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.

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.

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.”
“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 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.