Susan Sarandon has never become a homogenised version of herself. She’s always sparky, curious and in the moment. On her wrist there is a tattoo. It looks like a piece of barbed wire but it actually says “A new dawn, a new day” to remind her ‘Every day you come into the world and are born again a new person.’
She has been a life long activist, a passionate actress. She won an Oscar for playing a nun in Dead Man Walking. But she also likes to have fun. She works constantly. Today she’s wearing leggings, iridescent sneakers and a loose white blouse. Her eyes orbital and alive.
Sarandon loves a road movie. The metaphor for the emotional and intellectual journey and its liberation. She is, after all. The star of the most iconic road movie in the history of film; Thelma And Louise.
Her latest movie Tammy is another story set on the road. Tammy, played by Melissa McCarthy has been fired from her thankless job in a greasy burger bar. Goes home to find her husband cheating on her with her neighbour. She wants to escape her miserable life. She has no car for her only option with cash and a roadworthy vehicle is her grandmother Pearl, played by Sarandon who is addicted to alcohol and pills.
‘I’m a pill popping alcoholic fun loving granny. What’s interesting is there are moments in the film which are surprisingly emotional and very different from what you’ve seen Melissa do thus far. At the same time there’s a lot of humour – an interesting combination.’
The real life Sarandon is ultra cool, comfortable in her own skin. She exudes a kind of confidence that meshes with a ripe sexuality. She’s 67 and still completely hot – curvaceous yet svelte figure.
The world shook when five years ago she split from actor Tim Robbins, her partner of 23 years. Everyone thought they were so comfortable they’d be together forever. Sarandon has never enjoyed cosy.
She embraced the new phase in her life ‘with terror and excitement in equal parts.’ And is now with Jonathan Bricklin, 37, her partner in her ping-pong club Spin and a collaborator on many projects in real life. But more of him later.
At an age when most mothers are admonishing their children for getting tattoos Sarandon discovered the joy of ink. She’s never been conventional and has always hated labels.
For her character in Tammy she wears a grey curly wig and frumpy clothes. How did she feel about being portrayed as her first screen grandmother? Wasn’t that a little bit frightening?
‘Not really.’ They worked it out that I could be her grandmother if I had her mum when I was 16and she had her baby when she was 16. I certainly look old in it but I didn’t want to wear tons of prosthetics. I think they did a good job with lighting and concentrating on and exaggerating all my bad features. Although I do have to wear fake ankles because they’re supposed to swell.
‘I thought it was interesting work and different to everything I’ve done lately because there was lots of improv. It’s all about the people you work with and I worked with great people here.’
With Sarandon it’s always about the work, never the label and she reminds me, ‘I was a grandmother in Lovely Bones of little kids, but I tell them not to call me grandma. My character was trying to be chic and trying to pretend she wasn’t getting older. (In fact she looks super glamorous and age defying in that movie – a Jackie O with leopard skin accessories).
‘The idea of being a grandmother, of course it didn’t bother me. I’m about to be a grandmother in real life and the concept hasn’t seemed particularly crippling. I didn’t think of it in that way. It was more trying to figure out how to do the part and make it multi-layered. It’s tricky because she’s taking drugs and then she’s high, but then she’s not high and she’s taking pain pills because her feet are swollen. Everyone’s making such a big deal about the fact it’s a grandma. I just wanted to make it believable.
Did she have any moments of vanity where she was terrified of what she actually looked like? ‘When I saw the stills after the movie was done and I saw all these funny faces I did think I hope this is better when I am moving. It was really extreme in a photo.’ She laughs a languid laugh.
In the movie the rug-braiding pill popping grandmother wants to go to Niagara Falls. ‘Yes and we take a very circuitous route there. Of course you’re taking a metaphorical trip as well a real trip and other than weddings and funerals I can’t think of anything that begs for drama more than a road trip because you’re gathering people together and there’s a lot of tension. When you throw new people in the mix on their journey it’s a classic device for drama and a time for a character to change.
‘When you’re in a car it’s a good way to force characters into new situations. I’m always getting scripts where a middle aged couple whose marriage is undergoing some kind of change or needs to change, goes on a road trip.’
Tammy needs to undergo emotional change after she finds her husband involved with her neighbour. ‘My character is not in a position to give anyone advice because I’ve made so many mistakes. Various truths come out in the journey. Both of us have our comeuppance. We get straightened out and come back together again.’
Making the same mistakes over and over again is a definition of madness. The real life Sarandon rather enjoys making mistakes for the experience of growth they often bring.
‘I definitely learn from my mistakes. I welcome them. I am always disappointed if I start repeating mistakes. I don’t have the constitution to be addicted to anything. I don’t like drinking. I much prefer marijuana to booze. And I don’t do anything excessively. I don’t have the appetite to over indulge so I’ve never been in trouble that way.’
What advice would she give to someone who is dealing with a beak-up after they’ve been betrayed? ‘The first thing you have to do is make sure that you don’t think of yourself as a victim. It’s a very humiliating experience to betrayed and you have to see it somehow – which probably takes a little bit of time – as an opportunity to re-frame your life and go on to have some kind of in-depth conversation about why that would happen.’
There in a nutshell – never see yourself as a victim – is a key to Sarandon’s strength and ever-present vibrancy. But there’s also vulnerability. She seems entirely connected to herself at all times, which makes her hugely charismatic.
Her career started off with The Rocky Horror Picture Show. She was Brooke Shields’ hooker mother in Pretty Baby where she also had a tortured affair with its director Louis Male. She was the most unvictimy cancer victim in Stepmom.
She was born the eldest of nine children in Queens, New York City and brought up as a Catholic. ‘One doesn’t recover from that childhood!’
She left home at 17 and married her college sweetheart Chris Sarandon when she was just 20. ‘At that time it was impossible to stay in school and live together as we were at Catholic university, so we got married.’ They were divorced 12 years later and she never married again.
Her daughter Eva’s father was the film director Franco Amurri. She got pregnant by accident soon after they met. She met Tim Robbins when they were filming Bull Durham and had two sons, Jack Henry and Miles. She has always enjoyed passionate, consuming relationships. ‘Even the ones that nearly killed me.’
In her twenties she had a breakdown and refused any pharmaceutical help. ‘I wouldn’t have reached any of those crises in my later life because I would have been prozaced out. It worries me that people see pain as an alien thing. There won’t be any poetry written soon if everyone is on such an even keel.’
She doesn’t attribute her breakdown to a single factor, but the role of being a constant pleaser, nurturer and caretaker seems to have been a destructive element. ‘Anyone that is trying to please everyone is going to have a frustrating life. I had grown up to believe that love conquers and being a Catholic I believed if you’re good, good things happen. You have that expectation, but you soon realise that love does not conquer all. That life’s not fair.
‘Yes there have been times when I did see myself as a victim. That’s why I don’t tend towards that now. I’m also not a blamer. If anything I take too much responsibility for everything that happens and I always say I suffer from pro-noia as opposed to paranoia. I think everything that happens the universe is firing in my favour. Anything that’s difficult is also an opportunity. It doesn’t mean at times things aren’t really hurtful, but you just have to accept being hurt as part of life and decide where you want to go.
‘Sometimes when you are betrayed the other person doesn’t want to deal with what led to the betrayal because the betrayal itself is a symptom, not the be all and end all. It is possible to work through a testing of a relationship and come out stronger. It is possible if you have the toolkit to accomplish that – but everyone doesn’t have that.
‘I would say lean on those who make you feel good about yourself and do something where you can clear your head. You are just a tiny dot in a huge cosmos so try to put it in perspective. Everyone has a few bad days but you can’t let it define you. You can’t be defined by someone else’s act, not being able to deliver what you need. Sometimes betrayal is a wake-up call that something has to change.’
When she talks about this it’s from a place deep in her soul; a vulnerable, wise place. She’s known pain and has been made all the stronger by her capacity to feel it. Did she employ these techniques in the healing process after she split from Tim Robbins?
‘I’ve tried to employ these things whenever I’ve had any kind of huge change, and there have been many. The good thing about crashing and burning young is you start to build somewhere in your memory that you can get through this. It is much more difficult for people who hold on and on and never just completely destruct.
‘Once you destruct it’s like a rebirth and birthing is painful. New things are exhilarating and terrifying. Every major transition is a combination of both of these things. And sometimes we mistake excitement as you are going towards the unknown for terror because they feel very much the same.
‘Even when I choose parts in a movie I should be terrified and excited. I don’t want to get lazy. And Tammy was a real stretch to keep me alert in a way that I might not have been, and that’s a good thing.’
This is exactly how she felt about her relationship with Bricklin. When they first started together she refused to label him a boyfriend. She preferred to call him a collaborator. ‘I now say we are a work in progress. We’ve started a production company together called Reframed Pictures. It gives finishing funds to documentaries and our ping pong project that we’ve been doing together is getting more and more sophisticated. We’ve brought in a new CEO who knows a lot more about running a business and franchising.
‘And I am going to become a grandmother in August. I’m not terrified about that but it is exciting. My daughter has a wonderful husband. He’s going to make a great father. She’s read everything you could possibly read. When I was having a baby I felt it was science fiction until they were actually there. Then you suddenly get your mind around it; a new person in the world because of us. We had a lovely baby shower for her in the same friend’s apartment where I had my shower when I was expecting her. So some of the same people were there.’
She has always been extremely close to her children and enjoyed being a mother for the third time when she was 45. Miles is still living at home. ‘He just left Brown (University). He’s done a lot of travelling. He’s a DJ and a musician. I think he’s here with me for another year until he gets away with earning money down solid. My elder son is in California. He is making a documentary about the homeless and a mocumentary about a DJ.’
Does she ever suffer loneliness and separation from her children? ‘Actually I just texted my youngest where did you go? Because he didn’t come home last night. I don’t like to be too naggy but I like to know what’s going on. I talk to my daughter constantly. We’ve always been very close. I like having older kids. I like the way the relationship keeps changing. I like learning to back off and watch them making their own mistakes.’
Do they share her strong political beliefs? ‘They all have a good value system in varying degrees. They are aware of the world situation. They tend to be driven more by humanitarian aid rather than by politics.’
Does she still believe her activism can make a difference? ‘Absolutely. I’ve seen lives one by one change. For instance when my son did the film about the homeless he went across the United States in the hope of dispelling the myth about who is homeless and how hard it is to be on the streets. In a week we go before a committee in DC to testify to try and make violence against homeless people a hate crime because it’s on the rise and it’s ugly. I see it when I work with grass roots groups. One person at a time can really change the world.’
Is it true that her mother is a Republican? ‘It is true. She is a serious one. In the lead up to the war Bush got in touch with her and she was put on talk shows to help get his ratings up. I grew up with a strong need for justice. Even with my dolls I would rotate their dresses to make sure one didn’t get the pretty dress all the time. Fairness meant a lot to me.
‘I came at an age where our issues were much clearer, when there wasn’t a blackout by corporate press. In Vietnam you saw what was happening with riots and those things. It made sense for a young person to be seduced by them.’
Did she ever have a heated debate with her mother? ‘Not really. Sometimes we talk but I don’t think there’s any point. The last time gay marriage came up and whilst she’s very much for civil union she’s not for gay marriage, she couldn’t understand it.
It was very hurtful to me when she went on the O’Reilly TV show. He did a Top 10 look at my ‘un-American activities’ and used her as a way of getting people to watch it. That was a scary time for me in the lead-up to Iraq. So I just have to assume she doesn’t really get it.’
There is no blame in her tone. True to her word Sarandon is never the victim.
Susan Sarandon – April 8, 2012
Susan Sarandon has never become a homogenised version of herself. She’s never let herself be dull or diluted.
In her latest movie Jeff, Who Lives At Home, she plays the uptight mother of two very different and equally annoying sons played by Jason Segel and Ed Helms.
What you notice is she’s not afraid to let the camera come in at an extreme close-up. The whole screen takes in her face and you are devoured in it. You think there’s something defiant about this, you see bravery, you see good skin, lined yes, but you don’t notice that. You notice a commanding presence.
Her face itself is incredible. Unbelievably she’s 65. She’s not had botox or eye lifts. She had lypo on her jaw some time ago, but her face is as vibrant as it was 20, 30 or even 40 years ago. She’s not afraid to let you see all the emotions flash through it.
When we meet I am struck by how dainty she is. She is wearing dark navy skinny jeans, a lose silky creamy top, no shoes and a shiny scarlet pedicure. Her hair in chestnut waves floats beyond her shoulders and her eyes are orbital and exactly the same colour as her hair.
She has a gravelly purr when she speaks. She hasn’t yet seen the movie or her impressive close-up yet. She puts her relaxed screen presence down to how much she enjoyed working with the Duplass brothers, (directors Jay and Mark) who work largely from improvisation, something which she enjoys because it keeps her on her toes.
‘They don’t set up a long shot or a medium shot. They don’t say these are your close-ups so you are not even aware of them. There’s not a self-consciousness or a loneliness. Whenever I’m in a close-up single (she means close-ups taken after the scene) I’m thinking where is the other person.
‘They use more than one camera. Jay operates one and Mark watches the monitor. Mark is a little more outgoing in terms of his notes. Both my boys came to visit me and immediately hit it off with both of them.’ By her boys she means her sons Jack Henry, 22, and Miles, 19.
She has an extremely close relationship with all of her children. She has always been interested in them. She told me once that they came out of her womb exactly how they are. Jack was very loud and came out quickly, ‘he is a people person, whereas Miles is more like me. My daughter (Eva, 27) could have been an alien she was such a strong presence.’ She told me then in her house there were no followers, only leaders.
‘Jay ended up being a great mentor to my son Jack Henry when he was at USC. He looked at his film and was inspirational.’
Jack Henry and Miles still have a space in the family home, but they are not like Jeff in the movie, who lives in the basement smoking weed and in his basketball shorts.
The movie takes place all in one day where Jeff/Segel looks for a sign that might change his life and make his life mean something. He doesn’t connect with his mother or his older brother Pat played by Ed Helms, who feels his life will mean something now that he’s bought a Porsche that he can’t afford.
‘Jack Henry got a job making a documentary going across country looking at the different demographics of homeless people.’ Jack Henry seems already politically aware like his parents. ‘At the moment he’s in New Orleans (where Jeff was shot) and coincidentally Tim (Robbins) is directing TV series Treme there. He’ll be back in New York with me when he finishes that, probably for the summer.
‘Tim had a house in New Orleans even before we split. Miles (her other son) is at Brown but comes back to New York to DJ in the city. ‘It’s not an empty nest. My kids are still in the basement,’ she says with a mixture of relief and pride.
She can say the name Tim Robbins without any emotional resonance or weirdness. It is two and a half years since they split after being together for 21 years after they met on the set of the movie Bill Durham. Sarandon was 40 when she got that part of a sexy intellectual baseball groupie. She’s never allowed herself to be labelled too young for this, too old for that. She played her first mother when she was 31 in Pretty Baby directed by Louis Malle, with whom she was also having an affair.
Although she never seemed part of a couple because she’s such a strident individual, while she won acclaim for Thelma And Louise and won an Oscar playing a nun opposite Sean Penn in Dead Man Walking, it seemed a given that hers and Robbins’ was an equal and loving relationship.
The world was shocked when it broke down. “Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins have split up. Has the world come to an end?” One blog post read.
Sarandon and Robbins defy all the various theories that were tossed around at the time. Particularly the one that she being 11 years older than him wanted a quieter life. If anything the opposite is true. She never wants to be quiet. She’s working on more projects than ever including parts in Robot And Frank with Frank Langella and Liv Tyler, The Company You Keep with Robert Redford and Julie Christie and Arbitrage with Richard Gere and Tim Roth, and recurring roles in 30 Rock and Big C.
‘It’s important to be interested. I thought I was going to take a few months off and then things kept coming up. I only pick parts that I really want to do. Often they’re not major parts but they’re things I haven’t done before or people I want to work with, like 30 Rock. It was a reprise of something I’d done before and those people are talented, fun. If a part is the kind of person I’m not comfortable with it’s all the more fun. The world opens up to you if you do these things. Somebody said does it get easier? I don’t think it gets easier, but it gets better. It’s a little scary but I feel like I’m living an authentic life right now. I feel happy. I feel I have more options because the kids are older and my situation being what it is. I feel like travelling more. We did a trip down to the Grand Canyon, my kids and some friends. We camped under the stars. No phones, nothing. It was crazy,’ she says savouring the word.
A couple of years ago she opened a ping pong club in New York called Spin and got obsessed with it because girls could beat boys and old ladies could beat jocks.
At the time of the split with Robbins she told me that she was ‘excited and terrified in equal parts.’ How is she now? ‘I think I’m about there, maybe slightly less terrified but I think so much is new and the kids are going through new stages, they are kind of educating me. It’s definitely different. Everything scares me. When I take a part I take a part because it scares me. I’m used to being scared. I find that a good sign. Life is massive, you need to be awake.’ She looks right at me, almost through me, to make her point.
I have read stories, I tell her, that say she is definitely dating her ping pong partner Jonathan Bricklin and other stories that say that’s not true. I have no idea what to believe? ‘Yeh,’ she says, in a kind of pleased with herself growl. So which is it? ‘I’d say we are collaborators in a lot of different areas.’ I laugh. ‘We have a lot of projects in different areas.’
So… does she like him? ‘He’s a great guy but I hate that expression dating.’ I agree with her it’s an awkward euphemism which she imagines I won’t find a way round. There’s nothing else for it. I ask her is she fucking him? She smiles, all coy. ‘Don’t you like the word collaborating?’
The thing is, no matter how brilliant an actor Sarandon is, and she is, she cannot lie. ‘I’m not a good liar, so say whatever you’ll say.’ Collaborating in many areas is a good phrase. ‘Unless it’s the war and you are French.’
If it was the war and Sarandon was French she would definitely be in the Resistance. She loves a cause and she would fight it with all her heart. She’s a committed liberal in every possible way. Rather the opposite to her character in the movie who is very irritated that her son is still living at home.
‘Because of the economic situation these days you could have two degrees and still not have a job or be able to afford rent, or you get a divorce. So families live together. In Italy, in Israel there’s a lot more families living together. Even if you’re married you save up to get a house. It’s never been seen necessarily that these people are slackers. The problem is children returning home that are twenty something and they still want you to do their laundry and their friends come over and trash the place. Sharon (her character in the movie) is worn out because Jeff is in the basement smoking weed.’ And her own boys would never do such a thing? ‘I don’t know about that. But they do their own laundry.’
She seems to like the idea that she never had to face empty nest syndrome. Her children didn’t so much rebel against her but with her. She’s very proud of the fact that she got her tattoo before her son Jack.
How old was she when she left home? ‘I left home at 17 and never came back. My spot got completely disappeared. I got married when I was 20 after my senior year. Chris Sarandon was a graduate student. He already had a job, so I went where he went. Crazy. What was I thinking?
Why did she get married? ‘I got married to say thank you. He was the first man I slept with and he was so kind and so patient and at that time to stay in school and live together was impossible at Catholic universities. Things have changed, but now it seems like there’s an influx of people who want to get married, including my daughter,’ she says slight incredulous.
Sarandon never married again. Her daughter Eva’s father was film director Franco Amurri. Their relationship was never intended to last. She got pregnant early on at 39 because she came off the pill having been told that she had endometriosis and couldn’t get pregnant. Shortly after she met Robbins, the father of Jack Henry and Miles. Sarandon has always enjoyed passionate consuming relationships. ‘Even ones that nearly killed me,’ she once told me.
Is one marriage enough for her? ‘Oh yeh. I really can’t imagine it. Even when I got married we never said it was going to be forever, it was a kind of practical decision. I don’t think I ever thought of it as something that would be a huge deal. But every year we renewed. We decided not with an actual ceremony but just said should we go through the next year. Actually I think it’s good relationship strategy. We should revisit this before we have children to see if everybody is still on the same page and you have established that you have an option of it being nobody’s failure.’
Did she renew frequently with Tim? ‘No, we were not married. It wasn’t about renewing anything. I felt married, I felt committed.’
There’s a slight pause here, a slight little nag at her heart. ‘If you have children they are never out of your life.’
She takes a sip from a brownish purple looking juice. It’s a cold fruit tea ‘to keep up my strength instead of caffeine. I crash after coffee.’
She has a ring on her thumb which says in French ‘One must live not just exist.’ I bought it for myself and it was delivered to me on the day of Louis Malle’s memorial, which I thought was interesting since he was French and I’d been with him for a number of years.’
She was with Louis Malle for two years in the late seventies. The relationship with Malle was turbulent. She felt that she was the one who had to permanently surrender to him because she was the actor and he was the director.
‘I always believe that lovers and certain people come into your life as well as certain jobs, for a reason. Even if it may not be clear at the time.’
There isn’t any victim energy about her, yet she’s always managed to be vulnerable. That takes power. Even the pain she seems to have utilised. In fact she rather enjoys embracing huge and raw emotions. Like her ring says, she doesn’t want to just exist.
‘This is the Cartier bracelet my daughter gave me for my 60th birthday. She saved up for it. I can’t take it off that easily. I did a number of episodes for the Big C and wore it because it means so much to me. It reminds me of my tattoo. The tattoo round her wrist looks like a strand of barbed wire but it actually says “a new dawn a new day” to remind her to live in the present. Round her neck is a piece of glass that she found in a street in New York that is the shape of a heart. In her ear is a gold safety pin and the other ear has a diamond hoop.
‘This is my daughter’s baby pin. Someone gave it to me.’ One ear says Pirate, the other ear says Punk.
‘The virgin and the gypsy,’ she says as she curls her feet under her looking effortlessly sultry. I can’t imagine that she was ever a virgin. ‘But I am over and over again every day.’ I’m wondering if this idea comes because she wants to constantly renew everything or because of her Catholic upbringing. ‘One doesn’t recover from that childhood.’
In her case she’s never stopped rebelling against it. Recently she caused a furore at the Hamptons Film Festival calling the Pope a Nazi. This movie includes a girl on girl kiss. ‘It was a starter kiss.’ Sarandon is an old hand at lesbian screen sex. In The Hunger she was full-on with Catherine Deneuve.
‘Someone asked me the other day was that upsetting (for her to kiss a girl) and I said I guess you never saw The Hunger. The Hunger love scene took four days and there was much more body contact than that. In the beginning of the film I was much more uncomfortable. Just being that uptight and nasty all the time was uncomfortable. But I guess it will cause somebody to say now you are going to get the religious right down on you again.’ In actual fact it’s quite romantic.
‘Did you know it’s a big trend for women who are divorced to get together with other women and start a new life? I don’t know how much sex had to do with it. The question is about the courage it takes to be intimate with another person. It’s not about your age, colour or gender, it is do you ever want to be vulnerable and expose yourself to that vulnerability. It takes courage to put your hand out to the other person and say let’s see what happens. It’s huge,’ she says.
She is mesmerising when she talks about this. I can’t help but wonder is she talking about herself and the courage it took her to er, collaborate.
She says she doesn’t have any new tattoos but her daughter just got a very big one of a hummingbird. They are a tight nit bunch, the family that gets tattoos together. ‘I went with Jack to get his. And when I got the one on my back Eva got one that said “Conscious’ meaning being awake.
‘Both my boys are very sweet. Miles is thinking of getting a smiley face but he’s not quite sure. I think he’ll get one,’ she nods approvingly.
Most children get tattoos to rebel against their parents, but she got hers first. ‘I know it’s horrible. Jack was a little upset that I got one before he did. Maybe it’s bad for kids when they don’t have anything to rebel against. There were things that I was strict about, but not tattoos.’
What were they? ‘I was strict about how much time they would spend watching TV when they were growing up. Violence in films. Sex not so much. I was worried about the double standard. I wanted my boys to understand that blow jobs do ruin a girl’s reputation and that they were responsible as much as she was and they had to understand the ramifications for other people involved. I was strict about them keeping in touch when they go away and about them being kind to each other.’
Once again the opposite to the character she plays. ‘I just don’t think she gets her son,’ she says incredulously. ‘Often the woman is the Wendy to everyone else’s Peter Pan. You get tired with that. At one point I rebelled and stopped wearing a watch. I know nowadays everyone has a phone but then it meant I’m not going to keep telling you you have a game, you have to start to figure out what time to be there. Why does it have to be me that keeps nagging?’
Partly she has always taken responsibility for other people and been the facilitator because she is the oldest of nine. It was expected of her. There’s a sense that she’s done with all that and feels freer.
‘I remember reading the book that said the mum is the entrée and dad is dessert. He’s not around as much and everyone wants dessert. I was the one that dealt with the school forms, the schedules, the packed lunches, the shopping. And that’s the curse of the competent woman. No one opens the door for them.’ She flicks back her hair looking decidedly un-cursed.
The first thing you notice about Susan Sarandon is how comfortable she feels in her own body. She often talks about how proud she is of her breasts, but it’s more than that. There is something about how connected she is to herself that makes her hugely charismatic and somewhat cosy to be with.
She is instantly accessible, perching on a little sofa in Claridges hotel wondering why the green tea is brown. She is wearing black jeggings, new balance trainers, an oversized sweater with a cream lace shirt underneath. A curious outfit, yet somehow you notice her not its oddness.
Her skin is flawless, her eyes huge and all consuming. She is not afraid to look at you and she’s not afraid to let you look right in at her. It’s an open face. No slyness, no manipulation, She is renowned for being a woman who doesn’t fear most things, and certainly doesn’t fear speaking her mind.
It is that truth telling that later on in the interview makes us come a little undone. But more of that later.
To start off we are embracing her fearlessness that makes her sexy at any age whether she is doing a lesbian love scene with Catherine Deneuve, as in The Hunger, driving off a cliff in Thelma and Louise, or reinventing the screen granny as she does in The Lovely Bones. Leopard skin accessories, Jackie O hair and racoon eyes, she’s the sexiest thing in the movie that is a meditation on death. She can get away with political earnestness and make it look passionate, not dull.
We’ve met before. The last time a few years ago. She turned up feeling sick, had to go and vomit half way through the interview, but she didn’t want to cancel because it might have inconvenienced me. She is old school, show must go on.
Today she is feeling healthy. She talks about her new regime of dehydrated fruits and vegetables with gusto, and her ping pong club in New York. Then she’ll give you a catalogue of what drugs she’s done and what exactly they do. There is no self-conscious talking about the movie even though there’s an awards buzz already for her.
She won an Oscar for playing the nun in Dead Man Walking. She likes tortured movies. She also likes to have fun. Her career started off in the Rocky Horror Picture Show. She was Brooke Shields’ hooker mother in Pretty Baby where she went on to have a long and tortured affair with its director Louis Malle. She specialises in every nuance of the mother role, making them in turns forceful, sexy and unsentimental. She was the most unvictimy cancer victim in Stepmom. You never see her moaning in life or movies.
She’s just come from Sweden where she got a lifetime achievement award, but she’s more excited that she met a table tennis gold medallist, “because I have opened a ping pong bar in Manhattan and I want him to come.” Her sons Jack Henry, 20, and Miles, 17, have both deejayed there and it was one of the coolest places in Manhattan before it had even had a liquor licence.
“Girls can beat boys, old ladies can beat young guys, and little girls can beat older guys. It’s about strategy, and you can’t get hurt…” Her eyes do that spinning thing that they do when she’s excited. Her ping pong fever started when she was working with an editor who was also making a documentary about ping pong. “I wouldn’t say that I play very well but I make it possible for other people to play well. I like facilitating them.”
Facilitating, nurturing, making things happen, organising, are all at the core of her. It’s to do with her consummate mother energy. The oldest child of seven, a lifetime of doing things for other people. But who facilitates her?
“Not enough people, she says with a dryness that comes right from the back of her throat. That’S the curse of the confident woman. Most people know that if you take care of yourself and open your own doors they stop opening them for you. It’s harder to ask for help because you get in the habit of taking care of yourself, and I think you forget how to ask.” Her eyes look searching now. “I am trying to change all of that. I am trying to repattern myself now that my youngest is out of the house.” The change seems to scare her and excite her in equal parts. The change is something she refers back to many times, it’s a big deal, a new her.
She peers into her cup of brown green tea. She doesn’t want to complain about her tea but she says, “Coffee is awfully tasty. I love the taste of coffee.” She’s on a regime. “I celebrated my 63rd birthday and got blood tests and saw a nutritionist. I want to do a preemptive strike on whatever is building up in me so I’m travelling with this dehydrated green stuff and red stuff and cutting out all sugar and all liquor. I rarely drink, so that wasn’t hard. The bad one was bread. I love bread. I cheat sometimes. When I did the play (Exit The King on Broadway) I got run down and was drinking serious caffeine, so I needed to clean up my act. I’m very susceptible to drugs of every kind. Coffee, it’s great because it gets me very up, but then I crash.”
I tell her I find coffee comforting. It doesn’t make me particularly speedy. She surmises authoritatively, “You are probably someone who takes Ritalin to calm them.”
When she says drugs have such an effect on her, what kind of drugs does she mean? “I mean anything! I’m not really interested in drinking. Tequila maybe, but champagne makes me fall asleep. It doesn’t take much. When I’m travelling I only need to take half an Ambien to sleep on the plane. I love mushrooms and I’ve done those successfully, but I don’t like anything chemical. I didn’t like LSD and ecstacy wouldn’t agree with me. I like stuff you can smoke.”
I tell her that I’m the opposite. The stuff you smoke makes me paranoid and depressed. “Oh that’s sad,” she says in a heartfelt way as if she’s running through all the good times that I’ll never have. “Everyone is wired differently. Some people can do stuff that others can’t. That’s what I told my kids. Some drugs can kill you. Some are not even worth trying. Some are a lot of fun, so talk to me first.”
It doesn’t surprise me that seven minutes into our interview we are discussing chemical versus herbal drugs in great detail. Sarandon is curious and open. Some things she just can’t be bothered to hide or be polite about. She took drugs, so what. She doesn’t watch her words and thinks she has to recreate a cleaner, blander, less-lived self for the purpose of an interview. She carries no weight of shame or self-consciousness.
She once said it was her ambition to be the longest working actor. She works a lot, but not in a divaish compulsive way. She doesn’t need a star role, just one with meat on it. She loved working with Peter Jackson because, “he knew what he wanted. It was a very pleasant experience. I’ve been on films where I didn’t particularly like the director, which wasn’t the case here. You don’t have to be best friends with someone but if they are passionate you respect them. I’ve also worked with directors who are just trying to get to dinner. They want their martini and to get out of there. And that’s a terrible thing. I’ve done a number of low budget indie films lately where the director has also been the writer and they have cut at the bequest of the powers that be the very things that made their movies special because they think by homogenising a product it will appeal to the most amount of people and it will make the most money. Instead what happens is a watered down version of what you thought it was.”
Sarandon has never become a homogenised version of herself, so it makes sense that this would irk her. Did she suffer by working on thing that were quirky and got homogenised? “Yeh. They’re still waiting to come out,” she deadpans. She doesn’t want to say which ones they are but Solitary Man, Leaves Of Grass and The Greatest are all indie films with writer directors.
She’s not bitter, just bemused. “I wouldn’t have done them if those scenes had been out. People who are deciding how to market your film live in fear, so they are constantly trying to change the very thing they agreed on in the first place. Imagine in that movie with Cameron Diaz and Ben Stiller (There’s Something About Mary), if the hair scene had been cut out? Imagine people saying, ‘oh that goes too far’…
“When I did Dead Man Walking (for which she wore nun make-up and won an Oscar) people were trying to get me to have an affair or the guy not to die. The whole movie would have been completely different.” In it she stays a nun and Sean Penn, the man on death row. does die, and it is of course brilliant. Someone who wouldn’t stand up for themselves puzzles her because that’s so alien to who she is.
“I’m not talking about the studio wanting to change things, I’m talking about the indie people!” Sarandon does not believe in a happy ending. She believes that pain is part of life. She believes in confronting it rather than coating with sentiment.
Did Lovely Bones make her think about mortality? “Well, I’m always thinking about it… I think it was interesting to think about how grief is processed. I remember talking to some firefighters wives months after 9/11 and them saying I’m still angry. People don’t understand.”
We talk briefly about how grief, just like drugs, affects people differently. It’s a chemical process. We agree the coping mechanism is to disconnect from the pain until something in a movie that you are watching or something in a song suddenly reconnects you to it in an unexpected moment.
“I am just like that. I am so busy getting everyone else through it I don’t luxuriate in whatever it is you have to go through.” She sighs, perhaps recoiling from her lifelong role of being the enabler, the strong woman who gets everyone else through it.
In Wall Street 2 Sarandon plays Shia LaBeouf’s mum. “She speaks for the smaller people who have been damaged by the economic situation. Her original profession was nurse. Then she started flipping houses in exclusive neighbourhoods, the kind of gate communities on Long Island where Shia’s character is from. She gets over extended when the bubble bursts and is a casualty, and comes to depend on her son to bail her out. He is having his own financial problems and this puts more pressure on him.
“It’s a small part, but Oliver insisted it was an important part because she is the only one who is not that high level of trading that the rest of the movie is about. People can identify with her.
“If you are running a small business you are constantly worried because very few people can make it because the banks are no longer lending in the way they were. But her job is a realtor. Hopefully I’m funny and I get a few laughs.”
What was it like working with Shia? “He educated himself. He actually worked on Wall Street and immersed himself into that world, so I was very impressed. I like him a lot. He’s a really keen kind of kid that works so hard.”
What was the most difficult thing about your character? “I had to smoke and that was very difficult. The first scene at eight in the morning I was smoking and by lunch I was so ill. Later on in the movie I had given up smoking, but Oliver still wanted it.
“I got to wear lots of jewellery and long nails, so that stuff was fun. In the beginning they were long and manicured, and then they came off when times got tough. I think that’s the difference when you have a regular income coming in, your self maintenance. In the beginning her hair is done and she has long French nails. And the next time she has hit rock bottom and has become kind of undone.
“I really admire entrepreneurs and I realise from running the ping pong bar, one little thing goes wrong and your profits are gone. Oliver keeps insisting that he’s a great ping pong player, but I don’t know if he can actually play. Josh Brolin turns out to be very good and took on Mel Gibson. When I play I have a really good time. You don’t get hurt, you can be of any age and gender and stand a good chance of beating somebody. Little girls can beat 35-year old muscle men, and geeky kids can dominate. It’s very good for the right side of your brain and they say that’s good for alzheimers.”
There’s something about her though that loves it because it restructures any kind of caste or class system. Her story in Wall Street is about losing her quality of life and surviving and finding a happier place. How does she survive? Does she choose movies for money or for art? Did she ever do a movie just for the money?
“Usually when a script comes with a huge offer it’s going to be bad, but then you decide what you are going to do. There are lots of variables. Sometimes you do a money job in order to finance a job where you are not going to make money. You do it for the experience. I have never said no to anything I wanted to do and I have never turned down a film because I didn’t get the money. If I really want to do a film I do it.”
Are you a spender or a saver? “I don’t really have any relationship with money one way or the other. I don’t really hoard it, but I’m not a big spender. I consume where my kids are concerned and I spend money on travel and trees. But I am not a buyer of jewellery or clothing and nor do I spend a lot of time in beauty parlours. What becomes clearer as I get older is I’m less interested in accumulating stuff. I love to buy presents for friends if I see something that’s perfect for them. If I had tons of money I would buy Gore Vidal’s house. A really pricey watch or pocketbook I can’t really understand.
“I really don’t think of money that much. Even when I was growing up and didn’t have it, it seemed like I would always be able to get an avocado or the new Beatles album. I never felt like I was poor when I was poor. It’s good to know I have money to send my kids to school and bring them home for the holidays, but I am fairly cautious and I would never invest in the stock market. I don’t like to lose, so I’m not a good gambler. I don’t have the gambling gene.”
Perhaps her whole life has been part of bigger emotional gambles, so she’s never had to exercise that muscle in casinos. “Perhaps. Certainly a lot of actors gamble. I think it’s easier to not know what’s going to happen when you’re in this business because you trained yourself to get used to that. I feel sorry for the people who dedicate 35 years of their lives to a job and get laid off. They compromise for security and at the last minute that security is not there. My daughter is working as an actress now. At 24 she’s already learning to make use of her down time because she doesn’t know when she’s going to work again.”
How about emotionally? Do you take emotional gambles? “I do. I follow my heart because my feeling if I don’t is much worse than if I get crushed. I try to bounce back and it gets you to the next place. Again, that is a muscle you develop when you act. You develop not an immunity to pain or insecurity, but in the back of your psyche you know you can survive if you hold on long enough because you’ve been up and down long enough.
“I believe in serendipity. I believe it is one of the things that has given me an incredible life, the fact that I am able to get off a train and change direction.”
Changing direction with Tim Robbins must have been a major emotional traffic jam. After so many year of being such a solidly shimmering couple whose love seemed so earnest and true it would never break down it shocked the world that they were no longer together.”Susan Sarandon and Tim Robbins have split up. Has the world come to an end?” one blog post read. Everyone is shocked. And what of Sarandon? Is that why she wants to reinvent herself? Unleash her old patterns? Radically detox physically and emotionally? She is not just scared and excited about her green and red pills. It’s her whole new emotional landscape. How is she navigating the separation? “We are just focusing on all the good things that we have accomplished in our lives, in our careers, in the world and especially in our family over the last 20 years. That’s how we are dealing with it.”
But is she OK? Is she on the road to survival? “Yes. I am in that place of excited and terrified, and that’s probably how you should live your life all the time.”
Has she lived her life like that all the time? “I think to be authentic and rush towards joy is not an easy thing, it’s an ongoing process. Someone asked me the other day when I found my authentic voice and I told them that I think what I have learnt is that who you are, your relationship to your partner and your art, has to be seen as a living thing that is constantly breathing and changing and growing and surprising you. Once you reach a point where you try and keep it, preserve it, then it goes dead. You always have to be curious and asking questions of yourself to define who you are, what you want and what you can give.” Sarandon is all about moving on, survival, never dwelling on the negative.
“Some people get really pissed off with bereavement. Others can’t get out of bed. I know when my dad passed away I was much more objective. There were things to be done and I felt I needed to do them.”
As the eldest of seven she was used to taking charge. “They all needed me and they all needed to get up and speak at the memorial and I really didn’t want to because I didn’t want it to be about me, so I didn’t speak. I was seeing my dad every weekend but he wasn’t living in my house. I think unless you are living with someone you can delude yourself.”
Her agent of 25 years, Sam Cohen, also recently passed away. “I did speak at the memorial. I was flattered they asked me. It was very difficult. You try not to just wail and at the same time you are incredibly disconnected.”
She is so disconnected she hasn’t crossed out dead people’s names from her phone book. She uses an old fashioned phone book. It’s somehow more vicious to cross them than to delete them from a mobile phone.
“I’m always telling my kids they should have a backup because if you lose your phone everything gets stolen. I look at my phone book and there is a whole history there. I don’t cross out the dead people. I think it’s kind of nice. I hold on to T-shirts and gifts that people who have passed away have given me.
A few months ago when she performed Ionesco’s Exit The King on Broadway, which is all about confronting death, she had turned her dressing room into a little shrine for people who had passed.
“I would talk to them before I went on for perspective. They were people I thought would like the play like Bob Altman and Paul Newman. I would say help me remember this is just a play and not take myself so seriously.”
Did she feel they talked backed? “No, but I did feel good having them there. I also had all new little souls, babies and pictures of my kids when they were little and new babies that had just been born.”
Does she believe that souls get passed on? “You mean reincarnation? Maybe. I’m not so sure about the recycling of souls situation, but the one thing that makes me believe that something goes on is that I felt that I had completely already known my children in some way shape or form before they were born. When my daughter (Eva) was about three she asked me when we’d first met, and I started to tell her the story of her birth, and she said no, I remember when I wanted to pick you as my mother. I remember when Jack had his first birthday and she was five, she said, Jack and I knew each other when we were the same age. She also said, every year I get younger and younger as I give away stuff, and I said what kind of stuff, and she said I get younger and lighter because I’m getting rid of bullshit. I went into her class at school and said what are you teaching her? And they said oh no, that’s just her.
“Elizabeth Kubler Ross wrote the book about the five stages of dying and she wanted me to do a movie about her life. She had these spiritual friends. She saw people that had passed on and came back and talked to her. She said that kids had the easiest time passing on because they didn’t have so many attachments.’
I think she would have trouble leaving, I think she would hang on. “Absolutely. I’m not ready at all. I have at least another 40 years, but I think about dying all the time. How could you not? But I think I am manifesting this very interesting life right now.” Her eyes seem to ignite and become orbital. They miss nothing, take in everything, and it’s as if the more she thinks about death the more urgent life becomes, the more in the present she is.
She told me once that you are the protagonist in your own life. Meaning you are the one that makes things happen and you don’t have to be the victim. There’s not a whisker, a shadow, of victim energy about her. That’s why she never hit 40 and thought it’s over for a woman in Hollywood. The first time she played a mother she was 32 and that didn’t represent the milestone that it could have been. She doesn’t seem to look at things as milestones, more like opportunities to learn. Even pain she seems to cherish as a poetic experience.
Her relationship with Louis Malle sounds epically tortured. He was the director, she was the actress, he was used to being the driving force. And she had to surrender to be the one who was driven. “I learnt a lot from him because he was from France and older. I don’t regret any of the relationships I’ve had, even the ones that practically killed me.” She talks about sobbing for days and being humiliated, but never for long. “I always believe that lovers and certain people come into your life as well as certain jobs. It may not be clear at the time but they come for a reason. Exit The King – 120 nights meditating on death. That definitely changes you.”
So she thinks she knew her children from another life, did she know her lovers? She laughs a sparkly eyed laugh. “No. No.” And then concedes. “Maybe one, but I’m not going to say which one and I didn’t have that feeling of recognition when I met each of my children. When my children were born they were exactly the people they are now. Forget that nurture nature thing. I remember looking at my daughter. She could have been an alien. She was such a strong presence. She wasn’t like meeting me half way. She arrived, who she is.
“When Jack arrived he was completely different. I thought that was because he was a boy. And then when the other boy, Miles, came, he was completely different again. I remember Francine, who was the mother of Donald Sutherland’s children saying to me, ‘The way they take to the breast will tell you exactly who they are going to be…'” And how did they? “One of them was very interested in breasts. One of them just smiled.”
Were the boys more interested than the girls? “Not necessarily. Jack was very loud when he was born and came very quickly, and he’s still loud, very outgoing. Even when you couldn’t understand a thing he was saying he was introducing me to the maitre d’. He’s now studying film at USC and writing. He is a people person. He could be a union organiser. Jack is a lot like Tim. He likes going to parties. Whereas Miles is a lot more like me – over six people and I’m overwhelmed. I remember thinking no wonder no one gets along in our house, everyone is a leader in different ways. There are no followers.
“Miles has just done a CD, he is a musician. Both of them DJ at my club.” Miles is 17 and will be leaving to go to college shortly. Isn’t that called empty nest, and doesn’t that come with a syndrome? “Yes, liberation.” She says she is going to change everything and she is looking forward to “repatterning” herself.
“I have been living a wonderful life but I have to rediscover my voice. I have been a function of my family’s needs for such a long time.” Everyone thinks of Sarandon as dynamically outspoken, yet she’s better at speaking other people’s needs. “It doesn’t mean I’m not outspoken. It doesn’t mean I haven’t worked, but I have put them first. I have defined myself as a mother first, always checking the schedules. I was doing it with my siblings. My son said, ‘You are the glue that keeps the family together.’ And I’m sure an element of that will remain.”
It’s like her whole life she’s been trying to escape being the caretaker, the responsible one. She’s escaped into rebellious parts. On films she can push boundaries, be daring. Perhaps now she can incorporate that sense of daring into real life.
She left home to go to Catholic university in Washington DC. “I couldn’t wait to leave home. I was always shy but I knew there was something outside. That was the main
Yet she hadn’t been in college long before she got married. Why did she get married so young? “At that time you couldn’t live together if you weren’t married. He was a graduate student. I was 17 when I met him and slept with him when I was 19 and got married when I was 20. How backwards is that? I was a Catholic and I was living with my grandparents to save money.” Did she love him? “Oh yes, he was a dear man, and very instrumental. I felt very safe with him. He introduced me to black and white movies and poetry. There is a huge difference between a graduate student and a freshman.”
There’s almost romantic yearning when she talks about this first love, Chris Sarandon, whose name she kept. “It’s a very good name.” The marriage didn’t last because perhaps she wanted more than safety. “I think there was a certain point where I needed to go on to the next step and I needed something different. I didn’t know what it was at the time and we ended up being something else.” She goes on to explain how they both ended up having children and how her son Jack is the same age as his son Max. She describes it as if it’s a life that could have been hers. She describes it with nostalgia and distance in equal parts.
After her marriage broke down she had a kind of meltdown. It’s hard to explain exactly what triggered it, it seems to have been many things. Perhaps believing that life was going to be certain and safe and discovering it was not. At the time she decided she would get through it without any pharmaceutical help. She hates chemicals. “It worries me that people see pain as an alien thing. There won’t be any poetry if everyone is on such an even keel.”
One imagines that growing up Catholic influenced a lot of how she felt disappointment when love turned out not to conquer all, and also the way she sees marriage. She only got married once, and not to Eva’s father, director Franco Amurri. She fell pregnant in a miraculous accident. She had been told her endometriosis would mean she could never have children and she stopped taking the pill. She had not known Amurri long before they became parents. Their relationship was never meant to last. She met Tim Robbins on the set of Bill Durham in 1988. She never planned to marry him. “I don’t get the marriage thing. When people ask me to support gay marriage they are asking the wrong person.” Sarandon seems to rail against being a couple rather than an individual. Plus playing safe doesn’t exist for her.
“My daughter talks about getting married. She thinks it will be great, and a great party… My friend had a daughter who got married pretty young. She was about 23 and it was a huge wedding and she is a celebrity and her daughter is a celebrity and she said, ‘It’s a good first marriage.’ I thought fair enough, a few years and one child later she’s not married any more.” I think we can figure out that’s Goldie Hawn and Kate Hudson but Sarandon does one of those cartoon smiles.
Did she think she would be with Tim forever ?
“i have no idea.” Cartoon smile disappears.
I wonder if the tattoo round her wrist, which looks like a ring of barbed wire, is a symbol for relationship torture. “No. It only looks like barbed wire. It says, ‘A new dawn, a new day’ to remind me that every day you come into the world you are born again a new person. I have a very large one on my back which I got during the filming of Lovely Bones. It’s my kids initials.”
Typical Sarandon. Never does things in the right age or order. She discovered tattoos in her sixties and has made tattoo sharing a family event.
“My son just got one and my daughter just got one together when I got this one on my wrist. She got Latin words for being present and being conscious written in typewriter script and my son got a Ganesh.”
So you all went together as a family? “No. Just me and my daughter, and my son was very angry that I got mine before his, but he couldn’t think what he wanted. I left after the matinee of Exit The King and met him at the tattoo place and went back for the evening show, so I was there for most of his tattoo.
“I had given him a little Ganesh when he graduated from high school and he was going to travel around Europe. He was afraid he was going to lose it. So he put a duplicate of it as a tattoo. Miles doesn’t have one yet but he will get one.”
Sarandon has never been able to be stereotyped. There is nothing rigid about her. Playing a grandmother in The Lovely Bones has not made her feel old or unsexy. “I think we have to revamp the idea of what it means to be a grandmother. This one is the anti granny.”
She is the only sexy funny thing in the movie and that is her purpose, to lift it, to stop it from being turgid and too tragic. “I loved the hair, and the outfits were fabulous. I had hair and make-up like that in those days and I wore a fall at the back. But hers was a gorgeous wig and the arc of my character is seen through her hair. In the end it’s limp and discombobulated. It was my own hair by then. She didn’t have time and with grief your maintenance just goes.”
Sarandon does not look self-consciously maintained. She looks good because she looks herself. Her career spans a huge range of characters. She was never compartmentalised. She always fought not to be diminished by a label.
“I think that’s true. Everything used to be over by the time you were 40. When I did Bill Durham I had just turned 40 and that was a great part.”
She played a baseball groupie and felt very sexy in that role, and it’s special to her because it’s when she first met Robbins. Does she still feel sexy? “Yes, I am sexy. Someone said to me recently do you think about ageing, and I think what’s the choice? I think a lot about what we don’t like aesthetically about women that are fighting ageing is fear manifesting. I don’t think you should try to look 22 when you are in your sixties. There is something odd about a woman who looks younger than she did 20 years ago. It’s so self-conscious. I’m not against anybody doing anything to themselves that makes them feel good, but I think aesthetically some fillers and stuff make people unrecognisable. It’s difficult to watch somebody’s face, to see someone who has lips that are unrecognisable. I think you are going against your own branding and I think there are a lot of people who have trusted the wrong people
“There are a lot of things that you can do that are fine, but when you get really into doing stuff you look at that person and you think, ‘Oh my God, that looks just like…. Oh my God, it is her.’ I’ve never had fillers, and how can you get botox when you’re an actor?”
Has she ever had anything done? “Yes, I had under my chin sucked out once. I think we have to be supportive of each other and if someone wants to get implants or tucks you hope that that will be fine and they will keep the essence of who they are and not go over the top.”
Does she have a regime to stay in shape? “I have a trainer for strength because I don’t want osteoporosis to come and I do gyrotonic when I can. Young actors ask me why is your skin so great, what is your product, and all I say is stop smoking, that’s the big one. And just not over indulging and being happy. Laughing does a lot for the face. Do the things you enjoy. Surround yourself with good people. Denying yourself is not good for the face. You can’t be a bitter angry person. Hatred is unsexy and not great for your skin.”
Interestingly that’s what’s written on her face, laughter lines but no scowling lines. There are lines of pleasure but no evidence of restraint. Nothing is pinched.
There has been talk of an Oscar nomination for Lovely Bones. “I would love that,” she says instantly without false modesty. She loves her work, but the beauty is however serious it is she doesn’t take it seriously. “Acting itself is really not that complicated. It’s surviving as a human being that’s difficult.”
I am inside the library of MOCA in downtown LA. Outside we hear the haunting vocals of Katy Perry telling us ‘…let’s go all the way’. She is rehearsing for a charity performance at a huge gala. The day before she was in London for one of the first screenings of her documentary film Part Of Me.
She walks in purposefully, a tiny powerhouse who dismisses her giant security guard. She is in track bottoms and hoody, beige with peacock motif and cream scoop necked T-shirt. Her face make-up free except for a very pale base. Her newly purple hair pushed back into a ponytail. Most of the time the under her hoody. Her eyes look rather large and owlish behind glasses. There’s not even a trace of sleeplessness, jet lag; only focus.
Her wit is quick and her mind is sharp. You are swept up in her enormous drive. It seems like she is taking everything in her stride and that everything is within her dainty manicured grasp. But as the documentary Part Of Me shows, there are many parts of Katy Perry.
The super hard worker whose work ethic is beyond most pop stars or indeed women of her age – 27. An ambitious visionary who is kind to her fans and loyal to her friends, and a vulnerable woman who is not afraid to cry and be filmed without make-up.
The movie was filmed over the course of a year. A year which saw Perry achieve phenomenal success and endure tremendous personal heartbreak. She has filmed all of it.
We see her Pentecostal Christian past with her father the preacher. We see her strumming her guitar when she was 15 with hardcore lyrics about Jesus. We see how her first record company tried to mould her to be the next Avril Lavigne, the next Kelly Clarkson, when all she wanted to be was not the next but the first Katy. We saw how she always wanted to speak to a worldwide audience, to people who didn’t necessarily fit in.
‘My audience don’t necessarily want to go with the trends. They want to feel like they can be themselves and they don’t need any kind of accessory to make them them. It was really important for me to keep some of the more unflattering shots in the film to show at the end of the day I’m just every kind of woman. A normal girl with a big dream who really worked hard to achieve it. You don’t have to be born into something or be born with something. You don’t have to have a material possession or a label. A lot of times peoples perceptions on people like me is that we are perfect from the moment we walk out the door and I wanted to show that is not the case.’ And indeed she does.
We see her making sure she has relationship days. that may mean flying from Birmingham to LA to spend 36 hours with her then husband Russell Brand. We see her valiant juggling. We see the relationship disintegrate. We see her curled up, wrapped only in tears, unable to move. Your heart lurches as you see her wrenched on to the stage.
We see the moment where she makes recording history being the only woman to have five Number 1s from one album ( Teenage Dream) I was there with her in Nottingham when that news broke. Her team had asked to film the interview I was doing but I said no. if I’d known the resulting documentary would be so rivetingly good I would have been proud to be part of it.
‘I remember you didn’t want to be on camera but I didn’t know it was going to be this mega deal with a big Hollywood studio (Paramount) and in 3D.’ The film was made by two British boys from London Fields, Hackney, who filmed her every move for a year. ‘We had over 300 hours of footage. I sold it to Paramount in the spring and it started coming along like a massive train.’
Katy Perry remembers pretty much everything – words, phrases, details stick with her. She is not afraid to show us who she is and my suspicion is that the movie will be huge because it is in no way self-congratulatory. We meet her grandmother, sister, brother, parents, fans. We see her run ragged. We see the life drained out of her. And then we see her in a dress with rotating breasts. The lasting impression of this movie, which could have been the ultimate in cartoon gloss, is that it’s raw and it’s real. And that’s why people will connect to it.
Was she not afraid to show the heartbreak? The face with no make-up? ‘I was in the edit suite saying this is okay. I think my peers might be scared of that but hopefully I can open up a pathway for them to be a little less scared. It has become a big thing that girls have to become so painted and perfect. I certainly think there’s a time and a place for that.’
Her nails are painted black and off white with the ying yang design, a metaphor for the extremes that meet within. This is the same person who did an arena tour including a segment where she was dressed as a cup cake, and who over the last year has had hair of every colour of the rainbow, today is looking stripped of it all. She is looking… I’m searching for the word. She tells me ‘normal is the word.’ But for every part of her that is normal, there is another part that is extreme and extraordinary.
We see in the documentary that she is fearless. Not because she bungee jumps, but because she lets the audience see her heartbreak. ‘I love those documentaries where everyone is fabulous and always perfect, but that doesn’t relate to everyone and I like to be more relatable than that and I don’t want to be above my audience, I want to be one with my audience.’
It is her audience after all and their ability to relate to her that has made her. When record companies wanted to make her into something else she performed her songs in small venues and went by what her audience liked, not her record company. She always had her own vision.
‘It’s funny seeing footage that I’d filmed at 17, 18, 19 and having such a vision for where I am now and a foresight for where I wanted to be.’
She always knew? ‘I always knew it. It was such blind ambition. It was this is what I am doing, nothing is going to get in my way, I am just going to do it and keep doing it and keep trying until it is done.
‘People ask me all the time do you know what you are doing next? And I still have the same mindset as I did when I was first moving to LA when I was 17. I know what I’m doing next and then next just because my creative faucet doesn’t stop.’
Her Christian upbringing has been well documented, and little understood. One assumes that by the time she sang I Kissed A Girl some kind of gritty rebellion and rejection of values had taken place. Perry is more complex than that.
We hear how when she was growing up she wasn’t allowed to watch normal TV programmes and the only videos allowed were Sister Act 2 and The Preacher’s Wife. Her world was very narrow, the spectrum of colour muted. No wonder she loves the bold pastel of fairytales and cartoons. No wonder her show is a multi-coloured defiant dreamscape that shows limitless possibilities.
She grew up in sunny suburban Santa Barbara, California – a place that is terrifyingly safe and contained. She always had a passion for self expression and a need to stand out. Yet rather than rebel and reject everything she grew up with she simply transitioned. ‘Yes, it was a metamorphosis. But I’m still an insect of sorts.’
Perry loves words. She’s excited when she finds the perfect word. She favours it. ‘Yes, a transition.’ It’s how she got from being a gospel recording artist to singing I Kissed A Girl. It feels biblical.
‘I’ve always been an open person. Even in my faith growing up I was always asking questions, like what about this and why is that so. I needed education to back up faith. The landscape was black and white and then I found the colour. I think if you come from a really sheltered place, then you want to be open and free, it’s like naturally you want to see the other side of that. But it wasn’t as cold and dark and strict as people paint it in their minds.’
In the film she says you can never be too cartoon. ‘I think I’ve executed the cartoon side of me a lot last year and the year before.’
The layer cake dress, the spiralling breasted dress, the Alice In Wonderland dress… ‘All of those costumes will be displayed in different theatres with the movie.
I love that it’s becoming such a big event. And I didn’t know that when I was doing it. I had the seed of an idea. I love to go big. I’m not afraid of the mainstream and selling out in all the right ways. I’m proud of the things that I’ve achieved and the landscapes that I have covered and I hope the film does the same thing.’
Like the film Perry is mainstream but extreme. It’s a riveting combination. We see the intimate songs performed in huge auditoriums around the world. We see the audience connecting with the outsider, making her an insider, we see her being loved. There is a moment where she talks about how in the past, when she heard other women saying that if you become really successful you have to concentrate on that and not have a relationship. She always thought why can’t you have a relationship and be a success? Because surely the person who loves you would support you? She admits that that was wrong.
‘It’s that continuing blind ambition. For a modern woman it is important to be supported and that there is equality in every aspect and that it’s not two halves that make a whole it’s two wholes that make a whole. So I have learnt.’
There’s a brief pause, a space in which a modicum of sadness or regret may have once seeped in. It’s another emotion that fills that space right now. It’s an embracing of the truth. An embracing of pain that makes it less painful. An understanding that life is in the present and the future is exciting.
‘I’ve always been ambitious since I was nine years old and that was never going to change. That’s exactly me. And the theme of this movie is that everyone wanted to change me along the way and I’ve stuck to my guns. I am going to continue to be who I was born to be and if there’s no accepting of me you are not allowed to be part of me.’
It’s been six months since Russell Brand filed for divorce. They were married for 14 months and dated around a year before that. While her career went stratospheric, his faltered. Perhaps that fuelled the gulf between them. Perry, I believe, did everything in her power to keep everything going.
‘There’s a part in the film where I’m talking about it and I say, “I wont’ always be on tour, but this is the way it is now when you have an album out. then you do a tour. Then you come home, rest and recharge.” I had planned to rest and recharge in the beginning of this year, then I just threw myself back into work because I think when you are a little bit heartbroken you just throw yourself into it.’
Brand didn’t want to wait for Katy’s tour to finish before he ended the marriage. There is no way back now. I wonder if he’ll watch Part Of Me and see her heartbreak in 3D.
In Sao Paulo she had to be helped on stage. ‘My personal problems are not the audience’s personal problems and I had to separate the personal and the professional. That’s my job as an entertainer.’
I tell her she looked like she was going to die with pain. ‘Yes, and I slapped a smile on my face. I wasn’t being dragged on stage, I just needed a shoulder to help me walk up the steps. I had to bend over so that my false eyelashes didn’t come off. I couldn’t let the tears stream because it would ruin the make-up. But I got through it. I’m still here, I’m still singing, I’m still alive. I’ve learnt a lot and I’m moving forward one step at a time.’
On the Graham Norton Show recently she said her dance card was very full but she wasn’t quite sure who she was dancing with. ‘Yes, because that’s how you answer that type of question on Graham Norton.’
Well, how full is her dance card? ‘I really wish I had more time to be cuddled right now but I don’t, and I’m very particular.’
She has been pictured with Robert Ackroyd, guitarist with Florence and the Machine. ‘Yes, he is a boy, but there is no label. I’m just hanging out with lots of dancers. It’s not appropriate for me to have something serious right now. I need to let my heart heal and to to digest life and to take a break really.
‘As of August 1 I don’t have anything planned and I think it’s going to be alright for people not to see me for a minute. There are plenty of gorgeous peers out there to put out songs for them. I have to recharge batteries and hopefully I’ll come back with an abundance of things to say and great songs. I’m going to get bored and I’m going to stay bored. I’m going to enjoy the world on my own terms, do some reading, catch up on films, I’m just going to be. No plans allowed.’
She has started making notes and taking down phrases and moods for her new album. I am sure there will be some great songs inspired by recent events. She smiles: ‘Somehow you can say things more when they are on top of a melody.’
Is she afraid perhaps of falling love again? ‘No, absolutely not. I’m excited for the future whatever it brings. This is a year about me being creative and finding a new evolution of my music. I don’t think I can always be the candy queen. I might end up starting to become bitter sweet. I have to evolve and I have to continue to push people’s perceptions of me. As an artist I like to do that. I don’t always want to be pegged to the one thought or idea because I love keeping people on the edge of their seats.’
She is clever, funny, warm and despite her protests utterly beguiling with no make-up. More than all of this, courageous.
Katy Perry arrives for lunch in the Dorchester all tartan restaurant. She looks like a 1930s diva in a silk playsuit, the colour of You Don’t Know Jacques nail polish, beige grey, and Stephen Webster jewellery and a big fat diamond engagement ring.
The waiter is floured when she asks for cucumber, avocado and baked beans. She gives a naughty smile. She likes being eccentric.
Her single California Girls has just gone to number one and her album Teenage Dream, soon to follow, is set to establish her in the big time. Many of the songs have been inspired by her boyfriend soon to be husband Russell Brand.
“Russell’s coming in tonight and he’s going to watch the football (England v. Germany). I’m going to take his mum and go shopping because I’m sure he doesn’t want me there getting too animated.”
Would she be supporting England even though she’s American? “I feel really English sometimes. This restaurant is over posh. It’s like the servers haven’t left for 200 years and they continue to live as ghosts. And perhaps there’s a Scottish terrier that will be just wandering around. I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.”
I’m wondering if that’s something that she and Russell have in common? “I think I’m the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
People were a little shocked when evangelical Christian minister’s daughter Katy first hooked up with bad boy Russell who used to boast about sex addiction and drug cocktails. Since they met last September they have been inseparable and Russell completely monogamous.
Katy is of course gorgeous, clever and funny. But how has she managed to tame him? “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself. Everyone knows no one will change unless they want to change themselves.”
Do you think it was a case that he just met you at the right time? He was ready for a new phase of his life? “Yes. It was a cosmic collision.”
How do you think being a married person will change you? “I think it will be about prioritising things. I won’t be able to get smashed all the time, but I don’t want to. I won’t be able to waste hours on the internet, but I don’t need to. I have to be very precious with my time because I need time for myself individually and I want time with him. It’s just about the balance.”
Is there any talk of babies? “No. I’ve yet to get into that head space. Babies in a few years. If you see a bump it’s just water retention. I do have a new kitten, Krusty (Katy and Russell equals Krusty).
“She’s a lesbian,” she announces. Does that mean you’ve been kissing her? “All the time.” She shows me pictures on her Blackberry of the new kitten. Russell kissing Krusty. Krusty in a teapot. Krusty in a West Ham slipper.
She’s very excited about her cats – Kitty Purry and Krusty, and Russell’s cat Morrissey. Does she still get excited about number one records? “Of course I do.” Who does she call to celebrate? “Russell, my mum, Krusty, Morrissey, Kitty Purry. I collect them all into one room and say, ‘You’d better button up that tux, Morrissey. Straighten up and stop scratching me. We’ve hit number one.”
There’s not much chance of her and Russell and the kitties setting up home in London because Russell has just sold his place here. Aside from that she says, “I will miss it. I’ll miss the formalness of everything. I also like how English people, if they don’t like you they don’t like you to your face. But my serotonin levels would be all fucked up because of the weather. I’m a sunshine person. If the sun doesn’t come out my personality doesn’t come out.”
Her eyes widen. They are big blue kitty cat eyes. Her face is gorgeously glowing, flawless. “I have regular facials with Maki Maodus at Ole Henriksen. I tried different things to compare it to, but Maki, with the oatmealy honey smell that comes from her steam I crave. I’m addicted to all the creams she uses. I love her… If cats had jobs they would probably give facials, wouldn’t they.”
Does she have a diet or exercise regime – she looks kind of perfect, all skinny and curvy? “I skip rope and I eat greens,” she says succinctly. She exudes a kind of confidence that seems pure. She’s not afraid to stand up to her record company bosses. There’s a song on her album called Peacock – cute, double entendred, racy – that they didn’t like. “They were all a bit worried with the word cock and it gave me déjà vu because they did the same thing with Kisses A Girl. They said we don’t it as a single, we don’t want it on the album. And I was like, ‘You guys are idiots.'”
And what about Cheryl or Lady Gaga? “I knew Lady Gaga a little bit when she was coming up and I love her music. I’ve never met Lily but I’m a big fan. I don’t know Cheryl’s music but I love her dimples.” She smiles as if she wishes well on all the world and then tells me she’s very busy planning a wedding so no one will find out where it is. “My cats will be involved of course. Krusty will be the flower girl.”
She got her own way and I Kissed A Girl was a worldwide smash. “I feel very constant. I always try and make a lasting impression with the people who are letting me make a small music video or a big music video, you know. And I work very hard. My father has a saying, ‘You can’t be a flash in the pan.’ This record is important to me because it will resonate the fact that One Of The Boys (her last album) wasn’t just luck.”
She has a Jesus tattoo. Is that because she loves Jesus? “Yes. I got it when I was 18 and that is because I love Jesus.”
Her father is a minister and her parents were strict, yet she gets on fantastically well with them. “Because my ultimate goal was never to be rebellious towards my parents. I first started singing with singing in church. My parents were strict but they weren’t stiff or stuffy. We still had fun. I just wanted to be allowed to do some of the things that normal kids were doing. I wasn’t allowed to watch MTV or listen to any pop music.
“When I moved out I just became this living, breathing, eating, shitting sponge. It didn’t matter what genre music it was, I was just give it to me.” Because you felt you’d been deprived? “Yes, of course. I’ve always been an open person. I was never a kid who just took it. I was always like why, why, why. And that question has got me a long way. I moved, I transitioned. My parents and I now have a lovely relationship. Probably because they realise I am not going to turn into a crazy person or a prostitute or a Charles Manson.”
Do they worry about songs like Peacock? “They haven’t heart Peacock yet. There is a little red button that is constantly pushed with them and sometimes the red has pretty much worn off around it.”
Did it wear off with I Kissed A Girl? “No, it was still there then but it was wearing off when I called and said, ‘Mum, I’m naked in a cotton candy cloud.’ Or ‘I’m marrying Russell Brand.’ They really didn’t know about him. They always give people the benefit of the doubt and it’s up to the person to mess it up.”
Did Russell mess it up or charm them? “He’s very charming with them and he has an ongoing email love letter with my mum and she loves it. She flirts with him, which is totally inappropriate and I tell him to stop.”
Somehow I think Russell is never going to stop. But it’s probably better that he’s flirting with Katy’s mum than random other girls.
Another song, Firework, is inspired by Russell. “Russell showed me a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac and he said that this is what I am. The passage read, ‘I want to be around people that are buzzing and fizzing and never say a commonplace thing and shoot across the sky and make everybody go ah.’ So that has been my life statement.”
If Russell was a firework what would he be? “He’s all of them mixed into one. He’s the grand finale. I am one that has little gold leaves that fall like gold dust into the sea. He’s the one with all the noise.”
Are those two fireworks compatible? “They’re always in the same show, aren’t they.” She smiles her quirky little smile.
I wonder though if it is hard living with someone so flashy. Is there no ego clash? “All comedians are interesting characters plagued by their own genius; funny but very serious.”
Has she become more serious? “I think I could be more spontaneous but now my time off is more scheduled. I still love to go out with my friends and I still like Pinot Grigio. But I’ve learnt from some of my hangovers I don’t drink as much as I used to. My last big night out was probably Coachella (California’s Glastonbury). We had little golf carts to get from place to place but the golf cart broke and it was the middle of the night and we were coming back from a concert. We had to walk miles and then we saw another golf cart and got in it, but we got completely stuck again. I’m happy that Russell is sober because it’s had a good influence on me. It steers me in a more positive direction.”
Russell is about to start filming the remake of Arthur. He told me that he thought Katy would be perfect to play the Liza Minnelli character. “I guess she had dark hair and is a singer, but I could never beat Liza Minnelli, and he is going to be brilliant in it.”
Would you like to work with him though? “We work together well in the relationship because there’s no arguing. There is debating and you can do the same thing with a director. It’s really important to have your communication on the same level if you want to get the best out of both worlds. I don’t want to be the couple who make the mistake of working together and it ends up embarrassing. Who knows? I don’t think I’m ready.”
Besides, next year she plans that “I’m going to be touring my ass off. It’s probably one of the reasons I exist. I never want to come off as too mysterious, detached or unreliable. I love the personal connection between people.”
Has she ever said anything she regretted? I’m thinking some of the more barbed quips about Lily Allen. “I’m sure there are things that I’ve said that have been taken out of context. But just so everybody knows for the record. I like Lily very much.”
When I first met Katy Perry a few months ago I was overwhelmed by her huge sense of self. She seemed absolutely certain who she is, what she wants, with a kind of meteoric inner drive.
She comes though softly packaged in silky slinky clothes and super-sensitivity. There’s an urgency that she must grab everything now.
I first heard of Katy Perry a couple of years ago, long before she kissed a girl. My facialist Maki is her facialist. She told me as soon as her fingers had pitter-pattered across her her delicate cheekbones that her new client was going to be the most famous girl in the world. She was so naughty, so sexy, and so Christian.
The combination didn’t make sense to me. There were two failed record deals before her current megastardom. Perhaps it’s because of them that she makes sure she never relaxes. She is never less of herself as she believed that being moulded into what’s the vogue of the moment just dilutes you into failure.
Her current world tour is about expressing every particle of herself. Her cartoon sexuality, dizzying costume changes, fireworks, her love of her cats, and her love of “hubby” Russell Brand – it’s an enormous show in every sense. And the tour is almost a year long, and just after getting married that means there’s almost no domestic downtime. She’d never want that pause, give up on her music career. She wants to make sure it never gives up on her.
Marriage to Russell Brand could have worked against her, eclipsed her. But instead the symbiosis of their single fame has made for mega celebrity wattage. Their relationship seemed implausible chemistry at first. Minister’s daughter meets former sex addict and falls in love. But in fact they are more similar than different. Both love to be quirky almost to the point of outrage. Both have fast minds filled with funny lines. And both of them have a strong sense of spirituality which they manage sometimes to disguise. More of that later.
I am in Nottingham where Perry is to play the Arena. Outside little girls are in alien masks so they look like mini aliens from Perry’s video E.T. Although not quite like Perry in that video where her make-up makes her almost unrecognizable. The rest of her is taut, sinewy, and naked. First off she looks like a fairy and then reveals her lower half is that of a fawn.
Little girls love Perry and the show caters for this. It’s pink cotton candy. It’s Wizard of Oz meets Charlie and the cup cake factory. It’s David LaChapelle kitsch. It’s Lucille Ball kooky. It’s Carry On Down The Yellow Brick Road in the ultimate push-up bra. It’s kitty cats and red sequined shoes. One time there are seven costume changes in one song; it’s more of a magic trick. It’s glitter bustiers and cup cake crinolines that light up. It’s more is more. It’s a metaphor for her work ethic that nothing is ever enough, to make sure people are pleased. No tiny sequin of a detail has gone unchecked by Perry herself.
She’s on stage for two hours singing, dancing and bantering about the weird love triangle that is “my husband, myself and you, you sexy little Brits.” Then she’ll tell us that every song she’s put out has gone to Number 1. (Her last four singles California Gurls, Teenage Dream, Firework and E.T. got to Number 1 in the US). “And that’s because of you. I owe you. It feels nice to be loved.” She says it jokey but she means it. I got the same message backstage when I met her before the show.
I made my way through racks of multi-coloured fluffy costumes and dancers in candy-striped trainers. Perry has summoned me to sit on her hot pink sofa. It travels with her. She is wearing a plush cream bathrobe, nothing else, except a glossy black wig that’s part Wonder Woman, part Betty Page. She’s presented with a dark pink drink.
“Beets, carrots, ginger, maybe some pear. I have it every day.” It’s an LA style smoothie that’s made it’s way to Nottingham. “No it’s just by the end of this tour I’ll be looking like Edith Piaf in La Vie En Rose if I don’t drink it. It’s really exhausting and I’m trying to build stamina. My knees have world tour written all over them.” She shows me bruised and bloodied knees, one deep cut. “I got that one a while back. I’ll have to get it lasered off at some point. It just adds to my tomboy look.”
There is part of her that’s a gutsy tough tomboy, but the rest of her is extreme girl. A kind of Disney princess that has a superpower of extreme focus. She explains the bruising came from “a guitar solo interaction with my guitarist. And I had all this extra energy, so I slid through his legs and that felt very rock ‘n roll. So I’ve been doing it every night since.” Indeed she crashes on to the ground hard and slides fearlessly.
An assistant comes in with some vitamins. “Irons and Bs and multis. I take one pill that’s for moisture for my voice so that when I’m on stage I don’t get cotton-mouth. They are like horse pills. I also do no caffeine, although on my days off I might have a latte or something with cheese on it or a Bud Lite. But that’s cheating. I’m proud that I haven’t turned into a fully-fledged drug addict. I have no choice. I have to stay on the straight and narrow. We started the tour in February and we are going to extend it possibly to December. I think a year of being really good is important. It’s an extraordinary thing for me to play this size of venue three to four years into my career. I get to take chances and utilize a lot of different opportunities.”
She’s grateful. She never separates herself from that feeling of being knocked back and not allowed to be who she was. Although that seems a very long time ago. She was first discovered when she was 15 singing gospel in her parents’ church in sleepy Santa Barbara, California. She went to Nashville to record with country Christian rock veterans and learn the tricks of songwriting. The subsequent album failed. When she was 17 she moved to Los Angeles to pursue pop singing dreams. She was signed by Def Jam Island, released an unsuccessful album, then was signed by Columbia in 2004 and again was dropped. When she was signed by EMI Virgin she knew it could be her last chance.
“I’m a professional. I appreciate hard work and I know it takes an extra level of hard work to do this kind of thing. We’ve been filming everything. I’m not sure what we’re going to do with it or to what end, but this moment is special and I want to document it.”
It’s like when people fall in love, they write poems because they want to remind themselves that these intense feelings of love existed. It feels so unbelievable they have to write it down to make it true. “We might put an episode online. It’s nice because it gets to show that this is a lot of hard work.”
There’s nothing covert about her. She doesn’t want to hide anything. There’s something refreshingly old school about her candour.
“I feel very indebted. Touring to me feels like a debt repaid but in a good way. When people support you so much you owe them actual face time. I’m not always feeling 100 per cent. Four days ago I was sick in bed and went to the doctor. And now I have this lovely bruise on my butt from a steroid shot. I didn’t want to reschedule. You have to have a certain level of accountability. People have bus times, baby sitters. I’m not saying I’ll never cancel because I’m human.”
She whips up her robe to show me the giant butt bruise. It’s large and purple. I’m not sure why she wanted to show me the bruise’s graphic detail. Maybe so I could see just what lovely buttocks she has. Maybe because she likes to show and tell.
“I got a B, an antibiotic and a steroid. I got it in LA so I could get on the plane.” For her four days off she decided to fly from the UK to LA to be with her husband and cats. It seems pretty tough to me, but she is uncomplaining and happy she got to spend time there.
Do they Skype? “Yes, of course. We Skype and Krusty talks (the cat that is the feline love child of Katy and Russell, hence made up of both names). They all love clicking on the computer. That’s when I feel most safe and comfortable when I’m sitting in my house with my cats.” It strikes me as odd that suddenly there is talk of a need to feel safe. She did tell me once that she didn’t like sleeping in the dark.
“I sleep with the lights on unless I’m with Russell. I think a lot of evil things go on in the dark. I have to cover my toes because I’m that kid who thinks there’s a witch under my bed who’s going to eat my tootsies off. I have nightmares.”
She plucks out a throat pastille from a tiny box. Her finger nails are striped in candy cane Minx. She designed them herself. “These are for my voice. I’ve got lots of tricks. I’m sticking to vegetables and steamed things, some poultry. I don’t like the taste of fish. No caffeine. No alcohol. “It sounds boring but I think what I’m achieving.”
In the corner is an elliptical machine. She says that she did 40 minutes on it today. “I only do 40 minutes on show days because a show is about two hours and I don’t want to exhaust myself. I hate it. I’d rather be lying in bed reading books and watching my favourite TV programmes. Lots of English telly. I like My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding. And I like Morgana. And I like Charlie Brooker.”
She’s very Britified. “Well of course,” she purrs, “with the help of my husband. I think the British always have a dial on the things that are cool first. The music over here is one of the things I loved first. Especially the women like LaRoux, Marina and the Diamonds. And of course Morrissey. I’ve just met him once and he was very lovely to me and very unique.”
Brand’s cat is named after him. “The cat has some of his attributes. He’s always coming into the room with this attitude oh you again, I can’t be bothered, not unless you are going to feed me, and I won’t eat, I won’t eat next to the other cats. He’s a black and white cat and it looks like he’s wearing a tux all the time but a bit disheveled. Kitty Purry just got a nice trim, a lion cut. That means she’s got hair all around her face and neck but nowhere else. That’s perfect. And Krusty, so adorable. When I was sick the other day she was really sweet to me. Very protective. Pets are wonderful because they are constant love, non-judgemental, so sweet.
“Krusty is a lesbian. She’s such a tomboy. But she’s such a girl and she’s very proud of who she is.” Sounds like people really are their pets and Krusty and Perry really are very similar. Perry even looks like a cat with big blue wide kitty cat eyes and little kitty cat nose. I wondered if that’s one of the things that first connected her with Brand?
“I am more of a cat person because I like earning affection.” The earning, the working of her debt for people’s affection is core to her. Of Brand she says, “I am the ying to his yang and vice versa.”
Much was made in the beginning of their relationship that Perry and her Jesus background tamed him. “It’s not about taming. He changed for himself.”
I first met Brand three weeks after he’d met Perry and he pretty much told me the same thing. He’d changed. He was ready to be loved by one person instead of seeking the attention/affection of many. And even though they don’t see each other much due to extreme work commitments, they are extremely communicative, as you’d expect from the woman who first expressed her love in sky-writing. Her Twitter is full of “go hubby go” and “how cute is my baby boy” referencing picture of him in Arthur. “Yes, he’s working really hard right now and I’m working really hard right now.” Brand has had two movies out back to back, Hop and the unmissable Arthur.
Did she get to see much of him? “Yes, I see him. I planned my tour around being a professional and a married woman. I planned my tour eight months ago. I had four days off and those four days off were to see him. It’s a lot of pre-planning but at least the slots are there. He already came on the tour four times.”
Does she feel different when he’s around? “No, but I get certain tips from him about my banter back and forth with the audience. I ask him what all the football teams are because that’s good fo I am thinkr the boys who have been dragged along by their girlfriends.
“When I was in Dublin he said don’t forget Oscar Wilde is from Dublin and when I was in Manchester he said that is where Oasis is from. He’s always giving me bits and pieces.”
They are both over the top extreme, but have huge spirits and are not bored with one another.
Did marriage change her? “Well yes. I think when you’re a single person there’s an energy that you’re always looking for another half. The stresses and other things. Then when you get married you’re like ‘oh, I can take this energy and put it somewhere else’. You feel relieved in so many ways. When you find someone that is your other half you feel a sigh of relief. It’s a beautiful thing to have a partner that nourishes you and gets you and will always be there for you and gets you on so many levels you don’t have to do any explaining. You can make one expression and they understand the mood you’re in. your ultimate team mate.”
Does she believe in soul mates? “People label things however they want to and I’m not labeling him anything. He’s my husband. But I would love to think that that’s the case. When we’re on our deathbeds and forever is over we’ll know.”
The notion that forever is over is perhaps something that haunts Perry. The songs might be dressed up in pink and Firework sparkly and inspirational, its riff used on all the trailers for American Idol. It’s played all the time, yet there is darkness to it.
The song was first conceived when Brand showed her a passage from On The Road by Jack Kerouac which said something like I want to be around people who are buzzing and fizzing, who are full of life and never say a commonplace thing, they shoot across the sky like a firework.
“And I like the idea that when I pass away I’ll be put in a firework and be shot across the ocean in Santa Barbara. That’s always been what I wanted for my last hurrah. It’s poetic. But it’s not about romance.”
It is about the eternal though, what lasts forever and what doesn’t. She has Jesus inked on her wrist. Does she observe this? “I observe it because It’s on my wrist but I don’t necessarily make it a moment every day. Mostly it’s having a heart of gratitude and being appreciative. This is my job and it’s a fun one. I should be humbled every day, which is basically a head frame I have. Not to take the piss out of playing a stupid game of spirituality. That’s not who I am. Who I am if want to put my head and my heart in the right position, so when I’m giving out my energy it’s pure.” She got the tattoo when she was 18 “because I love Jesus.”
It’s impossible to erase her spiritual upbringing no matter how much she sings about kissing girls and loving peacock cocks and wondering what it would be like to have cream to explode from her nipples. Her parents taught her about God and the devil. Her childhood was seeped in it. She took it all in. she questioned it, but she didn’t quite rebel. She never fell out with her parents although there were some “transitions” involved.
I’ve always thought that Brand looked like Jesus, so maybe that was the main attraction after all. The depths of the spiritual instruction she grew up with doesn’t go away.
“No it doesn’t. I’m different. The roots are the same but there’s a sift. For me the general wonderful things I learnt about were about respect and integrity, the difference between right and wrong. I think everyone in their own upbringing had their own silly rooms. Each family is unique and they have their own quirks. Mine was no devilled eggs and no MTV. Instead we had to call them angels eggs, just really small nuanced things like that.”
For her Jesus is as indelible as that tattoo. The juxtaposition of spiritual integrity and overt sexuality is a fascinating one. She takes with her on tour a box of prayers. My grandmother used to have a similar box where you take out one prayer every day and it gives you guidance or wisdom for that day. She says, “Yes, my costume designer got it at an estate sale. They’re ancient. 60 years old. The King James’s version of the Bible. It’s nice to have a regime that we can all be part of. We go into a circle, read our little prayer. We do it at the top of the show. You’ll see it later.” She seems keen that I can see this spiritual aspect.
“I think I’ve always been looking for answers. Wherever you come from as a child you swear you are not going to be like your parents, you’re going to be totally different and never look back. And when you look back it’s right behind you, breathing on you.
“I started off in gospel music when I started singing in church. I’d moved out of the house and everything. It didn’t matter what genre it was, I was like give it to me.”
There is indeed something insatiable about her. The curious thing as well as wanting it all, she wants to pay for it all, feel like she’s earned it all. Quite punishing.
She hates flying, is scared of it even, yet makes herself do it she is so grateful to be on a world tour. “I get to the venue, work out, eat, dress, do make-up, we do our circle, do a meet and greet, do the show. When the show is over I’m on a tour bus. That’s the price you pay.”
It’s a recurring theme – price you pay, her debt, her bargain. Is she happy? “Yes, I feel very fulfilled. I’m not always in the Snow Whitest of moods because my humour is very cynical and sarcastic anyways. I’m here because people put me here. I’m responsible to give payback. I am close to my fans and I feel indebted to them. I wouldn’t say I’m the most spiritual in the world, but I’m very aware of how small I am in this big world and every day is a chance to remember where I came from, every day is a chance to ask for humility and grace. I have a constant feed between me and God and every day is like ‘don’t become too proud, remember where you came from, be positive.'”
Perry may well have encouraged spirituality in Brand but he was already on the way to devouring mysticism and acquiring his own spiritual guru Radhanath Swami. Her mother finds Brand charming. She feels that he is going to be “a great man of God and his transition is happening.” She says she has a “lovely” relationship with her parents. She is a middle child. Her older sister is on tour with her organizing meets and greets. Her brother is an actor in LA.
Is it true she bought her mother a facelift? “Oh no, I did not. She aged well and by her own choices. There are quite a few things that are written about me that aren’t true.”
Is it true that her mother slept with Jimi Hendrix? “That’s also not true. She danced with him.”
What about her father. Was he really best friends with Timothy Leary? “He was a hippy and he went to Woodstock and he was an acid dealer. He was associated with that famous dealer of acid and psychedelics. I’m sure he was just one of many, but that is his testimony.”
Testimony in that religion is like in AA when you say ‘I’m an alcoholic’ or saying aloud the act of contrition.
“So they’ve had their wild days too. Now they are ministers and they’ve been ministering for over 35 years. We all came from somewhere. I have to remember that not everybody knows and it would obnoxious to think that they all should know. I’m fine with it.”
I read that when she was in India she engaged the services of a mystical psychic parrot. So much weird stuff is written about her it’s hard to sift the truth. “I think it might have been trained. Sorry to burst your bubble. But the whole idea of the tarot parrot was the sound of those two words together. That was the only reason I hired it.”
You wonder how much she enjoys fame if it is indeed more of a restriction. Paparazzis chase her constantly. Stories with even less truth than the psychic parrot sprinkle the tabloids, made up fights with other girl pop stars, fictitious rows and melodramas.
“When I was nine-years-old and started singing I didn’t think ooh fame, I thought songs, stage, costumes, exciting performances, making your own record. Those were the key ingredients to it. Being on the cover of a magazine, those are byproducts and I try not to give it too much energy. I don’t like tabloids and I don’t like paparazzi. I don’t feel I owe them anything. I don’t necessarily mess with them. when I see them I never pose unless I’m working. I always take back doors. Never condoning this kind of activity because I think it’s disgusting. It’s spineless. Some places are worse than others. Nobody should want to sign up for that.
“I’m four months Google free,” she announces, sounding straight out of an addiction meeting. “I don’t Google myself any more. That was my New Year’s resolution. I don’t read papers. I don’t even look at reviews. I have a good team around me so if anything pops up that’s really good or bad I’ll know about it. All the things I need to see I see. Generally I feel much better being able to live my life like a normal person and not read yesterday’s news. It’s intense but I don’t play into it and I don’t give it any energy. I’m careful of certain things I say and I do. If I know the interview is being recorded I can be a little wilder because you’re seeing me. But if I’m doing a print interview where there are only so many words that are being put into an article and I know I’ll be edited so I’m just very aware of what I say.”
Has she changed in this respect? “I think I have become a lot more focused and my bullshit tolerance has gone. I like working with great people, I like putting on a great show. I appreciate good people and relationships, my family and friendships, and my fans are really important to me. If you fuck with my fans you fuck with me. You dn’t want to fuck with Mama Bear.”
Have you sifted out a lot of people? “No, I’ve always stayed away from those types of people. when you’re going to different levels not everyone can get there. if they have greatness within them they can rise to that level. Some people just don’t want to go there. I want to be a better version of myself every day. I want to evolve. I believe if you are not changing all the time then you are not moving forward. You’re stuck.”
Weirdly the whole arena smells of candy floss although there’s none of it in sight. It must be all the bubble gum pink that’s auto-suggesting it. In fact the backstage food is made by a team of chefs that specialize in delicious organic food. Both her managers are here on tour with her and one of them talks in a delightful Alabama accent which adds to the syrupy warmth. There’s a quiet announcement that her single E.T. is Number 1 in the US. Everyone cheers and their joy seems genuine and she much loved.
Perry and her band and dancers in multi-coloured pastel furriness and candy striped sneakers gather in their circle. Perry herself is looking more and more like Wonder Woman. She arches back as if she is mustering her super powers. I wait expecting a little prayer asking Jesus to guide the show into loveliness. All their heads go down like a rugby scrum and they shout “Robin Hood!” and head for the stage.
It’s one of those restaurants on the beach, a balmy summer evening in all senses of the word. We are on the Cote d’Azur. It’s special energy was favoured by artists like Picasso and dictators like Mobutu. Bono is holding court on another table with a man who would like to build a cathedral for all faiths. Larry Mullen is tucking into tempura and chips enthusiastically. His skin shimmers golden, even in the moonlight. He looks at least 15 years younger than his 42 years. He’s stuck besides a woman who has close links to Tony Blair. Sometimes he despairs of Bono’s appetite for the political arena, sometimes they argue about it, mostly Bono makes it work out. You wonder all the time how did he do it, straddle between the rock stadium and the politician’s ear. But then how has he ever embraced being a rock god, and, well, God. If you spend any time in his company you will know there’s a reason why Bono is Bono, and U2 is U2 – the biggest rock band of all time. But more of that later. What’s clear now is that the band of 25 years has survived a thousand tantrums or more, several heart breaking dramas, and they have moved on together because of the love and respect they all have for each other. It’s a very elegant co-dependency. Adam Clayton’s not with us tonight. Partly because he lives the wrong side of Nice and doesn’t like to drive in the dark after the laser operation on his eyes. And partly, I suspect, because he doesn’t torture himself by being around alcoholic beverage. He was so nearly lost into a self-destructive vortex. He is now careful in the other extreme.
Each member of U2 is a little of an outsider. Either because their mothers were lost to them at a young age, as in Bono and Larry, or Adam who was lost to boarding schools. He’d grown up in East Africa. When he arrived in Ireland he felt bad, because although he was the only one in the class who spoke Swahili, he couldn’t speak Gaelic. Edge had a different kind of displacement. He was born in Wales and moved to Ireland but was cursed by not sounding like he fitted. He’s careful now to have an accent that reveals little because of that earlier sense of alienation. The girlfriend of the lead singer of Ash is talking to Bono about clubs in Dublin. He’s looking a little distracted as he’s trying to earwig on the Edge’s conversation. “What are you talking about Wales for,” he keeps on. Later on he tells me it’s his performer’s ear, he can hear everything that is going on in the room. More likely he heard his name being mentioned.
Edge was saying how Bono is different to other people because other people get in a pattern of thinking and he never thinks there are any parameters. That’s why he thinks there’s nothing wrong with phoning George Bush. Some Brazilian rhythms are playing. Some of us are dancing. The lights across the bay are getting more twinkly as the night gets blacker. It’s past midnight, the restaurant is shutting. It’s a short walk along the beach to the twin villas in which Edge and Bono live, separated only by two swimming pools. People find it odd that not only have they worked together creatively and sometimes compulsively for over 25 years that now they actually live next door to one another. There’s not even a fence between them. They never got round to building it. The problem with the walk across the beach is that it is a stone beach, not a speck of sand in sight, and I am wearing stiletto heeled mules. Bono offers to carry me. I opt for bare foot. It’s painful. I’m almost yelping. Then Bono offers me his shoes. They are Japanese inspired flip flops and a godsend. Now he is in pain, but he doesn’t yelp, says it’s like an intense reflexology. When we get back to his place he puts on the new CD How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. It’s one of the first times that they have heard the completed work in its correct running order. Bono sings karaoke style along with it. One track begins with the line, “Take my shoes” which he sings directly into my ear. The Edge is looking solemn and worried. “Look at him,” says Bono. “He’s going through all those mixes, assessing it all in his head.” He is indeed immersed in a world of his own. Bono is now singing the line, “I know that we don’t talk but can you hear me when I siiiiing.” It’s a weird cry that vibrates into the night after the already vibrating note from Bono’s voice on the album. Haunting of course. It’s meant to be. “Yes,” he says. “I am hitting a note a man of my age shouldn’t be hitting. I don’t know what’s happened to me. I have a different voice. Where did that come from?”
One theory is that How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb is actually about dismantling the life and death of his father (?) who was a big time opera fan and a perfect tenor. Since he’s gone he walks in a different way, maybe it’s his father’s walk, maybe he swallowed him.
“Or maybe something just lifted, like a very strange weight and I am more at ease with myself and this is as easy as I’ll ever get, and this is pretty good. “How To Dismantle An Atomic Bomb. He is the atomic bomb in question and it is his era, the Cold War era, and we had a bit of a cold war, myself and him. Perhaps that was just an Irish male thing. But we had an unusual relationship early on. When he died I had no idea what would happen. I did start behaving a little odd, took on more and more projects.
“And looking back on it now, because I think now it’s finally ended, now I’ve finally managed to say goodbye, I think that I did do some mad stuff. I got a letter from a friend of mine that said, 1, don’t leave your job, 2, your wife, 3, take large sums of money out of the bank. I wasn’t doing any of that, but what he was saying was when fathers die sons do mad stuff. “I thought I was ready for it, and up for it.” Don’t know if you can ever be ready for death. “Well, he’d been ill for a long time (he had cancer and Parkinson’s disease) and I would go and visit him in hospital, take the night watch.” He was on tour for the final stages of his father’s life, but he would fly back to take a bed in the hospital. “I didn’t know that grief affects you in surprising ways. I didn’t know that a year and a half, two years later, when you’re walking down the street, there’s tears going down your face and you don’t know why. Then you realise why, you’ve got all that unresolved stuff you didn’t get a chance to work out and you wished you had, or pick up a phone call. “We didn’t talk. I don’t think I spent enough time with him, and it’s always awkward with Irish males what you talk about. We got a snooker table, that helped, but not when he was ill. I’d come home from gigs, get to the airport, meet my brother, have a pint of Guinness and a shot of whiskey, and go up to the room so in the morning I was there. In the last days I would read to him. Shakespeare, the Psalms, although that was bad timing because my father was losing his faith just when you really need it. I remember saying to Noel Gallagher that he just wasn’t sure any more and Noel says, ‘Well he’s one step closer to knowing, isn’t he.'” And that became another song, One Step Closer. Like all Bono’s lyrics, they’re essentially about embracing contradictions, humour and despair, celebration and bitterness, God and sex, desire and doom, devils and angels. All embrace each other and become different facets of the same thing. Sometimes they sound biblical even. Even when they are at their most throwaway they draw you in. You can hang from his every word and quite enjoy it. He is a person who wears his inside on his out and you are scooped into that force field.
“This turned out to be such an emotional set of recordings and I don’t remember writing them like that. I don’t know where it came from, just as I found notes I’d forgotten, I found melodies. I also noticed I was walking differently, and I noticed other people noticed certain mannerisms in me. I think you do that. As their manifestation leaves their central presence or being enters into you.” Bono has so much to say to everybody, George Bush, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the swing voters, the peace keepers, the warmongers and the rock and roll population of the world. But he didn’t have very much to say to his dad. Most of the time he drew him lying there. “I drew all the equipment. I found it fascinating with all those wires and tubes. I didn’t have the wherewithal to deal with things, my brother did all the heroic stuff, organising everything, the medical stuff. I think I was just drawing to try and figure it out rather than twitching and looking away. And I was writing because I was trying to figure it all out. That’s when I wrote Sometimes You Can’t Make It On Your Own when he was sick. He wasn’t an easy man to help and I sang it at his funeral. It sounded like The Righteous Brothers, something from a very different age. What will the young people make of it?” he laughs. The song is reaching emotional parts that songs rarely locate. It is beautifully crafted, but also raw.
“The record is full of joy though. I don’t want people to think of it as despairing. My father really was great fun,” he says. The two trains of thought about his father seem entirely contradictory. That he was fun, and that he was unreachable. But somehow, when Bono tells you it you believe it. It’s a rare gift. You accept almost anything. He wonders where the drawings are. Perhaps they are upstairs. He will show them to me later. He says, “I have recently had to let go of grief and thank God for the gift my father gave me, even if I turned out like a Johnny Cash song. I am the boy named Sue, you know. His whole thing was don’t dream because dreams end in disappointment. And that’s it right there. That’s when the megalomania started. Don’t have any big ideas.” He waves his finger as if he is his father, and bursts out laughing as in that moment he knows he is the biggest rock star in the world because he wanted to be. He feels he personally can put an end to world debt just because he thinks so. And the AIDS crisis in Africa. We’re on our way. You see it in his eyes which sometimes flash with an inspiration you can almost touch. That’s the real reason he wears those dark glasses. As if on cue the song Yahweh which is the original name for God in Hebrew pounds out with such joy some of us are dancing on the terrace. The restaurant gave us champagne to take across the beach. More bottles of rose wine have been added, and now Serge Gainsbourg’s Je T’Aime is sighing and oozing from the speakers.
The next morning everyone had a hangover. Bono had a non-specific angst. Could be that he was very concerned that I would think that everything in his life was warm and fuzzy. Could be because the photographer Greg Williams was prowling in the gardens with a few hundred kilos of sugar. He was shooting an ad campaign for Oxfam and Bono was to be photographed underneath a sugar mountain. I believe Chris Martin got milk. And there was a brief discussion whether you’d rather be covered in milk, sugar or flour. But it is true that life for U2 isn’t always a cosy sugar cocoon. It hasn’t been exactly 25 silver spoon years. After the initial struggle, remember they used to worry were they too biblical to be cool, then it was simply were they too sated. That period around Achtung Baby and Pop in the nineties was their most turbulent and most arid. That was when Adam went off the rails with drugs and various other excesses. And that was when Larry, after finishing three years of touring (the Zooropa tour 1993) ended up in Japan and so didn’t know what a home was tried to persuade Edge it was a good idea to buy motorcycles and cross America for six months.
Bono refers to Adam and Larry as rock police. He says that Adam has an ear equivalent to a third eye. And Larry has an amazing instinct and decision making process. Everything in Mullen world is black and white, there is never any grey. The most stroppy and the most straightforward, and the most handsome. I first met Larry earlier on in the summer in my first visit to the south of France. The day I arrived the just finished not fully completed CD had been stolen from a photo session from the Edge’s CD player. The police enjoyed questioning all of U2, and the record company were in a general panic. But Mullen seemed laid back. “What can you do?” he shrugged. And when he shrugged, his arms, special drummer’s arms, ripple very nicely. In daylight he has an orange bronze shimmer. I’ve seen him referred to before as Dorian Gray. He says that his father is in his eighties and looks 62. I wonder is he most like his father then, or his mother? Not just in skin tone. He says sadly that he never found out how his mother would age. “She passed away in 1978.” A loud airplane tears across the sky and almost destroys the moment. “When I joined the band it was like running away to the circus. My memory of early U2 is really hit and miss because I just ran away when my mother died. Nobody was there to pick up the pieces. I was trying to do it myself. Impossible.”
He was just 17 and U2 became his replacement family with everything that involved. “Yes, my sister got married and the family unit was broken. Every Irish son is closest to their mother. She thought I’d make a priest one day, she’d be very disappointed.” But now you’re giving out a different kind of communion. “That’s right.” Do you think you were running away from loss all your life? “I don’t know, there may be some truth in that. There’s a sense of running because you don’t want to go through that loss again. In Ireland mother love is so big even married sons will go for Sunday dinner on their own. Anyway, it’s a little more expensive to run away now than back then, but it’s still a circus.”
It becomes apparent that the reason U2 are still together is that they need each other more than other bands. Bono thinks that Larry is the dad of the U2 family because he’s so good at making decisions. Mullen thinks that actually he’s the spoilt child. “Bono’s the mum. No doubt. You know, he’s larger than life and he’ll take on anything.”
Mullen doesn’t schmooze, he doesn’t mince words. He’s very direct and heartfelt. He says, “We’re not making music by committee which a lot of people misunderstand. Songs come as a sketch and we work around and add our influences. My passion is not drumming or drummers, my passion is music. Whereas Edge, and Bono to a lesser degree will be focused on the whole idea and will spend six hours in the studio while Edge is going on his guitars, I just go in and out so I can be more objective.
“We don’t fight, but we all have strong personalities. But in the end we want the same thing. You know we’re very competitive, we want to be on the radio, have big singles. We don’t want to be thought of as a veteran band. We like the fact that people mention Coldplay as our contemporaries.” (Coldplay are about 18 years younger). Then he says, “I got exhausted listening to our CD. It’s not an immediate record. We don’t make immediate records. But then I thought it’s actually really good. I didn’t agree with the title though, but I was overruled on that.” It was produced by Steve Lillywhite, but there had been many other producers involved: Chris Thomas, Flood, Jacknife Lee, Brian Eno, Daniel Lanois, Nellee Hooper and Carl Glanville Mullen raises an eyebrow. “People work for U2 and are never seen again. The U2 black hole. Stephen Hawkins discovered a new black hole theory that things can come out of the end of the black hole. I guarantee if Stephen Hawkins looks closely enough he’ll find several old U2 producers, engineers and road crew.” So why are the four of you still together? “There’s nowhere else to go. What kind of a band goes on holiday to the same place? What kind of families just mix?”
We are sitting under a canopy on Bono’s terrace by the pool and several naked children, possibly belonging to Edge, run squealing by. “We are a tight family with all the pluses and disadvantages of that. But we don’t have an ego problem in the band. Most bands fall after the first hurdle, which is, I write the songs. We all are involved in the process. Also we are not slaves to our instruments. We are not virtuosos. None of us studied. So we all struggle together. “Different things come into play now that we’ve all got families. We don’t have the freedom we once had.” He’s got an eight year old son, five year old daughter and a three year old youngest boy. So even rock and roll must revolve around school holidays. What happened when you went a little crazed after the long touring schedule? “It was about ten years ago now and we’d been on the road with Achtung Baby and Zoo TV for about two years. We finished the tour in Japan. We all just disappeared off into the night and got into awful trouble. The last gig happened and Edge said he was just looking forward to getting back into normal living, but I just couldn’t stand it. I said, how about you and me buy bikes and tour America for six months. For a split second I thought it was a good idea.” Did you have that syndrome where your torturer goes away and you say can you come back and torture me some more. He says, “Yes, that’s exactly how it felt.”
What he did do for that time was go to New York for six months, to a drum doctor. A kind of chiropractor specially geared to rock drumming. He learnt how to stay in shape and do some martial arts. Now his thing is, “Whenever we tour and go to a different city, like women like to go shopping there, I go to the local gym. It’s just something I’ve grown to love.” He also likes the idea of doing something which is against his character. He is an introvert but enjoyed taking centre stage in the Electric Storm video. “I would like to be in a band that still makes great albums because I don’t think age has anything to do with it, and I like the idea that I might take on a new challenge of doing some acting. I like the idea of going to it late. But you know, the band is all I’ve ever wanted, and I get paid for it. I don’t want to sound smug because that would be awful. But it’s like, I’ve got the best job in the world, you know.” Sometimes it seems that Adam Clayton has always been an outsider, even within the band. But in the world of U2 extremes always meet. In many ways he is the driving force. It was he who out of, “blind faith and undeniable ignorance” said, “We are going to be bigger than The Beatles.” It was at the time when they’d only played a couple of gigs and were at their most wild and disparate. We meet in a rooftop cafe in Nice. He lives a little separate to the other members, although he thinks that might change soon. He orders a double espresso even though he’s recently given up caffeine. That’s just who he is. Worried about revealing too much, but anxious that I get to the core of him. I tell him that all the other band members remember the bigger than The Beatles moment clearly. “At that stage I really didn’t really know what I was saying, but I know you have to go into it with a passion, and that was my passion, doing it for real. Punk came roughly at the same time and it gave you the feeling that you could make a difference through music. I got swept up in it. It wasn’t about being a weekend flash in the pan. It was about being a world phenomenon.” He gives a slow smile.
He has a very unlined face, but eyes that are much older. No longer the peroxide blond, but he’s arrived armed with designer shopping bags. He’s in search of the perfect T-shirt. He says this album, “Was a very different experience. It wasn’t like we were running around crazy with no sleep.” Although Bono rarely sleeps more than four hours a night. He doesn’t think that he goes fast, just that the rest of the world goes slow. The time of Clayton throwing down his bass guitar and telling Bono, ‘You play it then,’ and storming off to some drug fuelled heaven or hell is long gone. Has something happened to make you more harmonious now? “My personal insight would be that we all turned 40 in the last two or three years and that does make a change. You can look back at how well the band has done and what a great band it is. You can’t help but feel great about it,” he says fidgeting. The waitress forgot his coffee order and he’s already feeling guilty about the double espresso. He says he felt he needed an altered state for the interview. The coffee arrives. He seems calmed.
“Not many people get to 25 years in a marriage or business partnership. You know, collectively I think we’ve come up with a few stinkers of bad decisions. We’ve survived them, and survival is how you deal with your bad decisions as much as it is with your good ones.” What was your biggest stinker? “I suppose the one that I’m most uncomfortable about is how we went off on one with the Pop album. We focused so much on going out on tour and designing the stage show, which was amazing, we forgot to finish the record.” At the time, Pop was panned. It was hailed as the doom and demise. Now in some circles it’s looked at as a bit of a quirky classic. “I think we just lost our way and now it’s just part of our history.” Was that when you lost your way? “No, I was fine then, that came much earlier.” The much earlier period was the Naomi Campbell engagement. You know, the rock star needs supermodel. I always feel it was a shame they met when he was off the rails. But the real Clayton is nurturing and polite, supersensitive, and in many ways they were good together. His affair with Campbell made him the celebrity he’s always tried not to be, although I point out there was that time for the artwork of Achtung Baby! Where he appeared naked to show the girls exactly what a supermodel gets. “Yes, but people still didn’t recognise my face. I was lucky like that. I have always been a little shy of the camera.” So obviously the way you deal with that is appear naked. He laughs at his own contradictions. A lot more comfortable in his own skin these days. He breaks the chocolate that you get with the coffee into four pieces and enjoys each miniature bite. Very controlled. He tells me, “I can neck it when I want to.” Each of the four know each others strengths and weaknesses and extremes very well. “In a way we are not hugely intimate with each other, yet there is tremendous tolerance, room and understanding and love and all the things that support people. There is intimacy, but a lot of the time it is a work situation and then everyone goes back to their families. It’s more adult. It’s not the four guys that you were in the back of a transit van for two and a half years. But how can I sum up where we are now. There is no sign of it slowing down or being diluted. In a way we are at the peak of our powers.” You once told me that it’s impossible to be an ex-rock star and that you were going to go on for ever. “Hm, that was a few years ago. I can’t blame naivety. But there’s always that question. What will U2 become? A parody of itself? A watered down version? Will it continue to have dignity and respect. It’s not getting easier but we’re getting better at dealing with it.” Are you your own family? “Essentially yes. But I’m trying to filter out the romanticism of what you’ve just said with the pragmatism of it.” In all of your families there are some elements missing that you found in each other. “Yes, we are our own survival mechanism. We were dependent on each other in our twenties in a way that you couldn’t have been in any other way of life. We were lifted up and forced together. It was a pressure cooked up till Joshua Tree and then the heat started to be let out. People had more choice in their lives and their lives were more complicated with success, money, options and family. So it became more difficult to be together in that same unit. Getting older means it’s harder to keep up the same disciplines that you had in your thirties.”
In this way Clayton is different to the others who still like a bit of a party. He is the loner. “I don’t go out very much, but I’m comfortable with that. When I was in party mode I was out every night. I am not seeking that kind of stimulation any more. Now I’m happy to watch the news, listen to music.” What do you listen to? “You know when I was using substances there were records I would go back to because they created certain moods. I don’t do that as much now. I listen to newer records. Current things.” You mean the ones that don’t have drug memories. What were they? “The drug records? Marvin Gaye and James Brown. A little bit morbid. And later on Leftfield.” It’s a place he clearly never wants to go back to. Most of the time he lives split between Dublin and London where his girlfriend works.
“There was a time when I wasn’t comfortable in England at all. But now I have a more positive approach to life. I used to feel gauche, as if I came from the provinces.” The thing about Clayton is he’s always felt he’s been coming from somewhere else. He’s always been between two poles. As a child, very early on, his father who worked for East African Airways, moved out to Kenya. Then it was Dublin. Then it was boarding school and Singapore for school holidays. In a way, even though part of him feels it’s crunch time to settle down, he loves to do what is known as ‘the geographic.’ “It’s much easier for me to say goodbye and go somewhere else than it is to stay and deal with whatever it is that has to be dealt with.” And is this the pattern that created the condition to be totally on the road? “Perhaps, but I still get jittery going to a new place. I don’t like to lose control of the environment. I get twitchy about losing control. I get stressed when I think things might not be going the way they should be and sometimes I just feel abandoned for want of a better word.” What Clayton has finally opened up to is frighteningly sensitive. “Generally I think there is work to be done with some of my issues. I don’t think I’ve cleared out the cupboard totally. But most days I move freely in the world and feel comfortable with it. What I’ve learned about coming into recovery is about acknowledging sensitivity and turning it down a little bit, but that doesn’t mean to say I can’t feel exhilarated.” Each U2 band member is exhilarating to be with in different ways. I can see why Bono sometimes has to change headset and think, let me make my life easier, let me think in black and white like Larry. Adam Clayton is the opposite of this. He doesn’t think in terms of grey, he thinks in terms of nuance, and treats everyone with the sensitivity he feels.
Later that day I was due to meet with The Edge, but he was suffering. It had been his CD that was stolen and he had been interrogated by the police interminably and wasn’t up to being interrogated by me. The next time I saw him was two months later on the beach in the restaurant behind that bottle of rose. His eyes are small but intense. He was born David Evans from Welsh parents in Barking, East London, moving to Ireland with his family when he was one. He speaks very softly, but very precisely. And for a person named The Edge by Bono because of the sharpness of his mind and his features, he is hugely gentle. A puzzling force, usually wrapped in a tight knit hat, even in the summer. When we met to talk again it was the morning after. Even with a hangover his mind loves detail.
Although I’ve assumed by now U2 are a co-dependent family unit bound by telepathy, talent, love and insecurity, each brings something and each makes a contribution. On some albums some contribute more. It is generally acknowledged while it may not be as official or clear cut as the Jagger Richards thing, that Bono and The Edge are the dons of the songwriting. Bono is the words, and Edge is the sound. So, last night, Bono was worried that you wanted to re-record the entire album. “Yes, listening to it made me want to re-record everything. I have been listening to many different edits, all within the boring mundane final mastering process. If you get it right the song just sounds better. If you get it wrong it makes the song sound different in a really bad way. Ten per cent of working in the studio is inspiration, 90 per cent is a very analytical painstaking process for us. And that’s the science part of my brain.” The Edge was almost lost to science. He promised his parents that if the band hadn’t made it in his year off he would start his natural sciences course. He actually began it, sleeping on manager Paul McGuinness’s floor which was near to the college. But he never actually bought the text books. “I didn’t want to waste my parents money but felt I owed it to them to do what they wanted.” The Edge is a person who immediately assumes responsibility for everything. Bono’s passion and political fervour has perhaps been hardest on him. But the reward is perhaps that the album sounds more like an Edge album than a Bono album.
Any other person might have been deeply frustrated by Bono’s absences to go and hang out with Bush, Blair and his work in Africa while they were recording. He took it in his stride. “And yes, it is like your family, and there’s nothing more annoying than your family. But in another way there’s a deep trust and commitment and a sense that for better or for worse, our destinies are intertwined. No-one is under illusion about solo careers being more fun or as successful or as challenging as being a member of U2.” His reasoning for the bond that never broke is that, “together we found we could something well. Even if we didn’t at first. When I first picked up a guitar I was, ‘Wow, I can play this, I can really do this.’ when we actually started playing together there was a sense that I have found my place in the scheme of things. I remember Gavin Friday saying insecurity is the best security you can have.” Didn’t Bono’s political activities cause conflict? “We’ve grown up as being a political band. We never saw a need to separate religion and politics from everything we write about and care about. And it always seemed to be a natural part of the work. Other bands that I would have related to on that level would have been Bob Marley and The Wailers and The Clash on the political level.
“We have always been well aware that steaming in on any issue was liable to get us into trouble, or just come off as uncool. And we have never never valued cool. Although my own real fear was that Bono was going to lead us into doing things that were desperately uncool and we would regret because we would be implicated to a larger or lesser extent. But I have to say, from time to time, even though I have winced on his behalf, I’ve had more times when I’ve just been so proud of him and just blown away with the success of what he’s done. Who would know that someone who stopped his formal education at 16 and had been writing songs and touring the world as a singer can get stuck into the body politic and actually make such a difference and is listened to on the highest levels.” We break for lunch of salad with cous-cous, salmon, chicken. Larry points out that Bono, “will have lunch with the devil himself if it gets him what he needs. I’d be loathe to criticise him, but I do think it is a dilemma, if you’re particularly associated with one politician or another. I admire tony Blair, he’s an alright guy, but I can’t figure out for the life of me why he went to war. I think Bono is in an interesting position to find his way through that one. “During the recording of the album Bono was away a lot and it ended up having zero effect on the quality of the work. It just seemed he’s a lot more active. He was able to speak to the Pope and record a lyric at the same time. I’ll be interested to see in a few years time what effect there will be on him as a songwriter and a lyricist. I don’t think the effects will be now, it’s going to be later.” Bono returns to the table, freshly showered from his sugar cavalcade and we discuss the psychology of hair. Like what does it really mean if he’s always having a bad hair day. He can’t control it, and how that relates to his need to control the world. And we discuss how people have got sex all wrong. We’ve degraded it. In our attempt to understand it we’ve missed the point.
Back by the pool with The Edge we admire the blissful view and the bizarre fact that he and Bono have two houses side by side, neighbours as well as band mates. Edge also has a house in Malibu because his wife Morleigh is native to LA. “And the kids love it because their cousins are there.” He thinks one day he may buy a boat. Ultimately though, “possessions are a way of turning money into problems. I don’t have a big car collection. I don’t have anything that I’d miss if it got stolen. I don’t do investments. That’s turning money into work and that’s not such a nice thing.
“I bought this house because it was about timing. I was going through a low point because I was just separating from my first wife Aislinn and things were tough and this was laying down new beginnings of another sort.” He met Morleigh when they were doing the Zoo TV tour. She’s a dancer and came to help with the choreography. It was a slow burn thing though. “We had known each other but were not very close for a while. And then a little spark happened.” Last night in our drunken conversation Bono had been discussing the fact that you know if you really love somebody if you can be yourself with them. If you try to perform well for them or impress them it’s not as strong a love. Edge agrees, “Yes, I can be myself.” From the slow and precise way he says that, you know it wasn’t always the case. In relationships do you prefer to be the person that is most loved or most loving? “I started out being the one who was most loving. Now hopefully it’s more fifty fifty. I think there’s a certain ego in that there’s a control in being the one who’s the most loving. To actually surrender and say I am going to be loved requires a certain humility. The paradox is it’s generous to be loved.” They all love a bit of a paradox. That’s just another thing they have in common. Suddenly there’s a change of atmosphere, an adrenalin rush, a palpable jolt. Larry and Edge disperse and Bono tells me, “Tony Blair’s just asked me to do an address at the conference.” I tell him I don’t think he should do that. He looks bemused and tells me that Mandela and Clinton had done this same spot for an international speaker. I tell him that they had everything to gain and nothing to lose, and why would he want to align himself with a party that is now alienating so many people.
He says, “I am happy to stand alongside him and say I believe in him. I think he’s one of the greatest leaders the UK has ever had. He has done extraordinary things for his country, and Gordon Brown is an astonishing man. There has to be applause. So far, it’s my job to give him applause for what he’s done, even though I didn’t agree with the war. He believed in it and isn’t it extraordinary for a British prime minister to do something that was unpopular with the British people and his own cabinet and his Labour base. I believe that he is sincere… But sincerely wrong. But at least it wasn’t appeasement.” He’s on a roll now and there’s no stopping him. I point out that he’s very useful to politicians who want to get the swing vote that they believe rocks with the 18-30 CD buying public. Would he do an address for President Bush at a Republican convention? “Not so close to an election, but I’ve been in photographs to President Bush after he made a commitment to the biggest increase in AIDS assistance for many years. I am not a cheap date, but it’s my job to turn up for the photograph if they’re ready to cut the ribbon.”
It can only get harder to straddle rock icon and political guru. “The band used to beg me not to talk about it in band interviews because they were sure that it was deeply uncool work. They wanted to keep it separate. However, what often is not written about is how they financially support me in this and it hasn’t turned out to be such a bad thing. Although I have had Edge with his head on the table just exasperated,” he concedes. There is no stopping him though. He’s looking a lot wirier than the last time I saw him. He says that he was shaking off his Elvis period. There’s nothing decadent, druggy, fat or Elvis like about him. Even the shades are off, and the eyes are that extraordinary piercing pale blue. They are at the same time ice and heat.
Everything about Bono seems contradictory. He is most at home with lyrics like Crumbs From Your Table which comes over like a bitter lover’s quarrel, but it’s actually about Christendom breaking the promise to the rest of the world. He loves the elliptical protest song. “You can’t get to the heart of the problem unless you get to the heart. This is the boring bit,” he says urgently. “In the 1970s there was a decision by the developed world that they would tithe 0.7 per cent of the GDP to the poorest of the poor, less than one per cent of the national income. It was called the Pearson Commitment after the Canadian Finance Minister who came up with it. Every prosperous country signed on and the 20 years that followed was unimaginable prosperity, and people went, we didn’t know it was going to be that amount of money and renegotiated the deal with God downwards. So how do we feel about the fact the richer we get the less percentage we give? Does that not strike you as a betrayal? It was deeply shocking and disturbing to me, so I’m going to write about that.” More than write about it, he really wants to adjust it. He talks with such clarity, in words that bypass cliche, or pragmatism. It’s a kind of passionate naivety. But he feels things so strongly and shimmers with that it doesn’t surprise me he played Tony Blair’s guitar. “I had to play it because I wanted to check the tuning. I heard he played guitar every day, so I wanted to see if that was true. And it gives me some faith that I picked up the Prime Minister of England’s guitar and it was in tune, he does play it.” He also believes that under his leadership and Gordon’s, he is quick to point every time he mentions Blair’s leadership it comes with “and Gordon’s” that thousands of people in Africa will live rather than die. More people than those thousands who have unacceptably lost their lives in the war.
Enough about Blair. Would you believe he moves on to say how impressed he is with Condoleezza Rice. “I have to say George Bush really did deliver on his promise to getting more help for AIDS in Africa. I was told it would be impossible and unachievable, but it was not. And I have to say I found him very funny. There I am, sitting in his car next to him, in his motorcade, chatting and thinking I could be arguing for the rest of my life with him on lots of subjects, so I just looked at the most powerful man in the free world as he waved at the crowd and I said, ‘So you are pretty popular round here,’ and he goes, ‘It wasn’t always so. See, when I first came here people used to wave at me with one finger.”
It has been suggested many times, Bono, do you want to run for office.
“And I say, I wouldn’t want to move to a smaller house. Horst Köhler said to me, he’s now the President of Germany, he was once the head of the IMF, in our first meeting. ‘So, you make the money, then you develop the conscience, ya.’ I thought that was cool, but I actually had the conscience before I got into the band.” Is that the Pope’s rosary round your neck? “It wore out so Ali had this one made up exactly the same. You see, Bob Geldof did a deal with the Pope. He knew that it would wear out. He asked for two. I didn’t think, but Bob did.” We laugh about that for a while, and he remembers his feet hurt. Of course they do, they walked hundreds of yards over pointy stones. He rubs them a little and the mood has changed as it so often does so quickly. If the record is about faith and fear it’s because Bono is. Love and desire, constantly inhabit him, as does the difference between them. “It’s great when they combine. But sometimes they are very different, love and desire. Love, sex, fear and faith, and all the things that keep us here in the mysterious distance between a man and a woman.” Just when you think you’re having a conversation you’re having a song lyric. That mysterious distance that’s always interested him. “My favourite relationships are always where there is that distance. The desire to occupy a person and know their every broom closet overpowers your sense of respect for who they are or that they have a life outside of yours. Domination of people through love would never have been accepted in our house.”
People have wondered over the years just how and what has been accepted with Mr and Mrs Bono Hewson. Ali is a childhood sweetheart. She has the thickest of thick black hair in a bob. I met her briefly on my first trip out. Friendly, kind of sophisticated, but accessible. Slim but curvy. A pin-up. There was a period six or seven years ago when she threw him out of the house. Reasons were never specified other than she deserved to be a saint to have put up with him for so long. In an invasion of that mysterious distance, for the first time they are going to work together on a project. “It’s a clothing line which will be made using Fair Trade and the developing world. We are lining up with a designer called Rogan who’s brilliant and he’s not an arsehole and he wants to work with us.” Have you ever worked with her before? “No, it came about because I said stop asking other rich people for money and actually create something that people want.” Christof, who is Bono’s housekeeper cum Basque chef, brings us glasses of wine, even though Bono says he is allergic to it, makes him fall asleep. Sleep is definitely something he hasn’t got time for. He asks me if I agree with Freud that sex is the centre of life. He thinks it’s just close to the centre. “It’s an extraordinary thing to relegate this subject to something that’s prurient or humourless or deeply earnest and dull. Look how it is used to sell products.” Sex is pretty fascinating and dominating, do you think that romance is more interesting than sex. “I think sex without romance is, is…” Dull? “No, it’s just not on my radar.” Really? “I can’t say it hasn’t been. You know, there are times when you’ve got to if you’ve been in a long term relationship, so I wouldn’t lie. Actually, I might.” Sex and death, love and desire all weave their way in and out of the melodies that haunt him and in turn he gives to us. “If you want to meditate on life you start with death, right. It’s not that I’m particularly afraid of it. But, you know, when somebody is not there for you there’s a sense of abandonment.” It’s this very abandonment that has created in him the need to bond with the world. “The Maoris have an amazing practise. When somebody dies they sleep with the body then get up and talk to them. They get it all out. I lent you two quid you bastard, how am I going to get it back.” Is that what you feel like saying to your dad? “Yes. He told me the thing I regret the most in my life is that I can’t play the piano. When I was a kid I remember my granny’s piano. My head was lower than the piano. I would put my hand up, find a note, I was really attracted to it. I loved it and I remember when they were selling this piano because my grandfather died. My mother died at my grandfather’s funeral, collapsed at the graveside. He wouldn’t have it in our home. It wouldn’t fit and all his life he regretted not having the piano. He listened to opera all the time but never showed any signs of enjoying it, it was all on the inside. He was impossible to know, just like Ali.” Oh right, you married your dad. “God forbid.” He tells me that he is reliving his own childhood, “Because I’ve got a six year old and you start remembering things, like I’ll sing songs while I’m putting them to bed that I didn’t know I knew the words of.”
And it’s also like he’s rediscovering the loss of his mother through the loss of his father. “Sounds like you feel sorry for me,” he says when he sees me thinking that. “But all rock singers have lost their mothers. There isn’t one that hasn’t. John Lennon, John Lydon, all of them.”
He can always turn a negative to a positive and after you’ve been with him for a while he can see who you are and what you’re thinking. He tells me that if he was a machine he’d be a bulldozer but that I’d be a film projector and that I could never be digital, only analogue.
Afternoon is blending into evening now. It seems like we could have this conversation probing our cores infinitely. He says, “You can exorcise your demons or you can exercise them. And someone described the analysis if it goes wrong as a glass of water with a rusty nail at the bottom. You examine it, you put it back, difference is the water is disturbed and it is dirty. I don’t know what I’ve discovered about myself from analysis. The thing to watch for is navel gazing, and I do have a very nice one, but I think the most of what I’ve learnt about myself you discover in other people.” There’s a song lyric that talks about being loved too much. “No, you can’t love too much. You can’t out give God.” he pauses, “But you should try, I think. That’s a great place to be. That’s where I’d like to spend the rest of my life. I’m not able to live up to it, but I think I try.”
it’s almost time for me to go, but he’s concerned that I think his life is too much of a bubble where no-one disagrees with him. “It’s not just warm and fuzzy, it’s gritty here. You know, working with U2 can be just one big row. Part of the sexiness is the friction. Rock star disease is where you are in the company of people who agree with you all the time… Although personally I might love a bit of that.” At some other point he quips that he needs to be told he’s loved at least a dozen times a day. And he probably is, one way or another.