Jon Bernthal an actor who previously admired Spacey, says that his behaviour on the set Baby Driver was also reprehensible. Not in a sexual way. He was just rude and a bully. “Working with him, made me lose all respect for him and I was enormously disappointed.”
Well, I am never one who likes to miss the party but if that had happened I would have said, “Harvey you are a fat pig. You are not attractive and even though I might like you to make one of my scripts into a movie I’d like you to do that because you thought the script was attractive, not because you want to expose yourself to me.” Ok I might not of thought of that at the time. I might have been upset and horrified.
There were 13 alleged victims referred to in Ronan Farrow’s story in New Yorker, three of whom allege being forced into sex acts. Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, wrote, “Sometimes it took months and months for them to go on the record… each of them talked about their own fears or what they believed he (Weinstein) might do to them. How they believed people around them would react, how they believed it would affect their careers, and so that was a lot to process for every woman in this story.”
These were mostly women who had worked for him and feared they would lose their jobs and reputations and more.
There were, in the few days after the story appeared, another eight women who alleged sexual harassment – and they were give settlements of between $80,000 and $150,00 — gathering the pace of the most vicious tornado more and more jumped on the hate trail.
At one time Weinstein’s table was the one who everyone wanted to be placed on but not as soon as he became tainted they, or their publicists, felt dirty by association. They wanted to shower themselves clean of dirty Harvey. He went from king of the movie world to untouchable in days. Just days. The speed of this escalation is incredible.
Ashley Judd started the tidal wave. Twenty years ago she was filming with him and he asked her up to his hotel suite for room service – she ordered cereal – then he asked her for a back rub and to watch him shower. She did report it at the time – people ignored her out of fearing to upset a powerful man. Clearly something wrong with that. Then came Rosanna Arquette, Angelina Jolie and Gwenyth Paltrow.
Paltrow says she was 22 and working as the star of Weinstein’s Emma when he invited her up to his room for a massage. She was so frightened she asked her then boyfriend Brad Pitt to sort out Harvey. There is a step back for Weinstein but a bigger step back for womankind. Who knows if she was frightened standing on podiums winning Oscars with Harvey?
One can show respect and empathy for Angelina Jolie, who feels she was sexually compromised many years ago. She warned everybody not to have anything to do with him and completely distanced herself and never worked with him. That is the proper reaction.
Of course, I can see that if your boss is harassing you, you might be afraid to lose your job, after all, your other boss is your boss’s brother. But that turned out to be a wrong move because brother Bob was planning on a rewrite of Cain and Abel. He tore his own brother down from the company he’d made which had been so internationally applauded and awarded, deemed his brother unfit and ensconced himself. Now the world’s greatest independent film company is run by a chump. Oh, yes, Bob, I have met you, too.
Everybody knew that Weinstein had what turned out to be a fatal flaw. Everybody knew he liked to chase women. Seth McFarland, in the 2013 Oscar’s, cracked a joke as he read out the nominations for the best supporting actress, announcing, “And these are the women that no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein in order to win awards…”
My point is, people knew it was happening for as long as there have been casting couches in Hollywood. And those couches were tacit approval to sexual predators. It was an unspoken deal – the film industry treats women with contempt. Weinstein is not the cause of this – merely the effect. Was it disgusting? Yes. But nobody spoke out so he is right when he says he was born into a different culture. It was a culture where powerful men made deals involving body parts of women who wanted to be famous or seen as talented or respected, weirdly.
Think Marilyn Monroe. Where would she be without the favour of the casting couch? Alive to a very old age? She wouldn’t have had to die because she wouldn’t have felt used by men. But that is another story. Although there is a tenuous link … one of her alleged abusers, John F. Kennedy, is considered one of the greatest American presidents. He was also a womaniser. Did that make him do a bad job at the presidency? Bill Clinton, too, was a lover of the bj, but a brilliant economist and looked after America’s budget better than any of his successors. So while everyone is busy tearing down the mogul I just want to point out he did not make his great achievements because of or in spite of his horrible behaviour.
Of course, I don’t – and no one can — condone what he has done, but is he paying the price for an entire industry’s wrong doing.
These are some interesting things about Harvey: He is fantastically well read. He’d read all of Dostoyevsky by the time he was 12 because it was feared he was going to go blind so he wanted to read everything before he lost his sight. He was extremely driven, he made movies for which he had passion and marketed them as if he was conducting a philharmonic orchestra in an opera house. He believed in people when no one else did and while he was confident of his abilities he had a very low self image. Without his contribution to the film industry there would be more movies involving other galaxies – robots – car chases and all male casts. Only 17 year old males would watch them. There would have been no Shakespeare In Love, no The English Patient, no Pulp Fiction, Kings Speech, Finding Neverland or Silver Linings Playbook.
He green lit all of these – and now Bafta have suspended his membership, Cannes Film Festival have denounced him and some British politicians are urging the stripping of the CBE awarded to him by Queen Elizabeth in 2004.
It seems ridiculous – you can’t unmake these clever movies that were also great box office. He was known as Harvey Scissorhands not because of the way he touched people but by the way he touched movies. He cut them up, cut them down, falling out with directors who felt they were scalping their own babies but invariably he made the movies better, more accessible, more universally loved.
This public horror show will not stop the film industry from objectifying women. Asking for body doubles with bigger breasts and tighter bottoms for nude scenes and using leading men over 50 with female love interests 30 years younger is disgusting. The culture that influenced Weinstein is wrong. Yet in this culture Weinstein romped around for more than decades. No one said anything – till everyone did. Weird.
When I last met Harvey at the Oscar party for Lion I wanted to ask him something. I wanted to say, “I have written this brilliant script, I’d love you to be involved.” I didn’t say it because it was inappropriate at a party. If I met him now – unlikely because I am told he’ll be forced into some kind of extreme rehab for being Harvey – I would still say, “I would love you to be involved.”
Today I was at a funeral for the Australian actor/writer/opera critic Charles Osbourne. Barry Humphries was giving the tribute. Even he made a joke about Harvey Weinstein in a eulogy. This is how far and how fast it has spread. And the table is about to turn. Yesterday we were appalled. Today it’s a joke.
Afterwards, the talk was not only about Charles Osbourne but about Weinstein. It’s reached that kind of circuit. funeral chat.
People said that complicity is the devil and the silence only encouraged this behaviour, not just Harvey’s but any man of power in an industry that can so easily disrespect women. People said now Weinstein was being humiliated and so universally punished this would make other abusers think twice and it could change the way the powerful men manipulate the weaker sex. Really? Are we the weaker sex? Will it change anything? The buck stops with such men. But I believe it also stops with the women. Let’s be more Jolie and less Paltrow.
What is it about Idris Elba? Everyone seems to be in love with him. Certainly I was hooked on his TV series Luther where he played good copy/bad cop all in one. Luther was tough and smart but also haunted. You see this haunted quality in his work and in the man himself quite a lot. You also see that he likes to deliver dichotomy to his roles. In The Wire he was a vile Baltimore drug kingpin but utterly beguiling. His Mandela was as ruthless as it was heartfelt (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2014).
His latest role as the gunslinger in The Dark Tower also shows him as haunted but extremely violent – a hero with brutality. He enjoys al this multi-dimensional stuff. He enjoys not being pinned down. It’s his art form. The Gunslinger is based on the Stephen Kings books and King himself talks about the Gunslinger as being a concentrated force, a reticent hero and that Elba was perfect for the part.
When you meet him you see that force.
He’s a thinker, onscreen and off. He’s always weighing things up, eyes rolling. I met him several years ago socially. He was a friend of a friend, we were in the Soho House Los Angeles. It was post Luther, pre Mandela, TV star, pre film star but he carried himself with a shuddering presence. We talked about being only children – probably my attempt to bond or flirt. All the obvious things like if you’re on your own it’s good for developing imaginary characters, a sense of self, a sense of independence but it also makes you selfish and not good at sharing. He remembers the next part of the story slightly differently. There was a plate of cookies which we both pounced on and both announced that we never share dessert. He says he let me have them.
Today I’m waiting for him in a chic London hotel in Soho, the waiting room has a cookie plate but only the chocolate macaroons are good so I order a plate of just the chocolate macaroons. Then I’m summoned to Elba’s suite. Guess what? He has a plate of only the chocolate macaroons. Nobody has to share. Good.
He doesn’t look like he’s been indulging in too much chocolate recently. He lost a lot of weight when he was on an extreme diet for a year of kick boxing – proper matches, the lot. He looks svelte in his stone coloured ribbed sweater and navy slacks. He’s narrow hipped. I tell him he’s much thinner than I expected and he complained that I was inferring he used to be fat in that typical I’m not going to take a compliment from you kind of way.
He’s chatty and distant all at once. Extremely tired because two days after we meet he is to start shooting on his first film in a directorial role, Yardie, based on the book by Victoria Headley set in London in the late 80s, charting the life of a boy who comes from Jamaica. Maybe he’s a little daunted.
“No not really” he shakes his head. And there’s the thing. He is available then unavailable, all in a moment. It’s completely tantalising because when he’s there he’s 100% there, present, fills the room, fills every pore of himself and he fully connects with you. His presence is so strong and so sexy you could bottle it, call it Idris and it would sell out, but the unavailable thing – he courts it, treasures it. He has over one million followers on Instagram yet follows no one. Connected and disconnected, see what I mean. Elba grew up in London, Hackney on an infamous estate called Holly Street – later on the family moved further east to Newham. His father, originally from Sierra Leone worked a variety of poorly paid jobs. His mother from Ghana also worked hard at many unrewarding jobs. They were strict and aspirational as parents. They liked rules and had hard work ethic instilled into Elba, who’s always throwing himself into something. No switch off button. Life was hard and rough. The kind of place where, “I got run over once and they just drove off. But I stayed out of trouble on the straight and narrow and my parents were very protective.”
His father wanted him to be a footballer. “Even though he didn’t think English kids were as good as African footballers.” Was he any good? “Yeah but if I hadn’t been into acting it would have been music. Although I was in all the sports teams, drama was more cool. He passed the audition to get into the National Youth Theatre but his mother said he couldn’t go because he didn’t have the money. His drama school teacher advised to him to apply for a grant from The Princes Trust. “Without that £1500 I don’t know what I would have become. It got me into drama school.”
When he prepped to become Mandela he ended up recording an album with some South African musicians which inspired the documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me. His father died just before the movie was released and he linked Mandela, international freedom fighter and his dad, the union guy, to be the inspiration for it. Mandela’s family invited Elba to the private funeral. There he was with every world leader and when it was announced that here was the man who recently portrayed Nelson Mandela, people clapped. “All I heard was Elba, my old man’s name…”
As an only child he was close to both of his parents. I don’t detect anything but love and respect when he talks about them, although he is happy on his own. “You make up your own language. You make up your own friends.”
He tells me softly, “I’ve become less selfish now. I like sharing. I like the feeling of sharing more.” Why is that because it’s a new feeling? “Yeeeah,” he laughs, a big old laugh. “It’s different!”
How different? We have our own separate plates of chocolate macaroons. “Well it would be rude of me to offer you any of those they’re just a bunch of crumbs now. You’d be ‘no thanks mate!’” On the contrary. I’d take his crumbs.
He looked in splendid form as the gunslinger Roland Deschain in the Dark Tower. In the movie he says things like “I shoot with my mind and I don’t kill with a gun. I kill with my heart.” He is a gunslinger with depth and troubles. A similar kind of vibe to his character in Luther which he’s about to start making another four part series. Even though we all thought Luther had ended, The BBC tagline to the new series is “The face at the window. The hand under the bed. The shadow at the end of the street. Who’s going to stop them, if not John Luther?”
“Interesting you saw them both that way and you’re right. Luther is a haunted man, character and Roland Deschain is a haunted man. It’s true. He’s also a loner and he’s a very good gunslinger. He’s haunted because he’s the last of his kind which makes him responsible for the salvation of Dark Tower. “Everything has been taken away from him and he is on a quest for vengeance – it’s become part of him and his consciousness. I do like the action and I really get into that. I’m really into the fight sequences. I love the choreography of it. Being able to work out these really complicated moves and then learning it and doing it again and again. I really love that! It was a tough film to make but after all is said and done, I’m very glad that I made it.”
Do you know the Stephen King books at all? Not that the movie’s anything like the books. The books are very cerebral, very descriptive, very deep. You can really get into the wormholes. It’s based on eight books, each one of them 700 pages.”
Elba is undaunted by this. He’s very much a reader. Our conversation wanders to discussing Netflix. We think we’ve seen everything on Netflix as well. Elba is a man with an appetite. At one stage of his life he read the book The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo twice a year because he found it transformative. Every time? He nods.
“It’s a story that reminds me to pay attention to being present. There are things to remember in your own life, sort of counting your blessings. Seeing something that you might deem as a bad thing at the time actually propels you forward. It’s clever and I think it can touch people. I first read it when I was 22/23.”
Was that the living in a van period? He spent a while homeless in New York looking for acting work. He did this because he thought the Big Apple had more diversity, more parts.
Back then in the early nineties, British black actors seemed to struggle to land leading roles. They were always the drug dealer or the gigolo.
He recollects. “My van period in New York was later.” Early in my acting career was when the book was really good to read.” Was that because it was hard starting out and he had to see disappointments as opportunity to survive? “That’s right.” He pulls at his beard. It’s an unconscious twiddle. And then he suddenly looks nostalgic, sad even and I wonder the haunted gunslinger, the haunted Luther – how much of this is haunted Idris?. Is it just because he loves identifying with other people’s hauntedness? Or perhaps because he seems not to prefer not to answer questions in full sentences
“I’m not sure. If I think honestly about my characters…” his voice trails. He’s thinking. “Luther is haunted and now this character, but I don’t think I am haunted so it’s not a trait, but I like to think that characters who have something of a past they suppress are interesting to play because there are a lot of different dynamics.”
He even made the sea lion in Finding Dory seem like an angry outsider. He laughs and does his cockney sea lion performance where he played up against his Wire co-star Dominic West. “No I’m not haunted. I feel I’m an open spirit. I’m not really afraid of anything.”
He certainly likes to test his fear muscles. In 2015 he not only entered the arena of kickboxing, he learnt how to drag race and broke a land speed driving record. As well as this he writes, he directs, he DJ’s, he raps, he sings, he lives dangerously.
“I feel like fear is a really boring waste of time.” Logically of course it is but fear is illogical. How does he rationalise, diminish it? “It’s a muscle. It’s an exercise. It’s pushing the uncomfortable zone, going past the comfort zone. I think being an actor you get asked to do lots of things that are outside your comfort zone. Trepidation happens when you’re in your trailer and you go onset and do it. That’s the process and I’ve gone through it a few times.” And you’re saying it served you well? “Yes, I suppose so.” But isn’t the risk too much? Kickboxing is very dangerous. I read that his mother could scarcely watch the hits and he could have been a gunslinger with broken legs.
“And I could have got run over on my way here today. You can’t live a life thinking it could go bad. You go into things thinking what’s going to be great about this?
I’m directing a film at the moment. That’s what I’m really doing so I’m sort of low energy today. My brain is a little fried.” You can expect first time directors to be a little haunted but Elba doesn’t come over as quite that, just simply tired from learning how to work the new demands of the film director.
But there again Elba has a kind of super brain. He once read that we only use about 12% of our brains so he began working on how to access the rest of his brain and become superhuman in the process.
“Well yes. I’m not sure whether doctors think it’s possible to expand your brain capacity, but there are certain exercises – rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time that extends capacity.”
I had a friend recently who did brain training. It’s all the rage in LA. My friend showed me some exercises that were crossing one arm and using the other to tap his ear. Elba nods enthusiastically. “If you push that even further and do more, do everything that you can, all the different things that you can do, I feel you can push capacity. So putting the same amount of detail into DJ’ing as you do acting means that you can push the capacity of the brain a little bit more. I’ve got a theory that the answer is yes. People think I’m good at this and that’s all I can do and I’m saying if you did something else you’d be good at that as well. Listen I’m going to be 45 this year. Life expectancy is about 80. I’m over half way there so I just wanna live – live more. I just wanna do everything.”
So that’s one reason he’s directing. “Yeah… It’s a human story about a kid from Jamaica who comes here. I play a small part in it as well. It’s being shot here and in Jamaica. I’ve written parts of it. Well I’m not really a writer. I’ve rewritten parts of it. The writers have written it but there are things that I’ve jigged about. I’ve also got The Mountain Between us (with Kate Winslet) and Molly’s Game (with Jessica Chastain) and Thor (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett) coming out this year. It sounds a lot but they were shot over the last 2 years and with the exception of Thor they’re all leading roles.”
So how was being stuck on a mountain with Kate Winslet? He laughs very naughtily. I’m not sure why. “You’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
The kickboxing overlapped the movies. They weren’t all planned to come out at the same time. It just happened that this is the summer of Elba.
“The end of my fighting was the end of last year but I’ve been doing a lot of DJ’ing. It’s a reset button. I love it. I’m falling in love with it more and more and I’ve been making music as well.” Yes, there’s one track called Sex in your Dreams where the lyric talks about ‘a dick thick like homemade butter’. I ask him to explain.
“Homemade butter,” he says deadpan, very serious. “You won’t get me going on that one. “Homemade butter is what is says it is on the can.” But butter is soft. He says, “Homemade butter?” I’m slightly confused. I tell him I don’t’ get it. I don’t get it at all. If he made it would it be runny or thick? “Thick because that’s the way you like your butter.” He pauses then laughs. I’ve really no idea what we’ve been talking about but it feels like it was very filthy. He tell me that when he went on James Corden’s show Corden asked him about his homemade butter lyrics so when I met Corden I asked if he could shed any light. He didn’t know either. Maybe that’s an only child thing. The need to have thick butter? “That’s right that’s right. You need that butter.”
I wonder if being an only child influenced him as a father. He has two children – a daughter Isan now 14 (born 2002) and a son Winston aged 3 with different mothers. “I don’t want to talk about my kids today. I can’t talk about being a father without talking about my kids. I love being a father. It’s my favourite thing.” But then we would talk about how busy he is and how he’s away a lot of the time and how he probably doesn’t see much of them and he wouldn’t want to talk about that that. “But I DO see my children. I see a lot of them. I live a busy life. But I love being a dad. It’s very fulfilling.”
There’s a pause of non-flowing conversation and to make it even more awkward I ask him to clarify details of his wives and girlfriends. He was married to make-up artist Hanne Norgaar in 1999 and they split up shortly after she gave birth to Isan after 3 years. He was going through a very transitional phase and then he had a very brief marriage of only 6 weeks to real estate attorney Sonya Nicole Hamlin and his current girlfriend Naiyana Garth is described as being on/off. Is that correct?
“On an off with who? I’ve been married yes, married again, yes and I’ve had a girlfriend for a long time. That’s right.” Long pause. “But I’m also human. That’s normal I think.”
I’m not sure exactly what’s normal, all the details about his being human but one certainly sees or hears of him linked to various beauties like Jourdan Dunn (actress and model) and he’s also got about 35 years left and lots of women want him. He said recently that suddenly his demographic of women who fancied him had increased. That it used to be one demographic, now it’s older women, younger women. Basically all women.
He laughs, not bashfully though. “A lot of people find actors attractive. They find a certain man attractive and he’s an actor. He’s very attractive. It’s amplified because of what we do for a living. The point I was making is it’s not just the girls in my neighbourhood but everyone. Well not everyone but a lot of women.”
We’re staring at each other. It’s one of those very connected and not connected at all moments and the PR pops her head round the door. “Last couple of minutes.” OK, the moment, if there was one, was gone, so I change the subject completely. Apparently President Obama is a fan. “Oh yes Mr Obama. What a lovely man. What a kind human being. What a good leader and he was a fan of The Wire, or he liked the character called Omar, not my character. But he had the grace to tell me I like you too and I’m just getting into Luther. His wife Michelle was well into Luther.”
I can imagine. Why do you think Michelle liked Luther? Because he’s complicated. Because she likes complicated?
“OK, yes, yes, you’re right.” So where did you hang out with the Obamas? “We had dinner at an event he threw.” Did he share dessert with him?
“No I didn’t have dessert. I was on my regime where I had to lose a lot of weight. I had to cut out certain food groups like sugar and gluten, very low carb and I had to eat fish and chicken.”
Was he forced to have it steamed? “No, baked and every now and again I had it…” long pause, eyes roll, “I had fried chicken.” I’m not sure why but the way he says fried chicken is as if he’s saying fried sex, he makes it sound really, really naughty. “I’ve lost a few pounds. Are you saying that you remember me really chubby?”
No, I’m saying. that he is now looking very fit. “I’m only teasing you. I do remember the whole plate of cookies that we demolished. I think if you remember, it was you who ate the cookies. And I was like I don’t share desserts, you have all of them……. I like your bag,” he says. My Bag has a cat on it and says Meow. He sits on his couch, still looking a little tired, purses his lips and says “Meow”.
The Dark Tower is out Aug 18
Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building. Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.
I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy. The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender. And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.
Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it. The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.
The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”
The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.
With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.
Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems. What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”
Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him. “I guess, maybe but not really. I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”
So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”
Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful. We couldn’t book anyone for a long time. The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.
“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best. Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.
Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad. You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little. Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”
I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”
The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone. Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.
I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”
This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true. I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”
And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK. To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK. And I think he returns to feel the love.
Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”
His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”
Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).
They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”
He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”
I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh. It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”
At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”
Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it. Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey. Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.
He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.
“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play. I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die. We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”
In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write. That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey. There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”
His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying. There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”
And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.
He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”
Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”
I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”
He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.” Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”
Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know. And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”
So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful. We certainly dated for a while.”
Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”
It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working. Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”
Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.” He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.
When I first met Boy George – lifetimes ago – in the early nineties, everything about him was a melodrama. He could be charming but he was also outrageous. He was always in trouble for saying the first bitchy thing that came into his head. He definitely did not understand boundaries. That was what brought him success but it also brought trouble. At the height of his fame, he was hooked on heroin. Friends and family didn’t expect him to survive. His younger brother even went on national television to expose the addiction, a desperate cry for help. George was always extreme.
We are astral twins. Born on the same day June 14th. We share this bond with Che Guevara and Donald Trump.
After the plea for help, George was arrested for possession. Over the years, his life continued to spiral. The arrests and run-ins with the law stacked up – all awful, predictable stuff. Then, in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for false imprisonment – he chained a male escort to a radiator.
A decade after this rockiest of rock-bottom moment, he is back on top of the world. After first appearing as a judge on the Voice UK, George has somehow rehabilitated himself via the unlikely medium of mainstream reality television.
In the US earlier this year, he was the runner-up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. In Australia, he has become a household name once again after a feisty role as a judge on their version of The Voice. In supermarkets down under, kids who are far too young to remember Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me ask for selfies. “It’s funny that I’m so popular with seven, eight, nine years old,” he says. “These kids were really sweet – no attitude. There’s this niceness about Australia, it reminds me of England in the seventies.”
He also finds himself settling back into life on the road. After sporadic reunions, he and the original members of Culture Club set off to tour on a wave of 1980s nostalgia, first in North America (“land of second chances”), now the UK and, towards the end of the year, Australia. “We haven’t had a big row for years,” he says of his bandmates. “Even when we do argue, it gets resolved quickly.”
“I could be more fluid if I did my own tour. With Culture Club, the view is that the audience expects certain things and that’s what we’re going to give them. Rampages on stage are a thing of the past. It’s not that everybody loves everybody but we’re very structured.”
Structure is clearly a new thing in George’s life. After a lifetime of undoings, accelerated by drugs, his years of sobriety have given him clarity. He looks back on the old days with amusement, bemusement and, for the good times, a fair dose of nostalgia but now, as he puts it, “I’m happy.”
Are you in love, I ask the man who sang I Just Wanna Be Loved
Maybe that’s why you’re happy.
“Yes, maybe. I’m not in love but I’m open to persuasion. But I’m quite busy at the moment and I’d rather be working than loving. I’d rather get paid than laid.” Just like the old Boy George. The one who said he preferred a cup of tea to sex.
Work, work, work, then. When he’s not touring, he’s working on his new album. Next year he will have a residency in Vegas with Cyndi Lauper. He’s excited about being a star in Sin City and just how “fluid” that show will be.
But the fluidity has strict limits. Today, he is as dedicated to life as he once was to destroying it. “I talk a lot with my closest friends about happiness,” he says. “I try to find happiness in almost anything. Going to Starbucks, watching videos about new exercises, like ones you can do on a flight when you clench your buttocks.” We practice clenching and he bursts into laughter, neatly exemplifying the point. He likes to fit in a few moves as he walks down the street to Starbucks – if you cross your arms over your chest you burn more calories as you walk. “Finding happiness instead of misery at any given moment is not always easy but I do think it’s the key to survival.”
Food was the last excess to go and, after years struggling with his weight, he’s now back to his skinnier original self. He’s on a regime where he has to wait several hours between eating. Sugar is banned and exercise must be regular but, again, there are limits. “I have been reading articles about naked yoga classes,” he says. “Nudity is the enemy of style and I would never do it.”
George has always been about individual style. He is very anti the selfie generation. “Everybody on Instagram looks the same. Everybody looks like Kim Kardashian. I suppose we had a version of the selfie in the eighties when we would dress up and go to a photo booth but you had to make an effort. You had to have a bit of pioneering spirit. There was never the opportunity for such narcissism before.
Today, he’s using what he learnt in the photo booth to build a burgeoning modelling career.
“I thought if I could do some modelling in my fifties that would be a real triumph,” he says. “You know, you’re always looking at these things as a measure of where you are.” So at 55 he became a model for Dior. “I like to start at the top.”
He’s even taking up a new career in art and he’s planning an exhibition. “It’s a mixture of painting and graphic stuff with a narrative starting in the seventies, being the decade that really shaped me as a person. Glam rock, punk rock, all of the things that have remained my aesthetic. I’ve never lost my love of Vivienne Westwood. I don’t know where the exhibition is going to be but I’m very serious about it, even though it just started off as me doing stuff and people really liked it. A lot of my career moves have been accidental.”
There’s no doubt George looks good but be careful how you tell him that. “It really annoys me when people say you look good for your age,” he says. What does that mean? I’m like fuck off.”
Back in the very beginning of George, there were almost no gay pop stars. Obviously he was gay. He came out to his mum when he was 14. During his acceptance speech for best new artist at the Grammys in 1984, he said: “Thank you America. You know a good drag queen when you see one.” It was, of course, the first thing that came into his head and, even though it was obvious that he was gay, it still made his press agent weep. “It was a period in history where people didn’t want to have it confirmed,” he says now. “Radio stations stopped playing my records. Oh well. Can’t turn the clocks back now.”
George has never hidden who he is, unlike the other eighties George, George Michael. In the eighties, the two Georges were compared constantly “We both were called George. Of course we were rivals.” Boy George had plenty to say about George Michael’s reticence to come out. “It was the eighties. That’s what people did. They were bitchy.”
Boy George said everything that came into his head. George Michael was the opposite. He didn’t use drugs flamboyantly but he used them consistently, and never attempted a clean-up. He only came out after his mother died because he knew she would have worried about AIDS.
“I cried when George died,” he says now. “I felt very sad. You know I was never close to George. We never really became friends. We tried a few times. We had a lot of mutual friends. There were a few evenings where the girls from Bananarama tricked me into going for dinner and he was there and whenever we met we got on great. We had more in common than we didn’t.”
“Don’t you think that there was lots of stuff that was manipulated about him? If shower them with luxuries you are partly to blame as well. I feel you can always separate what you think about somebody on a personal level from what you think about them artistically.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of George Michael’s music recently. I made a playlist the other day as a reaction to when someone put the boyfriend’s 999 call online. I just tweeted ‘I’d rather hear this’.”
People always thought of George Michael as an outsider but Boy George was just as much of an outcast, albeit for different reasons. “Back in the day I used to be not invited to quite a lot of things. Remember that song, Don’t bring Lulu she messes up a party? That was me. During the eighties I would hear about these fabulous Elton parties that I was never invited to. There’s a price for being opinionated.”
Today, he is far from reticent but he is certainly slower to unleash his feelings. “As I grow older I think I get better at being a human being,” he says. “I’ve got better at not saying everything that I think because I do believe in our most intimate relationships, we are held together by the stuff we don’t actually say. I try to not put myself in situations that are bad for me like eating the wrong things, being unreasonable. It doesn’t necessarily stop you doing A, B or C but the clean-up is quicker.”
It’s taken him all of his 56 years to get to this point. For most of his life, his first reaction was an extreme one. He was quick to explode with pain, anger, rage, whatever, and just as quick to get over it. “Perhaps that’s because I grew up with a father who would throw the entire Sunday dinner on the floor and then be, ‘OK let’s put the kettle on.’ He would be fine so everyone else had to be.”
His father Jerry was a boxer and a violent man. When he walked out on his mother after three decades of marriage in which they raised six children, their relationship broke down altogether. They made up shortly before he died and these very different days, George enjoys boxing as part of his fitness repertoire. But he has had plenty of time to process his feelings on fame and bad behaviour.
“When you are successful, people allow bad behaviour just to get things done,” he says. “For instance if a record company is trying to get you on a TV show and you are behaving appallingly they condone your behaviour just to get you to the microphone. If that is repeated over a period of time, you start to think it’s OK. The good side of things that I learnt from my father is don’t dwell. I don’t hold grudges. There isn’t anybody in the world I wish harm to but I said some things that I shouldn’t have just to get a laugh.”
One thing he hasn’t got over easily was the death of David Bowie. Without Bowie there would have been no Boy George, no Culture Club. He was the major influence on the teenage George O’Dowd. “I knew he wasn’t well but you never know how unwell,” he says. “He first got ill in 2002. We were talking a lot during that time and then, quite suddenly, communication halted. I never really understood why. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong so I took it personally. We were never big mates but I did feel like he was my family. The first time I met him I’d just been dropped by Virgin and I was backstage at a Nine Inch Nails and Bowie gig. All the heads of Virgin were there so it was awkward and then Bowie opened his dressing room door and shouted “Georgie Boy!” and gave me a big hug. He was very real, very genuine but, of course, he was complex too. He managed to create this mystery around him. The worst thing that could ever happen is that people think you’re ordinary.”
Of course, he’s right. Ordinary is bad for business, but isn’t it also important if you want to stay sane, saty balanced?
“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “Maybe nowadays, I can be ordinary.”
To the point of settling down.
“No, that’s not for me. Everyone thinks I’m alone and miserable but I have suitors. I’ll never go hungry. When people say where is this going, I say why does that matter? In that respect, I’m an old-fashioned gay man. I like that fact that being gay exempts you from the military. Gay marriage? Of course you should be able to do whatever you want but I don’t want to marry anybody. I’m happy with my own company. I can close the door and watch TV. I can have people come to stay but I like to see the return ticket.
“I don’t do the App thing. The worst thing that could happen with one of those is ‘Do you know who you look like?’ I prefer a cool customer. I’m not interested in anyone who’s a little bit eager. If there are 30 people in the room I’ll be interested in the one who isn’t giving me attention. “
With sobriety comes emotional self-sufficiency. Or maybe that was always there. “I think I am emotionally self-sufficient. I think you have to like yourself. I’m quick to judge and quick to say I was wrong about all sorts of things. Of course I make mistakes. Some people are exciting to be around and that’s fun. Too much of it is exhausting.”
I leave the new Boy George checking out the contents of the many hat boxes in his room, just a small part of his distinctly unordinary collection of beloved, bejewelled head gear. He is still exciting to be around. He is a long way from ordinary but he’s a long way from the old Boy George too. He’s survived the dark years, he’s paid the price of fame and he’s happy on this side of the boundary.
I meet Goldie Hawn in Santa Monica. It’s one of those Hockney-esque days – blue sky and palm trees. Everything you’d expect. I expected Goldie to be blonde and cute and somehow frozen in time. I expected a little facial landscaping, but there’s none of that It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since Goldie Hawn made a movie (The Banger Sisters), because somehow she’s one of those actors who has a continued presence. People are always being compared to her and she’s often photographed with her very famous (Almost Famous) daughter Kate Hudson. You never know which on screen star is going to be frosty and who’s going to be lovely. Goldie does not disappoint in the warmth department. She radiates it along with calm and Zen.
Michelle Williams arrives at the restaurant. Her ultra-blonde boyish cropped hair strangely seems to make her look uber-feminine. She’s straight off a seven hour flight from New York to Los Angeles – and I mean straight. No make-up whatsoever, her skin has a luminosity that captures the whole room. Even the hip LA crowd can’t help but gawp. There was a time when she minded this. She minded it quite a lot. There was a time where she was hounded and hunted by paparazzi with giant lenses wanting to get a glimpse of her pain when her ex but much loved boyfriend and father of their daughter Matilda, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. She’s wearing a denim jacket and a loose boho dress. Waif like, sure but even in her somewhat ordinary outfit and big bulging flight back there’s something about her. We hug hello. I’ve met her only once before but I feel that I want to. I love a Michelle Williams performance. Something about it stays with you long after the movie. She has flown to LA for the weekend of the SAG awards where she is nominated best supporting actress in Manchester by the Sea.
Her performance in Manchester is extraordinary. Not much screen time – it’s been estimated at only ten minutes – she manages to pack in a lifetime of emotions, grief, despair, loss, survival all into her character Randi: a woman whose husband was drunk (Casey Affleck) and accidentally set the house on fire, causing the death of their three children. What she brings to this part is her real life experience of loss that she was ready to confront and cauterise into her art for the very first time. Affleck said she told him that this was the part she wanted to leave as a record of herself for her daughter. She snuggles into the booth “I spent a lot of time preparing for it and I tried to squeeze a lot into those scenes.”
Sometimes her big bambi eyes look right at you, unafraid. Sometimes she closes her eyes while she’s thinking without any self-consciousness.
“I figured in my imagination over the years how much I wanted to work for (director) Kenny Lonergan (Margaret, Analyze This). While I was preparing for this I wasn’t doing anything else so I had time to spare. I spent hours and hours. It was my obsession, my daydream. You know you spend so much time waiting in lines, getting something fixed or cooking a simple recipe and SHE was what I thought about ALL of the time. I never treated it like a small part.”
And in this sense it wasn’t. Her characters’ presence was the essence of what Manchester was about – loss and how to survive it. She invaded every screen moment by not actually being there. “I like to spend as much time as possible before a project just easing myself in.” Because she wants to get it perfect or because she feels that she need to work so hard? She is after all one of those all thinking, all analysing Virgos. “I think research is helpful and it bears fruit, even in the most circuitous parts you take. I think it’s a way to work through anxiety. It’s also the only way I know how to construct a character.” Does she think it was kind of therapy to live out someone’s grief onscreen rather than her own private grief? “I never look at it like that. I look like how can I be of service to this character. Kenny wrote a character who was very different to me so it was interesting to find out more about her, not about myself.” But in so doing does that make her feel more or less of who she is? “It has nothing to do with me. I don’t think I understand myself through exploration of these characters. I use my life to understand myself better. My work is to understand other people.”
Of course it is. Williams is not a narcissist in any way. She’s all about other people. For instance, she’s worried how I felt waiting in a restaurant for her on my own, not about her eight hour plane ride and how she fell asleep with her neck in a funny position and now it hurts. She mentions it only when I notice she is cocking her head to one side unconsciously. Partly I’ll admit it. I have a girl crush on Michelle Williams and party because she’s the kind of girl who’s smart and funny and I think anyone would want as a girlfriend. Talking to her is easy. When we talk about risks she’s fascinated by the risks I have taken in life that she hasn’t. “I never want to go above the speed limit, that’s true, but obviously I’ve taken some risks in my life. I try to keep things simple, be at home a lot and only take the risks when I work. I knew there was a lot riding on my scenes in Manchester. Those scenes feel very loaded.” Was that what drew her to the movie? “I hadn’t worked in a very long time on a movie. And what drew me into it was the writing. It was Kenny. He was on my bucket list. Before I die it would be my dream to work with him. I like the feeling in life when you see circles close.”
She’s not very hungry but she doesn’t want me to eat alone. We order salad even though I see a box of supermarket salad in her bag, which she’d intended to eat on the plane but didn’t. It was a huge risk for her to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 2014 and then return to Broadway for Blackbird in 2015, singing on stage, certainly one of those work risks that paid off. It was also designed to keep her close to home and Matilda. It’s been an interesting and continuous transformation for her.
We next see her on screen in Kelly Rheichardt’s Certain Women. She worked with Rheichardt before (Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff) and has always been attracted to her poetic film making skills. Williams is a big poetry fan. When she wakes up she doesn’t go on Instagram or Twitter, she reads a poem. She likes the idea of a lot happening in a short space of time. And she likes to constantly challenge her intellect. Perhaps that’s something to do with leaving school at fifteen to come to LA to act before eventually ending up in the long running television series Dawson’s Creek. Her best friend form that show, Busy Williams, calls her now. She talks to her excitedly and says it’s the best part of coming to LA for awards. She gets to hang out with her friend.
Williams turns down wine. I ask her is that because she wants to look non bloated in her dress at the event? (And what a dress it turns out to be. Who knew sequins could look so cool). “Usually I’m a partaker of alcohol but I feel like I have more energy and it’s easier to get up in the morning and be bright eyed and bushy tailed without it. It’s also nice to have inhalation and exhalation.
There’s a few different ways to take care of yourself and sometimes it means indulging your desires and sometimes it means the opposite. I’m usually an indulger because I find it’s so comforting when life is stressful. Sometimes I think I’m going to take care of myself by letting myself have what I want, but recently I’ve been working with the idea that taking care of myself would be to give myself things that are healthy for myself,” she laughs, as if to imply she’s not been very good at it.
Certain Woman is based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. It’s three interwoven, loosely connected tales and Williams plays a wife and mother who wants to build a new home and keep things really authentic with natural sandstone but she’s less authentic on the inside. It’s the kind of ambiguous character that Williams thrives on. Also Certain Women is set in Montana, but for Williams it wasn’t just about the awe inspiring, bleak landscape and the vintage trucks. It was her childhood. She lived there until she was eight. “I have very, very, very happy memories. The happiest. I really loved being a kid there – lots of space and freedom.” Thereafter the family moved to San Diego. Michelle’s home maker mother, brother, sisters and father who had his own commodity trading business ran for Senate as a Republican twice and lost. “It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen hears which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go.”
At fifteen she got a legal emancipation from her parents. The primary reason was so she could work unrestricted hours as an actress in Los Angeles but there is sense of fracture. Her need to be alone yet she admits to being terribly lonely and that she had no idea how to look after herself, even by her Dawson’s Creek days. “I’d eat McDonald’s as a matter of course – cheeseburger, fries and I’d order two pizzas. One for dinner and one for breakfast with orange juice. I didn’t go to the dentist for ten years. I was a kid. I didn’t know going to the dentist was a real thing. I thought it was a scam. I had so many other things to take care of I wasn’t thinking about my teeth and then they started to hurt.”
We share experiences of dental trauma. “I am so dentist phobic I cry as soon as I sit on the chair. I found a dentist who gives you gas so you’re completely and totally out of it and you have no idea what’s going on. You get sleepy, warm and cosy. You should do it.” She’s worried that I have PTSD from a barbaric visit to the dentist when I was six. At this point we discover how delicious the flat bread is. “Surely it must have been fried.” We pluck bits off it so that it looks like a man with a beard and then we pluck off another bit and it looks like a bird with a beak.
“I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Montana is. It’s truly majestic and felt like home. Of course I admire Kelly so much as a film maker. I always want to surprise her and come up with things that she might not have expected. But ultimately Kelly has a very clear picture in her head and I’m just trying to understand what it is so that I can give it to her.” Her character in Certain Women is not very likeable. “I don’t care at all if people like me as a character because that’s real love. Real love is when you accept the totality of someone – when you see their darkness and their lightness. Real love is saying I see you for you and I still love you. I guess that’s what I’m still looking for.” In this instance the words are so resonant I’m not sure if she’s talking about a character or herself. Her intelligence is fierce and I think she enjoys a little ambiguity. “When you don’t pin something down directly it opens up to so many interpretations.”
Williams strikes me as a woman who can love fiercely and deeply. She has been romantically linked to Spike Jonze, Jason Segal and Jonathan Safran Foer. And while she’s happy to talk about what love means, the concept of love, she doesn’t want to talk about these individuals. You can see it’s a conflict for her. She rarely gives interviews and she wants to give her all in every moment in everything she does but she has learnt there has to be boundaries. After Heath Ledger’s death she almost gave up acting all together, then she realised it was just the attention she didn’t like. It was a double loss for her. She lost him when the relationship ended and then he died and she lost him all over again. They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain which she has described as “a very charmed time in my life.” They both got Oscar nominations. They fell in love, she fell pregnant. The paparazzi were fascinated by this couple because of its normalcy. They went out to breakfast with their Stroller to local diners in Brooklyn, their kid cuddling giant stuffed animals in her McLaren buggy. It seemed real, grounded and like it would go on forever.
In a statement shortly after his death she said, “My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender hearted, high spirited little girl who is the spitting image of her father, all that I can cling to is the presence inside her that reveals itself every day. She will be brought up with the best memories of him.”
She’s checking her phone to see how her daughter is. “She’s with friends. Everything is OK. OK. She’s eleven so we’re not quite pre-teens yet. She’s just a kid right now.” So what is she like? Do you think she’ll want to act? She has the genes. There’s a pause and Williams is thinking. She’s very careful what she says about her daughter because there was a time when “men and women in suits were cashing cheques off my daughters face.” There were also other horrible moment where a little girl at Starbucks approached Matilda and asked her what it was like to be famous because she had a daddy who died like Michael Jackson.
“She’s not looking to declare herself. She’s really still a little girl.” Williams was ready to declare herself as a kid but maybe Williams was never a kid. She’s told me before that she thinks we have many ages within us all the time. She strikes me as someone who is both young for her age and old.
She knew growing up that she wanted to be away from San Diego. Acting wasn’t always her passion. She wanted to box. “I wanted to be a boxer. I think that was kind of sad because at the time I didn’t distinguish between sexes and weight categories. I was going to go out there and fight the champ Mike Tyson. I was a big fan of his growing up and I wanted to be against someone really tough.”
“Matilda has all kinds of hobbies and passions. I don’t want to make a strong statement on her behalf in one direction or another.”
Her daughter is the reason that most of her projects have remained on the East coast. She lives in Brooklyn and has another place in upstate New York. “We have stayed home. I haven’t made a movie that has taken us on the road for five years. I’ve been doing plays and small parts in movies. For Manchester I would just go to Boston for little day trips and for Certain Women it was shot over the Spring break so she came with me.”
It’s extraordinary to think that Williams has garnered so much critical adulation and awards nominations over the last five years and has rarely been far away from home. That requires extraordinary juggling skills. She was Oscar nominated for Blue Valentine in 2011 in which she starred with Ryan Gosling – a relationship that went from happy passion to toxic chaos – and again for playing Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn. Certainly she must have identified with the much loved tragic heroine. For Marilyn she would go to sleep watching her movies. “Like when you’re a kid and you put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it via osmosis.”
Williams is a pretty powerful sponge. Even jetlagged and exhausted she seems able to absorb everything. It’s not long before she is dissecting my love life and is giving me advice. At the moment she’s working in Brooklyn again on a movie called The Greatest Showman in which she plays Charity, the wife of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. It’s a musical. She says, “Have you ever interviewed Hugh Jackman? I love that man.” I tell her we sang during the interview – An Englishman in New York, except I can’t really sing. “But I bet he made you feel good about it.” Apparently Jackman made Williams feel good about her singing because her next role is playing Janis Joplin. “Nothing like a challenge. It’s gonna get me going,” she says, pulling a scared face.”
Her desire to challenge herself with singing happened when she sang in Blackbird on stage. “I fell in love with singing and now I just want to sing. I find it terrifying too but once you do it it’s not like the dentist – it’s kind of fun. Don’t you ever sing to yourself in the shower and it kind of makes you feel good?” No, sadly not. “OK what about dancing? There are just certain things that make me feel I’m a kid, that make me feel I’m a little bit free and a little bit unbound and I love it. “I dance with Hugh Jackman.”
I tell her my parents were champion ballroom dancers. Her eyes open wide. “Were they really in love?” Only when they were dancing. “Dancers always look so in sync with one another. There’s so much communication that happens when you dance.” Then she looks sad for me. “And you never felt the rhythm?” No, not at all.
I want to talk about her family, not mine. “I have an older brother, two older sisters and a little sister who just had a baby. My parents are divorced, each doing their own thing in different places.” Were you more like one parent than another or an alien? “Nobody in my family ever acted or wanted to act. My mum sings though. She has a lovely voice and her dream when she was growing up was to play the cello on the Lawrence Welk show, so I like to think in some small way, me singing and dancing with Hugh Jackman is giving her something she missed out on.” And her father, what does he do now? There’s a sticky pause for the first time. “I really don’t know,” she says and shakes her head and she shakes it a second longer to be emphatic in a quiet way. You can see there’s something painful that went on before but the ‘I don’t know’ is as far as she takes me.
This is a woman who has turned her vulnerability inside out to survive it. A woman who was on her own in Los Angeles when she was fifteen. It’s a place of broken dreams and nasty egos. She must have felt alone, lonely and then of course there’s her more public loss of the partner, months after they had split up. And if that loss itself didn’t tear her down, being hounded by the paps almost did. “If you’re never left alone to live your life, you don’t feel alive.”
Anyone else I might push a little harder to find out what went on with her dad, but Williams feels everything so sharply and it feels cruel. Instead she spies me looking at her big plane bag, stuffed to the brim. “I bought this book of poetry with me. I’m very excited. It’s one hundred poems. I truly love them. When I don’t have time to pick up a novel or I’m doing other things I can dip into a poem. I always have time to read a poem – that’s what I tell myself and I get an email from Poem a Day that I subscribe to. Does she ever feel like writing poetry? “No. I’ve read enough to know that I’m not capable of writing one. Where would I start?”
One gets the impression that Williams could tackle anything. I like the metaphor of this waif like creature wanting to be a boxer. She’s ready to fight for anything. She’s ready to plunge into something that terrifies her, like a biopic of Janis Joplin. “It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m thrilled.
“I do like to fight. Not with people but for things that I want. I really enjoy the experience of wanting something and crossing the distance to get it. I don’t want a lot of things but the things that I do want burn me up inside and I get very excited about trying to reach them. I wanted to play Janis badly and I reached for it.”
“I don’t mean I want objects. I want experiences and people. It’s nice to want something and think about what you could do to pull that thing closer to you.” She’s a dazzling presence, this waif like creature that seems such a fighter and very far away from that time where she felt it was hard to be alive because she was being watched all the time. “That was hard. You feel self-conscious. You don’t want to jump outside the box. You don’t want to embarrass yourself. You don’t want to make a bold move. You just want to spend your life staring at your feet so people can’t catch your eyes. Not a nice way to live.” Especially not if you’re already sad. “Yes.” She closes her eyes again as if to remember the pain so she can digest it, expel it.
How did she get out of that? “We moved outside of the city.” There’s a little pain when she says the words and I recall an article in a glossy where she talks about when she had to move and she worried “How would he find us?” meaning Ledger. It wasn’t an easy move but it was a move that was needed. And now they have another place in Brooklyn in a different area. “We don’t get hassled in the same way. It’s really quite manageable.” How did she succeed in getting it to be manageable? “I really try not to attach any feelings to a state of being, not success or failure. So when somebody says I’ve succeeded I don’t hang onto it because I know that life is long and things are bumpy and when somebody says I’ve failed I don’t hang onto that either. I try to let things bounce off me so I don’t become locked in one identity. I’m too afraid to let things go and be comfortable. It’s a fact of life. Everything goes up and down.”
Wise, heartfelt, vulnerable, strong. And off she goes to bed with her book of poems.
There’s no entourage, no publicist, no hotel suite, just Shirley Maclaine sweeping in to Shutters on the Beach in Santa Monica with a big floaty scarf and lots of turquoise and diamond jewellery. Her greeting is a stare with the big twinkly spidery eyes. She exudes an aura that is powerful, certain, and a look and sharpness that can be instantly withering.
We can’t find a place to sit where our conversation is not drowned by a trumpet playing band so we go to the restaurant where everybody is extremely old school charming to her. It seems she’s well known in there. Well enough so that when she asks for cappuccino and an extra cup of just foam it arrives fast and fluffy, no questions asked.
The last time I met her she’d been wearing a wig, a good wig, but nonetheless a wig. This time it’s her own hair styled in the pixie cut that fell so beautifully into place in her Bob Fosse 1950s dancing days. Her skin looks plumped up and smooth. She had a face lift when she was around 50. The rest of the face lines have settled in around it amicably. She’s now 76 (77 April 24).
“My skin’s always been good, but I’m old now and I’m gaining weight and I hate it.” In her latest book I’m Over All That gaining weight is one of the things she’s not over. Dressing up, paying attention to fashion, scheming for film roles, feeling anger at world leaders, caring what people think of her and high heels are all part of the stuff she is completely over. Along with being polite to boring people. God forbid she thinks you’re boring. She would have no time at all, and no problem simply “meditating” right there and then or perhaps she means falling asleep.
Today though she’s very awake, very alive and animated. The voice in her book is always sure of itself; occasionally cruel, always brutal in its honesty. In the book she talks about having loved her ride and appreciating relinquishing the reins. In person though there’s none of that aching nostalgia and feeling that it’s the time to grow old and invisible.
Her book is a mixture of Hollywood gossip, sex on set, tales of Elizabeth Taylor sparking in diamonds and crying into champagne, and other such manipulations. Plane rides on Frank Sinatra’s private plane where there’d be fights with jelly beans.
Her relationships with world leaders, Pierre Trudeau, and Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme. The night she spent in a suite that had been rented for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign and when she was sleeping a man entered and climbed into bed with her. She had no idea who he was so she rolled on the floor away from him. It happened repeatedly the same night so she didn’t know if it was one persistent man or several.
Alarming revelations are tucked in between her thoughts on religion, nature, UFOs, reincarnation, fame and ageing. She doesn’t pine for the good old days. She sets them out quite brittlely, fragmented, as if they happened to someone else. Understandably she talks a lot about getting older and fatter.
“I’m not talking vanity. It’s health wise. I don’t want to buy more clothes that are bigger. I’ve been putting together a live show because I miss the live audience. It’s a retrospective of my stuff, not just the acting but the dancing, footage from my shows and television specials. I’ve been cutting it all together and that’s what’s got me in this frame of mind. I am looking back. Look at those legs.”
When you look back at the young Maclaine she was super alluring, but not in an overt way. She had a dancer’s body and a distinctive haircut that made her look like she wasn’t trying and didn’t care. Think Sweet Charity, Can Can, The Apartment.
Did she think of herself then as sexy? “No, never, never, never. I’m a dancer. You have to be a team player and never think of yourself as a diva. And that’s held me in pretty good stead. I’m easy to work with except I’m very disciplined and I want efficiency.
“I should be doing my yoga but I can’t any more, I’ve a spine problem. Really I should pay attention to my posture.” She rises up theatrically in her chair. “I got the bad back from wearing heels and dancing in them. The things that seemed so important don’t matter now.”
I mentioned that I saw Annette Bening, her sister-in-law, at a party and she was carrying her Louboutins. “Yes, she and I talk about how hard it is to wear high heels all the time.” Does she see much of her brother, Warren Beatty. “Sure… he’s very complicated. We’re friendly. They’ve got four kids. We interact. I love Annette.”
Wasn’t there a time when she wasn’t close to her brother? “Oh yes. You know, families go in and out, up and down, I can’t remember when, just like all families.”
Annette is very thin, isn’t she. “Don’t you wish you could be like that, that thin?” I stop thinking about the fried calamari appetizer instantly. Maclaine doesn’t mean to be insulting. That’s just her way. She continues, “To do that you don’t eat much.”
She shows me her Louis heels. The highest she goes these days is a couple of inches.
In her back there’s a chapter: I’m Not Over Vanity, But I’m Trying. She talks about her body a lot. Perhaps because she grew up in the kind of Hollywood that created body fascism. Was it as harsh for actresses to be in shape then as now?
“Probably worse, because it was studio time. On the set of Trouble With Harry (1955), her first movie, Hitchcock wanted me to eat every meal with him. So I put on 10lbs in the first week.”
When she was an actress on Broadway she lived off her own lemonade made at cafes with quarters of lemon and sugar that were on the table, and peanut butter sandwiches. So obviously going from that to the multi-course Hitchcockian meal might add a couple of inches.
“The head of the studio called me in and said ‘What are you doing? We are trying to cut the scenes and you are a different person’. I had gone up to 136lbs. when you are under contract they did that because they owned you they thought, but I wasn’t owned. I didn’t stop eating for the rest of the picture. I said now I’ll have to keep eating so that I would match.”
Does she think Hitchcock had an eating disorder? “”Doh. Just look at him. He had trouble with food. He would lose 20lbs before a shoot. He knew the food would be catered by who he specifically asked to cater it and he would just eat his way through the film. It was very fine good food.”
She says with admiration, “Marlene Dietrich ate only every other day. She taught me how to put a very fine gold chain under your chin to keep it lifted.”
Maclaine talks about her own facelift and when she came home with stitches in her face she couldn’t have energetic sex. “That’s when I got into gentle sex, gentle orgasms.” She’s laughing a big dirty laugh. “Some deep emotions called don’t pop my stitches.”
Who was your lover at the time? “Oh he was very respectful, but no names babe. He’s gay now. Such a lot of people are bisexual.”
After talking about the gurgling gentle orgasm she says that she didn’t love sex so much unless she was emotionally involved. ” It wasn’t that interesting to me. I could never do it unless I was emotionally interested.”
What’s more interesting is how she stayed emotionally interested. Throughout most of her sex life she was married to a film producer turned businessman, Steve Parker, twelve years her senior. For most of that time he lived in Japan with their daughter Sachi. They divorced in 1987.
While married she had passionate, tumultuous affairs. None of which lasted for more than three years. Thus the marriage itself provided both the freedom and the barrier, the protection if you like. “It was an open marriage. A very open marriage.”
It went on for 28 years while she had what she calls “serial monogamous relationships” with many others including Robert Mitchum, Danny Kaye, Yves Montand, Australian Foreign Minister Andrew Peacock, Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme.
“Being married was a protection not to marry again. If I had been single then it would have been discussed with the people I was with and I really don’t agree with marriage. It’s not something I would do.”
When you she married in the first place did she think differently? “No, I felt the same way. That’s why it was an open marriage. I was 19. He was my helpmate, my friend, my counselor. When I came to California from the east he was there, so I didn’t go into the world of Hollywood single.”
Somehow not being single in Hollywood was important to her. It’s as if she were in some way vulnerable or prey. Maybe on a very basic level she feared losing herself. Her parents Kathlyn Beatty, a drama teacher, and her father Ira, philosophy teacher turned juvenile detention officer and heavy drinker, had a claustrophobic and dysfunctional marriage.
In her book she tries to explain the contradiction. “What was I doing with all my hormones and attractions and longings when I always felt so strongly the need for freedom. Most of the men I was with wanted to get married. I was already married and I stayed that way precisely so it wouldn’t become an issue.
“My husband and I had a liberal arrangement regarding each others’ lovers. We were friends. We stayed married so we wouldn’t be tempted to marry again. I don’t understand the need for the institution and I could never live a life where I felt tied down to a promise just because my love hormones were raging at the time.”
Why did she divorce from Parker? I read it was about money. “I thought that it was, but it wasn’t. He didn’t want anything. But by the time we separated it was really just over.”
For a long time though if other lovers “got serious with me about divorcing Steven and marrying me, that was not good. All of them did that, and that probably took three years. That was their cycle. When you start looking back you see your behavior patterns and you realize you unconsciously conducted yourself to give them three years.”
Does she not think she should have given them any more than that? “Huh. To do what? I don’t think so. You can’t really control or not whether you have freedom from emotional intensity. It’s just a rhythm. I was kind of shocked myself. How do people do it for 25 years? I guess I did it one year for the body, one for the mind, and one for the spirit. It started with the body, then the mind, then the spirit, then it was done. Ha.” Loud dirty laugh.
What about the Swedish Prime Minister Olof Palme who was assassinated in February 1986? “We had broken up but we made arrangements to get back together, then he died.” You were about to break the three year rule? “No, it had been two and I thought we could add another year. He was a brilliant man, a brilliant leader. He didn’t believe in any of the stuff I believed in. we didn’t argue but he thought it was ridiculous. I liked his intelligence. Very left wing intellectuals always interest me. And they are always the most suspicious of my metaphysics. He was planning to come to New York and hoping to be Secretary General of the UN.” It must have been terrible when he was killed? “It really was. I talked to him a week before he died. We were planning on seeing each other. He was an extraordinary person. Not good looking. Not a big man, which I usually like.” We get very very sad talking about it.
Robert Mitchum was a big man. “Robert Mitchum was so complicated. My dad was complicated. And I like complicated men. But he was not exactly like my dad. He was very intelligent. He was intense, he was light, he was funny, he was impossible. Interesting to me. Good ground to plough. So much was under there.”
Did she ever get to the core of him? “Mmm, maybe. No, I would have got bored if I got to the core. Once you’ve got to the core what’s the point of ploughing anyway. I wasn’t looking for a lasting relationship, I never have.”
She speaks with sparkly-eyed fondness for Danny Kaye who came to visit her on set in Paris and flew her to New York and cooked her Chinese food. “He was a great pilot. He used to take me to dinner all over the place, not just across the Atlantic. If he wanted a steak he would fly me to Texas. He was a fabulous cook. That was three years. I can’t remember how that ended, but there was someone right after him. I think we’re all kind of cyclical. We have a rhythm and three years was mine.”
There’s an absence of sentiment and nostalgia in the way she speaks. It’s all very matter of fact. Perhaps that’s why her most intense love relationship now is with her dog, a rat terrier called Terry. Her eyes fill as she speaks of her love for her. She seems utterly contented. Certainly not lonely for any man. She chats on about her life in Santa Fe, New Mexico, where she lives most of the time. Laughing with good friends and coming home to watch DVDs in bed with Terry.
She’s working on her one woman show – An Evening With Shirley Maclaine – and has a new movie out, Bernie, with Jack Black and Matthew McConaughey “I play a woman who’s a real bitch. She’s very wealthy and everybody hates her. I love playing those parts.
“Jack plays the head of an undertaking firm. We have a relationship and I become very possessive. I make life impossible for him so he shoots me and puts me in the freezer under the frozen peas.
“I’ve got other things coming up but I don’t know if I’m going to talk about them yet.” That’s great I say. A lot of people when they reach a certain age and they’re not leading ladies any more they find that difficult. You know how that goes? “No, I don’t know how that goes.”
Did she never find it difficult to reach a certain age and get offered different sort of parts and then get offered less parts? Did she never reach a point where she felt invisible? “No,” she says loudly and defiantly. I’m not sure if she’s going to snarl at me, but then she just laughs. Moods and shapes shift with her pretty quickly. One minute she’s laughing with you cozily, the next looking at you as if you’re something on the sole of her shoe. And then she’ll do that just kidding face and we’re laughing again.
Her book swoops like that too. From serious to angry, political and metaphysical, to Hollywood insider. And she manages to talk about people with love and disdain at the same time and in equal measure. Such as how Elizabeth Taylor got diamonds to go on a lunch date. You’re not sure if she’s talking in awe or contempt. Or both. Although she says she loves Elizabeth Taylor.
Did she herself get diamonds? “Sure, I got bribes to get married. No names. I said no, but I did not give the diamonds back. They’re in the bank. They may come in handy if I want to get more water rights.”
In the book there’s a chapter called I’m Not Over Making Money. “I think it’s going to cost money for what’s coming up. I want to make a huge garden. I want to collect rainwater. Solar is expensive. Who knows who else might need help. That sort of thing.”
She has always been unafraid to speak her mind. A lot of actresses are driven by insecurity. But not her. She says that she’s never manipulated to get a part.”
“I’ve given up more parts than I’ve been afraid of losing. If an actress called me and I was up for a part but they were so in need of that part it meant everything. To me it meant something, but not that much. I’m basically not competitive. I like the idea of playing a part that required a lot of thought, so there were parts that I wanted because they were interesting.”
What were the ones you gave away? “Oh, I should have played Alice Doesn’t Live Here Any More but Ellen wanted it so much. I should have played Breakfast At Tiffany, but I gave that up because of Audrey. I didn’t take these things seriously.”
Why didn’t you take Breakfast At Tiffany? Because you didn’t want to be a hooker? “Oh no. I went and did something called Two Loves with Laurence Harvey. Some terrible thing that three people saw. I liked the script. It was about a teacher in New Zealand working with Maoris.”
You got to go to New Zealand? “No, we filmed it in the studio. I thought that Breakfast At Tiffany was too souffleish. The Apartment started with 29 pages. I just liked the idea of working with Jack Lemmon and Billy Wilder. I didn’t know what it was going to be about, neither did he. He wrote it based on the chemistry Jack and I had on set. It didn’t seem amazing at the time. We didn’t know anything when we started. When the first review came out it said they don’t know if they’re making a comedy or a drama.
“After the first screening Marilyn Monroe was standing outside the screening room wearing a gorgeous fur coat and leaning up against the wall. I walked up to her and she walked up to me and she opened her coat and she had absolutely nothing on and told me, ‘You were wonderful.'”
Why does she think she did that? “Well, she didn’t get along with Billy Wilder.”
So she did it to punish him? “Probably. Isn’t that interesting.”
Such a punishment. The first screening of a brilliant movie ends and there’s no attention for Wilder or MacLaine or Lemmon, it becomes not about The Apartment but about Marilyn. “Yes, it really tore up the whole place. I don’t know what that was about. He was awful with her and she was with him. That was not a good relationship.”
What was it about their chemistry? “She couldn’t act. I got along with him. He was very autocratic. He was Austrian. You don’t tell Billy Wilder his script isn’t right. I feel he always needed a strong woman character in his pictures. When he started doing them without it just didn’t have the tension.
“He used to have this editor, Dylan Harrison, and he’d see the dailies and say ‘Billy, you’ve got to shoot the whole day over because you didn’t break my heart’. With men only he didn’t break hearts. Dylan died after our last picture. Dylan was the real Billy Wilder. Without him he was too harsh. He hurt people’s feelings. Sometimes I minded it. I tended to dig my foot in – let me do this, let me do such and such. But after a while with him it’s the law of diminishing returns.
That’s what happened with Marilyn. She couldn’t remember dialogue and he’d be very harsh and she’d forget more. Although I didn’t know Marilyn, that was the only time I saw her and I saw all of her.
“There was one other time when she was doing Something’s Got To Give. She had lost weight and got into shape, but she was doing her number which was not showing up on time and Fox called me to replace her and I said ‘No, I’m in the same union as she is’ and then she died.”
Well that would have been weird to replace her. “Well, it all happened before the picture got started. They did tests. Of her in a swimming pool and Dean was cast in it. I’m not sure if they ever did the picture with anyone else. Maybe it was not made.” (It wasn’t. Marilyn was sacked from the film. She was rehired, but then died).
Her voice and entire body language softens when she talks about Dean Martin. He was never neatly packaged into a three year cycle. Martin was the one man she couldn’t get. “I had a crush on Dean. He was the funniest. His imagination was funny. His brain, I’m not so sure.
“Frank wasn’t funny. Frank would get extremely autocratic. He could and would run the show in every which way, and he didn’t want to work hard.”
MacLaine became a non-sexual mascot for the Rat Pack. One of the boys. “I never had a thing with Frank or Dean or Sammy or Joey Bishop, but I couldn’t have an affair with someone if I was hanging out with them if I wanted to. I was the one they protected, like I was their mascot daughter.”
She says that they didn’t even drink very much. “It was all a show. It was like an adult kindergarten. I was one of the boys. We all played together. But I would always clean up the trashed room.”
It’s the only moment in my whole time with her where she seems uncertain of her role, of who she is. One of the boys? Or caretaker, love object?
She talks in her book of an unrequited longing for Martin and once she even went round to his house to tell him how she felt. But his wife and kids were there and she ended up playing with the kids and had a kiss on the cheek goodnight. And the unspoken sweetness continued. Probably it meant more to her that way.
Does she ever wonder what would have happened if she’d had the affair with Martin? “No,” she says sharply. Does she ever think that about anyone? “No.” She doesn’t fill the silence. There’s nothing unrequited or lonely in your life? “No. I’d had enough. Come on. I’m nearly 77, I’m not interested in that any more…” Then there’s another pause, and a softening. “I mean if something came along.”
She smiles a crooked smile. Hard to tell if she’s serious. “I’m very content. I’m very busy and creative. I have a wonderful life. I have a lovely home in New Mexico. I come to LA and I go to New York and I have wonderful times.
“I think with someone who is as independent as me I don’t think men are all that interested. Unless a man has got a control trip going on, but I’d see that right away. This subject is boring,” she announces.
I wonder if it’s all been about her strong desire never to be controlled. Before I can formulate another question I can see she’s moved on.
She doesn’t mean to be offensive. In fact she’s very charming when she wants to be. She just wants to speak exactly what’s on her mind.
It’s getting dark in the Shutters restaurant and her twinkly eyes squint to see what’s written on my notepad. She orders more foam for her cappuccino. The waiter goes off and brings back a cup of pure foam like a cloud.
How close is she to her daughter? “You know, she’s 53, she’s doing her own thing. She’s doing a little theatre. She’d like to do more. I’m close with my grandkids. They live back east so I have to wait till they’re here.”
For most of the time when her daughter was growing up she lived in Japan with her father. It was deemed a healthier environment than Hollywood and dragging her from film set to film set. But there were long gaps in communication. Does she try to make up for lost time? “Yes, we try to, but she has her own life. She wants to be on her own. She’s going through a divorce now and I don’t want to talk about it.”
As if by magic at that moment Antonio Banderas, looking super svelte, and Melanie Griffiths, looking super baby-faced, appear to meet with her. Although it felt like me and MacLaine could have talked for hours, I realise with the arrival of this Hollywood couple she is in her true element. This is her Hollywood life and I have merely been a guest. I hope that we’ll meet again in this life or another.