skin. Look at that.”

You feel for her, but say why do you think that people are constantly in fights with you and ripping you off?

“Because I’m an easy target. I have a reputation for losing my temper so people believe things. Now I think I’ve gotten better with my intuition of who to trust.”

You really hope for her sake she has. As well as her book, next year she says, “I’ve been offered a position that no other model has been offered, but I can’t tell you about it yet.”

It’s time to go to Churchill’s bunker, but there’s also the Louis Vuitton to fit in. She goes to show me a black fur coat which Marc Jacobs, designer for Louis Vuitton, made for her. It looks like a 1920s vamp coat in little strips of contoured fur which she thinks might be shaved mink.

“And as for that Heather whatshername (McCartney) saying she’d written to me and called me to complain about me wearing fur and I’d never replied. I never received a letter, nothing.” She’s outraged with Heather.

“And yes, I am still wearing fur, but I’ve made up with that guy from Peta.”

Naomi choosing not to go into the point that she did an anti-fur ad and now she’s changed her mind, but instead to say that Heather McCartney shouldn’t have claimed to have written to her when she hadn’t. It’s all a bit Vicky Pollard. She likes fur, she can’t help it. In fact she decides instead of going to the bunker or going to Louis Vuitton she’s going to get Christmas stockings for Lunar and Venus, her two rotteweillers.

“They follow me everywhere, they only listen to me. When I leave I put my perfume on their nose so they know my scent. Somehow you imagine her doing that with everybody, and that’s exactly what she does. She swathes you in her scent so you become mesmerised and enjoy even the bad things.

Your lateness is legendary, do you mean to be late all the time?

“Mm, no. Mercury was in retrograde, it finished today.”

No, it finished last week.

“No, for me it definitely finished today.”

With that, Naomi Campbell, supermodel, charity worker, author, and controller of the planets, goes to get her dogs some treats.

John Cleese

There’s no one that can do comedic rage like John Cleese. Outrage, anger, disgust, are all honed into an elemental force. You see it released in his body first. It can twist and stomp, and his eyebrows swoop and rise gymnastically.

He was brought up to beautifully contain this anger, and indeed any other emotions in the mild seaside town of Weston-Super-Mare and at various public schools. Emotional excess was forbidden. Touching was narcissistic and looked at with disgust. He would not easily express what he felt about anything or anyone except by converting his emotions into jokes.

Cleese is hyper sensitive, sharp. Can wear his skin inside out. He feels intensely. He’s always been on a quest to understand these feelings having propelled himself into hour upon hour upon hour of various forms of therapy. He even married a therapist, but he certainly didn’t find what he was looking for there. In fact his divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger, who some people call Malice, is one of the most expensive divorces of all time relative to his wealth.

He is currently doing a two-hour one-man show called The Alimony Tour. His divorce from third wife Alyce Faye Eichelberger settled under California law will cost him $20 million, $13 million upfront and then $1 million a year. The show is touring Scandinavia before it comes to Britain next year. The Scandinavians find him hilarious. Restraint is in their culture.

If at 70 he had wanted to take things easier there is certainly now a financial imperative not to do so. He says that on stage. Off stage though you get the impression he’s rather enjoying it. It’s as if he’s been stripped back down to his real self once again. The show must surely be cathartic.

The first half is mostly about the divorce. It’s dark and hilarious. He talks about what else he might have done with $20 million other than keeping the botox industry alive, and there’s a pap shot of his ex-wife at a cash machine removing a giant wad of money. A small percentage of the audience thought it was unfair to his ex-wife to show her as this one-dimensional grabby creature. He says her divorce lawyer who he says is the spiritual godchild of Blackbeard the pirate and Heather Mills. That gets covert laughter from some people too.
Of course it’s cruel. That’s why it’s funny. It’s almost taboo. He talks about taboo humour illustrated best with a sketch from the Holy Grail called The Dark Knight. It’s where his limbs are amputated one by one and in the end a limbless creature that still thinks he can win the fight. When the film was tested 95 per cent of people said that was the funniest part, and 95 per cent of people said that was the part that should be censored. Cleese seems most comfortable when he’s treading that line.

The second half of the show charts a behind the scenes look at his major creative successes; Python, Fawlty Towers, and A Fish Called Wanda where he was nominated for a writing Oscar and should have won.
It all features the beautiful blackness of his humour that is a direct descendant of his relationship with his mother which was extremely complicated. They seemed to communicate best through black humour. She was extremely neurotic, had phobias about so many conflicting things – claustrophobia, agoraphobia, the dark, the light, escalators, lifts, and many more. She died aged 101 in 2001. He says she managed to go through two world wars, the Cold War, the creation of the State of Israel, the Berlin Wall coming down, and managed to notice none of it.

One day she called him to say she was depressed and wanted to end it all and he says, “OK, I’ll call the little man in Fulham and we’ll fix the funeral.” She laughed. Cruel humour was the only way to move her. That was their bond. Kindness didn’t work. And that seems to explain such a lot about the man that is before me. Even though much of the show is devoted to the divorce from Eichelberger, the woman that haunts me as I was watching it is his mother.

We have met at the bar of his hotel for drinks and wheat free tapas. The room has platinum blonde wood floors and crystal chandeliers. He looks impressively handsome. Clear skin and super-expressive eyes. He’s wearing a pale blue soft thick wool jumper, jeans and bare feet.

He gets right down effortlessly and quickly to talk about his relaitonships with women. He says they’ve all been about his mother. “I think all my wives and girlfriends have had aspects similar to my mother. I don’t think there’s any question about that. It’s probably inevitable.” Inevitable for one who’s read so much Freud, Jung and other therapists, but more of that later.
His current girlfriend is 39-year-old sculpted blonde jewellery designer Jennifer Wade. I watch them together over the weekend I spend in their company and their relationship is unexpectedly sweet. They are sweet with one another and on one another. You catch odd moments where they seem lost in their own world and then rejoin the group chatter. He seems very comfortable with her and I doubt that comfortable is what he has enjoyed in many relationships with women.

She seems to be very nurturing of him, very protective, often expressing concerns for his knee. He recently had a knee transplant operation and some of the moves on stage have set off pain. When he’s in one place he has a yoga instructor and an exercise regime. But when as he’s been on tour it’s been difficult. There has been no yoga instructor and the hotels have had swimming pools the size of a coffee cup. He stretches his leg out, wiggling the long toes. I’m on an armchair on one side of him, Wade on the other wearing skinny jeans and boots.

He met Wade last year, first of all in London and then by chance they were both in San Francisco where he had an apartment and she had a brother. Things moved very fast. He now wears a rose gold ring on his finger. He tells me, “She said how can I take you seriously? So I told her to design me a ring and I would wear it. I’ve never worn a ring before.”
She is also wearing a rose gold ring that he bought her. It’s a thick mesh band with tiny leaves hanging off it. Later on when she’s not there I ask him is he going to get married? “I have no idea,” he says. But then he laughs naughtily. “Jenny is just getting over the final stages of a difficult divorce that was painful for both people and I don’t think she is thinking beyond that now.” Cleese himself doesn’t seem at all reticent.

When I point out that his divorce was also difficult he says, “Well, not emotionally because it was not a relationship that I had been getting a great deal out of for quite a long time. And when I took the courage to say I don’t want to go on with this it was painful for Alyce, which was why it was difficult. But the fact was I wasn’t particularly happy and you reach a certain point in your life where you think am I going to go on not being happy just to keep someone else unruffled? Or am I going to take the risk and push forward? I don’t regret it I’m afraid at all. I don’t regret what happened.”
It’s been written that he was suicidal about the break-up, about the failure of this marriage. So was he really incredibly depressed at first? “I was not suicidal at all. It was a great relief. The trouble is journalists make stuff up and then it keeps being recycled. What is true is that I was very sad about the death of my friend David Hatch. It had nothing to do with the divorce.” Hatch was a life long friend. They met at Cambridge when they were in the Cambridge Footlights together. Sir David Hatch became managing director of BBC Radio and died in 2007.

Cleese is very keen to set the record straight that he was not suicidal about the divorce. He seems to have attracted all kinds of untrue stories that recycle around him. Most recently it was written that he was now pretending to like German culture. “I’ve always been attracted to German culture. I’ve spoken about it many times, and made the point when Basil Fawlty is goose stepping it’s not making fun of the Germans it’s making fun of Basil. In fact I had a dream five years ago in which I said to someone that my only regret in life was that German was not my first language. I realised afterwards that the five books I had been reading were all written in German including Freud, Jung and Schopenhauer.”
I tell him I’ve read another story that he’d spent several thousands on having cosmetic work done. “Oh,” he says helpfully. “That story ran because this poor little girl Barbie, who I had a very brief relationship with that lasted seven or eight days, did an interview with a newspaper. They rang her and pretended to be interested in her career. She started saying a whole lot of stuff…”

What’s interesting and so supremely gentlemanly is that he doesn’t say a bad word about the twentysomething who sold stories on him. He feels she was tricked. He’s not angry but affectionate towards her. And what’s even more accommodating is that he goes on to say “Everyone knows I’ve had several hair transplants. The first one was in 1978 and I have far worse teeth than Martin Amis, horrible teeth. I don’t have a tooth left in my head and I haven’t had one for 25 years. Everything is crowned or bridged. I had the whole thing reconstructed about three years ago.” He tells me how sorry he felt for the dentist who couldn’t fail to notice a tear rolling down his face with the pain.
Was the hair transplant painful? “No, the whole thing lasts an hour and a half and you have hair for the rest of your life. It used to look a bit cabbage patchy, but now it’s all filled in. some people have a great shaped skull. Mine is pointed and I look better in hair.”

I love the fact we can talk so openly and without any kind of embarrassment about teeth and hair and wives and mothers. That’s the one thing years of therapy has not let him get over, his need to be so blissfully accommodating.
He doesn’t seem remotely tired after his two hours on stage, but his knee is hurting from when he acted out how Graham Chapman used to go around on his hands and knees at cocktail parties biting people like a dog. It hurts him every night but he doesn’t cut it out of the show. Chapman was one of the original Pythons, but extremely wild and an alcoholic. He died in 1989.
The next morning he is up early and we talk over non-dairy cappuccinos. It’s cold and bright and I have been thinking more about his relationship with therapy. He’s always been fascinated by it. Perhaps one of the most fascinating therapists of all was Robin Skynner (psychotherapist and bomber pilot) with whom he wrote a seminal book, Families And How To Survive Them. I say seminal because I’ve given it to many people in crisis and it’s helped them understand why they chose the person/life/thing that now was driving them demented. I used to use it as character reference background to all my interviewees. For instance a youngest child, a middle child, an older child, and an only child all come with very different sets of problems and perspectives. He and Skynner wrote the book together. “Robin used to use the phrase we finish up teaching what we most need to learn ourselves.”

Immersing himself in therapy did not stop him from having a similar relationship over and over again with a different person. “I think there’s definitely a tendency to go for the same type of person again and again. I remember reading in John Mortimer’s autobiography that he was constantly in his office with couples who were about to get divorced and they were immediately getting married to somebody who seemed exactly like the one they were divorcing. And that was a lawyer with very little interest perhaps in psychology.
“I saw a therapist in Santa Barbara who told me that if you have a highly neurotic mother, that when you meet someone who most people say woops, back away, this one is neurotic, you think nothing of it after what you’ve been through with your mother. So instead of seeing it as a danger signal you think it’s something you can cope with, and because it’s familiar you are drawn to it. There is a feeling that one is drawn back to the original experience of when you tried to make your mother happy and failed so you will try to find someone else who is a bit like your mum and make them happy. So there’s repetition.”

Another therapist in San Francisco called John Pentland – he ran the Gurdjieff Movements in America, told him ‘We are not united people. We are lots of different people in the same skin and a particular stimulus will bring one of our personalities forward. For instance you’d be different to the Queen to how you are with an ex-lover. And we are all trying to seek unity.’ And I think this underlies a lot of the sacred traditions. A lot of Christ’s teaching is about this. The parables are really about different aspects of ourselves that have to be reconciled if we are to have any unity as human beings.”

We talk enthusiastically about different therapists and therapies. Cleese is a wonderful teacher because his mind is ordered and precise and he’s very non-judgmental, and he always wants to answer questions precisely, enjoying truth and revelation rather than fear of it. Although one suspects that is precisely because at one point in his life he did fear revelation.
And what was he looking for in all the many, many therapists he’s seen? “A number of things. I think affection is incredibly important. It brings out the best in us and it relaxes us.” He doesn’t mean he was looking for affection from the therapists. He was wanting to understand how affection works. These days Cleese seems a very warm affectionate person, but it’s something he’s worked on.

“Yes, but I had to learn it and because at public school if you put your arm around someone you’re immediately thought to be homosexual and beyond redemption. I remember at college there was an American exchange student. He came to Clifton College for a year on exchange and we had a cricket match at the end of term. After we’d finished he came into the changing room to say goodbye and said ‘I don’t know if we’ll ever see each other again’ and he gave me a hug and I remember being very shocked at being hugged by another man. I think touch is very important to human beings.”
Cleese these days is eminently touchable and touching. His mother of course was not so comfortable with it, but his father “was very physically affectionate. He was a kind man.”
I remember reading that his father was such a kind person he was shocked to find that the world was not so kind and the contrast was acute. “I don’t remember saying that but I would say it’s a bit of a shock to realise the world is a much worse place than I ever thought when I was young. Which is why my next show that I’m working on is called Why There Is No Hope and that we are run by power seekers.” He intends it to be a comedy. Once again finding release in all things dark.
He’s also just finished writing a stage version of A Fish Called Wanda with his daughter Camilla. He’s getting round to translating a Feydeau farce for the stage and writing his autobiography and presenting a TV show about history with Matthew D’Ancona.

Wanda may well turn out to be a musical. More interesting than the project itself was working with Camilla. “Once I thought I would be doing it with Camilla it became much more exciting. She’s come up with some great ideas. We are very similar. She was brought up in America because her mother is American.”
He is very close to Camilla now but again had to seek the help of a therapist because she had problems with alcohol addiction and he had to give her a deadline that unless she sought help herself he wouldn’t be able to help her. I don’t think the tough love concept came easily to him and he’s extremely proud of Camilla now he tells me quite a few times.

Camilla is the daughter of his second wife Barbara Trentham, an actress he married in 1981 after splitting from his first wife of ten years, co-writer and co-star of Fawlty Towers, Connie Booth a few years before. He has another daughter, Cynthia, who is also a scriptwriter from his marriage to Booth. From what I’ve heard and read, the daughters did not get on with Eichelberger. And they must be further irritated that she has severely diminished their inheritance.
Talking about his daughters leads back to talking about his mother. “If I took Cynthia down to see my mother in Weston-Super-Mare my mother resented the fact that the child was there because it meant she got less attention from me. I have a history of being rather placatory with women. If you have a mother who is very selfish and you don’t get much attention from her it sends you the message that you’re not worth it. And also that you’re not entitled to look after yourself, so you spend a whole lot of time servicing other people, making sure they don’t get cross.”

I do find it strange that he went into therapy to try and save the marriage with Eichelberger when she seems such an emotional vampire. “It’s because I had become placatory.” He says the word with special contempt.
Has she seen any of the show? “No. She always said that if we broke up we would never speak again and that turned out very well. I never took it seriously at the time but from the day we broke up and I called her to say you know the reputation of this lawyer you have hired…” He pauses just for a second as if he’s remembering the very moment where he knew there was no return. The lawyer had a fierce reputation. “That was the last and only time we spoke.”

He says that he is on good terms with one of her sons who is a vet in Hong Kong and with the other there has been silence. Not so good for a therapist who specialised in family relations. “She was always very much on about the importance of family and now the family has pretty much broken up. You know her boys, my daughters, their sisters…” If he is said about the break-up of family it is the only thing he’s sad about. Perhaps he regrets more that he stayed in the marriage so long. That he stayed placatory. For placatory read shackled, suppressed, diminished and without affection.
“I think I have a confidence now that I didn’t have before. It’s come in the last three or four years and I don’t know why it’s come.”
It seems a few forces have converged. The divorce was so expensive. He had to let a lot of stuff go materialistically and emotionally. He was able to reinvent who he is. There’s a certain freedom in that.

“That’s true. It’s very beneficial to reinvent yourself because you fall into patterns which aren’t relevant any more. There’s a lot of research gone on into ageing saying that you age according to your internal idea of what age means. Age means nothing to me now. I mean it means stuff when my body starts to let me down…”
What he means is he doesn’t feel old, he doesn’t feel trapped, he doesn’t feel that his ideas are tired, and he feels a new person with Wade. He looks after himself more, no wheat, no dairy, lots of vitamin pills, but more importantly “I laugh with Jenny in a way I haven’t since I was ten. It’s the utterly hopeless laughter of the ten-year-old and it’s wonderful to have that back.” He says that savouring the sentence.

What does he think is different about his relationship with Wade to his previous two wives? “It is that I was far too left brain about it all. In the past I was more ticking boxes, not having an immediate being in love thing which I did have with Connie.” Wives number three and four seem to be relationships that should have worked logically but didn’t. With Wade he says there was an instant connection similar to the one he had with his first wife. “Connie and I are great pals and I have enormous affection for her husband John Lahr.”
He talks about Booth both on and off stage with great fondness. There are no left over irritations detectable. They met in 1964 and got married in 1968. They wrote Fawlty Towers together. Everything seemed perfect. What went wrong?

“I think we found it difficult. Neither of us were emotionally mature. There was a great deal of love between us. Breaking up was very very painful. I was depressed about it for two years but I think it was the right decision. It didn’t quite work.”
I wonder was it too much living and working together? Did they argue? “I don’t quite remember. I’m sure we must have been arguing because if things aren’t right you do argue. It wasn’t nasty. We always functioned well together when we were writing together. Even the best relationships go through difficult periods. It’s not the world you read about in the tabloids. People fighting like cats and dogs or blissfully happy. I was very sad for two years and I don’t think I improved my choosing process when I met Barbara. And when I met Alyce I thought it seemed appropriate. But Alyce changed and I’m sure she feels that I changed too. Jenny is different to both of these women. With Barbara we had a fairly turbulent relationship because we married rather quickly and the turbulence followed.”

He never wore a ring with either of them. “Jenny is a jeweller, so I said why don’t you make me a little ring. In Weston-Super-Mare rings and after shave were considered as poofy and narcissistic.”
There are many references to Weston-Super-Mare, he both has a constant need to embrace it and escape it at the same time. He talks about one of the last times he went back there. His mother and Robin Skynner were both gravely ill at the same time and would die within weeks of each other.
“It was the summer of 2000 and I was going to spend a week with Robin who was ill and then a week with my mother, but my mother became seriously ill and I spent the whole two weeks with her. I knew Robin was not long for this planet, so I left my mother. I was only able to have lunch with Robin. Then my mother went into a coma so I went back down. Robin died without me spending proper time with him. My mother always needed my attention.”

He tells this story with great sadness, but not with any anger or bitterness. We talk some more about Skynner and his family systems exercise – a group of people are in a room and they walk round and choose one other person on the basis that they remind them of someone in their family or someone that they’d like to have in their family. They sit down and find that they have a similar emotional history. The theory is you choose partners because you automatically identify with their neurosis even if you don’t see them straight away.

“There were times when I thought I would love to have had a sister because I found my mother’s behaviour so extraordinary. I would love to have said what the hell is this about?” As an only child he had no one to share with. He had to take the full responsibility for himself and share it all with an audience many years later. His mother was 40 and his father 46 when he was born and was constantly reminded by his mother that they had never planned to have children. His mother would tell him that he was a mistake.

“My father was in the war and after that he thought only in terms of getting steady jobs. At school he made me sad if I became enthused about chess or fencing. He never took that spontaneous enthusiasm for something very seriously.” Perhaps that was after being in the First World War he didn’t want to do anything risky again. He must have seen so many people die. “I remember him talking about being in the trenches and the man next to him being shot saying it was just like Private Ryan and the man next to him was crying for his mother. It’s extraordinary Chrissy. I remember thinking, why would he cry for her?” He’s laughing but he means it.

“I was a good boy really.” He had an outlet for really bad behaviour on stage. “Yes, that’s true. I can say almost anything to audiences and get away with it.” This comes as a direct result of what he could and couldn’t get away with with his mother.
The previous night he told about a sketch he did with Chapman. Chapman was the undertaker. “I said to him my mother’s dead and I don’t know what to do. He said, ‘No problem squire. We can burn her, bury her or dump her’ and I said what do you mean dump her and he said ‘put her in the Thames or a skip.’ And I said no, no, let’s do it properly and I pull out a sack that has the body in it and Graham says ‘I think we’ve got an eater’ and I say are you seriously suggesting I eat my mother. Long pause. ‘Not raw. Cooked’. Then I say I’m a bit peckish but I’m not going to eat mum. And he said ‘tell you what. Let’s eat her neck and if you feel guilty afterwards you’ll vomit and then we’ll bury the vomit’.”

I enjoyed the story because it explains so much of Cleese. There are so many metaphors involved in that one sketch. He’s still vomiting up his mother and being nurtured by the laughter. Finally he’s with an un-neurotic woman who is nothing like his mother and he’s really happy and grateful to have escaped her.
He says he’s not doing the tour and working so hard just for money even though he needed to acquire some to pay the hefty divorce demands. “I am not super money conscious. I just want to check that I’m not going to run out. I’ve always been easy come easy go. Before I married Alyce I had one house in London and no mortgage. And after a few years of marriage we had seven properties and I was racing around spending all my earnings servicing properties. I can simplify my life now once I’ve got Alyce’s payment out of the way I can live in a much smaller way.”

He is not planning on returning to Britain full-time. “I don’t want to go through another English winter. It takes years off your life. I get terrible chest infections and the grey skies make me so gloomy. The sunshine picks me up. Rather than California I might try the Caribbean. Balminess is what I seek.” He’s less enamoured with California these days. It’s gloomier these days because there’s a recession going on.

What is his greatest extravagance? “Probably food. Not necessarily incredibly expensive restaurants. A good Indian or a good Chinese will do. I just think food is such an extraordinary pleasure.” What makes him happy? “A day off. Reading a book. And Jenny’s company. I might take a little exercise. Go for a walk with Jenny. I always felt that I had to make everyone else alright before I could get on with my life, and Jenny is like that, almost to a fault. She spends an inordinate amount of time worrying about other people.”

He doesn’t know how it’s happened. It seems not through therapy, more by coincidence, if such a thing exists, that finally he’s got someone who worries about him and he’s very much enjoying it. It seems to make him enjoy everything else more.
Is he nervous of going on stage? “Not any more. Not really. It’s more a question of energy, not so much fear. The audience have bought tickets. They wall want to see me. You get a warm welcome…

“For the first three quarters of my professional life I was much more concerned not to be bad than I was to be good. And I did most of my best work under that feeling.”
In the show he talks about all the good work that he’s done ending when he did Wanda at 50. After that it didn’t really matter. Does he really think that? “The three outstanding things I’ve done in my life were all before 50. It’s a kind of joke, but there was a time when I was racing around doing all the jobs that were offered to me because of my need for high earnings…”

He smiles knowing that his life is simpler and happier and he will only do the work that he enjoys. But best of all he doesn’t hope that he won’t be bad. He knows he’ll be pretty good.

Jennifer Saunders

I meet Jennifer Saunders just outside the theatre where Viva – the Spice Girls musical which she is wrote – is rehearsing. We are to have a late breakfast. She arrives in a camouflage jacket with diamond studs and a multi-coloured scarf, choppy blonde hair and an alarmingly fresh face and her usual slightly peering eyes. She announces, ‘I’m so hung over. I think I still have a level of alcohol in my blood. By lunchtime I’ll be tired.’
She had a weekend party and this morning has been looking after her new grandson Freddie and coos she has been in bed with the baby. ‘I had a proper little cuddle. He’s divine.
‘When he enters the room everyone starts looking at him and when he leaves the room people start looking at pictures of them on the phone. I don’t know what type of child he will grow up to be because he has people worshipping him all the time – Freddie worship. The other girls love him too.’ Freddie is the son of her eldest daughter Ella.
Saunders seems to have no worries about being a grandmother at 54. ‘I absolutely love it. People say isn’t it weird seeing your baby having a baby and it kind of isn’t. It doesn’t feel weird at all. I love having a baby around and I never had a boy child. I did want a boy child because I had this romantic idea that a boy child when he’s 16 takes his mother out for dinner. I think I once saw that in a restaurant, a boy taking out his mother for her birthday. I’m going to have to force Freddie to do that now.’
We discuss the lack of stress in the grandparent grandchild relationship. ‘I haven’t got the responsibility of sending him to school or telling him off. He’s simply there to be worshipped.’
She thinks it’s a strange time for an interview, not quite breakfast, not quite lunch (11am). We order scrambled eggs and toast, perfect hangover food, but the Café Zedel can’t cook until lunchtime and instead they offer us boiled eggs and giant pastries, pain au chocolats the size of brogues.
Saunders is amused, her face arranges itself into a supercilious giggle. She offers a similar expression when I ask wasn’t she surprised to be asked to write Viva Forever! The Spice Girls musical after French and Saunders had mercilessly sent up The Spice Girls in their spoof The Sugar Lumps and the Mamma Mia sketch they did for Comic Relief – Mamma Mia creator Judy Craymer is the impresaria behind Viva.
Craymer called Saunders’ agent to see if she was interested and that was deemed to be a very good sign. ‘It meant a) she doesn’t take herself too seriously, and b) she has a good sense of humour. I immediately thought I am the one who is going to do this. No one else is going to do this. I have to do this thing.
‘When Dawn and I were The Sugar Lumps we always used to go to Spice Girls shows. My girls loved them and I thought I don’t want someone to mess this up for my girls.
‘I don’t have a favourite Spice, I love all of them. Well, maybe my favourite is Emma because I’ve worked with her a lot, but Mel C is also delightful. When you see them now they just are that same gang, they fit into all those roles again. A little bit badly behaved, a little bit loud. You never felt they had to behave. That’s what I always loved about them.
‘Victoria is really funny. She’s the most naturally witty one. She doesn’t take herself seriously, she just looks as though she does.
‘I love Geri’s energy. I love Mel B’s refusal to say anything she doesn’t mean. And the truth is I love the songs. And they actually have their own narrative which makes it easier to write around.
‘There were certain themes, here’s me and my mates, don’t fuck with me and my mates, let’s misbehave. And then a story came.
‘Loosely the story is adopted girl, mother wants to let her go, can’t let her go, is over protective, and then…
‘She doesn’t really want to find her biological mother but she’s on a TV talent show that thinks it would be a really good idea. You see it on X Factor. They have chosen the one with the story.’
Did she conceive this idea when her own daughters were leaving home? ‘No, but I have had that empty nest syndrome. When the girls left it was a slow grieving process. you go, oh look, we’re just on our own again. It’s my husband and me. Oh, What do we do now? “Good Morning.” “Yes, good morning to you”.’ She says this pulling her awkward face. She and husband Ade Edmondson have been married for 27 years and the period of just them together in a big house has not been prolonged as he is about to tour with two different bands, The Bad Shepherds and The Idiot Bastard Band.
‘Gradually you adjust. You miss them. You miss their friends too. You miss the general hubbub of people always being there.
‘I didn’t think about empty nests when I was writing this. It was more having to let someone go out and make their own mistakes. You can’t learn from other people’s mistakes.’
Was it based on the relationship she had with her mother? ‘No, that relationship was much more old fashioned. I mean you would call your mother’s friends Mrs. Nowadays you would call everyone by their Christian name. it was quite formal and I am emotional with my kids. They see the shit as well as the good. I was brought up really well. I had boundaries where if you crossed the line you know you are in trouble. I think my kids sort of get that.
‘I don’t think I was a great rebel except in my head. I’ve never been able to do rows. I cannot do confrontation. You know that fight or flight thing? I’m flight. I just don’t want the argument.’
Eggs arrive. At first we don’t know if they are hard-boiled or soft-boiled. Saunders takes it and attempts to peel it, pauses, ‘If it cracks now we’re in shit.’ It’s a cold hard-boiled egg.
She says that after her father died of cancer eight years ago the dynamic changed in the relationship with her mother. ‘We became much closer. She is a coper. She was born to cope. She is strong and funny. She had a stroke and I was there. She forgets words and cries with laughter when the wrong ones come out. We literally laughed her way through the stroke. By the time the paramedics arrived she was crying real tears of laughter, probably to do with relief. But she said, “Will you go up to the donkey upstairs and bring down my…” The donkey? She meant draws. She just laughed and laughed. She recovered well because she’s a doer and a coper.’
Saunders moved to Devon to bring up her children and now lives mostly in London, the reverse of most people.

It is very rare for Saunders to look right at you. Most of the time she mumbles into her scarf or looks away, allowing me to get a good look at her skin which is dewy smooth, hardly any wrinkles.
The idea for Viva came up in 2009. They narrowed it down to which songs they wanted to use and she started to write the treatment.
‘I think we started in January, so I was three months into chemotherapy,’ she says matter of factly. She has never overplayed her cancer, never come over the victim. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. She has never used the word battle and I feel would wince if it was ever used for her. It’s one of those things that she probably didn’t like to confront, she shrugged it off because she’s a coper.
How was it possible to write on chemo? ‘I don’t know. Luckily Judy was very sympathetic. I remember struggling to organise my thoughts. When you are doing chemo you have a load of time. I just thought I am not not going to do this job and by the time I’m finished it everything will be fine. Judy would be so brilliant she would come round the house with a bottle of vodka and the tunes and we would sit and drink.’
Vodka and chemo? ‘Oh yes,’ she says jauntily. Really? ‘Oh yes. You can drink when you are doing chemo. You’ve got so much shit in your body you may as well be drunk. We sat and listened to the songs endlessly and it was so helpful.
‘Why do we need to listen to these songs again and again? She was right. It’s the only way in.’
Most people might lie down and vomit. Singing Spice Girls songs and writing a musical does sound a rather extraordinary way to get through chemo. It sounds superhuman.
‘No, not really. Some people hold down full-time jobs. I didn’t have a vomit problem. Didn’t feel vomity at all. I ha brilliant anti-sickness medication and it worked. For some people it works well and some people it doesn’t. I was very lucky. There are some days when you feel a bit grim and other days, you know, towards the end of a session, okay and you know it’s not killing you. Just makes you feel rotten.’
I note the way she doesn’t say I she says you to distance herself from it but I am struck by her strength and bravery. I just did a week of antibiotics and felt suicidal.
What is it really like? ‘You feel chemical, that’s what you feel. You feel you are part of a big chemical thing but you tell yourself it’s a cure not a disease and you’ve got to get rid of the disease. The chemo is the belt and braces. It feels shit when it’s working.
‘You think, yes I feel absolutely shit, it’s doing its job and you just get on with it, you get on with stuff.’
Did she have any paranoia moments of depression? ‘No. sometimes you feel horrible. Sometimes you feel emotional. And then sometimes when you see your skin goes to fuck you have moments where you think I hate this. But there’s always a point where you think you might as well get over it and life gets back vaguely to normal.’
Are things normal? Has she finished the meds? ‘No, you don’t finish. I’m still on hormone therapy and I’ll be on that for the rest of my life. It’s the reverse of HRT, it takes all your hormones away. It takes all your oestrogen away because what I can’t have is oestrogen because my cancer is oestrogen sensitive. You go on to tamoxifen or some other oestrogen therapy which takes the hormones our so you are basically in menopause. You are from the moment you start chemo because it kills everything.
‘In a funny way, more than the actual chemo, which I found was a grit your teeth and get through it kind of thing, I found the hormone thing a more subtle change and it was much harder to take. You are plunged into menopause. It makes you depressed. That whole side of you, what it is to be a woman, which is hormones, it just goes. You have to get through it but it takes a while.
‘It took me a year on tamoxifen to get used to it, to not be grieving for your oestrogen. It’s an odd thing but I found that much harder than chemo. It’s the thing they least warn you about. They go right, now we go on tamoxifen and everything will be fine. You have to do it. I hated the tamoxifen when I first got on it. I don’t hate it now because I’m adjusted to it. I thought there has to be something else.
‘I went to the doctor and asked him: Is there another drug? He is the most brilliant doctor and he explained to me: If you were my wife I would insist you take this. And he explained: What it needs is someone to really explain how important it is to you and the side effects. They are quite psychological but also physical. And I honestly imagined that I would very quickly turn into a very small leather handbag.’ She makes a creaking sound of a small leather thing.
Having an instant menopause rather than a gradual thing seems to be the most difficult thing for her. ‘I get very depressed and I’m still on anti-depressants. I see it as you need to boost yourself up because suddenly you have no oestrogen and your serotonin goes down, everything depletes and you start thinking…’ She makes a moaning sound. ‘So take a bit of anti-depressant and it’s fine again. It’s a juggling act, isn’t it, what to put in and what not to, but I find I am happy now.
‘I am free of cancer. I did this thing the other day where my doctor said do you want to have a big scan. You know when some people have cancer they are totally neurotic and worried about it coming back, which has never bothered actually because I just say it’s not coming back, it’s fine.
‘But he said, you know your insurance will pay for you to have a full MRI, CAT and all these other scans and it’s two years since you’ve finished your treatment. Two years is the peak of possible recurrence, so I went and did it. The weird thing is I’ve never been to a hospital in my life until the cancer thing, but I kind of like going into clinics now. Oh, I’m going into this one and that one. Do take some blood. I find it kind of reassuring.
‘I did grieve a bit when I wasn’t having the chemo any more. I was used to sitting in the little chair and then the nurse would come and do it. It was like that was your job for that long and it was reassuring. So the thought of one of these scans made me think “Oh that would be quite nice, won’t it.” You get injections, go a bit radioactive, then you get put in the big banging machine for a bit. I actually quite enjoyed it.’
I tell that is kind of weird and she must have been deprived of attention as a child in a big way. She laughs, ‘Yes. But I do love that stuff now. Bang, bang, bang, oh it’s my turn.’
Actually she is the opposite of attention seeking. She kept her cancer quiet until she had finished her chemo. She had been seen a couple of times but no one guessed she was wearing a wig. ‘I had very good wigs. Two of them. One was a real hair wig which was a lot of trouble. I was lucky in that most of the chemo happened during the winter so you could just wear hats. I didn’t mind that aspect of it.
‘What is weird is all of your hair falls out. Everything. Your eyebrows. Your pubic hair. Your leg hair, arm hair, your nose hair. The weirdest thing is your nose hair because you are constantly snivelling and you get nose bleeds a lot. You are a bald person with a nose bleed. I didn’t mind that and it’s a funny thing. Of all the things to care about my hair was the least thing I cared about. At least I didn’t have to have a wax for the best part of a year.
‘Hair grows back and it comes back everywhere. I was looking at my face and thinking it’s so hairy. Suddenly everywhere was hairy.’
We try to order toast instead of the giant pastries. Instead a waiter arrives with bread. Everything we ordered had been got wrong. ‘This is the most hilarious breakfast I’ve ever had.’
Soon she must go to the theatre for a run through. Did the Spice Girls have any changes they wanted to make? ‘No, nothing like that. They could make suggestions but generally they were enthusiastic and nice.’
After this what else does she have coming up? ‘I’m thinking about a film of AbFab on the basis that The Inbetweeners was a successful film. I don’t know about doing more telly. I’m thinking of setting it in the South of France. I always imagine the Riviera life, that search for the nostalgic idea of glamour… It’s hard for me to think beyond press night at the moment.’
She still rides horses although not as much as she used to. ‘Ade said, “You’ve had a good run, but if you fall off…” And he was like: Just stop. At the moment I’ve just started with a power plate. It’s a thing that jiggles you stand on it and do certain positions. I’ve also tried to start jogging. But I walk my dog a lot.’
Her dog is a whippet called Olive. ‘She’s the most beautiful dog in the world. Everyone knows Olive. The other day I was at the station in Devon and I had Olive and there was a woman who looked at Olive and recognised her. “Oh, it must be Jennifer Saunders because this is Olive.”‘ She puts on proud dog mother face which is very similar to proud grandmother.
Her skin does not look grandmother like. ‘It’s ridiculous that I’m a grandmother but it’s the nicest thing. Sometimes I do think a bit of Botox might be good but I haven’t done anything. I think I should really give up drinking for a bit then I’d lose weight, but then I think I can’t be bothered. It’s just so nice to have a drink.’

© Chrissy Iley 2012
I meet Jennifer Saunders just outside the theatre where Viva – the Spice Girls musical which she is wrote – is rehearsing. We are to have a late breakfast. She arrives in a camouflage jacket with diamond studs and a multi-coloured scarf, choppy blonde hair and an alarmingly fresh face and her usual slightly peering eyes. She announces, ‘I’m so hung over. I think I still have a level of alcohol in my blood. By lunchtime I’ll be tired.’
She had a weekend party and this morning has been looking after her new grandson Freddie and coos she has been in bed with the baby. ‘I had a proper little cuddle. He’s divine.
‘When he enters the room everyone starts looking at him and when he leaves the room people start looking at pictures of them on the phone. I don’t know what type of child he will grow up to be because he has people worshipping him all the time – Freddie worship. The other girls love him too.’ Freddie is the son of her eldest daughter Ella.
Saunders seems to have no worries about being a grandmother at 54. ‘I absolutely love it. People say isn’t it weird seeing your baby having a baby and it kind of isn’t. It doesn’t feel weird at all. I love having a baby around and I never had a boy child. I did want a boy child because I had this romantic idea that a boy child when he’s 16 takes his mother out for dinner. I think I once saw that in a restaurant, a boy taking out his mother for her birthday. I’m going to have to force Freddie to do that now.’
We discuss the lack of stress in the grandparent grandchild relationship. ‘I haven’t got the responsibility of sending him to school or telling him off. He’s simply there to be worshipped.’
She thinks it’s a strange time for an interview, not quite breakfast, not quite lunch (11am). We order scrambled eggs and toast, perfect hangover food, but the Café Zedel can’t cook until lunchtime and instead they offer us boiled eggs and giant pastries, pain au chocolats the size of brogues.
Saunders is amused, her face arranges itself into a supercilious giggle. She offers a similar expression when I ask wasn’t she surprised to be asked to write Viva Forever! The Spice Girls musical after French and Saunders had mercilessly sent up The Spice Girls in their spoof The Sugar Lumps and the Mamma Mia sketch they did for Comic Relief – Mamma Mia creator Judy Craymer is the impresaria behind Viva.
Craymer called Saunders’ agent to see if she was interested and that was deemed to be a very good sign. ‘It meant a) she doesn’t take herself too seriously, and b) she has a good sense of humour. I immediately thought I am the one who is going to do this. No one else is going to do this. I have to do this thing.
‘When Dawn and I were The Sugar Lumps we always used to go to Spice Girls shows. My girls loved them and I thought I don’t want someone to mess this up for my girls.
‘I don’t have a favourite Spice, I love all of them. Well, maybe my favourite is Emma because I’ve worked with her a lot, but Mel C is also delightful. When you see them now they just are that same gang, they fit into all those roles again. A little bit badly behaved, a little bit loud. You never felt they had to behave. That’s what I always loved about them.
‘Victoria is really funny. She’s the most naturally witty one. She doesn’t take herself seriously, she just looks as though she does.
‘I love Geri’s energy. I love Mel B’s refusal to say anything she doesn’t mean. And the truth is I love the songs. And they actually have their own narrative which makes it easier to write around.
‘There were certain themes, here’s me and my mates, don’t fuck with me and my mates, let’s misbehave. And then a story came.
‘Loosely the story is adopted girl, mother wants to let her go, can’t let her go, is over protective, and then…
‘She doesn’t really want to find her biological mother but she’s on a TV talent show that thinks it would be a really good idea. You see it on X Factor. They have chosen the one with the story.’
Did she conceive this idea when her own daughters were leaving home? ‘No, but I have had that empty nest syndrome. When the girls left it was a slow grieving process. you go, oh look, we’re just on our own again. It’s my husband and me. Oh, What do we do now? “Good Morning.” “Yes, good morning to you”.’ She says this pulling her awkward face. She and husband Ade Edmondson have been married for 27 years and the period of just them together in a big house has not been prolonged as he is about to tour with two different bands, The Bad Shepherds and The Idiot Bastard Band.
‘Gradually you adjust. You miss them. You miss their friends too. You miss the general hubbub of people always being there.
‘I didn’t think about empty nests when I was writing this. It was more having to let someone go out and make their own mistakes. You can’t learn from other people’s mistakes.’
Was it based on the relationship she had with her mother? ‘No, that relationship was much more old fashioned. I mean you would call your mother’s friends Mrs. Nowadays you would call everyone by their Christian name. it was quite formal and I am emotional with my kids. They see the shit as well as the good. I was brought up really well. I had boundaries where if you crossed the line you know you are in trouble. I think my kids sort of get that.
‘I don’t think I was a great rebel except in my head. I’ve never been able to do rows. I cannot do confrontation. You know that fight or flight thing? I’m flight. I just don’t want the argument.’
Eggs arrive. At first we don’t know if they are hard-boiled or soft-boiled. Saunders takes it and attempts to peel it, pauses, ‘If it cracks now we’re in shit.’ It’s a cold hard-boiled egg.
She says that after her father died of cancer eight years ago the dynamic changed in the relationship with her mother. ‘We became much closer. She is a coper. She was born to cope. She is strong and funny. She had a stroke and I was there. She forgets words and cries with laughter when the wrong ones come out. We literally laughed her way through the stroke. By the time the paramedics arrived she was crying real tears of laughter, probably to do with relief. But she said, “Will you go up to the donkey upstairs and bring down my…” The donkey? She meant draws. She just laughed and laughed. She recovered well because she’s a doer and a coper.’
Saunders moved to Devon to bring up her children and now lives mostly in London, the reverse of most people.

It is very rare for Saunders to look right at you. Most of the time she mumbles into her scarf or looks away, allowing me to get a good look at her skin which is dewy smooth, hardly any wrinkles.
The idea for Viva came up in 2009. They narrowed it down to which songs they wanted to use and she started to write the treatment.
‘I think we started in January, so I was three months into chemotherapy,’ she says matter of factly. She has never overplayed her cancer, never come over the victim. She was diagnosed with breast cancer in October 2009. She has never used the word battle and I feel would wince if it was ever used for her. It’s one of those things that she probably didn’t like to confront, she shrugged it off because she’s a coper.
How was it possible to write on chemo? ‘I don’t know. Luckily Judy was very sympathetic. I remember struggling to organise my thoughts. When you are doing chemo you have a load of time. I just thought I am not not going to do this job and by the time I’m finished it everything will be fine. Judy would be so brilliant she would come round the house with a bottle of vodka and the tunes and we would sit and drink.’
Vodka and chemo? ‘Oh yes,’ she says jauntily. Really? ‘Oh yes. You can drink when you are doing chemo. You’ve got so much shit in your body you may as well be drunk. We sat and listened to the songs endlessly and it was so helpful.
‘Why do we need to listen to these songs again and again? She was right. It’s the only way in.’
Most people might lie down and vomit. Singing Spice Girls songs and writing a musical does sound a rather extraordinary way to get through chemo. It sounds superhuman.
‘No, not really. Some people hold down full-time jobs. I didn’t have a vomit problem. Didn’t feel vomity at all. I ha brilliant anti-sickness medication and it worked. For some people it works well and some people it doesn’t. I was very lucky. There are some days when you feel a bit grim and other days, you know, towards the end of a session, okay and you know it’s not killing you. Just makes you feel rotten.’
I note the way she doesn’t say I she says you to distance herself from it but I am struck by her strength and bravery. I just did a week of antibiotics and felt suicidal.
What is it really like? ‘You feel chemical, that’s what you feel. You feel you are part of a big chemical thing but you tell yourself it’s a cure not a disease and you’ve got to get rid of the disease. The chemo is the belt and braces. It feels shit when it’s working.
‘You think, yes I feel absolutely shit, it’s doing its job and you just get on with it, you get on with stuff.’
Did she have any paranoia moments of depression? ‘No. sometimes you feel horrible. Sometimes you feel emotional. And then sometimes when you see your skin goes to fuck you have moments where you think I hate this. But there’s always a point where you think you might as well get over it and life gets back vaguely to normal.’
Are things normal? Has she finished the meds? ‘No, you don’t finish. I’m still on hormone therapy and I’ll be on that for the rest of my life. It’s the reverse of HRT, it takes all your hormones away. It takes all your oestrogen away because what I can’t have is oestrogen because my cancer is oestrogen sensitive. You go on to tamoxifen or some other oestrogen therapy which takes the hormones our so you are basically in menopause. You are from the moment you start chemo because it kills everything.
‘In a funny way, more than the actual chemo, which I found was a grit your teeth and get through it kind of thing, I found the hormone thing a more subtle change and it was much harder to take. You are plunged into menopause. It makes you depressed. That whole side of you, what it is to be a woman, which is hormones, it just goes. You have to get through it but it takes a while.
‘It took me a year on tamoxifen to get used to it, to not be grieving for your oestrogen. It’s an odd thing but I found that much harder than chemo. It’s the thing they least warn you about. They go right, now we go on tamoxifen and everything will be fine. You have to do it. I hated the tamoxifen when I first got on it. I don’t hate it now because I’m adjusted to it. I thought there has to be something else.
‘I went to the doctor and asked him: Is there another drug? He is the most brilliant doctor and he explained to me: If you were my wife I would insist you take this. And he explained: What it needs is someone to really explain how important it is to you and the side effects. They are quite psychological but also physical. And I honestly imagined that I would very quickly turn into a very small leather handbag.’ She makes a creaking sound of a small leather thing.
Having an instant menopause rather than a gradual thing seems to be the most difficult thing for her. ‘I get very depressed and I’m still on anti-depressants. I see it as you need to boost yourself up because suddenly you have no oestrogen and your serotonin goes down, everything depletes and you start thinking…’ She makes a moaning sound. ‘So take a bit of anti-depressant and it’s fine again. It’s a juggling act, isn’t it, what to put in and what not to, but I find I am happy now.
‘I am free of cancer. I did this thing the other day where my doctor said do you want to have a big scan. You know when some people have cancer they are totally neurotic and worried about it coming back, which has never bothered actually because I just say it’s not coming back, it’s fine.
‘But he said, you know your insurance will pay for you to have a full MRI, CAT and all these other scans and it’s two years since you’ve finished your treatment. Two years is the peak of possible recurrence, so I went and did it. The weird thing is I’ve never been to a hospital in my life until the cancer thing, but I kind of like going into clinics now. Oh, I’m going into this one and that one. Do take some blood. I find it kind of reassuring.
‘I did grieve a bit when I wasn’t having the chemo any more. I was used to sitting in the little chair and then the nurse would come and do it. It was like that was your job for that long and it was reassuring. So the thought of one of these scans made me think “Oh that would be quite nice, won’t it.” You get injections, go a bit radioactive, then you get put in the big banging machine for a bit. I actually quite enjoyed it.’
I tell that is kind of weird and she must have been deprived of attention as a child in a big way. She laughs, ‘Yes. But I do love that stuff now. Bang, bang, bang, oh it’s my turn.’
Actually she is the opposite of attention seeking. She kept her cancer quiet until she had finished her chemo. She had been seen a couple of times but no one guessed she was wearing a wig. ‘I had very good wigs. Two of them. One was a real hair wig which was a lot of trouble. I was lucky in that most of the chemo happened during the winter so you could just wear hats. I didn’t mind that aspect of it.
‘What is weird is all of your hair falls out. Everything. Your eyebrows. Your pubic hair. Your leg hair, arm hair, your nose hair. The weirdest thing is your nose hair because you are constantly snivelling and you get nose bleeds a lot. You are a bald person with a nose bleed. I didn’t mind that and it’s a funny thing. Of all the things to care about my hair was the least thing I cared about. At least I didn’t have to have a wax for the best part of a year.
‘Hair grows back and it comes back everywhere. I was looking at my face and thinking it’s so hairy. Suddenly everywhere was hairy.’
We try to order toast instead of the giant pastries. Instead a waiter arrives with bread. Everything we ordered had been got wrong. ‘This is the most hilarious breakfast I’ve ever had.’
Soon she must go to the theatre for a run through. Did the Spice Girls have any changes they wanted to make? ‘No, nothing like that. They could make suggestions but generally they were enthusiastic and nice.’
After this what else does she have coming up? ‘I’m thinking about a film of AbFab on the basis that The Inbetweeners was a successful film. I don’t know about doing more telly. I’m thinking of setting it in the South of France. I always imagine the Riviera life, that search for the nostalgic idea of glamour… It’s hard for me to think beyond press night at the moment.’
She still rides horses although not as much as she used to. ‘Ade said, “You’ve had a good run, but if you fall off…” And he was like: Just stop. At the moment I’ve just started with a power plate. It’s a thing that jiggles you stand on it and do certain positions. I’ve also tried to start jogging. But I walk my dog a lot.’
Her dog is a whippet called Olive. ‘She’s the most beautiful dog in the world. Everyone knows Olive. The other day I was at the station in Devon and I had Olive and there was a woman who looked at Olive and recognised her. “Oh, it must be Jennifer Saunders because this is Olive.”‘ She puts on proud dog mother face which is very similar to proud grandmother.
Her skin does not look grandmother like. ‘It’s ridiculous that I’m a grandmother but it’s the nicest thing. Sometimes I do think a bit of Botox might be good but I haven’t done anything. I think I should really give up drinking for a bit then I’d lose weight, but then I think I can’t be bothered. It’s just so nice to have a drink.’

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Joanna Lumley

Demi Moore

I am waiting for Demi Moore in the lounge bar of the Gramercy Park Hotel. It’s velvety and dark. When she enters the room she takes it. It crackles with her arrival. Yet she is small alone, no entourage, no assistant, no publicist. Walking slightly oddly taking tiny steps with her legs a little too close together. She sinks to the velvet besides me. “Look. I bent over and popped a button on my skirt.” It’s a denim pencil skirt. She had to walk with a hobble because the last button, the one just above the knee was the one that had sped away leaving the skirt to open too wide and too high. She asks our waitress for a “half caff latte” and a sewing kit.

She is wearing a pretty chiffony blue and white blouse, her hair long and lustrous, her eyes small but glittering like dark diamonds. She has a presence but it’s not necessarily the one you’d expect, not in any way haughty or demanding. There’s a sweetness to her embarrassment of walking in a room with a broken skirt, not knowing who in that room was me.

She is instantly open, touchable. “I am in New York because my husband is shooting a movie here.” She uses the phrase “my husband” a lot and she shows you a soft glow as she says it. Ashton Kutcher and Demi Moore made big news when they got together because of the 15 year age gap. I tell her I’ve met him a couple of times and I found him very knowing, very sweet and the term old soul does not seem a cliche for him. “I agree with you on that. It’s a hard thing for me to describe exactly how he is. Who he is on a soul level has definitely lived beyond his now 29 years. There’s so much more that he just gets, even if he hasn’t had the physical experience he seems to have a knowing.” She smiles beatifically.

Demi Moore is softer, sweeter than you’d ever imagine. You sense though that she too has had a few lifetimes, a harsh upbringing, never in one place for long with alcoholic parents and a stepfather who committed suicide when she was 17. Plagued by illness throughout her childhood, driven into an imaginary world, a drive of super force that got her to Blame It On Rio. Engaged to Emilio Estevez in the Brat Pack heat of the mid-Eighties, broke it off to become one half of one of the decade’s most famous couples with Bruce Willis. In 1996 she gave up on Hollywood to move permanently to Idaho to bring up her three daughters Rumer, Scout and Tallulah now 18, 15 and 13. Soon after the marriage broke down but Demi did not.

Her screen persona always has something indesctructible about it. There’s a toughness, there’s a strength, drive, determination. Even when she was the object being traded in Indecent Proposal (Robert Redford’s character wanted to buy her) she was never a victim. She has done plenty of blockbusters – St. Elmo’s Fire, Ghost, A Few Good Men, and in 1996 she became the then highest paid actress in Hollywood getting $12.5 million for Striptease. In the same year she did GI Jane, the story of a woman Navy Seal, shaved head and one-handed press-ups in the mud.

The inescapable thing that she gives us is strength. She gives us steel. She gives us no compromise. What does she think of this perception of her? “Do you know what I think obviously there must be some strength because this is the response from more than a handful of people. It’s not something I’m conscious of, wanting to come across strong. But I think it’s there. It’s part of some of the tough and challenging experiences I’ve had in my life. That I’ve overcome them has created a sort of strength. But I never get the idea that I come over like a warrior. In a funny way I understand it and it’s also just so opposite of where I see myself and how I feel myself.”

She looks right at you as she talks and she’s not afraid to be looked right at herself. Her character in Mr Brooks – “a very twisted tale” – is the detective hunting down serial killer played by Kevin Costner, who is all the more spooky because of his friendly upstanding neighbourly qualities. She loves the juxtaposition of kindly Costner’s regular guy image and murderous unhinged calculating killer. Her character was in the throes of a divorce and was being manipulated by her husband for millions of dollars because she comes from a super privileged background. “So there were those aspects of this particular character that were very different to my life. Because she came from privilege she behaved differently. She had a rage that terrified me. She is someone who is out of control allowing their emotions to run the show. I have never been that, it is probably my biggest fear,” she says laughing her smoky crackling laugh. “She came from a safe place so she could go into those rages. Maybe some part of the privilege that she came from was a cushion that allowed that.”

Interesting that in her dramatically intense soap opera bad childhood that was filled with huge emotions of betrayal, loss, despair, disappointment, she felt she must contain her emotions. “There was one element in the story that got lost. It was an interesting character detail. She liked to pay for sex, which for me was fascinating. It was never really thought of as a woman’s choice so it was really twisted in that juicy kind of way.” The irony is not lost on her that this is the reverse plot of Indecent Proposal. She seems excited about how twisted this movie and her character is in the way that only someone whose life is far from twisted can.

Her first Hollywood ‘comeback’ was in a bikini in Charlie’s Angels Full Throttle. Impressive. Even more impressive was her role in Estevez’s Bobby as alcoholic nightclub singer Virginia Fallon which it has been said was based on her mother who was called Virginia, who was a drunk but not a singer. “He did know my mother. I’m not sure if it was specifically her but I think there were interesting elements. When he first sent me the script it was really to look at it, to see what I thought of it, it wasn’t necessarily to be in it.”

At that time Moore was in Idaho and didn’t know that this was to be part of her way out of there. The fact that Emilio had decided to call a fading singer Virginia Fallon gave it an extra piquancy. “The irony wasn’t lost on me,” she says drily. “It was a gift. Whatever parallels there were with me and my mother it was a really positive way for me to get more inside the pain that she was going through.” And the pain that you were going through. Your upbringing was hard. “It had some not so great moments. But I wouldn’t say hard. There are people who have had it worse and people who have had it not so bad. The one thing I can say is through all the nuttiness I was loved by my mum and my father.”

Her mother was only 19 when she had her. She didn’t grow up with her biological father. He left her mother before she was born. Until she was 15, Demi, named Demetria after a shampoo that her mother saw in a magazine, believed Danny Guynes was her father when in fact it was Charles Harman, a cocaine addicted vending machine salesman from Texas. Was she hurt not to have been told? Confused that for 15 years the man she thought was her father turned out to be not? “Yes and no. It was the norm of a certain kind. It was what I knew. Certainly not what I would want for my children but if I didn’t step out of how hurtful that was it would have been mind twisting for me. There were many insecurities and doubts but if I take a step back I know they made the best choices they could. They thought they were doing the right thing.”

She and her brother Morgan were constantly relocated. Guynes job as a salesman meant they moved 30 times before she was 15 and she was never in the same school for one year. She learnt to assimilate fast, to not make friends because she was going to lose them. By the time she was 12 she was cross-eyed and had to have an operation to correct a lazy eye. Then she got a kidney disease called nephrosis. The drugs she took caused body fluids to build up in her body so much that she couldn’t stand. The disease can be fatal.

When Danny Guynes committed suicide her mother spiralled into worse alcoholism. Moore became the parent. “You could either be trapped by what was going on around or you could find a way out. I think that everything, even if it is scary or good, comes into our life to register as an opportunity to help elevate and expand us as human beings. When I played Virginia Fallon it was touching a dark place that maybe I didn’t get to go to when my mother was alive, my own compassion for the pain she lived with… There was a lot of ugliness to the character of Virginia and I felt sad for that. You don’t come into this life wanting to be anything other than happy.”

It’s as if whatever unhappiness she suffered as a child she wants to touch it, understand it as an actor but never live through it. She always wants to make the choice to be happy. Sounds simple and extremely complicated. What she doesn’t want to carry with her is bitterness and she doesn’t, yet she so easily could. Bitterness would have been the easiest thing. “If I look back at my past I look at those things as my gifts. Some of my lowest points were the most exciting opportunities to push through to be a better person.” Do you mean growing up? “No, not even growing up. If I continue to peel back the layers of myself I think we all want the same things. We all want to feel loved and feel a part of but we all have self doubt no matter where we came from.” Did the extremities of your upbringing push you further away from the self doubt? “We weren’t dirt poor but we didn’t have a lot of money. I entered this career having no background or connection to acting. I had so little I had nothing to lose and everything to gain by taking the risk.”

She was inspired to try acting by Natassja Kinski who was a neighbour.

She had little experience but a pile of determination. She married a singer called Freddy Moore in 1980, divorced him a few years later but kept his name.

“Once tasting a bit of success it’s more challenging. We have to continue to be willing to take a risk so that we don’t get too safe. Unwillingness to risk failure is always there but it gets harder when you feel you have more to lose. So the better place to keep yourself in is one out of your comfort zone, willing to try even at the risk of failing. And that’s not natural to me at all.” She laughs and raises her perfect eyebrows at herself, “In fact it’s completely unnatural.”

Perhaps this reassessing herself has come through her interest in the kabbalah which teaches you to put yourself in a position to do what you least expect. Perhaps she has never known what a comfort zone is, so it is in fact completely natural to her. Looking over her life it seems it has been filled with risk, her career, her relationships, What does she think? What were the most exciting risks to her? “I don’t know,” she says trying to think. “I don’t live in what I was. What do you think have been my biggest risks?” I suggest that getting naked when she was hugely pregnant and posing for the cover of Vanity Fair in 1991 caused a worldwide gasp. At the time it was not deemed possible to be sexy and pregnant. She broke the taboo. She dismisses this. After all, it was one day of her life. And although it might have had a significant effect on changing people’s perceptions and others have copied it since, most recently Myleene Klass, it didn’t seem to involve personal growth for her. “I would say all of my movies were risks even if they didn’t necessarily work in a way that it was a great movie that you would have liked. I would say Striptease was a huge risk for me. It was difficult for me to do the dancing and the actual stripping, contrary to what anybody elses opinion would be. And the gain from it was different to what I would have imagined. While the external public perception was hyper focused on what I was being paid for taking my clothes off ($12.5 million), for me it was the intense focus of connecting with my body and myself in a sensual sexual way, in a way that I’ve never felt before. I was always very uncomfortable with my body. And it was to do with being female and seductive.”

It’s hard to believe that Demi Moore couldn’t have been comfortable in her perfect body. Her long delicate limbs, her pale flawless skin, are all just fleshy enough. “No, I was not. I’ve always felt much more self conscious. I felt I had to push myself to feel more feminine, a different kind of feminine. If you look at everything I’ve done before that, there weren’t a lot of highly sexual roles.”

Indeed, she was always the sweet thing or naughty thing, the vixen or victim. She was the object not the predator. “Being on stage in this character and the way in which I had to use my body made me find my sexuality. In the same way when I did GI Jane it allowed me to find a connection with the masculine part of myself.” The two films came out back to back in 1996 and indeed showed a kind of schizophrenia, absolute opposites and extremes that met in Moore. “It was fascinating. It helped doing Striptease first. I took a lot of criticism, a lot of heat, got hit really hard for both of these films, I think because there was a lot of money attached to it.” Her eyes downcast she seems embarrassed about the money rather than proud of setting a new standard for female stars. That was your gimme period I say, as in gimme more. She chuckles, a little slowly, a little uncomfortably, waits to see if I’m going to criticise. Instead I say there’s nothing wrong with asking for what you want. Hollywood male superstars were certainly being paid at least that. Bruce Willis certainly was. “Yes, having greater desire, does that make you more selfish, or does that give you more opportunity to give?”

Certainly her demands were not seen as altruistic. People were nasty, people were jealous, the bubble had burst. “Both these movies combined to give me some big lessons. I feel I betrayed women with Striptease and men with GI Jane. That wasn’t my intention but I feel that’s how it was perceived. But yes, in that sense I challenged the comfort zone. The heat hurt her. She was not indestructible. After all even now she looks sad about this. Not wanting to stay in the sadness she says brightly, “Where I am now is probably one of the moments of greatest risks in my own career. When I stepped away from working just to be with my children I never really thought about the ramifications of defecting my career.”

What was the biggest risk, going to Idaho, abandoning the career, or coming back? “When I realised I needed to be with my kids in one place for whatever amount of time it didn’t feel like a risk in terms of my career because it just wasn’t what my priority was. It was just my children were important to me. They were little, aged from about five to eleven. It wasn’t about am I giving up work it was about my children were important to me.”

What made you decide to stop and move permanently to Idaho? “We announced our separation and my mother died. I went off to do a film after this called Passion Of Mind. The film didn’t get the best of me and my children weren’t getting the best of me. I was not in the mix. The film had been an extraordinary script and an OK film, but it wasn’t about that. I was the product of divorced parents who weren’t present for me. I realised that if I wasn’t present for them I was going to have bigger issues with them later.” She did not want to let history repeat itself. She was left alone at a young age and felt she had too much responsibility too quickly and she grew up too fast. “I didn’t want to work and drag my kids with me while they were trying to cross this huge transition. I wanted them to become as stable and as confident as possible. I’m grateful that I had the ability to do that. There are people that go through this and don’t have the financial means, but I did. It wasn’t a risk, it was the right thing to do.”

Her mother was only 54 when she died of cancer. Moore had tried to help her with her alcoholism and their relationship had become frustrated because her mother didn’t seem to want the help she needed. Moore moved the whole family to a motel in New Mexico so she could be with her in the last weeks. The fairy tale marriage with Willis was over and she had not left her career on a high note. “The bigger risk was stepping back into this world that I’d left at a point where I’d faced the harshest criticism I’d ever faced in my career. I wasn’t even sure why I wanted to come back. My children though kept asking, are you ever going to work again. Maybe they saw that they were missing that piece of me. It was a big part of who I am.” Were you missing it? “A little bit. I was very happy just being in Idaho. I also realised we can get too comfortable. A sanctuary becomes a hiding place and that’s not a benefit to anybody.”

Her comeback movie was Charlie’s Angels. Was that another risk? Appearing in a bikini alongside women a decade younger? “I didn’t worry about being with younger women and I didn’t have time to think about being in a bikini. I was asked if I could start working a month earlier than originally planned so I didn’t have time to obsess about that.” But wasn’t there a part of your life when you were obsessed with exercise, like running 20 miles a day? “Long ago when I did Striptease and GI Jane.” She pauses to peel back more layers. “It wasn’t just about the parts requiring it. I was much more driven and obsessive about physical exercise and dieting. It peaked. After GI Jane I was burnt out. I stopped work and I stopped exercising. I realised I needed to come from the inside and find a sense of peace. I had manipulated and created something but it wasn’t coming from a place that was really grounded. I realised being thin did not equal happiness.” Did you find it only fuelled your insecurities? “Of course, it’s never going to give us the confidence because that has to come from a connection that’s more spiritual. You can call it God, you can call it the Light, but it’s something greater than you. Greater than what is tangible because what is tangible is finite. I’ve stopped trying to control it.”

She found that the happier she was and the less she tried the better she felt and looked. Although the tabloids would have it another way. Some cite she paid $3 million for her new body. Does she find that a compliment? “No. It’s irritating. And it isn’t true. To fight it feels futile because I feel it perpetuates the myth. But really,” she says with mounting anger, “the culmination for me was that I had my knees done. When I read that I thought wow, should I have been worried about my knees, I didn’t realise they were so bad. There were multiple reports that I’d had them done.” Her knees are readily available besides me. She invites me tod examine them for the scar. She bends them and shows me how in certain positions the tiniest bit of fat pokes over her knee creating a wrinkle, but it’s not a scar. I put my finger across it to check. I can feel no ridge, just smooth skin. A couple of businessmen in the corner look alarmed why I would be stroking Demi Moore’s knees. But she seems to find it amusing. “It’s not just my knees. They say I’ve had multiple face surgeries. I was in getting a facial recently and there were reports that I’d been in there for countless hours saying I’d had surgical procedures. Am I going to sue? Do they want to examine my entire face and look for marks? Do I really care? Well, I have some ego and I think are they trying to say I can only look good if I bought it.”

Twenty years in the media have not hardened her to this. She composes and says, “Also I feel that this separates women. The media is trying to perpetuate something else saying you can’t have this because you can’t afford it.” She’s adamant she has had nothing done to her face. She allows me to stare at her very close. She has fine lines around her eyes. No evidence of any work. She also assures me she’s never had lypo. There is no steeliness. Here are the insecurities that created the steel. I tell her she has to take it as a compliment that people think that she looks so good.

I wonder if the focus on her looks has made her introspective. At 44 she’s too old for the bimbo role but not old enough to be the matriarch, the grand dame. Although in her next film, Flawless, which reunites her with Michael Caine 23 years after they starred in the kitschy sex farce Blame It On Rio, she plays a woman who is “Brittle. It’s a woman who’s given up on her personal life. It’s set in the Sixties where a woman striving for a career in the corporate diamond world was unheard of. It was interesting to explore her. She’s strong but not really. She’s brittle.”

It’s as if playing brittle gets rid of the brittleness in her own life. “I’d like to do something more vulnerable. People associate me with strong but that can be limiting. I suppose if I really want it I’ll have to go hunt it down myself. If you want it you have to be proactive and do the work. We hear all the complaints. There aren’t enough roles for women my age. So I think let’s figure out creative ways to find these. My goal though is to continue to grow as a human being, to find more ways in which I can be a better giver in all aspects. To be a better wife, better mother, better friend, better sister.” Do you feel more able to be loved now? “Yes, I do. I feel like I have a great gift of being with somebody who loves me and supports me. We share a connection that allows me to dig deeper within myself and look at things that I was afraid to look at.” She says this with absolute certainty, even talking about Kutcher she seems to shiver with strength and softness at the same time.

She met Kutcher when she was in New York doing a photo shoot and he was hosting Saturday Night Live. There was already quite a buzz about Kutcher. He was funny and gorgeous. successful and popular and amusing. His show Punk’d was by this time an MTV classic. He was a star of That ’70s Show and was just about to embark on a successful movie career. A group of friends went out to dinner so it didn’t feel awkward, like a set-up. At the time everyone thought she had such a good relationship with her ex-husband Bruce Willis and that they were about to get back together again. They got married by a Kabbalah rabbi in 2005. Was she looking for someone or did he take her by surprise? “I actually think I was at a point where I thought I was never going to find anybody. I don’t come with baggage I come with trunks and as the mother of three teenagers I wasn’t feeling sorry for myself but dating seems kind of silly, I thought I just don’t know how to do this.”

Yet she has learnt to deal with those trunks and unpack the bitterness and anger that makes them such a heavy load. We see happy smiling pictures of Moore, her daughters, her ex-husband, and he current husband smilingly skiing or on family days out. Kutcher never tried to be a father or replace Willis. The children call him M.O.D – My Other Dad. What’s the formula for getting on so well with her ex? “People forget that you get brought together with someone because you share a connection and that there was a depth of love and it gets buried when things go off on another path. It’s easy to forget that and stay attached to the negativity, the bad stuff, the pain. But you do have a choice. You can stay connected to what was shared and find a new form with which to share it.”

She’s done exceptionally well with her very modern family who all go on holiday together? Does she think it depends on how badly it ended on how well the relationship continues? “No. It takes too much work not to get over it. The energy it takes not to forgive is exhausting, it’s miserable. You just have to want to move on. It doesn’t mean it’s easy. There’s lots of emotions and sensitivities to deal with. But if you hold on and don’t forgive it’s destructive. In our case we placed our children as a priority. After all, each of them was created by a piece of us and I never wanted them to think what happened to us had any reflection on them. My parents used my brother and I as pawns. I was determined that that would never happen with my family. I have daughters so obviously I support a daughter’s relationship with their father because it could dictate choices that they would later make.” She gives a haunted little chuckle. “I was the parent with my parents. I took it all on.”

So many things have been written about her getting together with Ashton. The age difference. The fact that she was 15 years older than him. The fact that she was once one half of a famous celebrity couple that ruled the tabloids long before there was Bennifer, Bradgelina or Tomkat.

“On paper if somebody had said you are going to be marrying somebody who is 25 as he was then, who sees a woman who has three kids as a bonus, I would have laughed. I would never have known that this man could have existed.” Who he was was evident very early on. That first night that the big group went out to dinner. “I stepped out of the room to call my children to say goodnight. I was on he phone to them saying I love you and I miss you guys and there he was. He stood there and he looked right at me and he said, “That is the most beautiful thing I ever heard.” He paused, then closed the door. So I knew I had encountered someone really different. I just knew. There was something really different.”
Did you feel that you knew him before in another life? (As he says of her). “I felt there was a connection. I feel like I have been with him the whole of my life. That’s how it feels. I feel so so blessed. I wasn’t looking for a relationship. I asked the universe for a partner, somebody who I could really share everything with.”

When she talks about Kutcher her voice is so warm it’s almost purring. She could talk about him all the time really, and how great and solid and clever and sexy he is.

Do you want a baby with him? “We would love that. It would be just fantastic. We are doing lots of practising for that. And you can’t complain about practising with him.” She giggles a sweet girlie giggle. “I don’t know what I’ve done, what merit I’ve possibly had, that the universe could reward me by putting us together.”

I think you have a genuine happy ending. “I do, I do.” You feel happy for her. You feel happy that such love exists. In fact mesmerised.

 

 

Bono

Bono can rule the undivided attention of a sold out stadium. He can command hearts. When he works a much smaller room, say in the White House, Downing Street, or The Vatican, he is dextrous as well as charismatic. He rules that room with those who rule the world. When he put his sunglasses on the Pope that picture became iconic because of his glasses, not the Pope.
How did he do it? The short answer is he’s clever and relentless, can relate to anybody. But why does he do it? His father told him never to have dreams because he didn’t want him to be disappointed, which encouraged him to dream even bigger, but that’s only part of the long answer.

Contrariness, caring deeply, egomania, ridiculousness, it’s all in there. There’s never been a rock star who wielded so much power. There’s no one in power that doesn’t take his call. During the writing of this piece, there’s no one in power who doesn’t return my call within 24 hours. Not many people say no to Bono, whether it’s Blair, Clinton, Bush or beyond.

And at the same time, there’s no shortage of Bono jokes. Quite a few of them begin, ‘What’s the difference between Bono and God?’ ‘Bono thinks he’s God, but God doesn’t think he’s Bono,’ sort of thing. But Bono will tell the joke before the joke’s on him. People take Bono seriously, but does Bono take himself seriously? Only sometimes.

October 2008. The Women’s Conference. Long Beach, California. I have seen Bono shrink a stadium, make it intimate. But only as a singer in a rock band. When he gives his speech here it’s pretty much the same thing. It’s like being in a very small room with him. He gives great speech.

He follows Billie Jean King and Gloria Steinem, where women roared with emotional approval. But he can follow that, he can top that. “My name is Bono and I’m a travelling salesman. I come from a long line of travelling sales people on my mother’s side. Sometimes I come to your door as a rock star selling melodies. Sometimes I come to your doors as an activist selling ideas of debt forgiveness.” He knows his audience. He flatters and cajoles. He says, “Africa is our neighbour, right down the lane, when that continent burns we smell the smoke. It stings our eyes, it sears our conscience, but maybe not as much as it should. We accept it, men especially. A lot of men have developed an ability to live with this absurdity. Most women haven’t.” And then he goes on to say that the America the world needs is the America he’s always loved. Everyone is swept up.

Tony Blair told me later, “I’ve done speeches with him and there’s absolutely no doubt if he’d not been at the top of his profession he’d certainly be at the top of mine.”

When he talks about Africa, even if you’ve heard him say the same thing before, it stings you new. He talks about when he first went to Africa and a child was dying in his arms and he talks about the look in that child’s eye of innocence and no blame. He says that that’s when he became that thing he despises most, a rock star with a cause.

Then he talks about how 20 cents can provide life saving drugs and how you can do this by buying a Red T-shirt. It was a 40 minute speech, but it felt paced, like a rock concert. No boundaries, everyone part of the same beat and emotion.

Backstage, there’s Maria Shriver, the conference founder, scion of the Kennedy clan and married to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. She looks big-haired, well put together. A purple Alaia suit skims her, accessorised with pink rosary beads that signal quirky, heartfelt. I told her she looked gorgeous. She looked at me blankly, somehow insulted, demeaned. Looked at Bono with this who is this woman you brought here look. Bono refused to acknowledge the moment. Bono doesn’t waste energy on negativity, even small stuff. He moves on.

On stage he’d called Shriver a lioness, a term I see he likes to use for powerful women. Later on that’s what he called Nancy Pelosi and it seemed to make her purr.

December 2008: Olympic Studios, Barnes, London. A few days before the album No Line On The Horizon is finished. The studios are about to close down for good, so there’s a real deadline, intensity. I’m sitting next to Bono in the canteen. He’s eating spicy spaghetti. I’m eating chicken. He’s wearing a soft grey cashmere flicked with little metal bits. Hard and soft, I observe. “Yes, that’s me,” he says; he likes a metaphor, he likes to sum up who he is. He likes to be known.

I once told him once he wears his inside on his out. “You did, didn’t you.” He remembers that. He has the memory of an elephant for stupid minutiae and life saving facts. He remembers the first time I met him that we talked about his mother. She died when he was 14. Yet you’d think he was much younger because he seems to remember very little about her. He remembers her chasing him with a cane and laughing. He wasn’t afraid because she was laughing. He remembers his dad at the top of the stairs doing some DIY with an electric drill. The drill was screaming. It was going to drill him to death. He remembers his mother laughing her head off. Laughter and danger got mixed up in his head.

Bono has always loved to embrace a contradiction, in his life, and his lyrics are always mixing God and sex, poverty and romance. He himself is a contradiction; supersensitive but a bulldozer, relentless when he wants something. He is sometimes self conscious, but he never seems to have any fear. He markets mercy but he never whinges. He is self mocking rather than self pitying. Sometimes saintly, never a monk. Being a rock star and an Africa activist couldn’t be more different. The rock star bathes in excess, the activist campaigns to end poverty.

Hard and soft Bono lives in two different worlds. A creative, artistic world that’s driven with strong passions, but where life and death is rarely an issue. He exposes himself to two completely different standards of judgement. Artistically he doesn’t want to fail. It matters to him. He wants to move you. He is painfully self critical. When U2 first started off he would ask how many people were at the gig, and if it was 400 and the venue held 450 he would worry about the 50 that didn’t come. He’s still like that, although the tickets for the venues are now holding tens of thousands. Yet he can walk into a room on Capitol Hill knowing what he’s asking for is likely to be shot down, knowing it’s a for sure rejection. In a global recession people in the First World are worried about how to pay their bills, not pay attention to Africa. The man who pursues success so relentlessly has somehow rewired himself to accept failure as part of his course.

Paul McGuinness, U2’s manager, who is often referred to as the band’s fifth member, agrees. “He is a bundle of contradictions, a spoilt rotten rich rock star who became successful from his own talent. He didn’t trick anyone. He enjoys life to the full, but he does a lot of good. I think he has difficulties – one day he’ll win a Grammy for album of the year, and the next he’s described as a terrible hypocrite, a force for bad. Yet the organisations that support his activism are sophisticated. ONE is extremely successful. Red is extremely successful. (Red is his organisation set up so that big brands – Gap, Armani, Apple – give up to 40 per cent of their profit directly to The Global Fund). To date it has raised $130 million.”

Red is to raise consciousness and cash. ONE is to bring about political change. Cofounded as DATA with Bobby Shriver of the Kennedy clan, and recently merged, ONE has a base in Washington DC, London, Berlin and Abuja.

Earlier that day Bono had a ONE meeting in London, Soho office which video conferenced their office in DC. They talked of plans for 2010. They talked about a World Cup campaign for mosquito nets and putting kids in school. They talked about what’s going to happen when Obama has to make tough decisions and makes himself unpopular. Could they still count on him? What Republicans should they now work on? How to encourage Cameron on side? How Sarkozy has let them down by not paying what he had promised. Bono says Carla is going to make Sarkozy change, he says he’ll have to call her and say I know who you’re sleeping with. “Obama is already beyond a rock star,” Bono said. Bush needed to be validated by a rock star. He needed help to look cool.

Back at the studio there’s mounting concern about getting the album finished. A board has got red and blue and green writing with triangles and circles, codes of what’s done and what’s not done.

“This album is all about surrender,” Bono says. “Spiritual surrender, sexual surrender. Quite difficult, don’t you think.” I’m not sure if he was expecting an answer.

He takes me into the part of the studio where he’s laying down his vocal and he sings. His voice reaches out right out. I’m sure this is not the first time he’s sung to seduce. He seduces religious leaders like Bush and Blair by giving Bibles, but singing is his other way in. He does it on stage and on record every time. It’s very easy for him to move people’s emotions. It must be addictive. He just can’t stop wanting to do that.

Early January, 2009. Dublin. It’s the last day of Christmas. Christmas lights are still outside Bono’s house, half an hour out of Dublin. It looks over a bay. It’s a big old Georgian house, wood floors, rose and crimson velvet, cosy. A picture of a nun in the hallway. Lots of pictures. Downstairs is a swirling picture painted by Frank Sinatra and a picture of Bono with half a mouth. “Shall we go for a walk? Shall I show you around,” says Bono. But it’s dark, and it’s freezing.

Down some steps we get to another building called The Folly, a Victorian addition. Ali is having a meeting with some Edun people downstairs. Upstairs is an Edwardian bed, the guest room. White crisp linen that many luminaries have slept in. On the balcony he points out The Edge’s house and Neil Jordan’s house. In the guest bathroom everyone who has stayed their has left their mark. Graffiti and scribbles from film directors, actors, writers. Bill Clinton has written ‘A+B=C’. I wondered if it meant Ali+Bono=Clinton. Later on Clinton told me that it didn’t. “It means if you make enough effort and you face the facts you can change things. There is an inherent equation to the application of effort to evidence. It was both affirming and a kind of tongue in cheek putting down the earnestness with which we ply our trade.”

Bono is very good at impersonating the people he meets. His Clinton and Blair and Javier Bardem are extremely funny in their execution. His Bush is less good. Perhaps he has to like you to be you. Not that he says he doesn’t like Bush. In fact he says his sense of humour surprised him. Bush was certainly good to him. He increased America’s foreign budget to help Africans fight poverty diseases from around $2bn when he came in, to about $8bn today, and it’s going further up.

His seduction of the American Right began in part with Jesse Helms, the then head of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Helms was ringleader for the religious Republican right and was said to believe AIDS as God’s retribution. It was a major turning point that Bono convinced him that it was a responsibility of human kind to treat AIDS sufferers in Africa.

President Clinton says, “I was impressed. He converted Jesse Helms and that was something I could never have done. I think Jesse found it fascinating that a man from a radically different culture would court him, and he was disarmed by the same thing that disarms everybody who doesn’t know anything about Bono. Bono knew more about the subject than Jesse did and he made an argument why it was in America’s interest that you could relate to whether you were a conservative Republican or a liberal Democrat – it was conditional debt relief. They have to spend the money on health care, education or development so that those countries would be better for America and they would produce no terrorists. They would be part of a cooperative that would not throw America into conflicts down the road.

“And Bono is the genuine article, a real person. And he also pointed out that debt relief would work from a budgetary point of view, and that was back when I was there and made them run a balanced budget…” A pause. I laugh. Clinton’s always ready for a dig. “He got people to take him seriously because he did his homework.”

It’s hard to keep making an impact when there is a worldwide epidemic of celebrity charity fatigue. Celebrities manipulate. They do something shameful or vicious and undo it by lending their face or their millions to a cause. To make a real impact you have to be better than that, and you have to be convincing. Your cause has to need you more than you need it. Clinton says, “The thing is, he keeps on coming. His heart and his mind are engaged.”

Clinton has a lullaby voice. It’s warm and real, and you see how the two of them connect. He sees a lot of Bono, they have worked together on getting cheap AIDS medicine to Africa as well as on debt relief and boosting trade and investment to the region.

Clinton would have been a good rock star. He tells me he once had a three octave singing range and when he was 16 played the saxophone ten hours a day until his lips split. But he decided that if he wasn’t going to be better than John Coltrane he would go into politics.

Just because Bono could be one of the world’s greatest rock stars, it didn’t stop him going into activism, wanting to make a difference. He’s always wanted to make a difference. It started with condoms. In the 1970s contraception was illegal in Ireland. And there he was doing benefit gigs for the Legalise Contraception campaign. Virgin Records had to pay a fine for selling condoms, which he paid. Not because Richard Branson couldn’t afford it, but because he was making a stand.

Clinton says, “We care about the same things and we are fascinated endlessly by people and their stories. He lives in the stories, not just the statistics and the numbers and the policies, and so do I.”

Clinton is full of stories. He says that he’s happy to tell stories all night with Bono. “Bono has a peculiar gift of mind and emotion and has a grace and power about the way he does it that is quite a thing to behold. There is no question that the way his mind works and his powers of persuasion have been decisively important. They were in the debt relief fight and they were in getting the G8 to double aid to Africa.

“And he has done all of this without sacrificing his responsibilities to U2. But if the rest of the band weren’t on board with this and willing to adjust schedules and all the things you have to do to do both things, it wouldn’t have been possible.”

Bono and I are sitting in his study. Lots of books, tea, home made biscuits. It’s an intimate room. It’s a happy house that’s properly lived in. You wonder why Bono would want to leave it at all. In many ways I think he doesn’t. That’s just more of the conflict.

“Contradiction is just the ability to hold two opposing ideas in your head. I am a family man, I am a loyal if unreliable friend, I am a rock star. If I go out I sometimes set fire to myself and others. I am an earnest activist, a reflective and a religious-ish person. The right to be ridiculous is something to hold dear and never too far away.”

The view from the window, sky and sea, is what inspired the title No Line On The Horizon. The album took 4 years to make. It suffered delays. Why did it take so long? Is it because he’s doing too much for too many and been stretched too thin.

“The whole idea of an album is in jeopardy, it is an outmoded notion. And we wanted to see if we could have ten or eleven really great songs, it turned out to be harder than we imagined. I would say we worked twice as hard to get there, and that either means we’re half as good or it took just twice as much concentration.”

The last album How To Dismantle An Atom Bomb sold 9 million. Was he finding that success hard to live up to? “It could be that, that over achieving personality.” Is it because he doesn’t like to fail? “I’m sure I have failed at things. The two things I haven’t failed in are the ones that mean the most to me, that’s my music and my family. Activism is all about failure. You think about the people who didn’t get the medicine.”

If your record goes to number one, that’s a definitive result, you can see it. If you are tackling global poverty you’re never going to finish with it. Perhaps that’s why he keeps on going. But what if the songs stop coming? What if it becomes too hard to swap the part of the brain that writes speeches for the part that writes lyrics?

“If I’m honest this is the first album where I thought that might be true. Certainly the last two albums were very easy for me. I’m not saying they were perfect. If I’m excited about what’s happening in one room I’ll generally bring it to the next.”

The danger is if your politics inform your passions you could end up with some pretty boring songs. “There’s a book called Conciliance (by Edward Wilson) that I read once. The author made up the word. It’s a theory that he developed that all disciplines meet at some point and wrap around each other; maths, music, science, cooking. It taught me to separate everything, into top line melody, counterpoint, rhythm and harmony. I learned to do that in every single situation. In economic theory I would be the guy in the room that would find the top line melody because I am a singer. But I also understand the counterpoint is necessary.”

He finds a way in and a way through. His voice on the latest collection of songs speaks in different characters. “I was getting bored with my own point of view and thought I might be able to express more about myself by disappearing into other people.”

There’s a song called Cedars Of Lebanon. It’s the voice of a war correspondent sitting on his hotel balcony. He says that could have been him if he hadn’t been a rock star, because he is attracted to conflict and to danger. Another song, Stand Up Comedy, is about small men with big ideas. “Totally me.”

There are books everywhere. He likes to read about three at once. Currently there’s one about a tribe of pirates from the Barbary coast who took 130 Irish people from a town in County Cork and sold them as slaves in Algeria. And he’s reading Richard Dawkins’s The Devil’s Chaplain. An edition of Seamus Heaney is never far away, and beside it is the Koran given to him by Tony Blair.

U2’s Larry Mullen Jr does not have much time for Blair. He’s branded him a warmonger. Paul McGuinness says that Larry and Bono are like brothers, so they are bound to have arguments

Says Bono, “That’s why I would never want to be in politics. I would never want to be in that position where you have to make that decision, sending people into battle, knowing there will be fatalities but believing you are saving more lives.

“But because of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, millions of people are alive that would have been dead in other far off places through their interventions in HIV/AIDS.”

Later on Tony Blair would call me from Rwanda. He speaks about Bono with some devotion and certainty. Why did he give him the Koran? “We’d been talking about Islam, so it seemed like an appropriate thing to do.” Was religion the thing that really connected them? “Africa connected us primarily. He is completely sincere in what he says and people in power respect him not because he is nice to them but because he really does understand the complexities of our business. He’s not been a fair weather friend to me. He disagreed with me strongly over Iraq.”

Bono and Blair first met about 14 years ago. “I was the Leader of the Opposition and it was an awards bash. He was receiving an award and for some bizarre reason he spoke in Spanish. He said of me, ‘This guy wants to be Prime Minister. You’ve got to have big cohones to want to have that job’. It was a surprising introduction. But since that time he is one the people I like most and respect most in the world.”

Even if I have a theory that rock stars and politicians are interchangeable and the reason that Clinton and Blair are enthraled by him is that they want to be him, Bono doesn’t want to be them. Yet he has made them love him. He has made Bush do things that seemed totally out of character. When he’s told someone’s going to be difficult, he refuses to see it that way. He talks about it coming from a punk rock foundation. It doesn’t matter if you can’t play your instruments, do it anyway. He worries, “Maybe this is a dangerous trait because if you have some skills in one discipline you think they can be applied to others.” It’s hard to know when self belief and passion become arrogance. But arrogance has no charm and Bono has a ton of it.

Ali comes in with a glass of white wine for me and red wine for him, remembering that the last time she saw me that’s what I was drinking. Ali has pale skin, big dark eyes, black hair, is fond of wearing black. She is the kind of woman who amazed President Clinton when she turned up at a gala dinner that was held for him in Dublin when Trinity named an American studies programme after him because of his contribution to the Irish peace process. It was a day after she had given birth to John, their youngest son.

Clinton said, “You would never have believed she had g given birth just the day before.” She’s always struck me as being strong, but with a naughty streak. Bono says, “People always think of her as so graceful and elegant and butter wouldn’t melt up in her mouth. How did she end up with him? I happen to know she’s messy and fun. I don’t trust people that have no joy. I go back to music and people that have joy. Miles Davis’s Blue may not be joy for a lot of people, but for me it’s a sexy place to be in. This house has had a lot of laughs for sure. Probably more than the missus would like, but at the same time she’s got more mischief in her than people think.”

We talk some more about how darkness can be a sexy place, but how his favourite combination is “rage and joy.” We talk about self consciousness. “Some people put me on the defensive and self consciousness of course makes an ugly face. As soon as you put a camera on someone, if they’re self conscious it makes them ugly. I know it’s happened to me. The human face changes just by the act of putting a camera in front of it. I had to learn that – I wasn’t necessarily built for rock and roll. There’s a certain narcissism that every writer must have. But there’s another kind which a performer has and I’m not sure I have the second one. I have to work up to professional vanity. Just right now I’m having to be a rock star again. I had to do a photo shoot the other day. I took off my glasses, but I put on black mad eye make-up. It was like I needed a bit of a mask to step into being rock star again because I felt a bit of a charlatan, a bit of a part-time rock star. Speak to me in a few months and the problem will be trying to put rock star back in the box.” I used to think he wore dark glasses to hide some kind of inspirational fire behind his eyes, now I think that he needs them as a barrier.

I’m not sure if he dreads the idea of a full-on stadium tour. “Yes, I suppose leaving here, leaving this house, leaving these five people who I love so much, and the safety of the place. It’s like a cave.”

Do you feel more fearful about stepping outside your cave these days? “It happens every time really. It’s always been like this. You wouldn’t be a performer if you weren’t insecure. There’s always that feeling, will the crowds turn up?”

Fear and desire are never far away from each other with him. “We’d like to do another album very quickly. We’d like it to have more of this intimacy because this one has real intimacy.”

Do you think you used to be more afraid of intimacy? “Maybe… I suppose the thing about this album is it has a spectrum of emotions, from swagger and defiance to brokenness and playfulness and self heckling.” He’s probably more comfortable in the self heckling. He’d rather be the one that’s putting himself down, it gives him a sense of control.

A few years ago he met Andrew Lloyd Webber at the Ivor Novello Awards. He does a good impersonation of Lloyd Webber saying that for so many years he’d had musicals all to himself. “I went and met him one night and he was very generous and said I think other people should have a go at this. So I mentioned it to Edge and he said I will be in. The first musical we had in mind was Faust set in Las Vegas with Frank Sinatra as the man who does the deal with the devil.”

He first met Frank in 1987, and they became friends. He recalls a moment with Frank at dinner where he pointed to the colour of a bright sky blue napkin and Frank said that he remembered when his eyes used to be that colour. He said it without nostalgia or self pity.

The Frank musical didn’t work out. They had another idea for a Rasputin musical. “I asked Pavarotti if he would sing in it, although he was the wrong shape for Rasputin, but he had the right eyebrows. And then Marvel came up with an idea, would you like to write a musical around Spider Man? Julie Taymor is directing it. And it hurts me to say this, but she is tougher than we are in terms of her art. She is a master story teller. I met her on Across The Universe.” I don’t tell him but Across The Universe is the only film in my life that I’ve ever walked out on. It was Beatles songs set to a nonsensical non-story. Bono is enthusiastic though. It’s set to open on Broadway in November.

What would his super power be if he could choose one. He puzzles. Maybe he wants to fly or have X-ray vision, see inside people, make people do things? “I can do all that already.” He laughs.

He tells me he’s never had a journalist in his home before. I tell him that I’m flattered and he makes small of it. We go to eat dinner joined by Ali and the two directors of Edun, all childhood friends that know and trust each other. We eat chicken, vegetables, but no potatoes. Then cheese, chutney, and fancy crackers. Bono is at the head of the table, very much the performer now. A brilliant mimic, he treats us to his repertoire but disappears early for a conference call with LA leaving the rest of us drinking.

I spoke to The Edge who is in New York working on Spider-Man songs. “I’ve never written a waltz before,” he says, feeling pleased to have risen to a challenge.” How does it affect him, Bono not being there much of the time? “It works pretty well. Ideas come to him quickly. In a funny way it might work better for us to have him coming and going. If you are working on a project for a long time you probably struggle with it because I’m the guy working most closely with the music, initially on my own. So what I really love is being able to hear it through Bono’s ears.”

The Edge and Bono are that close. It’s not a problem for him to hear through his ears. In France they live in a house next door to one another and in Dublin they can see each other’s houses. They choose to spend time together, even though they get to spend less time together now.

“He always relishes coming back, which is another good thing. U2 gave Bono the opportunity and a platform, so in many ways Bono’s work is just an extension of the band. Our life informs our music. It’s a natural development. The interest in civil rights was there from the beginning. We don’t necessarily agree on every single aspect of his work. For instance when he did his photograph with George Bush I was set against it because photographs speak so loudly. There was some disquiet from U2 fans, but ultimately I think what he did turned out to be right.” Would you say your relationship with him has changed? “No. We are very close. He is my best friend.?

Adam Clayton doesn’t worry that Bono’s campaigning could ever jeopardise U2. “It’s hard to see into the future, but there’s no reason why Bono’s activism would mean he would give up the band. I think he couldn’t campaign without the band. It’s much less of a proposition for him to be a campaigner without the weight of the band behind him. His writing is very much informed by what he learns in the political arena. It’s not enough for him to watch the News at Ten on a daily basis and form his views from that.” Has it changed the dynamic though? “I think he would always find things to occupy himself. Back in the days when we were loading gear into the back of a Transit van and everyone was pulling together, he would always be off finding somebody to talk to rather than unload the van, and I don’t think it’s really changed.

January 2009. I meet with Jamie Drummond, cofounder of ONE. He has a clear eyed intelligence. “The crisis that is enfolding in the financial world is not dissimilar to the crisis of poverty or climate change. It had to get worse and worse and worse. It seems it is in no one’s interest to take it seriously until it feels like it is almost too late. Wouldn’t be great if human nature were better at anticipating crises. At least on extreme poverty, we hope groups like ONE can help encourage the public to get ahead of the crisis”

Doesn’t the world financial crisis seriously affect all arguments for fighting extreme poverty? Listening to Drummond, he switches it all around to make it make sense. “If Africans were wealthier they could buy our products. With more wealth, people have fewer kids, which can mean amongst other things lower carbon emissions. There will be fewer immigration problems and that is something southern Europe is really worried about. So at a time where simple moral value based arguments might not resonate, these are the hard headed arguments that get through to people.”

DATA – Debt, Aid, Trade, Africa – was the original organisation, it did just advocacy. It helped give birth to both Red and ONE. Red to take care of the private sector and raising money to fight AIDS and ONE to persuade the public to get money and better out of governments to beat poverty, especially in Africa.

Drummond, who is 38, worked for Christian Aid in the mid-nineties in Ethiopia, increasingly aware that Live Aid had made very little difference, all the money that had come to Ethiopia from Live Aid was only servicing the debt run up by the immoral dictatorship.

It was Drummond who helped promote the idea called Jubilee 2000, which set about giving Africa a new start by cancelling billions of dollars of debt. He didn’t know Bono but tried to enlist his support as a way to help sell his idea to the White House. When an Irish voice came on the phone he thought it was a friend playing a joke, but Bono is prone to just picking up the phone to people when they least expect it.

Drummond recalls, “We got involved in the first place because of a grassroots jubilee movement for global justice, and specifically because the great moral leaders of our time, Mandela and Tutu, asked that Bono and others who had supported the anti-apartheid campaign, get back involved in the campaign for justice and against poverty. We’ve been working for them and that mandate ever since. Tutu’s our international patron and Bono is in regular contact with Grace Machel and Mandela.

“When we negotiated the Millennium Challenge Account – giving more money to countries that were democracies, fighting corruption, with no linkage to the war on terror – we got Bush’s support. I think they realised that development could be part of winning the war on terror. By the end of 2002 after negotiations had happened at the Monterey summit, President Bush appeared in a photo with Bono.”

It was a picture that took negotiation and positioning. It’s one thing to appear in a picture with Clinton when there was no war and they are like minded individuals. But in the picture that aligned himself to Bush, Bono risked alienating many people. It is not just Larry Mullen Jr who has no respect for warmongers. To appear with Bono played to Bush’s advantage. It put him in a position as a compassionate conservative when the rest of his agenda was not compassionate. Although at this time Bush was popular he was certainly not popular with the left or centre, and giving aid to Africa is left or centre territory. Bono knows if you want aid you can’t pick sides, but yet you have to make everyone feel you are on the same side.

When Bush first announced $15 billion was being given to well-governed poor countries for the Millennium Challenge, Bono agreed to be in the picture with him. “People were saying how could you be in a picture with this person and we said, ‘But it gets us billions of dollars for poor people in Africa, it’s a price worth paying’. It was billions of dollars. He’s not a cheap date. This opened the door to more. The AIDS initiative helped Africans put 3 million people on life saving drugs. This stuff is effective and in part it flowed from tough decisions like hanging out with President Bush.”

How do you think he won over Bush to get this money? Was it charisma, was it charm? “If he had just charm but he didn’t have a credible grounding in policy it would only get him so far. It’s charm, passion, credibility together. It’s often the case that a prime minister or president doesn’t read the briefing before meeting with a rock star because they don’t expect to be challenged on policy details. Our goal is to get them to read the briefings on our issue in the first place. Then they start to own the issue, and Bono is reminding people why they got into politics in the first place. With most politicians there is an idealistic kernel, a seed, that sets you on your way, Bono goes back to that original DNA that is in every politician, that wants to do good, and he nurtures it with a few facts and a bit of charm, and a feeling like if you team with this guy you can make a disproportionate difference.”

Why do you feel people feel so connected to him? “It’s an amazing talent, and it’s an understanding of the opportunity that you can make a difference. You can try and change the world. It’s an exciting obligation and a pretty powerful potent thing. But it would be unsuccessful if he didn’t make it fun. I find this grim do-gooding portrayal of him quite irritating because he is a fun loving character, a very good mimic, and is quite happy to get salty mouthed, and he notices things that you haven’t noticed about yourself.”

Not only is it more of a challenge to get money for Africa in a world financial crisis, when you’ve spent eight years targeting Republicans, suddenly they are out of power and you have to make new friends with Democrats. Of course you can’t pick sides, but you can also lose allies. Obama doesn’t need extra charisma or a photo with a rock star, he has everything that a rock star has already.

Says Drummond, “It would have been easy to imagine that Obama was finally our dream candidate, let’s just support him all the way. But that wouldn’t do him any favours and for our issues to get through we need the support of the Republicans and of everyone and we need never stop working both sides. In that sense he has taken celebrity advocacy to a new level.”

Partly because he never stops and partly because of his belief if you really want a big thing to happen why bother with a medium sized thing. If you can call the President of the United States, why not.

March 2009. We are in Nancy Pelosi’s office, a symphony of peach and beige, as is the woman herself. She is glowing, tangibly excited to be with Bono. As Speaker of the House of Representatives she has invited chairs of various caucuses, special campaigning interest groups within the party, to sit with her to discuss the aid budget and how to defend it. She introduces him. “The one good thing President Bush did was to increase the aid budget for Africa. That was the only good thing he did and you were the transformer, you persuaded him to do that.”

There follows a sometimes tense discussion going on about a proposed $4 billion cut to Obama’s aid budget. It’s a powerful group of about twelve that includes people who write the laws that govern foreign policy and people who write the cheques. Jan Schakowsky ,influential Democrat from Illinois gets a buzz on her Blackberry, it’s a campaign email from the ONE organisation urging her to restore the cuts, a complete coincidence. Bono sees it as a sign, not a mystic sign, evidence that THE organisation is absolutely connected.

Bono and Pelosi work the room together, sparking off one another. Pelosi sending people out to vote. They need to vote but they need to come back. It could have been a very distracted meeting that lacked momentum but it didn’t. It aroused hope, dispersed the grimness of the situation.

The Senate House is stone cold, echoy corridors. We head to Patrick Leahy, Senator for Vermont. Bono says, “This man is like John Wayne.” It’s his birthday. Bono will give him a cup cake since gifts of more than a few dollars have now been banned. Leahy says, “I’ve seen him win over diehard conservatives. A couple of members of our congress have an almost dismissive attitude to AIDS in Africa, yet he gets in touch with them and they get back on the programme. He has walk-in privilege to this office any time. Only Audrey Hepburn, Bono and my grandchildren have had this privilege.”

Leahy first met Bono 20 years ago and they have since worked on various humanitarian issues. “There are millions of people in this world who will never know who you are and will never know your music because they’ll never have the money to buy it. All that they know is that their lives are immeasurably better because of you.” Leahy is twinkly eyed, all passion and heart. No surprise that Bono connected with him.

A connection with Josh Bolten was less obvious, but as Bolten was Bush’s chief of staff, and before that the budget director, it was essential for Bono to find one. When they met 12 years ago, when Bolten was Bush’s campaign director, Bolten had never seen a U2 concert. In a gamekeeper turned poacher sort of way, he is now on the board of ONE.

“Over the years that I have had interaction with Bono you could never say that he was unreasonable in his ask, but he was going to ask you for more than you were reasonably planning. He was always very well calibrated in his ask. Asking us to make a stretch, but not ridiculously.”

Does Bolten think the aid budget that Bush so dramatically increased is in jeopardy? “It may be. It may be rebranded so it has Obama’s stamp on it to attract more Democratic support.” He was there the first time Bush met Bono. “He was wearing a black suit, black shirt, sunglasses, his Washington outfit and he brought with him an Irish bible as a gift. The president was shocked that there was this crazy rock star who is also a person of faith. The president’s faith is exaggerated as a factor in his daily life. His faith was very private, but it’s a deep faith. Bono is also a person of faith, so he wasn’t untrue to himself, he wasn’t faking but he chose the right element of himself to present, so they hit it off.”

Did they have a special bond? “I think it took a while to build a bond. They didn’t agree on everything. They had a negotiation about the announcement of the Millennium Challenge initiative. Bush was announcing a programme and therefore there would be a photograph of Bono with Bush. Bono was reluctant. A lot of people on the left did not like President Bush, so Bono was courageous. Bono is a charming, persuasive man. He’s very good at all this.”

David Lane, the President and CEO of ONE, used to work the Bill And Melinda Gates Foundation. Bono and Bobby Shriver approached Gates in 2002 for funding to start DATA. “The idea of Bill Gates funding a lobby and Bono was pretty far out.”

Although they have known each other for several years, and are friendly they are not super close, yet “It’s kind of shocking. He remembers every conversation we’ve ever had.”

April 2009. Bono and I are in a car on the way to Dulles Airport, Washington DC. He’s wearing jeans, a purple shirt, a black tie undone, pink lenses and a grey furry coat. He says he saw dogs in the street, not dissimilar to the coat, taking an interest in him. He smelt expensive and seductive, like a wooden cigar box.

The meetings in Washington have been partly tense, partly euphoric. There is a threat that the billions will be decreased, but Nancy Pelosi thinks she’ll be able to make it alright. Everybody I have talked to has applauded Bono for his knowledge and charm. The common thread is that he remembers everything about them, their birthdays, their children’s birthdays. His brain for detail is exemplary. How come?

“When I was very young I used to play chess and I was good at it. I can learn useless minutiae, but actually I can forget my way home, or I’ve been known after the tour is long over to come downstairs and get in the back of my own car. But I think you remember what’s important to you. I remember asking Seamus Heaney’s wife how did he remember so many other people’s poems and she said, ‘Words are very important to him.'”

I tell him that I have been thinking about his mother and why I find it strange that he can remember so many inane details, so many facts, but almost nothing about his mother. Is that because he has to live in the present? “Maybe, that might be the answer. And that there is only a certain amount of real estate. The brain is no different to the body. A couple of press-ups and a few weights and it can reshape. My curiosity in all these different directions has been a boot camp for my brain. People who I would have thought of as much faster on their feet, you suddenly seem to jog past after these kind of gruelling days. Every meeting is a monkey puzzle.”

Are your memories of losing your mother so painful that if you carried them with you, you think it would slow you down? “Are you suggesting I have baggage?” I tell him I’ve been puzzling about it for weeks. That I feel I know as much about his mother as he does. He laughs, not nervously or self consciously, but tells me in all his memories she’s laughing. “Yes, maybe it is about not wanting to slow down. With U2 we don’t think about an album as soon as we finish it, we’re on to the next thing. We’ve always been like that.”

This fits in with the idea that he can’t stand people who moan. “I can’t stand cranks and whingers. My favourite quality is lack of self pity. I really like people who have none. I know people with just a tiny fragment of difficulty and they spend the rest of their life walking with a limp. And actually I don’t think I’ve had much to overcome in my life, the odd black eye, the odd broken tooth.” What about a broken heart? “Heart… You only know you have a heart when it’s broken. When you are a singer in a band you stick your neck out for a living, you get used to knocks. And I’ve noticed that the spleen and ire of your enemy usually takes them out, not you, so you don’t have to do anything, almost. There is nothing more attractive than energy moving forward. I think our band has it, our movement has it, and it’s exciting to be on that train.”

Does it never make you feel schizophrenic? “I think I’m more and more myself in every situation. On the surface I can be insecure. You wouldn’t be a singer in a band if you didn’t need a chorus of voices to call your name. But deep down I am really not. I feel I am on solid rock. On another level I feel a strong foundation, so you can take an inordinate amount of thumps and I’m not knocked off my feet.”

As an artist he’ll feel criticism sorely, but as an activist if he’s turned away he just keeps on coming back. That’s part of the train. Bono knows how to make it a special ride. Charm is an overwhelming factor, even though he doesn’t acknowledge he has it. “I have got manners. I try and look after people. Maybe it’s insecurity because you’re trying too hard, trying to please people.”

What he has is an ability to connect on a really deep level really quickly.. “If people are open to be connected with that’s the kind of people I want to be with.” Many people feel that strong connection with you. “But I might not feel it back. I’m a man who sees friendship as a kind of sacrament. I take friendship very seriously and as a result I have some extraordinary friends, in the band, in my marriage, in all the spheres that I move in.” Never at any point does he take credit for doing this all on his own. He’s always thanking people loudly. “I have a day job, I do this part-time. There is a huge network from Oxfam to Concern to Civicus and Taso, people like Kumi Naidoo, Wangar Mataai, John Gitongo, who work on these issues in every waking moment. They are the rock stars, I am the fan.”

I wonder does he see Ali as a lioness, he so often references lioness energy as being powerful and dangerous. “Very much so. Our relationship has changed a lot. For a while I thought I was in charge, I was the hunter protector. A few years ago it became clear there was somebody else in charge and I feel like I hold on a lot tighter to her than she does to me, and that slightly bothers me. She is so independent and I sometimes wish she wasn’t.”

Of course you warm to him because he fesses up to his insecurities. His insecurities make his self belief engaging, human. At the airport we say goodbye. I’ve been following him around for so long it feels a sad separation. Everybody who’s lives he moves in feel they have rights over him, that he is their special friend. He may know nothing about this. I wonder could Clinton and Bush, Blair, Obama, the Polish Pope, Frank Sinatra, all feel this connection. The connection is what it’s all about. If you feel you own a piece of him you also feel an obligation to him, to change the world, and that’s how he does it.

Tom Freston, Chairman of The Board for One and on the Board of Red, first met Bono 20 years ago when he was running MTV. He was responsible for seminal television like Beavis and Butthead, South Park, and The Real World on which all future reality shows were to be based. He was fired from Viacom, the parent company, two years ago. “Bono rang me right away. They had started ONE when I was head of Viacom. It made sense that it was something that all the networks, Nickelodeon, Comedy Central, VH1 should be involved in. We were always looking for good pro social things to tie in to. He called me the day after I was fired and said this is the best thing that’s ever happened to you.” This informs my theory Bono doesn’t see negativity.

“He sees the good in everybody. He has a force within himself that’s slightly different from him, bigger than him. He’s aware of it and he can align himself to it to convince people to do things with a sense of urgency. He does this with great poetry, to be able to take this force and somehow make great things come from it. He’s irresistible in a way when he asks people for things. He has a sense of purpose that you can find yourself wanting to align yourself to. He can talk to almost anybody in their own language. He’s friends to the rich and poor. He seems extra human when you see him in action. I know that’s not a proper word, but I don’t know where it all comes from. It’s some spirit, this force in him, maybe even apart from him.”

I have seen this force in action and it is indeed as messianic as Freston describes it, but it’s not saintly. The Washington trip was days that started at 7.30am, maybe 13 meetings a day, then a business dinner. Freston says, “Some nights I’ve seen him be up drinking all night long and the next morning he’ll address 200 freshman representatives with Nancy Pelosi. I couldn’t get a word out of my mouth, but he just lets them have it meeting after meeting.

Like when he calls someone a lioness, that person feels they are a lioness. It’s endearing. But it’s also smart and smart aid seems to be the new buzz word , the kind of aid that’s proven that it works, for instance malarial nets, antiviral drugs, given money to governments who are not corrupt or wasteful. In a recession you want relevant statistics, you want to see results. How Bono does what he does might be mystical, but the results are real.

Click here to read Chrissy’s U2 interview

Anjelica Huston

We meet at Shutters Hotel on the beach in Santa Monica. Lovely views of the bright blue sky and pale sand. We order lobster salad and white wine. Almost unheard of at lunchtime anywhere in California. Anjelica Huston has never been a conventional woman, one that fits in easily or accepted convention. She’s always been attracted to the dark side, the gothic, most at home playing Morticia in The Addams Family, chopping the heads off roses or being a witch or a mafia bad girl in Prizzi’s Honor for which she won her Oscar.
She’s known for having an alpha presence, yet men in her life have cast heavy shadows: her father, the macho director John Huston, for whom the term hellraiser seems too weak a cliché, and for being involved with Jack Nicholson, larger than life womaniser straight out of the same mould.
She has always had a dangerous presence, edgy. Her face has been called imposing, imperious, corvine. She herself joked it was the kind of face that was only ever seen on old coins.
Today it’s the same interesting face, although the eyes look a little surrendered. She looks well put together, blue Palazzo pants, black patent leather, Tori Burch mules, a soft white T-shirt with net inserts that reveal pale flesh, although perhaps not as vampiric as it once was.
She smells exotic, the scent she’s always worn, Patou. But there’s something that’s very much not the same and no matter how light she might try to make the conversation there is a profound sadness. Two years ago her husband of 18 years, Robert Graham, the sculptor, died. The year before that he was sick in hospital. It’s been an extremely grueling time for Huston. First of all a period of reevaluating love and what it meant, concluding that this was the man she has loved most in her life. And then losing him.
Her hair is still striking, lustrous, but not as dark as it used to be. And her mouth still looks like it was drawn on. A cartoon mouth that turns up and down at the edges as she expresses pain or joy. Intense brown eyes that are not afraid to look right through you.
She talks about death with a disconcerting familiarity. Ostensibly we are here to talk about Horrid Henry, a rather sweet 3D children’s movie where she plays the cruel teacher wearing a prosthetic nose, mouth and wrinkles.
Somehow odd to be talking about something flimsy after we go into the year she spent hoping her husband was not going to die and how it’s taken her a while to accept “widowhood”. She makes me shiver inside every time she mentions the word “widow” it comes with such pathos. It hurts every time she describes herself thus.
I mention in an attempt to be cheery that I came across an interview with Jack Nicholson, her long time love, where he referred to breaking up with her. He said ‘Anjelica annihilated me.’ Her mouth doesn’t quite turn up at the edges. She already knows what he said by heart. She says that he rather spoilt it by in the next sentence saying that he wouldn’t like to change anything, he’d just like to deal with it better.
“I think he recovered quite well. I’ve seen that quote floating around for a bit and the caveat being would you like to go back and make things work and the answer being no, I’ll let that one rest. I paraphrase.”
Interestingly she paraphrases in a slightly more negative way. He actually said, “I have made a mistake, but I don’t want to go back and correct it. I would rather deal with it.”
She says, “You can’t go back in time but you can move forward. I talk to Jack. I don’t speak on a day to day basis but we keep in touch. It’s a nice relationship, mature.”
Quite nice that you were able to annihilate. “Well particularly if they deserve to be annihilated.” A small smile. “At least he let that be known. I remember after we broke up there being a kind of photo layout of him and his new paramour in Life or People magazine with testimonies from his friends as to how he’d found the love of his life. I found that incredibly…” She’s searching for the words, and then just laughs. “There have been so many paramours since then.” She instantly changes the subject.
There’s something dismissive though in the way she speaks about him. Yes they still speak. Yes they’re still friends. It’s not so much that she’s dismissive of him but dismissive of that adrenalin fuelled passion, the intense uncertainty of their relationship where infidelity didn’t necessarily mean betrayal until Nicholson very publicly had a one-night stand that turned into a few weeks, Rebecca Broussard got pregnant, and there was no turning back.
Huston had already been trying for a baby. She remembers the photos in the lifestyle magazines of Nicholson and girlfriend and baby. It was all too public. It’s as if she’s seeing the magazine spread in front of her still.
Perhaps she can take a small delight in the fact that if she was the love of Nicholson’s life he was certainly not the love of hers. She talks about how hard it was. How she couldn’t think straight or do anything except look after her husband.
“When my husband was sick it was impossible for me to work. I dedicated my time to him and now for the first time I’m having the opportunity to look outside. Oddly nothing came to me at that time. I had very few offers. Perhaps people knew what was going on. Perhaps it was just luck that I had enough time to devote myself entirely.”
In the last year I did three movies. There was one called The Big Year with Owen Wilson and Steve Martin. I’ve got to know Steve Martin a lot more and I don’t mean in the biblical sense. I’ve been around him for many years and I never thought that he particularly liked me. But on The Big Year I suddenly saw this other side of him. Compared to the Steve Martin I’d known all those years before he was practically emollient. He was jovial, arranging dinner dates. I think it was because he’s happily married and I found him to be an inventive actor, quite clever. The Big Year is about competitive bird watching and I play a sea captain and Owen Wilson and I have an ugly past where I forced him off the boat with a knife.
“I did another movie. The title keeps changing although it’s being alluded to as a ‘cancer comedy’. It’s a movie that emphasizes the crazy things and emotions that surround a serious illness.”
So she did a movie dealing with serious illness and death just after she’d experienced it. That was harsh. “Life is harsh. My life has always reflected my work. My life, my work. I don’t know which comes first. I don’t know if that’s just what I’m sympathetic to or it’s fate.”
The waiter seems over attentive, very keen to listen in. she says she doesn’t know why she chose this restaurant. It’s always been unlucky for her. Once she fell over, slipped on the floor by the bar, was on the ground and nobody came to help her.
She grew up in Galway, Ireland, in the guest house of a big rambling house called St. Cleran’s Manor House. Her father loved Ireland. He loved hunting. He loved the freedom. He hated McCarthyism, control. She too has adopted Ireland. It’s in her heart. She was very moved by the Queen. “How fabulous was the Queen’s speech,” she says with pride.
Her father got rid of the house when her mother died and his new wife didn’t like it. Something that also causes an ache.
Has she been back to Ireland much? “I’ve been back a couple of times since Bob died and that’s been good for me. I’ve been back to the house. It’s in a bad state. It was a hotel. Merv Griffin of all people bought it. It had a sushi restaurant in it. It was a very strange experience when I went back there. it was like being Alice down a rabbit hole. If you could imagine going from a home with very functional rooms to everything being displaced, every door I opened went into a room or bathroom and some of it not so beautiful. They chopped a lot of the woods down and you could see big mansions to the right and left uninhabited and some half finished. I guess that had been the Germans that were visiting. The cook and the housekeeper sweetly offered me cup cakes and some booklets of St Cleran’s Manor House when it belonged to Merv Griffin. You want to see the place functioning and the fire burning.”
Perhaps she should buy it? “Ha. I’d have to be in a very different place. Those places cost so much to keep. If there were any rich Irishmen who wanted to marry me that could go together quite easily. Even if they were gay that could be arranged.”
The food arrives and she smiles at the waiter. This time he leaves. She talks about the director of Horrid Henry. “He’s such a nice man. He came all the way to California and asked me to play Miss Battleaxe. When I saw her she had purple hair and a pointy nose, so I asked for prosthetics and he said no, no, no one’s going to be using prosthetics and I said I don’t know how to go about this part unless you let me have a little pointy nose and a little pointy chin. They didn’t stick on very well but I thought it was integral to her character that she be pointy. I got fixated with this one nature programme that they have on the BBC where a couple set a trap in the shore lands of Cornwall and they caught a common shrew and he had a very long nose, a plaintive look but a hateful shrewish little face, so I thought I’ve found my template.”
She demonstrates the look. “Exactly like Miss Battleaxe.” Conspiratorially she says, “She gets kindlier. She redeems herself in the end.”
Sometimes her voice is like a cat’s purr. A cat who’s been sipping cognac and had a few cigarettes, warm and crackly. It wasn’t her worse experience with prosthetics. It took only a few hours to get on and off. “Witches took five hours to get on and three hours to get off. At the end of the day you wanted to tear it off but you had to do it piece by piece.”
Was she worried at the way she would look as Miss Battleaxe or in Witches. “No, I knew what I was letting myself in for. I don’t have a problem with that. It’s a kids movie. You’re not looking for subtlety. And I have less and less vanity.
“I don’t like looking bad accidentally. But if it’s my choice to play a hideous looking witch I should be able to do that. But that’s not to say if I see a horrible looking picture of myself I won’t cringe ‘How could this happen?'”
I remember she told me she tried botox once and her husband told her a sad story and she couldn’t react to it so he got upset. She laughs at the thought of it completely impassive to his tragedy. I’m wondering does she really find it still funny or perhaps it’s too sad. Her face doesn’t betray.
“That was the last time I did botox, but one of the oddest things about my present moment is that right now there is no one in my life to tell me what I shouldn’t do so I find myself relying on what people have told me in the past. I don’t know if I should rush out and do all the things that were forbidden. I’ve seen some really good looking women in their sixties with not a line on their face and it’s a different kind of look, a certain amount of not so haggardness, smoothness. I looked very tired after that year and a half is what I’m trying to say. (When she was looking after her dying husband). I don’t know that a little lifting, a little botox, is such a horrible idea this year as it was last. I don’t feel adamant about it any more.”
Isn’t botox quite detrimental to acting as it promotes expressionlessness?” “That’s true and that’s a reason for not doing it. But a few of my friends have had little lifts here and there. I wonder if I go in and have a face lift that in the next few weeks they’ll have an innovation. I just don’t like the idea of pain. It’s not much of a priority in my life.”
Is there another man in her life? She shakes her head looking more relaxed, less savaged by grief. She perks up. “It’s strange I’ve never had a period in my life since I was 15 that I didn’t have a boyfriend or several. It’s taking some getting used to. There are some moments where yes, I have been lonely. You come home after a night out and you go, what’s missing? Oh yes, there’s no one to talk to about it. So you certainly feel that emptiness, but at the same time I don’t feel compelled to fill that space. The first thing I did when Bob died was I couldn’t stop digging holes. I made a garden behind my house feverishly. I went up to my ranch and planted trees. I think that was a healthy thing for me. But I haven’t met anybody that I would want to be with in that sense.”
Maybe it’s too early. “Maybe. I don’t think I’m putting out the signals. I don’t care really. I’m still living in a house I shared with my husband. I can’t imagine establishing a life with somebody in that house.”
Is she comfortable living in that house? “Not only comfortable. I think it’s beautiful. There is a studio that he built that he was going to work in for ever and ever. It’s a very big property. Venice is where I moved for Bob. Venice has been good for me, character building. If it hadn’t been for Venice I’d be behind some gate on Mulholland Drive. I’d be a recluse and afraid of mixing with the public. Venice takes the starch out of you. There’s a very immediate sense of living that you have down here. Positive character building but not altogether easy. When I first came I was jumpy because I was overly recognised and I thought that would infringe on my freedom or my security. And that’s what happened to a lot of celebrities. The next thing you know you are a prisoner. It’s pretty easy to stay behind your gates and stay away from the rest of humanity. Much better to deal with being alive.
There is a sense of sadness when she says that, as if something without Graham is not alive. She’d always been attracted to bad boys and risk takers and taking risks. All of that shifted when she married Graham.
She was 39 and felt “as you go through life people reflect what you need. “Great love affairs don’t necessarily make great marriages or even great friendship. Robert, he was kind to me. I got married because I finally met someone who told me what they were going to do and did it. He was single-minded in his pursuit of me and a genius in his own right.”
All her life previous to this she had been the pursuer. “Pursuing is not a happy place,” she shudders. The pursuing seems lifetimes ago, but still too close.
I remember when I met her before we ended up crying. She had said that losing Jack was “like experiencing a death in the family. It was terrible abandonment and loneliness. He symbolised a whole life for me. He was my family.”
Thinking about it now, their relationship was very fractured at the time. The fact that he was family was perhaps a projection. Now she has lost her actual family, her husband. She’s very aware that her father was the first imprint, a vibrant character who was cruel to actors when he directed them to test them, and was scant with his praise. She would have to make do with a wink or a nod. When he first directed her in A Walk With Love And Death it was a harsh experience. Yet when she won his love it was worth winning.
It seems that all her life, until Graham, she had to pursue, win over, challenge. With Graham the love was just there. Does she feel his presence? “I had one thing happened shortly after he died. I have a shrine to him and I asked him a question and it was answered immediately in a way I can’t be specific about. I have a sense of him everywhere. That he could just walk through the door and I won’t be particularly surprised. And then there’s the knowledge that he’s not going to.
I’ve been following a poet, a Mexican poet whose son was killed by the cartels. He said the effect of the death is so profound that he’s never going to write poetry again. ” She said it as if she has complete empathy.
” He talks about God and the afterlife and the questions that only get answered when we die. …. So I don’t think I’ll know until then. It’s already an act of faith that people think they will know at that moment.”
Her voice is soft, a profound sadness radiates.
Is she religious? “Sometimes. I’m mostly pragmatic. I search less because I know the answer is more remote. It’s like when you chase something it runs away more. If you chase a horse you never catch it. One has to have a lot of energy for those things.
“In terms of spirituality what you put out there is what you attract. The object is to get yourself to a place where you can be receptive, where you can be kind, where you don’t have to be defensive, where you can be at ease in your own skin.”
The dessert menu comes. We decide to share a chocolate tart. “If you’re going to have dessert why go for the fruit.” Good to see she’s all or nothing.
“I have just got a TV series (Smash). For the next half a year at least I’ll be in New York. If I’m going to spend half of what’s left of my life in New York I may as well enjoy it.” It’s a series about Broadway with Jack Davenport and Debra Messing and Katharine McPhee, an American Idol contestant. “A sweet thing. It’s very well written. I’ll put my dogs in cages and just go. I wish I could do the same with my horses. I have two dogs now Mecha, who’s a hairless Mexican dog but she has hair, and another one I think she’s a lhasa apso. I’m taking them on a boat at the weekend to Catalina island. We in California never go to Catalina island. In the olden Los Angeles days people used to make that trip to go to a ballroom, to gamble and drink too much.”
I think it was a boat off Catalina island that Natalie Wood fell overboard and drowned. “I am determined to gather my rosebuds, especially if I’m going to be in New York. I want to make the most of California.”
She says that since she wanted to fill up space with doing lots of movies that’s when offers came in. “You say it’s weird but if your life always works that way it doesn’t seem weird. The question is do you choose the work or does it choose you?
“Sometimes we attract things that are darker. Sometimes we chase rainbows because we think they are going to transform our lives. So many girls go after guys because they think it’s going to transform them. It doesn’t make life easier. Perhaps it makes life harder. Perhaps it just makes you be able to feel. Or perhaps you feel you’re going to go after some other people and see how that feels.”
Did she do that? “Yes. Absolutely. As soon as I got as I wanted I was like, is that all there is?” These days she says she’s not in pursuit of anyone. “Just my friendships and my affections with my animals and with people who are already on my side. Another very strange that happened in widowhood which I never expected is that people can react very negatively to you and be very nasty. That somehow you haven’t done enough. Or they’re owed something. I think that happens all the time around death. There’s an expectation perhaps of money or inheritance. You think people are going to wonderful and comforting and empathic, but they’re fucking greedy. That’s all I have to say about it. So you get a nice dose of human nature and it can take the sterm and drum out of you. In a way whatever can get you through this, even if it’s anger at a person or two for you to plight your sorrow, it will get you through it. It will get you through the pain because the pain is something that gnaws away at you and it’s like an affliction. Whereas at least with anger you can strike it out and get it out of you. That no suffering pain is very difficult. So in a way finding myself in a position where I had to be self-protective was good.”
She takes a fork full of salty caramel chocolate tart. “People don’t want you to be needy. They want nothing to do with a needy person. They want you as strong as an ox. People who have known you strong don’t like to see you needy. Eventually you get a little hardened. It’s not an easy time for women right now. Men have never been more shrill or more feminine. I’ve never known so many gay people. perhaps it’s the opposition. Everyone wants to settle in with people who are more like them.”
Does she? “Do I want to be a lesbian? No. I think when you undergo the loss of a mate sex is the least of it. It seems trivial. I look around right now if I’m in a restaurant or waiting for someone or on the street. I look at men and I think, how old are you? What kind of man would want a woman my age? Would it be a man with salt and pepper hair and a pinstripe suit? Who would it be? Would it be some sort of artistic type that would want to have a shag on the beach? Would it be Rupert Murdoch or Warren Buffet or Donald Trump? Is there a template for the perfect man now? At one point it was Brad Pitt wasn’t it. But who would it be now? I suppose Jack was a universal template.” A pause. A smile. She had Jack the universal template. “I don’t know where the template is now.”
We discuss that everyone’s template is perhaps based on some kind of psychological father figure. Her father was a womaniser who lived only in the pursuit of passion in that moment. He never thought of consequences. No surprise then that Nicholson and her father loved each other.
“I read another book about my father. Every time I read about him he’s making love to more women. This man has a more active love life than I do and he’s been dead 20 years. And then I read about my poor mother waiting around for him and tolerating his stuff. That’s not something I’d be tempted to do now.”
Has she ever done that? “I think I was doomed to replicate that kind of thing. But now, no. My type was, he’s out the door, he must be good. A gorgeous deep-voiced flatterer. The bad dad. I understand now that you don’t have to jump into anything. There’s a certain period of widowhood grace. I completely understand the way you would wear black clothing for a few years, to keep you away from the world. And that’s not unhealthy. You need it. When you’ve been administering to someone who’s incredibly sick, trying to be everything to their nothing, you pour so much of yourself out, you are vulnerable, you are shaky after that. You need a period to rebuild.
“There is this constant reminder that we are alone and there’s no mistaking that. It’s not really a deception. Once in a while you will leave yourself to be part of a couple. You stop making decisions on your own and for yourself. As part of a couple – I’ve been in that position where someone has said, what are you doing this summer? And I say I’m going to do this and that. And I get that sidelong look from my partner who’s like, what about we? You’re going to do what? What about us? And I think it’s not about us, it’s about me.”
In her relationship with Graham she never felt dominated. She was able to be her own person and be with someone else. She wouldn’t know how to do a relationship as one half of a couple. “My relationships haven’t lasted as long as myself, so as a single entity I’m going to own it. Going to New York scares me, but I’m going with it. Where I’m going to be, who am I going to be with, who I’m not going to be with – I don’t even have a child to make those decisions around. It’s all about me now.”
She talks about her horses that are upstate on her ranch. She is sad they won’t be going to New York. “They are extremely intuitive. They can tell by the feel of you if you are tentative on their back.” She talks about CeCe a big strong piebald mare with a big head, the horse that had been given to her by her father’s last wife.
“I’ve got to my ranch and said I’m going to ride all my horses today. I started with the ones I knew best and saved her to the end. I got on top of her and within seconds I was sailing back to the ground on a cloud of dust. I looked at her immense buttocks. She was an incredible animal and I was like a spider scurrying away from her and then I thought I really don’t need to kill myself this way. I used to take risks all the time to really really risk, but now I don’t stand up on the back of motorways going 80mph on an Italian autoroute. I was an athlete and a daredevil, I always took emotional risks, I always put myself in at the deep end.” Has she stopped? “I’d think twice before I took big risks now whereas I never used to think that way.” Does she regret any of those risks? “Not at all. Some were fun and some a bit hurtful. I got over it a lot of love poems later.”
She talks about the shift in her and the shift of her whole family to the east coast. Danny will be going east working on some projects and nephew Jack is in Boardwalk Empire. He used to go out with Cat Deeley. “I think they were both too big for the relationship. They both wanted big careers as well.”
Briefly there’s a look of nostalgia. You see her or you feel her reminiscing about big relationships with big characters, tumultuous ones. Now those love poems? “Thrown away or in the trash.”
Now and again you get a glimpse of a naughty look, a sense of adventure. She may not be wanting to ride the big bucking horse but gradually she’ll work out a new ride.

Andre Rieu

The second I enter Andre Rieu’s Hollywood hotel suite a camera is pointed at me. A reality TV camera crew follows him at all times. There’s something about Rieu that enjoys to be always on, always the showman, and the man who never stops.
It is that specific drive that’s turned him from just a man with a violin to a kind of high priest of the waltz. Last year when he toured with his Johann Strauss Orchestra his shows outsold any other male touring artist in the world including Bruce Springsteen. His last album Forever Vienna reached Number 2 in the pop chart; in all he has sold over 22 million albums.
He started off as a violinist in a classical orchestra in Holland. Now he has an empire of which one of his sons, Pierre, is vice-president and here with him today.
The show is quite a spectacle. He plays his violin and conducts an orchestra that contains ladies in full crinolines. There are always thousands of flowers and hundreds of balloons. Once he performed with an entire castle which was rebuilt for each performance. But more of that later.
He’s Dutch, 61, with long flowing rock star hair. No comb over or transplant involved. He’s got this weird trick of seeing everything, missing nothing. Always remembering you, even if he only met you for five minutes. His eyes are beyond piercing. They can look at you from the stage and find you in an audience. And he can make people waltz. Unexpectedly rows of normal people find themselves swaying and mesmerised pied piper style into waltzing.
I persuade the cameras to go away. Rieu looks a little crestfallen as he tells me how much his popularity has soared even more in his native Holland and Australia since he engaged them. “They see me on the road, they see me on stage, they see in fact he’s a nice guy, somebody they can relate to. And they see me how I relate to my orchestra, a bunch of friends.”
Rieu loves to be seen, to connect. But he also loves to be in charge. “The tape is mine, the camera team is mine and I decide what’s in it.”
Rieu is so warm you imagine him always dipped in sunlight. He lives in a castle in Maastricht where the real D’Artagnon, who Dumas’ fictional character was based on, was said to have had his last breakfast before he died in battle serving Louis XIV. As a child he used to take piano lessons in that castle, but he dreamed of living in it and filling it with chandeliers. And this is the other extraordinary quirk: he’s the god of positive thinking; if he imagines it happening he somehow makes it.
“I think I told you once before I’m an unhealable positive optimist.” So what happens when things go wrong, he must feel not just disappointed but devastated? “That depends on what’s gone wrong. I had this huge financial crisis when I made a castle to tour with and sent it to Australia a few years ago. We copied it room for room from a Viennese castle. It was so beautiful. Playing in it I thought Strauss must have felt like this.” He raises his head and opens his arms like a lion taking the sun.
His son Pierre was the architect for the castle. He looks just like him, younger, without the wild hair. “Without him it wouldn’t have been done,” says Rieu. Pierre interrupts, “Without me there wouldn’t have been a financial crisis trying to build an exact replica of a castle to tour with.” Rieu says, “No, no, no. Without you it wouldn’t have existed. It brought us a financial crisis and it gave us media attention that you couldn’t pay for. Without it we wouldn’t be sitting here doing this interview. After the castle incident we were so famous in Australia we were able to get a record deal in the UK.” Indeed they are signed with industry giants Universal.
So what exactly happened with the castle? “We started to build one but it had to be scrapped because the fire people wouldn’t pass it. We started another one and discovered that the ticket sales were so huge that we had to build another one to play back to back otherwise we wouldn’t have time to take it down and rebuild it. So we had three castles: the scrapped fire hazard one and the two because of the ticket sales.
“So, when things go wrong there is always a positive side. The bank people were very concerned, but also very helpful and I was on the front of Billboard and sold more tickets than any other male artist. So that was no so bad. That was in 2008.
Last summer he had another crisis. He had to postpone his sold out UK arena tour because he had a sudden illness. A viral infection of the vestibular nerve which left him unable to stand up. “Yes, it was a real crisis. I was lying in my bed and suddenly the whole room started to shake. I couldn’t stand up. It was a shock to everybody. And now I’m here again standing on the stage. I see it as a positive thing because immediately the night it happened I started to change my life. My wife and Pierre’s as well (Marjorie, his wife of 37 years, works for him managing the concerts, creating the sets and costumes, as does Pierre).
“From the moment the doctor came immediately and said it’s a virus, there’s no pill, there’s only one thing for Andre to do and that’s rest. Rest is a strange word for me. I was at home for three months and had to cancel a British and Australian tour, or rather postpone.”
He spent three months in his castle – a beautiful place. He has an orangerie where he likes to sit in and relax and watch his collection of rare butterflies flutter. He designed and built the butterfly house himself.
“That was always a dream. Other people might want to buy a Ferrari, but I wanted a butterfly house. I’d built it together with a blacksmith. We designed it together.”
The virus made him lose his balance. “It was work pressure. It suddenly happened because I was very overworked. So I’m going to do much less. For example I made German television shows for five years in a row in the summer. That means everyone goes on holiday while I jump into a studio and sit in a dark hole editing. No vacation. And I was proud I never had a vacation.” He shakes his head.
Despite his constant touring the world he would will himself never to have jet lag. “Relaxing for me was sleeping.” The virus was a wake-up call. Perhaps enough of one, but he still seems fairly unstoppable. “On stage I feel much better. Somebody up there told me I needed a rest. It was a shock. I’ve never been ill in my life. I mean I might have had a cough or something, but when I went on stage I was always OK. Maybe I believed that I could go on and nothing ever happened to me. Perhaps it was a warning that I could have had a stroke or something much worse. So it was something telling me, ‘Andre, come back to your roots and just do what you like to do, and that’s making music’. I stopped all the rest.”
The rest included building projects, public speaking, public appearances at launching new businesses, “For me listening to music could never make me relax. It makes me alive. The waltz is a very important part of my life. It’s a very important way for me to express my positiveness, bringing humour to the world. The waltz can be sad, at the same time uplifting. You have to see life from both sides, and the waltz encapsulates that. If you’re in my audience you give yourself to me and the waltz will grab you.”
If he wasn’t making music what would he do? “I’d be an architect because I feel that building and music are similar. I’m building on stage. Not like a priest that wants to educate, but I’m building up an audience that loves music and I’m building in my way which is through the heart. I’m not against people sitting and listening to beautiful classical music. I sometimes feel something is missing and it’s the interaction that you will see tonight and me wanting to be together with them. That’s my job, I know what I’m doing. I can guide them.
“I think as long as you build you live. I think the Emperor Hadrian said that, and he built a very long wall. In Maastricht we are building the whole time. I have carpenters and construction people on my payroll. We have just finished a little house for Pierre around the corner from the castle. It’s the most beautiful thing in the world for me to visit my grandchildren. He has twins.” Pierre tells me they are 13 months and eight days.
“I think my whole crisis was due to them.” Being away from them? “No. They were born on the day I arrived in Australia and I was completely overwhelmed by emotion. He sent me a picture by text of the first and then the second. I was crying the whole day and I just wanted to go home.”
Pierre shows me pictures, very cute, Linda and Lyeke. He tells me that this morning he’s installed a webcam so that if they are on tour they don’t miss anything and this morning they saw their first steps.
“I am serious. The twins are what changed me. The birth of these two girls was so essential and so pure, I felt that this is life and I should leave the whole other shit behind.”
Did he not feel that when his children were born? “No, I tell you it is different.” He has two sons, Pierre and also Mark, who is a painter. “If Mark would run the company there wouldn’t be a company. He lives in the sky he paints.”
Why does he think having grandchildren is so much more affecting? “I suppose when you have children you are in the middle of your life. You’re young and you’re building up your life. Somehow having them now it has overwhelmed me, and perhaps because they are girls. We had two boys and all the dogs we had were males and suddenly – girls.”
Not that there’s anything wrong with his relationship with his sons. Pierre tells me, “We never argue.” Rieu says, “It’s not like I’m the father, you’re the son.” Indeed Pierre doesn’t even call him dad, he calls him Andre.
He is a strange mixture of a laid back person and one who pays excessive attention to detail. Most of all I love his eccentricity. He told me once before he planned to play a concert at the North Pole. He wanted people from all over the world to come to get attention for global warming. “I would earn no money but I’d very much like for the polar bears to waltz. They do dance, you know.” He is an avid conservationist and peace lover. He wants Israelis and Palestinians to waltz together to his tunes.
His optimism is indeed relentless. He tells me when he was first starting out he got invited to a meeting with a promoter in New York. They flew to New York to meet him “and then we got a call saying could we do a conference call with him which we could have done from home and he was two blocks down the road. A lot of people would say why weren’t you angry. I would say, why would I jeopardise nice concerts and disappoint my audience and I didn’t want to feel I’d wasted the money on the ticket. So I took the call and it was the best thing. It worked out really well. I suppose it takes a belief in yourself, something that no one can take away so you don’t feel diminished by these things.”
Growing up he always felt slightly displaced, different from the rest of his family. His father had been a conductor of classical music and believed in its traditions.
Perhaps the source of his passion comes from rebellion. “My father was a conductor and I would stand in the window and play melodies and my mother would try and make me play scales. There was a conflict. There were six children and I was the black sheep. The others were all white.”
Musically what he’s doing is not classical traditional, it’s changing time signature slightly to make everything waltzable. His background was straightforward classical. “I was convinced that this was not the life and it must be possible to play music with more feelings and more love. They always said ‘poor Andre, he’ll never be anything’.
“My mother would always say to me don’t look people in the eye. And that’s what I do every single night on stage: I communicate. I don’t see my mother very often. She met her great grandchildren for the first time a couple of weeks ago. Pierre contacted her and asked her. I don’t blame her for anything. My father died 14 years ago. He saw me in the beginning of the Strauss orchestra. But from the first moment we had success. He wrote me a letter and said there’s only one person who can do this. He didn’t tell me he wrote it, I heard it from other people that he was proud of me. You ask yourself why. I mean, I’m sitting here. What was the problem?”
Rieu was always different. “When I was a little boy lying in my bed I was convinced I wanted to marry a girl whom I worked with, and that’s true.” His wife, a former teacher, who financed the start of his orchestra, still works alongside him. “I wanted an equal. When Marjorie gave birth to Pierre I can still remember it was two in the morning and at nine she was there with her agenda and her phone.
“I met Marjorie when I was 11 and she was 13. She was in a class with my sister. We met again when we were 22 and 24 and went on our first date. But I think I really knew when I was 11 that she was the one.” Of course he did because that’s in keeping with his magical thinking. He’s very interested in space travel and other universes. When I was a little boy I would always look at plants in the garden and think of what other worlds go on in this plant. I knew then there was not just one universe.” We debate infinity for a brief moment in time.
“It’s cosy here I admit. But yeah, of course you think about death. I’m afraid of death. Everybody is. I want to stay here with my wife and children and grandchildren. I want to be on stage. I want to live as long as possible. In Oxford there’s a professor who says in five years we will be able to stay alive forever. Not us, we are too old, but future children can decide how many thousands of years they want to live for. You can still be young, you won’t be old and ill. I would definitely do it. Imagine the wisdom you’d have with 2,000 years experience. But more importantly, I like it here now. People tell me I’ve changed since the crisis I’ve had. Marjorie says I’m back to the boy I married. I take it as a warning.
“An Indian healer came to my concert and told me I was a very old soul here for thousands of years. People have said perhaps I’m the reincarnation of Strauss. I don’t know about that. But my whole youth I felt that something was not right. That I was here in this family but I was different.” Does he feel a bit of an alien? “Yes, perhaps.”
Perhaps it’s that feeling of being dislocated or distanced from the world that pushes him to be an uber communicator with his eyes always looking like they’re burning from within.
That night at the concert he was fully himself. His long hair flowing. His violin zig-zagging passionately. He strides an incredible line – sentimental but heartfelt. He does look you in the eyes. I watch him watch me arrive late and see exactly where I’m sitting amongst 40,000 people. Giant screens flank him upon which band members are highlighted. It’s all inclusive. He tells us that one blue crinolined lady has fought and won her battle with breast cancer; applause; music saved her life; more applause. Then a few tears. The waltzes keep on coming along with Michael Jackson tunes turned into waltzes. In the background an American flag. By the end of the concert the half of the audience that is not weeping is out of its seats waltzing. Even those who have never waltzed before.

Dominic West

Even my lesbian friends think Dominic West is hot. Maybe it’s because there is something about him that is so purely, ridiculously Male, charming yet flawed. They love him in ‘The Affair,’ the series for which he was Golden Globe nominated. 

He plays Noah Solomon, a teacher and failing novelist. His wife is hugely rich and his father-in-law a hugely successful writer. Classic. He’s undermined, therefore available. The series is dark and gripping, told in separate episodes from the man’s point of view and then the woman’s. There’s lots of sex in it and it’s quite odd to be going to meet somebody who you’ve last seen on screen in just their boxers. 

I’m going to meet him at his house in Shepherd’s Bush, London. When I arrive only his wife and youngest daughter are in. He hasn’t told her about the interview. She gets on with making her daughter breakfast, unphased by the stranger in her kitchen. Catherine Fitzgerald seems unflappable, capable. It’s not long before he arrives and he’s instantly attentive and makes me coffee. A very good cup of coffee. He did it nonchalantly, like he didn’t care about making me the best cup of coffee, but he did it anyway. 

He’s just come back from the school run dropping off his three children. Only the 2 year old, Christabel is on her mother’s hip.

You can’t see where the charm ends and the bad boy begins or perhaps he is just very good at playing bad boys or at least men who are flawed.

His wife Catherine you can tell instantly suffers no fools. She’s busy getting things done, looking after 4 children and running her landscape gardening business.  Their garden is beautiful, it manages to look wild yet perfectly manicured, a riot of happy colours and an oasis of calm. 

I’m not sure why actors invite journalists into their homes. It seems to be asking for trouble. Who doesn’t want to know what their bathroom’s like, what books they read, if they’re tidy or chaotic. We’re in the garden because the garden is remarkable. The house inside looks like a busy family home, a big wooden table in the kitchen, it’s lived in, not self-conscious. It’s his work that’s been extraordinary. 

His Richard Burton in Burton and Taylor was magnetic, as the alcoholic Detective Jimmy McNulty in ‘The Wire’ he was sensational. In his latest film the animated ‘Finding Dory,’ he’s reunited with his Wire colleague Idris Elba. They play lazy, bad boy sea lions with English accents, their scenes together are the funniest in the movie. How lovely to see British humour in the midst of PC-PG Disney. 

‘Finding Dory,’ the sequel to Finding Nemo. Dory, played by Ellen DeGeneres, is the fish with short term memory loss. “Anyone who’s got kids must have watched ‘Finding Nemo’ 50 times. Idris Elba and I played two British sea lions who like to sit on a rock and carp on about things. We live in Ocean World, somewhere in the West Coast of America, we get fed sprats every day. It was great being fed Sprats and being with Idris. We had very few scenes together in ‘The Wire,’ he was my antagonist, so it was only in his last season that I was observing him, surveilling him that we got to hang out. It was very nice we got to reunite.” he says smiling and for a minute looking like his smug, lazy sea lion character. 

He’s looking very whiskery today. A dark beard seems to scribble out his distinctive features. I feel it’s even etched out his trademark wicked grin.

He’s often summoned to play really dark characters,  he was Fred West in ‘Appropriate Adult’. Even the real Fred West’s daughter thought the likeness was uncanny and he captured a spirit of evil. His wife was revolted by it. His sisters freaked out that people would think they were related to Fred West because they shared the same surname.  More recently he was super creepy Walt Camby, the greedy gazillionaire banker in ‘Money Monster’ with George Clooney and Julia Roberts. How is it that he does evil so well? 

“Errrr don’t know, just got an evil face” he smiles sweetly. He’s charming, that’s for sure, but he’s not in the least bit flirty. I thought he loved all women and flirted with all of them. I blame the beard. It’s an instant barrier. In a recent interview he said, “I think women should be more indulgent of affairs, I really do. It’s daft to kick someone out over a fling. Isn’t it? Everyone should turn a blind eye to men’s behaviour between the ages of 40 and 50. Let it all blow over.” 

He doesn’t want to elaborate on that today. He look a little embarrassed. Maybe because we’re in the family home. Maybe that’s why we’re here. So he can guard his own mouth. The Dominic West who shouts his mouth off and says the first thing that comes into his head is not around today. 

He was born 46 years ago in Sheffield, the sixth of seven children. His Irish father owned a plastics factory that did rather well. Being the sixth of seven perhaps made him feel anonymous, like he had to try harder to be centre stage, perhaps that’s why he became an actor. He has four children with Catherine, Dora, nine and Christabelle two and sons, Senan, seven, Francis, six and a daughter, Martha, who’s now 17, from a previous relationship with the aristocrat Polly Astor (granddaughter of Nancy).

He’s got five sisters and he thinks that this knowledge and being surrounded by so many females makes him somewhat of a feminist.

Much has been made of the fact that he went to Eton. He’s a couple of years older than Damien Lewis, you begin to wonder if Eton had a really great Drama department. Did he feel that he was a bit of an outsider as everyone else was so posh? 

“No, it wasn’t like that at all, it’s such a big school. And a great school actually. It helps you find what you’re good at and once you’ve found it, life becomes easier and I found acting almost immediately. Damien Lewis was a few years below me, so I didn’t know him at school, he was a very good footballer, I wasn’t but I was quite good at Rugby and when I was cast as Hamlet aged 16 the director said I had to choose between the two, no more Rugby.”

Was that because he didn’t want Hamlet on crutches? “Yes, and also the training took rehearsal time.” He wasn’t homesick at all? ” Yes, very much so for the first year but acting saved me, I became known for it and respected for it.”

Accepted or respected? “Respected. Maybe this is with rose tinted hindsight, it’s not a bullying school or a particularly tough school, it’s a place that respects people’s differences. I would want my kids to go to a school where their passions were brought out.”

Will he send his boys there? “We haven’t decided, they are only 6 and 7. My inclination is I don’t want them to leave home, I want to keep them here as much as possible.”

He really loves being at home, he loves hanging out with his children and being in the lovely garden his wife created.  You can tell he’s the sort of man that likes a solid base. It allows him to be flighty when he needs it. He met his wife at Trinity College, Dublin, they were together until he went to drama school and then it ended. 

Was it a painful break up? “No, it was geographical, it was just that I was moving away. We always kept in touch, then we found we were both living in London and things had moved on… Meaning that I wasn’t with the mother of my daughter anymore and she wasn’t with her husband. So we hooked up.” 

He makes it sound very practical but I ask him getting back with the woman he was together with at college is very romantic? “Yes” he says not wanting to be drawn in. They got married in 2010, in Ireland in the grounds of her family estate. He wore a shamrock coloured waistcoat and their children were baptised the next day. The family castle Glin Castle in West Limerick has been in the Fitzgerald’s family for 700 years.  It was recently sold for £4.6 million, which must have brought a great deal of family sadness. Catherine is the daughter of the 29th and last Knight of Glin. Desmond Fitzgerald died in 2011 with no male heir. Glin Castle hosted Mick Jagger and Marianne Faithful back in the day. Catherine said at the time that they couldn’t afford the upkeep of such a place. Shorty before her father’s death he said, “It is my greatest hope that Glin will remain in the family and be enjoyed and cherished long into the future. 

And it seems sad that that’s now not the case but all he will say is that he can’t talk about his wife’s family.

He grew up catholic, is he still catholic? “Culturally more than anything else we were brought up going to mass every week. I don’t do that anymore but I enjoy the liturgy, the music, the culture.” He enjoyed a period of closeness with his father when his parents separated and he moved back to Ireland. “My parents had seven children and were married for 26 years and when they split up it turned out to be a great opportunity for me to spend the last 10 years of my father’s life getting to know him very well. I became very close with him. We still have his house, a little bungalow in Ireland that he lived in there. He left that to all of us to enjoy and we go there often. It’s a bungalow by the sea.” Do you go there to check in with your Irish heritage? “No, it’s just that it’s a really nice spot.”

There’s quite a few pauses where you feel him reeling himself in. He’s wary with the interview process because he’s been lured into talking too much and then regretting it. Indeed, when I first met him at a jazz evening at the Caprice a few years ago, he spent a whole evening talking about how he had been filleted like a kipper by an interviewer. He felt that he’d been trapped and he’d had sleepless nights worrying about it. Not that he cared about being a target but he cared very much about the other people who were embroiled. There’s no doubt there’s been pain and passion shared in his life, he couldn’t be such a precise actor, drawn to characters known for their complexity. 

For me his portrayal of Richard Burton was thrilling, so flawed, so vulnerable, so nasty, so amazing, “He was a hero of mine from an early age. I read Melvin Bragg’s book ‘Rich’. It’s not an objective book it’s a paean. He was obviously deeply in love with Burton, who was a rather tragic man but a wonderful actor. When it was first suggested that I might be playing him it was daunting for me because I loved him so much. There are probably only two or three people in the world that could play Liz Taylor and Helena Bonham-Carter was probably the best of them. I didn’t know her before we met on set, she was so completely possessed by the character, I was never quite sure where Elizabeth ended and Helena began! Until afterwards and we became good friends.” 

In the past he said it was he who initiated the break up with the mother of his eldest daughter (Polly Astor), because he just wasn’t ready to settle down .Whatever other complexities surround the issue is not what he wants to talk about. He is very proud of Martha his daughter, now 17. When she was young she played Paul Bettany’s daughter in ‘Creation,’ but he’s even prouder of the fact that now she’s taking her studies seriously. 

Soon, he’ll be going to upstate New York for another series of ‘The Affair’. For someone who loves his home so much, he certainly spends a long time away from it. He corrects me . ”It’s the most important factor in my decision about work, I don’t spend a lot of time away from home. This year I’ll do ‘The Affair’ and my family will come out for the summer and Autumn half-term and then I’ll be at home for the rest of the year. It’s all very carefully thought out because they are at an age now where I don’t want to miss any of it. It’s the most important thing in my life at the moment.”

It’s interesting to me that his work schedule is so carefully choreographed as he doesn’t want to be away from his family. Probably because we think of him as being like the shiftier characters he likes to play. ‘The Affair’ is the kind of show people get really obsessed with and love to binge watch. I heard recently that his wife had never even watched it. Is that because she didn’t want to see him naked and shagging? “No not at all. She just hasn’t got time. She’s so extremely busy. She runs a very successful career and four kids. She’s involved in a 9-year project to redo the gardens at Hillsborough Castle in Ireland, it’s a massive job and the plan is to attract 50,000 visitors a year. She really IS amazing.”

Catherine has been wafting in and out, getting things done, managing to look beautiful with not even a hint of make up or a hairbrush. She has now managed to catch an episode. It was on a plane and her attitude to all the sex is it’s just his job. “And that’s my attitude too. If you’ve got 30 people standing around sticking microphones in your face, it’s not an erotic experience at all.”

He pulls a face and goes on to tell me how much he doesn’t like being on top. “If you’re on the bottom you don’t have to take your clothes off.” He doesn’t think  should take their clothes off for sex scenes either no matter how it’s sold to them about the part requiring it. “Of course there are circumstance where that is the case. But often it’s just not true and that’s why from the age of 45-50 is difficult for women, Hollywood is no longer interested.”

You see he is a feminist. Of course that’s not true for 46 year-old males!

A few years ago he walked to the South Pole with Walking Wounded Soldiers. “There was a blind guy, a Scottish soldier with no legs, a couple of American women soldiers with only one leg. The great thing is if you are with walking wounded, you can’t complain, it spurred me on to see them.”

Prince Harry went on the same expedition. He has described Prince Harry as hilarious, his still for making lavatories and when his team arrived at the Pole he drank champagne from a prosthetic leg.  “Very few people get to go there and that’s why I went. It’s a vast frozen ocean, there’s nothing there, not even bacteria. Every footprint, every time you go to the loo, it’s there forever.”

It does seem to be a pretty diverse team? “I think it was for TV profile that they had me, but they had Prince Harry so they didn’t need me and in the end I wasn’t really used at all but it was a way of getting publicity for a charity that aims to get work for ex-servicemen, particularly wounded ones. I’m also doing a walk across the Western Front. My grandfather was blown up there in 1916, not many people my age are close to the first world war. My brother sent a picture of him dressed in rabbit furs aged about 20 and somehow that was really affecting for me. Lads of 19 and 20 being so cold and hungry that their infantry uniform was supplemented by rabbit furs.” He’s doing the walk for the same charity and our moment of sadness is punctuated by his little girl now gurgling and laughing. 

“What amazes me is how my parents managed with 7 of us. My mum always said once you have three they look after themselves, which I’m yet to witness because at the moment they are all just trying to kill each other. I’m amazed at what my parents managed. They gave us a very, very happy childhood and I’m hoping to do that with mine as well. “

I had expected West to be a whole lot darker.  Who knew that he was hiding such sweetness?  Domestic is that last thing I would have imagined him as.  Before I leave I watch him playing with his daughter, who stopped crying at last in her father’s arms. I hadn’t expected to be ‘Finding Daddy’. That just adds to his allure.  Dominic West, charming man, bad boy, good dad.

Mariah Carey

There are a lot of people in Mariah’s house – a grandiose mansion in a gated community in a suburb of Los Angeles. There’s a camera crew, sound guys, make-up people, photographers, photographer’s assistants, housekeepers, manager, manager’s assistant, bodyguards and people who carry things around.

Outside it’s blackly dark and deathly quiet, inside it’s intense buzzing tour preparation and all of this must be filmed for a documentary.  For a person who is notoriously private, it seems strange but not as strange as the hours she and the cast of many seem to keep.

She brushes past me in a black laced up gown and vertiginous Tom Ford heels. Everyone else in the house, including her glamorous manager, seem to be wearing Louboutins. The glamorous manager has reptile Louboutins, drips exquisite jewllery and long thick curls. She tells me I may have to wait..  Mariah has just come back from an event and there is all kinds of filming and I am sure not what else has to be done.  A hundred things .So I wait.

I wait in the house that arrived pre-furnished with its over-stuffed couches, mahogany twirly bits and endless chandeliers. The bathroom with its black velvet walls and its black diamond monogrammed hand towels.

I inspect the silver-framed pictures of Mariah and her twins Monroe and Moroccan: they’re at the beach, they’re on a boat, they’re in the sea.  They look relaxed in some other life that is the opposite to this bubble of chaos. It’s always just Mariah and her beautiful babies – there’s no man involved. There’s not even a photographic hint of her former husband actor-rapper-entrepreneur-TV presenter Nick Cannon or a hint of her new fiance James Packer, son of the billionaire publishing magnate. He is described as businessman, investor and philanthropist but even Mariah seems unclear about what he actually does.

I’m in a corner perched on a window seat.  I email her manager who is somewhere else in the  cavernous house to say I need to leave by midnight, knowing there’s very little chance I will.

Every aspect of Mariah’s life is to be filmed and therefore I must be filmed. I resist. This does not go down well.  No one seems to understand why I am not thrilled. When a lens the size of a small television looms in, I reach for my jacket to go. Mariah says in her velvet purr: “why don’t you want to be filmed Chrissy?”

Because I want to talk to her not worry about a camera.  Because I want cozy, intimate not a performance.   She gets it, she asks them to go away. She seems relieved too, that she’s not being scrutinized.

Why does she have all these people in her house? “I want people to see the whole thing, it’s a busy time right now and I happen to be on a night schedule.” (Indeed, communicating with her in the day has been impossible, not because she is a diva but because she was simply asleep). “I do sleep in the daytime but not all day because of the kids so it’s a little bit sporadic. I need to sleep and so I do. I’ve always been a night person. When I was six years old I wasn’t able to sleep. It started then. I was up all night and that was the precedent.”

I am sitting on a velvet cushion on the floor beside her who is in what can only loosely be described as a chair.  It’s a multi pillowed arm chair that is halfway between a couch and a chair for a giant.  She looks tiny, whatever diet she has been on has clearly worked.

When I look up it’s into her mesmerizing dark eyes, soulful, vulnerable, shy eyes. You imagine her as that child who couldn’t sleep, who felt she didn’t fit anywhere with a white Irish mother and an absent African-Venezuelan father. She was three when her parents divorced. But still, a determined spirit whose only catharsis was singing and writing songs and who never really considered she would do anything else. I am overwhelmed about an incredible sweetness about her.  The fact that she’s not confident or showy she doesn’t carry herself as a woman who knows she has the five octave range voice, one of the single most identifiable voices of her generation.  The last time she toured Europe was 2003 and she wants to make sure everything is right. After that she will come back for a residency in Vegas  which, she says, is an entirely different show.

“I love everything to do with music, I love the creative process, my favourite place is the studio. I love writing songs – to me that’s the best gift.”

She’s been writing songs since she was six and she used to sing them underneath the table because she felt that was the only way she could express herself.

She nods. “t was cathartic. Suddenly I’d come up with a melody. It would come from out of the blue, like a gift, nothing like it.” Prepping for the tour with its endless rehearsals and dress fittings seems less creative. She nods.

Does she have a special diet? An exercise regime? “Yes. My diet is very bleak.” Bleak is one of her favourite words. She giggles. “I overuse the word because there is a lot of bleakness going on. My bleak diet is horrendous but I don’t want to tell anyone about it because it’s none of their business.” I tell her the bleak diet is working well. She sinks further back into her pillows. “I just don’t want to talk about it because I don’t want people commenting.” It seems like she gets hurt if there are nasty comments and a picture where she looks fat but this Mariah in before me is super svelte and even much photographed magnificent breasts are reined in. She’s losing her voice a little. She is rasping.  I read that she sleeps with ten humidifiers. She nods. “I need them. At least four or five around my bed. I want them in the bedroom, a group of them. I also like to have a steam.”

Her children will be going on tour with her. “My son keeps asking can we go on an airplane. They’ve been traveling since they were three months old.” Her daughter Monroe, named after Mariah’s long-time girl crush Marilyn, likes to sing.

“She was singing last night with her friend. I can tell she’s got a really good ear – she can mimic what I can do. But she’s only four-and a half and it’s not fair for me to push it on her, so I am allowing her to be who she is. At the moment she’d rather just be silly with it. She knows she’s named after Marilyn and she can recognise her in pictures but I haven’t shown her the movies yet. They are into Disney and Halloween. It took a lot to get them to transition into Christmas.” So she has mini Goth twins? “No, I’m gonna nip that in the bud.”

She had a difficult pregnancy. Pre-eclampsia, gestational diabetes and it was suggested that the twins should be induced at 33 weeks. She refused because she didn’t want to be separated from them by an incubator when they were born. “I wanted to keep them with me as long as I could which was until 35 weeks and that worked out good.

There’s a flutter of her luscious eyelashes and I admire the diamond butterfly ring and then I notice the engagement ring. It’s not so much a rock, it’s a brick. It’s a mini choc-ice.

I wonder if she met Packer when she toured Australia. “No. I met him in Aspen where I go every year for Christmas. My friend Brett Ratner (film director and producer) are partners in business. So he invited me over. I didn’t feel like leaving the house but I went anyway. This was about two years ago and I didn’t see him again until I was at a movie premier, we started talking, joking around – stuff like that.” What’s his business with Brett Radner? I don’t want to talk too much about what he does but they produce movies. That’s not his entire job but that’s one of them.”

She once said that growing up without a strong male figure in her life on a day-to-day basis affected a lot of her decision making. It perhaps made her see her first husband, record company boss Tommy Mottola, as a stable father figure. He ended up being stifling. Does she still crave that kind of stability? “My perspective on that has changed. I don’t think it was because I was without a father figure, I think there were lots of elements about my childhood that made me who I am. Some made me stronger, some made me more vulnerable. It’s was a combo plate.”

So what’s on her combo plate now? “Oh my gosh it’s just way too full.” Does she feel happy? “Sometimes.”

“Do you feel happy?” Rarely I tell her  “Really? We have to change that. You just have to find the comedy in everything. There’s just so much nonsense that’s just not worth spiraling over.

She oozes empathy. I bring it back to her. Does she work compulsively?

“I had the whole summer off. I was relaxing with the kids. Right now, there’s a lot on. I do really enjoy performing. I like having an experience with people trying to make them feel that they are not just watching an untouchable person. I want them to feel like they are in my living room. I like to talk to them a lot. I want to give them something different.”

Is the dress she’s wearing, a figure-hugging black maxi dress, a tour outfit or a lounging in the house outfit? “I am wearing it because I went to an event but I can lounge in this – it’s stretchy.” Although her high heels have been cast off, she still walks on her toes. “Ever since I was a little girl I liked to walk on tippy toes like a Barbie. My babysitter used to say I was walking like a Barbie. I only had one Barbie and I cut its hair.  Then I went to beauty school but dropped out. I was singing and working in Manhattan and I didn’t have time for those early morning classes. But I feel that I’ve learnt in life because I’ve worked with almost every great hair and make-up person there is. My tips? I never will wear red lips – they just don’t look good on me. My ideal day? Lying on the beach without a camera or a phone surrounded by pink sand and the water.” That’s sounding a little honeymooney.

Do you have your wedding planned?  “It’s a secret.” It’s really happening? She waves the brick at me and says: “I’m not doing this for laughs.” That ring is pretty hilarious in the way that if you’ve got that ring on your finger you will definitely be grinning. “I enjoy it. When you grow up without a lot of things… I try not to take things for granted.” Why does she like the idea of marriage as opposed to just being in love- she has two failed ones behind her so she is not burnt from the experience. She looks at me very seriously. “I am very traditional. I have babies, it’s more appropriate. I don’t know if most people can relate to that but that’s just how I feel”

Did you know straight away that he was the one or was he a slow burn? “Oh we’re not going to talk too much about this part?” she says sounding a little tortured. “If I start talking about this relationship people will interpret it in their own way, so I think it’s safer for everyone involved to just not talk about the very personal aspect of this relationship.” But is she happy? “Yes. And content but I am also very busy.” Her voice is now cracking with exhaustion. “I am a private person.” And that brings me back to why the cameras are here. “We can’t announce what it’s for yet. It’s a very big thing for me.” A very private person who now has no privacy. “Yes, it’s annoying. I wanted to document this tour because I don’t know when I am going on tour again. I wish I could have documented other tours. I am documenting it for the fans, they’ll love it.”

Much has been made of the fact that Mariah would like to do some more acting. She was extremely well received in the movie Precious, which was hugely applauded but won’t be drawn any further on if she would ever swap singing for acting. She doesn’t enjoy being snapped by the paparazzi and quizzes me when I say I saw a photo of her online recently eating ice-cream. “Ice-cream? Not on the bleak diet. That must have been very old.”

So many contradictions. She feels invaded by the paparazzi and yet there are cameras in her house at all hours.

“I am a pretty insecure person but I have to get over that because this is the reality of my life. I look better than I looked a few months ago but I am definitely not one of those people who says ‘i look amazing today’. I have to point out this is a rented house – I would never have overhead lighting. High hats, they call them. In my apartment in New York it’s all recessed lighting, chandeliers, candles. This lighting is abusive.” I tell her I interviewed Dita Von Teese recently at her house where she insists all walls should be pink with no overhead lighting so you can feel you look good when you walk around naked. “That’s my thing about the pink. I rarely walk around naked in the areas that are pink. You still want to look good with clothes on! When I was pregnant, I had a house with lots of antique mirrors on the walls so as I walked around I couldn’t help but look at myself – this huge pregnant woman. I hated myself for decorating the house with all these mirrors. I was so mad at myself.” She laughs and there’s a real lightness to her laugh.

Her manager tells me that Mariah’s light is infectious and now my whole life is going to change because she shed her light on me.  Her fairy dust has been showered.   There is something so unexpectedly intoxicating about Mariah. The eyes…the giggles….the empathic being. Definitely wasn’t expecting those. You get why people go to her shows to bathe in her glow.

Neil Diamond

Mr and Mrs Neil Diamond look strangely similar even though he is 71 and she is 42. The same eyes, the same slightly wary nature, sensitive and warm. And when they smile they smile with their whole face.

Katie has an obvious kindness about her. She looks after him both as a manager and as a wife. They met when she was working for the management company to whom he had recently signed. It was not love at first sight, it was business, until gradually she wove her way into his heart. They got married earlier this year.

He too has an almost puppy like desire to please her. Both of them seem to carry a kind of emotional weight.

He has spoken before about his life as a solitary journey – how he was lost in the creative process.

Diamond talks with his slow gravelly voice, it’s almost a purr. He’s talked before about being a loner, about how his past relationships have suffered because he was driven by his music and his songwriting.

With time and maybe love he’s realised he doesn’t have to enjoy only solitude and that he likes people as well. ‘There was no eureka moment where I went hey, I’m going to be with people and have fun. It was a gradual growing up, a gradual self-awareness. I always liked having fun with audiences.’

We are seated in a badly lit New York hotel room. Katie takes charge of pouring decaffeinated coffee. They seem extremely comfortable together. They met a year or so after he ended his long-term relationship with Australian production assistant Rae Farley. He met Farley the year after his divorce from his 25-year marriage to Marcia Murphey who he married the year he divorced his first wife, high school sweetheart Jaye Posner.

He felt a lot of guilt about the failure of his 25-year-old marriage. So much so that he didn’t bother to correct rumours that said he paid his wife $150 million, said to be the highest recorded alimony settlement at the time.

‘It wasn’t true,’ he says as he casts his eyes to the floor. He claims that newspapers simply made up the sum and he didn’t bother to correct it. Even his wife asked him about it. Was she happy with the settlement she did get? ‘She was. She got enough to live on for the rest of her life.’ Was he so generous because he felt such guilt? ‘Somewhat.’ He almost winces. ‘It’s true. I did feel bad.

‘I don’t have many feelings about my divorce  now because we’ve been divorced for 20 years. I do have some feelings of guilt about my life. Guilty that I wasn’t with my kids more because I was travelling. But I’ve spoken to all of them a number of times about it. They all have good memories of growing up and I loved them completely when I was back in town. I was theirs full-time.’

Maybe it makes it more special and intense to have a father that works on the road. Maybe if you’d been around all the time there would have been more bickering?

‘That’s right,’ his eyes lighting. ‘I have never bickered with my kids. I was always happy to see them and they were always happy to see me. And I think they still are.’

He has had a lifelong relationship with guilt. ‘I see a therapist. She is very useful. I learned to express myself and I learned about myself with the help of a psychologist. She didn’t make me a better songwriter but she made me an easier person for me to live with. She had nothing to do with my songs – that’s a solo effort. She’s made my life a lot easier because I understand things a bit better, because I’m not torturing myself.

‘I used to blame myself for everything. I have moderated my feelings over the years. Guilt and achievement and responsibility, all of these things…’

You felt guilty for achieving? ‘No. Achievement is one of the things you have to deal with. Your self-achievement, your self-image. I never felt guilty for achieving anything because I always worked for it. but sometimes I feel I am worthless, useless. What am I here for, what am I doing?’

Does he still feel like that? ‘Sometimes. And somehow you have to deal with it. My psychologist has been very helpful in opening the doors to my mind and help me understand myself and the reality of life. I see her once a week, face to face. Occasionally I’ll call her on the phone if I’m out of town. But it’s almost always face to face and I have been doing it for ten years.’

There must have been an instant knowingness when he and Katie first met. ‘No, there was nothing. She was just another business person handing me work to do and another business person I was trying to get away from. I stopped trying to get away after a year or so, once I got to know the person she was, and I liked that person very much. Katie’s got a big heart and she’s very transparent. I can read her heart from a mile away. She does a terrific English accent which makes me laugh every time she does it. Katie, remember where we were staying last time we were in London, darling?’

‘Dawchester,’ says Katie, in a very strange cockney posh. But it’s a valiant attempt. Did it take Katie a year for him to weave his way into her heart? ‘No, she loved me immediately,’ he laughs, a very low naughty laugh.

Katie says, very politely, ‘I took my work very seriously. And when we first started working together it was work on both sides. I wanted to work with him. He was one of the biggest iconic singer songwriters of all time and as a manager I was thrilled to have him as a client. We worked very closely for that first year because he was on tour and we spent a lot of time together. When we first met neither of us were interested in each other. He was work as far as I was concerned.’

They were both single and available? They both nod. I wonder if he’d resigned himself to being alone for the rest of his life after his two marriages and long-term relationship had fallen apart.

‘No, I had not resigned myself to being single, but I wasn’t looking. I was busy doing my work and Katie appeared. It was totally unplanned and unexpected.’

How does he make sure that their relationship keeps working? In the past he’s said that music was his main mistress. Music demands from him emotions that are intense. His second marriage is said to have failed because he didn’t have enough time emotionally or physically left over for his family.

Is it complicated working together having a business relationship as well as a romantic one? ‘We are still working on that because there are times where the work will interfere with our personal relationship. There are times I want to talk about something and we might be in the middle of having breakfast together. I’ll want to talk about something coming up and Katie doesn’t want to talk about that. She wants to do the crossword puzzle and have breakfast, so she’ll say “Can we talk about this later or can we set up a meeting to talk about it?” And I have to say, OK. We’ll talk about it another time.

‘We’re still in the process of working this all out. It requires some give and take on both our parts. I respect her a lot. She’s a professional. She’s very experienced. She knows the business and that allows me to not be drawn into the business part so much. It allows the creative part of me time to blossom, time for me to write songs, time for me to do what I do best.’

Does he write songs more easily when he’s happy in love or more miserable? ‘Misery has never been a productive stimulus. I’d rather be in a good frame of mind because then you’re energetic, you’re outgoing. Although I have written some of my best songs when I’ve been down and not particularly happy.

‘I get unhappy if I get stuck on a song, if I can’t get a line that is satisfactory to me or if I’m working on an idea all day and it’s not working out. That can really preoccupy and distract me. If one of my kids is sick I’m unhappy. If I get a cold I’m unhappy. If I’m underworked I’m unhappy. If I’m overworked I’m unhappy.’

He says all of this with a sense of irony. Most of that severe unhappiness seems to be in the past. He actually strikes me as a very happy man.

Diamond’s many moods from dark to exuberant, can be found on his just released The Very Best Of Neil Diamond featuring all beloved classics like Solitary Man, Sweet Caroline, Beautiful Noise, Hello Again, and You Don’t Bring Me Flowers, the duet with Barbra Streisand. He is working on songs for a new album and that is going well.

‘I’m happy because I’m occupied with something that I love doing. Keeping busy is the most important element of me being happy and of course having a wonderful wife makes me happy, to know that I don’t have to go through my life and bear it alone. That’s a happy thought for me. I have someone to talk to about it.’

Was he lonely when he met Katie? ‘I think I was probably lonely. I don’t like to be alone. I’d much rather be in a loving relationship with a woman any day than being alone.’

Did his last long-term relationship (with Rae Farley) end unhappily? ‘I’d say it did end unhappily. It wasn’t a serious relationship. It was going nowhere. There were no marriage plans. It was difficult. It lasted too long.’

Did it last too long because it’s hard to end things even though it’s hard to be in them? ‘I think so,’ he nods earnestly, still troubled by the thought of it.

On stage he has always been a flamboyant performer, over the top, fantastical gyrations that would seem impossible for a man of his age who today walks a little stiffly and places himself in a hard backed chair. He’s wearing dark jeans and a dark sweater, his face craggy and hair more salt than pepper, but he’s extremely magnetic. His eyes draw you in to their suffering and his need to connect.  He has over 60,000 followers on Twitter and he follows no one.

‘I believe I am allowed to be over the top on stage and I enjoy that part of myself. Tweeting is expressive, I wouldn’t say therapeutic, I wouldn’t put it that deeply, but I like to share what I’m thinking. Here’s a picture of my dog. It’s funny.’

The Diamonds live in LA where they love walking their dogs Poker and Shamrock and Katie likes to ride horses and spend time with her rescued cat Brigitte. Diamond is particularly close to the dog he calls Pokey who he rescued from being put to sleep. They never buy animals, only ever rescue them.

‘There was something about his eyes that got to me. He was a funny looking guy (part spaniel part something else). I looked at him and he looked at me back. There was a little bit of communication. So I asked this person who was in charge of adoption do you mind if I take this dog for a walk so I can get to know him and see if we like each other. He said sure, so I took a leash and Pokey and I went for a walk and we had a heart to heart. I asked him how he was doing and where he lived before. He was a grown-up dog, mature, and he said, “I don’t want to talk about that right now” so we talked about life and he was enjoying the smells. This is all mentally. And we got to know each other and I got to like him. I think he got to like me. So I said I’m going to take this dog home because I think we can get along and I did just that. The guy in charge of the adoptions was called Chance so that’s why I called him Poker.

‘He’s a great dog and we’re great pals. I talk to him all the time. Don’t people usually talk to their animals? Our conversations are quite abbreviated. We haven’t discussed the Bible yet or the meaning of life, but we have discussed, “No Pokey it’s not a good idea to jump on the couch right now.” And he goes, “Oh okay.” He’s a very reasonable dog. That’s one of the things I appreciate about him.’

Shamrock was a golden retriever puppy who Katie fell in love with when she ran into him at a farm where she rides horses. ‘He’s a very affectionate dog and somehow you have to put a little control over his affections. He will climb up on your lap and sit there, but he is as big as a person.’

Possibly Shamrock is Katie and Pokie is Diamond. ‘That’s exactly right,’ he says. I’m wondering was Shamrock the first significant present he gave Katie and was this the gift that established their relationship? ‘I was her first big present. I’m not taking second place.’

When you decide to get a dog with someone it’s making a statement that you are getting domestic, that you are moving in a permanent direction.

‘Yes, I’ve heard that but I never thought that. I have given puppies as presents before because I love dogs and I thought it would be nice. Katie wanted Shamrock. ‘

Katie was at a friend’s farm where she rides horses and she discovered one of their dogs had puppies. She fell in love with Shamrock, a golden retriever puppy.

‘I didn’t really want another dog, I thought Poker was just fine. But Katie’s got a big heart so I grudgingly in a way said alright, Shamrock it is. And he turns out to be a good guy.’

He is quite a contradiction. On the one hand he loves to make people laugh and loves nothing better than to charm an audience. He is warm, easy to connect with, yet he has spent most of his life in his own head, even if he was in a relationship. His best friend is the one he met at high school who is waiting downstairs to have lunch with him.

He met Herb Cohen when he was 17 and Herb was the captain of the high school fencing team. They had an instant connection and Diamond joined the team. ‘He was the best, I was the worst. But scouts offering scholarships for college came to look at Herb, so they took me as well. We went to NYU together.’

He once said that he didn’t make friends like normal people. ‘I do have other friends. I made a point of opening myself up and allowing myself to make friends. Before that all I had was my work, my family and that was it. The only people I had contact with were the people that work for me and my kids. I’m in touch with my kids all the time.’

I imagine there was an unfathomable void in his life when his 25 year marriage disintegrated. Is he in touch with his ex-wives? ‘I am but not on a regular basis. When it is called for. When it is necessary. To talk about the kids. Sometimes to talk about other things.’

‘My first wife was Jewish. My second wife was not Jewish. My third wife is Catholic. There will not be a fourth wife by the way. I’ve been warned by Katie.’

I ask Katie what exactly did she do to warn him? She blushes. ‘I haven’t warned him anything.’ He interrupts. ‘She hasn’t. I just don’t want ever to lose her. She is too fantastic.’

What is being in love like for him? ‘Being in love completes the perfection of my life. If there was anything missing in the last 20 years it was that I was not in love with anybody and I am in love with Katie. I am in love and I love her.’

I ask Katie is she in love? ‘Absolutely.’

Does she think that’s different to loving somebody? ‘Yes, I do. And I both love him and am in love with him. I love him with all my heart.’ They look at each other. Their eyes lock. You believe them’.

The Very Best of Neil Diamond’ is Out Now

Tom Jones

I had heard about Tom Jones’ animal presence. In the Sixties when he was performing someone observed, ‘I’ve never seen anyone so male in all my life.’ 
      This holds true today. He walks into the room, his book publisher’s office, and his sheer charisma sets it on fire – tall, larger than life, black jeans, black polo, black soft jacket. 
      I meet him just as his autobiography Over The Top And Back comes out. It is a great read and funny. It charts his youth in the grim coal mining town of Pontypridd. It captures his Welshness.
      He got tuberculosis for a year. His mother refused to send him to a sanatorium in Scotland so he was a virtual prisoner in his bedroom where he pined for his girlfriend Linda. 
Linda’s presence is a haunting one throughout the book. Now his wife of 58 years he says that she is the only woman he has ever loved. You feel the love when they are kissing in the phone box at the end of their road. 
You feel it when she becomes pregnant when they are both 16. They marry but don’t live together straight away. He works 12-hour shifts at the paper mill to support his wife and child. He didn’t want her to get a part-time job. He didn’t want anyone to flirt with her. ‘But most of all she didn’t like it. Linda is a very private person. She’s not a people person.’
When he goes to London to work on his singing career he sells his beloved leather jacket for the train fare back to Cardiff so he can see his  wife and baby. In many ways he’s the traditional man. In many ways not.
The book is filled with anecdotes and encounters with Elvis, Paul McCartney, John Lennon – who tried to hold Jones’ hand at a curtain call for a performance in honour of Lew Grade. Jones dropped his hand. That was all too gay. It is something that he regrets now.
That and not standing his ground when Paul McCartney offered him The Long And Winding Road but his record company wanted to go with another. Other than that he is not big on regret. 
Both his parents were ‘dressers’. They looked like they were going to a ball when they went down the club. Jones has always been a dresser. That image of him in the white open shirt, the hairy chest, the tuxedo trousers, is iconic. He says it came about because he was simply too hot to perform in a suit and when he took his tie off his then manager Gordon Mills knew that was the look – a raw macho look in the face of drippy hippy things. Jones recalls being on the same bill as The Rolling Stones once. ‘They turned up in suits and changed into their jeans to perform and I turned up in jeans and changed into my tuxedo.’
When Gordon Mills wrote the song It’s Not Unusual  with Les Reed he was going to give it to Sandie Shaw but Jones had an instinct and that song changed his life. He could move out of Mills’ apartment in Notting Hill and buy a house, be reunited with his wife and have a red Jaguar. What’s New Pussycat?, Green Green Grass Of Home were the smashes that followed.
Jones moved to Los Angeles because of the tax imposed by the Labour Government in the late Sixties and has never come back to live. In the late Seventies through the Eighties he had a kind of identity crisis. He had put out some country albums and was playing Vegas-style shows in towns in the middle of nowhere around America where the most exciting thing about the show was going to the nicest restaurant in town afterwards.
Jones didn’t want to sign for another country album at Polydor. He might have got into a fight with his manager about that but Mills had been hiding the fact he had colon cancer and was drinking heavily. He died aged 51 in 1986.
Jones’ son Mark, who had been on the road with him since he was 16 took over and instantly brought him back to being authentic and current and being a voice. In 1988 he performed the Prince song Kiss on Jonathan Ross’s Last Resort. It was The Art of Noise arrangement of this song that made it a world hit. Another iconic Tom Jones song and his career was reborn. In 2006 he was made a knight of the realm and he also established a new fan base when he appeared as elder statesman in four series of BBC1 talent show The Voice from 2012 to 2015.
He was always known as The Voice and on his new album Long Lost Suitcase that voice is richer and deepened. Darkened. It shakes the senses with its power. Its title came from the fact that “ I have still got a lot of stuff in suitcases. Being on the road all the time you sort of half unpack or three-quarters unpack and you think, oh, I don’t need that right now so I can leave that there. So a lot of stuff accumulates in suitcases. Old records and old pictures. I found a picture of my grandfather, he died in the First World War and it’s the only studio shot that I have of him. He is standing Edwardian, with his leg crossed and his hat is on a plinth”
He is very much about paying homage to his roots. Is that what made him think it was time for a memoir? ‘So many  books have been written about me by people that have never even met me so I wanted to talk about what it was like before fame, all those people in Wales that moulded my character.’
What he doesn’t talk about so much is how as a knicker strewn sex god there were many extra-marital temptations which he didn’t resist. He does say, ‘None of it meant anything.’ 
We meet on the day of Sparkgate. A paper had reported him saying, “Linda has lost her spark.” He corrects, ‘I didn’t say that. I said SHE FEELS she’s lost her spark. It’s not the same thing. She has emphysema and she’s not happy with the way she looks. I did not say she doesn’t look as she did before. I carry a young picture of her wherever I go because it’s a wonderful memory. I remember when she had that picture taken. But not because she looks better on it. I’ve asked her if I can take a new picture and carry that around, but she doesn’t want me to. I did say I love talking to her on the phone because when we talk on the phone we’re young again. Age doesn’t matter on the phone.’
Just like when he was on The Voice. That was about turning the chair at the sound of the voice, not because of the looks. But more of that later. 
‘Linda is the only person with whom I’ve been in love. We fell in love as teenagers. We were lustful as well, but it was love. And the longer you are together the more you realise when the sex gets less important in a marriage the love is even stronger because that’s what you’ve got left. That and the same sense of humour and coming from the same place. 
‘People have said to me do you ever think about getting a divorce? I say no. We are family, a family that I could never separate from.
Linda is a strong woman. She didn’t exactly condone his extramarital activities, because she knew that she was loved. 
‘I don’t condone it. It was just something that happened. It went along with my career. I felt it was just fun and games and it didn’t hurt anybody. We came through it. My wife loves me, my son loves me, my grandchildren love me.’
Did he ever think that Linda would leave him when she found out about his affair with Marjorie Wallace? ‘No, but I didn’t like the fact she didn’t like me. I was ashamed of myself. Ashamed that she knew about something that was not important via a newspaper.
‘If I had said to her that it was happening she would have said, “You’d better stop that now or there’d be trouble.” And that’s what would have happened. I would have stopped it. Definitely.’

In the book he talks about how Linda got colon cancer and how he could never perform without her. ‘Every song I sing is to her. They cut out a foot of her colon. They also took a foot out of my colon some years ago because they found a growth (benign). I used to say to Linda, “I’m a foot short.” And now we’re both a foot short.

‘When they are at home she doesn’t like hairdressers and manicurists coming over because she doesn’t like to talk to them. She likes me to do her hair and her nails.’ 
Whatever you might think about Tom Jones you don’t imagine him doing hair and nails. I like this devotion. It dispels the chauvinism myth completely. 
He is really easy to talk to and we laugh a lot. In his book he talks about his surprising dismissal from The Voice. He writes, ‘What a cold place the BBC is. Sometimes you wonder if it is run by humans or a machine.’ He refers to the Controller of BBC1 Charlotte Moore thanking him personally for his services, but in a press release. 
Mark, his son and manager, got a call saying that Sir Tom, the stalwart of the show, would not be returning. This call came at the very last minute possible. He was expecting to start rehearsals as he had done for the last four years in mid-August. Instead the call came that he would not be needed. ‘Apparently someone told Mark, “We don’t think Tom is going to like what it’s going to become.”
‘I like The Voice in America. That’s what got me interested. I did a show called Imagine with Alan Yentob and he said the ratings were so wonderful would I do The Voice UK. 
‘Will.i.am said in the beginning that he did The Voice because of me. This season Paloma Faith said the only reason she signed was because she thought she was going to work with me. I’m curious to see what they do with it. I will watch it, of course.’ Will he miss it? ‘No. But I want to see how it does and how the ratings go. 
‘They kept telling us we needed to turn our chairs more. And I said no, it has to be real. I don’t want to be lumbered with somebody I don’t like. I have a reputation for picking good voices. But they were pressing on me, and that’s exactly what happened. I ended up with this red haired girl that I didn’t like. They hate it when we don’t turn but I kept telling them it has to be real.’
It doesn’t seem very real at all. ‘The real coaches are singing coaches who keep us informed about how far the contestants can stretch themselves. We talk to them daily and discuss songs, can they handle it, that’s not working let’s change it. But they are the ones who do the real coaching work. We are just the faces. We pick them and they work with them.
‘I loved the blind auditions where you had no cloud what the person is like, you’re just getting the voice. And now they want to put in more backstories.’ Isn’t that making it more like The X Factor? Perhaps you can be a judge on that next year? ‘Nothing is out of the question,’ he says with a smile. And you really believe that is true.

Kirk and Anne Douglas (Sunday Times Magazine, December 11, 2016)

Kirk and Anne Douglas and Chrissy Iley
Kirk and Anne Douglas and Chrissy Iley

When I first arrived at the house I thought this house is too small, too nondescript, too unshowy.  It can’t be the house where The Spartacuses live.

Then I spot the mezuzah on the door – Kirk Douglas is a dedicated Jew and then a nurse with gently slippered feet lets me in.  I knew I was in the right place.  The Douglases are old and need full time care.

The house feels alive when you get in. Cosy but with exquisite art, like the Picasso vase at the entrance bought by Anne Douglas when she worked for the Cannes film festival so so many years ago.

Anne is fully made up, fully coiffed in a blue long sleeved T shirt and navy slacks. Her feet in orthopaedic velcroed shoes. Kirk comes in on his walker. He looks fragile of course, who wouldn’t? He’s a hundred. Or will be on December 9th.  But as he stares out at me, his glinty eyes still look to charm.  There’s something fierce about him still. He has white hair but he has hair. He speaks with a mighty slur – a remnant of a stroke in 1996. It’s difficult to get used to understanding it but not impossible. He was pretty depressed about being rendered speechless. Not much an actor can do without speech unless silent movies are making a comeback he would joke. Except it wasn’t a joke. He contemplated suicide but knew it was too selfish an act and Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovich, is a survivor. He knows how to pick himself up. He is the last living legend, the last screen hero of the golden years. The action hero that started it all. He was a Viking and he was Spartacus. He did his own stunts and had a personal trainer well into his nineties and all this is in him still. He’s learnt to communicate in a different way.  He looks at me with a frisking my soul kind of look.  “I bet you’ve never interviewed a hundred year old before,” he challenges.

At the start of our meeting he looks to Anne for support, but then he seems feel who I am with his eyes. If I don’t understand the words he’s saying, he’ll intuit it and communicate by sheer telepathy. It’s hard to explain this.  I got a full and absolute sense of the man because he didn’t try to hide everything. Or if he did try to avoid questions like how many lovers did his wife not know about? He’ll shrug and just laugh and jokes, ‘I don’t understand the question.’ He tells me how glad he is to see me, a little bit of London in LA. “I haven’t been able to travel to London for the last four or five years. I have been…” and he tries to finish the sentence and just shrugs. ‘I’ve been here.’

Is he thinking about his hundredth birthday plans? “Well I found out when you reach a hundred they forget about you. I think a hundred is a very lonely age because all my friends are gone, all the one from the movies.”  Maybe he has new friends I say cheerily, because who couldn’t be sad that Burt Lancaster and Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall didn’t make it to celebrate with him. He’s not suddenly thinking about death. He’s always thought about death. He says, “If you’re Marilyn, you will always be remembered as 36 but if you’re old….I don’t know. I think he will always be remembered for his bare chested bravery, for his virility, for his rogueish handsomeness.

Surely he must have some friends coming to the party? “I have my wife. She is equated to about five friends.” He looks at Anne and Anne raises her eyebrows. He can still joke. The jokes are all based on mocking himself.

He was born in 1916, the only boy with five sisters. His mother told him he was born in a golden box delivered by angels and for many years he believed that – he must have always felt he was special? He shrugs. “Yes. I had six sisters and only one of them now lives. I was brought up more by my mother because my father was busy drinking in the saloons.” His father Herschel was a ragman, which means he had a cart that pulled rags door to door, bought and sold in the poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam, New York.  His parents had emigrated from Russia. They were illiterate and they were Jews. There wasn’t great opportunities for them in this time of great prejudice.  The ragman sold his rags and spent his money in the bars.  He was a big strong man who knew peasant ways, like how to insulate the house for winter with horse dung but not how to be an emotional communicator. He was distant and discouraging even though the young Issur/Kirk wanted to please him, he rarely did. He admired him because he was his father, yet he was absent both physically and emotionally.

How did that affect Kirk as a father to his four sons Joel, Michael, Peter, Eric? He nods sagely. “Of course a hundred years and I think about my father a lot and I realise that my best friends were always women, maybe because my mother was wonderful.” By this I interpret he wanted to be a very different father to the one he endured. “We were poor. We were living in a terrible house. We had nearly nothing and if my mother saw a hobo they would come to the house, knock on the door and while we didn’t have much food, my mother always saved something for them so yes, I was closer to my mother. I called my company Bryna after my mother.” And because of her he always found it easier to become closer to women? In touch with his feminine side? “Yes,” he beams. Even now, slumped in his chair, he’s tough. The least likely man to be in touch with his feminine side, yet somehow he is.  “My mother couldn’t speak English when she first came from Russia.  I remember taking her to New York City in a big limousine for a premiere. I said Ma, you see, America is a wonderful land.”  Did it make her happy to be in the limo with you? He says, “She never expressed it but I know she was.” Neither of his parents were good at expressing love, were they? “Well, it was so difficult to live.”

For many years Kirk blamed himself for his youngest son Eric’s lonely death from a drugs overdose at 45.  Eric was always the crazy one. Even as a child he had anger issues. He was a talented actor and in later years a stand-up comedian. I saw his act at the Edinburgh festival. It was based on jokes about his father and his more famous brother Michael. Kirk for years agonised over it and wondered if it was because he wasn’t there enough or because he thought he was too big an act to follow.  Eric had been addicted to drugs and his parents had paid for many rehabs and sober buddies. They tried to get him involved in forming a facility to help others. Eric was too far gone for that.

I remember interviewing him after his show in Edinburgh attended by about 25 people. Glad of the attention he followed me back to my hotel and shouted outside the window all night for me to come out. I didn’t. A year later he was dead.  Eric Douglas was 46 when he was found in his New York apartment dead for an overdose.  He had gone into rehab a month before with renewed efforts at sobriety

Kirk and Anne used to visit his grave twice a week. They did that for as long as they could easily walk.

Anne who is strong and clever and self-controlled was inconsolable.  So many other dramatic events informed her life.

She was born in Germany around 1930. She doesn’t give her exact age. As a little girl she was extremely close to her father. “My parents were not too great together. My mother was a beautiful women and we always had a governess.  My mother was away a lot.  She got the best dresses, the best cars. We had a big silk manufacturing place and my father had a sales lady there that he wanted me to become friends with, so we formed a close friendship. My parents divorced. I had an extremely close relationship with my father. We told each other everything. At night before I went to bed I would write to him in a little blue book and he would write the reply. One day he said, ‘I’m going on a short business trip.’ I trusted him and relied on him. When he came back I ran downstairs to meet him and he was with my friend the sales agent and he said ‘This is your new mother.’ I cried my eyes out. He betrayed me. I started work very young and went to live in Berlin where my mother was. She continued her deluxe life and I had a little divan in her dressing room and got a job in a doctor’s office.”  Then she went to work in Belgium and ended up in Paris Hitler had invaded.

“I was working by putting German subtitles on French movies because I spoke three languages. It was very tedious. It looked like I was writing in code and my maid gave my translation sheet to the Nazis so at 5am they picked me up and arrested me. It was difficult to explain to them what I was doing but eventually they let me go.” She must have been terrified. “That was an understatement. I was brought up during the regime of a dictator and a persecutor and now I feel that years later in America, Donald Trump is a dictator and it scares me. People should have lived in Germany where they thought that Hitler was OK. They said, oh he wasn’t too bad.  They thought he wasn’t really doing what he was doing. People thought that Hitler was a buffoon and people should realise that Donald Trump is a dictator! It scares me. She speaks with certainty and passion. At whatever age she is, you can tell she was never anybody’s fool.  The couple look at each other throughout, checking.

“I worked in the film industry when the war was over and I was sent everywhere because of my language skills.  I was asked to do public relations for American films that were being made in Paris.” Kirk chimes, “And that’s where I come into the story.”  Kirk grins and his eyes flash. It’s almost as if they’re flirting with each other.  Anne continues, “I was asked by a director to work on An Act of Love but I told him no because I had just finished working on Moulin Rouge and had been invited to take the leading lady to Hollywood.”  When she came back they still wanted her to work on the movie – a Kirk Douglas movie. “I went to the studio and a friend of mine who was working on set said, ‘I will take you into the lion’s den.’ And that was it.” I look at Kirk. So…he was the lion? He smiles rather sweetly, not even nostalgically because he still thinks he is a lion.

Was Anne a little wary of the lion? She chuckles. “Not at all. He asked me if could do some secretarial work for him and I said no but I’ll find somebody for you.”

Kirk adds, “This beautiful girl was in the lion’s den. I tried to get her to work for me and I was amazed when she said NO. I escorted her to her car and asked her to have dinner with me at Tour d’Argent   the fanciest restaurant in Paris and she said she was going home to make scrambled eggs.” Kirk was obsessed with what he couldn’t have? “Yes.” This wasn’t part of Anne’s massive game play. She just was too sensible, too vulnerable to throw herself in the ring with what was then the world’s biggest movie star. But scrambled eggs I ask her? “Sure. I was exhausted. I’d just come back from LA to Paris and in those days it was propeller planes. You stopped everywhere. It took two days so I said no thank you I have to go to bed.” This must have made her incredibly exciting to this lion here. “Yes,” says Kirk very definitely. But hang on, Kirk, wasn’t he engaged to another women called Pier Angeli? “Well, yes.” And wasn’t she about twelve and he had to take her on dates with her mother? “No. you are exaggerating. She was 18 when we met. 21 when we were engaged.

Meanwhile Angeli was touring the world, with or without her mother and being extremely elusive and Anne was in Paris, as was Kirk. Eventually they went on a date at the circus, a very famous circus I’m assured. Kirk said, “I was surprised when she said yes.” Anne finishes the story. “Everybody was dressed up and it was very elegant and then he appeared on the show with a pooper scooper for the elephant in a tuxedo.” Kirk beams with recollection of the perfect night. “Everybody thought I was very funny but I made her laugh and then we became good friends that night.” How good friends? “Well…” he gestures and for a minute I think is he hamming it up. Anne corrects. “We kissed that night and that was a little more than a friendly kiss and that’s how it started and every so often when we got in the most passionate way he reminded me that he really was engaged to Pier. It was a secret engagement. It hadn’t been announced. I worked on the movie in France and then I was hired for his next picture in Italy called Ulysses, produced by Carlo Ponti.”

He tells me that every night they were filming he would drive up to see Anne. But what about his fiancée? He talks about a day where he and Anne had a boat and they went on a romantic little pleasure trip up the coast, where they thought they were hidden in a private harbour, but somehow Pier found out. “I could never find her when I wanted to but she always knew where I was,” he says, Anne looks irritated to this day. “She was a little devil. She was devious.” Kirk, was he really in love with her? “I was young.. she was a fantasy.” Anne continues. “He and I were very close and the last straw was I was driving him to the airport in my little Renault. He was going to go home to the US to finish 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and at the airport a stewardess comes to the car and says to Kirk, ‘Miss Pier Angeli is waiting for you on the plane.’ That did it. I broke up with him and I told him I’d never see him again. I went to a friend’s apartment in Nice and I told my maid not to tell Mr Douglas where I am. I am gone.”

So how did this make Kirk feel? “I now had my girlfriend Pier without her mother, on her own. This was New Year’s Eve and we were walking in a garden on a river and I was thinking of Anne.” So now he had Angeli he was bored? “Yes, maybe but she seemed to know. She took off the ring I gave her and threw it at me so next morning I used a lot of charm and made Anne’s maid tell me where she was. And I got my passport and went right to her.” Anne continues, “I had told him this was it but then he bribed my maid. I told him I didn’t want to see him again. I didn’t want to start it up again. And somehow he got me to go ski-ing with him in Switzerland. I went to Paris and he went back to America and asked if I would come and visit for two weeks. I told everybody in Paris, either he’s going to marry me or I come back for good. We had a wonderful time and then he said to me, ‘my ex-wife and children are coming in ten days.’ I said don’t worry I will have left. And he said, ‘No. don’t leave.’

Then one day he came home a little bit late, went down on his knees and asked me to marry him and tried to give me Pier Angelis’ ring.” She raises her eyebrows and I ask him what was he thinking?  “That’s nothing compared to what she did to me when we were in Paris and she made a birthday party….” Anne finishes the story because she’s proud of it. “Every girl, including the one from the night before when he said he was seeing rushes – he never sees rushes – was invited to that party. Every woman that he’d had an affair with in Paris that I knew of, and that line was very long already and I’m sure I missed a few, was there to greet him. And I was standing at the end and he turned to me and said, “You bitch.” We all laugh.

And you realise Anne’s humour, fighting spirit and ability to brush things off, just like she brushed off a Nazi interrogation, made her probably the only woman that was strong enough for him.  They went to Vegas to get married.

Anne recalls, “Because I didn’t know the word lawful I said I would take him to be my ‘awful’ wedded husband. As soon as we were married, Frank Sinatra was in one room performing, Mickey Rooney was in another. We were in a big suite in the Sahara hotel but we went from one place to another. I said to Kirk come on now to bed. He said, ‘we’ve been sleeping together for a year, tonight we are gambling.’”

Kirk and Anne refer to Kirk’s first wife Diana … the woman he married on leave from the Navy and Michael and Joel’s mother as ‘our ex-wife.’  Anne says, “We became instant friends and we never called her by her name – always our ex-wife. The first independent movie Kirk made was The Indian Fighter. He asked, ‘Do you mind if my ex-wife is in the movie?’ I said of course not.” Kirk says, “The kids have to come and live with you and the nanny as well. Is that OK? So the kids moved in while me and the ex-wife made the movie.” Anne was never jealous? “No, well not of her.  If I would get jealous it would have become a ridiculous habit. I said to him if it happens, you tell me. If I hear it from other people it hurts me deeply. If you tell me what you’re up to I can get by with it.  Maybe I missed a few hundred. I don’t know.”

Kirk, how many affairs did he confess to? “Oh I don’t know,” he says, suddenly put on the spot. “I’m not very good at keeping secrets.”  Anne reminds me, “One year he asked me would I like a surprise birthday party? If I have a bottom line it is to say that we were fantastic lovers and better friends. That is what gives us serenity and a great attachment. And now we are, I suppose it’s corny to say, but now we are one.”

They look at each other, their eyes both lock, it’s a sly exchange rather than an adoring one.  She catches me observing that. “It has been that way for a long time.”

Why did she convert to Judaism after fifty years of marriage? So Kirk could say, ‘I finally married a nice Jewish girl?’ She smiles. “I told the Rabbi I would like to convert and he said you don’t have to and I said I do for my husband.” The Rabbi comes every week and he and Kirk read scriptures, discuss the Torah and life. “So I did it. I did the Mikvah. Do you know what that is?” It means you have to submerge yourself in water, symbolic of a total cleanse. “Yes all the way in. my hair got wet. I was upset about that. The Rabbi said ‘invite whoever you want,” and I said sure. I’ll invite all my friends and they’ll see me with no polish no make-up, my hair hanging down. No thank you but then I ran to the hairdresser and became that nice Jewish girl.”

The one that Kirk always wanted? “Well, not really. Well…” he says coyly.

Anne Douglas is perfectly coiffed. Full on eye make-up, nails, everything and that’s just for sitting in the house. The Mikvah must have been quite a trauma. Kirk was Barmitzvahed twice. Once when he was 13 and he had to give all his Barmitzvah money to his father and the second time when he was 83. “I never brought my kids up Jewish. Both my wives were not Jewish but Michael’s children Dylan and Carys were interested in it.  When Dylan got to be 11 he wanted a Barmitzvah. He said ‘I want to be Jewish.’  Michael also always wanted to be accepted as a Jew, even though his mother wasn’t Jewish. Eric was Barmitzvahed and Peter and Peter’s children. It’s good. They came to it by themselves. Am I a good Jew? I don’t go to the Synagogue but the Rabbi is a friend and he comes every week.” Anne says, “And Kirk takes his confession.”

Kirk, for the first time not joking says, “Let’s not talk any more about religion because nobody really knows. I’m a hundred years old and I don’t think I’ll be going to heaven.”  Anne says, “Yes you will be going there. I will send you there and wherever else you want to go.”

They have written a book together, Kirk and Anne, the letters. Letters from when they first met. Letters when Anne was at home looking after the children and Kirk was on location after location. Kirk says, “I’ve written eleven books. I’m always talking about myself. I’ve never given credit to my wife. Why don’t we do a book together?” Anne continues, “Unbeknownst to me I’d kept all the letters. I found them among letters from famous people like Henry Kissinger.”  Douglas and Kissinger were friends and he was close to several presidents.

While they were separated on different continents they wrote to one another all the time. It’s interesting to see how he feels. He was so excited when he got the financing for Vikings but Tony Curtis wanted to be in it and take the role that Kirk had earmarked for himself, so he and Anne worked out the decision through letters.  Anne encouraging, “give it to Curtis. It will be good for box office.” And in another letter Laurence Olivier said that he wanted to play Spartacus, which obviously didn’t happen.

I wonder if all this swooping up of memories is him preparing to die. What does he think happens after you die? “What do I think of what?”  He doesn’t want to talk about it now but he’s written another book, Let’s Face It (he was 90 insert).

Steven Spielberg calls him dad. Why is that? “His mother had a restaurant, the Milky Way and I used to go there for lunch. His mother was so good. I got to know him and he became like a kid to me. I admire him. He’s a great guy and the only billionaire that I like. I won’t hold his money against him.”

My pedicurist went to their house a few years ago and she told me in the bathroom was a framed dollar bill. It was the first dollar he ever made and he framed it so he could always know what it was like to not have any money, to know that he made it on his own.  A little touchstone.

He held out for Dalton Trumbo to write the script of Spartacus even though at the time he was blacklisted.  Douglas was the catalyst that ended the cruel blacklisting in the McCarthy era. It was the era of the Cold War and anyone in the film industry who was suspected rightly or wrongly of being a communist was blacklisted.

Kirk bought the last ever Trumbo script Montezuma “and Steven bought it from me. I doubt it will come soon because it’s a huge project.”  There’s a tangible sadness. Obviously Douglas would have liked to see the movie made and jokes, “will we get any Mexicans in it or will they all be back in Mexico if Trump gets in?” Kirk changes the subject to Michael.  Michael is a good son. I never paid attention to him when he was growing up. I said Michael I want you to be a doctor or a lawyer and suddenly he got this part in a play. I told him Michael you were terrible.”

Michael Doulas has referred to this often. It must have hurt him. “No,” says Kirk, “because two months later I went to see him in another play and he was wonderful. I said Michael you were really good and he’s been really good in everything he’s done.”  Kirk bought XXXX, a Broadway Play for Michael and he also bought One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Michael, even though Jack Nicholson ended up taking the role. Kirk and Michael had a constant banter about being rivals. They can do that because they’re very close. It’s been written that one close up of Kirk Douglas’s face in Spartacus is more powerful than the whole of Lawrence Olivier’s acting career. That’s a very tough act to follow.   You see him talking about Michael with pride and with love, something which his own father was never able to do about him. You feel glad that he was able to survive his past and not repeat it.

“You know when I got sick, the thing that hurt me was I couldn’t go to England. Burt Lancaster and I did the Palladium, you know. We were a big hit.” And then he starts singing. And the singing is really not bad, in fact he’s singing more in tune than me as we both attempt ‘maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I love London town.” It’s sweet. We laugh and he says, “I’m glad you brought London to me.”

Kirk Douglas is the last remaining star of the golden age and seeing him, this hundred year old man who has struggles with his knees, with hearing, seeing, talking, you see that spirit, a spirit that wants to not only survive not only conquer but charm. If his father had loved him maybe he wouldn’t have needed the world to love him so much and he wouldn’t have been as good at it. In a couple of hours he has totally charmed me, a man who can barely speak has utterly seduced me and that’s why he is a star.

Mel Gibson (Sunday Times Magazine, November 6, 2016)

Mel Gibson Sunday Times Magazine cover
Mel Gibson Sunday Times Magazine cover

I first met Mel Gibson over 15 years ago at a party on the Sony lot for the movie The Patriot. He came up behind me and turned me upside down and carried me around.  I was hysterical but this was one of his party tricks.  This was Mel. Maverick, wild, funny, unpredictable. Not much has changed in him since then but in a way everything has. He’s still wild in his heart. But he’s had to rein it in because of the periods where he was completely out of control.  Everyone has an opinion about Gibson.  Especially after his drunken, Anti- Semitic rant on the PCH Highway when he was stopped for driving under the influence in July 2006.  And then in 2011 there was the “leaked” recordings of nasty rows with his then girlfriend, Russian model and musician Oksana Grigorieva, mother of his 7 year old daughter Lucia.  For some he’ll always be a hero. He’ll always be Braveheart. Alec Baldwin, Jodie Foster and  Robert Downey Junior have all spoken up for him, the latter when presenting him with an award addressed the audience, ‘unless you are completely without sin, in which case you picked the wrong f****** industry to join me in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me…’

Hollywood are of course slow to forgive.  His directing genius was quiet and mostly unseen for this past decade. Of course he apologised. Of course he worked on himself but the industry needs something different than that. It needs a movie that is so powerful it erases any other feeling except awe for Gibson.  Hacksaw Ridge is that movie. Powerful, spectacular, emotional, gripping. I sat through it hardly able to breathe. In Venice it got a 10 minute standing ovation.

It’s the Mel Gibson comeback movie. Here he is, Hollywood reupholstered, repatched and re-treaded for the road with a story that’s brutal, graphic and emotional. Hacksaw is the story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery in WW11.  Doss was a seven day Eventist – his religious beliefs meant he couldn’t carry a gun but as a medic he could save lives even though constantly endangering his own.

This kind of shining bravery is just what Gibson loves. I’m waiting for him in an office in West Hollywood. He arrives with an air of fluster, announcing that he NEEDS a coffee and something to eat. It’s lunchtime and he hasn’t eaten yet. He’s wearing dark jeans, a navy pullover and a giant beard grown for an upcoming movie, the Professor of the Madman with Sean Penn. He likes to twiddle on this beard quite a bit. He combs it and strokes it unconsciously.

His eyes stare out, not so much at me. I tell him that I loved Hacksaw but he’s too focused on his hunger to take the compliment. I ask him how the story came to him. “It was given to me by Bill Mechanic (the man who used to run Fox) three times and on the third time I said yes.  I turned down Braveheart and then looked at it again.”

Braveheart (1995) was the 13th century Scottish epic where Gibson the movie star and Gibson the film maker collaborated in perfect reel. His first impact was with Mad Max (1979) a post-apocalyptic thriller.  It made Gibson a star in his native Australia and after that Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir’s epic Australian First World War drama made him a star worldwide.

He directed and funded the Passion of The Christ (2004).  It drew controversy – of course, but remains the biggest grossing independent film of all time.   It’s been 10 years since he helmed Apocalypto (2006) about the decline and savagery of the Mayan kingdom.  It was received well but Hacksaw is being spectacularly embraced.

Is he happy he made it now rather than a few years ago? He nods enthusiastically, pointing out that 10 years ago when it landed on his desk, its leading actor, Andrew Garfield would have been too young for the part.  Garfield’s (Boy A and Spiderman) portrayal of Desmond Doss is remarkable. So weedy, yet brave. Handsome but awkward.

“He’s got a very soulful quality. He wasn’t like some muscle guy. He’s just a guy. Good looking but not like a pretty boy and that’s who Desmond was. An ordinary guy.”  Did Gibson meet Doss before making the movie? “No. he passed away in 2006 at 87 but before he died he’d given his life rights to his church to dispose of. The church were pretty concerned. They didn’t want to give it to just anybody so Bill Mechanic was very sensitive to their requirements and wanted to honour the story of Desmond. As early as 1948 Hal Wallace (American producer of Casablanca and True Grit) was trying to get the rights to make a movie but Desmond never even went into a cinema. They even commandeered Audy Murphy (one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II) to talk to him and say, ‘look I’m a war hero and I’m making movies. It’s ok. But Desmond said, “I’ll just stay here and grow my vegetables.” He was humble but then he realised that two or three other men followed his lead as a conscientious objector medic and he realised that his story would inspire other people. Desmond was selfless.  He put his life on the line for somebody else in a heartbeat and would do it over and over again.”

When Doss first joined the army and refused to carry a weapon he was not only mocked by his fellow soldiers he was tortured. “The persecution was more protracted. We don’t show all of it in the film. And yet this was the man who got 75 guys, dragged them and pulled them on a rope down a big cliff and he was only 150 pounds. He stepped on a grenade to save a friend and as he was being carried off in a stretcher he saw someone who was wounded, so he jumped off, treated the guy and put HIM on the stretcher.”

The ultimate battle scene in Hacksaw is in Okinawa where Desmond pulls out men from carnage – it’s Gibson at his best. Blood, gore, salvation. There’s a guy in it who gets his legs blown off played by a soldier who lost his limbs in Afghanistan. He had to re-enact losing his own legs. He wore his prosthetics for the rest of the movie. Was that not a bit traumatic for him? “Yes it was. He approached the scene with trepidation but he’s a courageous guy and he found it cathartic.”

There’s also a lot of blood in this movie. “Yes,” he says enthusiastically. “I really like blood.”  Really? “Yes. Okinawa was the worst place in the Pacific.  350,000 dead in a 10 week period. There were rivers of blood. I didn’t go too far, believe me.” I notice at the beginning of the movie there is a shot of Desmond getting a blood taste. The blood is shot with awe. “Oh well,” he shrugs. “Doss met his wife while giving blood. He did it a few times, initially because he wanted to help people.”

Did Gibson identify with Doss? Long pause. “I think we all want to think we can be like that. When we see somebody like him, it reassures us that the human spirit is capable of just about anything and when things look really bleak that’s a good message to get. This is an extraordinary guy who did extraordinary things in extremely difficult circumstances. And that would test the mettle of anyone’s spirit, heart and mind and it’s also a great story.”

Hacksaw was shot in Australia so that too has a feeling of renaissance for Gibson. It was also a family affair. His son Milo was in it. “I’m not helping him. He’s doing alright on his own. I have another son who worked on the film who was a Steadicam operator.”

It was good to work with family? “Yes.” There’s a twiddle of the beard. “Yes it was good.”

His eight children range from 6 to 36 in age. Seven of them are with his ex wife of 31 years Robyn. He was married to Robyn when we met.  He described her as his rock, more organised than him – a nurturing figure. There was never a hint of a betrayal in those years. Word is he was devastated when she left him, but even when they were at their happiest he found it difficult to talk about love.  Way too girly for him.  Gibson is a guy’s guy. He doesn’t like talking about soft stuff but he’s happy to talk about his children, raving about their talents.  One son is a sculptor and glass blower, another is a chopper pilot and TV producer, another (Louis) is a film director whose first movie has just been completed.  It was just announced that he is expecting his ninth child with writer Rosalind Ross, his girlfriend of two years, a former equestrian high jumper . She’s 26, he’s 60. While much can be made of their 34 year age difference, the relationship seems both steady and steadying. What does he think about having a ninth child? “Delighted.” According to People magazine he’s had the happiest two years of his life.

The conversation circles back to the Venice ovation. “Nine minutes 52 seconds.” How did that make him feel? Happy, relieved, back? “Absolutely. It’s like being a chef. If people eat it and go yum yum it’s gratifying. If you’re a story teller it tells you that somewhere in your quiver you’ve got a bunch of bolts that are aimed true. It’s affirmation for the work you do and that your story telling ideas correspond with humanity at large.”

I think about this. Is he admitting it was hard for him to have people not forgive him and now he feels accepted again? He says, “Well it’s not like I stopped working….There have been many projects…but this is my first as a director for ten years.” Yes there have been movies in which he has acted, notably the Beaver which was about a man having a break down, who only has the ability to speak through his glove puppet Beaver.  It was a poignant performance directed by his friend Jodie Foster.  It struck a chord with me because it seemed to echo Gibson himself, in pain and unable to speak except through rage.  And more recently there was Blood Father which has been well received. “Peter Weir or Terry Malick, these take ten years between projects. It’s because they are very discerning. I am discerning and I’m not sure that I want to reach into my own pocket anymore because it can pay huge dividends or you can get totally killed.”

The Passion was the biggest grossing independent film of all time. “Yes, so that was an excellent bet.” I have read that there’s going to be a sequel. “Not a sequel, but a continuation. There’s resurrection, there’s stuff before, stuff after, stuff in other realms but it’s a very big subject, deep and profound so it will require a good deal of thought. It has to be enlightening and work on a lot of different levels that all have to dovetail so it will be tricky.” He has said before “I love directing. It’s the most fun you can have standing up.”

Eventually someone brings him a croissant. He tears into it like a caveman into an animal.  He hasn’t eaten since the veal chop and spinach last night. “I need carbs. Every now and again you have to snort some pasta.” Bits of croissant flake into the bushy beard which he strokes proudly. In The Professor and the Madman, Sean Penn is the Madman but it could have easily gone the other way round. “It could. We gravitated to those roles. Sean can be just as crazy as me. My theory about great actors – and Sean is a great actor – they have to be a little bit kooky and he is.”

Hard to say who is king of kooky but Gibson has certainly reigned supreme as the practical joker. He’s been good friends with Julia Roberts since they worked on Conspiracy Theory (1997) and likes to send her freeze dried Norwegian rats. “I love her and I love to hear her scream. I put a Norwegian freeze dried rat that comes from a store in New York City in a parcel and when she unwrapped it she screamed.”

We laugh about the rat and now he seems perfectly relaxed. People can forgive him for sending rats to Julia Roberts but does he worry that other people haven’t forgiven him? “Really? Are there? I’m not aware of it.”  So that’s me in a question cul de sac. If you can’t admit that you ever worried about people not forgiving you, the problem doesn’t exist, therefore we can’t plunder the coalface of his rage and alcohol issues.  He’s apologised of course and says, “Look, I’ve done all the necessary work over the years to come back and I’m in a healthy place. As you can see I am tee totalling.” He gestures to his coffee cup. Is he sure there’s no vodka in it? “Not even a drop.”

He rummages in his bag and gets out a picture of the man he’s going to play in The Professor and The Madman. The beard is even longer.  A rabbinical Santa Claus? “Kind of but he was very scholarly and a Scot and he was the editor of the English Oxford Dictionary.  The movie is not dry at all. It’s incredible.” Soon he’s off to Ireland to shoot it. “Sean and I are going to look like ZZ Top.” I tell him he looks like he could work in an Apple store, his beard is so long. “I would be proud to get a job there. Those techy guys are usually pretty bright. Maybe fur does confer brains. Con-fur?” he jokes. There’s no doubt that Gibson is beyond smart, an instinctive story teller who knows how to manipulate his sc            reen audiences emotions.

In the initial tests for Hacksaw I was surprised to see that women liked the movie more than men. “The hard combat and the violent aspects are not gratuitous. They are justified in the context of the story and it is emotionally engaging. It’s not just a bucket of blood being thrown down. It has a point. One of the points being the understanding of the kind of sacrifice someone makes in the conditions that they are operating under. You hear the expression war is hell. I wanted to show you just a little peek of hell. I thought it was important to have the audience feel that they were in a foxhole too and to bring them some understanding of what post-traumatic stress disorder is like. I’ve talked to people about this since the beginning of my career when I was in my twenties and they were in their eighties. I’ve talked to World War I guys (when he did Gallipoli), I’ve talked to World War II guys like my dad and guys who have been in the Vietnam war and guys who have been to Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter what the war was, they all got PTSD.”

In the First World War they called it shell shock, didn’t they? “Yes but I don’t think there was enough attention paid to it. Something is needed and I hope this could bring awareness to the problems we have today with returning service guys who are suffering.”

Did he miss directing, being ten years away from it? He doesn’t answer yes or no, but says, “I didn’t want to stick my hand in my pocket again.” Next up he’s doing a TV show called The Barbary Coast with Kurt Russell. It’s set in San Francisco 1849 at the time of the gold rush. They are writing it and directing it together and Kate Hudson will be in it. “It was a crazy place. Corruption, debauchery, murders, lawlessness.” He said the word lawlessness with relish. “Yes, because we are talking about an anarchic society that has its own rules. Remember Lord of the Flies? If you leave people to their own devices you see what animals they become. It shows the best and the worst of us.”

He seems excited and a whole lot more relaxed. I think that’s a lot to do with the croissant. What would he be like in that gold rush? The sweetest version of himself or the cruellest? “I don’t know,” he says, pensive. “When you’re thrown in to situations you never know.” If he were in Hacksaw Ridge would he be the medic that saves lives? “No, that would be crazy. What would I do? I don’t know. How do you survive in that world?” His stories are usually about survival and sometimes redemption. “Yes, sure. These are all primals. I think if you stick with themes that show us who we are and find situations that accentuate who we could be or shouldn’t be, those are the interesting stories.”

I give him a gift that was made for him by an enclosed order of Welsh Nuns – hand carved beads with Celtic cross and Star of David. The nuns gave it to me for him a few years ago because they’re all about forgiveness and this particular cross is only worn by these nuns, the Poor Clares. Basically you have to be a nun to get one of these so they made a special effort.  He looks mystified, bewildered but he likes the idea of these nuns who were once fallen women. And now he has something that can only be worn by nuns, is he in touch with his female side?  “Oh sure, yes…. I remember I was in a film years ago and how the dialogue went when I was getting in touch with my female side.” Really? “Yes, the dialogue was like this:

“Last night I cried in bed.”
“Were you with a woman?”
“No, that’s why I was crying.”
That was the B grade dialogue from Lethal Weapon 1 and I can attribute that to Shane Black.” So despite the fact that Gibson did a movie What Women Want and he waxed his legs for it, he makes a point of not wanting to know what women want and not wanting to be in touch with his female side. “In fact I feel we should do another movie. What women don’t want.”

Susan Boyle (Event, Nov 2016)

Susan Boyle Cover
Susan Boyle Cover

Susan’s house in on a council estate that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Down the road there is a small town with a cinema, and a tesocos but Susan’s house is tucked away in the middle of a ubiquitous estate. It’s the house she grew up in. the house she lived with her parents, now long deceased, but it’s important for her to be in this house. it’s a touchstone of who she is, who she was and a life that she’s always grounded in no matter how fragile she may seem or how extreme her life got after she dreamed a dream and became the most famous runner up ever on Britain’s Got Talent.

What the world saw in her then, an enormous vulnerability and uncanny ability to feel other peoples pain and centre it in her voice, it was as if all the pain she had suffered and could never talk about was articulated in those sweet, pure unmistakably lush vocals.

Her house is cosy and stuffed full of ornaments, mostly gifted by her fans. Theres porcelain cats, paintings that her fans have lovingly etched. Our Lord, Our Lady, religious artefacts, angels and framed postcards that say, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and for awhile that was Susan, she dreamed it, she did it yet over the past year there have been all kinds of rumours, her record company had dumped her, she was in her own personal meltdown and couldn’t cope anymore, the death of her beloved sister Bridie, she who was the stabling force in an often crazy family, we’ll come to them later.

Today Susan is nothing but sweetness. Delicious shortcake biscuits and an array of sandwiches “pieces” on offer and the entertainment we play her latest CD, the one the press said would never happen, called A Wonderful World, out on November 25th. The ultimate Christmas gift that transcends Christmas. The songs are love songs, classics that have been Susan-ized. Oh the sweetness, the plaintiveness of wonderful world, the deep emotion of When I Fall in Love, a duet with Nat King Cole, it’s so milky, creamy, her vocals are like a big cashmere robe on this song.

“It’s very romantic, isn’t it? Perfect for a couple who meet for the first time.” and of course it’s all the more sad and all the more deep because of course Susan has never been in love or been part of a couple, not really. So who is she singing it for?

“It’s a favourite of my Mum and Dad’s.”

Theres a picture of them on the wall, her father looks movie star handsome, she giggles “oh I wouldn’t have told him that”.

She does a version of Robbie Williams Angels, and again makes it her own. Does she believe in Angels? “We have a guardian angel with us everyday, I know that. You’re not supposed to see them but they are there.” She says all smiley and cherub like.

She’s wearing a pink tracksuit top and grey sweatpants. Pink cheeks, giant eyes and softer hair. There were even reports her hair fell out and she had to wear wigs, clearly all ridiculous!

She’s actually lost two stone in weight because she’s been walking everywhere, “Yes I walk everyday to where ever I want to get to. I used to walk, but then I stopped but now I like it again. I even walk to the gym and yes I’ve even been going. I like to meet people, I’ll walk to the Regal- theatre in the neighbouring town of Bathgate- see a show and thats me quite happy. I was beginning to feel a wee bit unhealthy so I started a walking regime and I actually like doing it.” Have another shortbread she says, I’m not going to eat them I’m diabetic, type 2.”.

It’s taken her awhile to accept she’s diabetic and I’m going to eat the shortbread and she’ll stick to the tuna. No delicious shortbread? “No, it’s all about healthy living” and laughs at herself. She knows she’s had a ravenous sweet tooth and never wanted to be healthy before.

Despite what people think, she says she’s in a good place. This is the first time she’s heard the finished album. Is she pleased with it?
“I think so, I had a lot of fun making it. Simon picked the songs, she said proudly. I’ll always put my trust in Simon, he’s a bit of a genius.” But wait a minute rumours were that she never saw Simon and he’d lost interest. “No he’s been here to Blackburn, I don’t see that much of him but I hear from him a lot.”

And what about her mate Piers? Her original champion on Britain’s Got Talent. Didn’t he actually kiss her? “I’ve haven’t seen him at all recently but I wish him well with everything he does. He does Good Morning britain now, perhaps he’ll have me on it”. She giggles. “He had me on his other show for CNN”.

She seemed to have her first school girl crush at the age of 47 on Piers, “No. he’s married” she dismisses as if I’m mad. Somewhere Out There is playing in the back ground. It’s Susan duetting with Michael Bolton, “It’s very romantic isn’t it? Especially at the time of year when people are looking for something extra specials.

Is she looking for that? has she got a romance going on? “No, I wish I had though.” she sas very wistfully and I’m drawn in to the ultimate pathos of Susan. Her voice, sometimes is almost childlike when she sings, so full of hope, so persuasive. Especially when she sings Angels, her voice is like a seduction surely she could seduce anyone with that I say to her half joking “even Piers” she says “now you’re just kidding me on”.

The only hint of romance for Susan was with a doctor she met when touring America. She met him in Clearwater Florida. Is that all over? “Well, he’s not over, I just haven’t seen him for awhile. He’s a nice man, he took me out for a meal, but we got friendly, you know. Everyone was going daft looking for me and there I was with this lovely guy. Long pause, “potentially it’s not finished”. She hasn’t seen him but they have stayed in touch.

I’m more and more intrigued that she lives in the house she grew up in. It’s very humble, nothing fancy, yet we’re listening to not any old album, her album, her 7th in fact and the picture of Susan with a horse is to commemorate her world wide smash Wild Horses. “You have to have balance because balance keeps you focused. I’ve got a posh house but I thought it best my neice have that one as this is more me.” By a posh house we are not talking about a mansion.

Her albums, especially I Dreamed A Dreamed, that one album did 10 million. Her total record sales are in excess of 23 million. She could have bought a mansion, in fact she could have bought the entire town of Blackburn, but she prefers to be in three up two down. She didn’t feel relaxed in her posh house, “I’m more relaxed here, theres a lot of nice memories of my family growing up and stuff and theres people all around me if I need help with anything. The Posh house was too big”. I’m told it had four bedrooms of larger proportions and the reception rooms were larger. “Not me” she shrugs “here I have all my lovely familiar things around me and it makes me feel secure.” Security is obviously nothing she takes for granted. And she likes being at home.

“I have had holidays, I’ve been to Ireland a few times, France and Portugal. In Portugal I like to go out and sunbathe.” Her celtic skin must have become inflamed, “Yes, I was a red as a beetroot.” Was she wearing at least factor 50 I say because to be with Susan for half an hour is to be drawn into her life, to care about her, to want to protect her. “Sometimes” she says in a way that I know means whats factor 50? and then she laughs. “You’re very pale aren’t you? And you’re from Ant and Dec Land”.

I tell her we share a love of Cats, her famous cat Pebbles has now died, but says “my Tess is upstairs sleeping, a ginger girl, quite unusual. I got her from Cats Protection in Edinburgh.” Tess does not emerge but theres evidence of a litter tray and Whiskas.

Susan is looking forward to seeing a Streetcar named Bob at there local cinema and also Bridget Jones baby and she reassures me theres a lot going on in the Regal in Bathgate. “We had Ross Kemp there the other week and there nice places to eat, the Cairn Hotel. I do go to these places, but I like to keep busy in the house as well.

Always on My Mind is playing on the CD player, “It’s very reflective, a relationship thats gone wrog, misunderstandings and maybe that person is trying to say sorry. You don’t go around saying sorry, you show it. The best form of communication for me is through music.” and indeed she can sing other peoples words and make it everything she’s ever felt, thats why it’s so emotional.
She nods, “I’m best with music, it’s been well publicised I have Aspergers and it’s a form of autism and communication can be difficult because I can’t find the right words or phrases. If I’ve got a script like a song, I connect with that song and thats the way I communicate.”

I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that, Susan communicates intensely and you don’t have to have Aspergers to feel pain that you can’t articulate in words. I’m also confused, autism is about disconnection and not feeling empathy for the other person, where Susan feels an excess of it.
“Music is about connecting emotions, it’s a love song, it’s not about me, its about someone else circumstances and the circumstances I’m singing about having meaning for them. Thats what my job as a performer is all about, connecting to the listener.
Susan’s Aspergers syndrome has been well documented and usually in the setting of when she’s been unable to cope with something. Like in a recent situation in an airport lounge at Heathrow where she was flying home to Scotland and she had a meltdown and caused a disruption. She was crying and shouting from a place of fear. I don’t like airports I tell her, I got in a fight with security coming to Scotland this very day, “Oh dear, you have to watch it” she says earnestly.
Aiprots make everyone vulnerable, right? “Of course, of course, perhaps you were feeling too rushed” Is that what happened with her? “I want to put it behind me and think of the positive. I wrote an apology to the airport and now everything is ok. Aspergers charities criticised her for writing an apology, saying she shouldn’t have to but there is a lot of ignorance.

What actually happened? “I can’t tell you but it was a misunderstanding thats been resolved and I am going to look at airport travel much more positively in the future. I feel we can all be taught to make things less difficult. I’m struggling at the moment but with time that will improve.”

Does she feel things more sorely because she’s instantly recognisable and people are always coming up to her and she can never travel anonymously? “Yes, but I’m working on that. And although that might be one of the less good sides, there are many great things about my life now. Enjoying the work I’m doing, making albums and hoping that will make people happy.”

Before Susan sang, she trained to be a social worker. “It was good because I like people, I’m a people watcher and theres a lot of psychology going on watching people and their interactions and when I was training it was my job to try and help them. I wanted to work with teenagers who were vulnerable and needed guidance. There are some very mature teenagers, some are parents and I wanted to help them with the changes that came as a result of that. I did this at the local community centre and then Edinburgh and did training there. I would ask questions, “do you have the ability to let go” and I was young and very immature myself.”
Was that question poignant because you couldn’t let go go things?
“Yes, it was, as you get older you learn to say maybe it’s not so important.”
When you say letting things go do you mean arguments or a particular object?
“I think you are over simplifying it. Things that happen in peoples lives that make them the person they are. Letting go of the past, emotional baggage. It depends what you’ve been through.”
What did you have to let go of?
“A lot of things, my father, though a very good man, had a temper, he showed it to me and he hurt me. He didn’t mean to but I held on to this for years and when he was dying, I had to let it go. You have to accept it, thats maturity.”
Accept someones hit you, I’m confused? One gets the impression that Susan isn’t underplaying it but not talking about it as it’s all part of the pain and insecurity that comes out when she sings. Having a parent with a violent temper, has got to be confidence knocking.
“It’s not easy, it’ not easy, but you have to let it go and replace it with a new self, thats what I’ve been focusing on in the last 6 months. It’s difficult, I’ve a lot of good and bad memories, you weigh up the good and the bad. I’ve been coming to terms with it. All of these things that happened in my life and all the things happening now, you have to let go of the bad. I’ve seen the Queen and sung at her Birthday, the Mull of Kintyre by Paul MCcartney. all of that is wonderful.”
You see her struggling here, getting rid of the bad memories, being shouted out, feeling worthless and becoming someone who sings for the Queen.
She was the youngest of 9 siblings “there were no favourites in my family, we all had different talents, Mary is a better singer than me.”

Now she’s playing me her version of “Like A Prayer”. More gentle than Madonna, and more etherial. When she sings it, it somehow pierces your heart. “But Madonna is a great Lady.” In fact Susan has always been a Madonna fan, although they don’t seem at all similar. “I know I do things more intensely, I like this song because it’s emotional and releases emotions in other people. It’s all about releasing.”
That is of course her extraordinary gift, I wonder if Mary can do that? “Mary’s not been given charge. MeI’m all about releasing, releasing in a healthy, safe, environment.”

The track Wish Upon a Star, she says “I wished upon a star and everything came true”
What did she wish for? “To go abroad and meet the Pope. I say Make me a channel of your piece to Pope Benedict. I love Disney, it reminds me of a comic I had that I bought every week. Mickey Mouse, Snow White. It brings back all my childhood memories.”

So what was her childhood really like? “Theres a 23 year age difference between me and my eldest sister. I look back at photographs and I see myself pictured by a piano, I’m only just learning to play it now. I’m rubbish at it. I think everyone was loved equally but theres always a natural conflict within families. Mary, the eldest, was always very wise for her age, there was never any competition there, as I say she can sing better than me. Bridie, was the glue of the family. She shows me a picture of her, she will be sorely missed. I found it hard when she went. I couldn’t cry at her funeral. I felt frustrated, I didn’t want to allow my emotions to come out, months later Bridie died in October 2015, this February, it really hit me and all of these things that were wrapped inside me came out in the recording studio. For Bridie, I sang May You Never Be Alone.

I wonder about her other family members, I’m always hearing about her brother who likes her money and then they fall out and then back in again. “We all get on great she says” with the same expression as yes of course I wear factor 50. Really? “They come and see me, we’re all reunited” But why were you un-united with them? “Well there were differences of opinion, stuff that happens in all families when one person becomes successful. Oh theres been water under the bridge, but we’re beginning a new era”
Is she sure? I’ve read so many stories about how certain family members wanted large donations like a £100,000. “Well that was to begin with, maybe I did feel taken advantage of, but thats what I mean, I’m not hanging onto that. Lets make a fresh start. That’s the way forward.”

You can’t help but worry for her. “It will be fine” What does she enjoy spending her money on? “Well I once invested in a fur coat, it was £300. Thats probably the most expensive thing I own, I love perfume as well, Cartier, Chanel no.5 I used to buy them at duty free but i’m trying not to fly much now, because you know, I don’t want to get agitated. I’m dealing with it” she says sweetly.

Will she go on tour? “I’m not sure? If so what does she have on her rider? She looks at me, scented candles, blue M&M’s, prawn cocktails before the show? “Oh no, I make no demands, although she does like to bring her tea bags and to have a kettle”

Earlier this year she was in Zoolander 2. It was a great appearance. “Weirdly in an airport, but that was really enjoyable because they closed down the airport so we could film. It was in Rome. Ben Stiller was very clever and very funny.” Apparently they had an amazing bond and she’d love to do more. So much so she’s taking acting lessons, “Yes I’m doing improvisation and textual reading.”
What? I thought she’d just said sexual healing, “No, it’s about analysing characters and building things up. I was very nervous about doing Zoolander and very excited.

Theres also talk of making a movie of Susan’s life, a cinematic version of the stage musical. Who would she like to play her? “Oh Julie Walters” she says instantly. But Susan she’s 20 years older than you, “She’s a very talented lady”. But that is interesting that you see yourself as someone so much older? “Yes, perhaps it’s because I had older parents, perhaps I do have an older outlook, but I’m also very young at heart.”
And what acting roles does she feel she would be good at? “I’m open to suggestions”
Did she see the Paul Potts movie One Chance? “Well it was very moving, I’d like my movie to be more funny, ironic, thought provoking” Will she sing on the soundtrack? “I’ve no idea” There would be more money if she did, does she care? Does she know how much money she has? “Oh, thats private!
Is she private about how she voted in Scottish independence? “ I voted No. I didn’t want to be cut off with our own currency, but after Brexit does she think an independent Scotland could remain in the European community? “I’m not going to be drawn into politics, I’m not a politician, I’m an artist.”

When was the last time she saw Simon Cowell in the flesh? A couple of years ago, he’s a very busy man but I watch him a lot on X Factor.
How did she feel when she read stories that Simon Cowell was about to drop her? I read she was in tears at the thought of not being able to sing. “All those things were totally untrue and I had had a very successful meeting with Syco records.” In fact Sony has extended her contract for more albums.
Does she think there is anything in her life missing? “Yes, I’d like to see the man from Clearwater. I’m very busy, and it’s been a long time but I would like someone. I’m very sensitive, I can be loving and loyal and then sometimes I can be pretty hard to get” she laughs.

A typical day in my life, I get up, make my breakfast, sometimes its a Tuna sandwich and Tess breakfast is whiskas. I’ll go for a walk and meet people or sometimes go to the regal for a show. I’m quite happy.” I’m told her neighbours all love her and invite her in for dinner, she;s not short of invites. So she’s never lonely. “It’s difficult without Bridie, but it’s getting easier. She was always there at the end of the phone, but she’s not anymore. I speak to her daughter and she takes on her role of being the glue of the family.” Does she think she’s a little too tolerant of her brother Gerry who seems to be always finding ways of getting hold of her money? “I’m learning to stick up for myself, but theres a balance you always have to be nice to people. How did you find me now? Was I nice?” Susan you were so spectacularly nice!

We say goodbye and you understand why this woman makes you feel love and I want someone special to love her, she deserves it.

Rob Lowe (AWW November 2016)

Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley
Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley

Rob Lowe’s arm is covered in thick, sticky, vivid blood. Shocking. Or it would be if it was real. We are onset with Code Black where he plays Colonel Willis, a soldier doctor. He’s in army fatigues, short back and side’s haircut but with the same glittering cornflower blue eyes that stared out of so many film posters on girl’s bedroom walls in the Brat Pack era. We’re on the Disney lot and we’re taking a break for lunch at Disney’s restaurant where even the salt and pepper pots are covered in mice.

The fake blood was from filming a scene where he was taking out a guy’s clavicle after an explosion. “Just a little medical heroics before lunch. It’s a tough day’s work. Actors are often asked to play heroes and I find this show gratifying and fun because these heroes actually exist rather than a guy who wears a cape and flies around. These guys are saving lives every day.”

He orders a cheeseburger without the bun and a chopped salad. “I like to eat clean.” We share some chargrilled Brussel sprouts because Lowe’s lunch order sounded so boring. “No it’s not. I have so much more energy if I eat clean.  I’m in the middle of 30 consecutive days without a break. I shoot this show weekdays and then travel to Boston to work on a movie at the weekend along with a speaking tour – in the past five years I’ve done everything from talking about cancer research and advocacy, because my family have a history there (his grandmother and great grandmother both battled breast cancer and his father is a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor).  And I also talk about recovery from alcohol and drugs. The movie is the sequel to Supertroopers which was a huge comedy cult film. They have been trying to make it for 15 years.”

Last month Comedy Central screened Rob Lowe’s Roast. Why would anyone put themselves up for humiliation like that? “It was a badge of honour. I’ve grown up with that tradition. I watched Dean Martin Roast when I was a kid. Mohammed Ali and Paul Newman. All the cool people of that era did them. They had asked me to do it a number of times and I’d refused, only to see Justin Bieber and James Franco do it, so I figured if those guys can take it I can take it. I love a good hard joke and I really don’t care whose expense it’s at, including my own. As long as it was smart, funny, it didn’t really matter to me, in fact the better I liked it.”

Peyton Manning, Jimmy Carr and various others took part in the Rob Lowe roast. Nothing was off limits. They mocked his pretty boy looks and constantly brought up his 1988 sex scandal with a 16 year old with lines like ‘Rob defies age…restrictions.’ They said he looked like a Ken doll, plastic and something that’s always close to a teenage girl.

Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow who has been a close friend for years refused to take part. “A lot of my buddies were asked. They didn’t want to be mean to me, right? But I thought it’s fine to be mean to me because I’m going to be mean to you. I ran into Justin Bieber just before I did it and he said ‘it’s way more pressure and way more difficult than you think it’s going to be,’ but I didn’t have that experience. My experience was it was exactly what I thought it would be. Really fun, like hosting Saturday Night Live on steroids. And it’s adrenaline. It’s fight or flight. You sit there and take it all night long and then it’s up to you. You go there and deliver.”

The way the Roast is set up is that various luminaries, friends and frenemies of the ‘roastee’ say terrible things about him and he has to wait till they’re all finished before he gets to fight back and defend himself. “The thing that struck me the worst was waiting for my opportunity to respond. That was hard. After the fourth person I was ready to swing back.” His wife Sheryl and sons Matthew (23) and John Owen (21) were all there. Did they want him to do it?

“This is how the dynamic in my family works. My sons are smart, cool guys. They said, ‘Dad you HAVE to do it.’ And then I asked my wife she said, ‘I don’t think you should do it and then she said how much money are they paying you?” I told her and she said, ‘OK you should definitely do it.’ He grins widely.

He met Sheryl over 26 years ago when she was a make-up artist working with him on set. She now designs high end boho chic jewellery using precious stones and ancient symbols. She’s Nieman Marcus’s best seller.

For years people have been commenting on Lowe’s perfect skin. So dewy, so fresh. He’s 52 but could pass for 32.  He’s now bottled his secrets and has his own skincare range.  “I’ve been working on it a long time. It’s a scrappy little company but it’s my own. I’m not a spokesperson and I didn’t license my name. I built it myself so it makes me really proud and gives me a sense of accomplishment but it’s also tremendous hard work because I’ve never done anything like that before. I researched the best labs and the best people who really know the business but what I do know is what kind of products have worked for me over the duration of my career as an actor.  I’ve had the best and brightest people taking care of my skin so here I’m 52 and you see the results.”

What a lovely opportunity to study his gorgeous, chiselled face. Its perfect jaw line. There are no jowly bits and he’s almost unlined, no bags, no puffiness.  “A lot of it’s genetics. A lot of it’s taking care of myself and discipline.” Lowe always lights up when he uses the word discipline. He thrives on hard work and mental clarity. “At the end of the day it’s an inside job – meaning I’ve met people in their eighties but their spirit is young and it makes them look young. I’ve met people I their 30s whose spirits are so old they seem old before their time. A huge part of it is your outlook on life.”

So he has the wisdom and experience of a 52 year old and the face and body of a 32 year old. “I feel that your whole life builds to this moment. You have the experience of getting to this point. You’re in your full power and able to enjoy it. Be able to prioritise and not be confused about what’s important. That’s a big thing.” Does he mean having a clear mind that’s not befuddled with alcohol or drugs? “That for me has been so long I can barely remember NOT having a clear mind and it’s about having a very clear sense about what you want that makes life so much easier.” Has he always had that? “No, no no. at different phrases. But I always knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I never had that thing that people don’t know what to do with their lives.

The food arrives and he tucks in. He disentangles a microphone from his khakis.  “My character is a military medic, a trauma doctor. Everybody else works for the Los Angeles County Hospital. In this particular episode I’m back in the field, hence I’m in my fatigues.”

When he had to play the part of the Pope in You Me & the Apocalypse (filmed in London) he read the Bible from cover to cover. What research did he do to play a trauma doctor? “Oh, we have one on the show who is advising us but I researched it as well. There’s a lot of reading about medicine. I have a lot of friends who are in service and you can go to a medical bootcamp. They have that here. After lunch I have a fake torso in my dressing room that I can practise on. I’ll be doing sutures (stitching it up) on that.”

Did his friends in the military come back from tours with horrific stories? “We don’t really talk about the bad stuff.  We’ve just revealed in this story that my character was court marshalled in Iraq and found innocent.  We know he was on trial for his life. That’s what I love about this show. It feels real. When they asked me to come on for this season I was struck with its authenticity. Nurses and doctors around the country will tell you that Code Black is their favourite show because it’s real.  It’s not BS you know. These people aren’t banging in the closet of the hospital every day.”

He doesn’t get to bang anybody? “Not yet but there’s time…” he jokes.  “It’s the authenticity of the detailing that I love so much. And I’m working with Marcia Gay Harding. She’s got an Oscar at home so the calibre of acting is high.”

Lowe does not have an Oscar at home even though in my head he got one for playing Doctor Jack (surname) in Liberace. He was Liberace (Michael Douglas’s) cosmetic surgeon. The prosthetics he wore for the pulled-too-tight face lift were in themselves a work of art. “He was my first doctor.” Perhaps he was the inspiration for a skincare regime because his face alone would put anyone off attempted surgery. “That’s for sure.”  He was nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to Jon Voight. He’s completely gracious about that of course. “I’ve never done anything that got more reaction from my peers than that.”

Doctor Jack Startz was part of the reinvention of Rob Lowe in a way. It showcased his talent as a comedic actor, a talent which he honed so brilliantly for Parks and Rec (with Amy Poehler) and The Grinder (add description?). For Lowe, Dr Jack Startz was a stand-out moment. “I would proudly put it up with The West Wing in terms of my work.” The West Wing. What can we say about The West Wing? A landmark television series set in The White House. Some critics say that it, along with The Sopranos reinvented television as an art form. It was the start of television being cooler than movies. And Lowe was right there as press Secretary Sam Seaborn.  Without The West Wing there would have been no House of Cards.  Without Sam Seaborn there would have been no Frank Underwood.  Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s words coming out of Rob Lowe’s mouth. Brilliance. There are always rumours of a revival. “I’ve heard that people want it but I’ve not heard that it’s a viable thing. Until Aaron Sorkin decides to do it, we don’t know.  The West Wing was all about him.”

It could be set in the Clinton or Trump administration. “Let’s hope it’s the Seaborn administration,” he says excitedly. Trump or Clinton? “Well…I’ve met them both and I like both of them personally. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Clinton’s.  They were so supportive of The West Wing.”

At one point there was talk of Lowe’s life imitating art and taking on a political career. Would he ever consider running for office? “Not in this climate. It’s so unnecessarily bruising.” He was very vocal to his 1.2 million Twitter followers about Brexit. “I think now is our (America’s) Brexit moment. It feels as if there is a bit undercurrent of change that people want and dissatisfaction. The question is what are they really going to do? I’ve followed Brexit really closely. Watched it unfold as the vote came in and it’s a sort of similar situation here where a whole group of people think it could never happen and a whole group who want it to.”

After a lengthy decision we summarise Brexit as people who want to be European first and English second and people who want to be English first. “You’re either one or the other, there’s no in between and that’s what’s happening here. I hate election season. I used to love them. They’re so divisive, unnecessarily so on both sides and it grosses me out.  I believe no matter how diametrically opposed people are politically, if you sat them at a table you could think of a couple of things they could agree on. I would say let’s just focus on those things and get moving but everything is predicated on division and differences.”

I had read that he was supporting Donald Trump. “I’m not endorsing Donald Trump, I’m not endorsing anybody.”  He has a keen political eye and is super articulate but he’s less enthralled with politics than he used to be, just because they seem a little sour. “You make a difference when you do things that are still valued as art. Entertainment that is valued. Trying to get stories that aren’t debasing and are smart.”

Lowe has grown in to the smart scripts. Of course it didn’t start off that way. He started off struggling to find meaningful roles because his face was so beautiful.  He emerged in the eighties in the Brat Pack scene with The Outsiders, St Elmo’s Fire and About Last night. Does he ever see his old brat packers Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Robert Downey Jr? “I really don’t.  I live in Santa Barbara and work so hard and so often. If I’m not on set I’m at home with my family resting and living life. I’m never out on the scene. “

Do his boys still live at home?” They really don’t. My youngest Johnny is in his third year at Stanford and he ow wants to be an actor. He had a role in the Grinder and also he worked in the writer’s room on the Grinder and he’s working on something that’s coming out called The Nick.  And my other son Matthew just started at law school. He’s Sam Seaborn, The Grinder and his grandfather rolled into one.” (The Grinder is a show about an actor playing a lawyer. His role gets cancelled and instead of finding work as an actor he decides he can work in a law firm.)

Do his boys keep him in touch with current younger thinking? “Yes without a doubt. They are very much my sounding board for so much. I’m not interested in what’s hip and happening. I don’t care anymore as I shouldn’t. I love new music, new artists, new adventures but the score of keeping up popularity is something that everyone should leave behind in their twenties.”

Sitting with Lowe you can’t help but feel high on his energy, his clarity, his drive. He’s been 26 years sober and he takes on his sobriety the way other people might take on a party – with relish.  He’s excited too when he speaks about his wife Sheryl. Proud when he talks about her jewellery range, rare in a 25 year marriage.

He doesn’t know anything about Brangelina or pontificate on what might have gone wrong.  “I’ve known Brad forever but not well. He’s a Midwestern boy like me from Missouri. He’s a sweetheart as is she. But you never know what’s on the inside. You know one of the things I always say is never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.

I can only speak from my experience. Sheryl and I have been married for 25 and been together for 28 years and it comes down to picking the right partner. Most people don’t pick the right one. It’s really that simple. Because as the years go on you had better be simpatico, whether it’s about your beliefs on travel or child raising. Then you had better be legitimately attracted to them. There’s a lot of boxes to tick and it’s hard to find someone that ticks all those boxes.” Did he know that in the beginning? “A little bit. I knew she was my best friend and if I had one seat on a plane going into space I would want her to be on it with me. I didn’t know how we’d feel about raising kids together but we were always on the same page. Little things can be huge.  I didn’t want my kids to go to a school where you could skateboard in the hallways, wear shorts and call the teachers by their first names. I wanted uniforms.”

Did he have a uniform growing up? “I did not and they did skateboard in the hallways. I wanted old fashioned academics for my kids and they turned out well from it. They did well by the discipline. My kids get enough exposure to the arts at home. At school I’m not interested in that for them.”

Discipline is a passion in Lowe’s life. I’m reminded of that as he tucks into his bunless hamburger.  That wasn’t always the case? “It still isn’t you have to let your id out. You have to.” He comes to the party after all? “No, no, no. mine comes out in adrenaline sports.”  He does a lot of surfing. “Bigger and bigger waves each year. If I had it my way I would really train and do some legitimate big wave surfing. Sheryl doesn’t like me doing it very much. I try to be as careful as I can but you know it’s one of those things like motorcycles which I also have.” The blue glittering eyes go extra glittery. I look with concern or disdain, I’m not sure which. “I got one when I was 48. Total midlife crisis moment.” Couldn’t he just have a glass of wine? “That’s the one thing I can’t do. The only thing I can’t do.” I know the old saying one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough, but big wave surfing and motorbikes seem to be more dangerous. “The irony is you might be right,” he nods.

He’s written – with graphic and hilarious detail all about his alcohol and drug addiction in his memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life.   It was cathartic. “I meet people every day who have read the books and it always moves me. I didn’t know that people would care or what they would think of it.  I was just doing it. It has to be something really personal and then the rest of it is up to the Universe. That people responded was an amazing experience.” He has amazing recall for someone who was out of it all the time. “I wasn’t out of it all the time.” What about a trip to Sydney – where on a radio show he said the only thing he remembered was going to Sydney zoo.  “Here’s what I remember. I remember meeting Michael Hutchence and the guys from INXS on the first night. That’s sort of writes its own narrative, doesn’t it? Then there was the zoo and a tattoo parlour.”

I lift up the sleeve of his khaki tee to see the bicep tattoo. “It was a little koi fish. Really tiny. I would be like here is my tattoo and there was this dainty little thing. When I got sober I needed my own wildness so I got a bigger tattoo because I’m gonna show them I’m still a badass.”  If you peer closely you see a tiny fish in what appears to be green swirling waves. Is he sure that in the teeny tattoo he didn’t have some other girls name in it and had to have the waves scrolled over it so Sheryl wouldn’t see? “No, she was with me. That was at the beginning of our courtship. I do remember what’s worth remembering.”

He remembers only vaguely visits to the Playboy mansion. “But I haven’t been there in so many years.”

I order expresso after my lunch. Lowe declines. “I have about 12 a day. Coffee is the last man standing for me. I’ve gotta have something right?”

He tells me, “There was a great white shark attack on my surf beach a few weeks ago where a guy got eaten. It’s on You Tube. Santa Barbara shark attack. I worry about sharks when I go spear fishing with my son. You go in the ocean with a weight belt to keep you down, fins and a snorkel. You hold your breath. You are not scuba diving. You are breath holding. You dive down with a spear gun and you shoot whatever there is to shoot. Sea bass, whatever. I love it. My son had a tiger shark charge at him at 90 feet in Hawaii at Christmas. He was lucky.”

Doesn’t that scare him? “I respect it.” Seriously he is a fear junkie. Perhaps fear has replaced alcohol as a vehicle to an altered state.

If he could edit your own life what would he change? “Nothing and that’s the best you could hope for.” He’s an emotional man, sentimental even. Can he remember the last time he cried? “Oh yes, three weeks ago. My favourite dog, one that I wrote about in the book Buster, the Jack Russell, we had to have him put down. He was sixteen. My oldest son Matthew is very stoic. The younger is very emotional. I went into Matthew’s bedroom and he was crying.  I got into his bed to hold him. He’s 23 years old. He’s a man. It was a sad beautiful moment. I was happy that I had raised a young man who could still cry over his dog.” Tears start to appear in both of our eyes.

Barry Gibb ( Event, Sept 2016)

Barry Gibb and Me
Barry Gibb and Me

Barry Gibb is holding court in his local Indian restaurant – it’s just around the corner from his not often visited British family home in Beaconsfield. He’s lived mostly in Florida for the past twenty odd years but finds himself reclaiming his British territory since signing as a solo artist to Sony UK. He is of course the soul surviving Bee Gee, the band who wrote one of the soundtracks to the seventies. Often mocked for the size of their flares and their medallions but always revered for their creation of the perfect pop song. Staying Alive? Has there ever been a better groove written?
For me it was always Barry. The eldest, the most handsome, the most charismatic, the most complicated. But this is his first album alone without the support/rivalry/competition/banter of his brothers Maurice who died 13 years ago at the age of 53 and Robin who died in 2014 after a protracted battle with cancer.
Just recently there was his rapturous appearance at Glastonbury with Chris Martin and Coldplay. He performed Staying Alive to blissed out ovation. People love the irony. The sole remaining brother. Yes he is staying alive – at 69 he looks still leonine, with a full-ish mane of hair and thick beard.
Barry was always the leader of the pack but finding himself suddenly pack-less was of course devastating and not an easy trajectory. “After Rob died I just sat moping around thinking that was the end of it and I would just fade away. I thought I was quite happy about fading away but then the President of Columbia records, Rob Stringer, came to see me and signed me and said “We’re gonna move your ass.” And I thought, oh well that’s OK. So I’m back.  Glastonbury came out of the blue. The whole experience is amazing. Chris is such a gentleman and I met Gwyneth.” Before I have a chance to ask him how they were getting on with consciously uncoupling he also tells me that he also met Noel Gallagher and that was fantastic and he too is coming for a curry.
He seems incredibly self-effacing. He’s written some of the greatest pop songs of all time, yet I’m not sure he believes in himself. “I’ve never had self-esteem. Every person that I’ve met and admire has the same lack of self-esteem. I’ve seen it with Michael Jackson, I’ve seen it with Barbra Streisand.” He goes on to explain, “Self confidence and self-esteem are very different things,” and weirdly I remember Streisand telling me that too. “I’ve always been trying, trying, trying and I think that’s good. That’s the hunger that keeps you alive no matter what and there’s been bad times where I didn’t really want to.”
After the death of his remaining brother he certainly had a slump. “You are in a kind of tunnel. You have to come out the other side and I waited for that and I watched television. Downton Abbey, that got me through it and Ray Donovan and Billionaire. I love them more than movies. I love the cliff hangers. We get English television in America because I have Apple TV.”
So television got him through it. I’d read it was Paul McCartney? “Well, sort of. He always got me through everything.  I met him for the first time at the Saville Theatre in 1967. He brought Jane Asher to see a show and he said “You guys have got something. You should keep going and I always found that very encouraging.” The last time I saw him was at Saturday Night Live when we were both playing. We had adjoining dressing rooms. We started talking about the time before we had any success. We talked about being naïve. Not understanding what was happening. About being a great band and being happy and not competitive.”
Does he mean competitive with the Beatles? “No. about not being competitive with each other.” He’s in a cloud of nostalgia now. “Those days of not understanding the business and not knowing why everybody wanted to know when for a long time they didn’t. That naivety.”
There’s something about Barry that really cherishes naivety. To him it seems to symbolise purity, something unspoilt and unspoilable, untainted. “Ultimately McCartney hasn’t changed his keys down. He’s still singing in the keys he always did and I’m still doing that. A lot of artists have lowered their keys. He never said ‘Just get on with it. Don’t worry’, but he’s always been inspiring to me. What he said was ‘always look down on your highest note,’ and I said yes, OK. So he’s basically did say just get on with it in an abstract form.”  Does he mean McCartney gave it to him as a musical metaphor? Stay doing what you’re always doing. “Yes, definitely.” Could he explain more about the competitive elements? “There was always competition within the group. We weren’t competitive with the Beatles. We were just another pop group but they changed the world.”
We circle back to talking about his album In the Now which has certainly changed his world. It got him off the couch. It’s a ridiculously emotional album. It dwells on the past, wanders into the future yet the title references the present. Isn’t that ironic? “Hey, that’s right, but it’s all about the past. It’s about the denial of the past and the future. Yet it’s about the moment and how to seize it.  It’s about the loss of the people closest to you so it’s live in the moment, grab every moment because you see what happens. The eyes tangibly sadden.  Mo was gone in two days.” Maybe that’s better than long and tortured? “Which is what Robin went through. Andy (youngest brother) went at the age of 30 (drug overdose). All different forms of passing and for our mum devastating. She’s 95. She had a mild stroke two weeks back.”
Ever attentive to detail he notices I’ve got chocolate on my cappuccino when I’ve asked for none, because I don’t want chocolate on my lips. He tells me that his greatest fear is, “a bogie on the nose. Although if you’ve got a moustache it’s a great danger for drinking milky coffee.” I would have thought that by now he would have learnt to navigate a whiskery face. He’s always had facial hair. “Not always. I grew it in 1968 because McCartney grew a beard for Long and Winding Road. He’s always been that big of an influence on me. Even when the Beatles broke up I thought that’s it, we should break up.”
Is that why he is not finishing his coffee? He doesn’t want to have white froth on his face? “No, it’s because I don’t want to get too wired. I only drink coffee in a restaurant. In the morning I have a Red Bull to kick start me. Coffee has never appealed to me. I never drink alcohol except sake which I love. You don’t get a hangover. You never feel bad.” I tell him the last time I drunk sake I fell over. He tells me that the last time he got drunk was as a teenager. “I got so drunk mixing different drinks at a convention, I woke up in the bridal suite. I was so violently ill they put me in the room and left me but when I woke up I did wonder to see if there was a bride. Fortunately there wasn’t.” We laugh, we giggle. We’re having a grand time, then suddenly there’s sadness which he doesn’t navigate around, he tackles head on.
There’s been so much passing in my family that at one point I said I’d prefer to go in my sleep or on stage but I never said while singing Staying Alive.” Perhaps that was made up because it’s a funny line. He nods while he’s thinking about the irony.
Does he have a bucket list? “No, I have a fuck it list.” I laugh but I am mystified. “I have a list of things that I know I’ll never do. I’ll never walk through the Grand Canyon, not with my ankles. I’ll never get to the top of the Eiffel Tower. I hate heights. I just think in terms that I’m going to be quite happy with whatever comes around the corner. I don’t plan. I’ve grown up in three different cultures. I’ve seen the pyramids and I’m a real fanatic on the ancient worlds. They lived as if they would come back but at that point there was no evidence. There is no evidence of how that civilisation developed. Those people might already have been there before. I’m fascinated by civilisations that were around twenty, thirty thousand years ago that could be advanced as we are now in different ways. I don’t believe that the beginning we think was the beginning was the actual beginning.”
Does he feel he’s been here before? “Perhaps. I’ve had a few incarnations. I try not to question it. There’s been so much loss in my family, for me it’s a standing mystery.”  Does he believe he will see them again? “I really don’t want to question it. Don’t want to go there.”
Chris Martin got him back on stage. Did he also get him writing songs? “They were already written. It took six to eight months to write the songs.” Some of the most famous Bee Gees songs like How Deep Is Your Love and Jive Talkin’ were written in less than a day. “Yes, there was a half day when we wrote Too Much Heaven, Tragedy and Shadow Dancing and a couple of other songs in one afternoon. I think we were high. Amphetamines, nothing heavy. We never took heavy drugs like heroin or cocaine. There were no songs written on that,” he says adamantly. There were twelve songs on the new album and three bonus tracks. “Daddy’s Little Girl is one of them and that’s written for my daughter Ali. She’s 24 and still lives with us and I’ve never met a lady with a stronger opinion. Star Crossed Lovers is written for Linda. When we first met your manager didn’t want you to have a girlfriend so she always had to stay at home. I always had to seem available. Everyone was against it but that made her stronger and we’re still together 49 years later.”
He describes her as “an incredible power in my life. She is the one who will tell me exactly how it is and Ali too will say ‘you’re not wearing that’ even if I think something looks nice. They are both incredibly honest.” Today he is wearing beaded bracelets under his black shirt and a discreet silver neck chain with a mystic symbol on it. “I’ve outgrown all that gold and diamonds and chains that I used to wear but I do love jewellery.”
The Bee Gees in their heyday, late sixties, early seventies, were known as Medallion Men. They were never style icons. Kenny Everett used to do a fabulous version of the Brothers Gibb, falsettos and flares. They were mocked at the time when the cool kids were into Bowie and Roxy, but over time Bee Gees songs have been reassessed with How Deep Is Your Love being referred to as a pop song as flawless as Bohemian Rhapsody. Of course within the group there were highs and lows. With the world saw them and how they got on with each other. By the time they created the soundtrack to Saturday Night Fever their falsetto came into its own with expert and inspirational grooves – their long awaited moment in the sun.  Barry also had a massive hit and place in chart history with the Barbra Streisand album Guilty.
Does he feel that people didn’t understand their complicated sibling dynamic? “Well, I don’t think it’s any different from any other brothers or sisters.” Does he mean there’s a mix of rivalry and closeness? “Yes. All of those things and you have enormous arguments. Then you become incredibly close and you have really angry moments with each other.  Nothing different from any other family except our obsession with music. That’s how it was.”
Did he feel as the oldest he was always the leader? “Yes, yes, because the oldest brother is always put in that position. Watch over Maurice and Robin, watch over Andy. And often they didn’t want to be watched over. Maurice and Robin were twins so they were always secretly chatting. I was the one that had to make sure we got paid. I had to look out for business. I enjoyed it. It was important that we were not cheated and I think that was pretty common. You hear all these horror stories about the manager making a fortune. Robert Stigwood was kind to us. We were all given about £100 per week and in 1967 you could live well on that money – and that was before we had any real success.”
You feel him working hard to be happy and in the moment. You see his struggle. This year there’s been a pop icon death overload. Bowie, Prince.  How did this affect him? “Prince!” he says adoringly. “I’ve always loved Prince. I didn’t quite understand a lot of David Bowie because he was such an artist. I admire it but I was more involved with people like Prince. The R ‘n’ B influence, the falsetto is more me. We worked in his building where he lived in Minneapolis.  We did a performance for the music industry of Minneapolis at one point. He was there but hiding behind a speaker so we never met.” Hiding behind a speaker I say incredulous. “I know. You can’t be that shy, right? But there you are.”
Barry, of course is ready to get rid of all his natural shyness again. “I’ll happily hit the road if this album means something. It’s an enormous effort to go on tour without that momentum and I want that momentum.” Is it harder to go out on stage when he’s been used to his brothers standing beside him? “It’s not hard if your eldest son is standing next to you. He’s not a Bee Gee. He wouldn’t like that. He’s Steven. He’s covered in tattoos. He’s a metal head with a heart of gold. He plays on the album. He’s part of the band, in fact it’s the best bunch of musicians I’ve ever had. I want to be on tour so I need to create a reason for people to come and see me.”
In the Now is incredibly moving. It gets you when you’re least expecting it, as a Bee Gees song has always been able to do. His eyes well up with gratitude. “You’re making my day! I need to feel that full cycle feeling, you know that I can come back.”
Many people think he never actually went away. Whilst there was no conscious decision to stop, there was no decision to write a new album while Robin was alive either. Although they did the odd performance here and there, Robin’s illness really took a toll on any creative output. “The feeling is I am reintroducing myself as an individual.” When he did Guilty with Streisand he was an individual, not a Bee Gee. “But I was never allowed to go on about it. We won best duet at the Grammy’s and my brothers never mentioned it. It’s that kind of brothers and sisters thing. If I would ever say we won this many Grammy’s they would always go one less saying ‘No, no, it was THIS many.’ They co-wrote the song with me. I don’t know why they didn’t want to say anything about the idea that we won best duet but they wouldn’t talk about it. And probably I wouldn’t have if they had won a Grammy. I might be a little bit, oh shit. I don’t know. I feel that it’s absolutely normal if you have success with something aside from what you’re all supposed to be doing.”
Does he see the Bee Gees influence in any of the current music makers? “I always felt that I used to hear it with Prince and Michael Jackson. The multi harmonies, the grooves. A lot of people have told me that I made a difference to them and I’d like to keep doing it for as long as I possibly can.”  This time there’s no lounging on the sofa watching Downton Abbey to get him through a difficult period this time. “That’s the trouble.” He shakes his head. “We really loved it and my wife was sitting next to Maggie Smith yesterday at Wimbledon. It was the thrill of a lifetime and then her back went out. She said to Maggie ‘I have to leave. My back has gone out.” And Maggie said, “Well, you haven’t got the serve.” He laughs. Perhaps she’s the same character. Being there at Wimbledon was fascinating. I played for ten years straight and then my ankles gave up on me. I’ve got arthritis. My ankle comes and goes of its own accord.”
How is he with flying? I remember him telling me years ago while I was at his house in Miami that he was terrified of flying. It made such an impact on me, I’ve never been able to fly without thinking of him since. Now he says, “I’m getting better. I’m very fatalistic. If it happens it happens. People always used to talk to me about being frightened of take offs and landings. To me that’s OK. I don’t have any fear of those. It’s being at 30,000 feet. It doesn’t go away. It’s just less. The worst thing is I can’t get a sake because they don’t have it on planes and you’re not allowed to bring it on because it’s liquid.”
Is there a vault of unreleased Bee Gees songs? “No. Robin always emptied it out. I would always say, ‘that’s not good enough to go on the album Robin’ and he would say ‘yes, but it’s another song. Let’s put it on.’ In the eyes of the record company the more songs you give them the better deal it is for them but I don’t feel it was necessary. I don’t even remember what songs they were although I do remember Robin insisting we put on a version of Islands in the Stream and it just wasn’t for me.”  Is that because he’s a perfectionist? “I thought the groove could have been more conscientious.”
Part of him is very modern. His black shirt and subtle bracelets, his attitude. And part of him is very old school, very proper, very gentlemanly. “I don’t do Instagram or emails but I do text. I have a Twitter account that goes through Ashley, my second eldest son. I try not to think about that stuff too much.”
It’s not that he’s closed to new technology or new music. “In fact I love the new Chinese artists that are coming up. There’s a group called Versailles that come out of Japan that wear more make up than David Bowie. They look a little Samurai.”
In the olden days he always used to see himself as a lion with his virile big mane. In a 1979 authorised, illustrated biography of the brothers called The Greatest, there were caricatures of him as a lion, Robin as a red setter And Maurice as a badger.
I assumed he would have been a Leo and he says, “I’m actually a Virgo. I’m ambidextrous, left footed, play the guitar right handed and I think I’m a little too old for a lion but I’ve still got a bit of a mane going on.” Pause. “Although I have always associated myself with a lion,” he says rather proudly. “In South Africa I bought a walking cane with a silver lions head on it so if there’s ever a time when I can’t walk I’ll be able to be helped by the lion and it’ll still be lion walking.”
Although he’s known pretty well at his local Indian he says restaurants are rare for him. He says, “Restaurants are rare for me because I’m such a homebody. I don’t rise early and I don’t get going till about noon. I’m still useless to everybody till about 2.00pm and then I get sharp and I start to look forward to what’s on television that evening. I read three books at a time. I love ancient history. At the moment I’m reading a book about the French revolution, another about the conscious mind and I’m obsessed with Egyptology. I’m in to the unknown, the supernatural. All that world. I like things that can’t be explained like ghosts.” Has he seen ghosts? “Yes and it’s not fun because you’re not quite sure what it was about. If it was real. I’ve seen two brothers.” Which brothers? “I saw Robin and my wife saw Andy. Maybe it’s a memory producing itself outside your conscious mind or maybe it’s real.” He likes pondering the big questions. “Yes.  The biggest of all, is there life after death? I’d like to know.”
In the meantime his album In the Now ponders the past, the future, all kinds of shadows, all kinds of ghosts and it all feels pretty real and emotional. Yet he’s not a sad man. He laughs a lot and jokes with me.  “And I love a good curry,” he says. We hug goodbye and I make him pose with a selfie. He doesn’t complain.

Barbra Streisand (August 21, 2016)

I’m in Malibu. Not quite in Barbra Streisand’s house but at a studio just down the road from it.  She’s been doing some TV interviews. Lights are set up, so bright that I have to peer to see her face. I sit opposite.  Her eyes stare out, pierce me. She’s wearing a soft drapey black dress, multiple long gold chains and strappy sandals that have spikes across the straps. Dark red toe polish. The feet are very maitress – dominatrix even, the rest of her soft. She’s always loved that kind of juxtaposition, masculism meets feminism, strong meets vulnerable.

The TV light is shining so brightly, so harsh it floors me for a second. I want to hug her hello. This is Barbra Streisand whose songs I’ve known all my life, whose voice is so familiar to me, whose voice has been a comfort in its complete emotional empathy. Whatever I’ve felt or whatever you’ve felt, Barbra’s felt it more and she’s showed us.  Unlike any other performer she acts out her songs so we feel them. That’s part of her charm, part of what makes her an icon.

My arms are in a clumsy outreach and I remember her telling me before hugging doesn’t come naturally. She had a complicated relationship with her mother who was perhaps so full of fear for her that she might fail, was always discouraging – she told her her voice was too thin. Her mother wasn’t a toucher. She never hugged her. “For a long time touching felt alien.” Now she can just about do it, touch that is. She could never please her mother. “But I owe her my career. I was always trying to prove to her that I was worthy of being somebody.”

Of course there’s less angst about Barbra now, more composure, more polish. Instead of a hug I deliver her a cake, one which was made from the same recipe as her favourite bakery in Brooklyn (Ebbingers which closed in 1974).

My friend’s grandmother was the manager. He has all the recipes  It’s a mocha almond cake and more powerful than a hug or a kiss. If Streisand was a little wary, a little suspicious, she’s overcome by that other emotion – food is love.

She’s always loved food a little too much, always on a diet although she’s never been fat. She once used a cake onstage to make her cry. Didn’t she have a girlfriend waiting in the wings with a cake so that she could feel yearning? “That’s right,” she says. “It wasn’t a girlfriend, it was someone from the production. It was a chocolate cake and it was put on the stool where I could see it. It wasn’t that I had to cry,” she corrects. “I love details about truth. It was that I was supposed to be in love with the actor but I couldn’t feel anything for him. I didn’t even like him so I put the piece of cake in the wings so I could pine for the piece of cake.” We laugh. A real proper laugh, the composure gone. “The play was Christopher Fry’s A Phoenix Too Frequent.”

I tell her I know the play. It’s an awful play. I too acted in it and had fallen out with the lead actor. I could have done with a piece of cake. Perhaps that’s why my acting career plummeted. I love that we were in the same awful play.

Streisand though is still thinking about the piece of cake in the wings. “It was a piece of chocolate cake, a slice the perfect size to fit in the mouth. I would have preferred it with some vanilla ice cream but that would have melted on the set. It was a good enough tool. Use something that’s real for you.”

That’s the thing with Streisand. She always seems real and not afraid to be herself. I remember the story of when she was asked to play Fanny Brice in Funny Girl. Real life Brice had had a nose job. “She cut off her nose to spite her race,” quipped Dorothy Parker. It almost cost Streisand the part. They worried that Streisand looked too Jewish to play a Jewish star with a nose job.

You think of Streisand being all about perfection, control but she’s more about not being afraid of who she is. Vulnerability and fearlessness is always an intoxicating mix. She loves her Jewishness. She loves to eat like a Jew, even if she can’t cook like one, although she has told me that recently she studies recipes.

The thing that gets you about her album Encore is its absolute Barbra-ness. I wonder has she improvised some of the words of the songs. For instance in At the Ballet her character is told to bring it down. Did anyone tell her that in an audition? “No. They could have but they didn’t. It’s in the play.” It seems like she wrote it. “I know,” she nods, “that’s good writing.”

The songs are all rediscovered classics with rediscovered artists. Any Moment Now with Hugh Jackman paints a scene of a relationship falling apart, with details that seem so graphic it’s painful. I’ll Be Seeing You which she sings with Chris Pine is a revelation and Jamie Foxx singing Climb Every Mountain is so soulful it’s probably the best version of the song ever. “Good, because I don’t really love the song. I wanted to make it stand on its own rather than just something from The Sound of Music. We improvised some of the new lines. Some of them weren’t in the original. I knew he had a good voice but he surprised me with an even better voice and he sings from his heart.”

Foxx and Streisand seem an unusual juxtaposition, but somehow she brings out a softness in him that she couldn’t have imagined and he brings out a certainty in her that is properly moving.

There’s also a duet with Anthony Newley, probably his most famous song Who Can I Turn To which he wrote with Leslie Bricusse from the musical The Roar of the Greasepaint and the Smell of the Crowd. It’s the one song where the partners’ voice is more distinctive than Streisand. Newley in his shaky cockney tones sounds like David Bowie Laughing Gnome period.  “I’ve heard that David Bowie was very influenced by Tony Newley. I was doing Funny Girl and he was doing The Roar of the Greasepaint and I met him that year and thought he was fantastic and then we became friends,” she says casually. I tell her that at one point I was friendly with Sasha Newley, his son and briefly we worked on a musical about his father’s life and in the course of that I uncovered a song called Too Much Woman.  It was a song that Newley wrote about Streisand who, according to his son, he was completely in love with. Newley loved women. One can say they were his addiction but for him Streisand stood alone, the unconquerable too much woman. Did she ever know about this song he wrote for her? “Tony Newley sent it to me when he was dying and I thought wow.” She sings it to me, “I heard you on the radio today…” She sings it in a Newley style voice. It’s a wonderful song. I love that song. Her voice is slightly shaky now. She smiles. She wasn’t expecting that I knew about that song but she’s far from floored by it, or the idea that for all these years he held a candle that was more than a candle, that he was deeply in love and she was too much woman for him.

“Well you have exclusive knowledge for your article don’t you because it has never been written about. I’m proud of that song. I’m proud that he wrote it for me.” What does she think of the concept of being too much woman? Surely she as one of the ultimate women could never feel there is such a thing. We have a woman Prime Minister in the UK for which both left and right seem grateful that she’s sensible and safe. Isn’t this a new age where there’s not such a thing as too much woman?

“I don’t know much about your Prime Minister. She’ll probably have more balls than the old one.” Is Hillary Clinton too much woman for the United States? “I hope not. I really hope not but I think the British have always been…..” her voice trailed off. “I might have told you this before but when I made Yentl as a first time director I made it in England. Margaret Thatcher was Prime Minster and you had a Queen, so powerful women were no big deal. I think this country we still think of powerful women as suspect, you know like they’re too ambitious or they’re control freaks which is such a shame.”

Does she think it’s the end of the glass ceiling and it’s a world power moment for women? “I hope so. I pray that we will have Hillary as our President and I think that informed, smart people are going to vote for her, at least I hope. I’ve met a lot of people who are powerful and smart like Michelle Obama.” On the day we meet, Donald Trump’s wife had stolen most of Michelle Obama’s speech. Streisand looks irritated. “They are that stupid? Golda Meir,” She says suddenly. “She was one of the first women to head a country (1969-1974 when she resigned). I had a conversation with Golda Meir when it was the 30th anniversary of Israel and that shows you all that women can be. She could declare war on one hand and say ‘would you like a Danish with the coffee?’ with the other. She was the grandma – a very warm, sweet lady, yet a powerful leader. Women can be many things, angry and forgiving, have PhD’s and manicures.”

Streisand always has a beautiful manicure. A little defiant touchstone. Her mother told her to cut her nails and learn to be a typist. Of course you can type with nails and if you’re Streisand you probably have a super power to type and have good nails. I have none. She looks at my fingers and looks a little mournful but it’s because she’s distracted.  I’m thinking that we’d segue way from God Meyer into racism, hate crimes and what it means to be a Super Jew but she’s like, “Can we talk about Newley some more? What happened to this musical? Why are you not working on it anymore? Did you disagree?” Not really, he just went off me. “Why was that? What year was that? Is that why Sasha was calling me and I could never find out exactly what it was that he wanted? I’ve met Sasha. I’ve seen his artwork. He came to my house with this kids and his mum. The little girl wanted to see my dolls houses.”

In Streisand’s actual home she has an annexe where she keeps dolls houses, old fashioned. I’m not sure if they’re vintage or modelled on vintage. She told me once that she didn’t have a proper childhood so that’s why she likes the dolls houses. She was bullied for looking too weird looking, too Jewish and constantly criticised by her mother Diana who was herself a soprano. Typical of Streisand to be able to play like a little girl when she feels most womanly. She tells me she’s happy with James Brolin to whom she’s been married for 18 years. Her manager Marty Erlichman she’s been with for 50 years and her assistant Renata Buser (43 years) somewhere in between the two. She’s a striver but she thrives on stability. Growing up there can’t have been much of that, her critical mother telling her she’d never amount to anything. It was a painful sharpening of her drive. Her father Emanuel died from complications after an epileptic seizure when she was only 15 months old. It was brought on when a hospital gave him a fatal dose of morphine to treat his constant headaches.

In her childhood the high point was cake from the bakery. Now at 74 she can still remember the cake and how she strove to find her father. She sees herself in two parts – the feminine that loves ruffles and lace and she sees her father. He represents her masculine side. “I found him during Yentl. I created him. I was the director, I was the one in control. I was the male figure. It was all very cathartic.”

She started off singing in clubs at 17 or 18. For her first record she agreed to take less money as long as she could have artistic control. “That’s right. That’s called a control freak but why would any man or woman not want to be in control of their own lives.” Now she belongs to a small coterie of luminaries who have collected Oscars, Emmy’s, Globes, Grammy’s and Tony’s.

Her white fluffy dog Samantha, a Coton de Tuléar , gives a yowl of appreciation or maybe it’s of desire because she’s just realised there’s a cake. She brings the subject back to Tony Newley. “He had a fantastic voice and he was so lovely and very handsome, yes. I loved his looks. He looked like the Artful Dodger in Oliver Twist.”

Streisand’s always liked beautiful men. She told me once it was the one thing they all had in common. Warren Beatty, Ryan O’Neal, Don Johnson.  “All attractive. I love beauty whether it’s in a piece of furniture or a man. My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even if he makes me angry I get a kick out of his symmetry.”

She’s referring to her husband James Brolin. Her first husband was Elliot Gould who she married in 1963. They have a son Jason now aged 49.  They divorced in 1971 I wonder if she was too much woman for him too. This was after her iconic performances in Funny Girl and Hello Dolly and I wonder if he felt in her shadow.

Even now she’s not terribly at ease with the interview process. “People make up stories about me. Maybe it’s more interesting.” She’s still working on an autobiography and says her relationship with work has changed. She says she’s become lazy. Although she told me once over the years the happier she’s become, the less she’s needed to work, she’s still a worker. There’s the album, a tour and soon she starts work on Gypsy in which she plays Mama Rose, the ultimate stage mother.

I can’t understand why so much has been made about her never looking the perfect leading lady. I don’t think it’s a question of she grew into her face either. I think she carried around the sense that she was an oddball, a misfit and became a champion for other misfits. Because she believed it, other people believed it and when you look back at her in The Way We Were and Funny Girl it wasn’t just as critics said, her talent was her beauty. She was actually gorgeous. A proper star. She has used her stardom well. These days it means more to her to have her name on the Barbra Streisand Woman’s Heart Centre than in lights. More women die of heart attacks than breast cancer, yet more money is raised for breast cancer. Streisand is a lobbyist. She wants more funds. She tells me that recently she was given mice for a trial and she demanded all female mice. It is after all a women’s heart foundation with women’s hormones and physiognomies. “It was a fight,” she says. So in the day of potential female world leaders she still has to fight to get an all women trial, the next step after getting all female mice.

She doesn’t look exhausted by the thought of it, rather excited. She’s made me laugh, made me think. Would it be appropriate to hug her goodbye? Not really.

Ivanka Trump (Sunday Times Magazine, July 3, 2016)

I’m on the 25th floor of the Trump Tower in New York, sitting opposite Ivanka Trump. She’s a dazzling presence, tall and elegant.At 34, she is the eldest daughter of Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and would-be president of the US, and his first wife, Ivana, the Czech-American socialite and former model. Ivanka’s skin is luminously moisturised. Her hair, though silky, golden and long, is contained; let’s not forget that in the world of hairstyles, few have had as much impact as her mother’s rock-hard beehive or Donald’s famous swoop-over lift-off. Ivanka looks more like her mother, but she has inherited her father’s superhuman work ethic. She sleeps, she says airily, only“about 4½ hours a night”.

In March this year she gave birth to her third child, Theodore, and only a week later was back on her father’s campaign trail, looking poised and super slim. What happened to the baby belly? What happened to exhaustion hormones? All in check. She said at the time: “As a young girl growing up, my father told me I could do anything that I set my mind to.”And that’s exactly what she did. She was briefly a model, before graduating with an economics degree from Wharton business school in 2004.Along with her two eldest brothers, Ivanka is an executive vice president of development and acquisition at the Trump Organization. She has her own successful fashion brand, and she is writing a book, Women Who Work.

Oh yes, and she and her siblings are increasingly influential in their father’s presidential campaign. Donald, 70, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is now on his third wife. The real-estate tycoon who helmed the American edition of The Apprentice is taken far more seriously in the US than in Britain, where many see his utterances as unhinged. In America, people look up to the man who is not afraid to say what many think.Trump has five children — three from his first marriage and one each from numbers two and three, the youngest of whom is 10. But it is the elder three who wield the greatest influence over their father’s business ventures and political ambitions.

Ivanka and her brothers Donald Jr, 38, and Eric, 32, are all major players in the Trump presidential campaign, travelling on his campaign plane and sitting with him at his conference table.A few days after we meet, they successfully press him to sack one of his top aides, campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, who they worried had become a control freak. Reports suggest it was Ivanka who delivered the ultimatum to their father, threatening to distance herself from the campaign if Lewandowski was not removed.

She was right, of course: people were starting to complain that Lewandowski was becoming too abrasive — particularly towards women.At an event in Florida, he was caught on video grabbing a female reporter by the arm. Ivanka is all about taking out the heat, rather than creating it.“Ivanka, Eric and I have the ability to be very candid with our father,” Donald Trump Jr has said. All three children work at Trump Tower, on the floor below their father’s office. He has always involved them just as he was involved himself in his father’s real-estate business, making it an empire, going on to buy ever grander properties. Last week,Trump and his brood were on parade in Scotland boosting their brand at the grand reopening of the Trump Turnberry golf resort, where he hailed Brexit and congratulated Britain on “[taking] their country back”. He attributed the Leave vote chiefly to uncontrolled immigration, and said other countries would follow suit.

When we meet, however, it is clear Ivanka intends to remain above the fray. She is wearing a black and coral floral dress from her own fashion range: V-neck, slightly flared, feminine and in no way overt. Whereas her father thrives on the adrenaline of saying the first thing that comes into his head, Ivanka carefully manicures her thoughts. In person, she’s measured, impressive and athletic-looking.A giant desk separates us. It’s filled with books, notes, her magazine covers and a printed card with what appears to be the Trump manifesto: “We are Determined, Respectful, Engaged,Ambitious, Motivated, Dedicated, Optimistic.” I’m flustered as I grapple for my tape recorder. Ivanka’s voice is soothing as she recommends one of her own handbags with many compartments and a charger for your phone: “It’s coming in the new collection.”

The clothes line is only a small part of what’s occupying her time alongside the Trump campaign, the family’s real-estate deals and, of course, her three kids. She tells me she’s always literally running home to check on them.There’s a camera linked to the office, too, so she knows what they are up to. Ivanka recently tweeted that baby Theodore has started sleeping through the night at two months. How did she manage to get him to do that?

“With each child we got them on a sleep schedule in a quicker fashion,” she says.“However,Arabella [her oldest daughter, aged 4] was a disaster because we didn’t know what we were doing and it took a year. Joseph [aged 2] was half that, but with Theodore we’re learning how to do it.”

Her husband, Jared Kushner, is also involved with Trump’s campaign. He is another American businessman — the publisher of The New York Observer and heads his family’s real-estate development company, Kushner Companies.They married in 2009 after she converted to Judaism for him.“I’m incredibly in love with him and he’s my best friend,” she says. He was raised Orthodox. She is observant of the Sabbath and has even learnt to cook kosher.“I was a terrible cook. I’ve always loved entertaining and having people in my home but I would normally order food.When I got married I decided that was something I would learn how to do,” she says.

As well as an apartment in Manhattan (on the Upper East Side) they have a cottage at one of the Trump golf clubs in New Jersey, next to her father’s. She and her family escape there at weekends. How is Donald as a grandfather? “Excellent, excellent. My kids love him and we spend a lot of time together, especially during the summer. It’s very cute that my daughter has picked up little things from him. A couple of months ago we were walking down the street in New York City and she spotted a pothole in the road. She points at me and looks at it and says,‘Mom, Grandpa would not like that.’

We laugh and then she goes,‘You know, that sort of meticulousness that he has.’ He is incredibly close with my children.”Her eyes light up when she’s talking about her dad. “My father has tremendous warmth,” she continues. “He is a fiercely loyal person to his family and friends. He has an amazing — and albeit sometimes wicked — sense of humour. He has been an unbelievable father to me and my siblings.” Trump is a man who doesn’t think before he speaks and doesn’t realise that his “jokes” can often be taken out of context — and she hasn’t always been shielded from them herself. A former Miss Universe contestant recalled the time Donald called his own daughter“hot”, asking: “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?” Ivanka was 16 at the time. Does she think his sense of humour has been taken in the wrong way? “Potentially,” she says cautiously. Perhaps he shouldn’t joke so much in public, I suggest. Ivanka demurs, as she does about all his controversial politicking. Rather than try and defend his divisive views, she says: “He is also authentic.A component of his success has been that people respect the fact that he’s incredibly honest with his opinions, and in politics that’s remarkably rare, if not unheard of. So I think that’s a refreshing quality. Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with a certain political stance, I do think there’s an appreciation that he is not afraid to say where he stands on a given issue.”

So,Team Trump.Would she, could she, be a running mate? It has been suggested she would be his perfect foil.“Oh gosh, he’s keeping me busy here at Trump. I also have my own business and a young family. Quite a few things on my plate and I’m very happy.” It’s not exactly a denial. Of course, everyone has been asking me: what does she think about Trump’s plans to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, and banning Muslims from entering the US? What does she think about profiling? But of course she’s not going to tell me — those questions are off limits. She sails on unruffled, super-controlled, immune to his turbulence.The best I can do is ask her how things would change if she was to get the title First Daughter? “You’ll have to ask me in a year from now. I’m trying not to think too far ahead of myself. I’m an adult now, so obviously it would be a different experience

than if I were a child. But I’m still a daughter.” I read that she was close friends with the former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton.“Yes, we’ve known each other for years and she’s a wonderful person and a very good friend.” So despite their parents running against each other, their friendship remains. Ivanka is very much a feminist.“I 100% believe in gender equality so by definition that makes me a feminist, which I’m very proud of.” Surprisingly, she also thinks her father is a feminist — despite many accusations against him of misogyny, objectifying women and generally cussing them out (but who does he not cuss out?).“I do, yes and it’s a big reason I am the woman I am today. He always told me and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to if I married vision and passion with work ethic. He’s also surrounded me with strong female role models who have done just that since I was a little girl. People talk about gender equality. He has lived it, he has employed women at the highest levels of the Trump Organization for decades, so I think it’s a great testament to how capable he thinks women are and has shown that his whole life.” I think she’s always been a daddy’s girl. She used to watch Donald in the office and on construction sites when she was little, just to observe his process. She becomes a little more hesitant at this; you can see her choosing words carefully.“Yes I did. I think there’s a genetic component as well as an experiential component to my love for real estate. Both my parents really loved what they did professionally and shared their passion with us starting from a young age. It’s no coincidence that my brothers and I like showing up for work.That’s what they modelled for us.”

“But they didn’t force it upon us,” she adds.“The number one thing my father said to me my whole life was that you need to find what you’re passionate about, because life is too short to do something you don’t love and if you are not passionate you will never be great.And I’ve noticed that to be true. People who are the most successful are the most passionate. It’s much easier to cut corners if you care less deeply.”

Born and raised in New York, she was a straight-A student and responsible for earning her own spending money, which is why she took up modelling in her teens. In her book The Trump Card, she wrote: “It’s as ruthless an industry as real estate… models were the meanest, cattiest, bitchiest girls on the planet. Entitled, unsupervised, under educated and pampered teenagers whose every success came as the direct result of someone else’s disappointment.” She got out of that fast,went to university and worked for other companies before joining Trump.

She’s not someone who thinks that famous parents are a curse — despite what she went through when her parents,who were very much the New York power couple, divorced in 1992. She learnt all about her father’s mistress, the actress Marla Maples,who became his second wife. Reporters would ask her about her father’s sexual prowess and she was hounded by paparazzi.

Yet, the Trump name is, she says,“a tremendous blessing. I look at the great fortune I’ve had my entire life.There are people starving around the globe. Some people think having a successful or famous parent can be paralysing in that they feel they could never live up to what was accomplished by the generation before them.The flip side is that it can be a great motivator if you harness that energy and use it productively.”

She’s close to both her parents and said in the past that the divorce “brought me closer to my father, not because I was taking his side but because I could no longer take him for granted”. So she supported him, a week after giving birth, on that podium in New York. Was that not hard? “I try to live my life in accordance with my priorities. My family is always my first priority.”

She believes her attitude to raising children is very different from that of her mother’s generation.“There used to be a work life and a home life. Now there is one life,” she says.“No one I know has a work wardrobe any more, or an area of their closet that’s designated for work.We transition through roles more fluidly.

Technology has been a huge enabler of that because it became normal to respond to work emails at 11 o’clock at night and therefore permissible to pick up the phone when your child was calling at the end of the school day.” She adds: “I don’t do it all myself. I’m very fortunate to have childcare to help me while I am at work.” In fact, she rejects “the concept of ‘having it all’ because that’s the wrong way to look at things. It implies there’s one definition for personal and another for professional success and I don’t believe that to be true.And I think people are trying to cast women as uniform and one-dimensional.A better way to look at it is, you are the architect of your own life and you have to live in accordance with the things you prioritise.”

She has recently started to enjoy running.“I absolutely hated it, then my team here and I trained for a half marathon in Central Park. Now I run with my husband on Saturday mornings. I’m probably the only person who runs without music, without a phone. It’s just great to be able to talk to him.”

Every year, she and Kushner like to go to Turnberry, which she says “is without doubt the greatest golf resort in the world”. She thinks the only way to reallyget to know someone is during four hours on a golf course. She claims not to be a “particularly good” golfer, though I doubt there’s much in her life that she’s not exemplary at. She disagrees, and worries that I might think she’s too perfect.“You know, I get very messy. I don’t want to project an image that everything is simple and easy, because that’s not helpful to women, because raising children is really tiring and exhausting. I sleep very little, and I don’t advocate that, but there are things that I want to accomplish. I will leave the office early to have dinner with my kids, put them to bed and get back to work rather late. It’s a choice that I feel good about. I’m OK about losing a little bit of sleep to create a schedule that works for my life.” “I’m also of my generation,” she says,“a millennial woman who is ambitious. I have a lot of things to accomplish professionally.And I swing for the fences.” What does that mean? “It’s a baseball expression. It means I dream big.” And live big? “No I don’t. I don’t live to excess.”

Indeed. Everything about her mindset and physical appearance is contained, balanced, the antithesis of her father. I like her, but I still don’t feel I know who she really is. I put it in another way: if she were a shoe, what kind would she be? “Oh, I would be my Carra pump from my own range.” She takes off her coral-coloured stiletto and shows it to me for inspection.“It’s my go-to. Remarkably comfortable, but I could run a marathon in these.” But that heel is four or five inches high.“They’re comfortable. I would never wear a shoe that would require me to teeter around.” Mystery still unsolved.A woman in 4½in stilettos can only run a marathon if she’s Ivanka Trump.

Billy Joel (Event Magazine, June 25, 2016)

Billy Joel and Chrissy Iley

We are back stage at Madison Square Garden. Hospitality is piled high with eclairs, pink cakes and hot dogs. Billy Joel is in a tailored suit and a tie with skulls on it. He’s quiet and concentrating on his game. His gait is slow and deliberate. He’s a man with two new hips.  Once on stage he’s exuberant and makes the giant venue feel like a living room – he holds the record for selling out 36 shows in 3 years, more than any other artist.

The crowd itself is not women of a certain age. It’s people from their 20’s up. The front row is always pretty girls, he tells me “years ago we decided to be Santa Claus, I got tired of seeing these gold chain guys with their babes sitting at the front, ‘going entertain me, Piano Man.’ ” He’s speaking in a gnarly, Gangsters of New York style accent. “So I said ‘to hell with this, the front row is not on the market.’ I send my road crew to the cheap seats and they pick who they want in front – the cutest girls they can find. So we look down and see nothing but beautiful women. That amps it up”.

Onstage he’s fully amped and says to the crowd, “at least you don’t have to listen to any new shit!” He hasn’t produced any new music for 23 years. But more of that later, for now, everyone loves the show where they can sing. When it comes to Piano Man at the end, his voice is totally shot. The audience sings it for him.

The crowd roar till they are hoarse, and he’s gone. A limo across town to the awaiting helicopter and on to his home in Oyster Bay, Long Island where he had the tennis court turned into a personal helipad. He was born not too far away.  A couple of days later I go there to meet him.  It is like visiting the Gatsby mansion. It’s beautiful beyond belief. A reconstructed arts and crafts mansion, with high ceilings and sweeping views, manicured gardens, waterfall, pet cemetery and looking out on the bright blue water.  The bay is sparkling.  Boats bobbing up and down.

He tells me, “I used to work on oyster boats and look up at this house and hate the guy that was living here with his inherited money and now it’s mine, can you believe that?” It’s almost like he can’t.  “Oysters was all I was eating when I was on the boats, I had no money and up at 5am in the middle of the winter”. He takes me to the gazebo and points across the bay to a red brick house. “That was my old house where I lived with Christy Brinkley. My first daughter Alexa was born when we lived in that house”.

In the kitchen his 8 month old daughter Della Rose is scooting around on her walker.  She has his eyes. They can stare you out “I grew up in a nothing place called Hicksville, but I used to come here, this was a magic land, I’d ride my bicycle up and think wow. I never forgot it,” he says.

We go under a canopy off his front drive overlooking the bay to talk. He’s 65 (66 May 9th) and he has an air of composure and pride. The anxious ambition long gone.  He has a beautiful blonde wife, Alexis (34?) – who gave up her job risk managing at Morgan Stanley so they could spend more time together and raise their child. With three marriages behind him, he’s anxious to do things differently. “Sure it’s different, but it’s different because of who she is. She didn’t have to give up her job, she wanted to. I wanted her to be around. She’s a good mate. I’ve always taken out the trash and changed diapers. I don’t want to have staff or a lot of people around me. I want to walk around in my boxers if I feel like it. I don’t like people all over the place. So we’re pretty much on our own. I do the cooking and she does the cleaning. It’s easy.”

Does he have a signature dish? “Yup, pasta.  On a Sunday I make a big Sunday sauce, tomatoes, olive oil, garlic. Pasta is my downfall. I love to eat. My metabolism isn’t what it used to be. Jack Nicholson once said the trouble with this country is all the guys with flat bellies and he’s right – there’s nothing more icky to me than a woman going out with a man and he’s picking at his food and only ordering low calorie. A guy on a diet is not a guy as far as I’m concerned. I can even judge a woman I’m dating by how she eats. If she picks at her food she’s not going to be good in bed.” I laugh wholeheartedly. How lovely to have such an unpolitically correct guy.

He has two rescue dogs, one very fat pug called Rosie and a boisterous mini pin macho mix called Jack. He showed me where his favourite dog, Sabrina is buried and has a lovely memorial. Sabrina, he tells me reminded him of his mother who died in 2014 at the age of 92.  His mother was his role model. His father left when he was 10 and she brought him and his sister up by working very hard and insisting that he start with piano lessions. Joel is enjoying giving me the tour, he’s proud of what he surveys. He’s proud of his 12 albums worth of material and that it speaks to all ages. “How boring would it be if it was just people in my age group?” He sold out 36 Madison Square Gardens which takes him up to the end of this year. In the summer he has selective dates in huge stadiums including Wembley. “I hesitate to call it a tour, I don’t want to be a road dog anymore. I want to be at home.  I’ve got a new baby, a new wife and I don’t want to be in hotels.”

Much is made about the fact he doesn’t write songs anymore. Does he have secret ones lying around that one day he’ll finish? “No I’m not even resolute about never doing it. People can say I’m coasting, but I stopped wanting to write songs. It took a toll on me personally. Your personal life goes to hell in a handcart because you’re like Cro-Magnon in a cave. All you’re doing is thinking about songs in your own hell. I hate writing but I love having written. I just stopped wanting to do it. Elton was always saying, why don’t you do a new album? Why don’t you write new songs? And I would reply, ‘why don’t you put out less albums?’ I guess he wants to remain relevant, but if these albums don’t sell what’s the point? I hate to think I’m a nostalgia act, but we all are, anyone who’s going to sell out arenas.”

He toured with Elton, the Piano player and Piano man for 16 years.

A couple of years back, Elton was quoted in the press criticising Joel, why did they fall out? Joel says, “We didn’t fall out, even though Elton said, ‘Billy is a conundrum and he’s got alcohol issues and is coasting,’ That’s NOT the reason we’re not touring anymore. I got tired of doing the same show over and over again and I think his agent told him we were going to do more dates that I never agreed to. I kept seeing in the press, ‘Billy cancelled the tour.’  I didn’t cancel it – it was never booked. I asked him, ‘why didn’t you call me? Don’t talk to my agent, talk to me.’ I had to have my hips replaced and that was the reason I was out of commission. I have had drinking issues in the past. So did he. I think at heart he meant well.

Elton had said when he went to rehab he had to clean floors and criticised Joel’s rehab as not being hard-core.

“At one point he said I went to a rehab that allowed me to have a dog. I thought you weren’t in rehab with me, you don’t know what happened. Once you go 30 days without a drink, you go OK, I get it. They dry you out. That’s what rehab does. So I told him, instead of speaking these words, why don’t you write a few- because he doesn’t write lyrics.”

Much has been made of Joel’s alcoholism.  He had a couple of car accidents a few years back, which were not alcohol related, but people seemed to think he was sad and drinking away the pain.

“I drink wine with dinner, I don’t drink booze anymore. Elton had a terrifying lifestyle when he checked into rehab. I didn’t have that problem. My drug was booze. We haven’t spoken in a while but a couple of years ago I went to a fundraiser for his Aids foundation and we had a little godfather chat. I said, ‘don’t throw your friends under the bus.’ The last few gigs I did with Elton, I could barely walk, I had canes, canes on stage is not good. I used to do flips off the piano, climb up lighting cables and jump off them onto the stage wearing shoes. They told me my option was – do both hips together which is very painful and the recovery is 3 months or one after the other which would be 6 months, so I said just hit me. I did the hip thing in 2011 and I needed a lot of recovery. I was in a new relationship and I wanted to devote time to my personal life.”

His wife is Alexis, his daughter is Alexa and he has a half-brother Alex who is a classical conductor in Vienna. I met him at the show. “I named my daughter Alexa Ray Joel because that has a better Iambic pentameter. The Ray was after Ray Charles and the new baby is Della Rose after my mother who was Rosalind. My mom died 2 years ago. I think once in awhile you see them. The other day I thought I saw her.”

Joel was born Jewish and baptised Protestant and growing up all his friends were Catholic.   Now he’s an atheist. “All my friends were Irish or Italian, I went with them to mass on a Sunday, because I thought that’s what you did. Mass was still in Latin which absolutely fascinated me. (He starts reciting Latin) and then there’s the guy nailed to the wall with a crown of thorns – what happened to him? It was very hocus pocus and kind of enthralling.  The waving of the incense things – it was a good show. When I was about 10 my mom said that me and my sister had to have a religion, and she took us to the church of Christ. It was evangelical. They ask you at the end of the service, do you accept Christ as your saviour, step forward and be baptised. I felt bad no one was walking up the aisle so I thought OK, I’ll go and they baptised me. One Sunday the minister, a southern guy, unrolled a $ bill and said this is the flag of Jews and I said that’s it, I’m outta here, I never went back. I have no religion and I’m glad.”

Did he feel that he didn’t fit with the Jewish parents, the Catholic friends the Protestant church? “No, none of them fit me. My grandfather was an atheist, he believed in science, he was a very smart man who would read logarithms to himself and chuckle. If there was a God, it was Beethoven, he was the guy.”

Both his parents liked music, they met when performing Gilbert and Sullivan in college.  His half brother also had the music in him. “I didn’t even know I had a brother until the 70’s. When my parents split up my father went back to Europe and I never saw him again. Never got a card, nothing. He had a very rough life. Jews living in Nuremburg, had citizenship stripped, businesses stolen by the Nazi’s.  His family went to Cuba as there was a quota on Jews in America. When he came to New York he immediately got drafted into the army.

My grandfather was a male role model and some of my teachers.”

He shrugs.  I can’t tell if the father leaving the 10 year old Joel was a heartbreak or something found easy?

“I did miss having a father but it was relief in some ways as my parents didn’t get on well, they argued a lot and I was lucky as a lot of the time the father wants his son to go into his business, to go to college and I said I’m not doing any of that. I’m going to be a musician. My mother encouraged it. A lot of my friends were afraid of their fathers and I didn’t have anything like that. I wasn’t afraid of anybody.

Then it strikes me, part of what sets Joel apart, absolute fearlessness. Doesn’t care what anyone thinks of him. “I took piano lessons when I was young and the piano teacher also taught ballet and the guys down the street would say Billy, where’s your tutu? Bang, they’d sock me. I said, ‘to hell with this’. I went to the Police Boys Club where they had a boxing program.

Was he not concerned his fingers could be broken? “No, because I wasn’t that good a pianist and I’m still not. Rock n Roll, OK, but the classical, forget it! So the next time I got, ‘where’s your tutu?’ I decked them and nobody ever did it again. I stopped being frightened. I used to have a cute nose, now it’s busted up”. The nose is all over the place, but he doesn’t care.

Has he never cared what people think of him? I read that he used to call up reviewers who gave him bad review. “If someone has an opinion they can say ‘in my opinion, I hated the music, but if they were saying something that was not correct, I’d call them out. That was the neighbourhood I was from. I don’t care about that anymore. I’ve pretty much proven myself.”

Alexis in a pretty, floral chiffon dress is going into town. “Bye babe,” she kisses Joel and we walk over to the helicopter pad to wave her off.

Is that the real reason he doesn’t write songs anymore. He doesn’t want to be that guy who has something else to prove.

He looks right at me, thinks “no it’s not that. I’m still writing music, I just stopped writing words.”

SO the words are the things he wrestles with, they are his demons? “No, not demons, just sometimes, music speaks to me on its own. I started to write what could have been a song but the music was saying what I wanted it to say.

“When Christy and I got divorced I was missing my daughter who would come and visit me and then have to leave. It was heart-breaking. The music came naturally to me and it had all the emotion in it. But I’ve never closed the door on writing songs.”

Will he write one for Alexis?  The helicopter noise claps away in the background. “I don’t know,” he says. It will take her 15 minutes to get to the city – a 2 hour drive.

He likes it when his wife and baby come in the helicopter with him to MSG. “It’s difficult to make the transition, on stage you feel like Mussolini and then bolt out of the building, you’re in a traffic jam (en route to the helipad on the West Side) and you’re just another schmuck on the highway. There’s a car in front of you and you think, does he not know who we are? But you learn from that.”

It’s not that Joel behaves like Mussolini in his domestic life. “I’ve always taken out the trash and done the dishes.” In his previous marriages he was helpful and respectful at home. Was there a pattern in the break-ups? “I’ve tried to figure that out. Sometimes it’s nobody’s fault. It has to be a pretty unique arrangement to find the right person for a lifetime. Very few people are exactly the right person, but when things didn’t work out, I never blamed my wife or myself, it just didn’t work out. I get on great with all of my ex-wives. I still like them and they still like me. The first divorce was horrible.

His first wife was Elizabeth Weber, they married in 1973, he wrote She’s Always a Woman for her. They divorced in 1982. “That divorce was a long drawn out affair. She was also the manager. She was protective of me, but it went to her head. It was not a smart arrangement.”

He married Christy Brinkley in March 1985 (the mother of Alexa Ray) who was born almost exactly 9 months after the wedding day. They divorced in 1994.

His third wife was Katie Lee, who when they got married in 2004, was only 23. She was and is a TV host for food programmes. Before Christy he went out briefly with Elle MacPherson, “I met them both together along with Whitney Houston, at St Barts. It was the first time I ever took a vacation. I started to play the piano in a bar, feeling blue because I’d just gone through the divorce and I look up and there was Elle MacPherson, Christy Brinkley and Whitney Houston standing at the piano. Whitney was only 16, Christy had a boyfriend and Elle was being flirtatious, so I started seeing her. Then she went to Europe to do the modelling thing, by that time I was already friends with Christy and she and her boyfriend had broken up, we started going out and I couldn’t believe my luck. I thought are you kidding me?”

Famously, he wrote, Uptown Girl for her. “She inspired the whole album really, I went back to being a teenager again. The rock star and the supermodel, that was a thing for a while. The hardest part of the break up was being without my daughter because Christy moved to Colorado with some other guy and I’d have to fly to where they lived in blizzards – it was a ski resort. After about a year Christy moved back to New York and everything was hunky dory. I dated for awhile before I met Katy, who was actually in college when I met her. We hit it off, she wasn’t ready for babies and I respected that.  Now she has 3 TV shows, she’s a great girl but she was too young when we got married. In your 20’s you go through so many changes and I was too old to do the things people in their 20s; want to do. Go out, be seen, schmooze.”

Why does he always need to marry people? Wouldn’t it have been better to just date her? “Well when you start living together, you’re thinking of having a family, you want your children to have a name. I married Alexis when she was pregnant with Della Rose.”

He did say after divorce no.3 he’d never marry again. “You always say that after a divorce, ‘I’m never going to do that again’. During a divorce there is a certain acrimony that goes on once the lawyers are involved, once it’s over everything is ok.  If I was going to have a baby I wanted that baby to have a name”.

He met Alexis in 2009 at a restaurant at the town down the road called Huntingdon. “I was with friends, standing at the bar waiting for our table and here was this pretty girl, I started chatting her up and then we started dating. When she started to live with me I said, why don’t you quit your job? Although I liked the businesswoman coming home in her business suit with a little attaché case, kind of sexy.”

He also has a bike shop and owns over 100 hundred motorbikes. They are his passion. Some years ago he ran into Bono in the Hamptons at the American hotel, which is old and splendid. “We got talking about music, shot the shit and then he asked for a ride back. But he didn’t know how to get to where he was staying. I had gone to the hotel in a little Vespa with a sidecar. I used to take the dogs in the sidecar. Bono went in the sidecar. We were driving around in Sag Harbour, a tiny place and he still didn’t know where he was going. I said give me some landmarks and he says, ‘there’s trees and some water’. We were surrounded by trees and water. People were looking at me with Bono in the sidecar with an “are you kidding me look? And it took about an hour to find his hotel which was five minutes away, but we had fun!

On stage he dedicated a song to Donald Trump – the entertainer, for obvious reasons and another to Ted Cruz, New York State of Mind. Why was that?

“He made a comment putting down New York values – meaning New York is a place of Sodom and Gomorrah, with all these ethnicities and dishonest people compared to the Midwest. So people in New York heard that and went fuck you! Trump is a strange guy – an inarticulate speaker, tortured syntax, I want someone who has eloquence, like Churchill. I never go into politics with an audience, that’s not what they come for but I like Hillary.  If it’s her and Trump she’ll kill him. She’s bright and dedicated to public service all her life.”

We talk about his daughter Alexa who writes songs and plays the piano. She does cabaret at the Carlyle hotel. “I don’t know if she has the hunger or drive to make a career out of it. If other people do her songs, that’s great. She’s scared of the music business because of the celebrity aspect of it.”

At one point she had a stalker. Joel continues; “that scared her and she also doesn’t know how to deal with reviews.”

To be a good song writer you have to feel everything, “and when the slings and arrows come, it hurts, it’s a dichotomy.  I’ve been thinking, if I am afraid of something it’s not that – it’s about being old and infirm. I don’t freak out about it all of the time. But I don’t want to be so old I can’t think or do anything. I’d like to think you have a light switch that just goes off and then that’s it.”

For now he couldn’t be more full of life, funny and having a great time. Of course that was not always the case. After his third marriage broke up he was miserable and in pain, physically (from the hips) and emotionally. “A tabloid story ran that I got a DUI and that got picked up – but the more you deny the more guilty you look. I never got a DUI. Now I rarely drink a second glass of wine, before I was drinking everything. I grew up in a pub culture, after work everyone meets up and drinks.”

Were you also self-medicating? “Yeah sure. Some people take pills, some people go to a shrink, some people do yoga, some people drink too much. I drank too much after Christy, I drank too much after Katy. When you’re no longer in control, that’s a problem, I don’t like that feeling anymore, I learned not to like it. I used to like eating too much food, but now I have a cut-off switch. I’m glad.”

A person who has written so much moody music and painful lyrics, is of course going to have his extremes, but it appears he doesn’t have them anymore, which could be another reason why he doesn’t have to exorcise the pain in song. When he was 21 he tried to kill himself by drinking furniture polish. “Nothing was happening with my music career, I didn’t have a job or a place to live. I had to live with my Mom again, which felt like a real failure. So I said that’s it. I’m going to off myself. There was stuff in the closet, bleach that will kill you and another one called Old English scratch polish and I thought that looked tastier. I drank it and farted furniture polish for two days.”

He was serious, he did write a suicide note. “And it became the lyrics to a song called Tomorrow is Today. When you’re 21 it’s a tough age, that transition to adulthood. I keep reading that I suffer from depression, but I don’t. Break ups will depress you. I got depressed after 9/11, I thought the new Millennium was going to be bright and shiny and then boom, the World Trade Centers. That was my town… but the rest of the time I don’t think I get depressed at all.”

Would he have cancelled his show like Bruce Springsteen cancelled his show in North Carolina over the states legislation over transgender bathrooms – saying transgenders had to use the bathroom of the sex they were born with – “I don’t think it’s going to change anything and it’s not the audiences fault. Some people probably bought tickets in a secondary market and won’t get their money back. But I admire Bruce for taking a stand, he’s a principled man and a friend.”

He’s also a fan of Coldplay, “a great band and Adele is the best singer to come down the pike since Whitney Houston, but I only listen to classical music now, Beethoven, Mozart, Chopin”

It seems odd as he’s made his millions through rock music. He smiles very contentedly, “I like spending my money on motorcycles and boats. Lawyers who were supposed to be looking after my interests did not, nor did accountants, nor did managers but I’ve learned from that and I’ve learned to be a businessman and nobody should worry about me. When I come to Europe I’m going to take a bike and ride. Maybe I should have had my nose fixed all those years ago but I never did. I’ve never been a matinee idol. I’m never going to get work done.  Changing my face isn’t going to make that happen. I’m a guy,” he says.  He doesn’t mean he’s just a guy, he means he’s a guy and that too makes him happy.

Chelsea Handler (Sunday Times Magazine, May 15, 2016)

Everyone has a little bit of Chelsea Handler in them — the bit that can’t suffer fools and likes to make fun of people,the bit that thinks they’ve got something special and should never have to fly economy.Most people don’t know how to unleash their inner Handler.They worry what people will think. Handler has never cared about that. She’s made a career out of making fun of people.

The American comedian, actress, writer, producer and close pal of Jennifer Aniston remains only the second woman to have a US late-night talk show (the first was Joan Rivers). Chelsea Lately aired for nearly eight years on the American channel E! It was compulsive viewing, attracting guests such as Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians,even though Handler was never sycophantic, possibly even a touch cruel. She has written five bestselling books — including 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands and 2008’s Are You There,Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea — and has racked up almost 6m Twitter followers, but she remains relatively unknown in Britain.That’s changing thanks to the four documentaries she has made for Netflix.The series is called Chelsea Does and tackles marriage, Silicon Valley, racism and drugs. The 41-year-old says she learnt a lot. She also reveals a lot: behind her rapier wit, there’s a vulnerable side.

I arrive at her house in Bel Air. It’s modern, comfortably furnished,with arty photos, furry dining room chairs, outside deck and pool. Most surprising is that it seems really lived-in.We go up to her bedroom to talk and sit on opposite couches. She’s wearing ripped jeans and a fawn sweater, no shoes, no make-up, no brush has been through the hair. Her bed is unmade.A pair of Stella McCartney stilettos is discarded on the floor. It turns out McCartney is a good friend and they’d been for a night out recently. She doesn’t mention Aniston.

As well as the documentaries, she’s launched a Netflix talk show, which mixes live action, politics and documentary footage, and it airs three times a week. I ask if Donald Trump will be vain enough to appear. “I doubt it. I’ve been pretty public about calling him an asshole and last week I was in Mexico with a piñata of him. I tied it to a tree and everyone beat the shit out of it.The video went viral. I’d love to have Hillary Clinton on it, I love Hillary.” Chunk, her dog, trots in, fluffy-fresh from the groomer. He’s part chow and part German shepherd; he looks like a teddy bear. Handler calls everything she loves Chunk: her first boyfriend, her mother, who died 10 years ago.“We called each other Chunk.” Her first boyfriend, a Brit called Peter, makes an appearance in the documentary about marriage.They met for the first time in years to be filmed and he revealed that she used to reallywant children. She pooh-poohs his suggestion: “ I love kids most of the time if they are my friends’ or my family’s. He confused that with a desire to have them, which there was not.”

At 41 there still isn’t. On the table in front of her is a green drink.“This is what I have to drink every day, do you want to try it?” I decline.“Dieting is rough, it’s a pain in the ass for everyone.A lot of people in this town just don’t eat.” Does being on TV all of the time make her extra aware? “Yes, and I work out all of the time, and I actually enjoy that, but the dieting is really hard for me. I’m good for a few days and then I go off.” She thinks she might be an alcoholic.“If I don’t drink for more than three nights you can tell in my personality. I just need alcohol in my system . I love alcohol — it makes me happy.”

Handler was 39 when she quit E! because she no longer found her show challenging. For most women, the cusp of 40 isn’t the age when people start afresh; it’s not when confidence is at its highest. But Handler isn’t most women.“Like anything in my career, I like to excel at something and then I’m done and want to be out of my comfort zone. I was bored with the sound of my voice and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful any more. I was bored with these celebrities on rotation. I just thought this has afforded me tons of luxury and access to many things, but it’s not like I’m saving lives. I thought I should be doing something more interesting.”

Cue the documentaries. How did she decide on the four subjects? “It was important for me to do something that everybody is familiar with. Marriage is something everyone can talk about. I never had the desire to be married and I’ve never been interested in that kind of construct. Drugs: I love doing drugs. Racism: I thought, let me see if I can do something serious but with a sense of humour.” In the tech documentary she creates an app.

The racism documentary is emotional, especially when she goes to Jerusalem to speak with the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.“He said,‘Walls are meant to be torn down.’ I loved it when he said that. My father once said,‘When you read a book, even if you don’t like it,there’s always one sentence that should resonate.’That was the line that was really powerful.” Handler’s father appears often in Chelsea Does. He is perhaps the reason she never became someone’s wife; he told her that she wasn’t the type of girl that anyone would marry, which she took as a compliment.

Her father was a used-car salesman and they grew up in a Jewish suburb of New Jersey. Her mother was a Mormon of German descent who converted to Judaism. Handler is the youngest of six, the eldest of whom, her brother Chet, died in a hiking accident when he was 21. Handler couldn’t wait to leave suburbia, so at 19 she was West Coast-bound with a backdrop of determination over tragedy. She thought she would try acting, but ended up waitressing before turning her failed romances into comedy gold. “It was when Peter [the British ex-boyfriend] and I broke up that I started to get good material for stand-up, so I stopped being a waitress.”The day after they split up, she let herself into his apartment to find him in bed with someone else.“I was angry, and when you’re angry, you come up with good stuff.”

In the marriage documentary she also reveals a preference for dating foreign men.Yet two of her most famous exes are American. In 2010 she was briefly with the rapper 50 Cent and in 2013 she dated the hotelier André Balazs, who is behind the London celebrity haunt Chiltern Firehouse. “He’s not anything you’d imagine, but that was just a flash in the pan,” she says of 50 Cent. Was she in love with him? “No!” What about British Pete? “He was my first love.” She says she is “independent and I always wanted to be.That was important to me because both my parents were hot messes.They loved each other, but they had no financial security and it was constantly,‘Don’t answer the phone, it might be a bill collector.’We weren’t poor, but you never knew what was going to happen.”

As the youngest of six, did she have to make her mark? “I think I was born that way, intent on being something bigger. For me, my life was going to begin once I left [New Jersey].When I came here I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I just wanted to be known. As a waitress I got fired from many different places. I went off on people if they were rude.” She asks if I mind if she uses the restroom and do I want to watch her? I don’t.While she is away I notice a plate on her coffee table that says: “Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want.”

Alcohol isn’t her only vice. For the documentary on drugs, she tried the mind-expanding drug ayahuasca. She says she enjoys doing drugs.“Last night I smoked a little pot, went to bed at 8.30pm and woke up at 7am. It was great. I’d rather do that than take a sleeping pill.”

I tell her my theory that women can’t be sexy and good at stand-up. Female comics who do well are often fat, misshapen or unlucky.“I don’t think that’s true,” she says.“I think I’m quite tomboyish — I don’t wear skirts in real life, so why wear one on stage? But it wasn’t hard for me at all.There’s a constant discussion about gender disparity, and of course it exists, but in my experience it’s been a huge advantage to be a woman.” And this is where you see her inner Handlerness, made of titanium.

In 2014 she posed topless on a horse — mirroring the shot of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. She didn’t realise it would cause a stir.Thirty minutes after posting the picture to Instagram, the site removed it, saying she had violated the app’s terms of service. “I was making a joke.The reaction was incredible. Why is a man allowed to ride topless when a woman isn’t? Because we have big breasts? What the f*** is that? I just wanted to highlight its idiocy.”

She says she could never have done anything other than comedy.“If this didn’t work out, I’d have to marry someone really wealthy. I’ve always wanted nice things, and I never want to fly economy again. Ever! And I need to be working to do that and doing something that’s compelling. I don’t have a lot of skill sets, so I have to try and be really good at the only thing I can do.”

She smiles, happy in the knowledge that the thing she can do is all she needs.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon looks like he hasn’t had any sleep. Probably hasn’t. We meet in New York just a few days after his wife Luciana Barroso has given birth to their third daughter together Stella.
He is wearing a grey beanie hat, he hasn’t shaved, a thick grey sweatshirt and heavy jeans and boots. A thick silver wedding band his only jewellery.
“This is my guy just had a baby look. I have changed since then. I showered. Took the kids to school and made it here today. They love the new Stella. I’ve got pictures uploaded of the kids holding her.”
Can I see? “Are you asking a dad if you can see pictures of his kids? Sure,” he purrs. We are here to talk about his new movie Adjustment Bureau – a fantastical romance. It’s part science fiction, part love story. But first we look at the pictures of his family on his phone. On one of them his four-year-old Isabella is holding the new baby and looking very proud. “She looks so excited in that picture. It’s awesome.”
I wonder if ten years ago he had this vision of himself – happy father at 40, content in his personal life, the most bankable actor alive and the most sought after one. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always like that and ten years ago he was worried that after two movies had been commercial failures, Bagger Vance and All The Pretty Horses, he feared a third one would wreck his future on the A-list.
“It’s interesting. Ten years ago Bush was about to steal the election and I was in Paris shooting The Bourne Identity, a movie that would change this whole decade in a huge way. I was very focused on making the movie. In that way I haven’t changed at all if I’m working on a part. So that feels the same.”
Did he really feel that it was three strikes and you’re out? “Yes, Bagger Vance and All The Pretty Horses were just coming out and I was acutely aware that I had to do something. I don’t apologise for those movies. I know why I made them, but more so now you’re really aware of where you are in this business. I think turning 30 there was so much in my life that was unresolved, but turning 40 I didn’t feel anything, there wasn’t a hiccup. I felt wonderful to have an amazing and beautiful wife and children and from a work perspective things going really well.
“Forties is a great time for men in the business, much tougher for women. But from my perspective it was an occasion to celebrate.”
The thirties weren’t just a time of uncertainty in his career. Emotionally they were unsettling too. “I knew intellectually that I wanted to have kids and move on with my life but I couldn’t really imagine it. I just hadn’t met her yet and I was extremely aware of that.”
Now contentment and love glow seeps from his every pore. How has he learnt to balance the level of work he does with down time with his family? “On the one hand I’m most excited and most alive when I’m working on something I love. That feels great. But not to the detriment of my family. I try to have my cake and eat it. For instance working with Clint, he’ll shoot an eight or ten hour day. Which is the regular hours most parents go to work. And I feel it’s a great creative experience and then I’m home with my kids and have a good time with them.”
Last year he made the movie Hereafter directed by Clint Eastwood where he played the part of a medium. Did he visit a medium to get in to that part? “No. if I had a line into someone who I’d heard was great I would have done but I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of pretenders. This guy’s relationship is with people on earth and his loneliness. That yearning to have a real connection with another person. So that part was much easier to get into.”
Has he experienced that kind of loneliness and looking for that connection? “I had other relationships that were meaningful and I was very busy so I don’t think I was ever deeply lonely. In retrospect having the wife that I do and the life that I do and the children I can’t imagine living in any other way. But I didn’t feel the absence of that because I didn’t know what it was.”
His character in his new film Adjustment Bureau is a politician who fights his alleged predetermined destiny. He is prepared to risk everything for love. Would he? “Would I risk everything? If you ask most parents a choice between their career and their family I don’t think there’s much of a choice at all.”
One of the movie’s themes questions, is all of life predestined or do you have a chance to make your own destiny? What does he really think? “I am responsible for my life and the decisions I make. Or is it a predetermined course that no matter what I do I’ll be going down? This guy is shown a glimpse of that but he defies it and says he will live with the consequences. It’s like defying Greek gods.
“But do I believe in fate? There are so many things I feel lucky about but at the same time I’m a hard worker and I don’t like to think I didn’t earn anything in my life.”
But does he believe that certain things are meant to be and certain couples are meant to be together? “In the movie I meet Emily Blunt’s character – I catch the bus I wasn’t supposed to catch, and then the higher powers explain the ground rules. I met a girl I’m not supposed to be with but I’m really smitten with this girl and I feel like we’re really meant to be together.”
Is that how he felt about his wife, it was meant to be? “If there is a plan I’m happy with the plan. I feel they’ve intervened on my behalf in a good way. There’s an incredible series of events that took me to meet my wife. When I think of the impact of Lucy on my life and the kids because of a chance meeting.
“The Farrelly brothers were planning to shoot in Hawaii. At the last minute it changed to Miami. If I hadn’t have been in Miami I would never have met her.”
There’s a scene in the movie where there’s a ‘Do I know you?’ moment. When he meets Emily Blunt for the first time it’s as if he already knows her. Was that like it was with Lucy? Did you feel you already knew her? “Yes, not unlike that. I don’t know if it’s me eight years later reimagining it. But I do definitely remember feeling that way.” He nods savouring the moment. And he looks directly at me. He really lets you in.
What has he learnt from living with so many females? “I’ve learnt that we are a completely different species. If one of my friends brings his son over instantly the boy will start playing with a toy in a different way. They’ll smash it against the wall or do some boy thing that I’ll totally relate to and the girls don’t do that. In terms of discipline my wife’s much better at it. If I had a boy I’d be better at disciplining the boy because I understand boys.
“When my four year old was 18 months she was trying to get a treat out of me. I said no and she asked me again and I caved in, and then my wife came into the room and said ‘Isabella’ and Isabella looked up at her mother, shyly smiled and put her head down and I realised that at 18 months old this creature had total control over me. Then I realised men don’t have a chance. I feel we’re such a different species. I am flummoxed by my female counterpart at 18 months old.”
His mother features heavily in his life. Nancy Carlsson-Paige – is an author and college professor who lectures in child psychology . She instilled in him a strong work ethic and encouraged his political awareness.
“I never knew my parents as a couple. They divorced 38 years ago when I was two. They are strong individuals and both present in my life. My mum’s name comes up a lot because she’s a professor of childhood education and people are always asking me if I’m of my mother’s opinion.”
That said his mother comes over as the stronger character. Does he go for a woman who is strong and can take care of herself? “There was something appealing about my wife and that was she didn’t need me. I love that she’s strong. Strength is a wonderful quality for my daughters to see in the most important woman in their life.
“I expect a lot from my daughters. We’re going to parent them as much as we can and hope they are going to contribute to the community. Our 12-year-old (Alexia is Luciana’s daughter from a previous marriage who he has legally adopted her) is a fantastic writer. But their choices are for them to make. There are plenty of ways to get to heaven.”
Does he think there’s a heaven? “I hope so but there’s no way to know till you go up.”
What’s heaven on earth? “I love to be with my family, I love to be with my friends, I love my job. You have to figure how to make the peace and work with your friends and bring your family. My oldest kid and I have been writing a script together based on an idea she had. We’ll see if it’s something she wants to pursue.”
Are you still hoping to have a boy? “No, I still hope to have a marriage. It’s a whole different energy being surrounded by women. I am getting a new perspective on the world that I would have missed if I’d had boys
Traditionally women are meant to be better at compartmentalizing. Has he found that? “Not true for me and my wife. We are both better at doing one thing at a time. We get lost when we have a bunch of things, although she’s better at staying on top of it. I can only do one project at a time. It causes me a lot of anxiety if I’m under pressure in one particular project because it feels very natural to be working out all the problems of that project. There’s a lot of pressure. The day is costing $500,000 and we have to get through that day. And if you say you have to call some people about this and that I am hopeless.”
It’s hard to imagine him being so anxious – he comes across calm, gentle and grounded How does he keep his own life in the glare of Hollywood?
“It’s about not tying your identity to what the business thinks of you. If I fall off that list again I’ll just do what Ben did and find a project and write. We did it with Good Will Hunting out of nowhere. If you want to panic about what people think of you in Hollywood you’re not going to get anywhere. If you know how to write and tell a story you’ll never be replaced. Ben never panicked and he never demanded any kind of status. He was just one of the guys, I’m not doing this, I’ll do this. And it turns out he is a great director.”
He says he is still hoping to direct one day but hasn’t found the right project yet – and he has not slipped from that list so may not find the time either.
What has he learnt about love in the past ten years? “Well I met my wife so everything. The whole world has opened up.”
What has he learned about clothes? “That my wife should dress me.
What has he learned about directors ? He’s known for having special bonds with people like Clint Eastwood and Paul Greengrass and with wanting work with them as often as possible “That there’s a way to do this job and have fun, enjoy this life and not torture yourself.”
What have you learned about your friends? “That it’s tough to keep up with everyone because we’ve all got families. I’ve learnt that I want to do a better job in my forties than my thirties about being in touch.”
What has he learnt about taking care of himself, health regimes? “I exercise better than I used to. I have trouble cutting out all the food that I like. Now I have to start getting ready for movies by preparing earlier. I love food and lots of it, and wine and beer. I could eat a ten course meal pretty much every night if you let me.
“There’s a great philosopher who on her death bed said she would have done three things differently. She would have been nicer to everybody. She would have cared less about what people thought of her, and would have eaten more ice cream. I don’t want to leave this planet thinking that you could have eaten more ice cream.”

Leonard DiCaprio

The last time I was in a room with Leonard DiCaprio was 2001 and it was his kitchen. I was interviewing his then girlfriend, Brazilian gorgeousness Gisele Bündchen. Her Yorkshire terrier was yapping and she was talking non-stop in a dizzying way with demanding eyes, lavish hair. She was warm, volatile, with a sense of entitlement, and Leo was withdrawn, quiet, perhaps a little lost while he was meticulously chopping in the kitchen. He was making food to take over to a friend’s house and kept saying, “Baby, we’re late.” But Baby carried on talking and demanding empinadas. Gisele and the yorkie were going crazy for the tasty meaty morsels. Leo just kept chopping vegetables.

Eventually Gisele drove me home. Joni Mitchell’s California was playing. We both sang. She told me Leo didn’t do karaoke, but life apart from that, life was great with him. It didn’t surprise me at all when they split up. It seemed like they had nothing in common. Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most famous and perhaps one of the most beautiful men in the world. He could have anything he wanted. He never behaved in a brattish way of course, but he’s only ever dated supermodels, the current one being Israeli Bar Rafaeli.

Seven years on I’m in another room with him, a slightly smoky room at the Beverly Wilshire where he’s doing interviews to promote Body Of Lies, a hard hitting terrorists versus CIA set in the desert Ridley Scott movie; powerful, layered. He’s in a scruffy battered grey T-shirt, jeans, tall. Supposed to be six foot one but looks taller, perhaps because he’s long limbed, perhaps because one expects movie stars to be Tom Cruise sized. He’s not as chunky as the look he adopted for Gangs Of New York, where he gained 30 lbs and they seemed to stay with him in a gravitas I’m grown up sort of way. But he’s oddly powerful looking. The face is heart-shaped, with that I don’t know if I ever need to shave complexion. He looks older and younger than his 34 years.

His eyes are light, light beams even. They look at you in a penetrating way. Perhaps he’s trying to place me, but his eyes dart away again. If he did remember me from his kitchen, which I’m sure he didn’t, he would have been embarrassed, because that was a different Leo then, a lightweight Leo. I don’t want to embarrass him, so I don’t mention it. Instead he’s extremely polite, smiling, although guarded in an extremely subtle way that allows him to be enthusiastic and never hostile.

Body Of Lies also stars Russell Crowe. The last time they were together was in The Quick And The Dead, when he was only 18. This was pre Titanic when DiCaprio was known for his sensitive artsy portrayals as a retarded boy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and being beaten up by his cruel stepfather Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life. “And he had just done Romper Stomper, so we were both very wet behind the ears back then. We were hand picked as two people who had done interesting performances that year. It was our first encounter in being in a big budget film.”

DiCaprio would go on to say how suspicious he became of big budget studio films, but that was after Titanic, which at the time was the biggest budget for a studio film ever and it distorted people’s perception of Leo. He became written off as a cherub faced tragic ruby lipped star that was chased and hounded by teenage girls who might have chased the Jonas Brothers today. His first encounter with Crowe was before they both became ubiquitous.

“He was very cool to me back then and supportive of me as a young actor, and seeing him again after all these years he was still the same guy and he is an even better actor than he was back then. He’s carved out a fantastic career for himself and is known as one of the most committed actors of his generation with some really powerful performances.”

Really, I thought that was you, one of the most committed actors of your generation. He rocks back in his chair and laughs, “Well, you know, people don’t say that sort of thing about themselves.” He’s giggling but part of him knows it’s the truth. He has graduated into heavy weight. Meticulous performances as the obsessive compulsive Howard Hughes in The Aviator (which won him his second Oscar nomination, the first was for Grape) and generally being taken under the wing of Martin Scorsese for Gangs Of New York and The Departed set among the Triads, has earned him gravitas, kudos, applause.

His third Oscar nomination was for Blood Diamond, which he considers a movie which changed things. De Beers certainly had to do some rethinking, and everyone is aware that Leona Lewis doesn’t wear conflict diamonds.

So was the dynamic between you and Crowe the same? Did he still seem mentor? Could he be supportive in the same way? In the film Crowe and DiCaprio are on the same side but at loggerheads with each other and the tension is fascinating.

“It was strange that it hadn’t. It was just like walking into a room 15 years later, even though in 15 years a lot of things have happened to both of us, and a lot of changes have gone on in the world. But I have to say we are both developed as actors, we both have more experience under our belts, and there was a different way in which we conversed in that period and now in terms of arguing our characters points back and forth. I don’t think we did that back then. Not that we didn’t take it seriously, but we never had that type of responsibility that we do now, so yes, I noticed the difference in that regard for sure. I knew he was going to be like that because you can see it up there in the screen in all the work he does. He is very committed.”

He says the word committed as if he treasures that word, as if it is the highest accolade. DiCaprio was of course in the past thoughtful, hyper sensitive even, but through movie choices, taking risks in lower budget movies that were considered failures like The Beach and The Man In The Iron Mask, and the controversial Blood Diamond, and making his own eco statement in The Eleventh Hour, he gets to earn the moniker very committed too. Certainly for Body Of Lies there is no possibility of being a lightweight. It was a long tough shoot shot mostly in the desert. It involved several months in Morocco posing as Jordan.

“I had a very hard shoot, very rough. I’ve done a lot of action sequences before, but this is a Ridley Scott movie. I did a lot of my own stunts, not all of them. You are always moving locations at lightening speed. At any given second Ridley Scott would come in and say, ‘I want a helicopter come in and shoot two missiles and I want that to be on camera and I want to have a surveillance camera 2,000 feet in the air shooting on top of your head’. At some points you really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a huge adrenalin rush for you as an actor because you have to be prepared dramatically to have any given scene changed at any moment. It makes you trust your instincts more. It makes you delve deep into yourself. The better you know your character the better you know how he would react in any scenario, and Ridley will throw curveballs constantly. He is editing seven different cameras at the same time and then he’ll say, ‘I don’t believe that. I don’t care how much we’ve talked about this scene, it’s not coming across, so I’m going to change everything’. He’s a very run and gun director. He likes to keep up the pace of a film unlike any director I’ve met. You’d better be prepared for anything. Someone like Scorsese I suppose is a lot more meticulous in the way he sets things up. He’s very specific and take a lot of time with each angle.”

Working with Scott to be much more adrenalin based. The pace of the film is fast and unyielding and there’s one scene where he’s being tortured at the end where I could hardly breathe. “Good,” he exclaims, looking like the cat’s had the cream. “I had a problem with that scene, so I’m glad it worked for you. It’s been written that I had a problem with the dust, but it wasn’t the dust I got sick from, it was that scene. It was a pivotal point in the whole movie. It was make or break.”

The scene in which DiCaprio is caught and tortured is graphic. So real I couldn’t finish looking at it. “If that scene didn’t work it hinged on everything else about the movie and the movie couldn’t sustain itself. I knew it was one of the most important scenes in the movie. We needed to make it important, pertinent and controversial. I spoke to ex-heads of the CIA about what my character would be doing and how he would be handling himself. Because so much hinged on it I had almost a physical breakdown at the end of it. So a lot of what you see on the film is my breaking point. I physically collapsed for a few days after that. Yes, I got sick, but not because of the dust. It was because of the intensity of it.”

One of the themes of the movie is truth. Who you trust. Who you tell the truth to. Who you give a version of the truth. And who you lie to. So, who would he lie to and why? “Intrinsically an organisation like the CIA relies on secrecy. It is about covert operations, so we’re doing a movie about modern day CIA operations and practises. I think we got as close as we could get on how the United States operates on this war of terror.”

He makes no attempt to answer this question as a personal one. But the answer is long and articulate and important. It makes it difficult to interrupt. The theme that you cannot trust terrorists and that you also cannot trust Americans.

“That is very symbolic of the truth. You have this character that is in a deceitful world trying to catch the enemy that he could never trust. But it is a dirty ugly war. He’s trying to hold on to a semblance of morality and a belief in his country while his country is letting him down simultaneously, and ironically he’s starting to trust people that are while not exactly the enemy, but aren’t the people he’s beholden to. You have to start thinking out of the box. He starts to question his patriotism, what he stands for morally. This character is not somebody who is either good or bad. He is trying to hold on to a certain belief system that is lost.”

And then you realise that he probably is talking about himself. When you ask him about Bush or Palin he is not at all equivocal. His anti-Palin rants are legendary. He says simply, “I hope that Barak Obama wins because I haven’t been happy with the last eight years and that has been reflected in the polls. It is not secret that the Bush administration and the way they handled not only the war on terror but everything else has only a ten per cent approval rating. So yes, I can only hope for Barak Obama. For a brilliant mind to come in and change everything. It is a scary world that the United States has ventured into. And Barak Obama can come in and set this country on a different course.”

You get the impression that while many Hollywood stars might sell a photo of their baby and sell its proceeds for an eco charity, might at the same time enjoy a film studio’s Lear jet to be at their personal disposal, you can’t fault Leo or his eco credentials. He drives what he calls a golf cart car, a Prius, and made the eco movie The Eleventh Hour, an extensively detailed documentary about our planet in crisis. He cares “about human beings regarding this planet as a service station, but the earth should be cherished for future generations.” He is at the helm of two diametrically opposed worlds; the greed, instant gratification and materialism of Hollywood and the impassioned environmentalist. But he pulls it off and he’s good at it. For instance he once stole a journalist’s tape recorder just after they’d both ordered lunch but when the hack went to make a phone call and he babbled on to it that he shouldn’t be eating hamburgers, even though he himself had ordered one, because the methane gas cows release is the number one contributor to the ozone layer. But you can’t have tuna either because the nets capture innocent little dolphins. He was being jokey but serious at the same time. He doesn’t mean it to preach. He meant to be quite gentle in his earnestness. As well as all this he has remnants of Hollywood bad boy that liked to throw horse shit at Italian paparazzi, hang out in after hours bars with gaggles of models wearing tiny outfits. The contradictions all work to make him human. That’s why he relished the idea of playing a character that was neither a hero or a villain.

He laughs. “Of course it was so much easier to play someone caught in a moral web, who tries to manipulate people as best he can, but he knows he is also being manipulated. He goes on a personal journey where he realises that he is not part of any specific nationality any more. It’s not about nationality. It’s about what’s right or wrong for him.

“When you are given an opportunity to make a film about what’s very much on the consciousness of the general public, like Body Of Lies, and I would put Blood Diamond in the same category, of course you jump at these opportunities. Blood Diamond shed a different light on the diamond trade.”

I would like to think, as Leo believes, that Body Of Lies, would shed a different light upon the war on terror. It came out in the US already in a very bad week that involved the Wall Street crash and had to settle for third place in the movie charts where the box office was topped with Beverly Hills Chihuahua. In a crisis people don’t see why there’s a crisis, they want to escape it. Quarantine, a cheaply made horror film was in second place. Still DiCaprio argues gamely, “I know historically at some point in time we are going to look back at this type of movie and it will reflect the period and make people really think what was going on in that time period.”

Ridley Scott, for all his nuanced multi-layered brilliance, is not in vogue at the moment. One imagines that DiCaprio will have greater success with Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road which reunites him with Kate Winslet but without the Celine Dion soundtrack and gallons of water. It is a haunting, gnawing movie derived from the novel by Richard Yates. It is set in the mid Fifties, post World War II, but pre Mad Men. The revolution was a long way off. Winslet and DiCaprio’s relationship is sour, thwarted, spiralling. They play a young married couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who find themselves trapped in suburbia, trapped by the social confines of their lives, of their time. Frank Wheeler is a man with a meaningless job who has lost his nerve and lost his way. April – Winslet – is a trapped housewife, homemaker, who wants to go to Paris and be bohemian, but finds herself pregnant with a third baby.

It resonates with DiCaprio because “What is the American dream supposed to be? And how similar are we now to that era in a lot of ways? It’s about two people going crazy in that kind of environment. Being stripped of their identity and feeling they are living a life of cliches. What gravitates me towards it was that it’s very reflected of the United States moral position in the 1950s and this is where we still hinge ourselves morally, how we view our family, our fundamentals, and also I am a huge fan of Kate and Sam.”

He seems already uneasy that working with Kate again conjures up Titanic. After Titanic his life changed. He couldn’t go out without a million girls chasing him screaming. He hated that effect. He turned down everything big box office after it. Said no Anakin Skywalker, American Psycho, Heath Ledger’s part in The Patriot, and Spiderman which turned his best friend Tobey Maguire into a star. He feared it.

“It was never my intention to have my image shown around the world.” Or barbers in Afghanistan arrested as they enraged the Taliban by offering a Leo DiCaprio style haircut labelled ‘The Titanic’. When he was travelling through Europe, at the airport in Paris, a teenager grabbed his leg and pressed her head into it, clutching desperately as if she were about to sink her teeth into it. He would say, “What are you doing sweetheart?” And he looked at her and tried to grab her face trying to tell her if she would get off his leg he would talk to her, but she wouldn’t leave and the incident horrified him and left him marked. He wanted to be an actor, not a celebrity. He didn’t do any movies at all for a couple of years because he was said to be suffering from ‘post-Titanic distress syndrome’. The kind of fame where everyone wants to talk to you but nobody wants to listen to what you’ve got to say.

“The moves that I’m doing now are the movies that I’ve always wanted to do. If when I was younger I’d had these opportunities I’d have done them in a heartbeat. But you don’t always get the opportunity to make films that you have a kinship to when you’re starting off. I took some time off after Titanic because I needed to let the dust settle so to speak and recharge my battery. I felt OK, I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity, what are you going to do with it? Now your name can finance movies that you do want to do. That wasn’t something that I wanted to squander. I wanted to wait until I felt I could really contribute something that had the kind of edge that I’d always been looking for since I started.” Although these films might have had edge without box office, the combined effect was to make Leo an almost impossible combination, an edgy Hollywood star. “Of course after Titanic there were a lot of offers of films like that, but it was very easy to turn those movies down.”

His character in Revolutionary Road might be his best bet for an Oscar win yet. He seems to light up when he talks about his darkness. “It’s a film about the disintegration of a relationship. We’re putting a smile on our face and doing all the things you should be doing in a loving relationship, but the darker side is taking over. It’s people who are holding on to their love in circumstances that are ripping apart. I’m more attracted to doing that sort of thing these days because things in this world they aren’t easy, they’re very complicated.”

You wonder if his relationship with Bar Rafaeli is uncomplicated. He is a scorpio with libra rising. “That means I’m trying to balance the passionate dark insane parts of scorpio the best I can, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job.”

DiCaprio started off strangely shy around women. He says, “I’ve always been a slow starter. My first date was with a girl called Cessi. We had a beautiful relationship over the phone all summer and then when we met I couldn’t look her in the eye.” He doesn’t seem to look many people in the eye directly for long, but that hasn’t stopped him romancing Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, and Amber Valletta.

He says that he would love to have a wife he feels comfortable with. He says that he wants a kid “someday”. We have to skirt borders very carefully when talking about intimate things. There’s never a froideur that comes up, but you know he doesn’t want to be defined by his relationships with supermodels. For a long time he would take his mum to premieres instead of an inamorata. He’s never liked to talk about his girlfriends, be pictured with them, or give tantalising details away because that would feed the paparazzi, who have made him miserable. Instead he’s one of those actors who feels, “Defining yourself to the public on a consistent basis is death to a performer. The more you define who you are personally the less you are able to submerge into the characters you do and people will think I don’t buy him in that role.”

Instead the image we have of him is amorphic, a bad boy superhero, soulful but likes to party, committed to his work but not necessarily to his long-term girlfriends. He once said his ideal wife would be one who was independent, who wouldn’t mind if he went off to Alaska at a moment’s notice with his friends. Robert De Niro is his friend. Not the kind of hanging out with friend, but the friend who recommended him to Martin Scorsese. “I was humbled by that. De Niro/Scorsese is my generation’s choice of greatest actor director dynamic. It is to the previous ones Brando/Kazan.” He has completed three movies with Scorsese, Gangs of New York, Aviator, Departed, and is about to start a fourth, Shutter Island. They are muse and mentor. “I have so much respect for him. Who doesn’t, you know?”

Scorsese had to wait years for his Oscar. Does he himself mind missing out three times? “I would say this. I have a theory. We all have our personal choices of who we think should win, but there are certain times you look back at the movie that won that year and you think how was that humanly possible?”

Sometimes people get the Oscar for the wrong movie. They get it because the Academy was guilty because they recognised they gave it to the wrong person last year. ‘Yes, but the Academy is about recognising someone who is deservant (sic) or not. I am not feverishly hunting one down. I am trying to do the best work I possibly can and making movies that will have resonance for years to come. I think you can never dictate what you want people to think. If you control that you lose connection from the audience. I think if you try for an Oscar or a goal like that, the more people are going to see it as transparent. It’s not on my radar. If it happens great, but I’m happy to continue working as I am, really.”

He is happy being an active person. “Life’s too short to be lazy and passive and I don’t like to stay in one environment for too long and get set in one way of thinking. I love to travel, get involved in different environmental projects. Stimulate myself. I couldn’t be more miserable when I don’t have anything to engage in.”

It’s been written that you like to be on your own a lot. “No. I think I’m more of a people person.” Is it true that you have the same set of about ten really good friends that you grew up with because you don’t need new friends and never lose old ones? “Mm,” he considers. “I suppose, yes. I do have about ten really good friends. But the fact I don’t have new ones is not true.”

He was born on November 11th, 1974 in East Hollywood. His mother, German born Irmelin, split from his father George, a comic book artist, when their son was about a year old. His father, a Hollywood bohemian, has had a distinctive influence on his mind and career, to always think out of the box. His father was part of the underground comic book scene and hippie movement. He was acquaintances with Charles Bukowski. He still has friends from his childhood. “It’s true that you don’t necessarily know who to trust. People who are celebrities are shrouded in mystery. You don’t know if they’re good people or not. Generally, people in the arts are good people. When you work on movies you go, what’s that actor like? This is my opinion of them. I am almost always proven wrong. You realise they are completely normal people. You hear horror stories of people’s reputations. You think they might be arrogant or self-righteous. But the majority of people I’ve met who do movies are not. They are conscious people who don’t have this side that the public attach on to them. Jack Nicholson said, ‘By the very nature of being well know you meet more people in an average week’. Because you are constantly having interactions with people in that regard it makes you hold on to the people you know and trust. But at the same time I try to keep an open mind because there are a lot of fascinating people out there. Being an environmentalist and also doing this business opens me up to entirely different worlds and I love to juggle those things.” So it seems there are two entirely contradicting Leo: shy, untrusting circumspect Leo and gregarious up for anything. He’s been careful to display both so I’ll never pin him down as one or the other. He’s answered everything, but not very exactly. But he’s played a perfect game. He keeps you smiling and he’s laughing even. He doesn’t let you get too close but he doesn’t let you notice the distance.

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez is in a simple dress, long bare legs outstretched in front of her. Her voice is creaky with a chest infection, her eyes bleary. But her work ethic is as strong as it was back in the Bronx days she immortalised in her 2001 hit ‘Jenny From the Block’. It’s been a long time – and many blocks – since the tough, determined girl born to Puerto Rican parents danced her way around Manhattan as a backing singer for the likes of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and there seem to have been many Jennys since then too.

We are in a sunny Beverly Hills hotel room. It is not a suite. There are no Diptyque candles. And the thread count on the bed linen is probably not more than 420. It certainly doesn’t meet the stipulations she was alleged to have demanded of her accommodation when she was J Lo the diva, who routinely rode in Bentley convertibles with her fiancé Ben Affleck, or went to gangsta-style clubs with her partner of two and a half years Sean Combs (P Diddy), and was chased by paparazzi.

Life is quieter now, with her husband of five years, Latin singer Marc Anthony, and two-year-old twins Emme and Max, but it’s certainly not simpler.

‘I just did two 24-hour flights back to back for a party in Kazakhstan that I had to perform at.’ Was it worth it? ‘I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Totally.’ The result is that she’s feeling exhausted and fluey, but she’s a trouper. She’s known worse (such as the trauma of cancelling her wedding to Ben Affleck hours before it was due to take place in 2003).

Her life has certainly changed pace. And her new movie The Back-Up Plan reflects that. It’s about a woman who decides that she doesn’t want to miss out on having children even though she doesn’t have a boyfriend. So she plans to have IVF and a baby on her own, and on the same day as the treatment she meets a man with the kind of romantic possibilities that she’d given up on. They fall in love and everything happens in reverse. Instead of romance, proposal, marriage, baby, it’s – she’s already pregnant with somebody else’s baby, then romance, then relationship.

The movie is cutting-edge funny and a return to form for Jennifer. ‘It couldn’t be more perfect,’ she says, ‘the whole idea, in a romantic comedy, that the pregnancy is the obstacle. It’s always, “Oh, my boyfriend can’t commit, I can’t commit, I’m in love with my best friend.” But this story seemed to me to be about a real problem. “Are you going to take on this child? Is it OK to ask somebody to do that?”

Does she think she would have used IVF to get pregnant if she hadn’t met the right man? She shakes her head. ‘It takes a lot of bravery to have a child on your own. I have a girlfriend who did it and I really admire her. Especially knowing how much help you need. It’s a lot to be a working mum and think, I’m OK on my own. I would like to think that I’m strong enough to do that, but honestly, I don’t know if I could.’ Several aspects of pregnancy come across.

In the movie she gets pregnant with twins – how much like real life is that? ‘Well, that’s very real life. I loved it. The woman who wrote it had just gone through a pregnancy, so it was all very fresh in her mind. And it was very fresh for me – the twins were about a year old.’

Several aspects of pregnancy come across in the movie as funny, gross, horrendous, embarrassing. Were they aspects she related to? ‘All of it. I wanted to put as much in as we could that was real: the overeating, the burping. Why not? It’s funny too. Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you – it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.’

Jennifer did not have IVF herself. ‘A lot of people thought I did because I had twins, but what they don’t realise is that when you are over 35 the chance of twins increases, especially if they are in your family, and they are in mine. I was 37 when I got pregnant, so I had both factors going on.’ She knew she was having twins at seven weeks. ‘I didn’t believe I was pregnant, even though I had taken a pregnancy test. The plus sign didn’t look dark enough and I kept thinking that maybe it wasn’t a good test, so I called the doctor, who said I should come in and check. And then she said, “Oh, it looks like you’re having twins.” It was a big shock.’

But also a joy. Jennifer had been broody for years. Almost as soon as she got together with Marc (in 2004, a few months after the broken engagement with Affleck and after Marc’s separation from his first wife, former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres), she realised that their relationship was more bonded and grounded than previous affairs; they came from a similar place, both in touch with their Latin roots. The turbulence that had defined her love life with Affleck and Combs gave way to something else. She had already been married twice, first in 1997 to waiter Ojani Noa (an 11-month marriage that was eclipsed by her huge success with George Clooney in Out of Sight) and then in 2001 to dancer Cris Judd, whom she hoped would provide her with the mix of stability and edge she needed (they divorced in 2003, after Jennifer got involved with Affleck). But with Marc, she says, ‘it was the type of relationship that you dream about. You get to the point where you realise what’s real and what you are imagining to be there. It takes a lot of looking and getting past the disappointments.’ With Marc it seemed right to start a family.

How has she changed since becoming a mother? ‘I think it calms you down a little bit, even though you have less sleep. Everything is at hyper speed, which puts things into perspective: this is important, this is not important, this is something that can wait, this is something I need to take care of. You speed up your decision-making process and you prioritise in a different way.’ Jennifer redefined the way women think about their curves by never being afraid to display her tiny waist and wide, full derrière. She was used to having a dancer’s body – flexible, toned, sculpted. Losing that must have been difficult. ‘Yeah, I do remember distinctly when you don’t fit into your clothes any more. At first it’s cute when you have a little bump. You wear big sweaters. Then one day your jeans don’t fit and you think, oh no, it’s happening. I was on tour until I was six months pregnant, so I didn’t grow the way I would have if I had been sitting at home, but once I was just sitting around, that’s when I got really big.’ How long did it take her to get her body back afterwards? ‘A while, a year. Six months afterwards, I did the Nautica Malibu triathlon and I was still 16lb overweight. Over the next six months I got it back.’ Was there a strict regime? ‘No. I don’t get too crazy any more. There was a time when I really worked out, but I was never manic about it. I did what I could. I’ve got good genes. But I care less now.’

In the movie, her character Zoe craves junk food all the time. ‘I’m not a junk food person. I like food, though. And you do feel very hungry. Your body is asking for food. The baby is asking for food. It’s like a factory. That’s why I made the decision when I was eight months pregnant to do the triathlon after I had the babies. I wanted to know I was the same person as before I had them. I wanted to be that person more than ever for my babies. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted them to think, “I’ve got a special mum, she was amazing, look what she did!” I didn’t want to lose my ambition and drive to do amazing things.’

She always defined who she was by how hard she could work and how much she could love. How does she still work so hard and fit that in with the demands of motherhood? ‘I want to be the best at that too. I want to just do it all. When we travel we travel with the babies. I try to rehearse in the house. I’ve adjusted my life so that I can spend as much time with them there. I’m lucky to have that luxury so I’m going to use it to the fullest.’

Is she ready for another baby yet? ‘No. I think I just need to work right now. I do want another baby, because once you have one you realise what a blessing it is; what an amazing miracle and how much they enrich your life. But you still have to be an individual.’

Do the twins have a special connection? ‘They do. Max is always climbing out of his cot to get in Emme’s. But then they fight like cat and dog. And I’ve figured out the difference between men and women by seeing their innate characteristics. She is very careful, and you can see her thinking; men don’t think, they attack and deal with the consequences. We approach life and love in different ways.’

‘He is still that, and I’m the biggest challenge that he’s ever had to deal with, and that’s what keeps it interesting for us both. John Cassavetes [the director and actor] once said that he and Gena Rowlands battled their whole marriage. There was an intensity in their relationship. He said that in some ways they both knew that if the battle was over the.

Her own love life used to be like a roller coaster – enormous highs of passion with lows of betrayal. How does that translate into her relationship with Marc? Did she suddenly settle and find that stability suited her?

‘For all the stability we provide for each other, Marc and I are both artists. We both like intensity. We are both very passionate, and that still exists in our relationship. If we didn’t have that it would be boring. Too boring for me.’

She once told me that her perfect type of man was not a straightforward bad boy but a boy who was a perfect mixture of hard and soft. A little bit stubborn, a little bit of a challenge; you had to work to get to the sweet bit. Does Marc fit into that ideal? Is he still that? Hard and soft? relationship was over. They cared enough to battle.

‘People seem to think that when there’s conflict in a relationship it’s always a bad thing, but I think you need a challenge. The dynamic between us is passionate and that’s why it works. We are compatible, but at the same time we are different enough to make it interesting.’

I tell her that I’ve read a couple of stories recently that said they are different enough to be splitting up. Has she read those? ‘Of course. It doesn’t really matter to me. We know what’s true.’

Jennifer’s relationship with fame has completely changed since the early days. She used to think success equalled fame, which meant a constant accompaniment of paparazzi and tabloid fever. Then she realised artistic credibility came from getting on with it and headlines didn’t make a relationship work. But she’s used to controversy, to stories spiralling out of control, and seems pretty unflustered by it.

She hasn’t read the story about her first husband selling their wedding photos, she says (although there have been reports in the press that she’s suing him over it). ‘Somebody asked me about it recently but I didn’t see it. I’m not in touch with him at all.’ Is that your decision or his? ‘It’s just your life goes into different chapters. It’s like the first grade. You just get past it.’

What she doesn’t want to get past is the experience of love. All the different kinds of love she’s had – fierce, warm, treacherous; how to keep love going; how to stub it out if it’s bad. ‘I’m putting all that into a new album called Love?, because I still find love very confusing and challenging. I also feel it’s time to open up the dialogue about what that word ‘love’ means, what do people do in love? Should we have better standards in love, [agree that] it’s not OK to be dishonest, to cheat, or be pointlessly cruel?’

Isn’t it becoming more and more difficult to juggle children, acting, music? Does she feel she should decide to go in one direction?

‘Oh no, I’m not ready to do that.’ What about the crop of new girls that are storming the charts – does she feel threatened by them? ‘No, I love all the girls out there now – Beyoncé, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Pink – all of them. I don’t feel in competition with them. I just want to be me. And that’s always been good enough.’

Was reaching 40 last year a watershed birthday? ‘It was the best party of my life and the best year so far.’ So she doesn’t worry about body parts moving in the wrong direction? ‘Not yet.

Somebody told me 45 is when that stuff happens. So maybe I can hold on for a while.’ What she’s really holding on for at the moment is a small part on the hit TV show Glee. ‘I’d just like to do an appearance because I love the show so much. It’s one of my favourites.’ But as well as her new movie, her new album and her ambitions for television, her social life in Miami is pretty full-on. Her husband owns part of the Miami Dolphins American football team, and they are also soccer fans and friendly with the Beckhams. Victoria commented recently that they were the same dress size. Jennifer’s eyes widen in shock at this. ‘I don’t think I could fit into her dresses. She’s a tiny thing,’ she says. ‘But she could certainly fit into mine.’

 

Jennifer Lopez

 

Helen Mirren

There is no doubt about it. Helen Mirren has a simmering sexual presence. Hot and cold, withdrawn and flirty, disciplined and out of control. She tells me when we meet in her hotel suite she’s just eaten eight croissants. She says it as if she’s rather impressed with herself. She says it without guilt, but kind of licking her lips.

I’d just seen her in the children’s adventure movie Inkheart. It’s about what happens when you have the ability to make characters from books come to life. She plays an eccentric aunt who rides a motorcycle very fast. Lady Godiva hair swirling in the breeze. She says she took the part for that bike ride.

Was it hard to learn to ride it? She looked extremely comfortable on it. “Well I didn’t have to learn because I already had a motorbike when I was in my early twenties. So I thought I don’t care what else happens, I want to be on that motorbike again.” What happened to your own motorbike? “Mm, it was a bit of a disaster. I got it when I was in Stratford because I needed transport and I thought it would be cool, and also cheap, because I couldn’t afford a car. But it wasn’t cheap because you have to buy all the clothes.”

You imagine Mirren in her leathers. Striking. “The major problem was when you stop at a light you can’t balance, so you have to put one foot down and hold the bike up.” She stands up and straddles as if riding a bike to demonstrate. She’s wearing a cotton suit in milky beige and a white T-shirt. As she bends down the skirt stretches over her bottom and thigh. Extremely tight.

“I wasn’t strong enough, so every traffic light I would absolutely topple over. I had it for three or four months and thought, this is not working out. But on the movie set I could just go and stop and someone would hold up the bike. It was lovely.”

Since her Oscar she has worked steadily and variably, thus avoiding the Halle Berry curse of Oscar – everything you take on flops and your career backtracks. She was twice Tony nominated for plays on Broadway; for Turgenev’s A Month In The Country in 1995 and with Sir Ian McKellen in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death in 2002. Is now about to start filming The Tempest. Reconnected with her Russian roots doing Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station about Tolstoy’s last days with Christopher Plummer. And she’s been working with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (Officer And A Gentleman, and Oscar nominated Ray). Lots of zig-zagging the planet. I tell her I’ve just arrived from Los Angeles. She wants me to have a croissant. “Because when you’re jet lagged you feel entitled to absolutely anything, don’t you.”

She wants to know why I live in Los Angeles and London. She wants to ask me many questions. Not as an aversion technique as some interviewees enjoy rather than talking about themselves, but because she seems curious. engaged, alert, curious. “My husband’s film is called Love Ranch. It’s a brothel in Nevada in the Seventies,” she says with a glint, an ever so tiny glint, but nonetheless a perceptible glint of naughtiness in her eye.

Are you a madam? “Yes, of course. I’m not one of the old girls,” she laughs. Well you might be, I say, knowing very many people who would definitely pay to have sex with her. “Although they do it for a long time and funny enough the older prostitutes are the most popular.” Because they are experienced? “No, it’s because the guys think they are user friendly. They are comfortable with them so they don’t feel intimidated. And guys who go to brothels are obviously not the most successful guys in the world sexually, so that’s what they need. It’s all about not being intimidated,” she says managing to seem intimidating and inviting all at once.

I don’t think she was born this much of a sexual being. I think she earned it with confidence, with wit, with intelligence. You look at her face. It’s so animated. You see her feeling everything. Sure there are lines, but it’s not the lines you notice. It’s not the age, which is 63. You just think she’s hot and not hot for her age.

Was it fun to work with your husband? “It was lovely to go home at night and be with my husband,” she corrects. “Working with him I have to say was not easy. My husband in work mode is not the easiest of people, although a lot of people absolutely adore working with him. But because I have the emotional connection with him I would get upset if he was shouting, not at me, but at someone else demanding something. I would be seeing it from their point of view. I would find myself rushing around trying to mop up after him.” Then she backtracks and contradicts herself as she is prone to do. “But it was great. I love the fact that he got the film together and he created a wonderful role for me. But you know, husbands and wives don’t need to work together. We are professional people in our own worlds. There’s nothing I love more than going to my husband’s set and being his wife. But this, it mixes the roles up. It either gets too cosy, which is not a good thing, because it’s not very creative. Or it gets the opposite…” Which sounds like it was with you. “Yes. He didn’t make me cry, but he made me very cross.”

Perhaps the secret of their longevity was the fact they hadn’t worked together since 1986 when they met on the set of White Knights. Mirren once told me it was because they came together late, as fully formed people. They eventually married in the Scottish Highlands in December 1997. “We came to each other grown-up, professionally formed. I was in my late thirties and I just so aligned to him. We were generous to each other and loyal in terms of each other’s work.”

Before that she had intoxicating love affairs with photographer James Wedge, who liked to experiment with sexuality in his images, and actors Nicol Williamson and Liam Neeson. The latter told me how much he adored her because she taught him sophistication and how to eat prawns. There’s only a hint that she wasn’t always as well put together as she seems today.

She says she cries easily when it’s with pleasure. We both cried at the Inkheart movie’s happy ending. “I always cry at peculiar times. For example, I weep openly if I see a parade, or people marching down the middle of the road, especially if they’re dressed up in their best. I think it’s because they’re trying so hard. Spelling Bees make me cry. Marching bands with drums, I’m in bits. The Olympics made me cry.” She puzzles, “Isn’t that strange?”

What is also strange is the fact after the year that she collected her Emmy for playing Det.Supt. Jane Tennison in stripper shoes and a Marilyn dress, her Golden Globe and Oscar for her emotionally hemmed in performance of The Queen, is that she should want to follow it with a children’s movie and play an aunt who doesn’t really like children. Is that like her? Does she like children?

“I’ve never been hugely maternal, but I’ve always loved children as an aunt, a naughty aunt. I’m very happy to be able to give children back to their parents… Not that I’ve actually ever been alone with them.” She’s never wanted to have children of her own. She decided that when she saw a movie at convent school when she was about 13 of a woman giving birth. “Out of our whole class there must have been more than me who was traumatised by it. To this day it was horrific and it gave me an absolute horror of childbirth. We had no mention of sex in my school, even in biology. They just avoided that subject. So they herded us all together into a room with other girls the same age, and boys, and this dykey woman in tweeds and short grey hair said, ‘What you are about to see is a miracle’. And this film starts and it’s a midwives instructional film. There was no sound, just the camera going whirrrr, and words would come up at the bottom: Now prepare the rubber sheet. The lights came up at the end and every kid was white and sick and silent. The boys couldn’t look at the girls and the girls couldn’t look at the boys.”

So there it was, a pivotal moment in the young Helen’s life. She was destined never to be a mother and never to mind about it. I wonder if this adds to her particular kind of sexual omniverousness. I tell her that my boxing trainer, who used to be in the Army, used to have her picture as a pin up, as did several of his soldier mates. He said, ‘Everybody in the army fancied her. We all had posters up because the thing about her, even though she was older, she was never going to be your mum.’ She laughs fulsomely and then says, “But this must have been years ago?” Yes, but he still fancies you. “Oh, fabulous. And he’s absolutely right. I was never going to be anyone’s mum or grandmother. But you know I can dig that beautiful earth mother thing, feeding the masses. I’m thinking of Nigella Lawson. Does she have children?” She does. “Do you know what I mean. She’s sort of gorgeously fertile. I think that’s sexy.”

Mirren is looking at me in an intriguing and intrigued way. And I ask her, have you ever done girl on girl, had a lesbian thing? “I actually won my first Emmy for something called Losing Chase. Kyra Sedgwick and me fell in love with each other, and it was a lovely piece about women loving women.” Was it a stretch? “What, for me to love a woman? No, because I do love women. In my heart of hearts I love women more than I love men. I mean, sexuality aside, I am heterosexual.” Then she pauses to rewind. “I guess I’m heterosexual. I loved my friend that I had at college because there was a sense of camaraderie and physical closeness that doesn’t have to be sexual.”

I wonder, Mirren is quite a tease. In her last interview she talked about how much she liked to take cocaine at parties. Only stopped when she realised that Klaus Barbie was living off the proceeds of others who made their money from cocaine in South America. Then she told Piers Morgan in GQ that she’d been raped and never bothered to report it. I wonder why she’s now telling me she loves women, but telling me in such a naughty way. I tell her that I’m glad she loves women. “In general more than men.” But I was reading one of her interviews where she had requested that the interview be with a man because she gets on better with men. Was that true then? Did she change her mind?

“Well, it was a man who did the interview.” Perhaps he just wanted to believe that? “No, I think it’s more that I prefer male journalists because there’s a streak of female journalism – the bitches – I have no idea whether you are part of this particular movement. This bitchy mean-spirited and nasty because you are another woman and want to make you feel crap. It’s very upsetting. I must say I’m more careful when I’m being interviewed by a woman because I know from experience as well as reading articles with other women I know there is a little stiletto knife hidden behind the back.” She’s laughing as she’s sizing me up. But I think she’s right. On the whole women don’t like other women because women are more competitive with each other than men. It’s all about having the best shoes, the best boy, the smallest size of jeans.

She says, “If there was a rape case the courts in defence of a man would select as many women as they can for the jury because women go against women. Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, coming back billions of years, that sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know. But other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I would think of is that they were sexually jealous.”

We’ve gone from loving women to hating women in just a few seconds. But that only makes me like her more. And I reveal to her that I used to have a recurring dream that I was in a court explaining that I’d been raped and dykey woman of the jury were saying it was my fault. “Yes. That is terribly unfair. And that used to happen, didn’t it, in those days.” She says this with concern and perhaps even empathy. She’s said in the past that when she was forced to have sex against her will it was the lethal result of a combination of feminism, not wanting to be victim, and innocence of not knowing how not to be a victim. She has said that it wasn’t about just saying no because the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. When you see Mirren as vulnerable, it skews your judgement of her and you understand all those layers of confidence that have appeared over the years and how they could be torn away very quickly.

Did she learn to be more confrontational and direct with people? “No, I am not confrontational at all. I think I met a great guy and then I met another great guy, and had a series of fantastic relationships with nice men.” And that cured you from the bad boys who disrespected you? “Yes. Up until that point I was thinking that men were horrible, all horrible; they were boring, boorish, vulgar, they were unplesant, they were selfish and arrogant and prices. And then I met a guy who was funny and lovely to me and I loved him. That was Ken, my first boyfriend. I learnt from wonderful men, wonderful relationships. They gave me support and made me feel good and they made me laugh. And now I think men are absolutely great.”

Do you think your early experience of feeling so antipathetic towards men is that you didn’t know very many because you went to an all girls school? “Yes, absolutely. And the generation I grew up in. But I don’t blame it. But I was 18 years old, suddenly in London, and I’d never been out past 11 o’clock at night before. I never thought I will never have sex till I get married because I never wanted to get married. So sex was on the cards but I wanted it to be incredibly romantic. I decided it had to be snowing.” And was it? “No, of course not. It was probably a disgusting rainy night, but I can’t remember.”

Was it with some random boy? “Yes.” Did you ever see him again? “I don’t want to talk about that. Sorry.” Suddenly the air is thick with imaginary needles of pain. What did you learn from that experience? “I didn’t learn anything. I learn from the positive not from the negative, but I do believe in getting on with it, taking responsibility for yourself and not blaming other people is an incredibly important thing.” This is key to Mirren’s mystical sexuality. She can be vulnerable, but she’s never going to be the victim. That is extremely attractive.

“But I’m not particularly competent actually in terms of answering phone calls, getting things done. I put on a good game. So to people like you I look incredibly self-confident and on top of everything.” You mean you are acting? “Yes, kind of.” You are acting in this interview? “Kind of. Sometimes I blow it. I’m certainly incredibly vulnerable as far as my career is concerned. I’m full of self doubt.” But you’ve got an Oscar now. Surely that says don’t doubt it. “It doesn’t stop you getting up and having to do it again.”

Suddenly I notice her tattoo, a little naive star on her hand. She did it on impulse in an Indian reservation in Minnesota. “Many years ago. I just wanted the tattoo and I was a bit of a bohemian. I got it at a time when women did not have tattoos. Now girls are covered in them, like Amy Winehouse.”

The tattoo is not particularly pretty, but it’s a symbol of her going against the grain and a kind of fearlessness despite the self-doubt. A psychic once told heer she wouldn’t have success till her fifties, which absolutely devastated her at the time. She was born and brought up in Southend-on-Sea. She was the daughter of a taxi driver whose father had come as an emissary from Russia to buy arms during the Russo-Japanese War in 1917. He was unable to return home because the Bolshevik revolution had started. The Bolsheviks confiscated the family’s estate and he was to be forever separated from his seven sisters who remained in drastically reduced circumstances. Her Russian name that she was born with is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. She made an emotional pilgramage last year to the family’s old estate in Russia and the family Gzhatsk near the city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow, and she’s always had a passion for Russian roles. Her recent Tolstoy story being particularly resonant.

In the beginning of her career she felt marginalised by being blonde and big breasted. She felt dismissed. Perhaps that’s why she could play the frumpy queen and the tired Det. Supt. Tennison so comfortably. She knew she wasn’t just about that and she was confident of her own sexiness anyway, she didn’t a role to prop up her sexuality, although she played plenty of those sirens too. She’s been Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth and naked a slew of times, notably in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and then in Calendar Girls.

“As you get older naked stuff gets easier because it’s more to do with the role than what the men in the audience are thinking. There’s a liberation about it.

You imagine to be so confident about her body she is extremely attentive with workouts and healthy regimes. “No, I’m very lazy. I go through phases of exercising. You know, if you start getting puffy when you go upstairs I will force myself back into minimalistic exercise. I am a great believer in the Canadian Air Force exercises because they only take 15 minutes.”

How do you feel that the world loves you in your bikini? “I feel very lucky. I looked at those pictures and thought, ‘I wish I looked like that’ because I don’t look like that at all, they’d just been taken at a great angle. The next day I started exercising because I thought if I exercise maybe I’ll look like that.”

Have you ever felt the pressure to look a certain way for a part? “No, but I’ve done it to myself. I mean, actors are always on a diet. It’s lovely to get a great role. Then you think, oh, I’ve got to go on a diet. My whole life I’ve basically gone backwards and forwards the same 10lbs. I can wear clothes from 20 years ago. At my thinnest I’m a couple of pounds under nine stone, and at my fattest I’m a few pounds under ten stone. I’ve gone through many diets that are also very boring. You stop eating and that’s what makes you lose weight, not eating. But as you get older, losing weight doesn’t make your body look better, don’t you think.” I tell her I’ve never been a few pounds under weight, so I wouldn’t know. Then she tells me that I’m gorgeous. And then I say no, and then she says “Yes,” and then I’m embarrassed and change the subject to Russell Brand who is the latest younger boy to talk about how much he fancies her.

“I don’t know if I fancy him. I haven’t met him yet. I’ll decide when I do. Talent is sexy. I love that alertness. I think Frank Skinner has it, and Jonathan Ross and has it, and they are a little bit radical. I love those guys, and Russell Brand is definitely one of them.” So she concedes she might fancy him.

All the men that have been in her life have had one link. “They have all loved boxing. So through various men I have watched a lot of boxing. I do love the human drama of it.” When she’s not talking about working with Hackford she talks softly about him. She talks about building things, like their flat in New York, and like,. “The ruin we are renovating in Italy. It’s going to take up all of our spare time until we are too old and too poor to live in it… But it’s incredible fun.”

In Inkheart some of the characters who have escaped from books have the book written all over them. If she had to have a book written all over her, what would it be? “I would have verses from the Song of Solomon, which is so beautiful. I would want beautiful things written on me that people could read and go wow.” She beams mesmerisingly. As I get up to go she stops me and says, “And thank you for the view?” I blush, because I’ve just come back from LA I was jetlagged, couldn’t find any clean underwear so I didn’t wear any. I was wearing a tight skirt, I didn’t think she’d notice. But she did. “When you sat down and when you got up.” I think she’s a minx for making sure I knew she’d seen it. She laughs with a laugh that’s very naughty.

 

 

Emily Blunt

Glorious day Soho House LA. I’m sat on a balcony table when I see Emily Blunt approach. I greet her with a friendly hug, one of those I-know-you-because-you’re-so-familiar recognitions; that bitchy secretary in Devil Wears Prada; that spoilt rebellious girl with a girl crush in My Summer Of Love; the princess in Gulliver’s Travels; and more recently as Matt Damon’s star crossed lover in The Adjustment Bureau and her instantly recognisable chipper tones in Gnomeo and Juliet.
We both look at each other wondering why we just hugged each other. Strangely it didn’t feel empty. Blunt is in grey skinny jeans, a bashed up black T-shirt, bare faced but for mascara. She looks toned, lean, and like she’s just spent a few hours with Tracy Anderson’s DVD, but not her whole life.
She’s fully living in LA with her actor husband John Krasinski, the handsome one who was in the US version of The Office. “I love LA,” she says. “If you’re an actor you have these rather accelerated friendships with people you work with, so that stops it being a daunting alienating time. You can go into a restaurant and have that annoying acting thing of going ‘Oh I know you because of what I do’, so even if the initial hug has a certain flair of insincerity you are quickly able to strike up a conversation,” she says doing that penetrating, knowing stare for a millisecond.
“When I first came to LA I experienced the bloodbath of auditions. Summer Of Love had been made but not out. Weirdly, that’s the only film that I’ve done that I would recommend for people to see which is strange as I’ve got no clothes on for most of it, so it does seem strange to encourage people to see me barely dressed. You guys like girl on girl? I’ve got just the film,” she laughs, a pared down naughty laugh.
Her look may be LA but her manners are definitely self-deprecating English. Despite her award nominations for Prada, The Young Victoria and Gideon’s Daughter, she never takes anything for granted. “The job is very precarious. There’s an irrational insecurity that doesn’t go away. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’ve become casual about it.”
Indeed, Blunt is always on top of her game. She’d never cast herself as just the girlfriend or wife facilitating a leading man’s box office. She’s always gone for the strange, the clever, the neurotic. She’d rather take a small role and make it her own. “People like to label you but it’s important to mix it up and hopefully play other people that people like seeing you do. I still panic about work. You can usually find something, but you want to find something that makes your heart skip a beat. It’s not that I want to play weirdos, just people who have got some kind of conflict and a sense of purpose.”
Hence she is the feistiest Juliet ever in Gnomeo and Juliet, an animated 3D garden gnome version of the Shakespeare classic set to Elton John songs.
“You get Benny and the Jets, one of my all time favourite songs.” She starts singing “B-B-Benny and the Jets.”
“You have to be the worst over actor of all time to do animation. You don’t see anyone’s face apart from the director’s, so I would show up in my pyjamas.”
They made Juliet look a bit like her. “They filmed me and they copy your facial expressions. It’s awful when people make you aware of the ticks you have.
“They wanted to make me a tough Juliet. She’s not a victim. I made her more of a tomboy. I made her not too posh and accessible.”
And she’s a gnome with a chubby face, no waistline and no costume change for the whole movie, so no dieting for this role. I’ve read that she had to starve herself to play Vogue secretary in Prada. “I was 22 then so it was easier to keep weight off.She was supposed to be emaciated. She was starving, that’s why she was desperate.
“Things change when you hit 27 (28 on Feb 23). When I did Adjustment Bureau last year (where she played a ballet dancer) I had to be really thin again and it was hell. I also had to get ripped at the gym.”
She had to learn how to dance. “| lasted two days of ballet when I was four. I cried and said it hurt my feet. At the beginning there was some keenness to hire a dancer. I said to the director I think you need an actor to do it. He said if you work your arse off I’ll let you do it and literally my arse almost fell off. Six days a week I had eight weeks prep, I did two hours dance a day and an hour and a half in the gym. A strict diet, muesli in the morning, chicken salad, some fish and some sushi. It’s an endurance test to work like that, but these dancers are athletes, in order to play one you really have to live the life of an athlete. It was interesting to live the physical life of the character and there was an element of understanding her more. She was all about the work and strong. I did contemporary ballet and they are very strong and muscly.”
Did that make her feel powerful? “Yes,” she brightens, “I felt invigorated all the time. I definitely pulled muscles and threw things out and there’s a pain that comes with it when your muscles are just screaming because you’re so tired. Essentially you feel this robust energy going through you, which is a new feeling. I’ve always worked out, but not like that. Over Christmas I did a month of binge.” Certainly it doesn’t show. She puts that down to a couple of weeks of Bikram yoga. She orders fish taco and hummus.
“I love to cook and I love to eat. I make a great Thai green curry and a great roast chicken. I do it all the time, obsessively. It relaxes me and I get zen’d out. I go into a meditative state and I don’t want anyone helping me. My mother said trying to cook for four kids every day was just agony.”
Blunt grew up in Roehampton, south west London, the second eldest of four. Would she want four kids? “I don’t know. Probably not. It’s a lot isn’t it.” It wouldn’t surprise me though. There’s something very old-fashioned and capable about Blunt.
The Adjustment Bureau is part science-fiction thriller part romance based on a Philip K. Dick story. It’s about destiny and true love and can you change the course of it.
“Two people meet and they have an electric connection, as you do when you meet that person you feel you’re meant to be with. They meet and it’s instantaneous, they want to be with each other. They seem to have a secret language from the get go. Then comes the sci-fi element who are seen as big brother who can effectively manipulate people’s paths in life. Matt’s character finds out about this system and he wants to beat it to be with her, but the Adjustment Bureau are trying to keep them apart because the theory is she is enough for him. The relationship is fulfilling enough so he will not further his career and she won’t go on to do what she does and that will have a knock-on effect.”
Do you think it’s possible that if you are with someone that’s enough for you? “Yes, I think it is a possibility.”
Has she ever felt that, that she is in a relationship and not driven to do anything else? “Well, I am in a relationship that’s incredibly fulfilled and it’s just the best thing ever. I don’t think it makes me less driven, I think it makes me more confident on the drive.”
Does she mean it provides a core of stability from which she can flourish? “Absolutely, I think when you’re happy in a relationship it subconsciously gives you more than you realise.”
You wonder if it caused tension with her husband when she had to get passionate on film with Matt Damon? “It comes with the job. By that time Matt and I had become friends and I got to know his wife Lucy. I laughed the whole time because it’s so embarrassing to kiss somebody who is your friend. And there’s nothing sexy about it.”
Does she think that the premise of the movie is true, that there is such a thing as destiny? “I think you know very early on and I have always been a subscriber to fate. I look back on a number of things that have happened to me and wonder if what would have happened if something had directed me in a slightly different route. Would I have ever met this person? I am grateful for where these strange near misses have taken me.”
For instance had she never met Anne Hathaway she would never have introduced her to her husband? “Er, I don’t know where that came from.” I’ve read it many times. “It’s definitely not true. John didn’t know Annie when we first met.” So how did you and John meet? “I try never to talk about it. I feel I need to keep that for us.”
She falters when she says this because in many ways she’s a very open person. Perhaps it’s because she felt she said too much about Michael Bublé. They were together three years until July 2008 when they broke off suddenly. She even sang on his album Call Me Irresponsible and he wrote the love song Everything for her.
Does she think she’s ever going to sing again? “Probably not. In the shower maybe. ‘
She blushes at the mention of his name, ever so slightly. Is it a blush or is it just the sun? “He’s a good guy but I’m not in touch with him any more. It’s a weird thing bringing up exes. It’s weird when I’m married. It seems a long time ago.” Weirder than kissing Matt Damon? “Ha. It’s all weird. It’s a weird life for sure.”

Harrison Ford

You hear that Harrison Ford is not an easy man to be in a room with. Combative as an interviewee, defensive as a person, you read that he is pernickety, challenging, brusque, that he interrogates every question. He doesn’t want to give anything away. He holds a great weight inside of himself. That is part of his charisma.

I am in the beachy luxury of the old Spanish style hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, chosen no doubt because he lives nearby, to be in a room with him. It’s a shock. He’s more sexy in the flesh. His face more rugged and real. He smiles a crooked but welcoming smile. His black shirt skims a taut stomach. No paunchiness, lots of working out. Age will not wither him. His hair is thick and in a ruffled crop. I tell him how much better he looks than the night before when I saw him on TV at the Academy Awards.

“Less well dressed,” he offers in his low rasping almost gravel whisper. More handsome, better hair. “What was wrong with my hair last night?” he says bringing out Mr Defensive. “It’s the same. It’s freshly washed. Nothing different.” He’s so easily offended by a compliment. Suspicious of everything already, but in a charming way. There’s an eruption of uneasiness and gentleness at the same time. Something taut and controlled as well as something wild. That’s often what he brings to his heroic roles.

He’s most known as being the hero. That’s what he’s good at, mixing ordinariness, even haplessness, with luck and strength that comes out of nowhere. The winner against all odds. He’s not showy or glossy. He doesn’t package or sell himself. He once said empathy was not a talent but a disposition. All of the above may have combined to make him one of the best paid heroes of all time. His combined films have grossed over $1 billion and he is the only actor to have made over $100 million for each decade that he’s worked. And here he is, about to reprise his most famous hero, indefatigable archeologist Indiana Jones, the role that first moved him to the super league of actors in 1981. The trilogy has been one of the biggest grossing box office takes of all time.

He’s good at being a hero. He does it so effortlessly with such laconic restraint, better at being a hero or a president than a romancer. But of course he’s done all of those things. What’s it like for him to be reviving the devil in his eyes role of Indiana Jones, 27 years after his first raid. The man who was voted sexiest alive as a thirtysomething surely finds different challenges as a sixtysomething? He is now 65.

He looks at me with yellow grey eyes. They fix a stare, reminding me of the stare he fixed on Kelly McGillis in Witness where she played an Amish woman. He stared at her knowing she wasn’t supposed to be stared at and managed to make it overtly sexy. “I like your hair too,” he says, although you see the circles of his mind rhythmically turning as he’s thinking how to correctly answer how time passes yet a hero remains the same. You see him measuring the rhythm of his sentence in his head before he says it.

His staring makes me feel the silence with the same question, slightly different. Does he feel a different kind of hero? Does he feel different about doing all the intense physical stuff?

“No,” he says. “It was fun. I was never so interested in the heroic part of it. This guy is an extraordinary character with an active imagination that’s just involved in a chain of events where some elements twist into something else…” He seems to like the stress, the haplessness. Indiana Jones, like Harrison Ford, doesn’t like to take credit or blame. He likes to just do the job.

“We didn’t shoot it like a Matrix style where if you hit somebody they end up in this big space and you didn’t feel the hurt, you don’t feel the fear. I feel you very quickly lose emotional connection with the character if it’s like that. We are more old school. I feel as fit as I did 20 years ago. They have figured out new things in safety so myself and the stunt man can do more. For instance when you see a car and a bus converging and we are in the middle on a motorcycle we are on a thin wire with a special harness…” He goes on, and on. He worked with the stunt men not they instead of him.

Do you have a thrill of doing those things? “No,” he says, pause, “It’s just fun. There’s not a lot of CGI, it’s mostly done with real physicality, real sets, some things put to scale.”

You ride motorbikes anyway, don’t you? “Yes,” he says, distracted, not wanting to talk about his own macho moments. Or maybe just his own moments. “But I don’t drag through the stuff he does. The fun is figuring out how to do it safely and survivable, the things that are outside your normal range of experience.”

He uses the phrase a few times, “Outside of your experience” as if for him that’s the excitement of the journey, to be outside of himself, a release. You ask why, when he so obviously loves his Indiana Jones persona and to make these movies, did it take so long? The last film was 19 years ago. “We started talking about it 15 years ago and over that period of time three scripts have been produced. It took the three of us, George (Lucas), Steven (Spielberg) and I to commit to course and none of us was fully satisfied with what was produced and then we were all doing different things.”

He shrugs as if there was no tension in that disagreement, as if it’s perfectly normal to reprise a role two decades apart. Over the years there have been other heroes and villains. Most successfully, Air Force One, The Fugitive, Patriot Games. Most critically acclaimed Bladerunner. He can do comedy as long as he’s not being too funny; Working Girl. There was the uncomfortable romcom Six Days Seven Nights with Anne Heche and the miscast Sabrina. And the super scary What Lies Beneath – taut sex scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer.

He is never raunchy. Always intrepid but never with a sense of entitlement. He usually does decency better than devious, but he can manage that too. It has been said that it’s his ordinariness that is so winning. But there’s far too much tangible conflict going on inside him for me to buy into that.

He’s never made an independent movie. He once said, “I simply have no particular yearning to do the same work for less money.” He once referred to his audiences as “my customers”. He grew up in the nondescript suburb of Des Plaines, Chicago. He left with his new wife when he was 22 to come to Hollywood. He had a small contract as an actor which he had to supplement with other work, mostly as a carpenter. After struggle came super money and the expectation that now Indiana Jones IV will be the biggest money maker of the year. Bringing all the players back together was obviously a big deal. He is resolute not to be ruffled by that or explain the ways in which they all couldn’t agree. Or perhaps he just wants to enjoy the moment of being back on the ride, escaping disaster, being outside of his experience.

He seems to study how not to even move an eyebrow when he tells me about a stunt that almost went wrong, that involved driving a military vehicle through a wall that was rigged with explosives. “It was supposed to look like the car was causing the wall to fly through the air and that I was driving through it, but it came just a millisecond before I went through… And I looked down and right next to me on the seat there’s this big-assed box of explosives that had survived. If it had gone off it would have caused a stitchable.” He uses the term stitchables as in cut as shorthand as if he’s old friends with stitchables.

“I didn’t get hurt on this one at all. I’ve got war wounds but they are all athletic or stupid, not because of a heroic willingness to endure pain or take risks.”

His most defining scar is across his chin, a great gash which has never

been homogenised by any cosmetic surgeon. It came from driving into a telegraph pole which somehow makes it more real, a different kind of heroic. “It was stupid. I was on my way to work in the knick knack and oil painting department of Bullocks department store. I was on this twisty Laurel Canyon road when I realised I had my seat belt off. It was an old Volvo coupe. The seat belt was hung on a peg over your shoulder. As I was fumbling to get it off the peg I ran off the road, hit a kerb, went up on two wheels and crashed into a telephone pole. I got this from the steering wheel on my way through the windshield. That was not heroic, it was stupid. Heroes are people who rush into burning buildings, who throw themselves on a grenade, who save starving people, who selflessly devote themselves to others.”

He looks at me closing his mouth to a full pout as if to stress that’s not him. He’s not up to that job. You sense that this is a man who doesn’t want to disappoint. In fact his life has been propelled by a dread of that. Don’t build me up and I can’t let you down. ” I’ve never had lofty goals – I just do the best job I can..” he once said.

There’s an insecurity about him that pulls you in, that translates on screen to vulnerability inside toughness, like a thread that runs through his work; daredevil hero, conflicted president, brain damaged lawyer, frantic husband or thwarted lover. He doesn’t like to be seen to try too hard. His sentences and movements are all purposeful, sparse. There is a heaviness around him that may come over on screen as strength and solidity, but as he rocks awkwardly in his chair you wonder if it’s not damage. He’s sitting so far forward I can see the label inside his black shirt, Theory. Not middle aged Brooks Brothers or pretentious Prada, but middle youth Theory.

He seems to feel me thinking about his vulnerability. “If the person you play behaves heroically they also have to humility and vulnerability and be deep enough in the shit of it all to have to save themselves. That’s a character I prefer to play, a guy who’s in over his head, who survives because of his tenacity, or his wit, or his dumb luck. That’s more interesting.”

Tenacity is interesting. “I think it is.” Is that him? Is that how he is? He smiles a long slow smile. He said the word tenacity with a strange kind of pride, wilfully dismissing any other of his talents. “I certainly have tenacity and in enough force to measure out through not just the last 15 or so years but the apprenticeship before I made enough money before I was able to say I was a full-time actor.” I don’t know why he said 15 years when he’s been a full-time actor for 30, but he’s just lost track of time.

It was a long time before he could say he was a full-time actor. He approached it with hands-on hard work, no over intellectualised method acting. He’s not the kind of actor who acts from the head or does it as therapy. It’s a different set of instincts. More from the body and heart. He has been dismissive of acting as therapy in the past, the idea that playing someone else gives you the chance of getting some emotional exercise. “I am not an unbridled fan of therapy,” he once said. Of course he’s not because he doesn’t like to explain himself. He’s all about the withholding. He’s cancerian. Hard on the outside, delicate flesh on the in, but choosing carefully who he might want to know that. The last person he would choose would be himself. Nonetheless he is emotionally present, even if he doesn’t want you to think he is. He never drifts off. He is very much on, alert, astute, assessing every second. Extremely driven at all times, even if he’s not sure where he’s going.

His first marriage was perhaps the casualty of this drive, or perhaps he was just too young. He married Mary Marquadt in 1964, a cheerleader he met in high school. He had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in favour of pursuing the Hollywood dream, or at least his version of it, which seemed to be rather a domestic one. They had two children to support, Ben, now a renowned Los Angeleno chef, 40, and Willard, 37. After working at Bullocks he became a carpenter, a good carpenter who like a Hollywood fairytale was rediscovered as an actor when he was cabinet making for George Lucas. He put him first in American Graffiti then Star Wars, and that was the start of the accidental hero trajectory, the one that fits in so well on screen and so uncomfortably off.

There are many interviews in the past where he has said the biggest regret was the failure of his first marriage. But that was before the second one had failed also. He has commented, “Sometimes I think I have been a better actor than husband or father. I had to leave my family behind in order to make money for us to eat.” Mary Marquadt now suffers from MS and doesn’t believe that he was a bad husband. In a recent interview she talked about how Ford still more than provides for her financially. “Harrison has been a true friend and a great love. He has stood by me quietly asking for nothing in return through my darkest days.”

It is impossible to imagine that Ford was not conflicted if not tortured when both marriages fell apart. He met his second wife, ET screenwriter Melissa Mathison when she was an executive assistant on Apocalypse Now in 1979. They were married for 17 years. They have a son Malcolm, 21, and daughter, Georgia, 16. Much of the marriage was spent in Jackson, Wyoming. He rebuilt woodland and redirected trout streams. They watched eagles. He was labelled reclusive and quiet family man. He was out of the public eye and enjoyed that. The marriage floundered. There was a separation, a brief reunion and a divorce. The disruption of it must have been hard for him as this is a man who also talked about not liking his furniture to be moved even a few inches. He depends on what is solid.

Colin Farrell said recently if he wasn’t an actor he’d be a carpenter because he likes making things. Is there a link between building a character and an apprenticeship in carpentry? His eyes sparkle, he moves from a nervous hunched position in his chair to a welcoming open one. He likes this question. “I think so. I think it’s a way to organise your thinking around something, making something. It is gratifying to take a piece of lumber and make it into something else, knowing that you had this idea and made this idea manifest. It’s the same thing with acting, you take these disparate bits and put them together and make this character. It’s purpose built to serve the story, just like you build a piece of furniture for utility. It’s a practical mindset that many actors have, not all. But there’s a strain that runs all the way down from me to Olivier who had this similar sense. We all have to find our own way but it’s interesting when you discover that others have the same idea of it as a craft rather than some strange artistic process that is not available to any but the most gifted of us. It’s a hard slug sometimes. You have to know what you’re doing and why you are doing it and that you are in service to an idea, a conversation between you and the audience. It’s always about the story,” he says loving the idea that he is lost in something bigger than himself.

Has he ever ever not been able to find a way in, had actors block? “No. It’s always been fun for me. It used to be more difficult because I had less of a sense of how to work with people to gain the kind of confidence and understanding that allows you to help them.” In other words being an actor taught him how to be.

“You have to learn about people to make it work.” Were you naturally good with people growing up I say, guessing that he was cripplingly shy, awkward and self-contained. “No,” he says looking at me with the grey yellow staring eyes again, sometimes so wounded, sometimes so combative. He knows that I must have read he was bullied at school. That boys took him up to the top of the hill, beat him up, then rolled him down.

“I wasn’t very sociable. In fact one of the things that I found in acting was something I could do with people because I didn’t like competitive sports, teams, so there was nothing…” the voice trails. Does he mean acting was a way of dealing with people but not actually being yourself, but a self you could make available to other people. “Yeh, that’s part of it as well. But also something slightly different. I discovered I could scare the bejesus out of people, but my own knees were knocking. I couldn’t control my own emotions even when I was pretending, so it was a matter of self-discipline, doing something that at times scared me and then I found I actually loved working. I loved stories and this is my way to being part of a group of storytellers. I felt the power of the story, the power of literature, identifying elemental themes, the things that concern us all, then disguising it in a revelation of plot and characters, and then I thought, shit, this is it, this is the stuff of life, give me a piece of this,” he says beaming, twinkling, theatrical even, but affecting.

“I was working with a group of people and it was the first time I found a sense of community in my life, in a culture that I was part of.” His hands lay open on his jeans. His soul now seems open. That element of fear that he talks about and overcoming it, learning from it, is that what still drives him? “No.” He is comfortable in his pause. What is he afraid of tackling? “Nothing really. I enjoy the performing up until the point they ask me to sing,” he laughs. “I’m not interested in being scared any more. When you get scared you close up and it’s all about opening up,” he says as if I should know, opening up is what’s been hardest and scariest for him as opposed to knowing how to protect himself.

What about the notion that if you are afraid of something you should do it anyway, it’s good for you? “I don’t identify with those things,” he says sternly. He has a way of shrinking you instantly, making you feel bad for talking to him in T-shirt slogan psychology. He corrects, “I would fear going to war but I don’t have any reason for doing that. I would fear going into a fire, and I’m not going to do that.”

The silence becomes awkward again, filled with unasked questions and a rearranging of barriers. He wobbles about in his chair. It makes a noise – clack, clack, clack. His black shirt skims his body in an interesting way showing off his shape which is lithe and strong. He looks good not just for 65, but just good. He holds back his emotions in such an obvious way; anger, pain, self righteousness, and fear of being judged are all set out there in front of us. Now he is sitting in a squashed up position doing something strange and tense with his arm, almost pushing himself back on it. His eyes dart the room and then back to me. He’s looking at me to see what I’m looking at, perhaps testing if I am going to look away first. I don’t. He softens. “I’m not afraid of flying for instance because I’ve learned to fly and I was taught properly in stages. People think that my attraction to it might be for the thrill or I might be into things like that for the speed or the thrill. I’m not so crazy about that. What I’m interested in is understanding what the risks are, mitigating them by having the required skills, practising those skills, planning the event and knowing where the danger is.” Pretty much his reasoning for dangerous acting, working with the stuntman, not CGI.

Does he feel afraid when other people are flying the plane? “Oh,” he smiles, “I far prefer to fly myself. I’m not afraid but I’m a do it yourself kind of guy.” He is a cocktail of insecurity and fearlessness. You imagine that he was reared with emotional low maintenance. That must have taken its toll and left gaps that will go forever unnurtured. Does he still have his ranch? I imagined him there tromping through the woods, through the mountains in conversation with only himself.

“I have what they refer to as a ranch. I have a piece of land in Jackson, Wyoming, that is largely forest rather than cleared for pasture. It’s full of wildlife and streams and the like. It’s on the Snake River and it’s much the same as it was 150 years ago,” he says dreamily. “It’s in the mountains and it’s…” His voice stops. Do you spend much time there? “I don’t now because I have a seven year old in first grade, so we are nailed to the school schedule and she is doing a series in television that is very successful, so she has to be here.”

The she is Calista Flockhart, his girlfriend since meeting at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards. He had never seen an episode of Ally McBeal. The neurotic lawyer and her pin thinness had made her extremely famous. Much was made of the fact she was 22 years younger, although she looks more womanly now. They have been together six years and though the barbs may have softened against them, you feel that they’ll forever be scratching in his head. People didn’t seem to accept them as a couple. It wasn’t what they would have imagined, but a few years prior to Calista, people were shocked to find Ford drinking tequila slammers, he was pictured in nightclubs or strip joints and once was even said to have a woman’s bra on his head. Perhaps it was because people had him down as boringly trustworthy, a grafter, not a player.

Wasn’t that the real time of terror? Wasn’t it frightening to change his life by stepping into a new relationship? “No. It’s exciting exploring new relationships. I had been out of the relationship business for a couple of years when we met, except for relationships with my kids that is. I hadn’t had a serious relationship…” There’s a pause as if he might be thinking of a different way to put that. “As an actor I’ve always taken risks. I open myself up to possibilities.” Those possibilities came after a long phase of being out on the town. Suddenly here he was in public, a man who had always loved anonymity. There were reports of flings with Minnie Driver and Lara Flynn Boyle, who inspired the phrase ‘lollypop lady’ because her head was too big for her tiny body. He inherited her from Jack Nicholson and seemed to be enjoying releasing his inner Jack on the world. Isn’t that the time that people refer to as his mid-life crisis I ask.

“I don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. I went out more since there was no reason to stay at home. Not a big deal. I think they were looking for some new development to introduce into the Harrison Ford story, so they went for that and the appearance of an earring was enough for them to generate the whole mid-life crisis thing.” Yes, indeed reams were written about the small and black glittering thing that still sits in his ear.

He could have got a tattoo or something like that? “No I couldn’t because then I wouldn’t be able to be buried in the Jewish cemetery.” But he is not Jewish. “I’m half Jewish. My mother. And that’s the half that makes you Jewish. But I don’t want a tattoo anyway. The earring came after I had lunch with a couple of buddies – Jimmy Buffet, the singer, and Ed Bradley, the guy from 60 Minutes. Both had earrings, pirates the both of them.” he likes that word pirate. He smiles conspiratorially as he says it. “I walked away from lunch saying you know what, I’m going to get my ears pierced, just to piss people off. And I went down to the first jewellery store on Madison Avenue that offered to punch a hole in your ear for the price of an earring and suddenly I had one.” I admire its glitteringness. “It doesn’t much matter to me, but I liked it a little bit that people say wait a second, what’s going on. Although I don’t go out of my way to get people to comment,” he says, and stops, realising he has contradicted himself saying he loves attention, he hates it. He loves the woods, he likes the parties. He particularly liked the idea that such a tiny thing could orchestrate huge hysteria.

I tell him I like the idea that someone who embraces a riven masculinity could introduce something to his persona that’s a little feminine and a little camp. He looks uncomfortable, pauses, laughs, first of all nervously, and then wickedly as he says. “I think I was introducing the naughty.” And here we see what is perhaps the most natural Harrison Ford, the playful. Who would Indiana Jones be if he were not playful. He continues, “Those two buggers were genuine pirates. They were brilliant. Ed had to wear a suit to work and he had this big assed earring and you weren’t supposed to do that if you were on 60 Minutes. That’s what I liked. It was a little tiny case of being a rebel.” Was that new for him to rebel? “Oh no. I think I always had the rebel, I just didn’t have the earring.”

If you had a superpower what would it be? “I would love to be invisible.” Yeh, of course you would. We laugh. “Yeh, that’s problematic, isn’t it.” You wonder about the premier action hero, one of the biggest grossing actors of all time and his desire to be invisible. I’m sure the real Ford has been concealed, buried, mutated within Indiana Jones and all the others – all the brave ones. Perhaps that’s where he went to be invisible. “Perhaps,” he says. By now though he’s not looking tortured or stiff. He’s funny and easy to be in the room with. “Don’t you think it would be great to have that super power? I wouldn’t use it just to sneak into changing rooms. I would be able to observe human nature without being observed.” Would he sneak into changing rooms as well? He laughs. “I don’t know if my earring would be invisible.” We imagine the little dot swooping around the changing room and women trying to swat him like a fly. “I’d like to fly too. Everyone has flying dreams. They are the most spectacular. Have you seen those guys who wear squirrel suits. It’s a suit that has a web here,” he points to under his arms and between his legs. “They jump off mountains. I would never do that. I like having engines.”

The conversation has wound itself back to engines and action and I turn it back into something more interior. When he’s in a relationship does he like to observe but not really known himself, I ask? “It looks like we are running out of time,” he says deadpan. The publicist has been in and out several times now to end it. But he has been enjoying himself he says. Two more questions, I say, one simple, one less. “Let’s start with the less simple one,” he says, consciously unpredictable.

When you are in a relationship do you prefer to be the person who loves most or is loved most? He rocks back in his chair thinking. “I don’t know if it ever works quite that way because the ambition is for it to be equal. That’s the thing that keeps you in it.” But it’s never equal. He doesn’t disagree, continues thinking. Not tensely or avoiding the question, but wanting to give the right answer. “I think there is only one appropriate answer and that is to be the person who loves the most. That gives you the greatest potential to be loved.” Some people define themselves by their capacity to feel. Some people by their need to receive. “Yes, but I don’t think I could make it either way if it was just that for a length of time, although I understand both emotional positions and I think I have been there in both of them. I don’t fall in love easily but when I do, by God, I both have the need and expectation for it to be equal. Now can I have the easy one please?”

What characteristics of your parents have you inherited? “My father’s work ethic and my mother’s insecurities. My father is Irish and my mother is Jewish. The only thing that held the family together is that they were both Democrats, so I was raised Democrat.” His eyes twinkle when remembering his parents.jm

“It was a great upbringing.” Challenging perhaps? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says looking at me, giving me one final quizzical look, making those words seem real and not a cliche. It’s as if he wants me to wonder what it was that didn’t kill him, or maybe he’s just looking at my hair. I’m not sure if goodbye is going to be a smile or a handshake but it turns out to be a hug, a firm all embracing one. I feel a tingling going up and down my entire body. When I leave the room I realise I have blushed from the inside out. Whatever he’s learned, whatever he’s lost, whatever he closes or opens, you felt a real person in that hug, not necessarily one that always wants to be invisible.

Denzel Washington

The first 20 minutes of Flight are possibly the most adrenalin spiked 20 minutes in film. We see Denzel Washington wake up in his crumpled hotel room. We see the gorgeous naked woman he’s just spent the night with. He gets up. We see his body a little too soft, a little too juicy. His hair a little too long, a little too springy. Then we see him take a line of cocaine.

This little scene is not shocking in itself. It is shocking because it is Denzel Washington. We don’t see him do sex and drugs and rock and roll. We see him as political martyr Malcolm X, freedom fighter Steve Biko, the Zen-like boxer Ruben Carter in Hurricane. We see him saving the train in Pelham 123 and the beyond ruthless CIA agent turned traitor in Safe House.

He’s played the good, the bad, the conflicted, but it’s a long time since we’ve seen him get out of bed naked. Then comes a further jolt. We see him put on his pilot’s uniform, and that his girlfriend is the flight attendant.

We see them board the plane. We see weather, turbulence. We see him down the vodka just before the plane’s hydraulic system fails.

We see him turn the plane upside down and fly it. You watch it heart in throat. It’s Denzel Washington, he’s the hero, he’s going to survive. Right?

Then it becomes clear that’s not the story. It’s not about him being a hero, it’s about an act of God that wrecked the plane and changed his life forever. It’s about love, truth, redemption. Stories that Denzel knows how to tell best and weave them into your heart and soul.

When we meet in a Beverly Hills hotel room he’s looking bright eyed, sparkling eyed even. His skin is fresh and he’s lean and strong in a navy sweater and dark jeans. His smile lights up the room as it does the screen.

He is sitting in an oversized overstuffed armchair with a high back. ‘I feel like I’m sitting on a throne here.’ He is king after all. ‘No I’m not,’ he retorts quickly but purposefully. ‘I just like the chair. It’s a kind of Richard III thing.’

These days he’s all about Shakespeare and the theatre. In 2010 he did the play Fences on Broadway with Viola Davis. He started off as a stage actor in New York. That going back to his roots revitalised him.

‘It did. You know as we mature – well hopefully mature – as we get older, hopefully we get wiser and you start to realise how many shots do I have left? And the experience of working with Viola on Broadway was such a thrill. Watching her I realised I’m fighting for my life out there with this brilliant actress. The whole process is where I am in my life right now. It reawakened me. I felt alive again and I said I want to apply that same work ethic to every job in terms of preparation, investigation, everything. I’d said to myself I want to work hard and I want to do things the right way and I want to have the feeling that this is not just another gig.’

For Washington, now 57, there have been many gigs that seem from the outside not just another gig. His performances are consistently acclaimed. He is box office nectar. He has had multiple Oscar nominations and won twice, first Best Supporting Actor in the Civil War drama Glory in 1989 and then in 2001 for Training Day, where he played narcotics detective Alonso Harris who breaks the law he is supposed to enforce.

He is drawn to ambiguous characters, bad guys who are vulnerable and vice versa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a bad performance or a bad review. There has never been a bad period or a lull. He has kept on form. Recent movies Unstoppable and Safe House, have been box office thrillers.

The movies would have been good on their own. It was Washington who made them viable. You never see him acting. He is always effortless, considered, magnetic. Or that’s how he comes over.

On the inside perhaps he felt complacent. ‘No matter how big a movie is, I never want it to be just another gig. I don’t want that. Don’t want to know.’

He savours words and he looks right at you. He misses no detail. Not even a smell goes unchecked. He notices that I’m wearing the same perfume, Carnal Flower, as the last time we met a couple of years ago.

Perhaps his recent questioning of how many shots was highlighted by the shock suicide in August of his friend Tony Scott, director of Crimson Tide, Man On Fire, Déjà Vu, Pelham 123 and Unstoppable.

‘I made five movies with him. I talked to him about a week before he died about our sixth movie. He wanted to do a film where I played a submarine captain driving a submarine filled with narcotics. We were talking about it.’

Were there any clues as to his state of mind? ‘No.’ He shakes his head emphatically. His eyes flash with a kind of urgency to recall everything exactly.

‘First of all I’ve never been in a situation like this where you start to backtrack. You think what they said to you. You think what you said. And then a week later they kill themselves. You might think it was something that I did. You know what I mean, you don’t know, you don’t see it coming. I don’t know what was going on in his life.’

He was depressed? ‘Something. Obviously.’

Shortly after the news there were some reports that he had cancer that was terminal and these were quickly denied. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to anyone who said that he was ill.’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘The Scott brothers,’ he says, almost like it’s a prayer. It is certainly said with reverence and bewilderment.

He says of the Tony Scott submarine project. ‘I wouldn’t touch it now. Not without him.’ Next up he has a film 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg. ‘We were just acting stupid basically. It’s the first time I’ve ever acted stupid. We’ll see what happens.’

People don’t expect him to act stupid. They expect gravitas. ‘Exactly. Choosing parts after a great play like Fences and then to do such a dark guy like in Safe House, you just want to do something silly.’ Washington has never wanted to be pinned down as one thing. He dislikes boxes and labels.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, who was by all accounts feisty and formidable, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided, with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. For a while he hung out with a bad crowd.

His mother sent him away to boarding school where he rebelled further but turned himself around in order to go to college to study medicine. Then he changed to political science. Then law and finally he found that he was good at acting and that’s what he stuck with.

Not that he wanted to recommend the profession to his daughter who is studying at NYU. She did a small part in her first film (with Precious director Lee Daniels) in the summer. He looks protective when he talks about her.

Is it exciting or worrying for him to see her going into the acting profession? ‘It’s interesting. In her senior year at high school she was working on her audition and LaTanya Richardson, who is Sam Jackson’s wife and a brilliant actress in her own right, was working with her, and I said, “Alright Olivia, I want to see your two pieces” and she went on the floor and went all dramatic and she said, “Oh dad.” And I said, “Come on now. Nobody’s going to be tougher than me. I’m going to tell you the truth because I’d rather you’d be a little hurt if you don’t have what it takes than have a lifetime of pain.”

‘She did the two pieces and right away I said do them again. She did them again and I said, “OK. Here’s the bad news. This is one of the toughest profession’s you’re ever going to try to do. The bad news is you are very good. You are very good and you have what it takes. I can see that already.” I would never have said that if I hadn’t meant it. I put on my director’s hat and watch a young actor audition. And she was good.’ He says it almost wishing it had been easier.

He directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) and is preparing to direct again. ‘I don’t know exactly what it is yet. It’s not set and I don’t want to jinx it.’

As an actor he intellectualises his role way ahead of time. Flight director Robert Zemeckis says, ‘He arrived very prepared.’

For Safe House he wanted to experience the torture of water boarding in real life. “I wanted to see what it would be like. It’s strange. You can’t breathe in, because the water comes in, and it’s filling up your mouth,” said Washington. “And that was just one time for a short time. Imagine having that done for 20, 30 seconds? You will give up the answers! You may not necessarily tell the truth, but you will tell [your captors] whatever they want to hear.”

So how did he prepare to be an alcoholic pilot? I gesture to the hotel suite minibar. ‘Did he check in and drink the minibar? ‘No, nothing like that. In fact I did absolutely not drink the entire picture. Normally I might have a glass of wine after work or something like that. But on this one I was afraid I might get too into it, and I just wanted to be clear. I want to give 100 per cent of myself and I want to be focused.’

How foolish of me to think that to get into the part of a man who loves to drink would involve some method drinking. ‘Nothing would have been worse than drinking on the set. And then you might think you were good and you’d be awful.’

Instead he went into the flight simulator. Listened to pilots talking. Didn’t ask them questions about drinking but typed “worse drunks of all time’ into YouTube and looked at the guys telling themselves they were absolutely fine as they fell over.

He gained weight for the part so the puffiness would look like it was bloating from alcohol. ‘I ate a lot. I ate what I wanted and I ate late at night. I would come home from work. I didn’t over eat. But if I wanted a hamburger and fries and shake and a piece of apple pie with ice cream on it I had it.’

And he’d normally eat like that once a week? ‘Less. But I knew this was a man who drank and did drugs. He’s not going to be going to the gym and he’s going to be not sleeping enough.

‘In the opening scene, in the bed I wanted my gut to be hanging out. I wanted to get up and my behind be sticking out when I was sniffing coke, smoking cigarettes and drinking. You’ve got to go there because that’s who he is. There’s no cute version.’

We see Washington playing a man in conflict impeccably. He is both a hero and a man on self-destruct. We haven’t seen Washington quite like that before. His eyes light up. ‘Great. I hope people say we haven’t seen Denzel like that.’ Once again delighted that neither he nor his character has been pinned down.

‘I don’t categorise. People want to put you in things. He is a complicated man. It’s a complicated movie. You can’t just stand on one side or the other.’

Talking to Washington happens on many levels too. He is chatty, he is jokey, he is relaxed, but he too is complicated. He doesn’t go to Hollywood premieres. You never see him in the gossip columns. He’s been married to his wife Pauletta for 29 years and 17 years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. He doesn’t talk much about his wife although he never specifically says he’s not going to talk about her. In all he has four children, John David, Katia, and twins Olivia and Malcolm.

Flight is also a love story, and again we haven’t seen Washington in one of those for a while. The scenes between his character Whip Whitaker and Kelly Reilly’s character Nicole are intensely tender, intensely troubled. It’s another level to the movie that makes it not just another gig. I’ve rarely seen him so vulnerable.

‘Really?’ His eyes open wide. ‘I didn’t think about it as vulnerable. I’m playing the part, so I’m not thinking oh, I’m going to be vulnerable.’ Washington often refers to the fact that he wasn’t thinking, that he’s done something instinctively. Yet on another level he is thinking all the time, always on.

‘I do have one regret. I should have slobbered more and been more pathetic in the scene where he curses her. Maybe I did do it that way and Bob didn’t use it.’

He can’t remember how he played the part because he was so lost in it. You wonder how far apart these characters are. Washington so sparkly, so handsome, so professional. And a man unravelling in his own self-destruction and alcoholism.

Has he ever had an addictive personality? ‘I’m still here! I think we all have some point in our lives where we’ve gone too far and you have to come back. Any time you’ve got into a car and you’ve had too much to drink and you put other people’s lives at risk. I’m not going to tell you I’ve not been guilty of that in my life, especially in my youth. Obviously nothing like this guy, I wouldn’t want to be that guy.’

Flight questions how alcoholics survive by telling lies. There is a moment where if his character tells one more lie it would save him and doom him in equal parts. If he lies he gets away with it.

Has Washington ever had a situation like that where he had to decide if he should lie? ‘Nothing to this level. More like if I lied to my mum I might not get told off. I do remember when I was a little kid I stayed out way too late and it’s probably why I started acting. I knew I was going to get a whipping when I got home.

‘I stopped outside the door of the house and I could hear my mother and father in the kitchen so I actually ripped my shirt, put spit under my eyes, messed up my hair. I was already messed up because I’d been out most of the night. But I came in…’

He puts on a fake sobbing tone. ‘And I went through a whole business (of how he’d been attacked) and my mother said “You see, that’s what you get for staying out late. Now go in to the bathroom and clean yourself up and come in and sit down and eat.” And I remember looking into the mirror and thinking, “Ha, maybe I should try this again.” Maybe while I was in there my mum was thinking “That little knuckle head thinking he was fooling us.” I don’t know, but yes, I got away with it.
And fortunately for us, Washington is still getting away with it.

Everything Denzel Washington says is said with incredible force, warmth, and he savours every word. He is in his suite at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. I arrive as room service leaves. He perches over his lunch of a giant juicy steak. He’s just cut a chunk. It’s hovering on the end of his fork just about to go into his mouth and he decides to inhale me instead.

“What are you smelling of? You smell like a lei, Hawaiian flowers, the one beginning with a g.” He opens his mouth and his nostrils at the same time. Shoves the piece of steak in and chews heartily. “Mm, it’s the g flower, the gardenia one. Isn’t it?,” he says excitedly.

“It’s called Carnal Flowers,” I tell him.

“Carnal flowers,” he says, salivating and cutting off another piece of steak. He’s very excited. And his excitement is somehow infectious. He likes to play around. He likes to joke, even though of course he takes his craft ultra seriously with an absolute eye for the minutest detail. And I wonder if the overt smelling was a reference to the movie Deja Vu where smelling is an intricate part. If you smell something it’s a trigger, it can take you back. If you smell something you feel it, you’re in the real world, you’ve not slipped down a wormhole as he does in the movie.

Deja Vu is a murder mystery, an understated romance, the ultimate surveillance that involves time travel. “I don’t know where I got that smelling thing from. I think I just did it and Tony Scott said yeh, do that some more.”

In the movie it was as if he needed to smell to feel he was real. “It’s about using all the senses, not relying on what you see, what you hear, what you smell and ultimately what you feel”

You get the impression that Denzel Washington has the hugest capacity to feel. Everything he does is filled with a raw and deep emotion, even just chewing his steak. The ultimate guy’s guy that is also super sensitive. Tall, sharp, funny. The overriding sense you get from him is that he is super protective – of himself, if you go in too far too deep too soon he doesn’t like that. Of his family, particularly his daughters. Of his co-star Paula Patton in Deja Vu. His whole protectiveness elevates the story from one of a simple thriller to something that is personal, intimate, something that really matters. He is even protective of me. The last time we met I was almost passing out with pain (stomach cramps). He was more like a doctor than an actor in that interview. You tell him these things and he doesn’t like compliments. I tell him that he came over as such a force of shiny protection. “Well I did not think I was shiny and protective. Thankyou, but that’s not how I see myself. Maybe I could have played that part in a different way, like a dirty twisted old man. Maybe that’s a different movie. Maybe it was just that Tony made a really good choice in Paula because she’s a real sweet person and that comes across. You want to protect her. Me, protective person? Hm. Yeh, yeh, yeh. All this as I eat my steak. Well you know it’s coming up to Thanksgiving. Get turkey for the next five days. Got to get my steak in now.”

He likes to present a thin facade of machismo. Wrap himself up in it, but he knows it’s easily unravelled. Even when he played the brutal narcotics detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day there was something wounded about him. That’s what makes Denzel a great actor. You don’t feel for him, you feel with him. As Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter the boxer wrongly accused of murder in The Hurricane his sweet stoicism made you cry and got him an Oscar nod. This kind of emoting the audience first became apparent when he inhabited the role of Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom in 1987. A whole slew of films Man On Fire, Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man have all demonstrated Washington’s capacity for toughness with an undercurrent of vulnerability. He is complex and instantly accessible, was once called “so handsome he should be illegal” and he is of course deliciously handsome. And here he is right in front of me smelling me, if somewhat ostentatiously, just because he knows it will amuse me. He knows how to get right to you. He knows how to carry you along.

In Deja Vu you are left contemplating the universe and every relationship you’ve ever had. Deja Vu is in itself a bonding phenomenon. Everyone’s had that flash that you meet someone new and feel you’ve known them all your life, feel inexplicably in love with a stranger. In the movie flipping back in time is possible, and that’s how deja vu is defined, that you have been there before. It raises the question, if you could do it all again could you, would you. In real life deja vu is a trick of the mind, is it a dream. In the movie it involves an extreme form of surveillance where you look at something and as you’re looking at it you can travel in time. It involves the highly complex notion of the parallel universe and slipping down wormholes into alternative dimensions where the same thing is going on but just a little earlier. If you have the power to slip into that dimension do you have the power to change it.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Washington wags his finger.
The movie’s convolutedness and complex science are made tangible by Washington’s very fleshy, sensuous performance. He’s an ATF (Tobacco and Firearms Agent), he’s an everyman. You figure it out with him. He’s good at taking you on journeys.

I tell him, ‘You must have had deja vu moments with a string of interviewers asking you what is your favourite deja vu moment?’ “Aha, ha, ha. I usually turn it on its ear and ask them the question back.”

Typical Washington, he’s always more interested in asking the questions. He has an insatiable curiosity as well as a liking to duck and dive.

“Scientists talk about how we use only ten per cent of our brain. What is the other 90 per cent doing? That’s where the intuition, the feelings, the deja vus, all that stuff. It goes there. I think as we advance our interactive skills, our information skills, our brain is getting weaker and weaker because it doesn’t imagine. Like your mother would tell you a story and you would imagine all the characters. If you listen to the radio or read a book you make the movie in your head. Now it’s all given to you on a plate. You have a television with 500 channels. The muscles in the brain are getting weaker.

“Maybe deja vu is some sort of intuition. You feel you know this person well. It’s as if you’ve met them before but you’ve just intuited who they are.”

I tell him I’ve always thought his powers of intuition have been strong. “What do you mean?” He’s almost shrieking, offended. I feel you intuit a part, a person, you’re always looking for different angles, always asking questions, curious, it’s like you’re switched on the whole time.

“Ah,” he says. “I think I’ve worked on developing that muscle. One spiritual journey develops that muscle. I’ve gone through the eastern philosophies, Christianity, Buddhism, Swamis, and back to Christianity and Islam. Just searching. I mean Siddharta by Herman Hesse is my favourite book because he was walking the earth, praying, searching. I kind of had that vibe and curiosity. It leads you to your own philosophy, like working on what that 90 per cent of your brain is doing.

“Is it OK to be a searcher and a carnivore?” he says. Maybe he isn’t sure of how the extremely spiritual side of him fits with the grounded, the basic. And maybe that’s the key to him. It’s a key that he doesn’t want me to find. He hates being analysed. “We don’t understand oxygen but we keep breathing.

“I think if this movie is about anything it’s about if you could change anything would you. Doing this movie shows me that I would not want to do that because of the domino effect. If you changed one thing how would you change another.”

It’s not that Denzel Washington had a charmed life that makes him think he would not want to change anything, but there’s a determination about him and a stoicism that makes him work hard for what he wants and a spiritual side that makes him accept what he doesn’t get. He’s not your typical movie star. He doesn’t love glamour or bling. I’ve read that his wife had to persuade him to upgrade his car into something a little fancy at a time when he could have gone plushy luxury. Recently a friend of mine was in her local video shop. Browsing among the shelves she found a random man and asked him to recommend something. They were out of his first recommendation The Da Vinci Code so he went with Inside Man and when she got it home she realised that the man recommending it was the star of the movie. So there’s a Hollywood rarity, he goes to the video shop himself.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class mostly white suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and as a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, a formidable figure, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. He was a keyboardist in a band with three friends who all ended up serving time. It was one of those fork in the road moments. His mother, upon the recommendation of a school’s career officer, who felt he was intelligent and had a chance of a career, sent him away to boarding school where he found a group of bad boys who could afford to buy drugs. He’d never touched a drug or drink before that. Despite the potential bad influence he did well, went to college to study medicine, then changed to political science, then he thought he might be a lawyer, and then he found he could act and potentially be all of the above, or at least have the experience of feeling what it would be like to be them.

I wonder if he is most like his devout preacher father who hardly ever watched a movie, or his tough love mother. “Similar? You might have to ask my mother that. He’s gone,” he says in a whisper. His father died 15 years ago. “I wouldn’t dare say.” Back in Denzel boom he says, “Closer to, that’s different to similar to, isn’t it. I would say that the mother is the one that is there so you are always going to be closer to your mother. My own children are probably closer to my wife. They have spent more time with her. She knows them better. That’s the way it is in most homes.”

His oldest boy John David is 22 and a football player with the St. Louis Rams. Katia has just turned 19 and Malcolm and Olivia are 15-year old twins. “Maybe it’s chauvinistic, sexist, but I don’t worry about my son the football player. He’s out of the house, he can take care of himself. But with my oldest daughter, she’s away at college but she came home for the holidays. I couldn’t sleep, it was two in the morning, I was going down the corridor. Was her car there, was she in her room? If she’s at college I know she’s staying out late but I don’t think about it. When she came home it seemed to pick up right where she left off. But yeh, I would say that my parents were protective and controlling when they needed to be. And of course I’m a protective parent.”

He’s also a protective partner. It’s been said before that he doesn’t easily do love scenes and never would want to show them to the public before his wife of 25 years Pauletta could see even a kiss first. Twelve years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu and then a gathering at Nelson Mandela’s house. He says that stories about his unwillingness to take his shirt off have certainly been exaggerated. In Deja Vu though the romance is all the more powerful for being underplayed.

“I think it’s sexier that way. We could have been jumping on the mattress every ten minutes, but that wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t even scripted that I kissed her, I just did it and that was enough. I mean, my character has just saved her life a few hours ago, I think it’s much more romantic and more interesting to be about what you don’t do. I love a big part of this film was a love story in reverse. My character meets her when she’s dead and he tries to treat her like just a piece of evidence, the body, but as things unfold he gets the chance to watch her live and be with her watching her for days.”

Do you think watching somebody is about protecting or controlling? “Oh, I think there’s a thin line, but in the film he’s not controlling because he has no idea he can actually do anything about it.”

What makes his character and Denzel himself have an extra edge of charisma is that there is always the potential for darkness as well as sweetness. This is the third time he has worked with director Tony Scott and when he cast him as the former FBI agent who liked to get maudlin at the bottom of a bottle in Man On Fire he said that he thought Denzel had a dark and obsessive side.

“Dark, obsessive, sweet, protective? I don’t work with any of that. I’m neither. I’m me. I do a job, I interpret a role. I think we all are those things at the same time and I don’t think, ooh, let me access the sweet now. It’s not like I’ve got 12 different things I can do and I’ve got to work off one. There’s several of them going on now in this interview. I am sensitive, intuitive, there’s a dark obsessive side, and a carnivore. That’s trying to pin me down. Mm, carnal flowers, that’s who I am. No, if I were a perfume it wouldn’t have a title, I wouldn’t name it anything.”

What would it smell of? What note would it have? “Minor chords,” he nods. “Minor chords.” he still plays music, “but not enough. I’ve been listening to this girl Ayo and she has a song that she sings about her father and how she did not understand the sacrifices he made when she was growing up. With the song she apologises for the hard times she gave him. It doesn’t specifically make me think of my father, although he did make sacrifices, it makes me think more of my daughters. But I just liked the song because I like bluesy darker songs. First you think it’s about one thing and then it becomes about something else.”

The movie Deja Vu was shot in New Orleans, the first movie to be shot there since Hurricane Katrina. “I was here in LA for the Northridge earthquake. I know the feeling of destruction, of a place being just empty and a whole community traumatised. Where is everybody? Everybody’s gone. Empty houses and cars stuck up trees. Tony had initially felt the movie would work there so obviously I said let’s get back there. We spent tens of millions of dollars, hired local people, stayed in hotels, so it was good to be a small part of giving something back.”

You imagine him being driven by wanting to be good yet he has never been active in politics, never wanted to define himself as any kind of role model. Have you ever considered getting politically involved. “No,” he says insistently. “I vote, I pay taxes. One has to realise one’s limitations. I don’t just want to do things because I’m famous.” He is however committed to an involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I do support other things but I stick with that one because I’m like, hey, let me get one thing right. We’ve gone from 2.2 million to 5.7 million children that we take care of around the world, from 2,000 clubs to 45,000 clubs.”

He says that a boys club helped shape and guide him in his childhood. He may say he’s not political but if he can do something he does. Next up is the movie American Gangster directed by Ridley Scott. It’s set in Vietnam and it’s about a drug lord smuggling heroin into Harlem in the 1970s by hiding stash in the coffins of American soldiers returning from the conflict. He’s still suffering a bit of jet lag from filming in Thailand but says he doesn’t want to talk about that movie. He doesn’t want to talk about his next directing project. “I just want to get it done before I chit chat too much about it. I want to make sure it happens before I talk about it.” His first directing project was Antwone Fisher which dealt with a boy’s physical abuse. It was well received but not an enormous box office success. “I thought be careful what you ask for. Before it happened I was terrified, couldn’t sleep, had to see a chiropractor. I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever done. Once it started I really enjoyed it. It’s all about jumping into the water and having faith.”

Are you scared about anything else outside work? “Did I say I was scared of anything?” OK, sorry, what excites you then? “My children. That’s much more exciting than going to work. Watching them grow, finding out what they’re all doing. But you know Paula Patton reminded me of what being scared and excited in this business really meant. I’ve made a few films, been in the business a while, some thirty something red carpets, when you meet someone for whom it’s all new you realise how fortunate you are to be in this position where you are actually jaded. It was also a good reminder that fear is good. A healthy scare is good.”

He may not like to be analysed. He loves to analyse other people. He wonders what it would be like if he had to play me in a movie. I ask him would he do that? “With love and tenderness. Get in contact with my feminine side. I wouldn’t even worry about finding out about you the journalist. I would like to find out about the you inside, the you that you left behind. I’d want to get the smell right. I don’t think guys care about smell. We have two smells, good and mm, I don’t know. You were asking me what were you feeling what were you thinking. A man does not want to think that much.” This man may say he doesn’t think very much, but he thinks very intensely all the time.

Everything Denzel Washington says is said with incredible force, warmth, and he savours every word. He is in his suite at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. I arrive as room service leaves. He perches over his lunch of a giant juicy steak. He’s just cut a chunk. It’s hovering on the end of his fork just about to go into his mouth and he decides to inhale me instead.

“What are you smelling of? You smell like a lei, Hawaiian flowers, the one beginning with a g.” He opens his mouth and his nostrils at the same time. Shoves the piece of steak in and chews heartily. “Mm, it’s the g flower, the gardenia one. Isn’t it?,” he says excitedly.

“It’s called Carnal Flowers,” I tell him.

“Carnal flowers,” he says, salivating and cutting off another piece of steak. He’s very excited. And his excitement is somehow infectious. He likes to play around. He likes to joke, even though of course he takes his craft ultra seriously with an absolute eye for the minutest detail. And I wonder if the overt smelling was a reference to the movie Deja Vu where smelling is an intricate part. If you smell something it’s a trigger, it can take you back. If you smell something you feel it, you’re in the real world, you’ve not slipped down a wormhole as he does in the movie.

Deja Vu is a murder mystery, an understated romance, the ultimate surveillance that involves time travel. “I don’t know where I got that smelling thing from. I think I just did it and Tony Scott said yeh, do that some more.”

In the movie it was as if he needed to smell to feel he was real. “It’s about using all the senses, not relying on what you see, what you hear, what you smell and ultimately what you feel.

You get the impression that Denzel Washington has the hugest capacity to feel. Everything he does is filled with a raw and deep emotion, even just chewing his steak. The ultimate guy’s guy that is also super sensitive. Tall, sharp, funny. The overriding sense you get from him is that he is super protective – of himself, if you go in too far too deep too soon he doesn’t like that. Of his family, particularly his daughters. Of his co-star Paula Patton in Deja Vu. His whole protectiveness elevates the story from one of a simple thriller to something that is personal, intimate, something that really matters. He is even protective of me. The last time we met I was almost passing out with pain (stomach cramps). He was more like a doctor than an actor in that interview. You tell him these things and he doesn’t like compliments. I tell him that he came over as such a force of shiny protection. “Well I did not think I was shiny and protective. Thankyou, but that’s not how I see myself. Maybe I could have played that part in a different way, like a dirty twisted old man. Maybe that’s a different movie. Maybe it was just that Tony made a really good choice in Paula because she’s a real sweet person and that comes across. You want to protect her. Me, protective person? Hm. Yeh, yeh, yeh. All this as I eat my steak. Well you know it’s coming up to Thanksgiving. Get turkey for the next five days. Got to get my steak in now.”

He likes to present a thin facade of machismo. Wrap himself up in it, but he knows it’s easily unravelled. Even when he played the brutal narcotics detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day there was something wounded about him. That’s what makes Denzel a great actor. You don’t feel for him, you feel with him. As Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter the boxer wrongly accused of murder in The Hurricane his sweet stoicism made you cry and got him an Oscar nod. This kind of emoting the audience first became apparent when he inhabited the role of Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom in 1987. A whole slew of films Man On Fire, Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man have all demonstrated Washington’s capacity for toughness with an undercurrent of vulnerability. He is complex and instantly accessible, was once called “so handsome he should be illegal” and he is of course deliciously handsome. And here he is right in front of me smelling me, if somewhat ostentatiously, just because he knows it will amuse me. He knows how to get right to you. He knows how to carry you along.

In Deja Vu you are left contemplating the universe and every relationship you’ve ever had. Deja Vu is in itself a bonding phenomenon. Everyone’s had that flash that you meet someone new and feel you’ve known them all your life, feel inexplicably in love with a stranger. In the movie flipping back in time is possible, and that’s how deja vu is defined, that you have been there before. It raises the question, if you could do it all again could you, would you. In real life deja vu is a trick of the mind, is it a dream. In the movie it involves an extreme form of surveillance where you look at something and as you’re looking at it you can travel in time. It involves the highly complex notion of the parallel universe and slipping down wormholes into alternative dimensions where the same thing is going on but just a little earlier. If you have the power to slip into that dimension do you have the power to change it.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Washington wags his finger.

The movie’s convolutedness and complex science are made tangible by Washington’s very fleshy, sensuous performance. He’s an ATF (Tobacco and Firearms Agent), he’s an everyman. You figure it out with him. He’s good at taking you on journeys.

I tell him, ‘You must have had deja vu moments with a string of interviewers asking you what is your favourite deja vu moment?’ “Aha, ha, ha. I usually turn it on its ear and ask them the question back.”

Typical Washington, he’s always more interested in asking the questions. He has an insatiable curiosity as well as a liking to duck and dive.

“Scientists talk about how we use only ten per cent of our brain. What is the other 90 per cent doing? That’s where the intuition, the feelings, the deja vus, all that stuff. It goes there. I think as we advance our interactive skills, our information skills, our brain is getting weaker and weaker because it doesn’t imagine. Like your mother would tell you a story and you would imagine all the characters. If you listen to the radio or read a book you make the movie in your head. Now it’s all given to you on a plate. You have a television with 500 channels. The muscles in the brain are getting weaker.

“Maybe deja vu is some sort of intuition. You feel you know this person well. It’s as if you’ve met them before but you’ve just intuited who they are.”

I tell him I’ve always thought his powers of intuition have been strong. “What do you mean?” He’s almost shrieking, offended. I feel you intuit a part, a person, you’re always looking for different angles, always asking questions, curious, it’s like you’re switched on the whole time.

“Ah,” he says. “I think I’ve worked on developing that muscle. One spiritual journey develops that muscle. I’ve gone through the eastern philosophies, Christianity, Buddhism, Swamis, and back to Christianity and Islam. Just searching. I mean Siddharta by Herman Hesse is my favourite book because he was walking the earth, praying, searching. I kind of had that vibe and curiosity. It leads you to your own philosophy, like working on what that 90 per cent of your brain is doing.

“Is it OK to be a searcher and a carnivore?” he says. Maybe he isn’t sure of how the extremely spiritual side of him fits with the grounded, the basic. And maybe that’s the key to him. It’s a key that he doesn’t want me to find. He hates being analysed. “We don’t understand oxygen but we keep breathing.

“I think if this movie is about anything it’s about if you could change anything would you. Doing this movie shows me that I would not want to do that because of the domino effect. If you changed one thing how would you change another.”

It’s not that Denzel Washington had a charmed life that makes him think he would not want to change anything, but there’s a determination about him and a stoicism that makes him work hard for what he wants and a spiritual side that makes him accept what he doesn’t get. He’s not your typical movie star. He doesn’t love glamour or bling. I’ve read that his wife had to persuade him to upgrade his car into something a little fancy at a time when he could have gone plushy luxury. Recently a friend of mine was in her local video shop. Browsing among the shelves she found a random man and asked him to recommend something. They were out of his first recommendation The Da Vinci Code so he went with Inside Man and when she got it home she realised that the man recommending it was the star of the movie. So there’s a Hollywood rarity, he goes to the video shop himself.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class mostly white suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and as a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, a formidable figure, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. He was a keyboardist in a band with three friends who all ended up serving time. It was one of those fork in the road moments. His mother, upon the recommendation of a school’s career officer, who felt he was intelligent and had a chance of a career, sent him away to boarding school where he found a group of bad boys who could afford to buy drugs. He’d never touched a drug or drink before that. Despite the potential bad influence he did well, went to college to study medicine, then changed to political science, then he thought he might be a lawyer, and then he found he could act and potentially be all of the above, or at least have the experience of feeling what it would be like to be them.

I wonder if he is most like his devout preacher father who hardly ever watched a movie, or his tough love mother. “Similar? You might have to ask my mother that. He’s gone,” he says in a whisper. His father died 15 years ago. “I wouldn’t dare say.” Back in Denzel boom he says, “Closer to, that’s different to similar to, isn’t it. I would say that the mother is the one that is there so you are always going to be closer to your mother. My own children are probably closer to my wife. They have spent more time with her. She knows them better. That’s the way it is in most homes.”

His oldest boy John David is 22 and a football player with the St. Louis Rams. Katia has just turned 19 and Malcolm and Olivia are 15-year old twins. “Maybe it’s chauvinistic, sexist, but I don’t worry about my son the football player. He’s out of the house, he can take care of himself. But with my oldest daughter, she’s away at college but she came home for the holidays. I couldn’t sleep, it was two in the morning, I was going down the corridor. Was her car there, was she in her room? If she’s at college I know she’s staying out late but I don’t think about it. When she came home it seemed to pick up right where she left off. But yeh, I would say that my parents were protective and controlling when they needed to be. And of course I’m a protective parent.”

He’s also a protective partner. It’s been said before that he doesn’t easily do love scenes and never would want to show them to the public before his wife of 25 years Pauletta could see even a kiss first. Twelve years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu and then a gathering at Nelson Mandela’s house. He says that stories about his unwillingness to take his shirt off have certainly been exaggerated. In Deja Vu though the romance is all the more powerful for being underplayed.

“I think it’s sexier that way. We could have been jumping on the mattress every ten minutes, but that wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t even scripted that I kissed her, I just did it and that was enough. I mean, my character has just saved her life a few hours ago, I think it’s much more romantic and more interesting to be about what you don’t do. I love a big part of this film was a love story in reverse. My character meets her when she’s dead and he tries to treat her like just a piece of evidence, the body, but as things unfold he gets the chance to watch her live and be with her watching her for days.”

Do you think watching somebody is about protecting or controlling? “Oh, I think there’s a thin line, but in the film he’s not controlling because he has no idea he can actually do anything about it.”

What makes his character and Denzel himself have an extra edge of charisma is that there is always the potential for darkness as well as sweetness. This is the third time he has worked with director Tony Scott and when he cast him as the former FBI agent who liked to get maudlin at the bottom of a bottle in Man On Fire he said that he thought Denzel had a dark and obsessive side.

“Dark, obsessive, sweet, protective? I don’t work with any of that. I’m neither. I’m me. I do a job, I interpret a role. I think we all are those things at the same time and I don’t think, ooh, let me access the sweet now. It’s not like I’ve got 12 different things I can do and I’ve got to work off one. There’s several of them going on now in this interview. I am sensitive, intuitive, there’s a dark obsessive side, and a carnivore. That’s trying to pin me down. Mm, carnal flowers, that’s who I am. No, if I were a perfume it wouldn’t have a title, I wouldn’t name it anything.”

What would it smell of? What note would it have? “Minor chords,” he nods. “Minor chords.” he still plays music, “but not enough. I’ve been listening to this girl Ayo and she has a song that she sings about her father and how she did not understand the sacrifices he made when she was growing up. With the song she apologises for the hard times she gave him. It doesn’t specifically make me think of my father, although he did make sacrifices, it makes me think more of my daughters. But I just liked the song because I like bluesy darker songs. First you think it’s about one thing and then it becomes about something else.”

The movie Deja Vu was shot in New Orleans, the first movie to be shot there since Hurricane Katrina. “I was here in LA for the Northridge earthquake. I know the feeling of destruction, of a place being just empty and a whole community traumatised. Where is everybody? Everybody’s gone. Empty houses and cars stuck up trees. Tony had initially felt the movie would work there so obviously I said let’s get back there. We spent tens of millions of dollars, hired local people, stayed in hotels, so it was good to be a small part of giving something back.”

You imagine him being driven by wanting to be good yet he has never been active in politics, never wanted to define himself as any kind of role model. Have you ever considered getting politically involved. “No,” he says insistently. “I vote, I pay taxes. One has to realise one’s limitations. I don’t just want to do things because I’m famous.” He is however committed to an involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I do support other things but I stick with that one because I’m like, hey, let me get one thing right. We’ve gone from 2.2 million to 5.7 million children that we take care of around the world, from 2,000 clubs to 45,000 clubs.”

He says that a boys club helped shape and guide him in his childhood. He may say he’s not political but if he can do something he does. Next up is the movie American Gangster directed by Ridley Scott. It’s set in Vietnam and it’s about a drug lord smuggling heroin into Harlem in the 1970s by hiding stash in the coffins of American soldiers returning from the conflict. He’s still suffering a bit of jet lag from filming in Thailand but says he doesn’t want to talk about that movie. He doesn’t want to talk about his next directing project. “I just want to get it done before I chit chat too much about it. I want to make sure it happens before I talk about it.” His first directing project was Antwone Fisher which dealt with a boy’s physical abuse. It was well received but not an enormous box office success. “I thought be careful what you ask for. Before it happened I was terrified, couldn’t sleep, had to see a chiropractor. I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever done. Once it started I really enjoyed it. It’s all about jumping into the water and having faith.”

Are you scared about anything else outside work? “Did I say I was scared of anything?” OK, sorry, what excites you then? “My children. That’s much more exciting than going to work. Watching them grow, finding out what they’re all doing. But you know Paula Patton reminded me of what being scared and excited in this business really meant. I’ve made a few films, been in the business a while, some thirty something red carpets, when you meet someone for whom it’s all new you realise how fortunate you are to be in this position where you are actually jaded. It was also a good reminder that fear is good. A healthy scare is good.”

He may not like to be analysed. He loves to analyse other people. He wonders what it would be like if he had to play me in a movie. I ask him would he do that? “With love and tenderness. Get in contact with my feminine side. I wouldn’t even worry about finding out about you the journalist. I would like to find out about the you inside, the you that you left behind. I’d want to get the smell right. I don’t think guys care about smell. We have two smells, good and mm, I don’t know. You were asking me what were you feeling what were you thinking. A man does not want to think that much.” This man may say he doesn’t think very much, but he thinks very intensely all the time.

Joanna Lumley (May, 2016)

It’s almost like a scene from AbFab. As I enter the Soho Hotel room where I am to interview Joanna Lumley I see her precariously hanging out – whole torso out – of the second storey window. Her hand wafting a cigarette into the crisp London air. “Darling you don’t mind, do you?” She’s smoking in a no smoking zone. But she has to, she just has to.
Then it’s a warm cashmerey hug hello. She looks ravishingly good. The big expressive eyes, the trademark platinum blonde hair although it’s not in a Patsy beehive. The beehive for the upcoming AbFab movie was in fact a wig. “Darling, my hair wouldn’t have been able to take it.” She’s wearing a pale grey wrap, dark trousers, trainers.
The real life Lumley is understated and effortless but the lines between the actress and the character of Patsy do blur. Lumley likes to drink Bolly, just not quite as much as Patsy. The cigarette is never far away. “I know, it’s ghastly isn’t it?” she says in that distinctive velvet purr. Are they the same person? She laughs her deep chortle. “Well, not quite but I own her; she’s mine. I’m not her but she’s mine,” she says with immense pride. Does she give her the excuse never to give up smoking? “I don’t need one,” she says drily. It’s getting harder and harder to get the whole torso out of the window and try to smoke secretly. “It feels like I’m back at school. Why did you give up,” she says accusingly. I tell her I was coughing all the time and people said ‘you should give up’. She nods. “How unpleasant. I’m married to a smoker and that helps. Because if you smoke at home and your other half smokes, you’re as happy as hell smoking. I don’t think I’d smoke if Stevie didn’t smoke.” Stephen Barlow is her conductor husband of 30 years. They smoke in the house? “Oh sure darling, it’s compulsory.”
Just sitting with her for a few minutes makes me feel I can’t wait for AbFab The Movie. “Working on it was terrific. People say to me ‘will it be the same? Will it have lost its AbFab flavour?’ I don’t think so. The five of us are all in the centre of it. Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawhla, Jane Horrocks, Julia Whitfield.” The five Js – that’s what she likes to call them. “And the old favourites who pitched in over the years like former Spice Girl Emma Bunton and Lulu are in it again.” Lulu is usually mocked. “Very much so, absolutely. She’s one of the Edina’s clients – and she does nothing for them – so she and Emma Bunton are pretty resentful. It’s really quite good. Instead of getting a half hour episode you just get it much bigger.” Her eyes seem to pop with excitement, not much else moves in her face. I’d been given a gift from a beauty PR liquid botox that you don’t have to inject called Fillerina, I wondered if she’d be a bit embarrassed to receive it. “Darling, bring it on! Where is it?” she says.
AbFab The Movie has been in the works for years. What does she think made it suddenly go ahead? “Dawn French made a deal that if she [Jennifer Saunders] hadn’t done it by Christmas, she’d have to pay her £10,000, so she wrote a treatment and the film was green lit in the spring of last year and we were filming it in October in London and the south of France.” I’ve heard that Edina and Patsy disgrace themselves at a party and have to leave the country they are being pursued by the police and run to the South of France. She nods. They have run to the South of France because they’re being pursued by the police. “They’re also completely skint as Edina’s client list has certainly not been expanding.” She’s only left with Emma Bunton and Lulu? She nods. “They’re divine. The reason they are such stalwarts is that both of them have appeared in many episodes and always in the humiliating position of being treated badly or being forgotten about. We’ve also got the glorious Kate Moss in the movie. She was divine and charming and very good.
“A bit of a smoker It’s so funny to be in a film where you smoke and nobody is saying ‘actually, I’m not sure the character should be smoking’. They smoke and that’s all there is to it.” I’d heard that Patsy had modernised to an ecigarette. “No. The talk of vaping comes into it at some stage. Patsy doesn’t vape, obviously. Nor does Kate Moss.” What about drinking? “Plenty of that darling. They basically have drunk the place dry. They’ve run out of Bolly. Do you remember where Edina had a little kind of bowling alley where the champagne bottles were just drop back and it was always full. Well, it’s all gone. So times are very tight when you get to that. I adore Bolly. I think a glass of champagne is hard to resist. And a cocktail is always nice. Martini or margarita – always exciting.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Patsy eating. “She had a crisp once and jolly well nearly choked. And one Christmas episode she decided to have a bit of turkey and was taken off in an ambulance because she’s had most of her organs removed so eating is not an option. She gets all her sustenance from the drugs and the drinks she consumes. She is a cartoon character. She would be long dead if she were alive.”
I think one of the reasons we love Patsy is because we all know someone who she could have been based on. Did she base her on anyone in particular? “No, I made her up or rather she was a character waiting to be uncovered. So many people say ‘my mother is Patsy’, ‘I’m Patsy’, ‘my aunt is Patsy’. To a certain extent maybe there is Patsy in all of us but hopefully not too much because she’s pretty ruthless.”
I’ve also read that the real Lumley rarely eats meals and prefers a crisp or a nut. “No. I didn’t actually say that. I said at cocktails parties I like to eat the crisps and nuts because I don’t eat the smoked salmon because I am a vegetarian. It was all taken out of context and it went pretty crazy. I had to fight a rear-guard action from people saying ‘what a criminal thing to say to young people “live off crisps”.’” She shakes her head gravely. “I can’t imagine Patsy cooking but I can cook. I was never taught to bake and I have a savoury rather than a sweet palate but I would like to learn how to make cheese straws. I could live off cheese straws along with the margaritas and the champagne,” she jokes. “I don’t follow recipes very closely but I can cook. I’m a rather basic cook, not a chef.” She may say she’s basic at cooking but her achievements are actually extraordinary.
Lumley is known as a woman who gets things done whether it’s aid, to her beloved Gurkhas or building a garden bridge across the Thames and, of late, she’s made many documentaries with diverse subjects such as Elvis, the Trans-Siberian Express and Catwoman (The History of the Cat) and Saving Orangutans. “I don’t think I always get things done. I think I always fight to get things done, they don’t always end up happening.” Now she’s doing that very British thing of downplaying her achievements.
“To put a soberer spin on it I am fighting for things like compassionate world farming, fighting for a better life for farm animals. You don’t get it done easily, you do it inch by inch. You get their cages made a little bit bigger. It’s never accomplished but you keep on fighting and the Gurkhas was something I was proud to be involved in but it wasn’t really me, it was a team of us. My father was a Gurkha (she was born in Kashmir, British India) and my whole young life was,” she searches for the word, “Gurkharised.” They were a family and the idea of your family being so badly treated by a government, successive governments, was something I had to fight for. A wrong was righted.” She fought for the British government to pay their “debt of honour” to Gurkhas who had fought for Britain. Those who had retired before 1997 were awarded the right of settlement in the UK.
I like the campaigning Lumley, she underplays it. There’s no fuss, no extravagance but a very solid core of a woman who does indeed get things done. And just when I am thinking how very unPatsy she is she says, “Darling this present sounds extraordinary. You put this stuff on your lips and it makes them plump? What a kind person. It’s not a needle? It’s like squeezing an icing tube. Oh my darling, it’s going to be my next Christmas present to everybody. Fillerina, oh!”
Whatever she’s had done or will have done to her face, there is no way she will ever look 70 (in May). “How did it happen? 70? Life just gets quicker and quicker. The other day I wrote a cheque and I put 06. That was not a slip of the pen but a slip of the brain. I skipped a whole decade. The word 70 on paper looks so not what I feel I am. Although there’s something rather thrilling. We don’t any of us know what 70 is anymore.” Is 70 the new 50? “I think everything now is the ‘new something’ compared to our grandmothers. At school I thought teachers who were 42 had to be helped onto a bus. Patsy stopped ageing at 39, that’s what she admits to but she’s clearly more like 93. But I have always longed to be older than I am. I don’t know why.”
When she was 18 she wanted to be 30, when she was 10 she wanted to be 18. And now? “I always felt that there is a goal that I am getting towards. An Olympic flame would be there. I always thought that it would gradually get better and I would get nearer to the heat, as it were. And to a certain extent that’s proven to be true. I mean, I’ve never worked as much and as hard as I am now on so many projects.” She has made over a dozen documentaries and is involved with 70 charities. And she’s directing a short film.
“I’m interested in poetry and the film is going to be called Poetry Off The Page. If you think how things like War and Peace which was a book made into a film, this is a film made from a poem. I want to do it in a kind of way where you learn a bit about the poet and understand where it would be set. The actor I’m working with is Dominic West. Not too bad, eh? His gorgeous velvety brown voice is reading the poems. Mesmeric. So a lot of stuff is happening.
This was not always the case. “In the early days where I would think ‘I can’t get a job’ – that was difficult. Those days ended with The Avengers.” The Avengers were in the mid- to late-Seventies, the era defined by a haircut called the Purdy named after her character in the show. A generation of woman tried to emulate this sculpted bob. “The two characters for which people kindly remember me have both had distinctive hairstyles which defined them.” She is indeed remembered for the Purdy and the Patsy.
The Avengers did indeed change everything. Pre-Avengers were panicky times. She was a model/actress and a single mum of son Jamie. The relationship with his father had ended. She married the writer Jeremy Lloyd in 1970, it lasted only a few months. “I was pretty strapped for cash. Counting the pennies before I would go to the supermarket. I knew I was rich when I could afford to buy cheese and didn’t look at how much it would cost, I’d just take it and put it in the basket. I love cheese and when I could only buy a small piece of the most basic cheddar and suddenly I could buy any cheese I wanted, I felt rich.”
At the point that she was buying the very small piece of cheddar, did she ever starve herself to get jobs? “No, but you had to watch what you ate. I worked a lot as a model. I wasn’t a top model but I was in the top 10 and used all the time and in that time I only knew one anorexic girl who recovered because a man said ‘I love you but I can’t marry you if you’re as thin as this, if you get a little fatter, I’ll marry you’, isn’t that divine? When you look back at pictures of those days, most of us were long and slender but not very very thin. There’s an effort to be much thinner now and the girls are miles taller.”
She doesn’t complain about any of it but in her twenties there was a point where she had a panic attack. She was acting in a play and couldn’t go on stage. “It was pre-Purdy and it was very hard times. The stress of everything got to me. I was double, treble anxious about everything and that little thin wire which you always think you can keep going just snapped. It was awful.” It never happened again? “No, but it made me realise we all have frailties in us. It helped me get to know when such things might happen again. That way  I could prevent them or evade them rather than march into them. It’s what comes from being older now. When you’re young and you’re having a tough time, you’re struggling with ‘will I make it as an actress? Will I ever be able to feed my boy enough food? Will I get enough money to buy him more shoes?’ and all those anxieties about being a parent. These anxieties are quite often about logistics, if you’re kept late at rehearsal who’ll pick him up from school? Or who will feed the cats? If you feel you are failing them or that you are forever on edge about how you will accomplish what has to be done, it can gnaw away at you. But it all came good.”
Jamie Lumley is a photographer living in Scotland, married to a writer and they have two daughters. “He’s at the very top of Scotland and I adore going there. Even if you are walking across a moor, you never feel alone and I love the Scottish people. I am three quarters Scottish, one eighth English and one eighth Danish.” People seem to respond to the Viking in her – her blonde charisma and the force in which she gets things done.
She also used hypnosis to get over the feeling that she couldn’t go on stage. “I wanted to feel like Judi Dench when she stands in the wings every night and says she can’t wait to get on the stage rather than ‘bloody hell, we’ve got two today’. I thought I want to be able to love it so I went to a hypnotist and asked can you change my mind and make me long to do the show. Eight shows a week, week after week. He didn’t put me out but he altered my mindset. I can’t remember him doing anything except talk to me and now, I love it. You’ve still got to learn your lines and all that business but now I think ‘oh, I’m going to have a really good crack at it.’. I wonder why people don’t use hypnotherapy for everything actually.”  ‘I’m afraid of the dark, get hypnotised’; ‘I’m afraid of flying, get hypnotised’.
“Maybe you can be hypnotised about losing your temper. I try not to and I don’t quite often but if I do lose my temper now either my head would come off or I may kill something.” You get the sense that underneath the glorious manners and charm Lumley is very contained. It’s all on the inside. “In Japan politeness is everything, I realised that I find it incredibly courteous and sweet. Manners maketh the man.”
She’s shortly off to Japan for a documentary. “It’ll be a three-parter all about Japan. I love making them. I love travelling and exploring. And it’s such a pleasure to bring it back to people who then stop you on the Tube and say ‘I loved that’.” Does her husband ever join her? “No. These things are done on small budgets. There are six of us, we all travel light with a particular job and I never trail around after him when he’s rehearsing his operas. I adore opera and when he’s finished I go when he’s ready to show me. If we’ve got time, by which I mean more than a few hours together, we’ve got a cottage in Scotland and that’s our bolthole where we can race up to and we just walk about in the hills, talk to each other and laze around. Sit by a fire, read books. If we don’t have time, we’re at home and we talk all the time. And we catch up on things like The Night Manager on television.
“I first heard his name when he was 13 and I was 21 and I remembered that name. There were various places where I almost met him. I nearly met him when he was 13. It was such an odd thing to remember. It’s a perfectly ordinary name. I met him ten years later when he was playing the organ at a friend’s wedding. We were both doing different things: I was with somebody else and he was just leaving university. Then we met again eight years after that and then it was the right time. With hindsight he was always the right person, otherwise why did I remember his name.”
Have all her husbands been charming? “I love the way you say ‘all’. There was one previous one and he was Jeremy Lloyd – immensely charming. Writer of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo Allo but I was married to him for about 20 minutes. I loved him and he loved me but we shouldn’t have got married. We remained close up until the time he died, which was over a year ago. I’m sad that he’s gone but his charm was wonderful.
Lumley and Patsy both inhabit a charmed world. Patsy, of course, has no charm whatsoever, her charmlessness helps to make her the hilarious cartoon she is and distances her from Lumley who is quite possibly the most charming person ever. “I’m so excited about going to Australia. I’ve only been to Perth and that was years ago. I was thrilled to learn we’re doing a premier in Sydney and will get to go to Melbourne as well. Darling, how lovely will that be!” And the thing is, she really means it.

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Jennifer Saunders

Dita Von Teese (Sunday Times Magazine Feb 14, 2016)

At her house – a mock Tudor cottage in the Hollywood Hills – Dita Von Teese greets me with ultra politeness. She’s suprisingly composed – and rather perky for someone who’s just arrived back from a two-week stint at the Crazy Horse in Paris – the world’s most famous erotic cabaret venue. Von Teese doesn’t do jet lag.
The interior of her home is exactly what you’d expect from the world’s most famous burlesque star. It’s a playhouse with lots of feathery things –  a stuffed peacock, a black swan and a white one wearing a little diamante crown – as well as  a stuffed tiger, a leopard  ‘welcome’ mat, pictures of pin-ups, chinoiserie, lace lampshades with fringes. Pinkish walls and an emphasis on side lighting ensure that everybody who enters will automatically look their best.
Dita is wearing her lounge outfit of black capri pants, form-hugging vintage sweater and black ballet pumps. Her alabaster legs complement a white velvet complexion; her look is completed by black glossy hair in a chignon and her trademark crimson lips. She’s soft-spoken – shy even – or is she just checking me out? We’ve met briefly the day before at the photoshoot, for which she was all plumped up and corseted.  When I took a picture of her on my phone, she told me off. But  that’s forgotten now: we’re here to talk about her latest project, a debut album called Soundtrack for Seduction.
It’s quite a beautiful thing – a limited edition vinyl record made in partnership with 12 on 12, part of the Cutting Edge group. A shrewd choice: the Cutting Edge Group are known for providing music for film and television, and this year have two of the five Oscar nominated soundtracks (Carol and Sicario).  Von Teese’s album will be  the pioneer for a series in which artists – sports stars, actors and others – will collate the soundtrack to their life. And it will be available only for a limited period of one month only, therefore assuring instant collectability and investment potential. Another shrewd choice.
The first side of the album is the retro Von Teese; songs from her burlesque shows, and the soundtrack she uses when she bathes in a giant martini glass. She actually sings on some of these tracks. The second side is modern; ultra contemporary moody tracks, again with some including her own singing. It’s all very bedroomy, and her singing voice – a kind of Peggy Lee on ice – is purring and kind of sweet.
Sweet is, of course, an adjective that you would never use for Dita Von Teese the  artist who is all about being super-confident and commanding. Weirdly, her real name is Heather Sweet. Born in West Ranch, Michigan, with mousey blonde hair, she somehow manages to span both personas with ease.
These days, you can’t tell where Heather ends and Dita begins – part of her power is the dichotomy of encompassing traditional values in a bad-girl body. When she wears red lipstick, she can rule the world; without make-up she is uncomfortable and even vulnerable. Apparently, she does a make-under for Halloween, with beige lips and a natural golden glow, and finds this look “interesting” but “difficult”. If Von Teese has any insecurity today, she has painted over it immaculately. As I slump into her velvet sofa, she sits perfectly upright with the posture of a ballerina. Only her eyes move when she starts talking about Soundtrack to Seduction.
“I like the word ‘seduction’. A lot of people think that seduction is going after someone and deciding you’re going to make them yours – but to me seduction means something totally different,” she says.  “The way to properly seduce someone is to be living on your own terms and make your world a place that other people want to be invited to.”
I’m assuming she means not just a world filled with ostrich feathers and lace. The subtext is plain: she means creating a persona that is so enticing and self-assured that you couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to be with her.
She continues: “Seduction is about creating a poetic space at home with lighting, with fragrance, with music, lingerie. But I don’t put something on because he is going think it’s sexy – I wear things that I think are beautiful and make me feel good. And I wear them all the time so that I am living my entire life in a seductive way, because it seduces me and it’s easy to seduce others.
The album is about capturing a mood and setting a tone. It’s a nonchalant seduction because ‘nonchalant’ is top-level master seduction: you sit back and wait for them to come to you.” Has she always been like this? Super-confident, waiting for men to come to her? “Well…no…I’m a 43-year-old woman; it takes time to arrive at that.”
Indeed it did. It took years of working in lingerie shops and as a stripper for Von Teese to discover her own sexy and pull the Dita out of the Heather. And it took a flamboyant marriage to goth rocker Marilyn Manson and a subsequent divorce to break her heart and set her on a new learning curve.
They married in a castle in Ireland in 2005 after being together for five years. In December 2006, she filed for divorce, dramatically packing all her stuff onto a truck on Christmas Eve, and moving into a rented home. She was no gold-digger: she left with nothing of Manson’s – not even a piece of furniture that they owned jointly.
A burlesque artist and a rocker may be the kind of people you’d expect to have an open relationship, but Von Teese and Manson did not. She doesn’t specify what went wrong but has said in the past that she didn’t support his ‘party’ lifestyle. In all probability, she’d made the classic mistake  of marrying the man and wanting to change him – to normalise his craziness, to tame him.
“I still believe in marriage. I’m a very traditional person,” she insists. She claims  not to be tainted by the experience, and is now in a full-time relationship with a boyfriend called Adam, who is a creative visual designer at Disney.
They share their home with Aleister –  a Devon Rex cat with a curly, poodle-like coat who has 60,000 followers of his own on Instagram and an operatic voice. In her sitting-room, there’s a portrait of Aleister in an oval curly gold frame. She looks at it with a flicker of pride – her boyfriend drew it early on in their relationship. I guess that was his form of seduction.
A thought is obsessing me. If my cats were in a room full of stuffed birds, they would pull all their feathers off  and play endlessly. “My cat is so well behaved. He’s not interested – he’s totally over taxidermy. He does only one thing that’s naughty – he likes to sit on the tiger’s back.” She laughs for the first time.
As for the album, it seems to be another tool in her constant search for reinvention. She wants people to know that she’s not a cliché: “I’m not just a girl who sits around listening to big band music, floating about in a marabou-trimmed robe all the time. I want people to understand that there’s more to me than the music I use on stage. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always liked two kinds of music  [Retro and electronic dance] and not much in between.
“In my twenties, I was very involved in the electronic dance music scene in Los Angeles, from 1990 to 1994. I was dressing in my retro style and creating my burlesque shows, and then at the same time I was doing performance art in rave clubs. I’ve always liked the dichotomy.”
Dichotomy is a key theme. Sometimes, with her milky skin and questioning eyes, she looks very pure. And at the same time, very maitresse. “I’ve always loved the good girl/bad girl – the pin-up combined with the fetish, playfulness combined with sexuality,” she says. “It’s very interesting to me.”
Was she nervous about singing? The first track on the album is Lazy, which Marilyn Monroe sang  in There’s No Business Like Showbusines – quite some act to follow.  “I can’t control my voice like a singer,” Von Teese admits,  “but this one was a good tone for me. I like the talking moments. It was definitely intimidating and challenging, which is why I worked with people that I am really close to.” She has lipsynced to the song in her show,  but never let on that it was her voice on the recording.
Those few who do know it’s her voice have sometimes expressed surprise at the sheer professionalism of her sound. Something of a perfectionist, Von Teese has never had any interest in singing along to backing tapes.  “When I’ve recorded songs for my burlesque shows, it’s one of the biggest expenses of performing. There’s no substitute for real brass and real drums and people playing real music and that’s not done inexpensively.
“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love is one of my most used songs. I’ll use it when I’m in my martini glass or my black bathtub. I use it for fan dances. For the seven minutes that I am on stage, I am saying ‘let’s all fall in love,’” she enthuses.
She may strip in giant martini glasses, but she is not a martini drinker herself; she hates the idea of having a hangover. Occasionally, she’ll have a tequila. “Mescal is my preferred; I drink it neat and sip it slowly. Two drinks maximum. One glass of water, one booze.” That’s very self-correcting. ‘Yes. I’ve found my head in the toilet no more than five times in my life.”
She also loves to cook. “I love comfort food, and I make slow-cooked things like pot pies. I also make a lot of vegan dishes, very healthy things. I’m one of those daytime vegans; I find I have so much more energy when I don’t eat meat during the day.” And then she has a pot pie at night? “Yes, maybe. Not every night, that’s for sure.”
Is it true that she wears corsets every day? “No, when I was 19 it was my thing for a while. I would wear it every day but it was never my intention to achieve a smaller waist; I just loved the look. These days, everyone is on the corset bandwagon.” I glance at her to see if she’s raised a disapproving eyebrow, but her face is as still as her body.
She goes on to talk about the song A Guy What Takes His Time, originally a Mae West song, which she performs on the album with Chuck Henry. Is that what she likes – guys who take their time? “Obviously,” she says. “I really hate fast movers. And I love that moment when you get to the point when you really know someone, and they know you, and you can spend hours and hours… That’s when you can really get involved in the details of love-making, not just the ‘ahhhhhh-ahhhhh’. I think fast is fake.”
Really? “The longer you spend, the better the payoff is at the end.” Some women, I tell her, prefer multiple orgasms and not just one pay-off. She tries not to look shocked. “I hope you get to move with the fast movers and I get to meet the slow movers. Slow and meticulous.” Is Adam slow and meticulous? “Yes. He’s from Chicago. He’s not interested in showbiz at all. We’ve been together two years and he’s slow and steady.”
Does she think she’ll get married again? “I think about all the pros and cons of marriage all the time; I have a list going. The pros are: I love ceremony, ritual, promises, symbols. What I don’t like are the business and financial sides of things.” At this point, Aleister wails at the top of his voice. She continues: “I also don’t like divorce, I’ve been divorced and I really don’t want to do that again.
“And I also have a list of the pros and cons about children. A lot of people have great experiences of having children and others, dreadful ones. I get anxiety about the state of the world –  and it’s hard to have a child when you’re working. Sometimes I wish that I’d had a child in my twenties, and now I’d have some amazing adult child that I like hanging out with. But that kind of slipped through my fingers.”
Given that her business is all centred on her body, wouldn’t having a child present difficulties? For instance, how could perform with an obviously pregnant body? She nods. “All the travel would be difficult, too. It’s not like I’m a pop star that takes a couple of years off and puts on five pairs of tights to go back on stage and everyone says: ‘She looks amazing’. I’ve just got the spotlight.
“Perhaps I don’t need to be on stage so much. But then again, I love my freedom. It must be great to have a child before you realise how lucky you are to have your freedom. People get caught up in it all – they fall in love, have a baby and they don’t know any difference.” She doesn’t seem tortured by the idea she may have missed the baby window. But part of her, the part that loves tradition, isn’t ready to completely let it go. Perhaps that’s why one of her favourite tracks is Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is. “It’s very dark,” she says brightly.
The album, she tells me, will come in pink vinyl and if you want to pay extra, you can have one that she’s kissed with her vintage red lipstick. The flipside is the moody electronic side – she describes it as sexy Depeche Mode. And the first track is by Bryan Ferry, Jonny and Mary – “My boyfriend discovered that song for me. We share our Spotify playlists.”
How cute. She also sings on the Blur track Girls and Boys, performed by Monarchy. “Andrew surname?? – who is Monarchy – is a close friend,” she says. “We met in Paris and he asked me if I’d guest-sing on a song, and I said: ‘I don’t sing.’ He said: ‘No, it’s going to be great’ – and we recorded it at my Paris apartment two years ago. It’s a cool song. I wish it wasn’t my voice on it because I would enjoy it more.”
Insecurity about her voice is perhaps the only chink in her supreme confidence. Or perhaps it’s not that; perhaps, because she really does have impeccable taste, she genuinely thinks someone else could sound better.
Otherwise, she is supremely confident at self-presentation. The sitting-room, for instance, has been subtley bathed in her signature scent, called Erotique. “Perfume is one of the stepping stone to glamour,” she says. It’s certainly another layer in the creation of her persona as a seductress. As we go through her album track-by-track it’s a slow peeling off, layer-by-layer.  But even when she strips, she never reveals everything; an aura of mystery remains. Perhaps the songs are as close as she’ll ever come to revealing her naked self.
Her album comes out on Valentine’s Day – is she a Valentine’s Day kind of person? “I’m not. It’s very much a Hallmark holiday, isn’t it?,” she says disparagingly.  “Don’t buy lingerie for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day – [a woman should] buy it for yourself.”
I find it intriguing that a woman who basically strips for a living is actually the ultimate feminist . She’s rewritten her life on her terms, and created a character who  provides her with confidence and direction. She sighs. “Ultimately, women should be able to do whatever they want – that to me is what being a feminist means, as well as having the same choices and opportunities as men have.” Perhaps her take on feminism has been to reinvent what she believes to be the essence of womanhood. She laughs – she likes that idea.
Does she feel sexy? “Sexy is not about how much skin you’re showing. It’s usually about how much skin you’re not showing and what you’re not saying. It’s about breaking standards and not feeling you need to be sexy for a man. Right now, for instance, I’m wearing my own-label bra and underwear – it’s Toile de Jouy, with a little bit of bondage going on.” She likes the juxtaposition of a pattern that could be on the curtains of a French cottage with something that’s actually pornagraphic. You can buy her lingerie in Harrods – I’m sure it’s a very good pick-me-up.
“I worked in lingerie from the age of 15 and I segued into cosmetics, “ she goes on. “I feel naked without colour on my lips. I like a matte face, red lips, mascara. If I do a photo session, I like to do my own make-up – it shaves off so much time.” This is typical Von Teese: one of the girls, practical, controlling. “Red lipstick was a life-changer for me. It was in the Eighties and everyone was wearing peachy frosty lipstick. When I got my hands on my mother’s red lipstick, I didn’t see why I would ever use anything else.”
Does she feel beautiful? “No,” she says, after a pause, as if she’s never asked herself that question. “But I like to put my lipstick on to face the world, for sure. I wear it even to the dentist – wipe it off and put it back on. It takes so little time for a lot of pay-off.” Would she be insecure without it? “I don’t know – I just do it and I enjoy it. It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Her old friends still call her Heather, as do her relatives. Is she still Heather? Is the red lipstick all about stepping into Dita? “No,” her voice trails for the first time. “There’s definitely a vulnerability that comes when I’m not wearing make-up or nails. When I am I think: ‘Here I am’. People think I must be Heather Sweet from Michigan and a really great actress, but I am not acting.  I get my confidence when I get my make-up on.
“It might be the same for a person who loves to wear her jeans and beige lipgloss – if she was forced to wear my gear, she might feel a bit weird. I don’t feel I have an alter-ego or anything like that. You can still see Heather Sweet on stage if you look for her – if you know what to look for.” And what should we look for? “A girl saying: ‘This is hilarious, I’m getting paid to ride this mechanical bull’ and sit inside a champagne glass!’”
One of her favourite performances is when she steps out of a giant powder compact. “It’s very classic, based on Evangelina, the Oyster Girl, who in the Fifties did an act where she comes out of the oyster shell and mates with a pearl. She’s still alive and still teaching it to different girls.”
Her balletic poise finally dissipates when she talks about the history of burlesque, lingerie and the pin-up. Suddenly, she seems to become fluid and relaxed.
She sees herself as inextricably linked to those pin-up girls from the 1930s and 40s, who also worked as burlesque dancer
“I liked that look. I liked that I could create that look and be different to what I was. To me, this was art. Becoming a pin-up wasn’t something that was being done very much in the early Nineties.” That’s when she created Dita? “Well, Dita came from the strip club. I was working in a strip club as well as selling lingerie, and I was also a go-go dancer at rave parties because my then boyfriend was one of the biggest rave promoters here in LA.
“I discovered pictures of Betty Page, so I decide that I wanted to be a retro-fetish star. Then  I started doing bondage videos and things like that. In one, I got captured by cannibals and they tied me up and put me in a pot – kinda old-fashioned.”
How hard was it incorporating her work into her own life? How did the people around her react? “My parents were, like: ‘What’s going on?’ My dad was disapproving. But then my dad was disapproving when I worked at a lingerie store. I just thought the lingerie was pretty but my dad was sexualising it.” She insists, however, that her father, a machinist, and her mother, a manicurist, are both very proud of her today.
Growing up, she didn’t pay much attention to their disapproval. “I was very independent, working full-time since I was 15; I had my own credit cards so I was very much: ‘No one tells me what to do’.
“Looking back I was very pro. I was super-strict. I wasn’t a party-girl. I was always sober and professional, because I liked controlling situations.”
How difficult was it to incorporate bondage and boyfriends? “It was fine. I mean, there were moments, small moments when it might not have been. My first boyfriend, the rave promoter, was the one who took me to the strip club and said ‘you should do that’ and he was the one who said ‘let’s make you a webpage’. The next boyfriend would tour with me to make sure I was safe. If I started dating someone new and they were jealous of what I did, they simply wouldn’t last long. All my love affairs have been for five or six years at a time. I’m kind of a homebody and I like monogamy.”
I also heard that  she had enjoyed same-sex relationships. “I wouldn’t say many. I worked in a strip club, I had dalliances, I experimented. I had girls that were really close friends. But unfortunately I would call myself fully hetrosexual. I wish I were bisexual.”
Really?
“I find bi-sexuality super evolved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just love whoever you meet if they just loved you? Wouldn’t it be great to feel sexual with a man or a woman, if you didn’t distinguish? I think that’s just supercool.”
When she says she’s a girl’s girl, she doesn’t mean in a sexual way. “I love women who are interesting and talented. I am not intimidated by them at all. There are girls who walk into a room and they are sexy and commanding and their shoulders are back and their heads held high. Those are not the ones you have to worry about. The ones you have to worry about are the ones who are hunched in the corner, the ones who seem unassuming. Those are the schemers. The ones you don’t think could steal your man. Those are the ones figuring out how they can.”
Are these conclusions from experience? “YES!” She’s soft now. Her laugh is vulnerable yet sure of itself. Is she intimidated by anyone? “Every time I talk to Madonna I’m super intimidated. Same with Prince. But I love being intimidated by people whose talent I really admire.”
Does she think she’ll ever be blonde again? “I have to dye my hair every two weeks. I do it myself from a box at home. You can see my dishwater blonde roots. It’s a major process to get rid of black. If I could go back and forth, I would. Black hair dye is really bad for you. I would love to be free of it but if I change my hair colour now, I’d be considered a traitor (by her fans). My fantasy is that one day I will be a great silver fox.”
It’s hard to imagine a silver fox burlesque artist but it’s not something she’s worried about. “Lighting is everything. I guarantee that I could take any woman and light her with pink spotlights and beautiful side lighting and make her body look amazing. I hate it that everything is so retouched right now. You make a beautiful sacred space and if you’ve got pink walls you can look amazing naked in every room.” She gestures to her pink walls and I briefly imagine her patrolling naked among the stuffed birds.
Was she always so confident in her body? “When I started I was 20-year-old and i just didn’t think about it. I didn’t mind it at all. I was raised in ballet. I was used to being in front of mirrors with very little clothes on and noticing how I could change how my body looks according to which posture I’m in. I noticed how to pay attention to carriage. You can totally manipulate how your body appears.”
It seems that Von Teese, or Sweet, is pretty good at manipulating not just her body but everything. She has recreated a whole person. It’s not just performance art, it’s living.

SOUNDTRACK FOR SEDUCTION will be available to purchase for $20 on www.12on12.com/ditavonteese from the 14th February – 14th March. These vinyl albums will be made on a bespoke, limited edition basis – after the 30-day order window, each edition will only be available on the re-sale market, making them the ultimate collector’s items.

Alison Krauss

Everybody told me that Alison Krauss was a recluse living in Nashville. That she didn’t like giving interviews. That she was very closed or super shy. I could only believe this must be true as I’d been trying to interview her for over a decade. I’d always loved her voice, so sweet, so pure, so warm when I first discovered it on Now That I Found You (1995).
That was long before Raising Sand, the album that reinvented Robert Plant and was much applauded all over the world, and that was before she became the woman who has won the most Grammys in the history of the awards (26), only Quincy Jones has won more (31). And after this album Paper Airplane is released I’ve no doubt she’ll break her own record.
The adjective most used to describe her is ethereal, which scared me even more. It made her seem even more untouchable, unreachable. Yet her voice seems filled with the pain of the human heart and she sings about love found and lost, the full emotional spectrum. When she sings about pain and joy you feel included. Hers is the most traditional form of American music, bluegrass. Pain is in its DNA.
We meet in Nashville in her manager’s office. I first glimpse her peering round the door. Long blondish bed head hair, smoky eyes, jeans, blue paisley top. She looks extremely pretty and vaguely surprised. I later learn to know the look. Alison is permanently surprised. Surprised as if everything she is discovering for the first time, as if everything she’s feeling is fresh and never been felt by anyone else before.
The new album with her band Union Station took a little longer than expected. I thought perhaps it was a little hard to follow something like Raising Sand. But it wasn’t anything to do with that. It was more to do with Krauss really not feeling very good and the main songwriter having a terrible writer’s block. Krauss’s role as an interpreter, a seer and a feeler, is crucial and she couldn’t feel anything.
“I’m used to editing things and making them work for us and giving suggestions, but my personal life had just kind of gone… and I was getting headaches all the time, migraines, so I couldn’t judge so well. I didn’t feel like I could. Nothing felt good to me but I couldn’t tell what it felt like. I didn’t know what to think. I just thought you know we don’t have it yet. Let me go and dig around some more. Eventually I got rid of the headache, but it took months. It was a dull headache that just hung on. One time before I got this kind of headache it lasted for a year and a half. You wait, you scrabble around looking for something. The biggest difference this time was I found an acupuncturist. After all the doctors and all the pills she made the biggest difference.”
I tell her that my cure for headache is espresso. She said, ‘Oh, I get pretty jacked if I drink coffee.’ It seems like Alison is hypersensitive. Everything affects her intensely. She must be feeling pretty relaxed because today she will try some coffee with triple cream and triple sugar.
“I hate to sound like I’m complaining,” she says. I don’t think she ever likes to complain. She likes to take things on, work things out. And she certainly never likes to boast, for instance about singing for the Obamas in the White House. In fact the headache that lasted such a long time sounds completely terrible.
“You learn a lot about yourself when you have something like that. You realize how much it affects every part of your life. Trying to be in the studio and making really emotional decisions when you’re all flat. We didn’t scrap everything from those first sessions. It was not like it was terrible. We had some good songs. It was just that nothing was going to sound good.”
There’s a line in Paper Airplane, ‘Every silver lining has its cloud’. Is that the new glass is half empty? Was that your state of mind? “The guy that wrote that is Robert Lee Castleman. He’s a fascinating guy. You would go crazy over him.” She says that because there’s a sense that she already knows me and we’ve only just started talking.
“He’s a former truck driver, but he’s done everything – woodworking, collecting old stoves. You spend time with him you feel you’ve expanded your mind. Anyway, he was having writer’s block. He said I’ve got a beautiful wife, a beautiful daughter, a beautiful son. I used to go to these places to be broken hearted and I just can’t feel it any more.’ He’s always been the centre of our records. So I called him. I was stuck in my mind as well and I said ‘We need you. Just come over.’ So we just talked. Talked about a story. Talked about things. It was just a seed. I don’t want to act like I had anything to do with it. But he’d say, ‘OK. Tell me what’s going on with you.’ And I’d come over and he’d say ‘I’ve got a melody.’ And we’d sit and talk for about an hour and a half. I’m all jacked up. I just spilled my guts. And I said ‘Well what are we going to do now?’ And he said, ‘I’m just going to wait. It’ll be here by midnight.’ And then he called me and said ‘I’ve got it. It’s called Paper Airplane.’
It’s like he downloaded it from a mystical source. He channeled Krauss’s pain, his past pain, and it became a heartbreaking song. “He’s a remarkable person. A lot of these guys, when they get married and they don’t have that heartbreak, you find there’s always this common thread between songwriters. They’re striving for the next thing. Like always on a search. And you know men and women are on the eternal chase of each other. So that’s a handy thing when you’re a creative songwriter. But when that chase has gone… I’ve seen that a number of times. So that’s when I say ‘Why don’t we talk about these true stories. It might not have happened to you but if it happened to me I’ll share them. Maybe you can connect. He goes ‘No, it doesn’t work that way.’ But the first we did it, it worked and it was beautiful and he said ‘Maybe I can do that.'”
Do you think artists have to be in pain to write songs or are the songs better when they’re tortured? “I think it just has to be true.” She talks about one guy called Sydney Cox who she’s been friendly with since she was 16. “He always wrote these beautiful songs. I’ve recorded I don’t know how many over the years. He’s married and has three daughters and they were all sitting around while he was down here writing. And he said, ‘I just can’t write these love songs any more. I feel like I am betraying her by writing these songs because it just isn’t true any more this heartbreak stuff.’ I said to him ‘You just have to tell your truth in another way.’ He’s very into his family’s history, so he’s working on stuff like that now about a woman who used to write to all the soldiers when they were in town.”
I tell her she is the super muse. “No, pah. I’m not the muse. I’m the encourager. A lot of people have told me that people are satisfied playing in their living rooms and I say if you are a musician that’s not true, you want to be heard. It’s your story even if you are playing someone else’s tune. You might be playing it in your living room, but as long as there are people who can’t wait to hear what you’ve got that’s an encouragement.”
Krauss does this weird thing that she peels layers away from people, gets to the core of who they are. It’s as if she can see inside you and her voice is a mixture of everything she sees and everything she’s ever felt. Just talking to her you get goose bumps. But the weird thing is she has goose bumps too. She stretches her arm across the table and I stretch mine – matching goose bumps. What does she think of all these people calling her ethereal?
“Well as long as they’re not calling you ugly or a loser it’s OK. When someone paints it’s an expression of themselves. It doesn’t come out any other way. It’s about being seen or understood.” It turns out that she actually does paint in her living room, but more of that later.
She doesn’t have a television. Or at least she doesn’t watch television at home. Sometimes it gets hooked up when there’s a game or occasionally the weather. She contributed to the multi-mion selling soundtrack of the Coen Brothers’ O Brother Where Art Thou and has never even seen the movie. But she likes to look up clips on YouTube. “That’s my one connection to the world. I’ve been watching old interviews of Levon Helm. I like to hear what people have to say. He has the kindest, sweetest eyes you’ve ever seen. You think you know him and maybe you do.”
Has success affected her at all? “I never thought I’d be doing this. I wanted to become a choir director when I was a kid because I was in a children’s choir and the teacher was great. They would direct so that everyone was singing the same kind of vowel and she’d do all that kind of working to get people to sing together and I loved it. I didn’t think I’d be doing this. It’s all been a big surprise. One of the guys in the band says this about me. ‘You walk around surprised, not about work, or anything in particular, but just in general. A state of surprise.'”
She learnt to play the fiddle at a very young age and had a record deal by the time she was 14. She is still with the same record company 25 years later.
She was brought up in Champaign, Illinois, a rural area three hours south of Chicago, but seems to have lived in Nashville all her working life. She was married to country musician Pat Bergeson, but they divorced in 2001 and she has a son, Sam, 11. She shows me his picture on her phone. He’s a handsome boy with huge wise eyes.
Was it any kind of pressure that her last album with Robert Plant was so successful? “No, I don’t think of it like that. I don’t think about what’s coming next. I treat each one like it’s the only one you’ve ever made and the only one you’re ever going to make.”
Is she good at living in the moment? “Once I get to the moment I’m good but it takes me a long time to get to that moment. I’m a very sentimental person, probably to a fault. And that can bring you down. Workwise I don’t think about the future. I think about little people growing up. Worry is really a choice isn’t it and I try not to,” she says falteringly. “A wasted emotion someone told me. I’d rather do macramé. I like needlepointing.
“We did get some paint and we started painting, my son and I, together. I say you pick the music. He likes Lecon Helm (from The Band). We listen to it and we paint. I have photographs that are in black and white and we paint them in colour. The first one we did was absolutely terrible. The second one was awful. And I’m hoping the third one will just suck.” We are chatting happily. Our allotted hour has been and gone several hours ago.
“In the studio where do you draw the line where something is finished? I used to be very much over doing things. And as I’ve got older I think I don’t want to steal from what this is really offering. The real meaning behind the music is emotional. Because it’s like you’re sharing something and the goal is to be understood. I think if you’re focusing too much on the details you miss the experience.
“With painting I’m not listening any more, just experiencing. That’s why it’s emotional. You know how when you stop paying attention you just kind of receive it. My mother is a painter and she’s so amazing. It was like I’m never getting these paints out. she comes over and says ‘Where are the paints?’ and I’m like ‘Absolutely not. When you get your fiddle record done I’ll show you my painting.’ The paintings are awful anyway so I hide them.” Is her son a painter or a fiddler? “He’s very musical. He’s pretty good but he doesn’t want compliments.” Does she take compliments well? “Some you can accept and some you can’t. if some are too nice you can’t accept it because you can’t believe it. There’s nothing like believing it though,” she smiles, “if someone wants to say it and they mean it.”
We talk about how we love a song that makes us cry. Sometimes it’s the tears not cried that makes it easier to cry at a song, a release. Some people are unable to cry even when a loved one dies. “Everyone mourns in their own way and that’s why I think it’s the movie or the music that helps that come out later when it’s not too big.”
In a love relationship is she the one who likes to love more or be loved more? “When you’re the one giving it’s safer. You know you can’t receive back what you give. It’s free. When it’s costly it’s harder to receive that. If you’re receiving you’re not gambling. You don’t have expectations so you can’t love as much, but it’s harder to receive. It’s very human and very female.
“When you look back in your relationships it’s when were you most happy. Were you happy when you loved more. You had more to gamble. When you loved the other person more you were at your happiest even though it wasn’t necessarily safer.”
We discuss if loving more or being loved makes you feel more in touch with who you are. I’m not really sure of what we conclude. It’s just a big talk on the nature of love.
Does she have the same relationship over and over again but with a different person? “It’s hard to say. I’m still working on the things I need to know. I don’t think it’s the same person.”
She seems very wise, evolved. “I don’t think so. People will be like you’ve seen so much and I’m no, mine was a very sheltered life. We’ve played bluegrass festivals which is not a huge crazy audience. When you look at what the songs are about it’s pretty wholesome ideas. Except every now and then when someone’s killing someone.”
It might be a narrow background but it’s a background from which all extremes of emotion are felt. “Yes, in a way. But we started travelling and I missed out on a lot of normal kind of life in this pretty secluded bunch. I mean I had a great time but I was focused on music at a very young age. It wasn’t like we have to get a record deal but it was always on my mind. I think it’s a pretty common story but I didn’t see a lot. I think I was so naïve that I missed out on a lot of things that were going on right in front of me.”
I read that her mother said if you can sing you can play an instrument and she believed that. “Yes, I believed that. My dad loved music but he’s not as musical as my mum. He was a psychologist, then moved on to real estate. I have a brother, Viktor, he wrote Lie Awake. He plays for Lyle Lovett. I called him when I heard a tune on the radio and he’s written things for us before. I heard this song and I thought I wished we had a song like that for this record. So I asked him, do you think you can write this kind of tune for us?”
Her parents and brother have all moved near to Nashville. They are very close and Viktor is a year and a half older. “Isn’t it the four year split that makes rivals. My mother said she never wanted to have that.”
We start looking at the photographs of her on the album – she’s in a Dustbowl waif cotton lawn dress. “It’s a real period dress and you can see through it. The photographer, who’s a lady said ‘No slip. Absolutely not.’ You know it was hot and nasty in the Dustbowl. I would think a lot of them would be thinking I’m not wearing a slip. But this is a sexed up Dustbowl. Some of these pictures I thought oh that’s a little bit too crazy. I think lady photographers always want to push it. They love being out there.”
Interesting contradiction. Krauss is sweet, nurtury, naïve. It’s almost an experiment on herself for her to do this sexed up look but she embraces it fully. The dress is cream with tiny flowers, red and white. “I’ve always been into those kind of clothes. I don’t have vintage. I have modern versions. I have phases of shopping. Sometimes you see lots of stuff you like, other times you don’t. I think it depends on how you feel about yourself. When you’re on top of your game it’s ‘I love it.'”
I tell her that I can imagine her in her waif’s dresses wafting around in her house. She finishes the sentence “feeling lonely”and then laughs loudly.
Why doesn’t she watch TV? “I used to watch it all the time. I put it by this wall and every time I would sit on the couch I thought why do I feel so terrible right now. Even if the TV wasn’t on it just depresses you. I used to have bad dreams after watching crime shows late at night so I felt better without it.”
I have to have the TV on to fall asleep. “That’s very interesting. It’s because you don’t like to hear your own thoughts. I can fall asleep quicker if I’m listening to someone else. I used to fall asleep during a drive to the grocery store if my mother was driving. I do better hearing someone else, then I don’t have to hear myself.”
I read that Robert Plant’s sister said finally someone had got Robert to sing properly. “Ha. Yes, we keep in touch. We talk on the phone. He’s a lovely person. Really funny.” Will there be more songs together? “We talk about it. It comes up almost every time we chat but I don’t know when it will be. When he first called my son was an infant and we talked for five minutes and then a few years later he called again and said why don’t you come for this tribute for Leadbelly. So we played there and a couple of years after that he was ‘Let’s go to the studio and see what we can do.’ So we said we’d try three or four days and see how it goes and it went really well.”
I admire her necklace. It looks like a fairy’s necklace. “I don’t have a lot of jewellery that I have a connection to, that has meaning. Like if I wear this the crust won’t burn on the pie.
She’s not exactly shy, but she’s introspective and the opposite of showy, yet she’s in a profession that demands a lot of attention. “I always felt I had the wrong personality for my job. I do much better one on one. When we first started doing this I was really guarding myself and I think that looked a lot weirder than I was already. And I thought ‘No, I’m not going to do that any more. I’m going to be myself as much as I can. And then everything changed for me when I made that decision not to be so protected because then you’re portraying a false version of yourself. You get so worried that people are going to have an idea of what you’re like just because you’re trying to keep to yourself, and then it becomes very strange. They’re like ‘What’s up with her?’ I don’t have the kind of attention – I have a private normal life – there isn’t that kind of attention on us here or on me.” Maybe because that’s how it is in Nashville. Everyone’s a songwriter. “A few times things have got crazy. What I do is not really in a commercial environment.”
You get the impression that commercial success has never tainted her. She doesn’t have extravagant taste in anything. “You know why I think people like shoes. I think when you step into them and you’re standing you can feel like a different person. It’s all about how you feel. Some you stand and you’re ready to go to work.” I feel sure she doesn’t have as many pairs of shoes as I do, which is over 300. “No,” she says. “But I do like them too.”
Is there anything she would like to change about herself? “Oh, that’s interesting.” (More surprised face). I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that. I do wish this process of accepting, you know when you’re always striving for something, the greatest change comes when you realise that this is who you are and who you are meant to be and you just kind of stop that wanting to change things. That comes in increments for me and I wish it came more. Sometimes you go through and you have a revelation about things. I welcome that with more ease than I have in the past. I don’t think you can ever force it.
“I used to remember how I felt when I was seven or eight, and then suddenly you don’t feel a connection to how you used to feel because you’ve changed so much.”
I tell her that I remember exactly how I felt. That I was a strange child and didn’t really connect to anything. “And now look at you,” she laughs. “Somebody’s differences are either celebrated or they’re not. There’s a reason they stick out. they’re charismatic if they don’t fit in because they’re leaders.”
And was she like that? “You know it’s funny because there were a couple of things after I had a baby I forgot. I disconnected with those things because it’s life changing. I lost those tangible memories of what I didn’t feel like and what I did feel like and how I became very introverted. By the time I was in seventh grade I wasn’t in a clique. I was friendly with everybody but not tight. And you probably feel very alone as I do, even though you make connections. The people you are tight with are few and far between. Having a baby made me forget. I don’t have the tangible memory of it. I knew who I was at seven which I remember that lasted up until the time I had him and I think I’ve been the same since then. Your whole life switches.”
Do she think she’ll have another baby? “I’m too old now. If I could have had five I would have. But I’ve got no complaints. It’s such a drag when you realize the opportunity is over.”
She’s only 39, but she seems to think that’s way past it. Her eyes are blue, flecked with yellow and grey. Intense eyes. Yet her company is not intense. She’s really easy to be with. But the way she connects is extremely charismatic. Perhaps it’s because a lonely person needs to connect to people – maybe that’s what makes a great artist.
She started chatting about the barn dance she would be holding the next week at the Loveless Café, a place that serves gigantic fried chicken, green tomatoes and fried okra. When I said it’s a shame that I won’t be here she remembered that there’d be country dancing that night. It was going to be in a large Presbyterian church nearby and that it would be in fact fun for all of us to go. If we got there an hour early we could have a dance class on how to dosey doe and take our partners by the hand. It’s called contra dancing.
Every other building in Nashville is a church. But this particular church was particularly huge. The dance hall was fiercely bright – already nowhere to hide. We were all given badges with our names on it. All night Krauss wore hers, seemingly having no idea that everyone knew who she was. A couple of people came up to her throughout the evening and gave her reverential compliments which of course she didn’t know how to take. A couple came up to me and said,”You’re so lucky to be friends with Alison. She’s so lovely.”
Everyone at the dance seemed to know each other, but were not at all cliquey. They were all very friendly. There were women from 16 to 70 in flowy peasant dresses and men often with very long beards. They took the dancing very seriously. The dancing all happens in lines and a couple of times I went in the opposite direction and made the people in front fall over. And one very serious dancing man shot me a look that could kill.
There’s lots of intense spinning with this kind of dancing. I was red-faced and dizzy and Krauss said the spinning made her feel a little sick, so we sat down to watch. Somehow she knew that nobody would believe I’d even attempted this kind of dancing so she filmed it on her phone. I just really like the idea of how in a short time she really knew me and something in her made me think I should try to dance. The film however concludes I was wrong about the dancing. I was really bad. But I like to watch it just to remind me of the day I spent with Alison Krauss. We talk about how we love a song that makes us cry. Sometimes it’s the tears not cried that makes it easier to cry at a song, a release. Some people are unable to cry even when a loved one dies. “Everyone mourns in their own way and that’s why I think it’s the movie or the music that helps that come out later when it’s not too big.”
In a love relationship is she the one who likes to love more or be loved more? “When you’re the one giving it’s safer. You know you can’t receive back what you give. It’s free. When it’s costly it’s harder to receive that. If you’re receiving you’re not gambling. You don’t have expectations so you can’t love as much, but it’s harder to receive. It’s very human and very female.
“When you look back in your relationships it’s when were you most happy. Were you happy when you loved more. You had more to gamble. When you loved the other person more you were at your happiest even though it wasn’t necessarily safer.”
We discuss if loving more or being loved makes you feel more in touch with who you are. I’m not really sure of what we conclude. It’s just a big talk on the nature of love.
Does she have the same relationship over and over again but with a different person? “It’s hard to say. I’m still working on the things I need to know. I don’t think it’s the same person.”
She seems very wise, evolved. “I don’t think so. People will be like you’ve seen so much and I’m no, mine was a very sheltered life. We’ve played bluegrass festivals which is not a huge crazy audience. When you look at what the songs are about it’s pretty wholesome ideas. Except every now and then when someone’s killing someone.”
It might be a narrow background but it’s a background from which all extremes of emotion are felt. “Yes, in a way. But we started travelling and I missed out on a lot of normal kind of life in this pretty secluded bunch. I mean I had a great time but I was focused on music at a very young age. It wasn’t like we have to get a record deal but it was always on my mind. I think it’s a pretty common story but I didn’t see a lot. I think I was so naïve that I missed out on a lot of things that were going on right in front of me.”
I read that her mother said if you can sing you can play an instrument and she believed that. “Yes, I believed that. My dad loved music but he’s not as musical as my mum. He was a psychologist, then moved on to real estate. I have a brother, Viktor, he wrote Lie Awake. He plays for Lyle Lovett. I called him when I heard a tune on the radio and he’s written things for us before. I heard this song and I thought I wished we had a song like that for this record. So I asked him, do you think you can write this kind of tune for us?”
Her parents and brother have all moved near to Nashville. They are very close and Viktor is a year and a half older. “Isn’t it the four year split that makes rivals. My mother said she never wanted to have that.”
We start looking at the photographs of her on the album – she’s in a Dustbowl waif cotton lawn dress. “It’s a real period dress and you can see through it. The photographer, who’s a lady said ‘No slip. Absolutely not.’ You know it was hot and nasty in the Dustbowl. I would think a lot of them would be thinking I’m not wearing a slip. But this is a sexed up Dustbowl. Some of these pictures I thought oh that’s a little bit too crazy. I think lady photographers always want to push it. They love being out there.”
Interesting contradiction. Krauss is sweet, nurtury, naïve. It’s almost an experiment on herself for her to do this sexed up look but she embraces it fully. The dress is cream with tiny flowers, red and white. “I’ve always been into those kind of clothes. I don’t have vintage. I have modern versions. I have phases of shopping. Sometimes you see lots of stuff you like, other times you don’t. I think it depends on how you feel about yourself. When you’re on top of your game it’s ‘I love it.'”
I tell her that I can imagine her in her waif’s dresses wafting around in her house. She finishes the sentence “feeling lonely”
and then laughs loudly.
Why doesn’t she watch TV? “I used to watch it all the time. I put it by this wall and every time I would sit on the couch I thought why do I feel so terrible right now. Even if the TV wasn’t on it just depresses you. I used to have bad dreams after watching crime shows late at night so I felt better without it.”
I have to have the TV on to fall asleep. “That’s very interesting. It’s because you don’t like to hear your own thoughts. I can fall asleep quicker if I’m listening to someone else. I used to fall asleep during a drive to the grocery store if my mother was driving. I do better hearing someone else, then I don’t have to hear myself.”
I read that Robert Plant’s sister said finally someone had got Robert to sing properly. “Ha. Yes, we keep in touch. We talk on the phone. He’s a lovely person. Really funny.” Will there be more songs together? “We talk about it. It comes up almost every time we chat but I don’t know when it will be. When he first called my son was an infant and we talked for five minutes and then a few years later he called again and said why don’t you come for this tribute for Leadbelly. So we played there and a couple of years after that he was ‘Let’s go to the studio and see what we can do.’ So we said we’d try three or four days and see how it goes and it went really well.”
I admire her necklace. It looks like a fairy’s necklace. “I don’t have a lot of jewellery that I have a connection to, that has meaning. Like if I wear this the crust won’t burn on the pie.
She’s not exactly shy, but she’s introspective and the opposite of showy, yet she’s in a profession that demands a lot of attention. “I always felt I had the wrong personality for my job. I do much better one on one. When we first started doing this I was really guarding myself and I think that looked a lot weirder than I was already. And I thought ‘No, I’m not going to do that any more. I’m going to be myself as much as I can. And then everything changed for me when I made that decision not to be so protected because then you’re portraying a false version of yourself. You get so worried that people are going to have an idea of what you’re like just because you’re trying to keep to yourself, and then it becomes very strange. They’re like ‘What’s up with her?’ I don’t have the kind of attention – I have a private normal life – there isn’t that kind of attention on us here or on me.” Maybe because that’s how it is in Nashville. Everyone’s a songwriter. “A few times things have got crazy. What I do is not really in a commercial environment.”
You get the impression that commercial success has never tainted her. She doesn’t have extravagant taste in anything. “You know why I think people like shoes. I think when you step into them and you’re standing you can feel like a different person. It’s all about how you feel. Some you stand and you’re ready to go to work.” I feel sure she doesn’t have as many pairs of shoes as I do, which is over 300. “No,” she says. “But I do like them too.”
Is there anything she would like to change about herself? “Oh, that’s interesting.” (More surprised face). I don’t think anyone’s ever asked me that. I do wish this process of accepting, you know when you’re always striving for something, the greatest change comes when you realise that this is who you are and who you are meant to be and you just kind of stop that wanting to change things. That comes in increments for me and I wish it came more. Sometimes you go through and you have a revelation about things. I welcome that with more ease than I have in the past. I don’t think you can ever force it.
“I used to remember how I felt when I was seven or eight, and then suddenly you don’t feel a connection to how you used to feel because you’ve changed so much.”
I tell her that I remember exactly how I felt. That I was a strange child and didn’t really connect to anything. “And now look at you,” she laughs. “Somebody’s differences are either celebrated or they’re not. There’s a reason they stick out. they’re charismatic if they don’t fit in because they’re leaders.”
And was she like that? “You know it’s funny because there were a couple of things after I had a baby I forgot. I disconnected with those things because it’s life changing. I lost those tangible memories of what I didn’t feel like and what I did feel like and how I became very introverted. By the time I was in seventh grade I wasn’t in a clique. I was friendly with everybody but not tight. And you probably feel very alone as I do, even though you make connections. The people you are tight with are few and far between. Having a baby made me forget. I don’t have the tangible memory of it. I knew who I was at seven which I remember that lasted up until the time I had him and I think I’ve been the same since then. Your whole life switches.”
Do she think she’ll have another baby? “I’m too old now. If I could have had five I would have. But I’ve got no complaints. It’s such a drag when you realize the opportunity is over.”
She’s only 39, but she seems to think that’s way past it. Her eyes are blue, flecked with yellow and grey. Intense eyes. Yet her company is not intense. She’s really easy to be with. But the way she connects is extremely charismatic. Perhaps it’s because a lonely person needs to connect to people – maybe that’s what makes a great artist.
She started chatting about the barn dance she would be holding the next week at the Loveless Café, a place that serves gigantic fried chicken, green tomatoes and fried okra. When I said it’s a shame that I won’t be here she remembered that there’d be country dancing that night. It was going to be in a large Presbyterian church nearby and that it would be in fact fun for all of us to go. If we got there an hour early we could have a dance class on how to dosey doe and take our partners by the hand. It’s called contra dancing.
Every other building in Nashville is a church. But this particular church was particularly huge. The dance hall was fiercely bright – already nowhere to hide. We were all given badges with our names on it. All night Krauss wore hers, seemingly having no idea that everyone knew who she was. A couple of people came up to her throughout the evening and gave her reverential compliments which of course she didn’t know how to take. A couple came up to me and said,”You’re so lucky to be friends with Alison. She’s so lovely.”
Everyone at the dance seemed to know each other, but were not at all cliquey. They were all very friendly. There were women from 16 to 70 in flowy peasant dresses and men often with very long beards. They took the dancing very seriously. The dancing all happens in lines and a couple of times I went in the opposite direction and made the people in front fall over. And one very serious dancing man shot me a look that could kill.
There’s lots of intense spinning with this kind of dancing. I was red-faced and dizzy and Krauss said the spinning made her feel a little sick, so we sat down to watch. Somehow she knew that nobody would believe I’d even attempted this kind of dancing so she filmed it on her phone. I just really like the idea of how in a short time she really knew me and something in her made me think I should try to dance. The film however concludes I was wrong about the dancing. I was really bad. But I like to watch it just to remind me of the day I spent with Alison Krauss.

Alicia Keys

Alicia Keys is curled up on a sofa in the corner of the photographic studio. Jet lagged but not particularly bleary she is picking at some mango, pineapple and cucumber and tea with almond milk and agave. She’s never drunk coffee. She doesn’t like the taste or need the stimulation.
Alicia is always switched on.
She is wearing Louboutin ankle boots with the red soles well worn, Givenchy black jeans with faux cobalt blue rips. Her jacket is also Givenchy. Her face is fresh but for Cleopatra eyeliner that makes her look like a silver screen movie star.
Her hair recently shorn is slicked back close to her head. Her nails are a blood red oval with the half moons painted creamy, very 1940s.
It is an open and brave face. She is listening to one of her new tracks, Brand New Me, hands me her headset asking if I mind her ‘ear juice’. The track is at that time unfinished but she wanted specifically to play it because it best sums up how her life has changed, how she has had a personal revolution since finding love with Swizz Beatz (rapper and producer Kasseem Dean) and becoming a mother to son Egypt.
It’s been a slow but stealthy revolution that’s taken place within her that has seen Alicia transform from a feisty street kid from Hell’s Kitchen with her hair in braids, a girl who carried a knife and a defensive face, who expressed everything through her music yet was wary and defensive and not comfortable in her own skin.
Countless mega-selling albums – Songs In A Minor (released when she was only 20 was the biggest selling debut record of all time at more than 12 million), Tne Diary of Alicia Keys, As I Am and The Element Of Freedom – made her a worldwide superstar, yet she remained strangely ambiguous, never releasing any personal details about herself.
The public only knew her from her songs. No one knew who she was in love with or if she’d ever really been love. She once told me, ‘I’m not the person who runs around sharing things with everybody.’
The brand new Alicia is not only more confident she is more warm, open and trusting. She has allowed herself to be vulnerable for the first time.
She grew up an only child with her hard working Italian Irish mother Terry Augello who was an actress and legal secretary. Her father, Craig Cook, a former flight attendant turned masseur, left her mother when she was two and she spent many years having no relationship with him at all. But upon the death of her paternal grandmother in 2006, with whom she was very close, she gradually came to reconsider their relationship and only recently decided to give it a fresh start putting past pain, abandonment issues and fighting her mother’s corner behind her.
With each album there has been an emotional shift, Alicia becoming less and less afraid to express who she is. The album Girl On Fire is fierce.
‘Brand New Me didn’t happen straight away, it was an evolution. It was a whole journey to get there. Some of the songs on Girl On Fire are very vulnerable. Some are me talking to myself in a subconscious way. Some have a sense of abandonment, of letting go.
‘It’s been a long process sorting out my work life balance since having Egypt. The first process was just bringing him home and for three months just being with him. “Do I start to record now? How do I do that?” What I learnt from Egypt was I should not always be endlessly in the studio. I realised that was counterproductive.
‘I thought I got more done by staying there longer but in actuality I can get more done in less time by being more sustained and focused. I never even had a social life before when I was making a record. I would think nothing else should come anywhere near it and I was so boring. I’m much more fun now.
‘Even coming to London on this trip is a new level of learning about work life balance. What time zone should I keep him on? Egypt continues to change my life every day. (He is named after the country which she visited a few years ago).’I went on my own, completely alone. When I ran away to Egypt it was the first vacation I had ever taken in my adult life. It came at a time where I realised I could not hold everything together. I had been dealing with a lot. (Her grandmother’s illness and death and the onslaught of fame).
‘The wanting to control thing can be very detrimental. On the outside I’m calm and collected so nobody knows what I am going through. I realised if I wanted to grow as an artist and as a woman I had to let that ship go.
‘I went to the Valley of the Kings down to the temples and the tombs. I sailed down the Nile and I swam in the Red Sea. I saw the power of human beings and the inspiration of things that have lasted for thousands of years. I feel I have roots in Egypt, although I’m not sure of the exact origins.
‘Who knew one trip to Egypt would change my life. I would like to think I could still go on my own. Everyone needs alone time.’

‘I do love being on my own. And there are times when I’m not alone but I’m in my own space. Like in the gym. I’ve just started to do boxing. And even though there’s another person physically there with me I feel I’m in my own space.’

‘I’m loving boxing. I don’t care what music is that I work out to I just need a rhythm. Afro-Cuban is good, Spanish is good too. I learnt that it takes 18 months before you really shed the baby weight. It just doesn’t come off in the first 18 months.
‘I gained 30lbs, which isn’t that much, and once the baby comes out a lot of weight comes with that, but the rest, about 10lbs, seems to stay. You are constantly trying to figure out what to do. Eventually I resigned myself to this will take as long as it takes and at around 18 months I felt I’m ready, I’m really ready. And then the last 10lbs went.’

‘Egypt is awesome. He’s two and just so silly. He’s super light and super giggly. We feel so right together, we definitely fit. From the first moment I saw him I loved him. It’s a mixture of relief, he’s finally here, he’s safe, and who he is, a whole full person.
‘A lot of people when they get babies they take them home and think, who are you? What are you doing here? Then eventually they fall for them. Not me. It was love at first sight and it got progressively obsessional. I want to be there every second. I would like to have some more. At least one. Every woman thinks she wants a girl and so did I but I’m so glad he’s a boy. The mother son bond is really powerful.’

‘Women are more complex by nature. They are born complex. Daughters are often closer to their fathers. I grew up with only my mother. Recently I feel both me and my father have grown up. I think something happens when you become a grandparent. You have a different mind state. There’s less pressure on the relationship, so maybe it’s closer. He was with Egypt last week and he loved it.
‘My father and I are fine now. I would say in the process of growing up you realise you’ve been holding on to anger. I was angry then and am sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.
‘The process started from my (paternal) grandmother being ill. It caused a shift. You realise what’s important when you see a person you love dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important to her. I saw his love for her. I realised he wasn’t an evil person so I said can we start from this point on? Can we be friends? I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.
‘It’s a great period in my life. All the relationships in my life I feel I’ve got to a place where I’m honest and I can cut the shit. Here is what it was, here is what it is, and here’s what it might be. Let’s just be in the moment.’

‘Definitely since Egypt I’m a more peaceful person. I’m a more comfortable in my own skin person. But it happened before that too. I was becoming more open. I started to understand things better. I stopped being angry with my father and defensive.
‘There’s some things you can’t change and some things you’re going to have to change. I think I put myself in I’ve learnt so much recently. I think I had boxed myself in because of other people’s opinions, other people’s fears and worries and thoughts so I stopped worrying what other people’s worries might be.’

‘I cut my hair and I love it. It really is the embodiment of everything I’ve been doing over these past couple of years. Letting go, freedom, empowerment, doing my own thing. I might never go back to long hair. The washing process, everything, is done in a few seconds and very spontaneous. It can go curly or straight.’

‘I feel connected to both my parents’ roots. My mother is Irish Italian. Her Italian grandparents were from Sicily. I have never been there so I would like to go. Whenever I’m in Italy people always ask me are you a little Italian? They can see it. I would like to take one of those DNA tests because it would be great to know where our exact lineage is from. I’m not sure of my father’s roots. He is African American, but what does that actually mean? I would like to know exactly where I’m from.’

‘There are so many babies born with nobody and having a son makes me now realise wow, what about those babies who for whatever reason are abandoned. Perhaps their mothers passed away and they have never known contact, that touch from their babyhood.
‘I don’t know if I wouldn’t adopt I just don’t know but it’s a beautiful thing to do.’

‘I really do enjoy cooking. I feel very at peace when I cook even though these days I don’t cook a lot because there’s often the question of do I sleep or do I cook? Definitely sleep.
‘My favourite dish is soy maple salmon. It’s salty and sweet and I always love a contrast.’

‘When I went to college I had no idea what I wanted to study. I went for the experience and to find out what pulled me. Now if I went back I would study business and marketing. I’d like to understand the fundamentals behind the things I put in action every day. What are the mindsets and concepts?’
‘My collaboration with Emelie Sande came about randomly and I love how things happen like that. I was celebrating the tenth anniversary of Songs In A Minor with four shows. One of them was in the Royal Albert Hall, London and I was looking for a support act. So I got turned on to her. There was one song called Breaking The Law. I played it 70 times, so I said let’s have her open the show. We didn’t meet each other that night.
‘She was coming to New York and we ended up getting together and we decided to do some writing. It was instant chemistry. Rarely does it happen like that. She is a unique and important artist who will be around for a long time. We worked on three songs on this album which are all awesome.’

‘My husband and I knew each other for years. We were both in the same industry. We first met when we were something like 16. I didn’t have music out, I was just playing certain places and he was just starting on his music career.
‘A high school friend of his ended up being a girl who was managed by the same people as me. That’s how we ended up meeting and we used to hang out and say things like “Maybe we’ll work together one day.” We knew each other’s music. We were in the same industry. It’s cute that we knew each other when we were 16 but it was not an instant connection. You never know. Sometimes it takes years. It was a very slow burn but it does still burn and it’s beautiful. We understand each other.
‘I’ve never met someone who is like me and the more we are together the more I see we are alike. I’ve never met someone with whom I could be my whole self. I’ve always had to be part of myself with people, but with him I can be my whole self and he loves me when I am. And I love when he is his whole self.’

‘Sometimes we walk into a room together an everyone gravitates towards him, and there are times when we walk into a room together and everyone gravitates towards me. He doesn’t feel uncomfortable and I don’t feel uncomfortable. I love it when people love him. And he loves when people love me. It’s a really balanced thing we have and I’m so glad I don’t have to pull back this part of myself, pull back that part. We can just be “Here’s me.” It’s pretty special and now with our beautiful Egypt we just thank each other every day.’

Hot List:

Best book you’ve read recently?
It’s Isabelle Allende’s book about Haiti. Unbelievable.

What music are you listening to?
A lot of Afro-Cuban, Fela Kuti, Frank Ocean, Emile Sande and Alabama Shakes.

What are you wearing?
I’m in love with Givenchy. Also I love to wear sweat pants, low hanging tanks with heels.

Can’t live without make-up product?
Eyeliner. Always have loved my eyeliner and always will. I like the make-up line called Tarte.

Item that you’ve most recently splashed out on?
I haven’t but my husband bought a Morgan car. It’s a 1940s meets futuristic body style. Hand made and incredible. I’ll gladly hop in the driver’s seat and drive that bad boy.

Style icon?
Bianca Jagger.

City?
Of course it’s New York. But outside of that Barcelona.

Unfulfilled ambition?
I have so many. I want to be able to try new passions, do things I don’t even know yet. I want to learn.

It’s midnight and there’s a bank of paparazzi in front of me surrounding Alicia Keys’ trailer like big fat flies with big fat lenses. They jostle and push, they feel very threatening.

I have just seen Alicia perform at St. John’s, Smith Square, the Black Ball. There’s been dinner, auctions, all to raise money and awareness for her charity Keep A Child Alive. There was a performance from Keys which was intimate and emotionally direct in a way that she’s made her own. Whether it’s on stage or on song, Keys can get you right in the heart.

Even my agitated mood had dissipated: I’d been waiting to interview her since 4.30pm that day, hence the agitation. I could have interviewed her after I’d been waiting about an hour, but that would have been while she was having her make-up done. I’d met Keys many times before. I wanted to talk to her properly, not while her eyes were shut to accommodate a make-up brush.

She’s on a world tour and she’s pregnant. I didn’t know she was pregnant at the time though. It was announced the following day, but I had a funny feeling… but more of that later.

Eventually I’m inside the trailer. Keys and her hair stylist, assistant, and several other integrals, all shout my name loud and cheer me in. You can’t be agitated with Keys for long. She’ll always find a way to melt it.

The trailer is a symphony of fawn and beige leatherette; dark and dank – chunks of newly cut hair from Keys’ hairpiece are on the floor. She says, “It’s like being in jail in here.”

She sprays herself with some Dolce & Gabbana, telling me she wants to mask the smell of performance. The smell is sweet, heady, a little bit salty. Performance was better.

She’s wearing a black draped, off the shoulder dress with a fabric corsage. Her shoes are ruffled platform sandals. I’ve seen her in many incarnations before. When she first started out she never wore a dress because she thought that was too vulnerable and too attention grabbing – there was always that paradox. And her hair was in braids. It seems a long time ago. In those days she was defensive and never wanted to reveal anything to anybody, be it friend, lover or interviewer.

She wrote her first song at 13 when she was coming to terms with the death of her grandfather. Her debut Songs In A Minor was one of the biggest selling debut albums ever. She has continued to be relentlessly successful, each album outstripping the last; and Empire State Of Mind is an inescapable modern classic, probably the most played single of the past year.

The first time I interviewed her there was no PR machine. I just turned up at the appointed time. This time I’m aware there is Alicia Keys the corporation, the entourage, the minders, a machine that’s rolling and controlling. I wonder if she feels separate from herself and just how is it to be inside the giant phenomenon that is Alicia Keys? “I don’t really have a gauge on it in the sense that I don’t know how it appears to other people. I don’t think I understand that too much because I don’t think I like that. I’m also hell bent on normalcy to the extent where people are like, ‘Alicia, you are delusional’.”

Keys really doesn’t like the unreal stuff, or the paparazzis outside. She says, “That’s London in particular I have to say. If it were everywhere like that I would possibly become violent. But since it’s just here in London you can smile through it and go ‘wow, weird’. The other day they were following us in a car and I could really see how it happened with Princess Diana. They could really kill someone because it’s dangerous and I was really freaked out by that.”

This time round she played two nights at the O2 Arena which houses 20,000 people. “It’s unbelievable,” she says. And she really does seem shocked at herself. “I’m thinking what am I doing, two nights at that venue.” Keys has always wanted this kind of success – success is what gets you appreciated. Success came from being strong, in control, and throughout her teenage years she’d carry a knife to protect herself on the streets of Hell’s Kitchen, New York, where she grew up. It was a metaphor that she didn’t need anybody.

She was brought up by her mother, part Italian, part English, part Scottish, Terri Augello, an actress who worked long hours often until midnight as a paralegal. There was lots of alone time which harnessed her self-sufficiency. Her father was African American Craig Cook, a flight attendant turned masseuse. Her parents were never married and never lived together, but were amicable. Cook’s parents called Augello their “daughter-in-love.” Keys’ relationship with her father was minimal until recently.

Her songs and her diary which she still writes to this day are like therapy to her. Songwriting is her confessor. She once told me, “Most times your blessings are also your curses. And for me this is my ability to express myself so clearly with pen and paper, but when it comes to expressing myself verbally with a person I have a big wall I put up there.” Since then she’s worked to rethread that pattern and become more emotionally articulate and open.

She is very open when she talks. She’ll let you see exactly what’s going on in her head. She’ll let you feel her thinking. But she’s not very good about telling you about other things and people.

This album took only three months, it usually takes her much much longer to finish a record. “I don’t know what happened. I think I’m more playful in my attitude and my approach. I’m still a perfectionist, but just not so serious. It used to be I would never take a weekend trip or hang out. I think it’s a New York mentality, there’s a certain grind. An empire state of grind!”

Christian Louboutin steps into the trailer, exuberant because he auctioned the shoes that he designed for her and another pair for Beyoncé, and was one of the most popular lots. He is wearing shoes covered in metal spikes. The atmosphere is almost euphoric with the success of the evening. Keys seems to be soft and relaxed. I remember there was a time when she never used to drink coffee in case it affected her too intensely.

“I like it like a baby, with so much milk and sugar it’s more milk and sugar than coffee.” I tell her that there’s a psychological test which means how you like your coffee is supposed to symbolise your attitude towards sex, so basically this must mean she likes it hardly at all. “Oh that’s totally wrong,” she giggles in a totally naughty way.

You believe Keys when she talks about her charity, that she deeply cares and didn’t pick it up like a must have pair of shoes of the season. She’s been involved with Keep A Child Alive since 2002. “When 9/11 happened it was like, ‘What’s going on in the world?'” Consciousness in America shifted to fear and self-protection, but Keys thought of it in a different way. She wanted to know what was going on in the whole world.

“I wanted to know what was going on in Africa. I went to Africa to do a performance and I was so ecstastic to be known in Africa at that time. I had a phenomenal time learning about Africa, it was like school. There was a ton of information for me to digest. Then I met people my age who are dealing with hell, and I thought I can do something here, I want to do something special.”
Keys was preparing to go to South Africa to perform at the opening of the World Cup hoping that all the glamour surrounding international football stars will bring out the extreme contrast of the people in South Africa and what they might be going through, particular with their fight against disease, to get HIV medication and extreme poverty.

“The contrast is the beauty of it. It’s very positive to have the world cup happening in Africa. The whole world is turning to look at Africa at this event. Time (magazine) is doing a conference out there which will bring world leaders to Africa to talk about how businesses can partner. It could be an empowering time, but it’s important to think all these billion of dollars that are being pumped into the world cup for two weeks, couldn’t we just pump a few million of those dollars into something that is an issue every day.”

We saw films before tonight’s performance of villages that can be built out of shipment containers. A woman with HIV with young children who needed antiretrovirals to save her life. Then we saw her a few months later happy, rounder faced and able to be a mother to her children.

Keys says, “I try my best just to engage people in a way that’s simple so that you don’t think an Aids epidemic is only over there. It’s a very simple concept: here is the existing medicine, people take it and it brings them back to life. I’ve seen kids that were on the verge of death and then a few years later they are jumping around. ”

It’s not just dogma or a speech. When she says it, it hits you and you feel her voice like a melody. Life is injected into charity fatigue when she talks and I wonder if working with these children, some of whom have been infected with the Aids virus from family members who have abused them, has made her feel broody.

“Oh,” she says looking a little startled. I realise now I asked the question as if I knew something, so she must have been flustered, but answered in a way that would cover if I did know or I didn’t. “I love children and I love family and I love that interaction. Because I had a really close relationship with my mother I understand that deep powerful love, and it’s so beautiful. So as a mother to a child is the most brilliant gift, it’s gorgeous.”

Are you ready for your own children? “Yes. I’m definitely in a place where I have a different sensibility about things. I remember how I used to be. I’m going on the road and I’m back when I’m back and I’m probably gone a long time. I felt that that’s what I needed to do and there was nothing more important than reaching that place I saw in my head. Nothing could stop me. There was no amount of love. There was no amount of nothing that could drag me down. That was then. And now there is a desire in me to have more stability. I never think I’ve reached that pinnacle so to speak, but I do feel satisfied with what I’ve been able to achieve, so I don’t feel this endless need I’ve got to get there, I’ve got to get there.”

And what’s that been replaced with? “I’ve got to get peace. I have to be peaceful and I have to be happy. I think sometimes we confuse success with happiness. It’s easy to do because you figure that success is going to make you happy.”

And if it doesn’t make you happy there’s a crisis. “I think it screws a lot of people up, totally fucks them bad.”

How does she negotiate that one? “I don’t have a ton of friends but the friends I have are great ones. I don’t have huge family but the family I have is a great one. I have solid decent people around me and I believe that is all it is because you will get destroyed if you have people bringing you down.”

Keys seems to have given up on the idea that she can control everything. Much is made of the fact that she never talks specifically about her personal life. For a while nobody knew if she liked girls or boys. She was adamant that that wouldn’t become public property, part of a publicity machine that would steamroller her. But gradually that’s changed and she allowed herself to be papped with producer supremo fiancé Swizz Beatz. She used to be able to freeze away paparazzi by a certain don’t go there I’m not who you think I am stare. She doesn’t even try to pull one of those now. Perhaps being relaxed and in love was why her latest album was conceived in playfulness.

In a way she has always spoken from her heart and how she’s feeling in that moment. It’s more interesting to hear her say that “being in love feels to her like the first sunrise ever seen from earth” than the name of her boyfriend and what they did last night.

I wonder if her non-relationship with her father helped create the emotional reticence that appears now to be dissolving. Has she got closer to him? “I would say that in the process of growing you sometimes realise you hold on to anger. I was angry then and I’m sure I had the right to be angry, but if you hold on to all this anger the only person you’re hurting is you.”

Did he come back into your life? Or how did you decide to give up the anger? “It came from my grandmother being ill. That was his mother and it caused a shift in the family dynamic.” She was incredibly close to her grandmother who died in 2006. She was with her on the night she died. She told me that they were so close she didn’t just look like her, she embodied her.

“You realise what’s important when you see a person you love so dearly and you’re not going to have them for long. It was important for her and I thought well, what is all this stuff. I saw his love for her and I saw that he didn’t mean any harm. He wasn’t being an evil person. Sometimes things don’t work out and it’s difficult to figure out how to put it all together.”

Does she think she saw it all through her mother’s eyes as she was so close to her? “I’m sure that was some of it, and just consistency was lacking at times. But I became more understanding and I said here is my beautiful grandmother, we can start from this point on, we can be cordial. We can be friends. I can start to understand you and you can start to understand me.

“I think one of the most difficult things for human beings is to learn how to let it go because you want to hold on and on and you seem to be the only one that’s fighting.”

How does she let go now? “One is journalising. I like a place where you can be brutally honest. And I’ve also found I really enjoy meditating and chanting. The other thing is I try to be really direct with what I’m feeling. I will talk directly about and say ‘I’ve got to say this shit’ and then I can let it go.

“It was very difficult to be honest with myself because I was ‘I am steel, nothing hurts me, I’m impenetrable, nothing can touch me’, but I’m over that now.”

So she goes from steel to silk? “Definitely I do, although a lot of times I revert back to my steel and think, ‘Oh no, I don’t want to be in this steel thing’. I recognise it a bit more. The triggers are pure fatigue, my patience goes.”

She’s looking forward to not being fatigued, taking time out. “I have a whole list of places I wanted to travel. I’ve promised myself a trip to Israel, but I don’t know if it will be this summer.”

She hugs me goodbye, still smelling of performance mixed with Dolce & Gabbana Light Blue. It’s a proper hug with proper soul in it. She will always be working on shedding those layers rather than building barriers, even if her publicist is doing the opposite. And that peace she was looking for? She may well have found it.

Vivienne Westwood (Nov 2015)

Vivienne Westwood has always been a mass of contradictions. That’s part of what draws you in. You want to unravel all the different layers of her. You try to follow her rapidly conflicting ideas that fall one on top of another in an energetic diatribe that comes from a place of power, certainty, yet vulnerability.

She says that she likes to make clothes to make poor people look rich and rich people look poor. She hates with an unswerving passion, consumerism, excess. Yet she has built a fashion empire.

Ask her what is the one thing she would like to change in the world and she says: ‘I would like to get rid of advertising.’ Yet she has beautiful campaigns with pictures by superstar photographer Jürgen Teller.

She has always been this way. Her clothes are not just pieces of cleverly draped and reconstructed fabric. They are statements. She wants to make women feel powerful, not just want to be thin, like most of the other male designers of her generation and the generation after.

She doesn’t believe that clothes should be comfortable. She believes they should make you look good and therefore that should make you feel comfortable.

She designs a man’s jacket with a feminine cut to make the man look more masculine. Fiercely independent and self-sufficient, she now contributes to her husband Andreas Kronthaler who creates the main collection while she concentrates on her activism: her climate revolution; her anti-fracking; and Cool Earth anti rainforest destruction campaigns.

Most recently, even though thoroughly English, she has been adamant that Scotland should vote Yes to independence. ‘In England there is hardly any democracy left. The Government does what it wants. They are prepared to poison our water so that businesses can frack. You Scotland can have the government you want,’ she urged and was disappointed in the No vote. She has always been a rebel.

She is credited with creating the punk revolution along with her lover and business partner Malcolm McLaren. He invented the hype and put together the bands, the Sex Pistols, the anarchy. And she designed the look, the safety pins, the ripped T-shirts, the slogans that went with it.

The McLaren Westwood partnership was love/hate. Angry and volatile, competitive. McLaren was cruel to her, made her cry every day until now she can’t cry any more. Yet he needed her and she needed to be loyal to him. Even when he called her ‘a seamstress.’ But more of that later.

I have just read Vivienne’s biography written with Ian Kelly who provides an intellectual satnav to her alarming thought processes. I am at Vivienne’s Battersea headquarters, on the top floor. Mood boards, 18th Century prints of powdered ladies, pieces of fabric, a large cutting table. I haven’t seen Vivienne in 20 years when I used to pay off £3 a week for velvet corsets, platform shoes and a black velvet coat with fur that had a tartan sister.

Her greeting is Aga warm. Her soft Derbyshire accent purrs. ‘You used to be a punk and now you interview famous people,’ she says with delight at the incongruity.

At 73 she is full of the same raw energy and she has the same pinkish red crayoned on eye make-up. She is wearing a black dress, loose long-sleeved with shoulders that flap down and point like a naughty witch. Her hair is a platinum white and shaved to her head. Her lips are a matt maroon, full and when she smiles there’s perfect little teeth.

We perch at her cutting table. What was it that prompted her to collaborate on the biography? ‘I liked the books that Ian had already written. He’s a very serious, very nice person. I’d been avoiding a book for ages. Another book came out about me. I didn’t like it. Andreas said you have to do it. And I said the last thing I want to do is write about myself. But when it came to it I found it interesting to explain things that I had done. Like things when I was a child.’

The stories about the child Vivienne are some of the most fascinating in the book. It’s like she was born old and wise and as she grew up became more child like and impulsive. Though the whole time being intellectual, like a clever Benjamin Button.

She was always a fighter for justice. Sometimes she would admit to doing something wrong that she hadn’t done to get a sense of fairness for other people. ‘Yes, I was just interested to see what would happen.’

She had an epiphany when she first saw a picture of the crucifixion. ‘That’s when I realised the world was full of cruelty and hypocrisy. I couldn’t understand how we let that happen.’

There was a little boy at her school that everyone called Dirty Edward, nobody liked him. She said she was his girlfriend. ‘Well he was a poor little thing. He was in his own head and never talked to anybody. He was really a bit mental. He’d been isolated and avoided all love, probably even from his mother.

I wonder if she had the same impulses to save Malcolm, seeing him as a little boy who wasn’t loved, rejected by his mother and left to grow up with his cruel grandmother who he believed was his mother and never knowing his father until I introduced them in 1989, but that’s another long story.

She giggles. ‘I can see that already, yes. Everybody thought that boy was a pain in the a***. But you know I like a bit of a rebel.’ Here it’s unclear whether she’s talking about Malcolm or Dirty Edward and before I have a chance to pin her down she goes on to tell me how her son Joe Corré, co-founder of Agent Provocateur, has since started a new company, A Child of the Jago.

‘Joe was inspired by a man called Jack Sheppard who escaped from jail more than once quite dramatically. He was a total rebel. And his clothes have a country feel. I am very proud of him.’

Has he inherited her spirit of rebellion? ‘Yes, but no really. My children have got mixes of me in them, of course. But each child is an alien. They are nothing to do with you. They are not your possessions. They are who they are. My children are good people. They would not shit on a friend.’

Her elder son Ben Westwood lives in Japan running a photographic company. ‘Joe is brilliant at strategy. He came on the Let’s Talk About Fracking campaign with me. We tried to have a debate about this but we found that none of the pro-frackers would come.

‘Do you know people in fracking areas in America are having to spend $1,000 a month because their water is poisoned. She is on a crusade now and the only thing that stops her is when her husband Andreas comes up. He is tall and impressive, curly hair and penetrating blue grey eyes. They met when he was a student of hers. He is 25 years younger: attentive, adoring. She has said in the past that he has the kind of body that Arnold Schwarzenegger would have had if he hadn’t pumped himself up.

He is rather strapping and gentle all at the same time. And while Vivienne talks about how much she dislikes Obama and doesn’t like the look of Michelle, Andreas thinks ‘she’s got flair, she’s got style. That little cardigan she wears. That’s her look.’

Vivienne says, ‘Well I could dress her, of course. But she’s married to someone disgusting and therefore she ought to be doing something about not letting things happen or trying to divorce him. But I suppose that’s no reason why you shouldn’t make somebody look good.’ We all laugh.

‘Now my hair is shaved I feel I set an example as Vivienne the freedom fighter. I find that clothes that make me look like a hermit suit me. Can you see that this carries a sense of the auto irony and devil may care. That’s when I think I look important, when I’m amused by myself. It gives me power in my actions.’

Was there a decision behind getting rid of the tangerine coloured hair? ‘I kept putting the henna on my head and seeing the white parting all the time, so I just decided not to put the red on it one day.

‘I remember sitting on the bus with my mother in my village growing up. (She was born near Glossop, Derbyshire). And there was an evacuee which meant she was probably somebody suspicious anyway. And this woman had black roots in her hair. It was sort of shameful, but today what you see is mostly white roots. Andreas cut it. We cut it off then shaved it. We did it again recently.’

It is interesting to see how growing up in the war influenced her design wise. The Utility years were all about conservation; minimum fabric maximum return. And that’s always the way she’s cut her clothes. But it’s more than that. Having to create whole worlds out of cardboard boxes made her pro resourcefulness and anti excess.

‘I’m glad I was born in that period. I just think it’s dreadful now- children inundated with all this rubbish. Especially fuchsia coloured plastic and pink bicycles for little girls. It’s like bubble gum. It’s awful.

‘Compare that to a child growing up with nothing but crawling on the floor with little delft tiles, you know those Dutch tiles where there’d be a windmill or a falcon. Wonderful things to look at.

‘I didn’t have anything around me. No Art. And my mother always read to us. And that was important, how I could discover art. I remember a shop window in the local sweet shop. In the middle of the window was a book, a Bible with a pre-Raphaelite picture of God the Father with a lantern. “I am the Light of the World.” It was beautiful. I’d never seen anything like that before and I knew my mother would get it for me for Christmas. She would have done anything for us.’

She and her mother Dora were always incredibly close. Dora gave her everything she had and was constantly telling her she was proud of her up until the day she died in 2008. Her father came from a long line of cobblers. All the children went to sleep with her mother singing.

Her first marriage was to Derek Westwood, a factory worker, who was good looking and who could dance well. He was a devoted father to Ben and a general good egg. ‘When we were at first married I wasn’t happy. I just wasn’t content looking after my child. I needed to know more of the world.’

Vivienne was always top of her class and had trained to be a schoolteacher. ‘I fancied being an actress at one point. I would have been good because I’ve got imagination and I can put myself into other people’s shoes. There’s not time now I’m afraid. But I’d like to write plays.’ There follows a monologue about her love for Peter Brook and when he put on an Arabic play and it involved Balinese bird masks and feathers. And Vivienne is entranced by that and her desire ‘to put on something that would be favourable to Arabs. To make us understand that they’ve got this incredible culture and question why we have made this polarity. We are reaping the harvest now, you know. I blame Tony Blair for that man having his head chopped off.’

She’s right of course but I wonder how we got to the man having his heads chopped off when I’d asked about her first marriage. She composes herself. ‘People grow out of their relationships. He was very good looking and charismatic. I think of him with great affection but I grew out of him.’

He wanted to be a pilot and that’s what he became. Vivienne wanted to be an intellectual. ‘I think it’s absolutely important that people stay friends.’

Did she stay friends with Malcolm? ‘No, I didn’t. No, I did not. Malcolm was impossible. Malcolm was so bad to me. I would never have told any of these things when Malcolm was alive. Malcolm was if you are not with me in any way you are against me, you are my enemy, you are taking the bread from my mouth. I didn’t put it in the book but he was very jealous of me. he would say things like ‘she’s just a seamstress’ and ‘Vivienne would not be a designer if she’d never met me.’

Malcolm was very insecure, very needy? ‘Yes. And he really wanted success, Malcolm. And that was his downfall because he never really found out about anything, he just invented everything. He had a good mind and I liked the way he put things together. “Go wild in the country where snakes in the grass are absolutely free”,’ she sings to the infamous Bow Wow Wow tune.

‘He made a collage of things, he made a story, but he had no logic. He was very good at drawing.’ When they were together they used to fight every day? ‘Yes. He used to drive me mad. He used to be provocative and selfish and spiteful, so spiteful. He would try to undermine your confidence and say something that would make you feel bad. All the time.’

In the book she describes how whenever she went out to do something, anything, he would be bereft and she once found him going crazy walking down the lines in the middle of the road. Needy and cruel.

‘He was very similar to John (sic) Rotten. I call it jiving with people’s emotions. Come close to me and as soon as you’re close you’ll get pushed away. And when you’re far away they’ll pull you back. And then they’ll get frightened when you get too close.’

When she finally left him, after years of being terrible to her he begged her to come back. ‘He treated Joe exactly the way we’ve been describing. He was terrible to his own son. (When he died in 2010 he didn’t leave his only son a penny). But at the same time he gave him all these adventures. He would have been a good schoolteacher. One day he did a day at school where he told them all to bring in things from the land and then he would make them have a conversation amongst all the objects they’d brought in. He made pandemonium, but the kids were excited.

‘What did I learn from him? I don’t know. I loved his ideas.’

For a while they worked together creatively. At the heart of the punk movement they had a shop called Sex, renamed Seditionaries in December 1976, on the King’s Road. ‘It was hard to put up with Malcolm’s cruelty. He was also cruel to Ben. He didn’t need to make me think that I was stupid, I thought that anyway. I thought that from the time I saw the crucifixion and I couldn’t understand what was going on in the world.’

She doesn’t feel stupid now. It took nearly a decade of being more or less on her own for her to get to know herself again. ‘I love working on my own. I find it very difficult to work with Andreas.’

And here’s another contradiction. She seems addicted to having the men she loves also being the men with whom she works. Andreas, now the main designer for Vivienne Westwood, exudes a sweetness, but also he is exacting.

‘We suffer because he’s such a perfectionist. But he’s so capable, so wonderful. The lining has to be the best thing that you’ve ever felt next to your body. Everything has to be wonderful for the gold label. I do influence the other collections as well and I find it easier when I’m the boss. I am not the boss when we design. Right from the beginning, even as a student, he started telling everybody what to do, and they listened because he was passionate. So we just had to let him do it. I tend to play the role of assistant to him and it’s been more difficult as I’m doing all this activism and I’m not always engaged at the start of the collection and if you’re not absorbed at the beginning you can get lost.’

She and Andreas married in secret when she was 50 and he was 25. She only told her sons. Despite her protests that he is bossy, he exudes calm. How does working together affect their relationship? Do they argue? ‘No, no. We don’t argue because I do what Andreas says. All you need to do with Andreas is say I like it, and that’s good enough. He is the most incredible talent. I’m not aware of myself being a talent so we’ll just put me to one side. He is incredible.’

Was that what first attracted her to him, his talent? Or did she just think she fancied him? ‘When I met Andreas he was already attractive to quite a lot of people in the troop that I was teaching. One of them still sends him cakes because he is really charismatic. I was attracted to him purely as a man, not necessarily about what he could do. I would go into rooms looking for Andreas. And soon he was meeting me off airplanes and if I went into a room he would always be there. He says for him it was love at first sight. He has told me that this has never happened before.

‘I worry about my activism when I see Andreas getting so tired. I feel guilty. He needs me nearer than I am most of the time.’ As if by magic he appears to make cups of tea.

She talks about her website, climate revolution and how that informs her fashion. ‘Consumption is the biggest propaganda. It’s ruined the world. I would ban advertising because it’s taken the place of culture. Nobody is making choices, you are just being bombarded. It’s stopping people from thinking.’

Not Vivienne though, she’s always thinking. ‘I’m always worried. I wake up in the middle of the night. But it’s good because I sort things out. I am proud to be called an activist. If somebody asks me what is the inspiration for this fashion show I say I’m afraid I can’t tell you, I can only talk about climate change. It’s been a build-up, having this public face and the opportunity to speak. A lifetime of ideas of how to make the world a better place.’

The pictures of women in corsets around us are inspirations for Andreas, although Vivienne took the corset and reinvented it to make women feel more powerful and more feminine. ‘Oh, a woman in a corset looks like a goddess.’

She talks with love about her favourite supermodel  Campbell. ‘She gives herself too big a schedule. She can never fulfill all her commitments. Kate Moss says “I couldn’t cope with her schedule. It would be too exhausting.”’ She also likes Pamela Anderson and Jerry Hall. ‘I love Jerry because she’s so kind and so polite.’ She mimics her Texan accent. ‘And Pamela. I just love her. She is the most caring person and she fights for what she believes.’

She saw a picture of her granddaughter Cora, now 17, in the Evening Standard. ‘She keeps getting photographed. She’s a beautiful girl. I wish she would use it to stand for something although it’s terrible for me to impost that on anybody. I would also like to see more of her. I only see her through Joe or if she’s got a birthday party and now she’s 17 she doesn’t have birthday parties. She’s a teenager, she’s busy, she never calls me. I wish she would read my only diary because I think my diary is a point of view you wouldn’t get anywhere else. I am trying to understand the world we live in. I think she could get a lot from it.’

We are interrupted because Vivienne must go downstairs urgently for a photoshoot with someone who is modelling some of her clothes. We sweep downstairs and there in a purple ballgown, so corseted that the most famous breasts on television are popping out in front of me. It’s Christina Hendricks, smiling sweetly and telling Vivienne how much she loves her. We all do.

Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez & Chrissy Iley

Selena Gomez arrives to meet me for dinner at a cosy restaurant in the suburbs of LA. She’s alone, no entourage, no fuss. She is newly skinny in a cream plunging V-neck, leather jeggings and black-strapped stilettos.
Her face is endearingly shaped like a moon.  Her skin impeccable, her eyes orbital.  Her lips poufy and juicy in a pale crimson lip balm. She exudes sweetness and poise in equal measure.
You can see why she was credited with being the stabilising influence in Justin Bieber’s life when she was his girlfriend for two years until 2013. And there were a few hook ups after that. She is incredibly calming. She has always had focus, graduating from the Disney school of child stardom to become a fully fledged actress as well as pop star.
The video for her latest single, Good For You, showcases sexiness and devotion; how she likes to be with her man. Shot partly in virginal white T-shirt and partly naked and pouting in the shower.  Except “I was covered from here to here,” she gestures from her cleavage downwards.
I read that the lyrics on her album Revival were inspired by her relationship with Bieber. I say his name.  She doesn’t flinch. And that his upcoming album is about her?  “It’s difficult for people to separate us. The internet wants to freeze this moment in time and constantly repeat it.  There are a couple of songs, Every Step and Closing, that are inspired but it’s also just about two people.
“I want people to see that there is strength in it and there is pain. Hopefully the album will speak for itself.  I’ve had no movie or album out for a year. What else are they going to talk about? The same thing over and over again.  There’s going to be a day when there’s a new young person who is hip and I’ll be married with children and it won’t be as bad. This industry does not dictate my happiness. If I lost everything tomorrow I’d be devastated but also know that my self-worth is not based in this industry. I’ve seen how it destroys people.”
We are now sharing some ravioli, which is delicious.  Is she in love right now? “No. I’ve been working my butt off. I’m dating but I don’t really want anything right now.”  Does she fall in love easily? “No,” she says firmly.
She was 23 in July, a Cancer. “I’m true to the sign. I am very nurturing. I take care of my friends, I’m sensitive and emotional and I love being at home.”  She lives with some flatmates, her mum and stepdad Brian close-by. For a while her mum helped manage her. Now they are producing partners.  Her parents were only 16 when they had her. As they are close in age, did she and her mum feel more like friends? “Never, not at all. She’s always been my mother. She’s the reason I’ve never succumbed to the bad part of what this industry is. She gets very scared for me, when I get criticised, when I had helicopters above my home. Helicopters?” She shrugs. “Absurd. My past relationship was a hot topic.
“I don’t draw a lot of attention to myself when I’m in public. I don’t travel with an entourage.  Of course there are ways in which I have to edit my life. Even just leaving my house I might take separate cars and bend down in the back seat because I don’t like to have photographers if I’m trying to have a nice day out.   It’s absurd wandering around with 12 people taking your photo.  They think if you have success they can do whatever they want to you. And that is a scary place.   But I am not the kind of person that likes a fuss. I never say ‘I can’t do this’”.
She stays grounded by keeping the same best friends that she grew up with. She grew up following in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. A specific generation of good girls who had to navigate growing up and their sexuality in public. Gomez has cited Britney Spears as a role model – which is weird because Gomez’s transition from being a poppet in the Disney empire has been far more graceful than Spears’s.
“I can count on one hand the people that I could call and they would be there for me. Taylor Swift I’ve known for seven years and she’s one of the greatest people. When I split up with my first boyfriend (Nick Jonas of the sibling then squeaky clean pop group The Jonas Brothers) and I was really sad about it, she flew into town with homemade cookies and a bunch of junk food. She was 18 and I was 16 and to this day if I call her she would do the same thing despite being one of the busiest people in the world. I knew her when I was with Disney. “Disney was good training. It prepared me for so much.. I was grateful.”
Why does she think she has such drive? She recalls, ‘I love Texas, my biological father lives there. (YES HE IS ALIVE) I moved here (to LA) when I was 13. I was excited but I would also sob every day because I missed home so much.  My mum would ask me if wanted to go home.  And even though I felt there was a hole in my heart I said ‘I can’t go home’ and I don’t know why that was.”
She intends to continue balancing a music and acting career. “I want to be challenged. I’m thirsty for that.”
Her fans call themselves Selenators. She has 39 million Instagram followers. ‘I feel like as well as the fans I’ve grown up with, there is an older audience as well.” Her voice on Good For You is a raspy purr.
She is such an interesting mix of innocent and wise. Her father used to take her to Hooters [a sports bar famous for it’s buxom waitresses in skimpy uniforms] when she was growing up.  “My father had me at 16. What do you expect a young guy to do? It wasn’t bad. I still go to Hooters today, I go with my boyfriends. I would sit there and colour in pictures and that’s when I fell in love with basketball because he would got there to watch sports. My dad loves me, I was his world.”
When she was dating Nick Jonas in 2006-7 they wore purity rings. “I did and I’m not embarrassed to say that.  I’m also not embarrassed to say that that ring has come off. I got it when I was 13 and I respect so much what it represented. But it isn’t for everyone.” She was massively made fun of at the time. “Sometimes you have to lie to yourself to get through the criticism and then you’re in your closet crying. It’s been like that for me a couple of times.  But I only want to learn from those things.  Make them a part of me but not let them define me.
“At school I was not popular. I was not focused on my looks. I wasn’t a girly girl. I wore my hair in a ponytail and a hoody. It was vicious. I got through it because I was obsessed with Ab Fab. I walked around gesturing the martini and the cigarettes. The sarcasm and timing taught me to get through a lot of awkwardness in conversations.” She gestures the martini and cigarette. Laughs.
Gomez is even more beautiful in person than in pictures. Yet on a recent radio show she rated herself only a six or seven. “Every person has days when they wake up feeling super sexy and there are days I look like a hot mess. I want people to know that I don’t think that I am perfect.” She flutters an eyelash and looks at me rather pleadingly. She wants people to like her, she wants to be ordinary yet from a very young age she has lived an extraordinary life.
She was born in Prairie, Texas in 1992. Her father Ricardo is of Mexican descent and mother Mandy of Italian heritage. Her parents split when she was a few years old. Her mother struggled financially. When she was nine she got a role in Barney and Friends which led her to the Disney TV show, The Wizards of Waverley Place, when she was 15.
It seems that she has been working her entire life. She seems much older, an old soul. “I have been called that before.” Does she think she’s lived on this earth before? “Maybe. But I also think my work ethic has made me understand how the world works.  I’m very much an observer. Maybe I was here in a past life but I also know that I’ve learned so much in this life and I have so much still to figure out.”
She has a teeny-tiny musical quaver tattooed on her neck.  “That was my first, I have six now. My mum’s birthday on the back of my neck, G for Gracie, she is my little sister.  And there’s a quote about finding your own strengths.”
Feeling strong is something that Gomez aspires to. Although there have been days where she admits to feeling “pressure” like the couple of times she found a helicopter above her garden trying to spy on her and her then boyfriend Bieber. She’s not a person who moans about the paparazzi.  She accepts it comes with the territory. Does she Google herself? “Yes, sometimes,” she tells me.  “Not everyday. But if I think there is something I should be aware of because people are talking about it.”
A few months ago, there were pictures of her looking like she had gained a few pounds. Today she looks super-svelte. “I have definitely been taking care of myself. I’ve been hiking and I have been cooking a lot.  Before I was able to eat just what I want but that doesn’t happen anymore.  I’m from Texas so I love fried food.  Sometimes I make fried chicken and waffles for breakfast but I’ve had to cut back.”
She is wearing a solid silver collar. It looks like a dog collar.  And a little S&M. It’s a statement piece of jewellery that says, ‘I have transitioned from being a Disney screen princess.’
“Most people have such a misconception of child stars, they think they are thrown into it and don’t want it. I think younger stars get targeted because it’s easier. I’m trying to figure my life out. I’m not saying I won’t make any mistakes but I am going to make my work a priority and stay extremely focused.”
Does she find it hard to navigate her sexuality and love life in public? She nods solemnly. “No one signs up for that. Every experience I have had has been beautiful genuinely.  But it’s also been a huge factor that almost destroyed me.”
She’s referring to Bieber. “It was people having an opinion on a choice that you make and you don’t want to be criticised for that. I didn’t think I was doing anything bad by falling in love. There’s such an emphasis on people being the perfect thing and then destroying them because it’s good press.   Also throw in the fact that you are a teenager it makes it more difficult. Now, at 23 I am able to step back and know that there are things that I will have to accept that are different in my life.  The next relationship will be something dear to me…” Her voice trails off. She offers me some of her tuna tartar.  “There is no way I will ever hide my life…”
It’s a tricky navigation, to be honest and try to preserve privacy.   “Some days I wake up and I hate it.  I wish I were never in the spotlight. Then I say ‘this is a life I chose.’  I work really hard, I love my job more than anything. It goes back and forth.”
I have interviewed many celebrities who have given me the ‘I don’t want to talk about my private life speech’, but never one so heartfelt.  Besides, she’s not closed, she’s open. Choosing a role in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in 2012 was the first indication of her transition. The film was about debauchery on a spring break: sex, drugs, darkness, bikinis. Gomez was the only one who kept her bikini on.
“Spring Breakers was a crucial decision because I wanted to change the dialogue of who I am.” It was a rites of passage movie.  “Yes, I was in that place for sure.  Harmony wanted me to audition for one of the other girls’ parts. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.” (The other girls’ parts were more sexually overt, more reprehensible).  “I was 19 and I could relate to (her character) Faith. I’ve lived her life a little bit. More innocent than the other girls.” And she never got naked.  “That was a plus. I thought ‘I will save that for later’”.
Is faith still important to her? “I’m proud of having faith. The quote on my Instagram is ‘By grace through faith’ – one of my favourite lines from The Bible. It’s about handling every decision as gracefully as possible.”  And with that she graciously orders the bill and insists on paying for dinner.

Ian McKellen (May, 2015)

Ian McKellen and Chrissy Iley

The first thing you notice about Ian McKellen is the blueness of the eyes.  It’s almost other worldly in its sparkle. One can’t use the phrase ‘piecing blue eyes’ because they do not pierce you they do not even look at you.  He in fact looks out, as if on a stage, to the view at the large window that overlooks The Thames.

We are seven floors up in his hotel suite in Canary Wharf, which is just around the corner from his home.

I remember those eyes. Specifically I remember them gleaming out on stage where I have seen him in Macbeth, Richard III, Bent. He has this unque ability to make everyone in the audience feel he is looking at them and make them understand Shakespeare even though they went just to see him. They are the eyes of Gandalf the kindly wizard from Lord of the Rings epics.

He is tall, slim handsome.  Dark grey skinny jeans, black boots, blue shirt.  He doesn’t dress like a man of 75 (76 on May 25). He looks much younger than I expected but that could be because I’ve just seen him play the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the exquisite film, Mr Holmes.

I wonder did it unnerve him to play someone so close to death?  “I am 76 this month.  People you know very well die all around you, so you discover you do think about death quite a lot; theirs and your own.  So to play someone who at the onset, who is so old and is trying to find some sort of elixir of life to remember everything – I can understand it.

“Playing old used to be a matter of deciding which foot to limp on. But it’s up here,” he points to his head. “You have to tell your brain how old you are.  It’s a cliché isn’t it? But inside you don’t feel your age but you are reminded when you take your pills or in particular when friends are dying, that at last mortality becomes reality.”

I find this strangely emotional, even though he didn’t mean it to be. I’ve read how he completely underplayed his need for hearing aids, dental implants and the removal of cataracts from his eyes. He even shrugged off his diagnosis of prostate cancer assuring us he was completely fine.  I shudder. Mortality is horrible. “I don’t know about that. It’s what happens?

“I’ve seen quite a few people at the ends of their lives and they all seem ready for it. I think the preparation has been going on for some time.  You are frightened aren’t you? And as you get older you accept it. Deaths of friends that are accidents, mistakes are dreadful for them and the people they leave behind. But if I saw an obituary that said Sir Ian McKellen died aged 76 you would think ‘well he had a good life.’”

What? There’d be a nation in mourning. And yes, we would be shocked because 76 doesn’t seem especially old. “Young people say he’s really old, he’s well into his forties.”

Does he hang out with many young people? “Sometimes. Sometimes not. If I have a party there will be people my own age and younger ones. Friends who have children. For them the younger generation is a big part of their lives. I do have young people I’m fond of….”

He seemed to become super friendly with Harry Styles when they met on the Graham Norton Show. Did they stay friends? “We exchanged emails. He wanted to see the latest Hobbit film and because of who he is he couldn’t easily go to the cinema so I arranged a screening for him in New York. Since then he has had other things to do…

“I think it’s a mistake to restrict your friends by age.  You wouldn’t say I only act with people my age.”

The Mr Holmes he played was a brilliant man who was losing his mind and trying to remember everything. Was that frightening to connect with?

“No. Most parts you play you have some connection with. You just say he’s that sort of man, I’ll adjust to his way of thinking. The work has been done, the lines have been written.  It can sometimes be enough just to say the lines. You don’t see the significance of what you have said until you see the film.”

It was perhaps more poignant for me because my father had a brilliant mind that he lost to Alzheimer’s.  McKellen suddenly looks up and at me, right at me for the first time. “Was he miserable?”  No he was angry. He wanted to know the details, the minutiae of his mind unravelling and how long it took. I notice he is much more animated, much more comfortable talking about other people than himself. But then again he is much more comfortable being other people.

“Mr Holmes doesn’t have dementia, he’s got most of his faculties.  He’s just trying to gear himself up with energy and solve problems, which I think is very optimistic.  And you feel at the end of the movie that he’s a better person for what he has discovered and for what he goes through. So for me it wasn’t depressing at all, it was a sunny film.”

I wonder has he seen the other Sherlock Holmes’s, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Jr. Which was his favourite? “I’ve not seen Robert Downey Jr’s. I’ve seen little bits of the Benedict one which was clever and witty.  My favourite was Jeremy Brett for Granada Television. He took the character very seriously. It’s a detailed performance, very black, upsetting and not comfortable and I think that’s what I like about it.

“There have been so many actors  that have played Sherlock Holmes you can’t worry about how good other people have been otherwise you would never play anything, Hamlet or Macbeth. I’m quite used to playing parts other people have played,” he says demurely.  “Of course they didn’t play this particular Holmes. It is mine, I’m the oldest Holmes so far.” He smiles as he says the word “oldest” with relish.

The movie meshes the past and the present. It’s rather haunting when it trails back, searching and nostalgic. Does McKellen himself look back or live in the present or future?

“I just had a very nostalgic three days with my cousin Margaret. We worked out quite quickly that even though we don’t see much of each other, we are each the person the other has known the longest.  There’s nobody who’s known Margaret longer than I and vice versa.  Is that nostalgic?  We spent a lot of time remembering things that happened and talking about our parents.

“I wish I had been more nostalgic for the past when my sister Jean was alive.  She was five years older than me and died six years ago.  Together we would have remembered things about our childhood that now I’ll never know. Things that happened in the war. I was thinking about writing a memoir so I’m trying to remember the evacuees that stayed with us.  We lived in the north and they were evacuated from Middlesex. The father was a fire fighter so he didn’t come but the mother and her two children came, Tony and his younger sister, I can’t remember her name, and we lived together for a year.  Can you imagine, a little house, four of us and then suddenly three strangers moving in.”

McKellen was born in Burnley, grew up in Wigan and later went to Bolton School for Boys where he was head boy.  His father Dennis was a civil engineer and a lay preacher, his mother a theatre lover and home maker.

“I try not to think of the future, I catch myself thinking I’m glad I didn’t have any children. I would worry for their future. Besides I don’t think I would have been a very good parent. I don’t think many people are. I think it’s the most difficult thing anyone can do.”

Did he never think about being a parent? “I’m a gay man. In my generation you would never imagine having children. Some people want that. But I see my friends struggling with being a parent. You have to be so generous don’t you?”

Does he mean gay or straight friends? “Both, I don’t think there is any difference except perhaps if you are a gay parent you must have thought really hard about having children. It would never have been a quick night in the sack.

“I don’t think gay man of my generation ever thought about it.  We didn’t think about getting married. The state wouldn’t allow gay relationships to be declared.  And then they pointed at us and said look, they are irresponsible, they are not like us, they don’t have families.  No we don’t because you tell us we can’t. It’s silly.” He says all this matter of factly, the anger sucked out of it. It’s an inner dialogue that must have gone on for so many years of his life. He knows its every twist and turn.

He came out when he was 49, almost by accident on a Radio 3 talk show when he was discussing Clause 28, the 1988 bill that said no public servant, including teachers, could be seen to be promoting a gay lifestyle. He has always talked about coming out as a huge relief. Of course his friends and theatre family knew he was gay and he was fully established in his career but letting the world know was not just an emotional milestone it paved the way for other actors to declare themselves.

At the time he was Britain’s most famous theatre actor. It is only after this date that what were to become his most renowned film roles started to come in – The Lord of the Rings movies, the X-Men franchise, The Golden Compass, The Da Vinci Code,  Gods and Monsters.

Perhaps it was easier because at 49 the romantic lead roles were dwindling and many of his characters were asexual. When Rupert Everett came out he said that he regretted it because then he was never taken seriously as a heterosexual romantic lead again.  “Rupert is a bright man and that was how it seemed to him. But I would not say that is true for me. When an actor’s career doesn’t go in the direction they want it too it’s not just down to one particular reason. I suspect his views have changed now. I would take acting out of the equation. I have not met anybody who thought that coming out wasn’t the best thing they had done in their life. It was the most important thing, life changing and life-affirming.”

I wonder if coming out is an old fashioned phrase as things have moved on immeasurably.  “I know people who are not at ease saying they are gay but I don’t know many young people who have problems with it.  I hope in fifty years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

For him and his generation things were much harder. Life was closed and full of stressful secrets. It is perhaps easier to come out to your friends then siblings and parents last.

McKellen’s mother died when he was twelve. “That relationship is irreplaceable. When my father married two years later I think one of his motives was to provide me with a mother, which she never was.  She was Gladys and I had a very different relationship with her. I ended up being very close to her. But she wasn’t my mother and I would love to have known my mother as an adult.

“My father died when I was 25 (killed in a car crash). We weren’t that close and for the previous four years I’d been at university.  I don’t know how different my life or my thinking would have been if they had both been alive.  There would have been a lot for them to get over. In that we weren’t a family who….” He pauses, even now finding it difficult to find the right words.

Confronting who you are and telling your parents in a time when it was illegal would have been so hard. His first proper love affair was with history teacher Brian Taylor from Bolton. It began in 1964, coincidentally the same year his father died. It endured until 1972. Six years later he met Sean Mathias at the Edinburgh Festival and they were together as a couple for a decade. They still work together. Mathias directed him in Waiting For Godot (2009) and together with another businessman they purchased the lease on The Grapes pub in Limehouse, close to where he lives.

There is nothing about him that seems extravagant.  He is not over the top with his emotions?  Does he do anything that is excessive, luxurious? “Compared to other people my house is luxurious, but it’s within my means. And I’m never tempted to live anywhere else. It roots me.”

It is in this moment that I wonder how different he would have been if his mother had not died. What if he could ever have confronted his feelings? He would he have ever have come out at all? Did his parents easily access their emotions and talk openly?

“There was a lot of love and caring and no-one ever lifted a hand in anger. But they were not emotionally open. It never became a problem but I think it would have done if they had been alive. We didn’t seem to talk about things that were important. I would have to have come out and God knows how that would have gone down.  It’s a deep regret that I didn’t have the chance to tell them.”  He has stopped looking out of the window. The conversation is suddenly important to him.  As his mother died when he was twelve, surely he didn’t know then if he was gay.  “No I didn’t.”  Post war Britain didn’t encourage introspection, it encouraged getting on with things.  He nods.  “Clearly there are a lot of families that don’t really nurture each other and some that do.”

Perhaps the fact that who he really was had to remain hidden and disconnected from his parents. It informed his desire to be an actor where you are connecting with everybody. “That is an astute observation and there is some truth in it.  One of the things that strongly appealed to me about acting was that it was a substitute for real life.  I know more about acting and what it involves, it’s effects, it’s craft than I do about anything else in my life.  I think I’m a good actor but I couldn’t say that I have a strong grasp of other areas.  So initially it was a substitute, a lot to do with being gay, unable to be myself in real life because the law said you couldn’t be. That suppression is cruel and barbaric.

“Within the theatre, one could not only express emotions publicly, although not your own – they were your own but filtered through a character. So that was an outing, a healthy one within the community of theatre. There was acceptance and love that you didn’t get anywhere else.”  Does he mean the theatre was his real family?  “That is right.  Acting is not about ego and drawing attention to yourself, it’s about getting on with people and doing it together… but then I have to come and talk about myself,” he says with a gently raised eyebrow.
He really doesn’t like revealing. It’s not in his make-up.  He’s learned too well to keep important things hidden.

When he was 18 he won a scholarship to St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to read English Literature. A grammar school boy suddenly mixed in with very posh people.  Was that alienating?

“There were a lot of divisions when I was university between men and women, between boys who had come from doing their National Service and those who had come straight to university.  They had killed people and now they were coming back to the rules of the university.  There was a division between north and south and I was mocked for my accent.  There were scholarship boys like me and those from southern public schools.  Many divisions, and that was just one of them. Those divisions helped you to find yourself and find your friends.”

Trevor Nunn, David Frost, Corin Redgrave and Derek Jacobi were all at Cambridge around the same time. He had a secret crush on Derek Jacobi, the actor with whom he stars in the ITV comedy series Vicious where they both play outrageously mean and camp individuals. Back then it could not have been more different. “I wouldn’t take it any further then, you just didn’t. We didn’t ever talk about being gay, it was a secret.”  They didn’t even come out to each other.

“My best friend at school qA David Hargreaves. We acted at school, we went to the theatre a lot, we were inseparable in the way kids could be. Right thorugh school. He ended up a professor of education at Oxford and Cambridge and he was gay. We never knew, we never talked about it. Isn’t that interesting?”

They were kindred spirits and didn’t realise why.  “Even my friendship with Derek we never called ourselves gay. I can’t remember what we did call ourselves. I remember I was meeting people like myself and many of them would go to the theatre but I didn’t wake up sexually until after Cambridge.”

Did he ever have a girlfriend.  “Who I had sex with?” He looks a little shocked.  No, had feelings for, who he kissed, who he felt maybe he could go there with?  “Yes, a little bit.  It didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few who were a bit sweet on me and of course I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t attracted to them so I went along with it, a little bit.  I was experimental as many straight men were experimental. I don’t mean to make it sound clinical. I had some very close relationships with girls that had I been straight would have led onto a serious relationship. Of my closest friends there are as many women as there are men.” Does he want to fall in love again?  “No it’s nothing I would like in my life. My passion in life is that I know a bit about the status of gay people in this country and around the world.  It’s nice to have something that I have a strong feeling and connection with.”

I’m slightly haunted about his mother.  About if she hadn’t died when he was so young how he would ever have come out.  And what a difference that would have made in his life and what a difference that would have made in the rest of the world as so many gay men have looked to him as a mentor.

“I didn’t know my mother was dying. She was sleeping downstairs and had been in hospital. I didn’t know she had a mastectomy until after she died. I was away on a school camp.  I thought she was ill but she was going to get better. I didn’t see her in any distress.”

The 12-year-old McKellen chose not to come back for the funeral which seems to illustrate just how separate he could be from his emotions and the deep places he found to bury them. Emotions that later would be filtered through characters that would dazzle us.

He did once go back to the house they lived in growing up and talked to the woman who had bought it. “We had moved from Wigan to Bolton and that was where my mother died.  The woman who bought the house (in Wigan) claimed that on the day my mother died, she felt a presence.  She didn’t know that my mother had died but she found the lights being turned on and off and then she thought she saw someone come up the stairs. She had the idea that my mother would have gone back to the house where she was happiest at the moment of her death.”

In 1998 he did a one-man show called Knight Out in which he discussed his life and career. The speech that he would do at the end was called Letter to Mama by Armistead Maupin.  It was the letter that Maupin wrote to his mother when he came out.  It would touch everyone in the audience. Perhaps because he was using it as his channel. Perhaps it was the letter he would have written to his mother telling her things that he could never have done.

“I’d been watching some little films that my uncle took. My cousin Margaret bought them down. My father was a handsome bugger and my mother was pretty. You see them as kids just getting married. They couldn’t have known what they were letting themselves in for.”

From whom did he inherit the electric blue eyes? “I am colour blind so eyes don’t register with me. It must be the blue shirt that makes my eyes look more blue.” The eyes, his mother’s eyes, twinkle, the same other worldly twinkle.

Mr Holmes is out June 19

Sacha Newley (Sunday Times Magazine, March 08, 2015)

I first met Sacha Newley over a decade ago at an exhibition of his paintings. The paintings were graphic, sad, disconcerting; spectres from his Hollywood childhood that seemed to haunt him. The gilded family of Joan Collins, Anthony Newley with their young children Sacha and Tara peering out into fake happiness in the golden Californian sun.
Sacha still paints, largely portraits. He’s just finished one of Jeffrey Archer. And he’s also written a memoir, Hollywood Child. The title sounds like one of his Aunt Jackie’s novels, but it couldn’t be more different. The characters are all dark and shadowy, most of them self-involved and there is no happy ending.
It’s the story of a childhood spent in big houses in Beverly Hills and London. It’s the story of his relationship with his father who when he was born in 1965 was at the apex of his stardom. Anthony Newley was complicated and largely absent.
His father and mother divorced in 1969 when he was three. Throughout most of Sacha’s childhood Dame Joan struggled. She had initial fame as a Hollywood starlet but her husband had wanted her to give up acting. After their divorce she networked with a passion for little else.
His surrogate mother was his nanny Sue Delong, a giantess who would wrestle him to the ground and sit on him when he misbehaved and grind him. It was the only physical contact throughout his childhood.
Sacha Newley, huddled into an armchair in a London members club, has the hooded eyes; the big brown grey wells that carry all the sadness of the world just like his father. But there’s a fineness, an elegance to his face. You see the beauty of his mother Dame Joan Collins.
The book has been optioned for a film by Donald Rosenfeld, producer of Remains of the Day and Room With A View. The original publishers recently pulled out because they feared it would offend their best-selling author Jackie Collins because of its unflinching tales of her sister Joan. ‘They admitted they were worried about a conflict with one of their biggest selling authors and they said we would advise you to find a publisher with no family ties.’ Dame Joan has in fact read the book and said she enjoyed it. ‘She hopes Felicity Jones will play her in the movie.’
I am not sure if his mother’s skin is as rhinoceros thick as it appears on one of his early portraits of her, or she has got caught up in the idea of Felicity Jones playing her in a biopic. Mommie Dearest for the 21st Century.
Sacha says all the time his mother doesn’t analyse much. ‘All that baggage is what ages people. She just lets it go,’ he says in a way that’s only partly admiring. Dame Joan and her son have a fascinating relationship. No matter how selfish and unempathic she was in his childhood, he always describes her as beautiful, particularly as she is dealing the most terrifying emotional blows.
His childhood was by turns extraordinary and excruciating. He was the son of one of Hollywood’s most shimmering golden couples. In the early sixties Newley’s musicals were the Tony’d toast of Broadway. His shows in Las Vegas were events. And his mother of course was impossibly glamorous.
They were both such extraordinary people. Although I wasn’t aware that my life was extraordinary at the time. I didn’t know what normality was. I was aware of being in a whirl of light, of electricity. They were generating a great deal of buzz, so my world was on fire. It was like being in a movie. Although I only realised that later.
‘My father was a genius. There’s no other word really. That kind of protean talent that encompassed so many different fields and areas in a way that nobody has touched since. If he had been less gifted he might have made his mark deeper in one particular vein. To my mind he is the third in the holy trinity of Sinatra and Sammy Davis. But he never achieved that status because he wanted to do everything, and that was his undoing. And also the fact that he was what nowadays be called a sex addict.
‘The libido was outside the box, off the chart. Girls were his thing. Some men of that kind of stature are into drugs or booze. For him it was the girls. If you wanted to indulge in psychobabble you could say he was looking for a connection that he never really found. The Don Juan motivated by his lack of fulfilment.’
They seemed ill matched from the start, Anthony Newley the intellectual, sensitive actor, singer, composer, lyricist, and the out of work starlet Joan Collins. ‘In many ways they complemented each other. He had great depth…’ And Joan Collins had great shallow? Her son laughs, not even a little embarrassed.
‘He was the introvert. She was the extrovert. He lived the examined life and she is not prone to self-examination. She acts, he reacts. He has endlessly second-guessed his every motivation. She would never do that. He said that being with her was like hanging on to the tail of comet – exciting. Her energy was incandescent.
‘He would sleep all day to accumulate energy, and she was a broken pipe gushing all the time. He was fascinated by her.’
Does he think they ever really loved each other? ‘She loved him deeply, deeply. When he left he truly broke her in a way that she’s never been broken.’
The impression I have always had about Dame Joan is that she is unbreakable, so I was startled when in the book there is a letter that Sacha found in his father’s boxes after he died in 1999. ‘I couldn’t believe the letter when I read it it’s so powerful. It’s a cry in the wilderness that I had never heard from my mother.’
In the letter dated February 13, 1970, she talks about looking at the empty closets that used to contain her husband’s clothes. She writes:
“I am desolate and destroyed…
You are gone, to another house and another life…
And I – I – who wanted and wished for an end to our 8-year farce am utterly miserable…
There is – or would be no chance for us anymore – right??…
What the fuck happened to us?? —
Certainly I loved you terribly…
It’s like crying on someone’s grave – it’s gone gone gone – you and me – Tony and Joan – Finis.
It’s such a waste and I’m so sad—You’ll never know how sad, miserable, bereft I felt coming to the end of our marriage. You think I’m cold or don’t care—“
‘I was profoundly moved by it because it showed me an aspect of my mother that I had never connected to. There was a pulse of emotion that I just didn’t expect. She was 29, 30. A young woman easily fooled. He totally betrayed her and broke her heart because he was a womaniser, a sex addict. And also due to his problems. He could never enter a room without watching himself do it. He was like the witness of his own life. He was never there and so his experiences were never real to him.’
Anthony Newley peaked in the late 50s, early 60s. His film career thrived with acting roles in Dr Doolittle and with his collaborative partnership with Leslie Bricusse. They wrote the stage show Stop The World – I want To Get Off, which was also made into a film with the hit song What Kind Of Fool Am I? They also wrote Goldfinger.
Bricusse was a Cambridge educated composer and impresario. Newley a Cockney Jewish kid from the wrong side of the tracks who grew up without knowing his father. ‘In many ways Leslie was like a father figure and dad was like the upstart son. Leslie knew he had found a Vesuvian talent in my father and he knew exactly what to do with it. They wrote the score for Stop The World – I Want To Get Off in three weeks in a bathroom because the house in which my father was living was being renovated. My father laid in the bath and Leslie sat in the toilet. Evie Bricusse used to say that the laughter that emanated from the toilet was thrilling to hear because she knew their synergy was incredible.’
In many ways it was a troubled showbusiness marriage. ‘They were competitive and that sometimes sparked genius and sometimes just a fight.’
Newley was insecure but with a towering ego. ‘My father was very much the It Boy and he pursued my mother hard.’ They met when Collins was dating Robert Wagner. Wagner took her to see Stop The World and then they went backstage and that’s when Newley decided he was going to seduce her.
Collins had previously been engaged to Warren Beatty and in the book Sacha says she even got pregnant by him. ‘They were both young stars under contract and a child coming along would have been a problem so they made the decision.’ To have an abortion? ‘At least he pushed it in that direction. She wasn’t entirely suited to motherhood. That’s certainly true.’ Indeed she wasn’t.
It seems that she constantly ignored the emotional needs of her children in her relentless ambition. That said, the picture that emerges of her is that she had a lot more grit than you would expect.
The Seventies were a nightmare for her. She was in her forties by the time she returned to LA in 1975 and a nobody. She was on that treadmill, working it, going to every party she could. She was also with a man who was a non-starter in terms of supporting her.’
On the rebound she married Ron Kass who was an accountant at Apple Records, but for most of their marriage he was looking for work. ‘He used to squirrel away a lot of her money and waste it but she found out too late when guys in jump suits came to collect the television and the Bang & Olufsen. I was in England at boarding school at the time.’
Collins had to endure the horror of downsizing her Hollywood home although she still managed to make modifications to the new house, a 10 x 20 walk-in closet and a fibre glass jacuzzi in the garden for Kass. He comes over as a rather grasping man.
‘He was the first good-looking American wearing chunky jewellery to come along. He still had the job at Apple with The Beatles when they met. He had this wonderful town house in Mayfair and it was intensely glamorous. It was the time of The Beatles final albums. They were all at the house.’
After he lost his job they would have moved back to California. ‘I didn’t know why daddy wasn’t there any more and I didn’t know why my new step daddy was there. I didn’t connect with him at all except over his car. He had the most marvellous Maserati convertible. He already had three children and once he’d had a child with my mother there was no feeling that he needed to connect with me.’
Kass and Collins had a child, Katy, who was involved in a terrible accident. When she was eight she was hit by a car when playing with a ball. She was in a coma for a month while her parents lived in a Winnebago in the parking lot at the hospital. ‘Katy never really recovered. She faces lingering challenges. Katy’s accident was one of the factors in the marriage ending. Instead of bringing the both of them together it drove them apart as grief can do sometimes.’ Soon after they separated Kass got colon cancer from which he did not recover.
At the time the young Sacha could only sense frustration, anger, loneliness, unhappiness and upheaval. Just as he had settled at the progressive King Alfred’s School in Hampstead he was moved back to California. He was given a Dalmatian puppy called Pirate when he was in London but the puppy savaged a Tiffany lamp and was promptly taken back to the pet shop.
‘I was devastated. It’s an emotional beat in the boy’s story.’ Suddenly he is referring to himself in the third person. But perhaps it’s not so suddenly. He has quite often painted portraits of himself looking down on a young self or another self, or in some way outside of himself. And now referring to the boy without the puppy he says, ‘He is lonely. And I don’t think he understands what has happened. Nowadays I think parents explain everything to their children, almost to a fault. But my mother never felt that was necessary.’
Much later on he realised that his mother was not without her own stresses. As she tried to assert authority his elder sister Tara had a teenage rebellion and refused to be told what to do. Collins said, “I’m your mother. I can tell you what I want to.” And Tara responded, “Well, why don’t you act like one.”
‘Tara was more forceful and connected with her feelings and emotions. I just wanted mummy to love me and I wanted a connection with the mummy I found so dazzling. She nourished me in the way a muse nourishes: at a distance.’
When he was 14 he and Tara went to live with his father on the other side of Beverly Hills. He felt he was punishing his mother because she had abandoned him. ‘So we abandoned her right back. Our dad at this point represented Shangri-La. His world was full of warmth, fire lit and granola. We could talk about our feelings here. It was night and day from being at my mother’s. They were living very different lives.
‘My mother’s house was like a streamlined vinyl cigarette, a speedboat. And my father’s was an old creaking galleon. My father’s world felt loving by comparison. But the house soon became too small for us all and we were yet again looking for another home, looking for the place where we would all finally feel happy and get along. And of course that never happened.’
His father sank his millions into a mansion once owned by Joan Crawford. He claims it was haunted and doomed, unlucky for everyone who bought it. His mother and Kass started working on The Stud together and that briefly re-cemented the marriage. ‘When we left to live with dad my mother went into a spiral of drinking quite heavily and Ron would take Polaroids of her when she was asleep or drunk and he would threaten to publish them if she ever tried to leave him.’
Throughout his childhood, with its constant shifting of emotional sands and changing locations, he didn’t feel he had a connection to anybody. The big space around him was to be filled by the big butch nanny Sue. ‘She was big in every way but her story weirdly does not appear in any of my mother’s biographies. She is lightly airbrushed out of the narrative.
‘Sue held it together. She held the world together as far as I was concerned. She was my continuity.’ There is a pause as we sip tea and venture into another corridor of pain. The relationship with Delong seems strangely S&M. ‘It was, yes,’ he laughs, a haunting laugh. ‘There was quite a lot of S&M. She would not just sit on me but sit and grind me into the carpet. I loved it, I didn’t love it. It was like the relationship boys might have with their older brothers, but in my case it was with a woman who was employed so it had a different frisson about it.’
Her presence in the book is visceral, shocking. After all the complex and taut emotions of the over thinking father and the never pensive mother, Delong’s physical presence and sheer physicality must have literally shaken his world. There is no description of his mother ever kissing or hugging him, yet this woman seems to be always chasing him, grabbing him.
‘Sue was an orphan and grew up as the eldest girl in a family of three boys. She was a giantess. Very butch, short haircut. Had a lady friend now and again who would pop by for a glass of beer and a chat. I think she was probably bisexual.’
Could she be more different to his mother who always looked so extremely feminine? He nods. ‘I think it’s true to say my mother didn’t receive a great deal of affection from her father. In fact he was a glacier. My mother didn’t get physical warmth from her father and a girl needs that.’
Is he saying she didn’t receive warmth so she didn’t know how to give it? ‘I think so,’ he nods sadly. ‘I think so. Sue was always standing by to sit on me if I acted up. And Sue I think understood the unspoken brief from my mother which was “I am overwhelmed. I am in a new marriage with two kids from a previous marriage and the boy is acting out. Manage this for me.” And Sue was only too happy to do that.’
He was totally accepting of being punished by Delong and being disconnected from his mother. To complain that he was unhappy or lonely never occurred to him. ‘I think to have made that connection with my feelings would have been dangerous.’
His mother never discussed feelings. ‘She was always concerned to hold things together, give the impression that things were good. Stiff upper lip. Keep calm and carry on… Maybe I’m continually apologising for her.’
He is of course continually apologising for her. It is as if he wants her to be understood, to come over well, even when she’s behaved without sensitivity. Collins of course never wants to explain.
‘She is very realistic about her shortcomings. She said: “I was never a porridge stirring kind of yummy mummy. That’s not who I am.” And she is at peace with that.’
Even for someone who eschews analysis and introspection, this book must have been a gruelling read. She didn’t even ask him to change the references to her wearing a wig. ‘I think it’s common knowledge that she wears wigs. Her real hair is frail and thin so the wig has always been a way to enlarge the aura.’
Has she always worn wigs? ‘Yes. Maybe she did the odd beehive in the Sixties but it was mostly wigs.’ Has he ever seen her hair? ‘Yes. When she’s in the South of France and comfortable she’ll walk around without make-up. She has great bones. Her actual hair is thin. It hasn’t seen oxygen or light for 50 years, like various parts of psyche which also haven’t seen enough light. If she goes out without a wig there’s always a headscarf or a hat.’ Quite incredible to think that she was undaunted by her thin hair. Sacha shrugs, ‘Into every life a little rain must fall.’ He smiles benevolently and I can’t get the image of frail-haired Dame Joan out of my head.
She did point out one factual inaccuracy. It was an episode about his sister Tara nearly drowning in the pool of their house in Beverly Hills. It was not Tara at the bottom of the pool. It was Sacha himself. ‘I think that’s a good metaphor for my childhood. Drowning in a pool in the middle of a party.’
I think the false memory is a more interesting metaphor. The fact that he was drowning and he thought it was someone else. Perhaps he has inherited his father’s ability not to be present in his own life. ‘Exactly. All too often I witness my life rather than live it. And why does one absent oneself? Because of pain.’
The conversation morphs into talking about his father’s pain which was ongoing throughout his life and how he hired a private detective find his father. ‘He took Tara and I along for their first meeting which occurred in 1973. We went to this forlorn pebble dashed estate north east of London. In this dingy house a little man with National Health specs answered the door. Inside his little house it was a shrine to dad, all the cuttings and posters. I think it crushed my father. All I sensed at the time was a kind of confusion from him. I think he was very disappointed by the man he found because in his imagination he’d built up his father to be wonderful and then he discovered this puny little man. As much as he tried to restage the love affair between his mother and father it didn’t work.
‘He flew George out to Los Angeles and he went to live with grandma at the beach. After three weeks it was all over because he was grasping and difficult and rude.’
Sacha’s childhood was filled with characters who were difficult and disappointed, all alienated from each other. And in the background always a party with a smattering of A-listers. ‘It’s the only antidote to alienation: have a party. The thing about showbusiness is unless you have a regular gig there’s no security. You are serving a profession which is highly selective, highly judgemental and withering to your self-esteem at all times. The human soul is fragile and showbusiness is not good for it, but it is an addiction, a drug. It gives you a form of fulfilment which is illusory. It doesn’t last and it doesn’t build anything in the self.
‘Performers, entertainers, have to stay in touch with their inner child. It behoves them not to grow up. That keeps them in touch with their fantasies. My father was doing that on stage and mirroring that back to my mother. So she would feel that she wanted to be in that magical state as well. Her best friends Natalie Wood and Dyan Cannon were in the make-up chair at 20th Century Fox and she was at home being a mum. She wanted to get a piece, and he didn’t really want her to go back to work. They had huge rows. That first row I remember vividly as I heard it through the intercom. I was three. It was like static booming. We couldn’t make out the words, we just knew there was a tempest in the house coming from mummy and daddy.
‘That’s why when my father’s movie Can Heironymus Merkin Ever Forget Mercy Humppe and Find True Happiness? came along she was desperate to work. Her agreeing to it gives you an idea of how naïve she was.’ Basically Anthony Newley had created a porn film where she starred as Polyester Poontang.
‘Flower was his nickname for her and it’s hard to square Flower with Alexis Carrington but they are in fact the same woman. Joan had her head well in the sand when she arrived on a beach in Malta to shoot the movie. It was a porno with my father as Casanova. Much later than that she realised what he was doing was confessing to the world he was a sex addict. There’s a scene in it where Heironymous played by my father has a serpentine line of women stretching out in to the distance and my father is in a bed with a tent around it saying, “Next.” And one by one they go in.’
He never really found what he was looking for. After Joan he married an air hostess from Texas called Dareth Rich. ‘I was very attracted to her. She was a sexy woman. I think a lot of young boys get hung up on their stepmothers although she wasn’t very charitable in the end to me.’
He has two half siblings from this marriage; Christopher, who is sailing around the world in a small boat, and Shelby, a nurse. He doesn’t see much of them. ‘It’s an oil and water thing. It never quite works and I don’t think they need or want the connection.’
It was after she became pregnant with Christopher in 1979, when they had been together seven years, that Rich demanded Newley marry her. Soon after the marriage Vegas stopped employing him and his wilderness years started.
‘His show Chaplin did not transfer to Broadway after huge expenditure and then he got cancer. To salve his despair he started an affair with a 19-year-old and that was the end of the marriage. She threw him out, so he went to live at grandma’s house firstly in LA and then back in the UK.’
When he left California he had a yard sale where he sold his $3,000 suits that he wore to perform in Vegas for $15 each. ‘A big pick-up truck full of Mexican gardeners jumped out and started trying on the suits and bought the lot. The same suits that my father wore on stage at Caesars Palace were now being worn by Mexican gardeners.
‘When he came back to England in the late 80s he and grandma lived in an attic flat off Kensington High Street. My father always had great anger towards grandma because she allowed him to be evacuated during the war. He was billeted with an old crone out in the provinces and they had to share a room and a bed. She would wash naked in front of him every morning. He was eleven and she stank and one night she rolled over on top of him and almost suffocated him. For the rest of his life he could not share a bed with anybody he was so traumatised by the experience. Even in his late sixties when grandma was 94 carrying his porridge up the stairs while he was sick he would say to me, “I’m so angry with her I can taste it.”’
First of all he did an ill-fated show at the King’s Head pub theatre in Islington, Once Upon A Song, which was a disaster. He got a few episodes of EastEnders playing a crooked car salesman. ‘After that Scrooge came along. It hurt his pride that it was a Leslie Bricusse musical because he always wanted to think he could make it without Bricusse.’
He received great reviews but it was to be his last act. He had cancer which started off in the kidney but ended up in the liver and brain. He had eleven years of cancer treatments and finally died in 1999. His last words were, “It’s all a book.” Anthony Newley, it seems, was not present in his life even in death.
Sacha’s nanny Sue Delong also met with a tragic end. ‘After Sue was fired she went to work for Jackie (Collins) until Jackie discovered her trying to smother one of her daughters and then she went to work for Natalie Wood until things started going missing in the house. Then she went to the East Coast and worked for an art dealer until her terrible boundary issues got the better of her and she was let go.
‘At this point she checked herself into a low rent rooming house in Lower Manhattan and swallowed a bottle of pills but she was so enormous her body absorbed the poison and she woke up three days later with a terrible headache. Then she promptly put on her clothes and went back to the pharmacy and bought double the dose but by the time she got back two detectives were waiting for her so her second suicide attempt was foiled. (The police had been called by concerned neighbours).
‘She then came back to England where she had all kinds of health problems and she wrote to all of her former employers begging for money. One of the letters was to me. She asked for a drawing. I still feel guilty about it but I never replied. She was dead a few weeks later by asphyxiation. She locked herself in her car and fed the pipe in. We scattered her ashes in the East River. A surprisingly tiny amount of ashes for such an enormous woman.
‘Sue gave me something. When she first arrived I said I wanted to climb the tree and she allowed me even though my mother screamed from the top window to stop me. She encouraged me to climb higher and I did and unaccountably I burst into tears. Sue gave me continuity, she gave me a human sense of home. She let me climb trees and she gave me a toughness and self belief as a boy which I could never get from my father because he was a very feminised man. This woman gave me my boyhood self. I was physically revolted by her.’
In the book he dedicates as much time to describing Delong’s wobbling mountains of flesh as he does to his mother’s ravishing beauty. ‘Sue wore ghastly clothes, Spandex trousers and Spandex T–shirts. She looked a sight. Compared to this my mother was such a goddess. I was so polarised in my vision of women – with no middle ground.’
Being the son of a woman generally recognised as a world class beauty must your expectations of women. In one of his paintings, Mother and Child, the woman looks a little bit like Joan and a little bit like his first wife Angela Tassoni. Does he think he was searching for his mother in his first wife? He nods sadly, ‘Without question. I was under the deluded belief that they had similar energy but because of Angela’s Italian heritage I felt there was a yummy mummy thing and she held out hope that I could have some kind of synthesis of the two things I wanted.’
Is he saying that he wanted his mother and wife to be the same person? ‘Well, I guess yes.’ I needed to be hit squarely across my nose with a baseball bat and wake up.’
Before his marriage to Tassoni he was in a relationship with Diandra Douglas, former wife of Michael, nine years his senior. ‘Definitely seeking the mother and seeking the connection to the glamorous woman in the big boudoir.’
He is all about finding the connection that was missing in his childhood. Perhaps while looking for his mother he became his father because of the constant introspection. He had a therapists as a kid. But the therapist did not never last long because he was always moving or his mother ran out of money. One of the therapists offered art therapy which turned out some snakes ‘This was of course phallic so I could connect to my inner male. It was very powerful for me. I had a pet snake, Baxter, that my father bought me. When I was at school he tried to escape his aquarium and slit his throat.’ The snake is a recurring image in his paintings.
‘I’m not sure I have survived. But one hopes I can put the pain into my painting and writing, which is not always easy.’ After his marriage broke down three years ago he moved back to Britain. He now has a new partner Sheela Raman. ‘She is an extraordinary woman and she has given me a clear vision of myself, no longer the funhouse mirror version, and that’s really helped me. She is a writer working on a novel and a journalist.’
Being a long distance daddy to his daughter Ava (by Tassoni) seems torture to him but moving back to Britain has brought him closer to his mother physically and emotionally.
‘Mum and I of late have been recalibrating. I suggested we have a series of lunches together, just us, so that we could really talk about stuff without any distraction and we’ve achieved a level of connection that we’ve never had before. She is extremely well. Her life is still far too dramatic by half. There’s always something going on but I don’t think she could handle peace.’
Does he love her? ‘Beyond. My love for her goes deeper than I could ever really process and her importance to me is profound. I think of my childhood as a gift as much as it caused me difficulties.’
Just as it can’t have been pleasant to see her son’s vision of her looking way more troubled and lined than the world has ever seen her, she gamely hung the picture in the dining room. Michael Caine referred to it as “the picture of Doreen Gray.” ‘It’s very honest. She hung it up perhaps because Robin insisted.’
Robin (Old Etonian art dealer Robin Hurlstone) was her partner at the time. ‘He was magnificent in his sensibility and intellect.’ Why does he think that relationship didn’t work? ‘Because he didn’t want to play the game. He didn’t want to be Mr Joan Collins. But it did not end well. My relationship with my mother improved dramatically under his watch.’
Dame Joan has had five husbands. The first she married when she was 19 was movie star Maxwell Reed. A few months ago she announced she was raped by him before the marriage.
‘Doesn’t that tell you everything you need to know about her. He was a big movie star. Glamorous and a bully. He bullied her into marriage when she was 19. She was a stupid little girl and she wanted to get away from home, from her father.’ She wanted to get to Hollywood and Maxwell Reid was her ticket there. ‘Maxwell Reed wore more eyeliner than she did. He was a very questionable man. She’s always gone for the questionable, my father included.
‘When she was with Peter Holm, husband number four, I think that was an attempt to find her real father again. The discipline, the lack of emotion. He was actually a deeply nasty individual.’
Has she finally found happiness with Percy Gibson (He is 32 years younger. They married in 2002). He and Sacha are the same age. (49)A raised eyebrow: ‘They seem to get on incredibly well and I have a good relationship with him too.’ Perhaps at 81 she is finally a little less relentless, a little more peaceful. ‘Her life still seems far too dramatic. There is far too much happening. She is always dealing with some disaster. As much as she says she longs for a peaceful life I don’t think she can handle it.’
How does she feel about becoming a dame? ‘Delighted, of course,’ he says without a hint of sarcasm.

 

 

Sophia Loren (Seven Magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Nov. 09, 2014)

Sophia Loren has always seemed to epitomise glamour, pure sex and the Hollywood state of mine, even though many of her movies were in fact Italian including Two Women, for which she won an Oscar.
There is probably no greater on screen chemistry than Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in Houseboat (1958). They met when they made The Pride and the Passion in 1957. They were really in love. Or at least she was enthralled with him. And he was besotted.
I loved the chapters about Grant in her autobiography Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life as a Fairy Tale. They shimmered with charm. The book is poetically written and reasonably entertaining. It is a detailed account of her life in movies. Forensic details about actors, actresses, directors, sets. Sharply contrasted with the poverty and desperation of her war torn childhood without a father.
I have gone to Geneva where she has lived for the past 36 years to meet her. In a quiet chi-chi hotel penthouse suite I am ushered in and there she is. She handles herself with grandeur.
She is wearing a black and white trouser suit. Her late husband Carlo Ponti once told her she should always wear suits. She is slim and voluptuous. A great body, even at 80. Her breasts still buoyant. Her eyes brown like chocolate melted over honeycomb. Giant eyelashes, giant lips.
She has always had the giant lips. After her very first photo shoot she was told that her facial proportions were wrong. That her nose was too big. And she wouldn’t dream of changing anything. She knew who she was.
So it is with sadness that I note the evidence of some facial landscaping and her hair is in fact a rather stiff wig. Nonetheless it is still her. She is still full of Italian mama warmth and spiky charm. She misses nothing and gives the impression that she is fresh and tireless.
Has she always been a write? ‘I used to write in my diary every day. I am a Virgo, so annoying and boring. I found the diary and I said let me see how many years ago I wrote this? And I saw many things in it. Many things that I didn’t want to ever let go from my own intimacy. So I tore out the page. And then another. And then another.
‘And then I thought I don’t want these books to be around if I’m not there one day. I would like to keep my privacy. All these things have to be finished. So I burned them. All of them.
‘So every year when I write my diary. A phrase here, a date there. A note about meeting someone. And every year I destroyed them. There are some things I want to keep just for myself.’
I’m rather puzzled at why she’s written an autobiography and she’s here to promote it and she tells me first off she burned the juicy bits. It’s not that the book is bland or without detail. Her childhood for instance lays out so many details you can practically smell the Parmesan cheese being grated. That’s if there was a cheese. Most of the time they were too poor for cheese and had to beg people in the street for a crust of bread.
Later on where she talks of her desperation for children and her endless miscarriages, it’s gruelling and after that when she was wrongly imprisoned for tax evasion, her prison diary reads like a scene from a prison B Movie. Now I want to know what she’s left out.
‘The book is a story of my life read as a story. I think you put other things in a diary. Just feelings, not facts. Perhaps nothing to do with your life. Anyway, why should I give it all out?’
She comes over as an interesting mix of shyness, reserve, confident to the point of fearless, open and wary in equal parts.
‘I wanted to give in the books the facts of my life. How I succeeded. How my life was during the war. I wanted to do that with all my heart because people have written books about me and sometimes it was not real, people completely made it up. Sometimes they put in something they read in the papers.
‘It’s not like I wanted to put the record straight, just that I wanted to say what happened to me, because I am proud. I was really a nobody, a little girl, unhappy, in desperation because of the life I was living with my family and no father. Everyone was starving during the war.’
Her voice trails. What she was starving for all her life was a father. She had a father. She knew him. But he never married her mother. Her mother looked like a starlet. It was her dream to be an actress. Her mother Romilda Villani won a contest held in Italy by MGM Studios to find the new Greta Garbo when she was just 17 and the prize was to go to Hollywood. Her parents said she was too young and wouldn’t let her go. Romilda, according to her daughter, ‘oozed allure.’
Instead she had a passionate, calamitous on off relationship with Riccardo Scicolone Murillo and became pregnant with Sophia. Riccardo came from a good family but was one of these aristocratic losers. He gave his name to his first child but Sophia had to buy his name with her first pay cheque for her sister Maria.
The older authoritative male figure is something that she was always searching for, which is perhaps why she felt so instantly at home when she met Italian film producer and director Carlo Ponti, who was nearly 22 years her senior. Cary Grant was 30 years her senior.
She doesn’t remember ever thinking she was beautiful or special, but she found her old school book, part of the inspiration for writing her memoir. On the first page it was written in Italian “Sophia Scicolone will become a great star.” It was some kind of premonition that she would be famous. ‘Why did I write that? I don’t know. I have no idea.’
The book must have been some kind of catharsis for her. She looks blankly. I’m not sure she understands the word. Sometimes she answers in Italian. She does perk up when I talk about her father, as he seems to haunt the book. He buys her a present, she loves it, she’ll keep it forever. Then he disappears. He gets back together with her mother and then they break up. They get together again and he leaves her again and again and again. At what point did she decide he was a useless human being?
‘When you are five, six, seven, you follow what your mother tells you because you want to make peace. You want the normality, which we didn’t have. My father would always comes to see me when my mother sent him a telegram saying, “Sophia’s very sick. Come.” It didn’t matter why he came. What I always wanted, because all my friends had it, was a father. I wanted to be like them, to be normal. But this was not possible. ‘So you see these things when you’re 13, 14, when you’re almost grown up. You see it for what it is.’
Does she think this lack of a father is what attracted her to men who were older, that they were fulfilling a mentoring role? ‘No,’ she says abruptly. ‘I was never attracted to men like that.’ You see her nostrils flare slightly, still expressing disgust at her father.
She agrees though she did want to learn. ‘And I had a lot to learn because I lived in a small town. There was no opportunity for me to have experiences even with younger men. It was all impossible, impossible.’
The first time she met Ponti ‘I felt at home. When I was leaving him to go home after we’d seen each other I would feel calm. I would ask myself why do you feel like that? Because I trusted him. I was terribly young. I was 17 and we didn’t have anything together until a long time later. It’s not like today.
‘He gave me confidence. He taught me many things. One day he bought me a suit and he said, “You should always wear suits because it suits you very well.” But he was always saying stuff like that. I cut my hair to look like an actress who was very successful at the time, Lucia Bosè and Carlo said, “You should always wear short hair.”
‘Each time I did something that he liked he would always say “You should always do that” and yes, this gave me confidence. He was protective and he… took my insecurities away, yes. He looked and sounded like he would take care of me which no other man had done.’ And did he take care of her? ‘Oh yes.’
By the time she met Cary Grant on the set of the Pride and The Passion (1957) she and Ponti were definitely an item. They were together but couldn’t marry because Ponti couldn’t get a divorce. The laws in Italy at that time were extremely high end Catholic. This was a source of great frustration to Loren because of course all she ever wanted to be was normal.
At this vulnerable moment enter the gently seductive impossibly charming Cary Grant who courted her on set with many intimate little dinners and then proposed to her. Why on earth didn’t she take Cary Grant?
‘They were very different men. It was difficult. I was doing my first American language film and my American language was so very terrible I was upset. Many times I needed help with the language and Cary would help me.
‘Cary belonged to another world in America. I felt that I would never fit in there. I would never have a future there because of my nationality. I was scared to change completely in life without knowing if this relationship or quasi relationship was going on.
‘The picture finished. We exchanged numbers and he said he would call. In fact he did come on to the set of Two Women and then when I was doing a picture in New York he came to the house. I was together with Carlo and already had my son.
‘One day he called me in New York where I was for another film. “How are you?” I’m fine I said, why are you calling? And he said, “Because I wanted to say ciao.” That was it. He died. He must have known he was dying.’ Her voice is shaky with sadness.
Something in the book that puzzles me. On the day her second film with Grant wrapped he sent her a giant bunch of yellow roses. She was leaving with Ponti on the plane and boasted about the yellow roses. ‘Yes, it was not a nice thing to do. Maybe I wanted to test him, to test how he felt. I was young and thought if he got angry and jealous it meant he loved me.’
In fact Ponti was so angry and jealous he hit her. ‘Yes he did. Very softly. Let’s not exaggerate it. But that’s what made me feel okay. That made me feel I’d made the right choice.’ I tell her I still don’t understand and that jealousy doesn’t equate to love. She is quiet, which is unusual because she’s extremely chatty.
What about all these other iconic men that she worked with – Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burton? Was she ever daunted by that?
‘What is daunted? I was friends with them, never nervous. Richard was having a very difficult time in his life. He was suffering a lot and we took care of him. He would play with the children and have a wonderful time but then Elizabeth would come and have lunch and it would not be good.’
Was she attracted to him? ‘I admired him and he was very handsome and he had a beautiful voice. And when he was acting he was the end he was so good. So I learned a lot from him.’
Were there any other of your co-stars you felt passionate about?
‘No.’
No?
‘You ask me these things so simply. You think you can ask me that and that I’m going to answer you? Very funny. You sounded naïve but you’re not naïve.’
This is probably the most charming put down I’ve ever had in an interview and now I realise what might be missing from the book. She is certainly not going to tell me.
I also found it hard to fathom when she was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 she didn’t want to go to the ceremony because she’d be too upset if she didn’t win, so she waited at home. It was many years before live telecasts and while she waited she went to make sauce to calm her down. She was up against Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.
She aged up over a decade for her character in Two Women. She played a mother in Italy during the war and put every emotion from her starving and sometimes terrified childhood into it. It was a big deal. It was an Italian language movie. She felt it didn’t have a chance.
‘Cooking is something that gives you a sense of home. If you have a sense of home you feel fine, or at least I do. I feel protected.’
What is her signature dish? ‘Eggplant parmesan.’
I tell her that I had that very dish last night.
‘Oh, but in a restaurant. It’s something you have to do at home.’
So she made her tomato sauce instead of going to the Oscars because if she won she might faint and if she didn’t win she’d be too upset? ‘Yes, that’s true.’
But later that night. In fact in the early hours of the next morning, she got a call from Cary Grant saying, ‘Darling, you won.’
Soon after this in 1964 she and Ponti moved to Paris because there was still no divorce in Italy. ‘In fact Carlo and his wife had to become French so we could get married. The situation was very complicated.’
Years before she thought she was married by proxy in Mexico. She says that it made her feel better. It alleviated her pain. It wasn’t a valid marriage but at least made her feel that Carlo wanted her as a wife. ‘It was very stressful but I thought that Carlo loved me and that was what counted. Life is not easy when you have the law against you and you can so easily get yourself in trouble and that was the last thing I wanted for our harmony.’
Loren of course always wanted to be a proper wife, have a proper family, be normal. ‘It took a long time but it happened. And then I had a bad time because I couldn’t have children. Or at least I got pregnant but I lost them.’
Heartbreakingly a doctor told her she’d never have children. ‘But then I met this wonderful doctor who realised the miscarriages were coming because of a lack of oestrogen. He gave me oestrogen and then I got pregnant.’
Her two sons Carlo Jr, 45, and Edoardo, 41. One is an orchestral conductor, the other a writer and director are very much adored. ‘No, I don’t like to exaggerate. Two boys are fine. They made me so happy with my life. And I have four grandchildren. Carlo’s son is very much like Carlo. And the girl is like his wife who is Swedish. They have blue eyes,’ she says flashing me her enormous golden brown orbs.
Does she think her eyes are her best feature? ‘No. No, I don’t. My character is my best feature.’
She jokes that for a long time she had to live with a newspaper who claimed her beauty and her figure was all down to eating lots of spaghetti. The quote went viral. ‘I never said that. I think the quote was “Everything I am I owe to spaghetti.” How rude,’ she says laughing. ‘I like to eat simple things. Yes, like eggplant Parmesan. Yes, like ragout. It’s very heavy. I suppose I like things that are not light.
‘I exercise every day for about 20 minutes. I think it’s important to do that instead of just lying in bed.’
What makes her happy? ‘A good day when I can do what I want. When things work. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and something suddenly happens, a breakthrough.’
She is happy with her life in Geneva. She may love Italian food but the Italian authorities and religion and tax regime certainly don’t please her. Was it painful for her to write about her time in prison?
‘It was painful because all the time I was innocent. It was bad management but they went on with the trial. They gave me a month in jail and released me after 17 days.’
Because they realised you were innocent? ‘No, it took 40 years and 40 years later I won the trial. It was not true. I had paid every penny. It’s not really true that that put me off Italy but I made a lot of films outside of Italy and it was convenient so we moved.’
Does she have work coming up? ‘Yes. I do have something in mind that I’d like to do but I can’t talk about it because we’re still working out the rights or at least the producer is. I’m just doing the acting.’
She won’t hint at what the role is but it feels good to know she’s not giving anything up. She is still tireless, still charismatic and unswervingly warm. As I leave she promises she’s going to make me her eggplant Parmesan. Can’t wait to have her in my kitchen.

Aretha Franklin (Sunday Times Magazine, Nov. 09, 2014)

Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, Showbiz411.com columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.

 

 

Robert Downey Jr. (October 12, 2014)

I arrive at Robert Downey Jr’s four-storey headquarters in Venice, California. I use the word headquarters for many reasons. Firstly – there’s a sense that team Downey is running to change the world, taking on interesting projects with verve and enthusiasm. Secondly – it’s far too spectacular to be called an office.

Downey is wearing a T-shirt and sweats. He is fresh from the gym. He is a mixture of calm and perky. He tells me the building used to belong to a British photographer and as we wind our way upstairs past various warrens and the workforce, he shows me his son Exton’s playroom which used to be ‘the playboy suite where the photographer would take all of his models and then they would shower in the opaque glass shower room.’
Upstairs where there used to be a swimming pool it is now a sundeck, pillows and day beds, a kitchen and a dining area where Downey’s chef Charles makes us a wonderful lunch as healthy as it is exquisite – avocado, seaweed, heirloom tomatoes. ‘Did you like the movie?’ Downey asks, with only a hint of nervousness.
I did like it. I laughed. I cried. I loved the Downey/Duvall chemistry. Duvall hid everything on the inside and Downey threw out every minutiae of feeling.
The Judge is the first team Downey production. (Downey stars and his wife Susan is at the production helm). A radical contrast to all things Iron Man and The Avengers. It sees Downey – who it is said is the highest earning actor in the world reputedly collecting between $50 and $75 million per movie – returning to the style of acting where he first started Off-Broadway. It is dialogue driven, a story about coming to terms with his life via its emotional history and clashes with his father. It stars Downey as an ambitious, clever lawyer, a chancer who is a master manipulator of the law and Robert Duvall as his father the judge, upstanding, harsh but fair. The man with whom he has an impenetrable rift.
It was a powerful and emotional script. What drew him to it? ‘I wanted to make it so that we couldn’t think about doing any other movie but this. I was the only fixed element of the casting.’ He pauses toying with a piece of teriyaki chicken. ‘These days I hear things like “We’re going to have a chemistry test between so and so and so.”’
Has he ever done a chemistry test? ‘I think they weren’t calling it that then.’ It’s true that he had to audition for Iron Man. The story of his own life reads like a superhero transformation. Downey was always brilliant but troubled, self-destructive. He was in the news with various drug charges, even a stint in jail and in 1999 a term at the California Substance Abuse Facility Center.
He came back in 2003 with a brilliant portrayal of The Singing Detective, a movie for which the only way he could be insured was due to the generosity of his friend Mel Gibson. After a number of well received movies including A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and A Scanner Darkly. He came back into mainstream lovability with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But Iron Man of course was the big comeback, the fanfare, all singing and all dancing. The Downey that everyone loved.
‘A chemistry test is something to try and find the thing that (Gwyneth) Paltrow and I have in Iron Man. It’s something where you have to think this movie is going to work because of you two.
‘I’d seen Duvall in a movie called Get Low and I thought wow. I want to be able to hold down a movie for an hour and a half then have a five-minute m