Judy Kramer (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 31, 2019)

Judy Kramer is the big eyed, pretty blonde in the corner of the restaurant already waiting for me. She manages to look unassuming in a bright purple ostrich feather jacket. She is the super producer creator of Mamma Mia the stage show and the movies. She has been described as “the greatest impressario of the 21stcentury.” In the year to the end of last March, Kramer, Benny Anderson and Bjorn Ulvaeus of Abba shared dividends of £1.3 million. 
     She is unexpectedly accessible. Girly even, with chats of costume departments advising her to rub pencil on zips so they don’t stick. And then we talk about bras and horses. Not what you’d expect from the woman called “the greatest impresario of the 21st century.” Mamma Mia has been seen by 60 million people worldwide in 50 productions in 16 languages and has grossed over 2 billion dollars at the box office. It has achieved the status as fifth longest running musical in West End history and then there were the two wonderful Mamma Mia movies – the first one repositioning Meryl Streep as a musical comedy star.
     On April 6th 2019 it will be the 20th Anniversary of Mamma Mia.
     Kramer, who’s now 61, risked everything to make the musical happen. She worked as Tim Rice’s assistant on the musical Chess Premiere in 1986 when she met Ulvaeus and Andersson and spent many years trying to convince them their song lyrics had all the drama, the loss, the love, the tragedy and the triumph of a hit musical. She saw it. No one else did. Pretty steely.
     Doesn’t she think she should be called an Impressaria? “I see what you mean but in this day and age an actress is an actor. Perhaps I should start signing things Judy Kramer, Impressaria. There’s something very Victorian about it.”
    Did she have a master plan for making the two Swedish people with beards into increased legendary status? “There was no actual master plan, although, there was a plan to get a show on, to help the craft of writers, make people come to it and hope that it runs a while so you can pay your investors.” She has in fact produced 50 productions of Mamma Mia. It went global, it grossed 2 billion and then spawned 2 big studio movies.
     “I can analyse it by saying it was organic and had a certain amount of serendipity.”
     The stage show alone really has grossed 2 billion? She shrugs. “That’s the kind of figure that’s used when you’re putting comparables into market research.”
     There is no comparable. She knows that? “Well the 2 billion is shared and that’s the gross. But the movies have taken another billion. The first one took over 6 million at the box office and the second one 400 million.”
     It was only released in July 2018 and the DVD in November 2018 on so the figures should now be higher.
    “People always said it will never play Broadway, there will never be a film but it ran on Broadway for 12 years. Not a master plan. It became its own little industry. Well, a big industry.”
     And Kramer became not just a producer but a CEO, or as I like to sing to the tune of Super Trooper, a super producer. Does she remember the defining moment where she met Ulvaes and Andersson?
     “I met them in the early 80s when I was working on Chess. I guess I’ve known them half my life. I met them in 1982. They had stopped being Abba and I was working for Tim Rice as his production assistant. One of my first jobs was to collect Bjorn from the airport. I was booking orchestras and working for all three of them and that’s when I fell in love with the songs. But they’d moved away from Abba. They were doing something else. I’d worked on several musicals (Cats, Rocky Horror, My Fair Lady), all quite traditional. And there’s the thing with musicals. We often get the story right but not the music and the music right but not the story.
     “After Chess finished, I stayed in touch with Benny and Bjorn, mainly Bjorn because he moved to England and was living in Henley. Somehow, I or his wife Lena had persuaded him to buy a horse so I went to see the horse and him quite often. I’d drive to Henley, ride the horse and stay with the family. It was always in the background. The lyrics would be the source material. The idea was to tell a story using those songs as if it was an original musical. As if it was a Rogers and Hammerstein.”
     She shared her vision. The particular song Winner Takes It All she imagined it at the helm of the musical. The anchor. “On Broadway they call it “the 11 o’clock number”. I call it the Don’t Cry For Me Argentina moment because every musical has the big kind of end ballad that the actor or actress sings and I always felt that that song had the power. I love the lyrics and I’ve always felt that Abba songs have a female consciousness running throughout. Bjorn had written those lyrics for Agneta and Frida and they were very much a look inside a woman’s head. Winner Takes it All was the one I’d always wanted to sing to a boyfriend or to myself. It has the high emotional drama, the rollercoaster. It’s a big romantic split so I used to listen to it over and over because it ends up making me feel good. It hits you.”
    And that’s what an Abba song does. It makes you feel triumphant over bitterness. It gives you riches out of desperation. All those opposite emotions in a few minutes.
    “And that’s what I thought. Like an opera. I could hear how it would translate to musical theatre, to the stage. Somebody giving it their all, taking a big breath and going out with that song. And, of course, Meryl does that in the movie.”
     Mamma Mia reached another level once Meryl Streep signed on to the movie. “When her character sings that song to Piers Brosnan before her daughter’s wedding he said the hairs on the back of his neck went up. Of course, they were on a clifftop in Greece.  Meryl was always our first choice.”
     Was it hard to get her involved? “No, and that surprised Phyllida Lloyd who directed the stage show and the first movie. Early on we decided we weren’t going to be casting 35-year olds (to play a mother of a young woman). This character is a real woman with history and substance. I had seen Meryl in New York doing Mother Courage and I saw something in her portraying this woman with a tough life. She had a kind of a fight so I went to Meryl’s agent slightly under the radar because at the time the studio had to approve casting and they were “shouldn’t we go for the younger generation…?”” And just like that without any proclamations of feminism, without any complaints of older women don’t get cast in lead roles, just like that it was done. And Meryl’s career changed forever. Without Mamma Mia, there’d be no musical Meryl, no little number in this year’s Mary Poppins Returns, there’d be no Meryl in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. It added a whole new dimension to Streep’s already over accomplished career. (Streep had sung at the end of Postcards From The Edge in 1990, but before Mamma Mia she was not known as a singer and now no one can stop her.) And without Streep, there may not have been the numbers at the box office and a movie franchise that’s already in talks about a third movie.
     When the first Mamma Mia was made ten years ago, it was exactly that time where you would so often see a male lead in his fifties and wonder how could his wife be 25 and the mother of teenagers? 
     “Meryl had seen the show and she immediately said ‘yes I’m interested.’ When Meryl said yes we had T shirts made that said We Were There Before Meryl.”
     It was a female triumvurant. A female producer, director, writer.
     “It was unusual at the time although I think it’s no longer so unusual.” (Actually, it is. In the recently announced Golden Globes, everyone in the Best Director category is male.)
    “It’s about roles for strong women in two generations. That’s the genius of the story. Great roles for women.”
     Catherine Johnson wrote it and Phyllida Lloyd directed it. They were all in it from the beginning.
     “When the three of us got together in the 90s we were the original architects. Then we went to Meryl and Meryl liked the fact that we had not produced a hundred movies but we knew the essence of Mamma Mia and the architecture. And that was part of growing the legacy of these 3 women, creating the roles for women and we also became great friends.”
     However, they weren’t involved in the second movie Mamma Mia Here We Go Again, which was written by Ol Parker with Richard Curtis as advisor. It was also directed by Ol Parker. 
     “You had to think outside the box for a second movie and we’d all moved into different areas of our lives. A bit like a family where you’re all completely in each other’s pockets for years as we were, then you grow apart for different things, different relationships. There was a time where we’d open a show anywhere in the world and see each other at the parties. I talked to both of them of course about doing another film and they were up for the ideas being thrown around but it never worked which is a shame because it would have been great to keep the family together so to speak.”
     She says this with just a hint of nostalgia. “The lead singer found another band. I phoned Richard Curtis. It needed someone who could distance themselves and actually not be caught up in the past. In a way, everything does feedback very much to the original characters but I don’t think anyone would have been brave enough to kill off Meryl if they were on the inside track.”
    In Mamma Mia Here We Go Again it weaves from past to present. Streep’s character has died so only appears in the past sequences and the showstopper is Streep’s mother being played by Cher. It remains a feminist film. The head of the board of Universal Pictures is Donna Langley. “Another great woman who was part of the first film and is now the chairman of Universal. Rare that a woman runs a studio. We remain friends.”
    We order food, Swedish herrings in deference to Abba. It was 10 years between the first and second film. Fans on social media are demanding a third movie now. There’s plenty of Abba songs to be rediscovered but as of yet it’s not been signed off.
     “Even Piers said, “we can’t leave it another 10 years.” Although there is something about the 10 years that makes it like a good wine, matured and Cher is a very good actress, a very powerful one and she came on board especially.”
     Quite a coup. “Ah. Cher was – to have two of the biggest legends that are only a few years apart in age to play mother and daughter…. I think Meryl found it hilarious and so did Cher so that was a good start. And Cher had always liked Mamma Mia. I heard she went to the theatre on Broadway.”
    Perhaps she wanted to play the Streep part first time round? “I think she thought she could be that role and she is that role. She is the woman who’s done it on her own and has all those ingredients. She is the ultimate rock chick but that could so easily have had a different path.”
     “I had approached Cher for the first film in 2006 before we cast Christine Baranski. Phyllida and I flew to Malibu to meet Cher to talk about her playing Tanya.  At the time, she was a little sad not to have Cher but agrees she was much better to play Ruby, Streep’s mother. “It wasn’t the right time for her then. She said to me when we were filming “Things worked out didn’t they?” She loves playing Ruby and she loves singing Fernando and she got to choose Andy Garcia.”
     Really? She cast her own love interest? “We had a list and she definitely had approval and was very pleased with him. We’ve never had a problem with casting really. Pierce, all you had to say to him was Abba, Greek island and Meryl Streep and he was in and Andy Garcia heard duet and Cher. It’s empowering, Cher as the grandmother and gets Andy Garcia.
     “Cher’s look in the movie is more fairy godmother than grandmother. The platinum wig, the sequins, the make-up were all her decisions. it took her character to a whole other level.  I always wanted Cher. Ol Parker wrote it with her in mind. We had to have her, we had to raise the bar and we were delving into the back story of Donna Sheridan, who had to have a mother somewhere. She had done everything the opposite to her mother. She brought her daughter up on an island giving her safety and security whereas her own mother was probably slightly wayward. She would definitely have been at Studio 54 in the white dress suit with sparkling champagne. Cher’s great concern was that she didn’t want to be seen as a bad mother. No one says her character is bad, just not very hands on.”
     Now Kramer and Cher have become good friends with. I wonder if the purple ostrich jacket might even have been inspired by Cher?
     “Great friendships have always been formed on the back of this movie. In the film world, you make friends but you may not see them all the time. When everyone comes back it was like a big wedding weekend. I’ve become firm friends with Christine Baranski.
     When Cher first arrived on set, I think she felt nervous. She hadn’t done a film for a while but she tells the story about Ron Meyer who was her agent and now works at Universal and I’d called him and said any chance we can get Cher playing Meryl’s mother and I wondered how he pitched that to her. She said “he called and said, ‘Mamma Mia 2, you’re doing it’ and hung up”. So, she turned up and felt straight away the Mamma Mia factor. She came in when were shooting at Shepperton in the studio. It was a big party brewing and it was also the week we had Meryl. You know how Cher’s feisty. Well she’s fragile as well. Not in a physical way. I can relate to that because people always think I’m not shy because I do what I do. But I’m actually permanently going into rooms full of people and feeling shy.”
    Kramer lives in London, has horses in Warwickshire and an apartment in New York but will visit Cher in California. Cher was so inspired by her Mamma Mia experience she did an album Dancing Queen and gives Kramer a thank you. Kramer shrugs it off. “She just got inspired.” Still, it was Kramer who did the inspiring.
     We finish our herrings. Kramer is open yet discreet and that’s very charming. She’s soft and easy company, yet a risk taker. Later that night I’m at a showbizzy party where I meet a man who helmed Polydor Records, Abba’s record company in the 80s and 90s. He knew Kramer. He told me she risked everything to make Mamma Mia – her home and everything in it and it took her years.  He tells me at the time she was involved with Olympic medallist Alan Pascoe. 
    Of course, there have been various men in her life but the only man now is Hector the horse. She grew up loving horses, and show-jumping, although now she favours dressage mistakenly thinking it might have been easier. 
     “I’ve always had horses. I’ve got nine now. As a teen I worked as a groom. I met a horsey crowd but when I was 22 started working in theatre and now the horses have come back.” 
     She rolls with some big international riders, one of them being Nick Skelton (Olympic medallist in Rio).
     “And I became an Ambassador for British show jumping. I became friendly with Nick Skelton and we discussed buying show jumpers but they are very expensive now. But I did want to get back involved with horses. I was one of the first people to buy a racehorse from his son Dan and now I have four National Hunt racehorses. I love seeing them. I’m always tempted to ride them but it would be a risk. They are an area of my life which has got nothing to do with being a showbiz impressaria. I became fascinated by the racing world. It’s not what people think – that it’s about betting and horses that go very fast. It’s the psychology of the training. I love that world.”
    Her other horses include a retired mare called Rock Chick Supremo who had a fractured bone and was about to be put down but she’s now a brood mare. “She sits in a field and gets pregnant. These horses are looked after like it’s a Four Seasons spa. They have chiropractors, osteopaths, they are massaged all the time. 
     I wanted to get back into riding again. I thought dressage would be safe but I realise now it’s not…I bought a beautiful grey stallion, called Hector. I thought he can almost teach me, but in my first year of having him (in 2016) he bucked me off and I broke many bones down my right side. He thought he was being playful with me and I was probably being too friendly with him. Stallions are like men. Also, I’ve learnt never to wear perfume around him. It frightens him. He didn’t mean any harm. Anyway, I’m under his thumb.”
    She gets out her phone and shows me a picture of the beautiful horse, almost white with giant, soulful yet naughty eyes.
   “There’s a Warwickshire life, a London life and a New York life.” She enjoys having all these lives. One as an escape from the other and now there’s a new life in fashion. Elizabeth Emmanuel made her the outfit for the Mamma Mia Here We Go Again premiere. A white silk suit with embroidery. A Prince Charming outfit. He could have worn it on his horse.  Emmanuel has also made some exquisite fairytale military jackets (very on trend) as well as tons of white silk designs. 
    “She’s had a tough time.” Emmanuel was planning a fashion comeback but her backer dropped out so Kramer has been putting some money into her business. “My life is very full now. I love what’s happened with Mamma Mia. Generations of people have come to see it. I know Abba have never reformed as a band but because of the musicals they’ve never really gone away. Whole generations have been involved in the Mamma Mia family.” 
    Of course, it would be easy to think that everything Kramer turned her hand to was vastly successful but the Spice Girls musical written by Jennifer Saunders had a very short run and people didn’t warm to the Spice Girls songs as they did Abba. This year the Spice Girls are reuniting for a world tour. Maybe it just wasn’t the right time. 
     “It was kind of a rough time for me.”
    What was it about the Spice musical that seemed different to Mamma Mia? Did she know from the start it wasn’t going to be successful?
     “No, you try your best, you don’t know, or maybe I knew too much. In the beginning I had a certain level of naivety that got me through. I believed there was something there. Obviously, the Spice Girls had a huge fan base but it wasn’t the story of them. It was another mother and daughter story really.”
    Is mother/daughter her thing? Is she the Impressaria with an extremely close or difficult relationship with her mother that she drew on?
     “No, I loved my mum very much. She passed in 2002. I was probably closer to my dad.  She didn’t see the films but she’d have been there for every show and my dad as well. Catherine Johnson came up with the mother/daughter idea for Mamma Mia and she is a single mum and now in fact she’s a grandmother.”
     Our conversation recoils back to Cher who Kramer thinks is a pioneer. Certainly difficult to have a daughter who ends up a son.
     “She’s had some tough times but she is a pioneer. In the 60s on television doing her show. She won’t stop until the wheels fall off. She feels like a young person. When we were planning the premiere of Mamma Mia I told her that the big premiere was in London and there might be a screening in Germany and she said ‘what about New York?’ I said I’m not sure about New York. It’s a big global event so we probably won’t go to New York the next day. She said, ‘what’s the problem? The old people won’t make it?’
    In all the different Kramer lives, a permanent man doesn’t seem to feature. “Men are the coolest people but we don’t necessarily want to live with them. That definitely applies to me.”
    Does she want to live with Hector? Does she want to move into his paddock?  “I do in a sense, although I think he’d rather move into mine. That’s how I feel about him.”
     While we’re at lunch the nominations for the Golden Globes come in. Mamma Mia is not on the shortlist. She pauses wondering what to think about it. Last time round Streep was nominated. It’s a given that good box office doesn’t guarantee awards. She thinks for a while. “I’m sad for Lily James. I wanted her to get a nomination. We were in the Vanity Fair top ten and actually I’m fine. it means I don’t have to worry about going to the event and not winning.”
   She knows getting the award is a process and not necessarily anything to do with talent. 

Ben Whishaw (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 24, 2019)

Ben Whishaw and Chrissy Iley
Ben Whishaw and Chrissy Iley

Ben Whishaw is wearing a navy shirt, dark wool trousers and a fluffy knitted hat. It’s a strange combination of quirkiness and elegance – he’s a one off. Lush, dark curls. He’s all cheekbones and large eyes. The eyes look so intense. They could be the eyes of a very intelligent animal, but perhaps that’s just because you can imagine him so easily as Paddington Bear – he is the voice of Paddington.
He’s also brought a new quirkiness to the quiet genius that is Q in the Bond movies and he’s just fresh from picking up the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for his portrayal of Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. He was achingly good. Everyone thinks so.
Did he expect this double win? “No idea. You never know how these things are going to work out but it was very nice.”
Is it career changing to have a Golden Globe winning prefix to his name? “I don’t know if it changes anything but it feels nice. They make you feel great being the winner,” he smiles and sips on herbal tea.
We are in a photographic studio in East London where I’ve just seen him drape himself so elegantly and effortlessly over an old-fashioned gymnasium horse and a British flag.
Does he think that winning awards in Hollywood means he will be spending more time there? “I don’t feel it’s my world out there. I just sort of dropped in and it was a lovely thing. I would like to drop in more often. Maybe it opens doors. I guess we’ll see. I haven’t directly communicated with Norman Scott but I gather he was happy and he asked for a signed photo of me holding the award.”
He speaks of Scott affectionately. In the mini series which sees Scott involved with horses and dogs, relating to them perhaps more easily than people? “He definitely feels a kinship with animals. A security that maybe he didn’t have with people.”
He is in London rehearsing a play called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. It will open in New York early April. The director (Katie Mitchell) doesn’t fly so the rehearsals are all in London. He plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn and the opera singer Renee Fleming is his co-star. I find it quite odd that Mitchell won’t be coming to the first night of her own play. Whishaw accepts this and says, “She doesn’t have enough time in her schedules to take the boat. She goes to Europe a lot to work by train and Renee has crazy insane schedules to everything has been slotted about what Renee could do. Renee is very open and hardworking and really clever. It’s incredible she’s open to this weird and wonderful thing. We just got the costumes. I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch – the white one where the wind comes up and they’ve given me bum, hips and breasts although I think they’re not as big as Marilyn’s they made it proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing, I’m not playing Marilyn but a man who’s infatuated with her so much that he wants to dress up as her to be close to her and because he’s in mourning for the loss of her the play is set in the year she died. Apparently, there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.”
The play will open as the first play in a space called The Shed which is also an art gallery and music venue. It’s been written by the poet Anne Carson. Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of classics and has been described as the greatest poet since Robert Lowell.
He thinks nothing of one minute doing an independent play and then a blockbuster. He moves in and out of both extremes easily. He was last seen in the Disney epic Mary Poppins Returns. It’s what happens to the characters thirty years after the original movie. He played Mr Banks – the grown-up boy Michael, now the father of the family facing 1930s depression and the potential loss of his home after the actual loss of his wife. His children aren’t adjusting and the governess Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) has never been more needed.
“Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw. My dad taped it off the telly and we had it on a Betamax tape. I watched it so many times the tape wore out.”
Is it possible to wear out a tape? Isn’t that a metaphor?
“It’s how I remember it.And now I play the grown-up boy who’s now the daddy of the family. His old nanny blows in because there’s been a lot of crisis in the family. Michael is struggling to cope and look after the children and run the household and pay for everything. That’s what motors the film. He’s about to lose the children’s home.”
I can see why they wanted him for that part. A man child, a 38- year old actor who can create the “perfect man with the struggle in his soul.”
“Well there’s nothing interesting about somebody who’s doing fine, is there?
Mary Poppins had a cousin called Topsy Turvy played by Meryl Streep. Did he get to hang out with Streep?
“No. I met her at the rehearsal and she was nice but I’m so completely left speechless when I’m in the same room as her.”
Ah yes, the introvert, extrovert. The actor who once told me he’s afraid of meeting people.
“Do you never feel that speechlessness come on you? Even though she seemed to be the nicest person, I was very timid and shy around her.”
Whishaw has an unusual but mesmerising charm. I wanted to give him my childhood Paddington Bear because it was special to me and his performance was special but my mother had thrown it away. He wasn’t disappointed by this, or at least he’s too charming to show it. He comes over quite other worldly, hyper sensitive but very soft and determined, full of contradictions like shy and actor.
“I haven’t got over my fear of meeting people. I love people but I’m just shy of meeting new people especially when they’re famous.”
Years have passed since Whishaw was fresh out of drama school and at 23 was acclaimed as one of the best ever Hamlets (the next Olivier) in the Trevor Nunn production. He played Hamlet as a teenager alienated from the world. Last year his portrayal of Norman Scott was arguably the best thing on TV. Clearly the judges at the Golden Globes agreed. He actually blushes when I mention this performance – so nuanced, so vulnerable, so creepy all at the same time.
“I’m pleased you found it all of those things. Did it make you laugh?”
Oh yes, and cry.
“He was a very sad man.” Scott loved his dogs. Whishaw loves cats. His father’s cat Bob died recently. He was only 6. He had to give his cats to his dad when he started working away from home a lot. They were a mother and daughter duo and the daughter Yana is now 18, the mother deceased.
“Yana got dragged under a car when she was 3 and her leg was ripped off. They had to stick it back on and ever since she looks fragile but she’s tough, almost indestructible.”
I wonder if he identifies with that. Looking fragile but actually quite strong.    He’s very excited to have the role that embodies the vulnerability and the feistiness of Marilyn Monroe. I see the qualities in him.
When he comes back from New York he will begin shooting the new Bond.  Of course, no one in a Bond movie can ever tell you in advance what it’s going to be like but I assume it’s a security issue.
“I think they’re probably trying to figure out what to do with the storyline. At least I know that y character is the same someone did tell me this time that there might be a scene with Q’s cats which you would be interested in.”
Have the cats been cast yet? “I don’t think so.” I immediately want to sort out an audition for my cat Roger (Moore). He would definitely have screen presence.
“And that would be a lovely connection named after a former Bond. Does he travel? Can he come to Pinewood? Can he cock an eyebrow?” Yes, he can. That’s why he’s called Roger Moore. “I’ll get onto Barbara Broccoli about it.”
Who is Mr Bond these days? “It’s still Daniel Craig, I think. They never tell you till the last minute.”
I tell him that I preferred Roger Moore’s Bond when they had film titles like Octopussy. The Craig Bond seems a little hard, a little rough diamond. His edges are the perfect contrast to Whishaw’s fluid Q.
He changes the subject back to Norma Jean. “Isn’t it good that I’m going to dress up as Norma Jean?” It is. I tell him I once went to an auction of Marilyn’s clothes and put in a bid for some pink marabou trimmed stilettoes but the winning bid exceeded mine by around £12,000.
“I would have loved to have had something of hers. She really was amazing. She had a lot going on. A lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.”
If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #metoo movement?
“I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.”
Fearless and vulnerable. That’s another contradiction that could possibly describe both of them.
“Yes,” he says with a ‘cats got the cream’ expression. He loves contradiction. We talk about the contradiction in the song lyrics of Steven Sondheim.
He asks, “Do you know the song Losing My Mind (by Sondheim)?” He sings it. He can sing. All the great divas have sung it.
“I’ve just finished reading a book called Fragments. It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry. She writes beautifully. Apparently, Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently, this was devastating to Marilyn.  All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them.”
Has he ever read anyone else’s diary? “No, I haven’t but she must have known what she was looking for to see what she feared. It’s like looking at someone’s phone and somehow, it’s easier to look in the phone or the diary than ask the person directly. Isn’t it the thing that you want to have it confirmed but it’s really self-destructive? But maybe you think I have the evidence that would release me from this thing but no, I’ve never checked anyone’s phone or diary. There’s something a bit desperate about that, isn’t there?”
Well, Whishaw is the master of sensitivity. He’d never want to be desperate. He’s just finished a film Little Joe, “about a genetically modified plant that takes over people’s brains.”
I wondered if he played the plant. He doesn’t. how does he choose his roles or do roles come to him if producer and directors think the part needs the Whishaw effect? – something simple made a little spooky, or something spooky made a little normal.
“Usually I want parts where the character is compelling to me but sometimes if I fall in love with the director and want to work with them so much, I’ll do it no matter what they ask. It was my love for the Austrian director Jessica Hausner that made me want to do this film. She did a film called Lourdes a few years ago about a woman with multiple sclerosis who is indeed cured when she goes to Lourdes. It’s about miracles and how they happen or did they? And with Little Joe you’re not actually sure if a disaster is going to happen, if the plant is manipulating people or people are just insane. It’s the same kind of question.
“I play a scientist who has created this plant – a very pretty plant actually.”
The thing about a Whishaw role I find, is it haunts you long after the movie has retired. The Lobster was one such movie. It was surreal and bizarre and black like fairy tale.
He liked doing the Lobster where he played Limping Man. it was a love story. His character was straight, or at least in a sexual way.
Whishaw has created an ever-widening niche for himself –

Barry Humphries (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 17, 2019)

Barry Humphries and Chrissy Iley
Barry Humphries and Chrissy Iley

From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
His wife Lizzie is there. She is tall and elegant and very funny. Before long she and I are showing each other our impersonations of Olivia Colman as we discuss her performance in The Favourite. Humphries joins us with, “It gives lesbian porn a bad name.”
He’s wearing a purple linen jacket, a green pullover and purple corduroy trousers but the corduroy is horizontal, in perfect keeping with the idea that Humphries likes to blend in, seem normal but is actually completely the other way. He defends Colman saying she was very good in the Night Manager. Lizzie and I chorus ‘but she’s the same in everything’. Humphries smiles. “So am I.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Humphries is the creator of many diverse personas – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the ghost Sandy Stone.  Often they could say things that Humphries himself could not.  Humphries is a rare breed – a man who is altogether a man who is available and unavailable at once. He’s intimate, yet detached, kind and razor sharp, cutting.
We’re here to talk about his return to the London stage for Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage. Did he know Brydon already?
“Yes I wrote to him and I said I admired his work so we met for dinner.”
So, it’s like a bromance? Will he rehearse this probing? No. It’s totally spontaneous,” he grimaces.
You wonder if it’s hard for Barry Humphries to be Barry Humphries. Last year he put on an intriguing show at the Barbican with the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. It was a fascinating journey through songs from the Weimar Republic, composers who were banned by Hitler that Humphries had rediscovered as a child. He was whip smart and funny as himself.
“I’m getting confidence now to do things as myself. I’ve always preferred to be heavily disguised but a disguise I’ve never used is the disguise of myself.”
He’s just back from Australia and is still suffering from jetlag. Where do I live in LA he asks apropos of seemingly nothing, but the eyebrow is raised.
I am giving you a scoop,” he whispers. “Edna’s coming back. She’s in very good shape. She’s been measured for new frocks and 3 songs have been written.  She’s back there at the end of the year after opening in Australia.”
Edna did a retirement world tour a couple of years back where she put away her sequinned winged glasses for good.
“My first song for that show is written and it’s all about why Edna didn’t retire. It’s a wonderful song explaining to the audience why it was impossible to retire. It says there were too many people trying to copy me, including Barry Humphries and it was time they reacquainted themselves with the real thing. Too many clones.”
Edna got into trouble before she retired or maybe it was Barry Humphries because people were saying she was very anti-trans. Is it the same political situation in Australia?
“Oh, nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted. Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women and that got taken the wrong way.”
Edna was still causing trouble even in her retirement.
“She was about as gone as Cher or Dame Nelly Melba of whom your younger readers will know nothing (Australian singer who did many retirement concerts).
It seems Humphries works tirelessly. He’s revising the comic strip Barry McKenzie, writing the new Edna show and the meantime he has the Palladium.
I remember going to an Edna show in Drury Lane and I caught a gladioli. “You catch gladioli like you catch Ebola. Right place right time you get it..” I laugh, he smiles.
“I like anyone who can make me and an audience laugh.”
He hopes his Palladium show will be a conversation about how comedy has changed, about what’s funny and what isn’t.
Does he think that the fashion has changed in his and Edna’s lifetime? “Not in a drastic way. More and more people want to be comedians. In my day not many people wanted to be a comedian as an ambition. It wasn’t profitable. But with television and all the other outlets and also fame attached to being a comedian, comedians are the new rock stars. Billy Connolly was the first rock star comedian.”
What will be some of his greatest comedy moments?
“I’m still deciding but there will be some scenes from the Marx Brothers, Steve Martin and Woody Allen. And I’d like to include some of my own early films. Lizzie says if she hears me laughing in another room, she knows I’m laughing at one of my own jokes. She can tell.”
He remembers going to his first comedy show.
“It was an amazing discovery when I went to The Tivoli with my parents. The Tivoli was a disreputable theatre in Melbourne which had variety shows but on this occasion my parents went because I was a fan of someone called Arthur Askey, a British comedian. To hear a man onstage making the whole audience laugh was a miracle to me. I thought I wonder how they do that and the seed was planted, little knowing that I might one day…”
In the past, Humphries has described Edna as being opinionated, acerbic and bolshy and did he even like her? “I like the effect she has on the audience. She makes them laugh.” Thus, Edna gave Humphries the gift he’d wanted as a child. And it must have been hard for him to give her up to be onstage as himself as he is much shyer.
The prep for Edna – the dresses, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing, the eight shows a week must have been very exhausting. And everyone’s always asking where does Humphries end and Edna begin.  Suddenly there was no circle. Edna was ended. But it seems he couldn’t live without her and her voice. She’s coming back later this year. There’s already a tour of Australia and US dates planned.
He is nostalgic about the comedians and the Australia in his youth.
“When they’d done every stage in England several times, when the audience could repeat the words of their comic routines they went to Melbourne to the Tivoli. They made jokes I didn’t understand and I noticed my parents exchanging guilty looks, must have been naughty jokes. Risque. Little did I know I would become a risqué comedian. A blue comic as they were called.
When I first got a gig at a return serviceman’s club in Sydney in the 1950s, they said to me ‘the audience likes blue material and at the age of 22 I was so naïve I wore my Sunday best blue three-piece suit. I thought the material was fabric.”
Humphries has had a 64 year career onstage. By now he knows the difference. It turns out he has quite a thing for Brydon.
“Every time I turn on the television Rob is there on the deck of a ship. He seems to live a wonderful life on board those ships (he does a commercial for P&O cruises). I am consumed with envy of Rob. Benevolent envy.”
As Humphries he’s extremely benevolent. As Edna less so. He cuts an impressive figure today – so colourful and energetic and still has the legs for Edna. Does he feel 85?
“No, I feel 52.” He likes to paint. He enjoys a good restaurant – especially one owned by a celebrity chef – and he has friendships with many luminaries including Prince Charles and Camilla.  He’s done countless world tours and has written two memoirs – My Life As Me and More Please, both achingly well written.  He has courted danger and controversy throughout.
I’ve always wondered though is it a political statement. Why is it that Edna never wears a bra?
“She’s never been embarrassed to say that she was blessed in many ways but not that way. She waited for something to appear but it never took place. She found the twinset helpful and that if she wore elaborate spectacles no-one’s eyes dropped south of the glasses. She’s never tried to be a sex object. She’s very relieved she’s not known as that. They’re a miserable lot, the sex objects”
He is the master of being attached and detached all at the same time.  It’s been so long since he had a drink, he doesn’t really treat it as an issue anymore.
“It’s a nice thing but a life’s a life. For some people like me it’s off the menu. It just doesn’t work. I have it in the house for other people. I could give you an absinthe if you want one. I brought upon myself some horrible events.”
Did he find that Edna had taken away the voice of Barry Humphries so that’s why he found it so hard to return to the stage as himself? And maybe himself was never himself.
“It’s more like I find the voice for it. Whatever the thought it I think who would be best saying this? Me, him, her, it so I choose like a casting agent. When I saw The Favourite, I thought Edna would be very good in the Colman role.”
Edna a lesbian? “No. As she once said, she doesn’t even like the word. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth.”
I remember her saying that. “It was one of her famous utterances.”
Does he ever think her humour was too cruel? “Nobody ever asked for their money back. she’s fundamentally caring.”
His parents were far from encouraging. I remember my mother saying ‘look at that comedian. It’s pathetic at his age but the comedian she was referring to was only about fifty. These days 85 is the new 50.”
Humphries was not there when his mother died. He was told she was in hospital but it was nothing serious. But contrary to the end she would say, ‘look at these lovely flowers Barry sent me’ but he had sent no flowers.
“I come from a family who have a great deal of prudiness about illness. If someone was very ill we’d say he hasn’t been very well lately, which means dying.”
Also, perhaps the family didn’t tell his mother she was gravely ill.
“That’s right. I had a vision of someone coming back to Australia after a long absence and going to the family home and finding it was occupied by Ukranians and then you say to your sister what’s happened to mum and dad? ‘oh, they died but we didn’t want to worry you.’
Does he forgive his parents?
“Yes, I sympathise with them. I agree with them wholeheartedly about everything that they said to me that offended me at the time. My parents were very nice. They had a hard time with me. Whenever I did a performance or asserted myself in any way at a family gathering my mother would say, ‘don’t look at Barry, he’s drawing attention to himself.’ I thought that would be a good name for a show. Barry Humphries draws attention to himself one more time. Maybe I’ll call my new show that. My mother had a series of phrases. They weren’t original but they were, on her lips, rather devastating. She timed it perfectly. She was a frustrated artist I think and they are dangerous people, frustrated artists. You know Hitler was a frustrated artist. She was very hard to please so I grew up with the assumption that women were impossible to please and some of them obliged me by conforming to this, by being impossible.”
Humphries has had four wives Brenda Wright, a dancer (1955-1957) when he was 21 and she was 19. It ended quickly. Of the marriage she has said, ‘there’s nothing about Barry Humphries that I want to remember. My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’
Rosalind Tong (1957-1970) a dancer, artist Diane Millstead (1979-1989), mother of his two sons Oscar and Rupert and Lizzie Spender (actress and equestrian, daughter of the poet Stephen (1990 till now) He has two daughters, Tessa and Emily from his 3rd wife.
“Women are impossible but not Lizzie. She’s the exception. It took four marriages to find her.”
Perhaps he should have kept them as girlfriends and not actually married them.
“I was doing very well financially and I thought I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow.
Is that close to what happened?
“Yes, the Ukranians improved the family home greatly. Sometimes I think it would be funny to advertise the new show and then say to the audience coming in very sorry ladies and gentleman but Dame Edna has passed away. We didn’t want to worry you.”
Humphries is presented with a contraption and he grimaces. He says to his assistant who has just delivered it, “You had to do that in front of a journalist, didn’t you… So far the grim reaper has made very few inroads but my hearing has suffered.”
His hearing doesn’t seem to be any different with the contraption but I can hear a high-pitched squeaking. The hearing aid has done the opposite to aid and it’s reminding Humphries of all the restaurants he doesn’t like to go in because they’re too loud – “the Caprice is deafening.”
He once wanted to open a restaurant called The Oubliette, which he would fill with Shostakovich like music so no one would be able to talk at all.
“In the middle ages they used to chuck somebody in a hole and then they forget about them so the Oubliette was a restaurant where you are forgotten and the waiter never comes. I remember one time in the 1960’s when a cookery writer at The Express invited me to lunch at The Savoy. I could choose whatever I wanted and she would interview me about food so I ordered Oysters Zarina which are oysters with caviar on them and you dip them in cream. Must have cost a fortune. The chef came to the table and said, ‘you’re the first person to order Oyster Zarina since Ambassador Ribbentrop’.
He seems a little sheepish about being 85. There must be a sense of time running out.
“Is there a follow up to the CBE and if so, how long does it take?” Humphries is already a dame as Edna. Perhaps people might think a Sir would be superfluous.
“People have said it’s not strictly kosher, Edna’s damehood.”
What age does he feel? “I feel about 52.”
We discuss a man in Holland who tried to change the date on his birth certificate because he identified as 45 instead of 65. He wasn’t allowed. One can change one’s pronoun but not one’s age.”
After the trans-phobia, Humphries got into trouble because he was pro Brexit, anti-Brussels and now he is redefined as anti-Brexit.
“I think I have actually but I don’t have any interesting political views. What was lovely about being in Australia was they’ve never heard of Brexit. I was in Sydney writing and Lizzie was visiting her horses. We have a flat with a view of the harbour. I’m reviving Barry McKenzie the comic strip. I thought what would this character so popular in the sixties be doing now and I worked it out.” (it first appeared in Private Eye, now it’s destined for The Oldie.)
He’s come back to England because he wanted to see some Australian mates who are not in Australia any more.
“There are no Australians in Australia any more. Only Chinese.”
The Australians of his generation like Germain Greer and Clive James are very much part of the British heritage. “I wrote a clerihew about Clive James. Dear old Clive James is still alive. We know he’s not dead because he’s telling us about all the books he’s read. Germain is still alive. And I’m very glad. And Rolf Harris is still alive. I never liked his appearance.”
What does he fear? “Obscurity and ghosts. I’m very scared of ghosts. I believe in them and I’m very wary of them. I don’t like to sleep in haunted places and Australia’s very spooky. Ghosts are there. Explorers and senior citizens. I’ve promised to be one. There is a theatre in Adelaide called Her Majesties. They are building it and I promised to be a ghost there.
He once said of his children, ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are a man surrounded by suitcases. Now he says, ‘They’re all doing well. Two daughters in Melbourne, one a painter, the other an actor. My son Oscar is an art expert and dealer. My son Rupert co-wrote a video game called Red Dead Redemption and he’s hugely successful. All of these children of mine are mostly well behaved and don’t require any financial support. What more could you wish? Rupert has twins and I dote on them and Oscar has a daughter.”
“Edna heard that Barry Humphries was claiming to do an Edna act and a few terrible drag queens were doing Edna as Edna. She needed to set the record straight.”
I still think he just couldn’t let her go.
Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage at the Palladium April 28th

Roseanne Barr (London Sunday Times Magazine, March 10, 2019)

Chrissy Iley & Roseanne Barr
Chrissy Iley & Roseanne Barr
The story of Roseanne Barr is one of epic rise and epic fall and possible redemption. She is a provocateur, fierce, funny, an outsider. Her television sitcom Roseanne ran from 1988–1997. It was a staple of American culture, won Emmy’s and Globes. It was revived by ABC and in 2018 it was the most watched show in America. Last May, in the middle of the night – 2 am she Tweeted. This Tweet was deemed innapropriate by her bosses at ABC, who immediately fired her and cancelled the show and within 48 hours had forced her to give up all rights to the show which was based on her own life.
  The Tweet was ‘Muslim brotherhood and Planet of the Apes had a baby’ in reference to Valerie Jarrett, a former advisor in the Obama administration. At the time, the network said Barr’s tweet was “abhorrent, repugnant and inconsistent with our values, and we have decided to cancel her show.” The following month, the network decided to bring back the show but without Barr, and title it The Conners.
  Going forward The Tweet is now usually described as a racist Tweet. That was not its intention as Barr didn’t know that Jarrett was black and no one seemed to know that Barr was Jewish and the Tweet was really about Iran/Israel. Racism was never her intention. 
  Her friend of 20 years, Rabbi Shmuley Botech tried to help. They did a Podcast together. He says, “she said that she wanted to engage in penance. She made a mistake. She took full responsibility. She shouldn’t have written that Tweet but she was judged very harshly. Her whole life dismantled, so I reached out to her. 
  We studied the Torah together for the last 20 years. Jewish values state three things when you make an error. No. 1 own up to it, No.2 apologise unconditionally and no. 3 make restitution in some form of tangible action. We did the podcast and she said ‘I absolutely want to engage in penance. It breaks my heart that people think I’m a racist. I’ve African American children in my family. I’m humiliated.’ She was sobbing.
  Since the Tweet that changed her life, Barr went to her mother’s in Utah to have what she describes as “a nervous breakdown. seeing herself so vulnerable was shocking.
  We meet her in her office/studio in El Segundo. On the way there, the Uber driver tells me he is a fan and points out that Bill Maher is applauded when he makes racist Tweets. It seems unfair. Is comedy about cruelty? Barr tells me it wasn’t like that. 
  She is first and foremost a Jewish woman who has fought Anti-Semitism for most of her life. Growing up in the Mormon Salt Lake City was harsh. She has said in the past “You weren’t supposed to think there. First of all it was frowned upon to be a girl, and second of all to be a fat, dark-haired girl who had no waist, and third to be a loudmouthed, short, fat, dark girl.”
  Of course, these days she’s not fat, she has a waist, looks trim and has long blonde hair. She’s young looking for 66. Various surgeries have been well documented but it’s not about that. There’s something vibrant in her spirit. She tells me about the Tweet.
  “I was dreaming and I woke up and I thought this is the really great thing that I’ll Tweet. I was appalled I was not allowed to explain it.”
  The Tweet stems from the Obama regime, foreign policy on Iran and Israel. Her explanation in grander terms has included visits with Rabbi Botech to Israel, meeting politicians from the left and right and talks about anti-Semitism. 
  “I signed the rights for my whole life’s work away,” she says gravely. “I thought I had to do that. I thought this is what it’s going to take so I did it. Just the other day the Hollywood Reporter changed the Tweet again. They are on a tear against me and have been for a long time. They got my ex-husband (Tom Arnold) to review one of my shows.” Arnold is one of 3 ex-husbands. She’s friendly with the others but not him. “They’ve tried to silence me and humiliate me since I came to Hollywood.”
  Her two sons Buck and Jake work with her at her studio. Jake makes me a perfect cup of coffee. Roseanne has started smoking and he doesn’t like the smell even though he smokes. He has special smoking clothes. She’s not doing any booze or pills. Let her smoke.
  We circle back to the Uber driver and his Bill Maher point. “Bill Maher doesn’t get a quarter of the ratings I got and because he’s an arm of the Democrat party he gets away with it and he gave more than a million dollars to the Democrats. There is sexism but I’m not sure that men can get away with a lot anymore because everyone’s got their #metoo issues nailed, but now they just send in women to say the same shit men say and they think it’s feminism. It’s ain’t. It’s disgusting.”
  Rabbi Botech says, “We now live in the divided States of America. Roseanne was perceived to be a pro Trump person and that automatically means she has to be a racist. Her show was ethnically diverse and politically diverse. Half the people like Trump, half the people hate Trump and that’s real America. Other sitcoms they’re all liberal or they’re all Conservative. This show had different political strands and they still cancelled it. My opinion is ABC should have said ‘you’ve done something that seems very offensive. We’re going to dock your pay for a month and donate it to an African American educational charity. Which she did anyway. She’s always donated to charities. Instead they moved to destroy her. Her show, it bears her name, it’s based on her life.”
  It’s true. Roseanne loves Trump. Her politics though have always been provocative, standing up for the minorities, whoever they may be. In 2012 she formed the Peace and Freedom party. Before that she was Green and before that she hated George Bush.
  As I’m talking to Roseanne in a pink fluffy sweater, she’s not what I expected – harsh and combative. She’s hypnotic, yes, but loveable. She’s still reeling from signing away the rights of her life. 
  “My life, my kids, but they (the network) told me if I do one more thing they don’t like they’ll remove my reruns for ever. And I said could you define what the one more thing is and they won’t. it could be that I say the word shit. It could be whatever they want. It’s a total Stalinist censorship. I’m known for free speech and also bringing free speech into a family context with the conversations had on my show. They don’t want none of that no more. They only want pliable servants. I’m not that. I’m not a slave.”
  We discuss stage one, the aftershock. “I had a complete nervous breakdown.” She couldn’t get out of bed. “Right.” She couldn’t speak. “Right. I couldn’t think either. They gave me 48 hours to sign away the rights to my show or I’d be sued because I ruined the season. They cancelled the show before one sponsor pulled out which is unheard of, unprecedented. They wanted to get rid of me. My boyfriend (Johnny Argent has been her partner since 2003. They met through a writing competition she hosted on her site) said it’s because I was bad for the hate business. Because I brought people together under one roof who disagreed about the President, but they moved past it and still got along. One thing changed in that game – it’s the philosophy based on the hatred of an outsider. It’s called anti- Semitism but it’s also anti-intellectualism and anti-free speech.
  My show had the most progressive storylines ever on television. If you say one positive thing about President Trump, the new progressives will destroy the most progressive show on TV. I knew it was going to happen. They tried to kill me the first day I went back to work.”
  Literally or metaphorically? “Everything. Physically, mentally and spiritually, in every way. It was a mistake to go back there. I’ve made mistakes many times in my life.”
  Part of Barr’s love for Trump is because he supports Israel but she also thinks he’s a “genius”. Now she feels the most opinionated woman on TV is not entitled to some opinions.
  “Americans know next to nothing about the Iran deal and the Obama administration and what they did with the Iran deal to put Israel and the Jewish people in an existential crisis around the world. The government in Iran was like the movie Planet of the Apes. We’d already said that for weeks.” 
  It has been reported that someone called ABC which resulted in Barr’s removal. Barr alleges that it was in fact Michelle Obama who called the President of ABC who fired her. She said, ‘this Tweet is unforgiveable’. That’s what I was told and I tend to believe it because the woman who fired me is now working with the Obama’s at Netflix.
  They wanted to take a Jew down. They wanted to take down a Zionist because they think that Zionists are the problem with everything in the world and a lot of people in this country think like them that’s why I was flattered when Schmuley called and said, ‘let’s teach Torah’. I have a lot of Rabbi friends because one of my passions in life is to talk about the Torah. When I sent that Tweet, I had this feeling in my head that God gave me this idea.” 
  But it was in the middle of the night. “Yes, and I was also in an inebriated condition. I’d gone to bed at 11.00, sent the Tweet at 2.00, was on Ambien. It was a very stupid thing.”
  I took Ambien and it made me sleep eat. “It did me – 2 pounds of cheese every morning.”
  But it also made her sleep Tweet. “I wished I hadn’t done it and I don’t take Ambien no more. It made me think in an impaired way and I’d also had a couple of beers. I should have written it backwards. It came out dyslexic. It should have been ‘Valerie Jarrett’s ties to the Muslim brotherhood have now allowed Iran’s government to remain as in the movie Planet of the Apes’. That was the conversation. After a 30-year career of championing civil rights, it all ended. They hate powerful women and they hate powerful, deplorable women and I do consider myself deplorable. Deplorable is the greatest thing that Hillary ever called us because it empowered a revolution, we are deplorable to her kind. Of course, all working class people are deplorable to her because it was working class people that elected Trump.”
  According to Rabbi Botech, Barr is now in the second phase after the Tweet.
  “The first was extreme remorse and heartfelt apology. That podcast was listened to by hundreds of thousands of people, but regardless of the degree to which she apologised, people still didn’t forgive her, she started becoming more defiant. She said ‘Schmuley, I’ve apologised and it’s got me nowhere. People are not in the mood to forgive. My friends tell me you can’t apologise in this culture. It’s like confession.’”
  Can she forgive? “I’m not going to forgive.” Our mutual Rabbi friend might suggest that that’s hard to carry around. “It’s not hard to carry around it’s wonderful, it gives me great fuel. Schmuley and I disagree on that. If you forgive the unforgiveable, you’re not a moral person.”
  Reading the Torah is something Barr has done all her life. She and Botech met when he came on her talk show to promote his book Kosher Sex. She let him know that she wanted her daughters to marry Jews and he selected three Jewish boys for them to try out. “I found nice Jewish boys and we filmed it. It was like the Jewish Bachelor.”
  It didn’t work out for them.
  “They were nice guys but he didn’t go with the looks.”
  Her daughters are married now. One of them did end up with a Jewish guy. “The other two are Jewish now.” They converted? “No, they just by osmosis became Jews. When I first met Schmuley I thought he was very interesting. We did a debate on pornography with Larry Flint the three of us. We respect each other’s opinions and he’s one of the few men that listens to women.”
  Does her boyfriend listen to women? “He’s a good one. He’s a hippie. Vegetarian and all that. I am too mostly. He’s not crazy about me smoking,” she says, lighting up another but feeling somewhat self-conscious she opens the door and cool air wafts in.
  Her entire career has been built on provocation. In the early seventies she married Bill Pentland, a hotel clerk. They moved to Denver, lived in a trailer park and she had three kids. As a child she’d learnt that the only way to survive was to be fierce and funny. She started performing at local comedy clubs. Eventually she got her break on The Tonight Show where her humour offended the audience until they gasped with laughter.
  A few days after her divorce from Pentland in 1990, she married Tom Arnold, even took his name. she describes that period as the worst time of her life and “a horrible dysfunctional relationship.” They posed for Vanity Fair naked and mud wrestling. Perhaps a metaphor for that relationship.
  In 1995 she married Ben Thomas, had her youngest son Buck, divorced in 2002. 
  She is emphatic she has never been a racist, whatever she’s been.
  “Jew haters are calling Jews racist. Let’s be real. Does racist mean by silenced by the left? They want to throw it around so much. Of course, I’ve apologised because this was an insensitive comment, but really its damage was in the way it was perceived. I can’t be responsible for the way people perceive things. People have always done this to me. They don’t get me. I have a lot of fans. First of all, the only people who called me in Hollywood were black people. White people in Hollywood don’t know about racism. Let them say ‘Roseanne called black people monkeys’. Let them do it if that’s the spin they want. I had a nervous breakdown because of how I was mentally abused. It was really freaky. They lined up to abuse me and kick me in the teeth. They are not good people.”
  Another blow was when they decided to continue the series, calling it The Conners but without Roseanne. Roseanne had died of a drug overdose by using other people’s prescriptions to get drugs.
  Rabbi Botech says, “When The Conners came out, I was very upset about how they dealt with her death. A grim ending of a beloved character that has been a staple of the American culture for 20 years. It’s a blue-collar show. It’s an insult to the working class that they’re all trading prescription drugs.
  Barr continues, “They think because they killed me it’s OK for them to use me, use the memory of me. Still mention me. It’s still my show but they stole it. They are going to do it to other comics. I’m just the first.”
  Isn’t that the nature of the comic – to get a reaction? To make people laugh, you have to make people unsettled.
  “I don’t just like to make people laugh. I like to piss them off and make them think too. I like to provoke them. I’m a provocateur. I knew they were trying to censor comics ever since Obama signed the NDAA into law. I Tweeted the next day ‘he’s just killed comedy’. It’s like the PC police. A PC police state and they have no compunction about destroying innocent people every day. It’s about mind control. Everyone in America is under mind control from television except for my show, that’s why they got rid of it.”
  Does she think she’ll ever have another show? “No, I’m totally done. People have approached me. People say ‘go on this channel. They’re not about the ratings’ but I’m a champion of ratings.”
  Does she ever think she’ll be President Barr? “People are saying that too. Part of why I love Trump is that he took so many of my ideas from my 2012 campaign. I’m about to put out my speech to show it.”
  “He’s welcome to those ideas. Nobody owns good ideas. People are always stealing my ideas. Everything on television is some kind of theft from me. They don’t credit particularly women my age here. You know, if you’re not fuckable it’s no good. Not that I ever was. I’m one of the few women who’s made it on looks and talent in Hollywood.”
  “I tried to sleep my way to the top but there were no takers. I would have but that wasn’t open to me.”
  No one ever #metoo’d her. “My friend Mike Tyson the boxer called it #youtoo. It’s a witch hunt.”
  How does she feel about women who claim to be abused 20 years previously but didn’t say anything about it at the time?
  “That’s because they’re ho’s. if you didn’t say no and just stayed there to get along, you’re a ho. Men are ho’s too. There’s a total ho mentality. What am I going to get for trading sexual favours? Not that I’ve got anything against ho’s. Not real ho’s.”
  While she was having her nervous breakdown, Rabbi Botech called her. “He said, ‘we can’t let them destroy you because you’re the strongest voice for American Jews in Israel. It woke me up. I had my fight back. I just went with him to Israel. In Israel they can talk, talk out differences, talk to each other. I was invited to speak by the left-wing Labour party. No one is all good or all bad. I don’t like what the Obama administration did to Israel and Jews worldwide.”
  Did her love or Torah come from the idea that Torah was for the boys, not for the girls? Did she ever have a Yentl thing going on? 
  “Yeah, totally Yentl. I got that movie although I like calling it Lentil.” I really want to sing Papa Can You Hear Me but I’m bad at singing so I restrain myself. “That’s another joy of my life – singing. I’m doing it more and I’m loving it.”
  When I tell her I was recently thrown out of a restaurant for bad singing, she says, “singing badly is still hilarious.” She gives me her DVD Rockin’ With Roseanne (fun filled kid tunes with loads of singing and dancing). 
  Becoming a grandmother changed her, softened her. She loves singing. She loves kids. She loves the Torah. She loves growing things in her home in Hawaii, cooking soups and selling them in the shop (carrot and ginger is a favourite). “My life is so peaceful. I’m not angry anymore. I use my anger to write. It’s a good battery but I don’t live it and that’s a good switch. I don’t let it bleed into my real life.”
  Do blondes have more fun? “I love my blonde hair. I’m going to let it grow to my waist. I’m never cutting it again. It’s a whole new attitude. My friend said to me once when I was unhappily married…” To which husband? “oh, to all of them eventually. My friend said ‘time to dump the ape and go blonde’. We always called men apes in Utah. I’m in touch with the ex-husbands, all but one. I don’t speak to Tom Arnold.”
  She has children with these ex-husbands and now grandchildren. Often the grandchild/grandparent relationship is stronger. “Yes, we understand each other because we have a common enemy. I really do love children and young people. It opens up a whole new wrinkle in your brain and you have a longer view of the world. And they’re what you leave behind.”
  Does she ever think about that – dying? “No – I won’t be there. It don’t matter.”
  Not doing her sitcom doesn’t meant to say she’s not working. “I’ve got my own channel. I’m working on content for that. When I fell back into writing the show for a 10thseason it was just like riding a bike. I turned my back brain on. They didn’t take that away. They killed me off but that was just stage one. Stage two is over (her breakdown). I’m at stage three now – their pain. The karmic boomerang. I can’t allow them to win. I’m not that kind of a person. 
  Did you ever read that book about circus freaks? The parents shot the kids up with drugs when they were in the uterus so that they would be born with two heads. I’ve also thought about a movie called Sitcom and everything would be based on real things that I lived through. They’re hilarious now a million years have passed. They weren’t funny at the time. I was talking to Mel Gibson about a movie based on the Torah. I would love to write that with Mel. He’s a very good director.”
  So much for him being a Jew hater. “He’s a very layered structure of a human being. He’s unstoppable. Been there, done that. Here’s my talent motherfuckers.”
  She thinks President Trump is a very layered man.
  “He’s a real deep thinker.” That’s now how he comes across. “Well that’s his Trump puppet. He’s got a Trump puppet and he’s somewhere else. Like here’s a shiny object. It’s too complicated. I’ve met him several times. And don’t forget you can’t judge anyone for how they Tweet on Twitter.”
  We agree that Prozac makes one quiet. She has taken anti-depressants of course. There isn’t anything she hasn’t done. “They dull your rage. Most people don’t like angry women. And Prozac makes you just numb but sometimes you need that, get through the trauma. This trauma I’ve faced it head on and I haven’t done that before. I didn’t face it alone. I let people in to help me like my boyfriend and my mom. My mom took really good care of me for 3 months until I got back on my feet. We’ve been on good terms for about 20 years now but this time she was just wonderful and I felt a lot of love from people I hadn’t let in, so more now than ever before I let the love in.”
  Does she think because of that people want to help her? “I don’t know. I think they might have identified with getting screwed.”
  She really has found a kind of strength from being vulnerable, from letting people in. It’s magnetic. She’s allowing herself to be empathic whereas before she closed walls like armour. She’s already spent almost a year in purdour. The last time she radically offended, it took years. I called it the star mangled banner incident. It’s when she grabbed her crotch and spat ata nationally aired baseball game in July 1990 at the playing of The Star Spangled Banner. She was called disgraceful by then President Bush.
  “That’s when I pissed off the right and now I’ve pissed off the left. It took about fifteen years but they got over it.”
  Did she ever want to be liked? A really long pause. “Well yeah. I’m human but I didn’t want to be liked by the wrong people. I wanted to be liked by the right people and noticed by the wrong people.”
  Why was it so different when you allowed your mother to support you? “I realise that’s what I wanted my whole life but I never felt I got it.”
  Did she push people away? “Yeah. I left men unless I needed them and I needed to change that. I’d already kind of changed that since becoming a grandmother. That was fading. Life can change.”
  Do you mean this is the final metamorphosis? “I hope not my final. I think now I’m gonna figure out what God wants for me. But I never do anything unless I think God wants me to do it.”
  Does she think God wanted her to shut people out? “No. he wanted me to expand my radius of love. That’s what he wants for everybody.”

Richard Gere (London Sunday Times Magazine, February 10, 2019)

I’d flown to New York from LA to meet Richard Gere. He is in his first ever TV series – the BBC’s Mother, Father, Son – a complicated tale of families and how to survive them set with Gere as a self-made man, a billionaire newspaper owner and influencer – by that I don’t mean he’s got a lot of followers on Instagram – I mean shortbread with the Prime Minister.
  Gere himself lives in upstate New York but has chosen to meet me at a simple but chic Italian eaterie in Chelsea in the city. It’s booked under my name to preserve his anonymity.
  It’s pouring with rain. I’m in a sopping Fedora and distinctive golden brocade coat. There had been a lot of weather which had resulted in hefty delays and a diversion to Minneapolis so the 16 hours of travel and then the Nat West Bank calling me at 4am east coast time, had all resulted in extreme exhaustion and sleep deprivation so when I turned ap 45 seconds early for our table it was because I needed caffeine. The chic but simple restaurant said I could sit at the bar- not the table till noon that was their policy. I said I didn’t want to sit at the bar for 15 seconds. I wanted a large espresso before my guest arrives – but too late he’s here. 
  Dressed for the rain. Collar up, cap on looking as inconspicuous as a still sexy 69 year old A-Lister can manage. I didn’t want him to know I was the hysterical caffeine deprived woman. It was noon. They showed me to my table. I took off my conspicuous coat and pretended that I hadn’t been that woman. He sits down and looks at me quizzically. He’s got a great quizzical look that looks right through you.
  He’s wearing his trademark rimless glasses. His platinum hair flattened by the rain and the cap but it’s still full. He’s still the man from the poster of An Officer and A Gentleman except he’s not wearing the tight, white trousers. He’s still the man from Pretty Woman but without the expensive looking suit. He’s more pared down, relaxed, grey pants. Simple as he would say, but not ordinary. 
  Of course, he knew it was me. Why was I so upset? Now I was embarrassed. He told me not to be as he ordered a jasmine tea.
  “The American Indians bred horses which were essentially quarter horses. They had great stamina great speed, great agility but their greatest attribute is that they calm down quickly. They bred this horse so that you could ride him hard, work him hard but then calm him down because thoroughbreds stay hyper all the time so maybe you’re a little too thoroughbred.
  Oh my God. Smooth or what?
  He lives with his 17 year old dog, his son Homer (19) from his ex-wife Carey Lowell and new wife Alejandra Silva (35), an activist and her son Albert (6). They’re going to have their first baby any minute. 
  When I asked Jeff Goldblum recently how he felt about having babies after the age of 60, he told me that he went to therapy to work out those issues. Did Gere worry about being an older parent? He looks at me like I’m mad.
  “Not at all.” Some people might be worried though. “No…” he shakes his head. If he was ever a worrier he’s not now. Nothing seems to bother him including what people think of him. I tell him I’m surprised that he even turned up for an interview at all. In the past the press have savaged him. I read a lot of celebrity press cuttings constantly – for research -I’ve never seen any as bizarre as his. And cruel. Around 30 years ago there was an urban myth about his sexual proclivities. It ran and ran until about ten years ago . The rumours were so ridiculous I’m not sure how they ever made it legally to print. Then there were other rumours about his unstable and unloving marriage to Cindy Crawford in the early 90s
  He must have felt pushed into a corner. He took out an ad in the New York Times stating that the marriage to Crawford was a happy one and they were both heterosexual only to divorce 6 months later in 1995. Once again, something that met with criticism. Allegations that could not have happened in the me too / diversity era of now.
  A few years ago, he said, “If I was a giraffe and somebody said I was a snake I’d think no, I’m actually a giraffe. Those kinds of things hurt people around you more than they hurt you because they hurt for you.”
  Soon after this he stopped making Hollywood studio movies, favouring independent movies and some of the most acclaimed work of his career like 2016’s Norman and his Globe nominated Arbitrage. Mother, Father, Son is his first ever TV series. How did that compare to working on a movie?
  “It was like doing 4 indie movies back to back, but the same one.” Was it not interesting and challenging for him to develop the character over 8 episodes? “No, I don’t think I’ll do this again to tell you the truth. It’s 6 months of shooting (in the UK). It’s too long.”
  Is that because his character Max is quite harsh? He didn’t want to be around him. He jumps to Max’s defence.
  “I don’t think he’s harsh. He’s a man who’s clear about what he wants and what he’s doing. People who work for him like him. He’s fair and he cares about them. He’s just not a typical guy. The cast is great. As good as any I’ve worked with. Billy Howle (who plays his son) is a superstar. I was so impressed with him as a person and an actor.”
  Helen McRory plays his ex-wife and he found her “terrific” although he’s never seen her in her much-loved role in Peaky Blinders. He continues to tell me that Max is not hard but he had a hard life, grew up in his father’s steel factory in Pennsylvania and his father wanted to make him a tougher character.
  “This series is a deep and honest exploration of journalism, publicity, the potentially dark mix of bad politics.”
  Does he think journalism is dark? “It doesn’t have to be. It’s certainly very competitive. I’m old enough to remember when news was not expected to make money. It was a service and people who worked in that area felt that they were doing something that was profound, telling the truth. Now they’re all rivals and the press in the UK is particularly difficult. As I said I don’t care. I’ve been around this a long time.”
  Was he always like this? Not caring. “The things I have control over I care about but things I don’t have control over, why bother?” I tell him that reading the toxicity in his press clippings gave me chills. “Honey, I don’t care.” It was a nice, warm ‘honey’, not a patronising ‘honey’. What about your mother/father?
  Did his mother and father inform his character Max?
  “Tell the truth, it was probably the location. My parents grew up not far from where the character grew up. beyond that I had a very different mother and father (Gere was born in Philadelphia. His mother Doris was a housewife. His father Homer (97) was in insurance agent. Gere was the second child of five. 
  Did he have the kind of father who wanted to instil discipline – make him tough?
  “Not at all. I don’t know if Max is about discipline. It’s about you have a number of years on this planet, make something of it. I think all of us feel that way about our kids, not you’ve got to do it this way or that way.” 
  The conversation circles back to his new baby. Gere doesn’t really show emotions like excitement, anger. He pares it all down but you can tell he is excited about it. It’s a boy, right? “Nobody knows because we haven’t told anybody.”
  Homer, named after his grandfather is in a gap year between high school and college. Is he artistic or science biased? “He’s very sweet, very sensitive, very smart. He’s smarter than me, stronger than me, faster than me, taller than me, better than me. He’s great. I love him.”
  Soon there will be a family of five. At the moment they are four. How is that family dynamic. Who rules? “Who do you think rules?” Probably your wife. “Probably.” Is that because he doesn’t have arguments? “No, it’s because she’s smarter than us.”
  One thing they’re not arguing about is what to watch on TV. “I don’t watch much television. I like the Sopranos and Game of Thrones. I like to watch the news. I like to know what’s going on.” Doesn’t that depend on what news channel he is watching? American TV news comes with a bias depending on what channel it’s on.
  “It’s not really that hard. First of all, don’t believe anything Trump says. The opposite of what he says is going to be the truth. It’s pretty easy. I have a very full life and honestly, TV is not high on my priority list.”
  Would he do more TV if it didn’t take 6 months out of his life? “It depends on the script. The selling point on this for me was the script and this script is fabulous. They had to send me 6 episodes before I would commit to it. I don’t think there are bad guys here. They are all living and breathing and working through their issues. It’s very well written like that. It gives you a dream space. I’ve never met a person who is simple so the more time you spend with someone the more levels you’re going to find and certainly having 8 hours with these people you’re going to know layers of their being and their dreams.”
  How was it working for the BBC? Were they cheap? “I never experienced them as a corporation, just as a production. It was the same as making an independent movie.”
  It’s been 11 years since Nights in Rodante (2008), his last studio movie which was huge box office ($84 million) but critically panned. These das he’s not been attracted to studio movies at all. 
  “I make the same kind of movies I’ve always made but the studios don’t make them anymore but they make them independently.”
  By this I think he means the studios make movies ruled by CGI aimed at the teenage male market. I read at one point that the studios had been asked not to use Gere because their money-making Chinese counterparts didn’t want him in China because of his pro Dalai Lama, anti-China politics?
  “No, it’s more complex than that. China has a system for foreign films that can play in China. Chinese distributors want to have the big blockbuster CGI movies. Successful box office movies. That’s the highest priority. I don’t make those kind of movies so whatever their issues are with me politically – and they have issues with me – it’s irrelevant because it doesn’t change the kind of movies I make and has no effect on me whatsoever because I don’t make movies they would be buying.”
  He’s putting lots of black pepper and rock salt into the olive oil and we’re dipping our bread in. We order ravioli with butternut squash and walnuts. I ask for extra cheese. Gere advises I won’t need it. He’s of the ‘less is more, simple is best’ school of thought and I’m ‘bring me more cheese’. He is of course right. Our pasta is good. “Delicate but filling.”
  Gere tells me, “I’m not in the city that much. Mostly I’m in the country.” He has a hotel in Bedford, upstate New York.
  “It was fun to take a building that was falling apart and that’s been various inns and rooming houses. It was built in the 1760s when the British burnt down most of Bedford but not that. There are 8 rooms and a yoga loft.” 
  He’s not intending to branch out to a chain of hotels or being a hotelier as a back up career. Not that he knows what he’s got coming up work wise.
  “I went through a period of making back to back difficult films which I loved. I’m reading things. I’ll see what touches me.”
  Perhaps the arrival of the new baby means it’s a good time not to be working? “Life is work so one is always working but maybe not working with a camera in your face. The pressure of having a camera in your face every day it’s not natural and it takes a bit of getting used to. It takes a lot out of anybody.” 
  And now he wants to be a hands-on daddy? “Oh yes. I’m there.”
  In an interview he gave many years ago he said, “I reacted to fame like an animal, I ran and hid from it.” Does he remember that?
  “Sure. I don’t think many people are built to be scrutinised over and over again all day long, except maybe Trump. I think what maybe problematic with him is the extreme narcissism. He’s a train wreck so you want to watch a train wreck. That’s what he trades in.”
  Why does he think people were so compelled to watch him to make him want to run like an animal? He was never visibly a train wreck. Maybe the idea was to goad him into causing one to happen? 
  “It doesn’t matter. These are small things now. I see them in a different perspective to how I saw them then. Then it was with a young man’s energy. I’ve been around for a long time so I’ve seen a lot and these things don’t throw me anymore. My reaction was to have the animal response of fleeing. Now I just work. People don’t realise that but what an actor does is work, not play. It is creative but the concentration is hard, the hours are hard, it’s taxing emotionally and psychologically. You have to be continually breaking through stupid stuff to find the honesty. It’s not easy work and I love it because it uses every bit of me. My heart, my soul, whatever I’ve got.”
  I’m relaxed enough to mop up my sauce with my bread while I just feel happy to admire the man sitting opposite me. However much he downplays it, he’s still a striking presence. Was he pleased or horrified to be trapped in the sexiest man alive peg? 
  “I’m not trapped, not pegged. Other people may be, but not me. I just work, that’s what I do.”
  Nothing I’ve said or done seems to irritate him even though I have been irritating. Did he work on being so calm? “I was fortunate early on. I was searching, a natural human process to make sense of it all. I had the instinct to search for an answer and I was very fortunate that I was able to find Buddhism and find great teachers. I’m very fortunate that I’m able to devote my life to these daily teachings. If you do the practise you get the results.”
  He is the living proof. “No, I’m not. The Dalai Lama is. But I’m doing good. It’s not a magic trick. It’s doing the work. There is no other thing for us to do in this lifetime than work on ourselves.”
  His life affirming audience with the Dalai Lama was “maybe 35 years ago”. How was it? “Everyone’s expectation is you’re meeting the Dalai Lama. He’s going to go ‘everything’s going to be alright.’ It doesn’t work that way. I was so impressed by his utter simplicity and skill in dealing with me. He got into the deep layers of who I was but not in a Shamanistic or magical way, just simply. One can feel the hard-won wisdom, the way you would with a great college professor. They’ve worked on themselves. And the other side is about open-hearted compassion and empathy. It’s not just about feeling altruistic.”
  Empathy is a skill set. “Empathy can be primitive. Babies have it. If one starts crying, they all start crying. One laughs, they all do that. But that doesn’t take you very far. Wisdom starts to kick in and you start to feel ‘my emotions aren’t much different than the emotions of this person’. What am I going to do with that? I’m going to make a commitment that I’m going to remove the suffering from that person and develop myself to the point where my ego is quite small. Then I really know how to help someone else. It becomes spontaneous.”
  For instance, when I arrived in this restaurant exasperated, panicking, angry, embarrassed, anxious, he became like the therapy dog I met in Minneapolis airport. Bella the golden retriever was on hand to calm stressed, delayed passengers. He’s taken my anxiousness away and I’m left feeling something mystical.
  How did an interview over lunch with Richard Gere become neo nirvana? “It makes it easier, doesn’t it? Just let it go.” I’m seeing him now with a sign above his head. ‘Pet Me’. “How nice…The Dalai Llama gets up at 3.30 every day and works his mind.
  I get up at 4.30/5.00 to work on my mind.”
  Shall we have dessert? “I am a dessert person but I don’t usually have any for lunch.” Nonetheless, I order a Tiramisu to share. “I have to pick up my wife so I can’t be late.”
  He met Alejandra four and a half years ago in Italy. Was it one of those instant love at first sights? “Instant from my side. I instantly became happy just looking at her. It was one of those powerful things.” Has this ever happened to him before? “Yes – I’ve been married three times – but it didn’t happen with the kind of power this one was. But I do remember the first time I met each of my wives. I’m very lucky.”
  And even though things may not have ended well with Crawford and Lowell, he doesn’t hold onto any toxicity. He simply says, “I’m very lucky.”