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

Chrissy Iley & Goldie Hawn
Chrissy Iley & Goldie Hawn

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

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

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

Michelle Williams
Michelle Williams, Sunday Times Magazine, February 2017

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

Shirley MacLaine

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

 

 

John Cleese

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jennifer Saunders

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

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

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

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

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Joanna Lumley

Demi Moore

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

Anjelica Huston

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

Dominic West

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Barbra Streisand (August 21, 2016)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chelsea Handler (Sunday Times Magazine, May 15, 2016)

Everyone has a little bit of Chelsea Handler in them — the bit that can’t suffer fools and likes to make fun of people,the bit that thinks they’ve got something special and should never have to fly economy.Most people don’t know how to unleash their inner Handler.They worry what people will think. Handler has never cared about that. She’s made a career out of making fun of people.

The American comedian, actress, writer, producer and close pal of Jennifer Aniston remains only the second woman to have a US late-night talk show (the first was Joan Rivers). Chelsea Lately aired for nearly eight years on the American channel E! It was compulsive viewing, attracting guests such as Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians,even though Handler was never sycophantic, possibly even a touch cruel. She has written five bestselling books — including 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands and 2008’s Are You There,Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea — and has racked up almost 6m Twitter followers, but she remains relatively unknown in Britain.That’s changing thanks to the four documentaries she has made for Netflix.The series is called Chelsea Does and tackles marriage, Silicon Valley, racism and drugs. The 41-year-old says she learnt a lot. She also reveals a lot: behind her rapier wit, there’s a vulnerable side.

I arrive at her house in Bel Air. It’s modern, comfortably furnished,with arty photos, furry dining room chairs, outside deck and pool. Most surprising is that it seems really lived-in.We go up to her bedroom to talk and sit on opposite couches. She’s wearing ripped jeans and a fawn sweater, no shoes, no make-up, no brush has been through the hair. Her bed is unmade.A pair of Stella McCartney stilettos is discarded on the floor. It turns out McCartney is a good friend and they’d been for a night out recently. She doesn’t mention Aniston.

As well as the documentaries, she’s launched a Netflix talk show, which mixes live action, politics and documentary footage, and it airs three times a week. I ask if Donald Trump will be vain enough to appear. “I doubt it. I’ve been pretty public about calling him an asshole and last week I was in Mexico with a piñata of him. I tied it to a tree and everyone beat the shit out of it.The video went viral. I’d love to have Hillary Clinton on it, I love Hillary.” Chunk, her dog, trots in, fluffy-fresh from the groomer. He’s part chow and part German shepherd; he looks like a teddy bear. Handler calls everything she loves Chunk: her first boyfriend, her mother, who died 10 years ago.“We called each other Chunk.” Her first boyfriend, a Brit called Peter, makes an appearance in the documentary about marriage.They met for the first time in years to be filmed and he revealed that she used to reallywant children. She pooh-poohs his suggestion: “ I love kids most of the time if they are my friends’ or my family’s. He confused that with a desire to have them, which there was not.”

At 41 there still isn’t. On the table in front of her is a green drink.“This is what I have to drink every day, do you want to try it?” I decline.“Dieting is rough, it’s a pain in the ass for everyone.A lot of people in this town just don’t eat.” Does being on TV all of the time make her extra aware? “Yes, and I work out all of the time, and I actually enjoy that, but the dieting is really hard for me. I’m good for a few days and then I go off.” She thinks she might be an alcoholic.“If I don’t drink for more than three nights you can tell in my personality. I just need alcohol in my system . I love alcohol — it makes me happy.”

Handler was 39 when she quit E! because she no longer found her show challenging. For most women, the cusp of 40 isn’t the age when people start afresh; it’s not when confidence is at its highest. But Handler isn’t most women.“Like anything in my career, I like to excel at something and then I’m done and want to be out of my comfort zone. I was bored with the sound of my voice and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful any more. I was bored with these celebrities on rotation. I just thought this has afforded me tons of luxury and access to many things, but it’s not like I’m saving lives. I thought I should be doing something more interesting.”

Cue the documentaries. How did she decide on the four subjects? “It was important for me to do something that everybody is familiar with. Marriage is something everyone can talk about. I never had the desire to be married and I’ve never been interested in that kind of construct. Drugs: I love doing drugs. Racism: I thought, let me see if I can do something serious but with a sense of humour.” In the tech documentary she creates an app.

The racism documentary is emotional, especially when she goes to Jerusalem to speak with the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.“He said,‘Walls are meant to be torn down.’ I loved it when he said that. My father once said,‘When you read a book, even if you don’t like it,there’s always one sentence that should resonate.’That was the line that was really powerful.” Handler’s father appears often in Chelsea Does. He is perhaps the reason she never became someone’s wife; he told her that she wasn’t the type of girl that anyone would marry, which she took as a compliment.

Her father was a used-car salesman and they grew up in a Jewish suburb of New Jersey. Her mother was a Mormon of German descent who converted to Judaism. Handler is the youngest of six, the eldest of whom, her brother Chet, died in a hiking accident when he was 21. Handler couldn’t wait to leave suburbia, so at 19 she was West Coast-bound with a backdrop of determination over tragedy. She thought she would try acting, but ended up waitressing before turning her failed romances into comedy gold. “It was when Peter [the British ex-boyfriend] and I broke up that I started to get good material for stand-up, so I stopped being a waitress.”The day after they split up, she let herself into his apartment to find him in bed with someone else.“I was angry, and when you’re angry, you come up with good stuff.”

In the marriage documentary she also reveals a preference for dating foreign men.Yet two of her most famous exes are American. In 2010 she was briefly with the rapper 50 Cent and in 2013 she dated the hotelier André Balazs, who is behind the London celebrity haunt Chiltern Firehouse. “He’s not anything you’d imagine, but that was just a flash in the pan,” she says of 50 Cent. Was she in love with him? “No!” What about British Pete? “He was my first love.” She says she is “independent and I always wanted to be.That was important to me because both my parents were hot messes.They loved each other, but they had no financial security and it was constantly,‘Don’t answer the phone, it might be a bill collector.’We weren’t poor, but you never knew what was going to happen.”

As the youngest of six, did she have to make her mark? “I think I was born that way, intent on being something bigger. For me, my life was going to begin once I left [New Jersey].When I came here I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I just wanted to be known. As a waitress I got fired from many different places. I went off on people if they were rude.” She asks if I mind if she uses the restroom and do I want to watch her? I don’t.While she is away I notice a plate on her coffee table that says: “Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want.”

Alcohol isn’t her only vice. For the documentary on drugs, she tried the mind-expanding drug ayahuasca. She says she enjoys doing drugs.“Last night I smoked a little pot, went to bed at 8.30pm and woke up at 7am. It was great. I’d rather do that than take a sleeping pill.”

I tell her my theory that women can’t be sexy and good at stand-up. Female comics who do well are often fat, misshapen or unlucky.“I don’t think that’s true,” she says.“I think I’m quite tomboyish — I don’t wear skirts in real life, so why wear one on stage? But it wasn’t hard for me at all.There’s a constant discussion about gender disparity, and of course it exists, but in my experience it’s been a huge advantage to be a woman.” And this is where you see her inner Handlerness, made of titanium.

In 2014 she posed topless on a horse — mirroring the shot of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. She didn’t realise it would cause a stir.Thirty minutes after posting the picture to Instagram, the site removed it, saying she had violated the app’s terms of service. “I was making a joke.The reaction was incredible. Why is a man allowed to ride topless when a woman isn’t? Because we have big breasts? What the f*** is that? I just wanted to highlight its idiocy.”

She says she could never have done anything other than comedy.“If this didn’t work out, I’d have to marry someone really wealthy. I’ve always wanted nice things, and I never want to fly economy again. Ever! And I need to be working to do that and doing something that’s compelling. I don’t have a lot of skill sets, so I have to try and be really good at the only thing I can do.”

She smiles, happy in the knowledge that the thing she can do is all she needs.

Matt Damon

Matt Damon looks like he hasn’t had any sleep. Probably hasn’t. We meet in New York just a few days after his wife Luciana Barroso has given birth to their third daughter together Stella.
He is wearing a grey beanie hat, he hasn’t shaved, a thick grey sweatshirt and heavy jeans and boots. A thick silver wedding band his only jewellery.
“This is my guy just had a baby look. I have changed since then. I showered. Took the kids to school and made it here today. They love the new Stella. I’ve got pictures uploaded of the kids holding her.”
Can I see? “Are you asking a dad if you can see pictures of his kids? Sure,” he purrs. We are here to talk about his new movie Adjustment Bureau – a fantastical romance. It’s part science fiction, part love story. But first we look at the pictures of his family on his phone. On one of them his four-year-old Isabella is holding the new baby and looking very proud. “She looks so excited in that picture. It’s awesome.”
I wonder if ten years ago he had this vision of himself – happy father at 40, content in his personal life, the most bankable actor alive and the most sought after one. It’s hard to imagine that it wasn’t always like that and ten years ago he was worried that after two movies had been commercial failures, Bagger Vance and All The Pretty Horses, he feared a third one would wreck his future on the A-list.
“It’s interesting. Ten years ago Bush was about to steal the election and I was in Paris shooting The Bourne Identity, a movie that would change this whole decade in a huge way. I was very focused on making the movie. In that way I haven’t changed at all if I’m working on a part. So that feels the same.”
Did he really feel that it was three strikes and you’re out? “Yes, Bagger Vance and All The Pretty Horses were just coming out and I was acutely aware that I had to do something. I don’t apologise for those movies. I know why I made them, but more so now you’re really aware of where you are in this business. I think turning 30 there was so much in my life that was unresolved, but turning 40 I didn’t feel anything, there wasn’t a hiccup. I felt wonderful to have an amazing and beautiful wife and children and from a work perspective things going really well.
“Forties is a great time for men in the business, much tougher for women. But from my perspective it was an occasion to celebrate.”
The thirties weren’t just a time of uncertainty in his career. Emotionally they were unsettling too. “I knew intellectually that I wanted to have kids and move on with my life but I couldn’t really imagine it. I just hadn’t met her yet and I was extremely aware of that.”
Now contentment and love glow seeps from his every pore. How has he learnt to balance the level of work he does with down time with his family? “On the one hand I’m most excited and most alive when I’m working on something I love. That feels great. But not to the detriment of my family. I try to have my cake and eat it. For instance working with Clint, he’ll shoot an eight or ten hour day. Which is the regular hours most parents go to work. And I feel it’s a great creative experience and then I’m home with my kids and have a good time with them.”
Last year he made the movie Hereafter directed by Clint Eastwood where he played the part of a medium. Did he visit a medium to get in to that part? “No. if I had a line into someone who I’d heard was great I would have done but I didn’t want to go down the rabbit hole of pretenders. This guy’s relationship is with people on earth and his loneliness. That yearning to have a real connection with another person. So that part was much easier to get into.”
Has he experienced that kind of loneliness and looking for that connection? “I had other relationships that were meaningful and I was very busy so I don’t think I was ever deeply lonely. In retrospect having the wife that I do and the life that I do and the children I can’t imagine living in any other way. But I didn’t feel the absence of that because I didn’t know what it was.”
His character in his new film Adjustment Bureau is a politician who fights his alleged predetermined destiny. He is prepared to risk everything for love. Would he? “Would I risk everything? If you ask most parents a choice between their career and their family I don’t think there’s much of a choice at all.”
One of the movie’s themes questions, is all of life predestined or do you have a chance to make your own destiny? What does he really think? “I am responsible for my life and the decisions I make. Or is it a predetermined course that no matter what I do I’ll be going down? This guy is shown a glimpse of that but he defies it and says he will live with the consequences. It’s like defying Greek gods.
“But do I believe in fate? There are so many things I feel lucky about but at the same time I’m a hard worker and I don’t like to think I didn’t earn anything in my life.”
But does he believe that certain things are meant to be and certain couples are meant to be together? “In the movie I meet Emily Blunt’s character – I catch the bus I wasn’t supposed to catch, and then the higher powers explain the ground rules. I met a girl I’m not supposed to be with but I’m really smitten with this girl and I feel like we’re really meant to be together.”
Is that how he felt about his wife, it was meant to be? “If there is a plan I’m happy with the plan. I feel they’ve intervened on my behalf in a good way. There’s an incredible series of events that took me to meet my wife. When I think of the impact of Lucy on my life and the kids because of a chance meeting.
“The Farrelly brothers were planning to shoot in Hawaii. At the last minute it changed to Miami. If I hadn’t have been in Miami I would never have met her.”
There’s a scene in the movie where there’s a ‘Do I know you?’ moment. When he meets Emily Blunt for the first time it’s as if he already knows her. Was that like it was with Lucy? Did you feel you already knew her? “Yes, not unlike that. I don’t know if it’s me eight years later reimagining it. But I do definitely remember feeling that way.” He nods savouring the moment. And he looks directly at me. He really lets you in.
What has he learnt from living with so many females? “I’ve learnt that we are a completely different species. If one of my friends brings his son over instantly the boy will start playing with a toy in a different way. They’ll smash it against the wall or do some boy thing that I’ll totally relate to and the girls don’t do that. In terms of discipline my wife’s much better at it. If I had a boy I’d be better at disciplining the boy because I understand boys.
“When my four year old was 18 months she was trying to get a treat out of me. I said no and she asked me again and I caved in, and then my wife came into the room and said ‘Isabella’ and Isabella looked up at her mother, shyly smiled and put her head down and I realised that at 18 months old this creature had total control over me. Then I realised men don’t have a chance. I feel we’re such a different species. I am flummoxed by my female counterpart at 18 months old.”
His mother features heavily in his life. Nancy Carlsson-Paige – is an author and college professor who lectures in child psychology . She instilled in him a strong work ethic and encouraged his political awareness.
“I never knew my parents as a couple. They divorced 38 years ago when I was two. They are strong individuals and both present in my life. My mum’s name comes up a lot because she’s a professor of childhood education and people are always asking me if I’m of my mother’s opinion.”
That said his mother comes over as the stronger character. Does he go for a woman who is strong and can take care of herself? “There was something appealing about my wife and that was she didn’t need me. I love that she’s strong. Strength is a wonderful quality for my daughters to see in the most important woman in their life.
“I expect a lot from my daughters. We’re going to parent them as much as we can and hope they are going to contribute to the community. Our 12-year-old (Alexia is Luciana’s daughter from a previous marriage who he has legally adopted her) is a fantastic writer. But their choices are for them to make. There are plenty of ways to get to heaven.”
Does he think there’s a heaven? “I hope so but there’s no way to know till you go up.”
What’s heaven on earth? “I love to be with my family, I love to be with my friends, I love my job. You have to figure how to make the peace and work with your friends and bring your family. My oldest kid and I have been writing a script together based on an idea she had. We’ll see if it’s something she wants to pursue.”
Are you still hoping to have a boy? “No, I still hope to have a marriage. It’s a whole different energy being surrounded by women. I am getting a new perspective on the world that I would have missed if I’d had boys
Traditionally women are meant to be better at compartmentalizing. Has he found that? “Not true for me and my wife. We are both better at doing one thing at a time. We get lost when we have a bunch of things, although she’s better at staying on top of it. I can only do one project at a time. It causes me a lot of anxiety if I’m under pressure in one particular project because it feels very natural to be working out all the problems of that project. There’s a lot of pressure. The day is costing $500,000 and we have to get through that day. And if you say you have to call some people about this and that I am hopeless.”
It’s hard to imagine him being so anxious – he comes across calm, gentle and grounded How does he keep his own life in the glare of Hollywood?
“It’s about not tying your identity to what the business thinks of you. If I fall off that list again I’ll just do what Ben did and find a project and write. We did it with Good Will Hunting out of nowhere. If you want to panic about what people think of you in Hollywood you’re not going to get anywhere. If you know how to write and tell a story you’ll never be replaced. Ben never panicked and he never demanded any kind of status. He was just one of the guys, I’m not doing this, I’ll do this. And it turns out he is a great director.”
He says he is still hoping to direct one day but hasn’t found the right project yet – and he has not slipped from that list so may not find the time either.
What has he learnt about love in the past ten years? “Well I met my wife so everything. The whole world has opened up.”
What has he learned about clothes? “That my wife should dress me.
What has he learned about directors ? He’s known for having special bonds with people like Clint Eastwood and Paul Greengrass and with wanting work with them as often as possible “That there’s a way to do this job and have fun, enjoy this life and not torture yourself.”
What have you learned about your friends? “That it’s tough to keep up with everyone because we’ve all got families. I’ve learnt that I want to do a better job in my forties than my thirties about being in touch.”
What has he learnt about taking care of himself, health regimes? “I exercise better than I used to. I have trouble cutting out all the food that I like. Now I have to start getting ready for movies by preparing earlier. I love food and lots of it, and wine and beer. I could eat a ten course meal pretty much every night if you let me.
“There’s a great philosopher who on her death bed said she would have done three things differently. She would have been nicer to everybody. She would have cared less about what people thought of her, and would have eaten more ice cream. I don’t want to leave this planet thinking that you could have eaten more ice cream.”

Leonard DiCaprio

The last time I was in a room with Leonard DiCaprio was 2001 and it was his kitchen. I was interviewing his then girlfriend, Brazilian gorgeousness Gisele Bündchen. Her Yorkshire terrier was yapping and she was talking non-stop in a dizzying way with demanding eyes, lavish hair. She was warm, volatile, with a sense of entitlement, and Leo was withdrawn, quiet, perhaps a little lost while he was meticulously chopping in the kitchen. He was making food to take over to a friend’s house and kept saying, “Baby, we’re late.” But Baby carried on talking and demanding empinadas. Gisele and the yorkie were going crazy for the tasty meaty morsels. Leo just kept chopping vegetables.

Eventually Gisele drove me home. Joni Mitchell’s California was playing. We both sang. She told me Leo didn’t do karaoke, but life apart from that, life was great with him. It didn’t surprise me at all when they split up. It seemed like they had nothing in common. Leonardo DiCaprio was one of the most famous and perhaps one of the most beautiful men in the world. He could have anything he wanted. He never behaved in a brattish way of course, but he’s only ever dated supermodels, the current one being Israeli Bar Rafaeli.

Seven years on I’m in another room with him, a slightly smoky room at the Beverly Wilshire where he’s doing interviews to promote Body Of Lies, a hard hitting terrorists versus CIA set in the desert Ridley Scott movie; powerful, layered. He’s in a scruffy battered grey T-shirt, jeans, tall. Supposed to be six foot one but looks taller, perhaps because he’s long limbed, perhaps because one expects movie stars to be Tom Cruise sized. He’s not as chunky as the look he adopted for Gangs Of New York, where he gained 30 lbs and they seemed to stay with him in a gravitas I’m grown up sort of way. But he’s oddly powerful looking. The face is heart-shaped, with that I don’t know if I ever need to shave complexion. He looks older and younger than his 34 years.

His eyes are light, light beams even. They look at you in a penetrating way. Perhaps he’s trying to place me, but his eyes dart away again. If he did remember me from his kitchen, which I’m sure he didn’t, he would have been embarrassed, because that was a different Leo then, a lightweight Leo. I don’t want to embarrass him, so I don’t mention it. Instead he’s extremely polite, smiling, although guarded in an extremely subtle way that allows him to be enthusiastic and never hostile.

Body Of Lies also stars Russell Crowe. The last time they were together was in The Quick And The Dead, when he was only 18. This was pre Titanic when DiCaprio was known for his sensitive artsy portrayals as a retarded boy in What’s Eating Gilbert Grape? and being beaten up by his cruel stepfather Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life. “And he had just done Romper Stomper, so we were both very wet behind the ears back then. We were hand picked as two people who had done interesting performances that year. It was our first encounter in being in a big budget film.”

DiCaprio would go on to say how suspicious he became of big budget studio films, but that was after Titanic, which at the time was the biggest budget for a studio film ever and it distorted people’s perception of Leo. He became written off as a cherub faced tragic ruby lipped star that was chased and hounded by teenage girls who might have chased the Jonas Brothers today. His first encounter with Crowe was before they both became ubiquitous.

“He was very cool to me back then and supportive of me as a young actor, and seeing him again after all these years he was still the same guy and he is an even better actor than he was back then. He’s carved out a fantastic career for himself and is known as one of the most committed actors of his generation with some really powerful performances.”

Really, I thought that was you, one of the most committed actors of your generation. He rocks back in his chair and laughs, “Well, you know, people don’t say that sort of thing about themselves.” He’s giggling but part of him knows it’s the truth. He has graduated into heavy weight. Meticulous performances as the obsessive compulsive Howard Hughes in The Aviator (which won him his second Oscar nomination, the first was for Grape) and generally being taken under the wing of Martin Scorsese for Gangs Of New York and The Departed set among the Triads, has earned him gravitas, kudos, applause.

His third Oscar nomination was for Blood Diamond, which he considers a movie which changed things. De Beers certainly had to do some rethinking, and everyone is aware that Leona Lewis doesn’t wear conflict diamonds.

So was the dynamic between you and Crowe the same? Did he still seem mentor? Could he be supportive in the same way? In the film Crowe and DiCaprio are on the same side but at loggerheads with each other and the tension is fascinating.

“It was strange that it hadn’t. It was just like walking into a room 15 years later, even though in 15 years a lot of things have happened to both of us, and a lot of changes have gone on in the world. But I have to say we are both developed as actors, we both have more experience under our belts, and there was a different way in which we conversed in that period and now in terms of arguing our characters points back and forth. I don’t think we did that back then. Not that we didn’t take it seriously, but we never had that type of responsibility that we do now, so yes, I noticed the difference in that regard for sure. I knew he was going to be like that because you can see it up there in the screen in all the work he does. He is very committed.”

He says the word committed as if he treasures that word, as if it is the highest accolade. DiCaprio was of course in the past thoughtful, hyper sensitive even, but through movie choices, taking risks in lower budget movies that were considered failures like The Beach and The Man In The Iron Mask, and the controversial Blood Diamond, and making his own eco statement in The Eleventh Hour, he gets to earn the moniker very committed too. Certainly for Body Of Lies there is no possibility of being a lightweight. It was a long tough shoot shot mostly in the desert. It involved several months in Morocco posing as Jordan.

“I had a very hard shoot, very rough. I’ve done a lot of action sequences before, but this is a Ridley Scott movie. I did a lot of my own stunts, not all of them. You are always moving locations at lightening speed. At any given second Ridley Scott would come in and say, ‘I want a helicopter come in and shoot two missiles and I want that to be on camera and I want to have a surveillance camera 2,000 feet in the air shooting on top of your head’. At some points you really don’t know what’s going to happen. It’s a huge adrenalin rush for you as an actor because you have to be prepared dramatically to have any given scene changed at any moment. It makes you trust your instincts more. It makes you delve deep into yourself. The better you know your character the better you know how he would react in any scenario, and Ridley will throw curveballs constantly. He is editing seven different cameras at the same time and then he’ll say, ‘I don’t believe that. I don’t care how much we’ve talked about this scene, it’s not coming across, so I’m going to change everything’. He’s a very run and gun director. He likes to keep up the pace of a film unlike any director I’ve met. You’d better be prepared for anything. Someone like Scorsese I suppose is a lot more meticulous in the way he sets things up. He’s very specific and take a lot of time with each angle.”

Working with Scott to be much more adrenalin based. The pace of the film is fast and unyielding and there’s one scene where he’s being tortured at the end where I could hardly breathe. “Good,” he exclaims, looking like the cat’s had the cream. “I had a problem with that scene, so I’m glad it worked for you. It’s been written that I had a problem with the dust, but it wasn’t the dust I got sick from, it was that scene. It was a pivotal point in the whole movie. It was make or break.”

The scene in which DiCaprio is caught and tortured is graphic. So real I couldn’t finish looking at it. “If that scene didn’t work it hinged on everything else about the movie and the movie couldn’t sustain itself. I knew it was one of the most important scenes in the movie. We needed to make it important, pertinent and controversial. I spoke to ex-heads of the CIA about what my character would be doing and how he would be handling himself. Because so much hinged on it I had almost a physical breakdown at the end of it. So a lot of what you see on the film is my breaking point. I physically collapsed for a few days after that. Yes, I got sick, but not because of the dust. It was because of the intensity of it.”

One of the themes of the movie is truth. Who you trust. Who you tell the truth to. Who you give a version of the truth. And who you lie to. So, who would he lie to and why? “Intrinsically an organisation like the CIA relies on secrecy. It is about covert operations, so we’re doing a movie about modern day CIA operations and practises. I think we got as close as we could get on how the United States operates on this war of terror.”

He makes no attempt to answer this question as a personal one. But the answer is long and articulate and important. It makes it difficult to interrupt. The theme that you cannot trust terrorists and that you also cannot trust Americans.

“That is very symbolic of the truth. You have this character that is in a deceitful world trying to catch the enemy that he could never trust. But it is a dirty ugly war. He’s trying to hold on to a semblance of morality and a belief in his country while his country is letting him down simultaneously, and ironically he’s starting to trust people that are while not exactly the enemy, but aren’t the people he’s beholden to. You have to start thinking out of the box. He starts to question his patriotism, what he stands for morally. This character is not somebody who is either good or bad. He is trying to hold on to a certain belief system that is lost.”

And then you realise that he probably is talking about himself. When you ask him about Bush or Palin he is not at all equivocal. His anti-Palin rants are legendary. He says simply, “I hope that Barak Obama wins because I haven’t been happy with the last eight years and that has been reflected in the polls. It is not secret that the Bush administration and the way they handled not only the war on terror but everything else has only a ten per cent approval rating. So yes, I can only hope for Barak Obama. For a brilliant mind to come in and change everything. It is a scary world that the United States has ventured into. And Barak Obama can come in and set this country on a different course.”

You get the impression that while many Hollywood stars might sell a photo of their baby and sell its proceeds for an eco charity, might at the same time enjoy a film studio’s Lear jet to be at their personal disposal, you can’t fault Leo or his eco credentials. He drives what he calls a golf cart car, a Prius, and made the eco movie The Eleventh Hour, an extensively detailed documentary about our planet in crisis. He cares “about human beings regarding this planet as a service station, but the earth should be cherished for future generations.” He is at the helm of two diametrically opposed worlds; the greed, instant gratification and materialism of Hollywood and the impassioned environmentalist. But he pulls it off and he’s good at it. For instance he once stole a journalist’s tape recorder just after they’d both ordered lunch but when the hack went to make a phone call and he babbled on to it that he shouldn’t be eating hamburgers, even though he himself had ordered one, because the methane gas cows release is the number one contributor to the ozone layer. But you can’t have tuna either because the nets capture innocent little dolphins. He was being jokey but serious at the same time. He doesn’t mean it to preach. He meant to be quite gentle in his earnestness. As well as all this he has remnants of Hollywood bad boy that liked to throw horse shit at Italian paparazzi, hang out in after hours bars with gaggles of models wearing tiny outfits. The contradictions all work to make him human. That’s why he relished the idea of playing a character that was neither a hero or a villain.

He laughs. “Of course it was so much easier to play someone caught in a moral web, who tries to manipulate people as best he can, but he knows he is also being manipulated. He goes on a personal journey where he realises that he is not part of any specific nationality any more. It’s not about nationality. It’s about what’s right or wrong for him.

“When you are given an opportunity to make a film about what’s very much on the consciousness of the general public, like Body Of Lies, and I would put Blood Diamond in the same category, of course you jump at these opportunities. Blood Diamond shed a different light on the diamond trade.”

I would like to think, as Leo believes, that Body Of Lies, would shed a different light upon the war on terror. It came out in the US already in a very bad week that involved the Wall Street crash and had to settle for third place in the movie charts where the box office was topped with Beverly Hills Chihuahua. In a crisis people don’t see why there’s a crisis, they want to escape it. Quarantine, a cheaply made horror film was in second place. Still DiCaprio argues gamely, “I know historically at some point in time we are going to look back at this type of movie and it will reflect the period and make people really think what was going on in that time period.”

Ridley Scott, for all his nuanced multi-layered brilliance, is not in vogue at the moment. One imagines that DiCaprio will have greater success with Sam Mendes’ Revolutionary Road which reunites him with Kate Winslet but without the Celine Dion soundtrack and gallons of water. It is a haunting, gnawing movie derived from the novel by Richard Yates. It is set in the mid Fifties, post World War II, but pre Mad Men. The revolution was a long way off. Winslet and DiCaprio’s relationship is sour, thwarted, spiralling. They play a young married couple, Frank and April Wheeler, who find themselves trapped in suburbia, trapped by the social confines of their lives, of their time. Frank Wheeler is a man with a meaningless job who has lost his nerve and lost his way. April – Winslet – is a trapped housewife, homemaker, who wants to go to Paris and be bohemian, but finds herself pregnant with a third baby.

It resonates with DiCaprio because “What is the American dream supposed to be? And how similar are we now to that era in a lot of ways? It’s about two people going crazy in that kind of environment. Being stripped of their identity and feeling they are living a life of cliches. What gravitates me towards it was that it’s very reflected of the United States moral position in the 1950s and this is where we still hinge ourselves morally, how we view our family, our fundamentals, and also I am a huge fan of Kate and Sam.”

He seems already uneasy that working with Kate again conjures up Titanic. After Titanic his life changed. He couldn’t go out without a million girls chasing him screaming. He hated that effect. He turned down everything big box office after it. Said no Anakin Skywalker, American Psycho, Heath Ledger’s part in The Patriot, and Spiderman which turned his best friend Tobey Maguire into a star. He feared it.

“It was never my intention to have my image shown around the world.” Or barbers in Afghanistan arrested as they enraged the Taliban by offering a Leo DiCaprio style haircut labelled ‘The Titanic’. When he was travelling through Europe, at the airport in Paris, a teenager grabbed his leg and pressed her head into it, clutching desperately as if she were about to sink her teeth into it. He would say, “What are you doing sweetheart?” And he looked at her and tried to grab her face trying to tell her if she would get off his leg he would talk to her, but she wouldn’t leave and the incident horrified him and left him marked. He wanted to be an actor, not a celebrity. He didn’t do any movies at all for a couple of years because he was said to be suffering from ‘post-Titanic distress syndrome’. The kind of fame where everyone wants to talk to you but nobody wants to listen to what you’ve got to say.

“The moves that I’m doing now are the movies that I’ve always wanted to do. If when I was younger I’d had these opportunities I’d have done them in a heartbeat. But you don’t always get the opportunity to make films that you have a kinship to when you’re starting off. I took some time off after Titanic because I needed to let the dust settle so to speak and recharge my battery. I felt OK, I’ve been given a tremendous opportunity, what are you going to do with it? Now your name can finance movies that you do want to do. That wasn’t something that I wanted to squander. I wanted to wait until I felt I could really contribute something that had the kind of edge that I’d always been looking for since I started.” Although these films might have had edge without box office, the combined effect was to make Leo an almost impossible combination, an edgy Hollywood star. “Of course after Titanic there were a lot of offers of films like that, but it was very easy to turn those movies down.”

His character in Revolutionary Road might be his best bet for an Oscar win yet. He seems to light up when he talks about his darkness. “It’s a film about the disintegration of a relationship. We’re putting a smile on our face and doing all the things you should be doing in a loving relationship, but the darker side is taking over. It’s people who are holding on to their love in circumstances that are ripping apart. I’m more attracted to doing that sort of thing these days because things in this world they aren’t easy, they’re very complicated.”

You wonder if his relationship with Bar Rafaeli is uncomplicated. He is a scorpio with libra rising. “That means I’m trying to balance the passionate dark insane parts of scorpio the best I can, and I think I’m doing a pretty good job.”

DiCaprio started off strangely shy around women. He says, “I’ve always been a slow starter. My first date was with a girl called Cessi. We had a beautiful relationship over the phone all summer and then when we met I couldn’t look her in the eye.” He doesn’t seem to look many people in the eye directly for long, but that hasn’t stopped him romancing Kate Moss, Helena Christensen, Eva Herzigova, and Amber Valletta.

He says that he would love to have a wife he feels comfortable with. He says that he wants a kid “someday”. We have to skirt borders very carefully when talking about intimate things. There’s never a froideur that comes up, but you know he doesn’t want to be defined by his relationships with supermodels. For a long time he would take his mum to premieres instead of an inamorata. He’s never liked to talk about his girlfriends, be pictured with them, or give tantalising details away because that would feed the paparazzi, who have made him miserable. Instead he’s one of those actors who feels, “Defining yourself to the public on a consistent basis is death to a performer. The more you define who you are personally the less you are able to submerge into the characters you do and people will think I don’t buy him in that role.”

Instead the image we have of him is amorphic, a bad boy superhero, soulful but likes to party, committed to his work but not necessarily to his long-term girlfriends. He once said his ideal wife would be one who was independent, who wouldn’t mind if he went off to Alaska at a moment’s notice with his friends. Robert De Niro is his friend. Not the kind of hanging out with friend, but the friend who recommended him to Martin Scorsese. “I was humbled by that. De Niro/Scorsese is my generation’s choice of greatest actor director dynamic. It is to the previous ones Brando/Kazan.” He has completed three movies with Scorsese, Gangs of New York, Aviator, Departed, and is about to start a fourth, Shutter Island. They are muse and mentor. “I have so much respect for him. Who doesn’t, you know?”

Scorsese had to wait years for his Oscar. Does he himself mind missing out three times? “I would say this. I have a theory. We all have our personal choices of who we think should win, but there are certain times you look back at the movie that won that year and you think how was that humanly possible?”

Sometimes people get the Oscar for the wrong movie. They get it because the Academy was guilty because they recognised they gave it to the wrong person last year. ‘Yes, but the Academy is about recognising someone who is deservant (sic) or not. I am not feverishly hunting one down. I am trying to do the best work I possibly can and making movies that will have resonance for years to come. I think you can never dictate what you want people to think. If you control that you lose connection from the audience. I think if you try for an Oscar or a goal like that, the more people are going to see it as transparent. It’s not on my radar. If it happens great, but I’m happy to continue working as I am, really.”

He is happy being an active person. “Life’s too short to be lazy and passive and I don’t like to stay in one environment for too long and get set in one way of thinking. I love to travel, get involved in different environmental projects. Stimulate myself. I couldn’t be more miserable when I don’t have anything to engage in.”

It’s been written that you like to be on your own a lot. “No. I think I’m more of a people person.” Is it true that you have the same set of about ten really good friends that you grew up with because you don’t need new friends and never lose old ones? “Mm,” he considers. “I suppose, yes. I do have about ten really good friends. But the fact I don’t have new ones is not true.”

He was born on November 11th, 1974 in East Hollywood. His mother, German born Irmelin, split from his father George, a comic book artist, when their son was about a year old. His father, a Hollywood bohemian, has had a distinctive influence on his mind and career, to always think out of the box. His father was part of the underground comic book scene and hippie movement. He was acquaintances with Charles Bukowski. He still has friends from his childhood. “It’s true that you don’t necessarily know who to trust. People who are celebrities are shrouded in mystery. You don’t know if they’re good people or not. Generally, people in the arts are good people. When you work on movies you go, what’s that actor like? This is my opinion of them. I am almost always proven wrong. You realise they are completely normal people. You hear horror stories of people’s reputations. You think they might be arrogant or self-righteous. But the majority of people I’ve met who do movies are not. They are conscious people who don’t have this side that the public attach on to them. Jack Nicholson said, ‘By the very nature of being well know you meet more people in an average week’. Because you are constantly having interactions with people in that regard it makes you hold on to the people you know and trust. But at the same time I try to keep an open mind because there are a lot of fascinating people out there. Being an environmentalist and also doing this business opens me up to entirely different worlds and I love to juggle those things.” So it seems there are two entirely contradicting Leo: shy, untrusting circumspect Leo and gregarious up for anything. He’s been careful to display both so I’ll never pin him down as one or the other. He’s answered everything, but not very exactly. But he’s played a perfect game. He keeps you smiling and he’s laughing even. He doesn’t let you get too close but he doesn’t let you notice the distance.

Jennifer Lopez

Jennifer Lopez is in a simple dress, long bare legs outstretched in front of her. Her voice is creaky with a chest infection, her eyes bleary. But her work ethic is as strong as it was back in the Bronx days she immortalised in her 2001 hit ‘Jenny From the Block’. It’s been a long time – and many blocks – since the tough, determined girl born to Puerto Rican parents danced her way around Manhattan as a backing singer for the likes of Janet Jackson and Paula Abdul, and there seem to have been many Jennys since then too.

We are in a sunny Beverly Hills hotel room. It is not a suite. There are no Diptyque candles. And the thread count on the bed linen is probably not more than 420. It certainly doesn’t meet the stipulations she was alleged to have demanded of her accommodation when she was J Lo the diva, who routinely rode in Bentley convertibles with her fiancé Ben Affleck, or went to gangsta-style clubs with her partner of two and a half years Sean Combs (P Diddy), and was chased by paparazzi.

Life is quieter now, with her husband of five years, Latin singer Marc Anthony, and two-year-old twins Emme and Max, but it’s certainly not simpler.

‘I just did two 24-hour flights back to back for a party in Kazakhstan that I had to perform at.’ Was it worth it? ‘I wouldn’t have gone otherwise. Totally.’ The result is that she’s feeling exhausted and fluey, but she’s a trouper. She’s known worse (such as the trauma of cancelling her wedding to Ben Affleck hours before it was due to take place in 2003).

Her life has certainly changed pace. And her new movie The Back-Up Plan reflects that. It’s about a woman who decides that she doesn’t want to miss out on having children even though she doesn’t have a boyfriend. So she plans to have IVF and a baby on her own, and on the same day as the treatment she meets a man with the kind of romantic possibilities that she’d given up on. They fall in love and everything happens in reverse. Instead of romance, proposal, marriage, baby, it’s – she’s already pregnant with somebody else’s baby, then romance, then relationship.

The movie is cutting-edge funny and a return to form for Jennifer. ‘It couldn’t be more perfect,’ she says, ‘the whole idea, in a romantic comedy, that the pregnancy is the obstacle. It’s always, “Oh, my boyfriend can’t commit, I can’t commit, I’m in love with my best friend.” But this story seemed to me to be about a real problem. “Are you going to take on this child? Is it OK to ask somebody to do that?”

Does she think she would have used IVF to get pregnant if she hadn’t met the right man? She shakes her head. ‘It takes a lot of bravery to have a child on your own. I have a girlfriend who did it and I really admire her. Especially knowing how much help you need. It’s a lot to be a working mum and think, I’m OK on my own. I would like to think that I’m strong enough to do that, but honestly, I don’t know if I could.’ Several aspects of pregnancy come across.

In the movie she gets pregnant with twins – how much like real life is that? ‘Well, that’s very real life. I loved it. The woman who wrote it had just gone through a pregnancy, so it was all very fresh in her mind. And it was very fresh for me – the twins were about a year old.’

Several aspects of pregnancy come across in the movie as funny, gross, horrendous, embarrassing. Were they aspects she related to? ‘All of it. I wanted to put as much in as we could that was real: the overeating, the burping. Why not? It’s funny too. Pregnancy and giving birth are weird, strange. The growing life inside you – it’s like an invasion of the body snatchers.’

Jennifer did not have IVF herself. ‘A lot of people thought I did because I had twins, but what they don’t realise is that when you are over 35 the chance of twins increases, especially if they are in your family, and they are in mine. I was 37 when I got pregnant, so I had both factors going on.’ She knew she was having twins at seven weeks. ‘I didn’t believe I was pregnant, even though I had taken a pregnancy test. The plus sign didn’t look dark enough and I kept thinking that maybe it wasn’t a good test, so I called the doctor, who said I should come in and check. And then she said, “Oh, it looks like you’re having twins.” It was a big shock.’

But also a joy. Jennifer had been broody for years. Almost as soon as she got together with Marc (in 2004, a few months after the broken engagement with Affleck and after Marc’s separation from his first wife, former Miss Universe Dayanara Torres), she realised that their relationship was more bonded and grounded than previous affairs; they came from a similar place, both in touch with their Latin roots. The turbulence that had defined her love life with Affleck and Combs gave way to something else. She had already been married twice, first in 1997 to waiter Ojani Noa (an 11-month marriage that was eclipsed by her huge success with George Clooney in Out of Sight) and then in 2001 to dancer Cris Judd, whom she hoped would provide her with the mix of stability and edge she needed (they divorced in 2003, after Jennifer got involved with Affleck). But with Marc, she says, ‘it was the type of relationship that you dream about. You get to the point where you realise what’s real and what you are imagining to be there. It takes a lot of looking and getting past the disappointments.’ With Marc it seemed right to start a family.

How has she changed since becoming a mother? ‘I think it calms you down a little bit, even though you have less sleep. Everything is at hyper speed, which puts things into perspective: this is important, this is not important, this is something that can wait, this is something I need to take care of. You speed up your decision-making process and you prioritise in a different way.’ Jennifer redefined the way women think about their curves by never being afraid to display her tiny waist and wide, full derrière. She was used to having a dancer’s body – flexible, toned, sculpted. Losing that must have been difficult. ‘Yeah, I do remember distinctly when you don’t fit into your clothes any more. At first it’s cute when you have a little bump. You wear big sweaters. Then one day your jeans don’t fit and you think, oh no, it’s happening. I was on tour until I was six months pregnant, so I didn’t grow the way I would have if I had been sitting at home, but once I was just sitting around, that’s when I got really big.’ How long did it take her to get her body back afterwards? ‘A while, a year. Six months afterwards, I did the Nautica Malibu triathlon and I was still 16lb overweight. Over the next six months I got it back.’ Was there a strict regime? ‘No. I don’t get too crazy any more. There was a time when I really worked out, but I was never manic about it. I did what I could. I’ve got good genes. But I care less now.’

In the movie, her character Zoe craves junk food all the time. ‘I’m not a junk food person. I like food, though. And you do feel very hungry. Your body is asking for food. The baby is asking for food. It’s like a factory. That’s why I made the decision when I was eight months pregnant to do the triathlon after I had the babies. I wanted to know I was the same person as before I had them. I wanted to be that person more than ever for my babies. I wanted them to be proud of me. I wanted them to think, “I’ve got a special mum, she was amazing, look what she did!” I didn’t want to lose my ambition and drive to do amazing things.’

She always defined who she was by how hard she could work and how much she could love. How does she still work so hard and fit that in with the demands of motherhood? ‘I want to be the best at that too. I want to just do it all. When we travel we travel with the babies. I try to rehearse in the house. I’ve adjusted my life so that I can spend as much time with them there. I’m lucky to have that luxury so I’m going to use it to the fullest.’

Is she ready for another baby yet? ‘No. I think I just need to work right now. I do want another baby, because once you have one you realise what a blessing it is; what an amazing miracle and how much they enrich your life. But you still have to be an individual.’

Do the twins have a special connection? ‘They do. Max is always climbing out of his cot to get in Emme’s. But then they fight like cat and dog. And I’ve figured out the difference between men and women by seeing their innate characteristics. She is very careful, and you can see her thinking; men don’t think, they attack and deal with the consequences. We approach life and love in different ways.’

‘He is still that, and I’m the biggest challenge that he’s ever had to deal with, and that’s what keeps it interesting for us both. John Cassavetes [the director and actor] once said that he and Gena Rowlands battled their whole marriage. There was an intensity in their relationship. He said that in some ways they both knew that if the battle was over the.

Her own love life used to be like a roller coaster – enormous highs of passion with lows of betrayal. How does that translate into her relationship with Marc? Did she suddenly settle and find that stability suited her?

‘For all the stability we provide for each other, Marc and I are both artists. We both like intensity. We are both very passionate, and that still exists in our relationship. If we didn’t have that it would be boring. Too boring for me.’

She once told me that her perfect type of man was not a straightforward bad boy but a boy who was a perfect mixture of hard and soft. A little bit stubborn, a little bit of a challenge; you had to work to get to the sweet bit. Does Marc fit into that ideal? Is he still that? Hard and soft? relationship was over. They cared enough to battle.

‘People seem to think that when there’s conflict in a relationship it’s always a bad thing, but I think you need a challenge. The dynamic between us is passionate and that’s why it works. We are compatible, but at the same time we are different enough to make it interesting.’

I tell her that I’ve read a couple of stories recently that said they are different enough to be splitting up. Has she read those? ‘Of course. It doesn’t really matter to me. We know what’s true.’

Jennifer’s relationship with fame has completely changed since the early days. She used to think success equalled fame, which meant a constant accompaniment of paparazzi and tabloid fever. Then she realised artistic credibility came from getting on with it and headlines didn’t make a relationship work. But she’s used to controversy, to stories spiralling out of control, and seems pretty unflustered by it.

She hasn’t read the story about her first husband selling their wedding photos, she says (although there have been reports in the press that she’s suing him over it). ‘Somebody asked me about it recently but I didn’t see it. I’m not in touch with him at all.’ Is that your decision or his? ‘It’s just your life goes into different chapters. It’s like the first grade. You just get past it.’

What she doesn’t want to get past is the experience of love. All the different kinds of love she’s had – fierce, warm, treacherous; how to keep love going; how to stub it out if it’s bad. ‘I’m putting all that into a new album called Love?, because I still find love very confusing and challenging. I also feel it’s time to open up the dialogue about what that word ‘love’ means, what do people do in love? Should we have better standards in love, [agree that] it’s not OK to be dishonest, to cheat, or be pointlessly cruel?’

Isn’t it becoming more and more difficult to juggle children, acting, music? Does she feel she should decide to go in one direction?

‘Oh no, I’m not ready to do that.’ What about the crop of new girls that are storming the charts – does she feel threatened by them? ‘No, I love all the girls out there now – Beyoncé, Rihanna, Carrie Underwood, Pink – all of them. I don’t feel in competition with them. I just want to be me. And that’s always been good enough.’

Was reaching 40 last year a watershed birthday? ‘It was the best party of my life and the best year so far.’ So she doesn’t worry about body parts moving in the wrong direction? ‘Not yet.

Somebody told me 45 is when that stuff happens. So maybe I can hold on for a while.’ What she’s really holding on for at the moment is a small part on the hit TV show Glee. ‘I’d just like to do an appearance because I love the show so much. It’s one of my favourites.’ But as well as her new movie, her new album and her ambitions for television, her social life in Miami is pretty full-on. Her husband owns part of the Miami Dolphins American football team, and they are also soccer fans and friendly with the Beckhams. Victoria commented recently that they were the same dress size. Jennifer’s eyes widen in shock at this. ‘I don’t think I could fit into her dresses. She’s a tiny thing,’ she says. ‘But she could certainly fit into mine.’

 

Jennifer Lopez

 

Helen Mirren

There is no doubt about it. Helen Mirren has a simmering sexual presence. Hot and cold, withdrawn and flirty, disciplined and out of control. She tells me when we meet in her hotel suite she’s just eaten eight croissants. She says it as if she’s rather impressed with herself. She says it without guilt, but kind of licking her lips.

I’d just seen her in the children’s adventure movie Inkheart. It’s about what happens when you have the ability to make characters from books come to life. She plays an eccentric aunt who rides a motorcycle very fast. Lady Godiva hair swirling in the breeze. She says she took the part for that bike ride.

Was it hard to learn to ride it? She looked extremely comfortable on it. “Well I didn’t have to learn because I already had a motorbike when I was in my early twenties. So I thought I don’t care what else happens, I want to be on that motorbike again.” What happened to your own motorbike? “Mm, it was a bit of a disaster. I got it when I was in Stratford because I needed transport and I thought it would be cool, and also cheap, because I couldn’t afford a car. But it wasn’t cheap because you have to buy all the clothes.”

You imagine Mirren in her leathers. Striking. “The major problem was when you stop at a light you can’t balance, so you have to put one foot down and hold the bike up.” She stands up and straddles as if riding a bike to demonstrate. She’s wearing a cotton suit in milky beige and a white T-shirt. As she bends down the skirt stretches over her bottom and thigh. Extremely tight.

“I wasn’t strong enough, so every traffic light I would absolutely topple over. I had it for three or four months and thought, this is not working out. But on the movie set I could just go and stop and someone would hold up the bike. It was lovely.”

Since her Oscar she has worked steadily and variably, thus avoiding the Halle Berry curse of Oscar – everything you take on flops and your career backtracks. She was twice Tony nominated for plays on Broadway; for Turgenev’s A Month In The Country in 1995 and with Sir Ian McKellen in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death in 2002. Is now about to start filming The Tempest. Reconnected with her Russian roots doing Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station about Tolstoy’s last days with Christopher Plummer. And she’s been working with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (Officer And A Gentleman, and Oscar nominated Ray). Lots of zig-zagging the planet. I tell her I’ve just arrived from Los Angeles. She wants me to have a croissant. “Because when you’re jet lagged you feel entitled to absolutely anything, don’t you.”

She wants to know why I live in Los Angeles and London. She wants to ask me many questions. Not as an aversion technique as some interviewees enjoy rather than talking about themselves, but because she seems curious. engaged, alert, curious. “My husband’s film is called Love Ranch. It’s a brothel in Nevada in the Seventies,” she says with a glint, an ever so tiny glint, but nonetheless a perceptible glint of naughtiness in her eye.

Are you a madam? “Yes, of course. I’m not one of the old girls,” she laughs. Well you might be, I say, knowing very many people who would definitely pay to have sex with her. “Although they do it for a long time and funny enough the older prostitutes are the most popular.” Because they are experienced? “No, it’s because the guys think they are user friendly. They are comfortable with them so they don’t feel intimidated. And guys who go to brothels are obviously not the most successful guys in the world sexually, so that’s what they need. It’s all about not being intimidated,” she says managing to seem intimidating and inviting all at once.

I don’t think she was born this much of a sexual being. I think she earned it with confidence, with wit, with intelligence. You look at her face. It’s so animated. You see her feeling everything. Sure there are lines, but it’s not the lines you notice. It’s not the age, which is 63. You just think she’s hot and not hot for her age.

Was it fun to work with your husband? “It was lovely to go home at night and be with my husband,” she corrects. “Working with him I have to say was not easy. My husband in work mode is not the easiest of people, although a lot of people absolutely adore working with him. But because I have the emotional connection with him I would get upset if he was shouting, not at me, but at someone else demanding something. I would be seeing it from their point of view. I would find myself rushing around trying to mop up after him.” Then she backtracks and contradicts herself as she is prone to do. “But it was great. I love the fact that he got the film together and he created a wonderful role for me. But you know, husbands and wives don’t need to work together. We are professional people in our own worlds. There’s nothing I love more than going to my husband’s set and being his wife. But this, it mixes the roles up. It either gets too cosy, which is not a good thing, because it’s not very creative. Or it gets the opposite…” Which sounds like it was with you. “Yes. He didn’t make me cry, but he made me very cross.”

Perhaps the secret of their longevity was the fact they hadn’t worked together since 1986 when they met on the set of White Knights. Mirren once told me it was because they came together late, as fully formed people. They eventually married in the Scottish Highlands in December 1997. “We came to each other grown-up, professionally formed. I was in my late thirties and I just so aligned to him. We were generous to each other and loyal in terms of each other’s work.”

Before that she had intoxicating love affairs with photographer James Wedge, who liked to experiment with sexuality in his images, and actors Nicol Williamson and Liam Neeson. The latter told me how much he adored her because she taught him sophistication and how to eat prawns. There’s only a hint that she wasn’t always as well put together as she seems today.

She says she cries easily when it’s with pleasure. We both cried at the Inkheart movie’s happy ending. “I always cry at peculiar times. For example, I weep openly if I see a parade, or people marching down the middle of the road, especially if they’re dressed up in their best. I think it’s because they’re trying so hard. Spelling Bees make me cry. Marching bands with drums, I’m in bits. The Olympics made me cry.” She puzzles, “Isn’t that strange?”

What is also strange is the fact after the year that she collected her Emmy for playing Det.Supt. Jane Tennison in stripper shoes and a Marilyn dress, her Golden Globe and Oscar for her emotionally hemmed in performance of The Queen, is that she should want to follow it with a children’s movie and play an aunt who doesn’t really like children. Is that like her? Does she like children?

“I’ve never been hugely maternal, but I’ve always loved children as an aunt, a naughty aunt. I’m very happy to be able to give children back to their parents… Not that I’ve actually ever been alone with them.” She’s never wanted to have children of her own. She decided that when she saw a movie at convent school when she was about 13 of a woman giving birth. “Out of our whole class there must have been more than me who was traumatised by it. To this day it was horrific and it gave me an absolute horror of childbirth. We had no mention of sex in my school, even in biology. They just avoided that subject. So they herded us all together into a room with other girls the same age, and boys, and this dykey woman in tweeds and short grey hair said, ‘What you are about to see is a miracle’. And this film starts and it’s a midwives instructional film. There was no sound, just the camera going whirrrr, and words would come up at the bottom: Now prepare the rubber sheet. The lights came up at the end and every kid was white and sick and silent. The boys couldn’t look at the girls and the girls couldn’t look at the boys.”

So there it was, a pivotal moment in the young Helen’s life. She was destined never to be a mother and never to mind about it. I wonder if this adds to her particular kind of sexual omniverousness. I tell her that my boxing trainer, who used to be in the Army, used to have her picture as a pin up, as did several of his soldier mates. He said, ‘Everybody in the army fancied her. We all had posters up because the thing about her, even though she was older, she was never going to be your mum.’ She laughs fulsomely and then says, “But this must have been years ago?” Yes, but he still fancies you. “Oh, fabulous. And he’s absolutely right. I was never going to be anyone’s mum or grandmother. But you know I can dig that beautiful earth mother thing, feeding the masses. I’m thinking of Nigella Lawson. Does she have children?” She does. “Do you know what I mean. She’s sort of gorgeously fertile. I think that’s sexy.”

Mirren is looking at me in an intriguing and intrigued way. And I ask her, have you ever done girl on girl, had a lesbian thing? “I actually won my first Emmy for something called Losing Chase. Kyra Sedgwick and me fell in love with each other, and it was a lovely piece about women loving women.” Was it a stretch? “What, for me to love a woman? No, because I do love women. In my heart of hearts I love women more than I love men. I mean, sexuality aside, I am heterosexual.” Then she pauses to rewind. “I guess I’m heterosexual. I loved my friend that I had at college because there was a sense of camaraderie and physical closeness that doesn’t have to be sexual.”

I wonder, Mirren is quite a tease. In her last interview she talked about how much she liked to take cocaine at parties. Only stopped when she realised that Klaus Barbie was living off the proceeds of others who made their money from cocaine in South America. Then she told Piers Morgan in GQ that she’d been raped and never bothered to report it. I wonder why she’s now telling me she loves women, but telling me in such a naughty way. I tell her that I’m glad she loves women. “In general more than men.” But I was reading one of her interviews where she had requested that the interview be with a man because she gets on better with men. Was that true then? Did she change her mind?

“Well, it was a man who did the interview.” Perhaps he just wanted to believe that? “No, I think it’s more that I prefer male journalists because there’s a streak of female journalism – the bitches – I have no idea whether you are part of this particular movement. This bitchy mean-spirited and nasty because you are another woman and want to make you feel crap. It’s very upsetting. I must say I’m more careful when I’m being interviewed by a woman because I know from experience as well as reading articles with other women I know there is a little stiletto knife hidden behind the back.” She’s laughing as she’s sizing me up. But I think she’s right. On the whole women don’t like other women because women are more competitive with each other than men. It’s all about having the best shoes, the best boy, the smallest size of jeans.

She says, “If there was a rape case the courts in defence of a man would select as many women as they can for the jury because women go against women. Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, coming back billions of years, that sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know. But other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I would think of is that they were sexually jealous.”

We’ve gone from loving women to hating women in just a few seconds. But that only makes me like her more. And I reveal to her that I used to have a recurring dream that I was in a court explaining that I’d been raped and dykey woman of the jury were saying it was my fault. “Yes. That is terribly unfair. And that used to happen, didn’t it, in those days.” She says this with concern and perhaps even empathy. She’s said in the past that when she was forced to have sex against her will it was the lethal result of a combination of feminism, not wanting to be victim, and innocence of not knowing how not to be a victim. She has said that it wasn’t about just saying no because the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. When you see Mirren as vulnerable, it skews your judgement of her and you understand all those layers of confidence that have appeared over the years and how they could be torn away very quickly.

Did she learn to be more confrontational and direct with people? “No, I am not confrontational at all. I think I met a great guy and then I met another great guy, and had a series of fantastic relationships with nice men.” And that cured you from the bad boys who disrespected you? “Yes. Up until that point I was thinking that men were horrible, all horrible; they were boring, boorish, vulgar, they were unplesant, they were selfish and arrogant and prices. And then I met a guy who was funny and lovely to me and I loved him. That was Ken, my first boyfriend. I learnt from wonderful men, wonderful relationships. They gave me support and made me feel good and they made me laugh. And now I think men are absolutely great.”

Do you think your early experience of feeling so antipathetic towards men is that you didn’t know very many because you went to an all girls school? “Yes, absolutely. And the generation I grew up in. But I don’t blame it. But I was 18 years old, suddenly in London, and I’d never been out past 11 o’clock at night before. I never thought I will never have sex till I get married because I never wanted to get married. So sex was on the cards but I wanted it to be incredibly romantic. I decided it had to be snowing.” And was it? “No, of course not. It was probably a disgusting rainy night, but I can’t remember.”

Was it with some random boy? “Yes.” Did you ever see him again? “I don’t want to talk about that. Sorry.” Suddenly the air is thick with imaginary needles of pain. What did you learn from that experience? “I didn’t learn anything. I learn from the positive not from the negative, but I do believe in getting on with it, taking responsibility for yourself and not blaming other people is an incredibly important thing.” This is key to Mirren’s mystical sexuality. She can be vulnerable, but she’s never going to be the victim. That is extremely attractive.

“But I’m not particularly competent actually in terms of answering phone calls, getting things done. I put on a good game. So to people like you I look incredibly self-confident and on top of everything.” You mean you are acting? “Yes, kind of.” You are acting in this interview? “Kind of. Sometimes I blow it. I’m certainly incredibly vulnerable as far as my career is concerned. I’m full of self doubt.” But you’ve got an Oscar now. Surely that says don’t doubt it. “It doesn’t stop you getting up and having to do it again.”

Suddenly I notice her tattoo, a little naive star on her hand. She did it on impulse in an Indian reservation in Minnesota. “Many years ago. I just wanted the tattoo and I was a bit of a bohemian. I got it at a time when women did not have tattoos. Now girls are covered in them, like Amy Winehouse.”

The tattoo is not particularly pretty, but it’s a symbol of her going against the grain and a kind of fearlessness despite the self-doubt. A psychic once told heer she wouldn’t have success till her fifties, which absolutely devastated her at the time. She was born and brought up in Southend-on-Sea. She was the daughter of a taxi driver whose father had come as an emissary from Russia to buy arms during the Russo-Japanese War in 1917. He was unable to return home because the Bolshevik revolution had started. The Bolsheviks confiscated the family’s estate and he was to be forever separated from his seven sisters who remained in drastically reduced circumstances. Her Russian name that she was born with is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. She made an emotional pilgramage last year to the family’s old estate in Russia and the family Gzhatsk near the city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow, and she’s always had a passion for Russian roles. Her recent Tolstoy story being particularly resonant.

In the beginning of her career she felt marginalised by being blonde and big breasted. She felt dismissed. Perhaps that’s why she could play the frumpy queen and the tired Det. Supt. Tennison so comfortably. She knew she wasn’t just about that and she was confident of her own sexiness anyway, she didn’t a role to prop up her sexuality, although she played plenty of those sirens too. She’s been Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth and naked a slew of times, notably in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and then in Calendar Girls.

“As you get older naked stuff gets easier because it’s more to do with the role than what the men in the audience are thinking. There’s a liberation about it.

You imagine to be so confident about her body she is extremely attentive with workouts and healthy regimes. “No, I’m very lazy. I go through phases of exercising. You know, if you start getting puffy when you go upstairs I will force myself back into minimalistic exercise. I am a great believer in the Canadian Air Force exercises because they only take 15 minutes.”

How do you feel that the world loves you in your bikini? “I feel very lucky. I looked at those pictures and thought, ‘I wish I looked like that’ because I don’t look like that at all, they’d just been taken at a great angle. The next day I started exercising because I thought if I exercise maybe I’ll look like that.”

Have you ever felt the pressure to look a certain way for a part? “No, but I’ve done it to myself. I mean, actors are always on a diet. It’s lovely to get a great role. Then you think, oh, I’ve got to go on a diet. My whole life I’ve basically gone backwards and forwards the same 10lbs. I can wear clothes from 20 years ago. At my thinnest I’m a couple of pounds under nine stone, and at my fattest I’m a few pounds under ten stone. I’ve gone through many diets that are also very boring. You stop eating and that’s what makes you lose weight, not eating. But as you get older, losing weight doesn’t make your body look better, don’t you think.” I tell her I’ve never been a few pounds under weight, so I wouldn’t know. Then she tells me that I’m gorgeous. And then I say no, and then she says “Yes,” and then I’m embarrassed and change the subject to Russell Brand who is the latest younger boy to talk about how much he fancies her.

“I don’t know if I fancy him. I haven’t met him yet. I’ll decide when I do. Talent is sexy. I love that alertness. I think Frank Skinner has it, and Jonathan Ross and has it, and they are a little bit radical. I love those guys, and Russell Brand is definitely one of them.” So she concedes she might fancy him.

All the men that have been in her life have had one link. “They have all loved boxing. So through various men I have watched a lot of boxing. I do love the human drama of it.” When she’s not talking about working with Hackford she talks softly about him. She talks about building things, like their flat in New York, and like,. “The ruin we are renovating in Italy. It’s going to take up all of our spare time until we are too old and too poor to live in it… But it’s incredible fun.”

In Inkheart some of the characters who have escaped from books have the book written all over them. If she had to have a book written all over her, what would it be? “I would have verses from the Song of Solomon, which is so beautiful. I would want beautiful things written on me that people could read and go wow.” She beams mesmerisingly. As I get up to go she stops me and says, “And thank you for the view?” I blush, because I’ve just come back from LA I was jetlagged, couldn’t find any clean underwear so I didn’t wear any. I was wearing a tight skirt, I didn’t think she’d notice. But she did. “When you sat down and when you got up.” I think she’s a minx for making sure I knew she’d seen it. She laughs with a laugh that’s very naughty.

 

 

Emily Blunt

Glorious day Soho House LA. I’m sat on a balcony table when I see Emily Blunt approach. I greet her with a friendly hug, one of those I-know-you-because-you’re-so-familiar recognitions; that bitchy secretary in Devil Wears Prada; that spoilt rebellious girl with a girl crush in My Summer Of Love; the princess in Gulliver’s Travels; and more recently as Matt Damon’s star crossed lover in The Adjustment Bureau and her instantly recognisable chipper tones in Gnomeo and Juliet.
We both look at each other wondering why we just hugged each other. Strangely it didn’t feel empty. Blunt is in grey skinny jeans, a bashed up black T-shirt, bare faced but for mascara. She looks toned, lean, and like she’s just spent a few hours with Tracy Anderson’s DVD, but not her whole life.
She’s fully living in LA with her actor husband John Krasinski, the handsome one who was in the US version of The Office. “I love LA,” she says. “If you’re an actor you have these rather accelerated friendships with people you work with, so that stops it being a daunting alienating time. You can go into a restaurant and have that annoying acting thing of going ‘Oh I know you because of what I do’, so even if the initial hug has a certain flair of insincerity you are quickly able to strike up a conversation,” she says doing that penetrating, knowing stare for a millisecond.
“When I first came to LA I experienced the bloodbath of auditions. Summer Of Love had been made but not out. Weirdly, that’s the only film that I’ve done that I would recommend for people to see which is strange as I’ve got no clothes on for most of it, so it does seem strange to encourage people to see me barely dressed. You guys like girl on girl? I’ve got just the film,” she laughs, a pared down naughty laugh.
Her look may be LA but her manners are definitely self-deprecating English. Despite her award nominations for Prada, The Young Victoria and Gideon’s Daughter, she never takes anything for granted. “The job is very precarious. There’s an irrational insecurity that doesn’t go away. I don’t want to be in a situation where I’ve become casual about it.”
Indeed, Blunt is always on top of her game. She’d never cast herself as just the girlfriend or wife facilitating a leading man’s box office. She’s always gone for the strange, the clever, the neurotic. She’d rather take a small role and make it her own. “People like to label you but it’s important to mix it up and hopefully play other people that people like seeing you do. I still panic about work. You can usually find something, but you want to find something that makes your heart skip a beat. It’s not that I want to play weirdos, just people who have got some kind of conflict and a sense of purpose.”
Hence she is the feistiest Juliet ever in Gnomeo and Juliet, an animated 3D garden gnome version of the Shakespeare classic set to Elton John songs.
“You get Benny and the Jets, one of my all time favourite songs.” She starts singing “B-B-Benny and the Jets.”
“You have to be the worst over actor of all time to do animation. You don’t see anyone’s face apart from the director’s, so I would show up in my pyjamas.”
They made Juliet look a bit like her. “They filmed me and they copy your facial expressions. It’s awful when people make you aware of the ticks you have.
“They wanted to make me a tough Juliet. She’s not a victim. I made her more of a tomboy. I made her not too posh and accessible.”
And she’s a gnome with a chubby face, no waistline and no costume change for the whole movie, so no dieting for this role. I’ve read that she had to starve herself to play Vogue secretary in Prada. “I was 22 then so it was easier to keep weight off.She was supposed to be emaciated. She was starving, that’s why she was desperate.
“Things change when you hit 27 (28 on Feb 23). When I did Adjustment Bureau last year (where she played a ballet dancer) I had to be really thin again and it was hell. I also had to get ripped at the gym.”
She had to learn how to dance. “| lasted two days of ballet when I was four. I cried and said it hurt my feet. At the beginning there was some keenness to hire a dancer. I said to the director I think you need an actor to do it. He said if you work your arse off I’ll let you do it and literally my arse almost fell off. Six days a week I had eight weeks prep, I did two hours dance a day and an hour and a half in the gym. A strict diet, muesli in the morning, chicken salad, some fish and some sushi. It’s an endurance test to work like that, but these dancers are athletes, in order to play one you really have to live the life of an athlete. It was interesting to live the physical life of the character and there was an element of understanding her more. She was all about the work and strong. I did contemporary ballet and they are very strong and muscly.”
Did that make her feel powerful? “Yes,” she brightens, “I felt invigorated all the time. I definitely pulled muscles and threw things out and there’s a pain that comes with it when your muscles are just screaming because you’re so tired. Essentially you feel this robust energy going through you, which is a new feeling. I’ve always worked out, but not like that. Over Christmas I did a month of binge.” Certainly it doesn’t show. She puts that down to a couple of weeks of Bikram yoga. She orders fish taco and hummus.
“I love to cook and I love to eat. I make a great Thai green curry and a great roast chicken. I do it all the time, obsessively. It relaxes me and I get zen’d out. I go into a meditative state and I don’t want anyone helping me. My mother said trying to cook for four kids every day was just agony.”
Blunt grew up in Roehampton, south west London, the second eldest of four. Would she want four kids? “I don’t know. Probably not. It’s a lot isn’t it.” It wouldn’t surprise me though. There’s something very old-fashioned and capable about Blunt.
The Adjustment Bureau is part science-fiction thriller part romance based on a Philip K. Dick story. It’s about destiny and true love and can you change the course of it.
“Two people meet and they have an electric connection, as you do when you meet that person you feel you’re meant to be with. They meet and it’s instantaneous, they want to be with each other. They seem to have a secret language from the get go. Then comes the sci-fi element who are seen as big brother who can effectively manipulate people’s paths in life. Matt’s character finds out about this system and he wants to beat it to be with her, but the Adjustment Bureau are trying to keep them apart because the theory is she is enough for him. The relationship is fulfilling enough so he will not further his career and she won’t go on to do what she does and that will have a knock-on effect.”
Do you think it’s possible that if you are with someone that’s enough for you? “Yes, I think it is a possibility.”
Has she ever felt that, that she is in a relationship and not driven to do anything else? “Well, I am in a relationship that’s incredibly fulfilled and it’s just the best thing ever. I don’t think it makes me less driven, I think it makes me more confident on the drive.”
Does she mean it provides a core of stability from which she can flourish? “Absolutely, I think when you’re happy in a relationship it subconsciously gives you more than you realise.”
You wonder if it caused tension with her husband when she had to get passionate on film with Matt Damon? “It comes with the job. By that time Matt and I had become friends and I got to know his wife Lucy. I laughed the whole time because it’s so embarrassing to kiss somebody who is your friend. And there’s nothing sexy about it.”
Does she think that the premise of the movie is true, that there is such a thing as destiny? “I think you know very early on and I have always been a subscriber to fate. I look back on a number of things that have happened to me and wonder if what would have happened if something had directed me in a slightly different route. Would I have ever met this person? I am grateful for where these strange near misses have taken me.”
For instance had she never met Anne Hathaway she would never have introduced her to her husband? “Er, I don’t know where that came from.” I’ve read it many times. “It’s definitely not true. John didn’t know Annie when we first met.” So how did you and John meet? “I try never to talk about it. I feel I need to keep that for us.”
She falters when she says this because in many ways she’s a very open person. Perhaps it’s because she felt she said too much about Michael Bublé. They were together three years until July 2008 when they broke off suddenly. She even sang on his album Call Me Irresponsible and he wrote the love song Everything for her.
Does she think she’s ever going to sing again? “Probably not. In the shower maybe. ‘
She blushes at the mention of his name, ever so slightly. Is it a blush or is it just the sun? “He’s a good guy but I’m not in touch with him any more. It’s a weird thing bringing up exes. It’s weird when I’m married. It seems a long time ago.” Weirder than kissing Matt Damon? “Ha. It’s all weird. It’s a weird life for sure.”

Harrison Ford

You hear that Harrison Ford is not an easy man to be in a room with. Combative as an interviewee, defensive as a person, you read that he is pernickety, challenging, brusque, that he interrogates every question. He doesn’t want to give anything away. He holds a great weight inside of himself. That is part of his charisma.

I am in the beachy luxury of the old Spanish style hotel Casa del Mar in Santa Monica, chosen no doubt because he lives nearby, to be in a room with him. It’s a shock. He’s more sexy in the flesh. His face more rugged and real. He smiles a crooked but welcoming smile. His black shirt skims a taut stomach. No paunchiness, lots of working out. Age will not wither him. His hair is thick and in a ruffled crop. I tell him how much better he looks than the night before when I saw him on TV at the Academy Awards.

“Less well dressed,” he offers in his low rasping almost gravel whisper. More handsome, better hair. “What was wrong with my hair last night?” he says bringing out Mr Defensive. “It’s the same. It’s freshly washed. Nothing different.” He’s so easily offended by a compliment. Suspicious of everything already, but in a charming way. There’s an eruption of uneasiness and gentleness at the same time. Something taut and controlled as well as something wild. That’s often what he brings to his heroic roles.

He’s most known as being the hero. That’s what he’s good at, mixing ordinariness, even haplessness, with luck and strength that comes out of nowhere. The winner against all odds. He’s not showy or glossy. He doesn’t package or sell himself. He once said empathy was not a talent but a disposition. All of the above may have combined to make him one of the best paid heroes of all time. His combined films have grossed over $1 billion and he is the only actor to have made over $100 million for each decade that he’s worked. And here he is, about to reprise his most famous hero, indefatigable archeologist Indiana Jones, the role that first moved him to the super league of actors in 1981. The trilogy has been one of the biggest grossing box office takes of all time.

He’s good at being a hero. He does it so effortlessly with such laconic restraint, better at being a hero or a president than a romancer. But of course he’s done all of those things. What’s it like for him to be reviving the devil in his eyes role of Indiana Jones, 27 years after his first raid. The man who was voted sexiest alive as a thirtysomething surely finds different challenges as a sixtysomething? He is now 65.

He looks at me with yellow grey eyes. They fix a stare, reminding me of the stare he fixed on Kelly McGillis in Witness where she played an Amish woman. He stared at her knowing she wasn’t supposed to be stared at and managed to make it overtly sexy. “I like your hair too,” he says, although you see the circles of his mind rhythmically turning as he’s thinking how to correctly answer how time passes yet a hero remains the same. You see him measuring the rhythm of his sentence in his head before he says it.

His staring makes me feel the silence with the same question, slightly different. Does he feel a different kind of hero? Does he feel different about doing all the intense physical stuff?

“No,” he says. “It was fun. I was never so interested in the heroic part of it. This guy is an extraordinary character with an active imagination that’s just involved in a chain of events where some elements twist into something else…” He seems to like the stress, the haplessness. Indiana Jones, like Harrison Ford, doesn’t like to take credit or blame. He likes to just do the job.

“We didn’t shoot it like a Matrix style where if you hit somebody they end up in this big space and you didn’t feel the hurt, you don’t feel the fear. I feel you very quickly lose emotional connection with the character if it’s like that. We are more old school. I feel as fit as I did 20 years ago. They have figured out new things in safety so myself and the stunt man can do more. For instance when you see a car and a bus converging and we are in the middle on a motorcycle we are on a thin wire with a special harness…” He goes on, and on. He worked with the stunt men not they instead of him.

Do you have a thrill of doing those things? “No,” he says, pause, “It’s just fun. There’s not a lot of CGI, it’s mostly done with real physicality, real sets, some things put to scale.”

You ride motorbikes anyway, don’t you? “Yes,” he says, distracted, not wanting to talk about his own macho moments. Or maybe just his own moments. “But I don’t drag through the stuff he does. The fun is figuring out how to do it safely and survivable, the things that are outside your normal range of experience.”

He uses the phrase a few times, “Outside of your experience” as if for him that’s the excitement of the journey, to be outside of himself, a release. You ask why, when he so obviously loves his Indiana Jones persona and to make these movies, did it take so long? The last film was 19 years ago. “We started talking about it 15 years ago and over that period of time three scripts have been produced. It took the three of us, George (Lucas), Steven (Spielberg) and I to commit to course and none of us was fully satisfied with what was produced and then we were all doing different things.”

He shrugs as if there was no tension in that disagreement, as if it’s perfectly normal to reprise a role two decades apart. Over the years there have been other heroes and villains. Most successfully, Air Force One, The Fugitive, Patriot Games. Most critically acclaimed Bladerunner. He can do comedy as long as he’s not being too funny; Working Girl. There was the uncomfortable romcom Six Days Seven Nights with Anne Heche and the miscast Sabrina. And the super scary What Lies Beneath – taut sex scenes with Michelle Pfeiffer.

He is never raunchy. Always intrepid but never with a sense of entitlement. He usually does decency better than devious, but he can manage that too. It has been said that it’s his ordinariness that is so winning. But there’s far too much tangible conflict going on inside him for me to buy into that.

He’s never made an independent movie. He once said, “I simply have no particular yearning to do the same work for less money.” He once referred to his audiences as “my customers”. He grew up in the nondescript suburb of Des Plaines, Chicago. He left with his new wife when he was 22 to come to Hollywood. He had a small contract as an actor which he had to supplement with other work, mostly as a carpenter. After struggle came super money and the expectation that now Indiana Jones IV will be the biggest money maker of the year. Bringing all the players back together was obviously a big deal. He is resolute not to be ruffled by that or explain the ways in which they all couldn’t agree. Or perhaps he just wants to enjoy the moment of being back on the ride, escaping disaster, being outside of his experience.

He seems to study how not to even move an eyebrow when he tells me about a stunt that almost went wrong, that involved driving a military vehicle through a wall that was rigged with explosives. “It was supposed to look like the car was causing the wall to fly through the air and that I was driving through it, but it came just a millisecond before I went through… And I looked down and right next to me on the seat there’s this big-assed box of explosives that had survived. If it had gone off it would have caused a stitchable.” He uses the term stitchables as in cut as shorthand as if he’s old friends with stitchables.

“I didn’t get hurt on this one at all. I’ve got war wounds but they are all athletic or stupid, not because of a heroic willingness to endure pain or take risks.”

His most defining scar is across his chin, a great gash which has never

been homogenised by any cosmetic surgeon. It came from driving into a telegraph pole which somehow makes it more real, a different kind of heroic. “It was stupid. I was on my way to work in the knick knack and oil painting department of Bullocks department store. I was on this twisty Laurel Canyon road when I realised I had my seat belt off. It was an old Volvo coupe. The seat belt was hung on a peg over your shoulder. As I was fumbling to get it off the peg I ran off the road, hit a kerb, went up on two wheels and crashed into a telephone pole. I got this from the steering wheel on my way through the windshield. That was not heroic, it was stupid. Heroes are people who rush into burning buildings, who throw themselves on a grenade, who save starving people, who selflessly devote themselves to others.”

He looks at me closing his mouth to a full pout as if to stress that’s not him. He’s not up to that job. You sense that this is a man who doesn’t want to disappoint. In fact his life has been propelled by a dread of that. Don’t build me up and I can’t let you down. ” I’ve never had lofty goals – I just do the best job I can..” he once said.

There’s an insecurity about him that pulls you in, that translates on screen to vulnerability inside toughness, like a thread that runs through his work; daredevil hero, conflicted president, brain damaged lawyer, frantic husband or thwarted lover. He doesn’t like to be seen to try too hard. His sentences and movements are all purposeful, sparse. There is a heaviness around him that may come over on screen as strength and solidity, but as he rocks awkwardly in his chair you wonder if it’s not damage. He’s sitting so far forward I can see the label inside his black shirt, Theory. Not middle aged Brooks Brothers or pretentious Prada, but middle youth Theory.

He seems to feel me thinking about his vulnerability. “If the person you play behaves heroically they also have to humility and vulnerability and be deep enough in the shit of it all to have to save themselves. That’s a character I prefer to play, a guy who’s in over his head, who survives because of his tenacity, or his wit, or his dumb luck. That’s more interesting.”

Tenacity is interesting. “I think it is.” Is that him? Is that how he is? He smiles a long slow smile. He said the word tenacity with a strange kind of pride, wilfully dismissing any other of his talents. “I certainly have tenacity and in enough force to measure out through not just the last 15 or so years but the apprenticeship before I made enough money before I was able to say I was a full-time actor.” I don’t know why he said 15 years when he’s been a full-time actor for 30, but he’s just lost track of time.

It was a long time before he could say he was a full-time actor. He approached it with hands-on hard work, no over intellectualised method acting. He’s not the kind of actor who acts from the head or does it as therapy. It’s a different set of instincts. More from the body and heart. He has been dismissive of acting as therapy in the past, the idea that playing someone else gives you the chance of getting some emotional exercise. “I am not an unbridled fan of therapy,” he once said. Of course he’s not because he doesn’t like to explain himself. He’s all about the withholding. He’s cancerian. Hard on the outside, delicate flesh on the in, but choosing carefully who he might want to know that. The last person he would choose would be himself. Nonetheless he is emotionally present, even if he doesn’t want you to think he is. He never drifts off. He is very much on, alert, astute, assessing every second. Extremely driven at all times, even if he’s not sure where he’s going.

His first marriage was perhaps the casualty of this drive, or perhaps he was just too young. He married Mary Marquadt in 1964, a cheerleader he met in high school. He had dropped out of the University of Wisconsin in favour of pursuing the Hollywood dream, or at least his version of it, which seemed to be rather a domestic one. They had two children to support, Ben, now a renowned Los Angeleno chef, 40, and Willard, 37. After working at Bullocks he became a carpenter, a good carpenter who like a Hollywood fairytale was rediscovered as an actor when he was cabinet making for George Lucas. He put him first in American Graffiti then Star Wars, and that was the start of the accidental hero trajectory, the one that fits in so well on screen and so uncomfortably off.

There are many interviews in the past where he has said the biggest regret was the failure of his first marriage. But that was before the second one had failed also. He has commented, “Sometimes I think I have been a better actor than husband or father. I had to leave my family behind in order to make money for us to eat.” Mary Marquadt now suffers from MS and doesn’t believe that he was a bad husband. In a recent interview she talked about how Ford still more than provides for her financially. “Harrison has been a true friend and a great love. He has stood by me quietly asking for nothing in return through my darkest days.”

It is impossible to imagine that Ford was not conflicted if not tortured when both marriages fell apart. He met his second wife, ET screenwriter Melissa Mathison when she was an executive assistant on Apocalypse Now in 1979. They were married for 17 years. They have a son Malcolm, 21, and daughter, Georgia, 16. Much of the marriage was spent in Jackson, Wyoming. He rebuilt woodland and redirected trout streams. They watched eagles. He was labelled reclusive and quiet family man. He was out of the public eye and enjoyed that. The marriage floundered. There was a separation, a brief reunion and a divorce. The disruption of it must have been hard for him as this is a man who also talked about not liking his furniture to be moved even a few inches. He depends on what is solid.

Colin Farrell said recently if he wasn’t an actor he’d be a carpenter because he likes making things. Is there a link between building a character and an apprenticeship in carpentry? His eyes sparkle, he moves from a nervous hunched position in his chair to a welcoming open one. He likes this question. “I think so. I think it’s a way to organise your thinking around something, making something. It is gratifying to take a piece of lumber and make it into something else, knowing that you had this idea and made this idea manifest. It’s the same thing with acting, you take these disparate bits and put them together and make this character. It’s purpose built to serve the story, just like you build a piece of furniture for utility. It’s a practical mindset that many actors have, not all. But there’s a strain that runs all the way down from me to Olivier who had this similar sense. We all have to find our own way but it’s interesting when you discover that others have the same idea of it as a craft rather than some strange artistic process that is not available to any but the most gifted of us. It’s a hard slug sometimes. You have to know what you’re doing and why you are doing it and that you are in service to an idea, a conversation between you and the audience. It’s always about the story,” he says loving the idea that he is lost in something bigger than himself.

Has he ever ever not been able to find a way in, had actors block? “No. It’s always been fun for me. It used to be more difficult because I had less of a sense of how to work with people to gain the kind of confidence and understanding that allows you to help them.” In other words being an actor taught him how to be.

“You have to learn about people to make it work.” Were you naturally good with people growing up I say, guessing that he was cripplingly shy, awkward and self-contained. “No,” he says looking at me with the grey yellow staring eyes again, sometimes so wounded, sometimes so combative. He knows that I must have read he was bullied at school. That boys took him up to the top of the hill, beat him up, then rolled him down.

“I wasn’t very sociable. In fact one of the things that I found in acting was something I could do with people because I didn’t like competitive sports, teams, so there was nothing…” the voice trails. Does he mean acting was a way of dealing with people but not actually being yourself, but a self you could make available to other people. “Yeh, that’s part of it as well. But also something slightly different. I discovered I could scare the bejesus out of people, but my own knees were knocking. I couldn’t control my own emotions even when I was pretending, so it was a matter of self-discipline, doing something that at times scared me and then I found I actually loved working. I loved stories and this is my way to being part of a group of storytellers. I felt the power of the story, the power of literature, identifying elemental themes, the things that concern us all, then disguising it in a revelation of plot and characters, and then I thought, shit, this is it, this is the stuff of life, give me a piece of this,” he says beaming, twinkling, theatrical even, but affecting.

“I was working with a group of people and it was the first time I found a sense of community in my life, in a culture that I was part of.” His hands lay open on his jeans. His soul now seems open. That element of fear that he talks about and overcoming it, learning from it, is that what still drives him? “No.” He is comfortable in his pause. What is he afraid of tackling? “Nothing really. I enjoy the performing up until the point they ask me to sing,” he laughs. “I’m not interested in being scared any more. When you get scared you close up and it’s all about opening up,” he says as if I should know, opening up is what’s been hardest and scariest for him as opposed to knowing how to protect himself.

What about the notion that if you are afraid of something you should do it anyway, it’s good for you? “I don’t identify with those things,” he says sternly. He has a way of shrinking you instantly, making you feel bad for talking to him in T-shirt slogan psychology. He corrects, “I would fear going to war but I don’t have any reason for doing that. I would fear going into a fire, and I’m not going to do that.”

The silence becomes awkward again, filled with unasked questions and a rearranging of barriers. He wobbles about in his chair. It makes a noise – clack, clack, clack. His black shirt skims his body in an interesting way showing off his shape which is lithe and strong. He looks good not just for 65, but just good. He holds back his emotions in such an obvious way; anger, pain, self righteousness, and fear of being judged are all set out there in front of us. Now he is sitting in a squashed up position doing something strange and tense with his arm, almost pushing himself back on it. His eyes dart the room and then back to me. He’s looking at me to see what I’m looking at, perhaps testing if I am going to look away first. I don’t. He softens. “I’m not afraid of flying for instance because I’ve learned to fly and I was taught properly in stages. People think that my attraction to it might be for the thrill or I might be into things like that for the speed or the thrill. I’m not so crazy about that. What I’m interested in is understanding what the risks are, mitigating them by having the required skills, practising those skills, planning the event and knowing where the danger is.” Pretty much his reasoning for dangerous acting, working with the stuntman, not CGI.

Does he feel afraid when other people are flying the plane? “Oh,” he smiles, “I far prefer to fly myself. I’m not afraid but I’m a do it yourself kind of guy.” He is a cocktail of insecurity and fearlessness. You imagine that he was reared with emotional low maintenance. That must have taken its toll and left gaps that will go forever unnurtured. Does he still have his ranch? I imagined him there tromping through the woods, through the mountains in conversation with only himself.

“I have what they refer to as a ranch. I have a piece of land in Jackson, Wyoming, that is largely forest rather than cleared for pasture. It’s full of wildlife and streams and the like. It’s on the Snake River and it’s much the same as it was 150 years ago,” he says dreamily. “It’s in the mountains and it’s…” His voice stops. Do you spend much time there? “I don’t now because I have a seven year old in first grade, so we are nailed to the school schedule and she is doing a series in television that is very successful, so she has to be here.”

The she is Calista Flockhart, his girlfriend since meeting at the 2002 Golden Globe Awards. He had never seen an episode of Ally McBeal. The neurotic lawyer and her pin thinness had made her extremely famous. Much was made of the fact she was 22 years younger, although she looks more womanly now. They have been together six years and though the barbs may have softened against them, you feel that they’ll forever be scratching in his head. People didn’t seem to accept them as a couple. It wasn’t what they would have imagined, but a few years prior to Calista, people were shocked to find Ford drinking tequila slammers, he was pictured in nightclubs or strip joints and once was even said to have a woman’s bra on his head. Perhaps it was because people had him down as boringly trustworthy, a grafter, not a player.

Wasn’t that the real time of terror? Wasn’t it frightening to change his life by stepping into a new relationship? “No. It’s exciting exploring new relationships. I had been out of the relationship business for a couple of years when we met, except for relationships with my kids that is. I hadn’t had a serious relationship…” There’s a pause as if he might be thinking of a different way to put that. “As an actor I’ve always taken risks. I open myself up to possibilities.” Those possibilities came after a long phase of being out on the town. Suddenly here he was in public, a man who had always loved anonymity. There were reports of flings with Minnie Driver and Lara Flynn Boyle, who inspired the phrase ‘lollypop lady’ because her head was too big for her tiny body. He inherited her from Jack Nicholson and seemed to be enjoying releasing his inner Jack on the world. Isn’t that the time that people refer to as his mid-life crisis I ask.

“I don’t know what the fuck they are talking about. I went out more since there was no reason to stay at home. Not a big deal. I think they were looking for some new development to introduce into the Harrison Ford story, so they went for that and the appearance of an earring was enough for them to generate the whole mid-life crisis thing.” Yes, indeed reams were written about the small and black glittering thing that still sits in his ear.

He could have got a tattoo or something like that? “No I couldn’t because then I wouldn’t be able to be buried in the Jewish cemetery.” But he is not Jewish. “I’m half Jewish. My mother. And that’s the half that makes you Jewish. But I don’t want a tattoo anyway. The earring came after I had lunch with a couple of buddies – Jimmy Buffet, the singer, and Ed Bradley, the guy from 60 Minutes. Both had earrings, pirates the both of them.” he likes that word pirate. He smiles conspiratorially as he says it. “I walked away from lunch saying you know what, I’m going to get my ears pierced, just to piss people off. And I went down to the first jewellery store on Madison Avenue that offered to punch a hole in your ear for the price of an earring and suddenly I had one.” I admire its glitteringness. “It doesn’t much matter to me, but I liked it a little bit that people say wait a second, what’s going on. Although I don’t go out of my way to get people to comment,” he says, and stops, realising he has contradicted himself saying he loves attention, he hates it. He loves the woods, he likes the parties. He particularly liked the idea that such a tiny thing could orchestrate huge hysteria.

I tell him I like the idea that someone who embraces a riven masculinity could introduce something to his persona that’s a little feminine and a little camp. He looks uncomfortable, pauses, laughs, first of all nervously, and then wickedly as he says. “I think I was introducing the naughty.” And here we see what is perhaps the most natural Harrison Ford, the playful. Who would Indiana Jones be if he were not playful. He continues, “Those two buggers were genuine pirates. They were brilliant. Ed had to wear a suit to work and he had this big assed earring and you weren’t supposed to do that if you were on 60 Minutes. That’s what I liked. It was a little tiny case of being a rebel.” Was that new for him to rebel? “Oh no. I think I always had the rebel, I just didn’t have the earring.”

If you had a superpower what would it be? “I would love to be invisible.” Yeh, of course you would. We laugh. “Yeh, that’s problematic, isn’t it.” You wonder about the premier action hero, one of the biggest grossing actors of all time and his desire to be invisible. I’m sure the real Ford has been concealed, buried, mutated within Indiana Jones and all the others – all the brave ones. Perhaps that’s where he went to be invisible. “Perhaps,” he says. By now though he’s not looking tortured or stiff. He’s funny and easy to be in the room with. “Don’t you think it would be great to have that super power? I wouldn’t use it just to sneak into changing rooms. I would be able to observe human nature without being observed.” Would he sneak into changing rooms as well? He laughs. “I don’t know if my earring would be invisible.” We imagine the little dot swooping around the changing room and women trying to swat him like a fly. “I’d like to fly too. Everyone has flying dreams. They are the most spectacular. Have you seen those guys who wear squirrel suits. It’s a suit that has a web here,” he points to under his arms and between his legs. “They jump off mountains. I would never do that. I like having engines.”

The conversation has wound itself back to engines and action and I turn it back into something more interior. When he’s in a relationship does he like to observe but not really known himself, I ask? “It looks like we are running out of time,” he says deadpan. The publicist has been in and out several times now to end it. But he has been enjoying himself he says. Two more questions, I say, one simple, one less. “Let’s start with the less simple one,” he says, consciously unpredictable.

When you are in a relationship do you prefer to be the person who loves most or is loved most? He rocks back in his chair thinking. “I don’t know if it ever works quite that way because the ambition is for it to be equal. That’s the thing that keeps you in it.” But it’s never equal. He doesn’t disagree, continues thinking. Not tensely or avoiding the question, but wanting to give the right answer. “I think there is only one appropriate answer and that is to be the person who loves the most. That gives you the greatest potential to be loved.” Some people define themselves by their capacity to feel. Some people by their need to receive. “Yes, but I don’t think I could make it either way if it was just that for a length of time, although I understand both emotional positions and I think I have been there in both of them. I don’t fall in love easily but when I do, by God, I both have the need and expectation for it to be equal. Now can I have the easy one please?”

What characteristics of your parents have you inherited? “My father’s work ethic and my mother’s insecurities. My father is Irish and my mother is Jewish. The only thing that held the family together is that they were both Democrats, so I was raised Democrat.” His eyes twinkle when remembering his parents.jm

“It was a great upbringing.” Challenging perhaps? “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” he says looking at me, giving me one final quizzical look, making those words seem real and not a cliche. It’s as if he wants me to wonder what it was that didn’t kill him, or maybe he’s just looking at my hair. I’m not sure if goodbye is going to be a smile or a handshake but it turns out to be a hug, a firm all embracing one. I feel a tingling going up and down my entire body. When I leave the room I realise I have blushed from the inside out. Whatever he’s learned, whatever he’s lost, whatever he closes or opens, you felt a real person in that hug, not necessarily one that always wants to be invisible.

Denzel Washington

The first 20 minutes of Flight are possibly the most adrenalin spiked 20 minutes in film. We see Denzel Washington wake up in his crumpled hotel room. We see the gorgeous naked woman he’s just spent the night with. He gets up. We see his body a little too soft, a little too juicy. His hair a little too long, a little too springy. Then we see him take a line of cocaine.

This little scene is not shocking in itself. It is shocking because it is Denzel Washington. We don’t see him do sex and drugs and rock and roll. We see him as political martyr Malcolm X, freedom fighter Steve Biko, the Zen-like boxer Ruben Carter in Hurricane. We see him saving the train in Pelham 123 and the beyond ruthless CIA agent turned traitor in Safe House.

He’s played the good, the bad, the conflicted, but it’s a long time since we’ve seen him get out of bed naked. Then comes a further jolt. We see him put on his pilot’s uniform, and that his girlfriend is the flight attendant.

We see them board the plane. We see weather, turbulence. We see him down the vodka just before the plane’s hydraulic system fails.

We see him turn the plane upside down and fly it. You watch it heart in throat. It’s Denzel Washington, he’s the hero, he’s going to survive. Right?

Then it becomes clear that’s not the story. It’s not about him being a hero, it’s about an act of God that wrecked the plane and changed his life forever. It’s about love, truth, redemption. Stories that Denzel knows how to tell best and weave them into your heart and soul.

When we meet in a Beverly Hills hotel room he’s looking bright eyed, sparkling eyed even. His skin is fresh and he’s lean and strong in a navy sweater and dark jeans. His smile lights up the room as it does the screen.

He is sitting in an oversized overstuffed armchair with a high back. ‘I feel like I’m sitting on a throne here.’ He is king after all. ‘No I’m not,’ he retorts quickly but purposefully. ‘I just like the chair. It’s a kind of Richard III thing.’

These days he’s all about Shakespeare and the theatre. In 2010 he did the play Fences on Broadway with Viola Davis. He started off as a stage actor in New York. That going back to his roots revitalised him.

‘It did. You know as we mature – well hopefully mature – as we get older, hopefully we get wiser and you start to realise how many shots do I have left? And the experience of working with Viola on Broadway was such a thrill. Watching her I realised I’m fighting for my life out there with this brilliant actress. The whole process is where I am in my life right now. It reawakened me. I felt alive again and I said I want to apply that same work ethic to every job in terms of preparation, investigation, everything. I’d said to myself I want to work hard and I want to do things the right way and I want to have the feeling that this is not just another gig.’

For Washington, now 57, there have been many gigs that seem from the outside not just another gig. His performances are consistently acclaimed. He is box office nectar. He has had multiple Oscar nominations and won twice, first Best Supporting Actor in the Civil War drama Glory in 1989 and then in 2001 for Training Day, where he played narcotics detective Alonso Harris who breaks the law he is supposed to enforce.

He is drawn to ambiguous characters, bad guys who are vulnerable and vice versa. I don’t think I’ve ever seen him turn in a bad performance or a bad review. There has never been a bad period or a lull. He has kept on form. Recent movies Unstoppable and Safe House, have been box office thrillers.

The movies would have been good on their own. It was Washington who made them viable. You never see him acting. He is always effortless, considered, magnetic. Or that’s how he comes over.

On the inside perhaps he felt complacent. ‘No matter how big a movie is, I never want it to be just another gig. I don’t want that. Don’t want to know.’

He savours words and he looks right at you. He misses no detail. Not even a smell goes unchecked. He notices that I’m wearing the same perfume, Carnal Flower, as the last time we met a couple of years ago.

Perhaps his recent questioning of how many shots was highlighted by the shock suicide in August of his friend Tony Scott, director of Crimson Tide, Man On Fire, Déjà Vu, Pelham 123 and Unstoppable.

‘I made five movies with him. I talked to him about a week before he died about our sixth movie. He wanted to do a film where I played a submarine captain driving a submarine filled with narcotics. We were talking about it.’

Were there any clues as to his state of mind? ‘No.’ He shakes his head emphatically. His eyes flash with a kind of urgency to recall everything exactly.

‘First of all I’ve never been in a situation like this where you start to backtrack. You think what they said to you. You think what you said. And then a week later they kill themselves. You might think it was something that I did. You know what I mean, you don’t know, you don’t see it coming. I don’t know what was going on in his life.’

He was depressed? ‘Something. Obviously.’

Shortly after the news there were some reports that he had cancer that was terminal and these were quickly denied. ‘I don’t know. I don’t know. I haven’t talked to anyone who said that he was ill.’

Sharp intake of breath. ‘The Scott brothers,’ he says, almost like it’s a prayer. It is certainly said with reverence and bewilderment.

He says of the Tony Scott submarine project. ‘I wouldn’t touch it now. Not without him.’ Next up he has a film 2 Guns with Mark Wahlberg. ‘We were just acting stupid basically. It’s the first time I’ve ever acted stupid. We’ll see what happens.’

People don’t expect him to act stupid. They expect gravitas. ‘Exactly. Choosing parts after a great play like Fences and then to do such a dark guy like in Safe House, you just want to do something silly.’ Washington has never wanted to be pinned down as one thing. He dislikes boxes and labels.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, who was by all accounts feisty and formidable, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided, with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. For a while he hung out with a bad crowd.

His mother sent him away to boarding school where he rebelled further but turned himself around in order to go to college to study medicine. Then he changed to political science. Then law and finally he found that he was good at acting and that’s what he stuck with.

Not that he wanted to recommend the profession to his daughter who is studying at NYU. She did a small part in her first film (with Precious director Lee Daniels) in the summer. He looks protective when he talks about her.

Is it exciting or worrying for him to see her going into the acting profession? ‘It’s interesting. In her senior year at high school she was working on her audition and LaTanya Richardson, who is Sam Jackson’s wife and a brilliant actress in her own right, was working with her, and I said, “Alright Olivia, I want to see your two pieces” and she went on the floor and went all dramatic and she said, “Oh dad.” And I said, “Come on now. Nobody’s going to be tougher than me. I’m going to tell you the truth because I’d rather you’d be a little hurt if you don’t have what it takes than have a lifetime of pain.”

‘She did the two pieces and right away I said do them again. She did them again and I said, “OK. Here’s the bad news. This is one of the toughest profession’s you’re ever going to try to do. The bad news is you are very good. You are very good and you have what it takes. I can see that already.” I would never have said that if I hadn’t meant it. I put on my director’s hat and watch a young actor audition. And she was good.’ He says it almost wishing it had been easier.

He directed Antwone Fisher (2002) and The Great Debaters (2007) and is preparing to direct again. ‘I don’t know exactly what it is yet. It’s not set and I don’t want to jinx it.’

As an actor he intellectualises his role way ahead of time. Flight director Robert Zemeckis says, ‘He arrived very prepared.’

For Safe House he wanted to experience the torture of water boarding in real life. “I wanted to see what it would be like. It’s strange. You can’t breathe in, because the water comes in, and it’s filling up your mouth,” said Washington. “And that was just one time for a short time. Imagine having that done for 20, 30 seconds? You will give up the answers! You may not necessarily tell the truth, but you will tell [your captors] whatever they want to hear.”

So how did he prepare to be an alcoholic pilot? I gesture to the hotel suite minibar. ‘Did he check in and drink the minibar? ‘No, nothing like that. In fact I did absolutely not drink the entire picture. Normally I might have a glass of wine after work or something like that. But on this one I was afraid I might get too into it, and I just wanted to be clear. I want to give 100 per cent of myself and I want to be focused.’

How foolish of me to think that to get into the part of a man who loves to drink would involve some method drinking. ‘Nothing would have been worse than drinking on the set. And then you might think you were good and you’d be awful.’

Instead he went into the flight simulator. Listened to pilots talking. Didn’t ask them questions about drinking but typed “worse drunks of all time’ into YouTube and looked at the guys telling themselves they were absolutely fine as they fell over.

He gained weight for the part so the puffiness would look like it was bloating from alcohol. ‘I ate a lot. I ate what I wanted and I ate late at night. I would come home from work. I didn’t over eat. But if I wanted a hamburger and fries and shake and a piece of apple pie with ice cream on it I had it.’

And he’d normally eat like that once a week? ‘Less. But I knew this was a man who drank and did drugs. He’s not going to be going to the gym and he’s going to be not sleeping enough.

‘In the opening scene, in the bed I wanted my gut to be hanging out. I wanted to get up and my behind be sticking out when I was sniffing coke, smoking cigarettes and drinking. You’ve got to go there because that’s who he is. There’s no cute version.’

We see Washington playing a man in conflict impeccably. He is both a hero and a man on self-destruct. We haven’t seen Washington quite like that before. His eyes light up. ‘Great. I hope people say we haven’t seen Denzel like that.’ Once again delighted that neither he nor his character has been pinned down.

‘I don’t categorise. People want to put you in things. He is a complicated man. It’s a complicated movie. You can’t just stand on one side or the other.’

Talking to Washington happens on many levels too. He is chatty, he is jokey, he is relaxed, but he too is complicated. He doesn’t go to Hollywood premieres. You never see him in the gossip columns. He’s been married to his wife Pauletta for 29 years and 17 years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu in South Africa. He doesn’t talk much about his wife although he never specifically says he’s not going to talk about her. In all he has four children, John David, Katia, and twins Olivia and Malcolm.

Flight is also a love story, and again we haven’t seen Washington in one of those for a while. The scenes between his character Whip Whitaker and Kelly Reilly’s character Nicole are intensely tender, intensely troubled. It’s another level to the movie that makes it not just another gig. I’ve rarely seen him so vulnerable.

‘Really?’ His eyes open wide. ‘I didn’t think about it as vulnerable. I’m playing the part, so I’m not thinking oh, I’m going to be vulnerable.’ Washington often refers to the fact that he wasn’t thinking, that he’s done something instinctively. Yet on another level he is thinking all the time, always on.

‘I do have one regret. I should have slobbered more and been more pathetic in the scene where he curses her. Maybe I did do it that way and Bob didn’t use it.’

He can’t remember how he played the part because he was so lost in it. You wonder how far apart these characters are. Washington so sparkly, so handsome, so professional. And a man unravelling in his own self-destruction and alcoholism.

Has he ever had an addictive personality? ‘I’m still here! I think we all have some point in our lives where we’ve gone too far and you have to come back. Any time you’ve got into a car and you’ve had too much to drink and you put other people’s lives at risk. I’m not going to tell you I’ve not been guilty of that in my life, especially in my youth. Obviously nothing like this guy, I wouldn’t want to be that guy.’

Flight questions how alcoholics survive by telling lies. There is a moment where if his character tells one more lie it would save him and doom him in equal parts. If he lies he gets away with it.

Has Washington ever had a situation like that where he had to decide if he should lie? ‘Nothing to this level. More like if I lied to my mum I might not get told off. I do remember when I was a little kid I stayed out way too late and it’s probably why I started acting. I knew I was going to get a whipping when I got home.

‘I stopped outside the door of the house and I could hear my mother and father in the kitchen so I actually ripped my shirt, put spit under my eyes, messed up my hair. I was already messed up because I’d been out most of the night. But I came in…’

He puts on a fake sobbing tone. ‘And I went through a whole business (of how he’d been attacked) and my mother said “You see, that’s what you get for staying out late. Now go in to the bathroom and clean yourself up and come in and sit down and eat.” And I remember looking into the mirror and thinking, “Ha, maybe I should try this again.” Maybe while I was in there my mum was thinking “That little knuckle head thinking he was fooling us.” I don’t know, but yes, I got away with it.
And fortunately for us, Washington is still getting away with it.

Everything Denzel Washington says is said with incredible force, warmth, and he savours every word. He is in his suite at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. I arrive as room service leaves. He perches over his lunch of a giant juicy steak. He’s just cut a chunk. It’s hovering on the end of his fork just about to go into his mouth and he decides to inhale me instead.

“What are you smelling of? You smell like a lei, Hawaiian flowers, the one beginning with a g.” He opens his mouth and his nostrils at the same time. Shoves the piece of steak in and chews heartily. “Mm, it’s the g flower, the gardenia one. Isn’t it?,” he says excitedly.

“It’s called Carnal Flowers,” I tell him.

“Carnal flowers,” he says, salivating and cutting off another piece of steak. He’s very excited. And his excitement is somehow infectious. He likes to play around. He likes to joke, even though of course he takes his craft ultra seriously with an absolute eye for the minutest detail. And I wonder if the overt smelling was a reference to the movie Deja Vu where smelling is an intricate part. If you smell something it’s a trigger, it can take you back. If you smell something you feel it, you’re in the real world, you’ve not slipped down a wormhole as he does in the movie.

Deja Vu is a murder mystery, an understated romance, the ultimate surveillance that involves time travel. “I don’t know where I got that smelling thing from. I think I just did it and Tony Scott said yeh, do that some more.”

In the movie it was as if he needed to smell to feel he was real. “It’s about using all the senses, not relying on what you see, what you hear, what you smell and ultimately what you feel”

You get the impression that Denzel Washington has the hugest capacity to feel. Everything he does is filled with a raw and deep emotion, even just chewing his steak. The ultimate guy’s guy that is also super sensitive. Tall, sharp, funny. The overriding sense you get from him is that he is super protective – of himself, if you go in too far too deep too soon he doesn’t like that. Of his family, particularly his daughters. Of his co-star Paula Patton in Deja Vu. His whole protectiveness elevates the story from one of a simple thriller to something that is personal, intimate, something that really matters. He is even protective of me. The last time we met I was almost passing out with pain (stomach cramps). He was more like a doctor than an actor in that interview. You tell him these things and he doesn’t like compliments. I tell him that he came over as such a force of shiny protection. “Well I did not think I was shiny and protective. Thankyou, but that’s not how I see myself. Maybe I could have played that part in a different way, like a dirty twisted old man. Maybe that’s a different movie. Maybe it was just that Tony made a really good choice in Paula because she’s a real sweet person and that comes across. You want to protect her. Me, protective person? Hm. Yeh, yeh, yeh. All this as I eat my steak. Well you know it’s coming up to Thanksgiving. Get turkey for the next five days. Got to get my steak in now.”

He likes to present a thin facade of machismo. Wrap himself up in it, but he knows it’s easily unravelled. Even when he played the brutal narcotics detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day there was something wounded about him. That’s what makes Denzel a great actor. You don’t feel for him, you feel with him. As Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter the boxer wrongly accused of murder in The Hurricane his sweet stoicism made you cry and got him an Oscar nod. This kind of emoting the audience first became apparent when he inhabited the role of Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom in 1987. A whole slew of films Man On Fire, Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man have all demonstrated Washington’s capacity for toughness with an undercurrent of vulnerability. He is complex and instantly accessible, was once called “so handsome he should be illegal” and he is of course deliciously handsome. And here he is right in front of me smelling me, if somewhat ostentatiously, just because he knows it will amuse me. He knows how to get right to you. He knows how to carry you along.

In Deja Vu you are left contemplating the universe and every relationship you’ve ever had. Deja Vu is in itself a bonding phenomenon. Everyone’s had that flash that you meet someone new and feel you’ve known them all your life, feel inexplicably in love with a stranger. In the movie flipping back in time is possible, and that’s how deja vu is defined, that you have been there before. It raises the question, if you could do it all again could you, would you. In real life deja vu is a trick of the mind, is it a dream. In the movie it involves an extreme form of surveillance where you look at something and as you’re looking at it you can travel in time. It involves the highly complex notion of the parallel universe and slipping down wormholes into alternative dimensions where the same thing is going on but just a little earlier. If you have the power to slip into that dimension do you have the power to change it.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Washington wags his finger.
The movie’s convolutedness and complex science are made tangible by Washington’s very fleshy, sensuous performance. He’s an ATF (Tobacco and Firearms Agent), he’s an everyman. You figure it out with him. He’s good at taking you on journeys.

I tell him, ‘You must have had deja vu moments with a string of interviewers asking you what is your favourite deja vu moment?’ “Aha, ha, ha. I usually turn it on its ear and ask them the question back.”

Typical Washington, he’s always more interested in asking the questions. He has an insatiable curiosity as well as a liking to duck and dive.

“Scientists talk about how we use only ten per cent of our brain. What is the other 90 per cent doing? That’s where the intuition, the feelings, the deja vus, all that stuff. It goes there. I think as we advance our interactive skills, our information skills, our brain is getting weaker and weaker because it doesn’t imagine. Like your mother would tell you a story and you would imagine all the characters. If you listen to the radio or read a book you make the movie in your head. Now it’s all given to you on a plate. You have a television with 500 channels. The muscles in the brain are getting weaker.

“Maybe deja vu is some sort of intuition. You feel you know this person well. It’s as if you’ve met them before but you’ve just intuited who they are.”

I tell him I’ve always thought his powers of intuition have been strong. “What do you mean?” He’s almost shrieking, offended. I feel you intuit a part, a person, you’re always looking for different angles, always asking questions, curious, it’s like you’re switched on the whole time.

“Ah,” he says. “I think I’ve worked on developing that muscle. One spiritual journey develops that muscle. I’ve gone through the eastern philosophies, Christianity, Buddhism, Swamis, and back to Christianity and Islam. Just searching. I mean Siddharta by Herman Hesse is my favourite book because he was walking the earth, praying, searching. I kind of had that vibe and curiosity. It leads you to your own philosophy, like working on what that 90 per cent of your brain is doing.

“Is it OK to be a searcher and a carnivore?” he says. Maybe he isn’t sure of how the extremely spiritual side of him fits with the grounded, the basic. And maybe that’s the key to him. It’s a key that he doesn’t want me to find. He hates being analysed. “We don’t understand oxygen but we keep breathing.

“I think if this movie is about anything it’s about if you could change anything would you. Doing this movie shows me that I would not want to do that because of the domino effect. If you changed one thing how would you change another.”

It’s not that Denzel Washington had a charmed life that makes him think he would not want to change anything, but there’s a determination about him and a stoicism that makes him work hard for what he wants and a spiritual side that makes him accept what he doesn’t get. He’s not your typical movie star. He doesn’t love glamour or bling. I’ve read that his wife had to persuade him to upgrade his car into something a little fancy at a time when he could have gone plushy luxury. Recently a friend of mine was in her local video shop. Browsing among the shelves she found a random man and asked him to recommend something. They were out of his first recommendation The Da Vinci Code so he went with Inside Man and when she got it home she realised that the man recommending it was the star of the movie. So there’s a Hollywood rarity, he goes to the video shop himself.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class mostly white suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and as a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, a formidable figure, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. He was a keyboardist in a band with three friends who all ended up serving time. It was one of those fork in the road moments. His mother, upon the recommendation of a school’s career officer, who felt he was intelligent and had a chance of a career, sent him away to boarding school where he found a group of bad boys who could afford to buy drugs. He’d never touched a drug or drink before that. Despite the potential bad influence he did well, went to college to study medicine, then changed to political science, then he thought he might be a lawyer, and then he found he could act and potentially be all of the above, or at least have the experience of feeling what it would be like to be them.

I wonder if he is most like his devout preacher father who hardly ever watched a movie, or his tough love mother. “Similar? You might have to ask my mother that. He’s gone,” he says in a whisper. His father died 15 years ago. “I wouldn’t dare say.” Back in Denzel boom he says, “Closer to, that’s different to similar to, isn’t it. I would say that the mother is the one that is there so you are always going to be closer to your mother. My own children are probably closer to my wife. They have spent more time with her. She knows them better. That’s the way it is in most homes.”

His oldest boy John David is 22 and a football player with the St. Louis Rams. Katia has just turned 19 and Malcolm and Olivia are 15-year old twins. “Maybe it’s chauvinistic, sexist, but I don’t worry about my son the football player. He’s out of the house, he can take care of himself. But with my oldest daughter, she’s away at college but she came home for the holidays. I couldn’t sleep, it was two in the morning, I was going down the corridor. Was her car there, was she in her room? If she’s at college I know she’s staying out late but I don’t think about it. When she came home it seemed to pick up right where she left off. But yeh, I would say that my parents were protective and controlling when they needed to be. And of course I’m a protective parent.”

He’s also a protective partner. It’s been said before that he doesn’t easily do love scenes and never would want to show them to the public before his wife of 25 years Pauletta could see even a kiss first. Twelve years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu and then a gathering at Nelson Mandela’s house. He says that stories about his unwillingness to take his shirt off have certainly been exaggerated. In Deja Vu though the romance is all the more powerful for being underplayed.

“I think it’s sexier that way. We could have been jumping on the mattress every ten minutes, but that wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t even scripted that I kissed her, I just did it and that was enough. I mean, my character has just saved her life a few hours ago, I think it’s much more romantic and more interesting to be about what you don’t do. I love a big part of this film was a love story in reverse. My character meets her when she’s dead and he tries to treat her like just a piece of evidence, the body, but as things unfold he gets the chance to watch her live and be with her watching her for days.”

Do you think watching somebody is about protecting or controlling? “Oh, I think there’s a thin line, but in the film he’s not controlling because he has no idea he can actually do anything about it.”

What makes his character and Denzel himself have an extra edge of charisma is that there is always the potential for darkness as well as sweetness. This is the third time he has worked with director Tony Scott and when he cast him as the former FBI agent who liked to get maudlin at the bottom of a bottle in Man On Fire he said that he thought Denzel had a dark and obsessive side.

“Dark, obsessive, sweet, protective? I don’t work with any of that. I’m neither. I’m me. I do a job, I interpret a role. I think we all are those things at the same time and I don’t think, ooh, let me access the sweet now. It’s not like I’ve got 12 different things I can do and I’ve got to work off one. There’s several of them going on now in this interview. I am sensitive, intuitive, there’s a dark obsessive side, and a carnivore. That’s trying to pin me down. Mm, carnal flowers, that’s who I am. No, if I were a perfume it wouldn’t have a title, I wouldn’t name it anything.”

What would it smell of? What note would it have? “Minor chords,” he nods. “Minor chords.” he still plays music, “but not enough. I’ve been listening to this girl Ayo and she has a song that she sings about her father and how she did not understand the sacrifices he made when she was growing up. With the song she apologises for the hard times she gave him. It doesn’t specifically make me think of my father, although he did make sacrifices, it makes me think more of my daughters. But I just liked the song because I like bluesy darker songs. First you think it’s about one thing and then it becomes about something else.”

The movie Deja Vu was shot in New Orleans, the first movie to be shot there since Hurricane Katrina. “I was here in LA for the Northridge earthquake. I know the feeling of destruction, of a place being just empty and a whole community traumatised. Where is everybody? Everybody’s gone. Empty houses and cars stuck up trees. Tony had initially felt the movie would work there so obviously I said let’s get back there. We spent tens of millions of dollars, hired local people, stayed in hotels, so it was good to be a small part of giving something back.”

You imagine him being driven by wanting to be good yet he has never been active in politics, never wanted to define himself as any kind of role model. Have you ever considered getting politically involved. “No,” he says insistently. “I vote, I pay taxes. One has to realise one’s limitations. I don’t just want to do things because I’m famous.” He is however committed to an involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I do support other things but I stick with that one because I’m like, hey, let me get one thing right. We’ve gone from 2.2 million to 5.7 million children that we take care of around the world, from 2,000 clubs to 45,000 clubs.”

He says that a boys club helped shape and guide him in his childhood. He may say he’s not political but if he can do something he does. Next up is the movie American Gangster directed by Ridley Scott. It’s set in Vietnam and it’s about a drug lord smuggling heroin into Harlem in the 1970s by hiding stash in the coffins of American soldiers returning from the conflict. He’s still suffering a bit of jet lag from filming in Thailand but says he doesn’t want to talk about that movie. He doesn’t want to talk about his next directing project. “I just want to get it done before I chit chat too much about it. I want to make sure it happens before I talk about it.” His first directing project was Antwone Fisher which dealt with a boy’s physical abuse. It was well received but not an enormous box office success. “I thought be careful what you ask for. Before it happened I was terrified, couldn’t sleep, had to see a chiropractor. I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever done. Once it started I really enjoyed it. It’s all about jumping into the water and having faith.”

Are you scared about anything else outside work? “Did I say I was scared of anything?” OK, sorry, what excites you then? “My children. That’s much more exciting than going to work. Watching them grow, finding out what they’re all doing. But you know Paula Patton reminded me of what being scared and excited in this business really meant. I’ve made a few films, been in the business a while, some thirty something red carpets, when you meet someone for whom it’s all new you realise how fortunate you are to be in this position where you are actually jaded. It was also a good reminder that fear is good. A healthy scare is good.”

He may not like to be analysed. He loves to analyse other people. He wonders what it would be like if he had to play me in a movie. I ask him would he do that? “With love and tenderness. Get in contact with my feminine side. I wouldn’t even worry about finding out about you the journalist. I would like to find out about the you inside, the you that you left behind. I’d want to get the smell right. I don’t think guys care about smell. We have two smells, good and mm, I don’t know. You were asking me what were you feeling what were you thinking. A man does not want to think that much.” This man may say he doesn’t think very much, but he thinks very intensely all the time.

Everything Denzel Washington says is said with incredible force, warmth, and he savours every word. He is in his suite at the Four Seasons, Beverly Hills. I arrive as room service leaves. He perches over his lunch of a giant juicy steak. He’s just cut a chunk. It’s hovering on the end of his fork just about to go into his mouth and he decides to inhale me instead.

“What are you smelling of? You smell like a lei, Hawaiian flowers, the one beginning with a g.” He opens his mouth and his nostrils at the same time. Shoves the piece of steak in and chews heartily. “Mm, it’s the g flower, the gardenia one. Isn’t it?,” he says excitedly.

“It’s called Carnal Flowers,” I tell him.

“Carnal flowers,” he says, salivating and cutting off another piece of steak. He’s very excited. And his excitement is somehow infectious. He likes to play around. He likes to joke, even though of course he takes his craft ultra seriously with an absolute eye for the minutest detail. And I wonder if the overt smelling was a reference to the movie Deja Vu where smelling is an intricate part. If you smell something it’s a trigger, it can take you back. If you smell something you feel it, you’re in the real world, you’ve not slipped down a wormhole as he does in the movie.

Deja Vu is a murder mystery, an understated romance, the ultimate surveillance that involves time travel. “I don’t know where I got that smelling thing from. I think I just did it and Tony Scott said yeh, do that some more.”

In the movie it was as if he needed to smell to feel he was real. “It’s about using all the senses, not relying on what you see, what you hear, what you smell and ultimately what you feel.

You get the impression that Denzel Washington has the hugest capacity to feel. Everything he does is filled with a raw and deep emotion, even just chewing his steak. The ultimate guy’s guy that is also super sensitive. Tall, sharp, funny. The overriding sense you get from him is that he is super protective – of himself, if you go in too far too deep too soon he doesn’t like that. Of his family, particularly his daughters. Of his co-star Paula Patton in Deja Vu. His whole protectiveness elevates the story from one of a simple thriller to something that is personal, intimate, something that really matters. He is even protective of me. The last time we met I was almost passing out with pain (stomach cramps). He was more like a doctor than an actor in that interview. You tell him these things and he doesn’t like compliments. I tell him that he came over as such a force of shiny protection. “Well I did not think I was shiny and protective. Thankyou, but that’s not how I see myself. Maybe I could have played that part in a different way, like a dirty twisted old man. Maybe that’s a different movie. Maybe it was just that Tony made a really good choice in Paula because she’s a real sweet person and that comes across. You want to protect her. Me, protective person? Hm. Yeh, yeh, yeh. All this as I eat my steak. Well you know it’s coming up to Thanksgiving. Get turkey for the next five days. Got to get my steak in now.”

He likes to present a thin facade of machismo. Wrap himself up in it, but he knows it’s easily unravelled. Even when he played the brutal narcotics detective Alonzo Harris in Training Day there was something wounded about him. That’s what makes Denzel a great actor. You don’t feel for him, you feel with him. As Rubin ‘Hurricane’ Carter the boxer wrongly accused of murder in The Hurricane his sweet stoicism made you cry and got him an Oscar nod. This kind of emoting the audience first became apparent when he inhabited the role of Steve Biko in Richard Attenborough’s Cry Freedom in 1987. A whole slew of films Man On Fire, Manchurian Candidate, Inside Man have all demonstrated Washington’s capacity for toughness with an undercurrent of vulnerability. He is complex and instantly accessible, was once called “so handsome he should be illegal” and he is of course deliciously handsome. And here he is right in front of me smelling me, if somewhat ostentatiously, just because he knows it will amuse me. He knows how to get right to you. He knows how to carry you along.

In Deja Vu you are left contemplating the universe and every relationship you’ve ever had. Deja Vu is in itself a bonding phenomenon. Everyone’s had that flash that you meet someone new and feel you’ve known them all your life, feel inexplicably in love with a stranger. In the movie flipping back in time is possible, and that’s how deja vu is defined, that you have been there before. It raises the question, if you could do it all again could you, would you. In real life deja vu is a trick of the mind, is it a dream. In the movie it involves an extreme form of surveillance where you look at something and as you’re looking at it you can travel in time. It involves the highly complex notion of the parallel universe and slipping down wormholes into alternative dimensions where the same thing is going on but just a little earlier. If you have the power to slip into that dimension do you have the power to change it.

“Be careful what you ask for,” Washington wags his finger.

The movie’s convolutedness and complex science are made tangible by Washington’s very fleshy, sensuous performance. He’s an ATF (Tobacco and Firearms Agent), he’s an everyman. You figure it out with him. He’s good at taking you on journeys.

I tell him, ‘You must have had deja vu moments with a string of interviewers asking you what is your favourite deja vu moment?’ “Aha, ha, ha. I usually turn it on its ear and ask them the question back.”

Typical Washington, he’s always more interested in asking the questions. He has an insatiable curiosity as well as a liking to duck and dive.

“Scientists talk about how we use only ten per cent of our brain. What is the other 90 per cent doing? That’s where the intuition, the feelings, the deja vus, all that stuff. It goes there. I think as we advance our interactive skills, our information skills, our brain is getting weaker and weaker because it doesn’t imagine. Like your mother would tell you a story and you would imagine all the characters. If you listen to the radio or read a book you make the movie in your head. Now it’s all given to you on a plate. You have a television with 500 channels. The muscles in the brain are getting weaker.

“Maybe deja vu is some sort of intuition. You feel you know this person well. It’s as if you’ve met them before but you’ve just intuited who they are.”

I tell him I’ve always thought his powers of intuition have been strong. “What do you mean?” He’s almost shrieking, offended. I feel you intuit a part, a person, you’re always looking for different angles, always asking questions, curious, it’s like you’re switched on the whole time.

“Ah,” he says. “I think I’ve worked on developing that muscle. One spiritual journey develops that muscle. I’ve gone through the eastern philosophies, Christianity, Buddhism, Swamis, and back to Christianity and Islam. Just searching. I mean Siddharta by Herman Hesse is my favourite book because he was walking the earth, praying, searching. I kind of had that vibe and curiosity. It leads you to your own philosophy, like working on what that 90 per cent of your brain is doing.

“Is it OK to be a searcher and a carnivore?” he says. Maybe he isn’t sure of how the extremely spiritual side of him fits with the grounded, the basic. And maybe that’s the key to him. It’s a key that he doesn’t want me to find. He hates being analysed. “We don’t understand oxygen but we keep breathing.

“I think if this movie is about anything it’s about if you could change anything would you. Doing this movie shows me that I would not want to do that because of the domino effect. If you changed one thing how would you change another.”

It’s not that Denzel Washington had a charmed life that makes him think he would not want to change anything, but there’s a determination about him and a stoicism that makes him work hard for what he wants and a spiritual side that makes him accept what he doesn’t get. He’s not your typical movie star. He doesn’t love glamour or bling. I’ve read that his wife had to persuade him to upgrade his car into something a little fancy at a time when he could have gone plushy luxury. Recently a friend of mine was in her local video shop. Browsing among the shelves she found a random man and asked him to recommend something. They were out of his first recommendation The Da Vinci Code so he went with Inside Man and when she got it home she realised that the man recommending it was the star of the movie. So there’s a Hollywood rarity, he goes to the video shop himself.

He was born in 1954 in Mount Vernon, New York, a mostly middle class mostly white suburb. His father was a preacher who worked for the water company in the day and as a security guard at night and preached in between. His mother, a formidable figure, ran beauty salons. His parents divorced when he was 14, which coincided with his own teenage middle child (of three) rebellious phase. He was a keyboardist in a band with three friends who all ended up serving time. It was one of those fork in the road moments. His mother, upon the recommendation of a school’s career officer, who felt he was intelligent and had a chance of a career, sent him away to boarding school where he found a group of bad boys who could afford to buy drugs. He’d never touched a drug or drink before that. Despite the potential bad influence he did well, went to college to study medicine, then changed to political science, then he thought he might be a lawyer, and then he found he could act and potentially be all of the above, or at least have the experience of feeling what it would be like to be them.

I wonder if he is most like his devout preacher father who hardly ever watched a movie, or his tough love mother. “Similar? You might have to ask my mother that. He’s gone,” he says in a whisper. His father died 15 years ago. “I wouldn’t dare say.” Back in Denzel boom he says, “Closer to, that’s different to similar to, isn’t it. I would say that the mother is the one that is there so you are always going to be closer to your mother. My own children are probably closer to my wife. They have spent more time with her. She knows them better. That’s the way it is in most homes.”

His oldest boy John David is 22 and a football player with the St. Louis Rams. Katia has just turned 19 and Malcolm and Olivia are 15-year old twins. “Maybe it’s chauvinistic, sexist, but I don’t worry about my son the football player. He’s out of the house, he can take care of himself. But with my oldest daughter, she’s away at college but she came home for the holidays. I couldn’t sleep, it was two in the morning, I was going down the corridor. Was her car there, was she in her room? If she’s at college I know she’s staying out late but I don’t think about it. When she came home it seemed to pick up right where she left off. But yeh, I would say that my parents were protective and controlling when they needed to be. And of course I’m a protective parent.”

He’s also a protective partner. It’s been said before that he doesn’t easily do love scenes and never would want to show them to the public before his wife of 25 years Pauletta could see even a kiss first. Twelve years ago they renewed their vows in front of Archbishop Tutu and then a gathering at Nelson Mandela’s house. He says that stories about his unwillingness to take his shirt off have certainly been exaggerated. In Deja Vu though the romance is all the more powerful for being underplayed.

“I think it’s sexier that way. We could have been jumping on the mattress every ten minutes, but that wouldn’t have been right. It wasn’t even scripted that I kissed her, I just did it and that was enough. I mean, my character has just saved her life a few hours ago, I think it’s much more romantic and more interesting to be about what you don’t do. I love a big part of this film was a love story in reverse. My character meets her when she’s dead and he tries to treat her like just a piece of evidence, the body, but as things unfold he gets the chance to watch her live and be with her watching her for days.”

Do you think watching somebody is about protecting or controlling? “Oh, I think there’s a thin line, but in the film he’s not controlling because he has no idea he can actually do anything about it.”

What makes his character and Denzel himself have an extra edge of charisma is that there is always the potential for darkness as well as sweetness. This is the third time he has worked with director Tony Scott and when he cast him as the former FBI agent who liked to get maudlin at the bottom of a bottle in Man On Fire he said that he thought Denzel had a dark and obsessive side.

“Dark, obsessive, sweet, protective? I don’t work with any of that. I’m neither. I’m me. I do a job, I interpret a role. I think we all are those things at the same time and I don’t think, ooh, let me access the sweet now. It’s not like I’ve got 12 different things I can do and I’ve got to work off one. There’s several of them going on now in this interview. I am sensitive, intuitive, there’s a dark obsessive side, and a carnivore. That’s trying to pin me down. Mm, carnal flowers, that’s who I am. No, if I were a perfume it wouldn’t have a title, I wouldn’t name it anything.”

What would it smell of? What note would it have? “Minor chords,” he nods. “Minor chords.” he still plays music, “but not enough. I’ve been listening to this girl Ayo and she has a song that she sings about her father and how she did not understand the sacrifices he made when she was growing up. With the song she apologises for the hard times she gave him. It doesn’t specifically make me think of my father, although he did make sacrifices, it makes me think more of my daughters. But I just liked the song because I like bluesy darker songs. First you think it’s about one thing and then it becomes about something else.”

The movie Deja Vu was shot in New Orleans, the first movie to be shot there since Hurricane Katrina. “I was here in LA for the Northridge earthquake. I know the feeling of destruction, of a place being just empty and a whole community traumatised. Where is everybody? Everybody’s gone. Empty houses and cars stuck up trees. Tony had initially felt the movie would work there so obviously I said let’s get back there. We spent tens of millions of dollars, hired local people, stayed in hotels, so it was good to be a small part of giving something back.”

You imagine him being driven by wanting to be good yet he has never been active in politics, never wanted to define himself as any kind of role model. Have you ever considered getting politically involved. “No,” he says insistently. “I vote, I pay taxes. One has to realise one’s limitations. I don’t just want to do things because I’m famous.” He is however committed to an involvement with the Boys and Girls Clubs of America. “I do support other things but I stick with that one because I’m like, hey, let me get one thing right. We’ve gone from 2.2 million to 5.7 million children that we take care of around the world, from 2,000 clubs to 45,000 clubs.”

He says that a boys club helped shape and guide him in his childhood. He may say he’s not political but if he can do something he does. Next up is the movie American Gangster directed by Ridley Scott. It’s set in Vietnam and it’s about a drug lord smuggling heroin into Harlem in the 1970s by hiding stash in the coffins of American soldiers returning from the conflict. He’s still suffering a bit of jet lag from filming in Thailand but says he doesn’t want to talk about that movie. He doesn’t want to talk about his next directing project. “I just want to get it done before I chit chat too much about it. I want to make sure it happens before I talk about it.” His first directing project was Antwone Fisher which dealt with a boy’s physical abuse. It was well received but not an enormous box office success. “I thought be careful what you ask for. Before it happened I was terrified, couldn’t sleep, had to see a chiropractor. I thought it was the scariest thing I’d ever done. Once it started I really enjoyed it. It’s all about jumping into the water and having faith.”

Are you scared about anything else outside work? “Did I say I was scared of anything?” OK, sorry, what excites you then? “My children. That’s much more exciting than going to work. Watching them grow, finding out what they’re all doing. But you know Paula Patton reminded me of what being scared and excited in this business really meant. I’ve made a few films, been in the business a while, some thirty something red carpets, when you meet someone for whom it’s all new you realise how fortunate you are to be in this position where you are actually jaded. It was also a good reminder that fear is good. A healthy scare is good.”

He may not like to be analysed. He loves to analyse other people. He wonders what it would be like if he had to play me in a movie. I ask him would he do that? “With love and tenderness. Get in contact with my feminine side. I wouldn’t even worry about finding out about you the journalist. I would like to find out about the you inside, the you that you left behind. I’d want to get the smell right. I don’t think guys care about smell. We have two smells, good and mm, I don’t know. You were asking me what were you feeling what were you thinking. A man does not want to think that much.” This man may say he doesn’t think very much, but he thinks very intensely all the time.

Joanna Lumley (May, 2016)

It’s almost like a scene from AbFab. As I enter the Soho Hotel room where I am to interview Joanna Lumley I see her precariously hanging out – whole torso out – of the second storey window. Her hand wafting a cigarette into the crisp London air. “Darling you don’t mind, do you?” She’s smoking in a no smoking zone. But she has to, she just has to.
Then it’s a warm cashmerey hug hello. She looks ravishingly good. The big expressive eyes, the trademark platinum blonde hair although it’s not in a Patsy beehive. The beehive for the upcoming AbFab movie was in fact a wig. “Darling, my hair wouldn’t have been able to take it.” She’s wearing a pale grey wrap, dark trousers, trainers.
The real life Lumley is understated and effortless but the lines between the actress and the character of Patsy do blur. Lumley likes to drink Bolly, just not quite as much as Patsy. The cigarette is never far away. “I know, it’s ghastly isn’t it?” she says in that distinctive velvet purr. Are they the same person? She laughs her deep chortle. “Well, not quite but I own her; she’s mine. I’m not her but she’s mine,” she says with immense pride. Does she give her the excuse never to give up smoking? “I don’t need one,” she says drily. It’s getting harder and harder to get the whole torso out of the window and try to smoke secretly. “It feels like I’m back at school. Why did you give up,” she says accusingly. I tell her I was coughing all the time and people said ‘you should give up’. She nods. “How unpleasant. I’m married to a smoker and that helps. Because if you smoke at home and your other half smokes, you’re as happy as hell smoking. I don’t think I’d smoke if Stevie didn’t smoke.” Stephen Barlow is her conductor husband of 30 years. They smoke in the house? “Oh sure darling, it’s compulsory.”
Just sitting with her for a few minutes makes me feel I can’t wait for AbFab The Movie. “Working on it was terrific. People say to me ‘will it be the same? Will it have lost its AbFab flavour?’ I don’t think so. The five of us are all in the centre of it. Jennifer Saunders, Julia Sawhla, Jane Horrocks, Julia Whitfield.” The five Js – that’s what she likes to call them. “And the old favourites who pitched in over the years like former Spice Girl Emma Bunton and Lulu are in it again.” Lulu is usually mocked. “Very much so, absolutely. She’s one of the Edina’s clients – and she does nothing for them – so she and Emma Bunton are pretty resentful. It’s really quite good. Instead of getting a half hour episode you just get it much bigger.” Her eyes seem to pop with excitement, not much else moves in her face. I’d been given a gift from a beauty PR liquid botox that you don’t have to inject called Fillerina, I wondered if she’d be a bit embarrassed to receive it. “Darling, bring it on! Where is it?” she says.
AbFab The Movie has been in the works for years. What does she think made it suddenly go ahead? “Dawn French made a deal that if she [Jennifer Saunders] hadn’t done it by Christmas, she’d have to pay her £10,000, so she wrote a treatment and the film was green lit in the spring of last year and we were filming it in October in London and the south of France.” I’ve heard that Edina and Patsy disgrace themselves at a party and have to leave the country they are being pursued by the police and run to the South of France. She nods. They have run to the South of France because they’re being pursued by the police. “They’re also completely skint as Edina’s client list has certainly not been expanding.” She’s only left with Emma Bunton and Lulu? She nods. “They’re divine. The reason they are such stalwarts is that both of them have appeared in many episodes and always in the humiliating position of being treated badly or being forgotten about. We’ve also got the glorious Kate Moss in the movie. She was divine and charming and very good.
“A bit of a smoker It’s so funny to be in a film where you smoke and nobody is saying ‘actually, I’m not sure the character should be smoking’. They smoke and that’s all there is to it.” I’d heard that Patsy had modernised to an ecigarette. “No. The talk of vaping comes into it at some stage. Patsy doesn’t vape, obviously. Nor does Kate Moss.” What about drinking? “Plenty of that darling. They basically have drunk the place dry. They’ve run out of Bolly. Do you remember where Edina had a little kind of bowling alley where the champagne bottles were just drop back and it was always full. Well, it’s all gone. So times are very tight when you get to that. I adore Bolly. I think a glass of champagne is hard to resist. And a cocktail is always nice. Martini or margarita – always exciting.”
I don’t think I’ve ever seen Patsy eating. “She had a crisp once and jolly well nearly choked. And one Christmas episode she decided to have a bit of turkey and was taken off in an ambulance because she’s had most of her organs removed so eating is not an option. She gets all her sustenance from the drugs and the drinks she consumes. She is a cartoon character. She would be long dead if she were alive.”
I think one of the reasons we love Patsy is because we all know someone who she could have been based on. Did she base her on anyone in particular? “No, I made her up or rather she was a character waiting to be uncovered. So many people say ‘my mother is Patsy’, ‘I’m Patsy’, ‘my aunt is Patsy’. To a certain extent maybe there is Patsy in all of us but hopefully not too much because she’s pretty ruthless.”
I’ve also read that the real Lumley rarely eats meals and prefers a crisp or a nut. “No. I didn’t actually say that. I said at cocktails parties I like to eat the crisps and nuts because I don’t eat the smoked salmon because I am a vegetarian. It was all taken out of context and it went pretty crazy. I had to fight a rear-guard action from people saying ‘what a criminal thing to say to young people “live off crisps”.’” She shakes her head gravely. “I can’t imagine Patsy cooking but I can cook. I was never taught to bake and I have a savoury rather than a sweet palate but I would like to learn how to make cheese straws. I could live off cheese straws along with the margaritas and the champagne,” she jokes. “I don’t follow recipes very closely but I can cook. I’m a rather basic cook, not a chef.” She may say she’s basic at cooking but her achievements are actually extraordinary.
Lumley is known as a woman who gets things done whether it’s aid, to her beloved Gurkhas or building a garden bridge across the Thames and, of late, she’s made many documentaries with diverse subjects such as Elvis, the Trans-Siberian Express and Catwoman (The History of the Cat) and Saving Orangutans. “I don’t think I always get things done. I think I always fight to get things done, they don’t always end up happening.” Now she’s doing that very British thing of downplaying her achievements.
“To put a soberer spin on it I am fighting for things like compassionate world farming, fighting for a better life for farm animals. You don’t get it done easily, you do it inch by inch. You get their cages made a little bit bigger. It’s never accomplished but you keep on fighting and the Gurkhas was something I was proud to be involved in but it wasn’t really me, it was a team of us. My father was a Gurkha (she was born in Kashmir, British India) and my whole young life was,” she searches for the word, “Gurkharised.” They were a family and the idea of your family being so badly treated by a government, successive governments, was something I had to fight for. A wrong was righted.” She fought for the British government to pay their “debt of honour” to Gurkhas who had fought for Britain. Those who had retired before 1997 were awarded the right of settlement in the UK.
I like the campaigning Lumley, she underplays it. There’s no fuss, no extravagance but a very solid core of a woman who does indeed get things done. And just when I am thinking how very unPatsy she is she says, “Darling this present sounds extraordinary. You put this stuff on your lips and it makes them plump? What a kind person. It’s not a needle? It’s like squeezing an icing tube. Oh my darling, it’s going to be my next Christmas present to everybody. Fillerina, oh!”
Whatever she’s had done or will have done to her face, there is no way she will ever look 70 (in May). “How did it happen? 70? Life just gets quicker and quicker. The other day I wrote a cheque and I put 06. That was not a slip of the pen but a slip of the brain. I skipped a whole decade. The word 70 on paper looks so not what I feel I am. Although there’s something rather thrilling. We don’t any of us know what 70 is anymore.” Is 70 the new 50? “I think everything now is the ‘new something’ compared to our grandmothers. At school I thought teachers who were 42 had to be helped onto a bus. Patsy stopped ageing at 39, that’s what she admits to but she’s clearly more like 93. But I have always longed to be older than I am. I don’t know why.”
When she was 18 she wanted to be 30, when she was 10 she wanted to be 18. And now? “I always felt that there is a goal that I am getting towards. An Olympic flame would be there. I always thought that it would gradually get better and I would get nearer to the heat, as it were. And to a certain extent that’s proven to be true. I mean, I’ve never worked as much and as hard as I am now on so many projects.” She has made over a dozen documentaries and is involved with 70 charities. And she’s directing a short film.
“I’m interested in poetry and the film is going to be called Poetry Off The Page. If you think how things like War and Peace which was a book made into a film, this is a film made from a poem. I want to do it in a kind of way where you learn a bit about the poet and understand where it would be set. The actor I’m working with is Dominic West. Not too bad, eh? His gorgeous velvety brown voice is reading the poems. Mesmeric. So a lot of stuff is happening.
This was not always the case. “In the early days where I would think ‘I can’t get a job’ – that was difficult. Those days ended with The Avengers.” The Avengers were in the mid- to late-Seventies, the era defined by a haircut called the Purdy named after her character in the show. A generation of woman tried to emulate this sculpted bob. “The two characters for which people kindly remember me have both had distinctive hairstyles which defined them.” She is indeed remembered for the Purdy and the Patsy.
The Avengers did indeed change everything. Pre-Avengers were panicky times. She was a model/actress and a single mum of son Jamie. The relationship with his father had ended. She married the writer Jeremy Lloyd in 1970, it lasted only a few months. “I was pretty strapped for cash. Counting the pennies before I would go to the supermarket. I knew I was rich when I could afford to buy cheese and didn’t look at how much it would cost, I’d just take it and put it in the basket. I love cheese and when I could only buy a small piece of the most basic cheddar and suddenly I could buy any cheese I wanted, I felt rich.”
At the point that she was buying the very small piece of cheddar, did she ever starve herself to get jobs? “No, but you had to watch what you ate. I worked a lot as a model. I wasn’t a top model but I was in the top 10 and used all the time and in that time I only knew one anorexic girl who recovered because a man said ‘I love you but I can’t marry you if you’re as thin as this, if you get a little fatter, I’ll marry you’, isn’t that divine? When you look back at pictures of those days, most of us were long and slender but not very very thin. There’s an effort to be much thinner now and the girls are miles taller.”
She doesn’t complain about any of it but in her twenties there was a point where she had a panic attack. She was acting in a play and couldn’t go on stage. “It was pre-Purdy and it was very hard times. The stress of everything got to me. I was double, treble anxious about everything and that little thin wire which you always think you can keep going just snapped. It was awful.” It never happened again? “No, but it made me realise we all have frailties in us. It helped me get to know when such things might happen again. That way  I could prevent them or evade them rather than march into them. It’s what comes from being older now. When you’re young and you’re having a tough time, you’re struggling with ‘will I make it as an actress? Will I ever be able to feed my boy enough food? Will I get enough money to buy him more shoes?’ and all those anxieties about being a parent. These anxieties are quite often about logistics, if you’re kept late at rehearsal who’ll pick him up from school? Or who will feed the cats? If you feel you are failing them or that you are forever on edge about how you will accomplish what has to be done, it can gnaw away at you. But it all came good.”
Jamie Lumley is a photographer living in Scotland, married to a writer and they have two daughters. “He’s at the very top of Scotland and I adore going there. Even if you are walking across a moor, you never feel alone and I love the Scottish people. I am three quarters Scottish, one eighth English and one eighth Danish.” People seem to respond to the Viking in her – her blonde charisma and the force in which she gets things done.
She also used hypnosis to get over the feeling that she couldn’t go on stage. “I wanted to feel like Judi Dench when she stands in the wings every night and says she can’t wait to get on the stage rather than ‘bloody hell, we’ve got two today’. I thought I want to be able to love it so I went to a hypnotist and asked can you change my mind and make me long to do the show. Eight shows a week, week after week. He didn’t put me out but he altered my mindset. I can’t remember him doing anything except talk to me and now, I love it. You’ve still got to learn your lines and all that business but now I think ‘oh, I’m going to have a really good crack at it.’. I wonder why people don’t use hypnotherapy for everything actually.”  ‘I’m afraid of the dark, get hypnotised’; ‘I’m afraid of flying, get hypnotised’.
“Maybe you can be hypnotised about losing your temper. I try not to and I don’t quite often but if I do lose my temper now either my head would come off or I may kill something.” You get the sense that underneath the glorious manners and charm Lumley is very contained. It’s all on the inside. “In Japan politeness is everything, I realised that I find it incredibly courteous and sweet. Manners maketh the man.”
She’s shortly off to Japan for a documentary. “It’ll be a three-parter all about Japan. I love making them. I love travelling and exploring. And it’s such a pleasure to bring it back to people who then stop you on the Tube and say ‘I loved that’.” Does her husband ever join her? “No. These things are done on small budgets. There are six of us, we all travel light with a particular job and I never trail around after him when he’s rehearsing his operas. I adore opera and when he’s finished I go when he’s ready to show me. If we’ve got time, by which I mean more than a few hours together, we’ve got a cottage in Scotland and that’s our bolthole where we can race up to and we just walk about in the hills, talk to each other and laze around. Sit by a fire, read books. If we don’t have time, we’re at home and we talk all the time. And we catch up on things like The Night Manager on television.
“I first heard his name when he was 13 and I was 21 and I remembered that name. There were various places where I almost met him. I nearly met him when he was 13. It was such an odd thing to remember. It’s a perfectly ordinary name. I met him ten years later when he was playing the organ at a friend’s wedding. We were both doing different things: I was with somebody else and he was just leaving university. Then we met again eight years after that and then it was the right time. With hindsight he was always the right person, otherwise why did I remember his name.”
Have all her husbands been charming? “I love the way you say ‘all’. There was one previous one and he was Jeremy Lloyd – immensely charming. Writer of Are You Being Served and ‘Allo Allo but I was married to him for about 20 minutes. I loved him and he loved me but we shouldn’t have got married. We remained close up until the time he died, which was over a year ago. I’m sad that he’s gone but his charm was wonderful.
Lumley and Patsy both inhabit a charmed world. Patsy, of course, has no charm whatsoever, her charmlessness helps to make her the hilarious cartoon she is and distances her from Lumley who is quite possibly the most charming person ever. “I’m so excited about going to Australia. I’ve only been to Perth and that was years ago. I was thrilled to learn we’re doing a premier in Sydney and will get to go to Melbourne as well. Darling, how lovely will that be!” And the thing is, she really means it.

Click here to read Chrissy’s interview with Jennifer Saunders

Selena Gomez

Selena Gomez & Chrissy Iley

Selena Gomez arrives to meet me for dinner at a cosy restaurant in the suburbs of LA. She’s alone, no entourage, no fuss. She is newly skinny in a cream plunging V-neck, leather jeggings and black-strapped stilettos.
Her face is endearingly shaped like a moon.  Her skin impeccable, her eyes orbital.  Her lips poufy and juicy in a pale crimson lip balm. She exudes sweetness and poise in equal measure.
You can see why she was credited with being the stabilising influence in Justin Bieber’s life when she was his girlfriend for two years until 2013. And there were a few hook ups after that. She is incredibly calming. She has always had focus, graduating from the Disney school of child stardom to become a fully fledged actress as well as pop star.
The video for her latest single, Good For You, showcases sexiness and devotion; how she likes to be with her man. Shot partly in virginal white T-shirt and partly naked and pouting in the shower.  Except “I was covered from here to here,” she gestures from her cleavage downwards.
I read that the lyrics on her album Revival were inspired by her relationship with Bieber. I say his name.  She doesn’t flinch. And that his upcoming album is about her?  “It’s difficult for people to separate us. The internet wants to freeze this moment in time and constantly repeat it.  There are a couple of songs, Every Step and Closing, that are inspired but it’s also just about two people.
“I want people to see that there is strength in it and there is pain. Hopefully the album will speak for itself.  I’ve had no movie or album out for a year. What else are they going to talk about? The same thing over and over again.  There’s going to be a day when there’s a new young person who is hip and I’ll be married with children and it won’t be as bad. This industry does not dictate my happiness. If I lost everything tomorrow I’d be devastated but also know that my self-worth is not based in this industry. I’ve seen how it destroys people.”
We are now sharing some ravioli, which is delicious.  Is she in love right now? “No. I’ve been working my butt off. I’m dating but I don’t really want anything right now.”  Does she fall in love easily? “No,” she says firmly.
She was 23 in July, a Cancer. “I’m true to the sign. I am very nurturing. I take care of my friends, I’m sensitive and emotional and I love being at home.”  She lives with some flatmates, her mum and stepdad Brian close-by. For a while her mum helped manage her. Now they are producing partners.  Her parents were only 16 when they had her. As they are close in age, did she and her mum feel more like friends? “Never, not at all. She’s always been my mother. She’s the reason I’ve never succumbed to the bad part of what this industry is. She gets very scared for me, when I get criticised, when I had helicopters above my home. Helicopters?” She shrugs. “Absurd. My past relationship was a hot topic.
“I don’t draw a lot of attention to myself when I’m in public. I don’t travel with an entourage.  Of course there are ways in which I have to edit my life. Even just leaving my house I might take separate cars and bend down in the back seat because I don’t like to have photographers if I’m trying to have a nice day out.   It’s absurd wandering around with 12 people taking your photo.  They think if you have success they can do whatever they want to you. And that is a scary place.   But I am not the kind of person that likes a fuss. I never say ‘I can’t do this’”.
She stays grounded by keeping the same best friends that she grew up with. She grew up following in the footsteps of Miley Cyrus and Taylor Swift. A specific generation of good girls who had to navigate growing up and their sexuality in public. Gomez has cited Britney Spears as a role model – which is weird because Gomez’s transition from being a poppet in the Disney empire has been far more graceful than Spears’s.
“I can count on one hand the people that I could call and they would be there for me. Taylor Swift I’ve known for seven years and she’s one of the greatest people. When I split up with my first boyfriend (Nick Jonas of the sibling then squeaky clean pop group The Jonas Brothers) and I was really sad about it, she flew into town with homemade cookies and a bunch of junk food. She was 18 and I was 16 and to this day if I call her she would do the same thing despite being one of the busiest people in the world. I knew her when I was with Disney. “Disney was good training. It prepared me for so much.. I was grateful.”
Why does she think she has such drive? She recalls, ‘I love Texas, my biological father lives there. (YES HE IS ALIVE) I moved here (to LA) when I was 13. I was excited but I would also sob every day because I missed home so much.  My mum would ask me if wanted to go home.  And even though I felt there was a hole in my heart I said ‘I can’t go home’ and I don’t know why that was.”
She intends to continue balancing a music and acting career. “I want to be challenged. I’m thirsty for that.”
Her fans call themselves Selenators. She has 39 million Instagram followers. ‘I feel like as well as the fans I’ve grown up with, there is an older audience as well.” Her voice on Good For You is a raspy purr.
She is such an interesting mix of innocent and wise. Her father used to take her to Hooters [a sports bar famous for it’s buxom waitresses in skimpy uniforms] when she was growing up.  “My father had me at 16. What do you expect a young guy to do? It wasn’t bad. I still go to Hooters today, I go with my boyfriends. I would sit there and colour in pictures and that’s when I fell in love with basketball because he would got there to watch sports. My dad loves me, I was his world.”
When she was dating Nick Jonas in 2006-7 they wore purity rings. “I did and I’m not embarrassed to say that.  I’m also not embarrassed to say that that ring has come off. I got it when I was 13 and I respect so much what it represented. But it isn’t for everyone.” She was massively made fun of at the time. “Sometimes you have to lie to yourself to get through the criticism and then you’re in your closet crying. It’s been like that for me a couple of times.  But I only want to learn from those things.  Make them a part of me but not let them define me.
“At school I was not popular. I was not focused on my looks. I wasn’t a girly girl. I wore my hair in a ponytail and a hoody. It was vicious. I got through it because I was obsessed with Ab Fab. I walked around gesturing the martini and the cigarettes. The sarcasm and timing taught me to get through a lot of awkwardness in conversations.” She gestures the martini and cigarette. Laughs.
Gomez is even more beautiful in person than in pictures. Yet on a recent radio show she rated herself only a six or seven. “Every person has days when they wake up feeling super sexy and there are days I look like a hot mess. I want people to know that I don’t think that I am perfect.” She flutters an eyelash and looks at me rather pleadingly. She wants people to like her, she wants to be ordinary yet from a very young age she has lived an extraordinary life.
She was born in Prairie, Texas in 1992. Her father Ricardo is of Mexican descent and mother Mandy of Italian heritage. Her parents split when she was a few years old. Her mother struggled financially. When she was nine she got a role in Barney and Friends which led her to the Disney TV show, The Wizards of Waverley Place, when she was 15.
It seems that she has been working her entire life. She seems much older, an old soul. “I have been called that before.” Does she think she’s lived on this earth before? “Maybe. But I also think my work ethic has made me understand how the world works.  I’m very much an observer. Maybe I was here in a past life but I also know that I’ve learned so much in this life and I have so much still to figure out.”
She has a teeny-tiny musical quaver tattooed on her neck.  “That was my first, I have six now. My mum’s birthday on the back of my neck, G for Gracie, she is my little sister.  And there’s a quote about finding your own strengths.”
Feeling strong is something that Gomez aspires to. Although there have been days where she admits to feeling “pressure” like the couple of times she found a helicopter above her garden trying to spy on her and her then boyfriend Bieber. She’s not a person who moans about the paparazzi.  She accepts it comes with the territory. Does she Google herself? “Yes, sometimes,” she tells me.  “Not everyday. But if I think there is something I should be aware of because people are talking about it.”
A few months ago, there were pictures of her looking like she had gained a few pounds. Today she looks super-svelte. “I have definitely been taking care of myself. I’ve been hiking and I have been cooking a lot.  Before I was able to eat just what I want but that doesn’t happen anymore.  I’m from Texas so I love fried food.  Sometimes I make fried chicken and waffles for breakfast but I’ve had to cut back.”
She is wearing a solid silver collar. It looks like a dog collar.  And a little S&M. It’s a statement piece of jewellery that says, ‘I have transitioned from being a Disney screen princess.’
“Most people have such a misconception of child stars, they think they are thrown into it and don’t want it. I think younger stars get targeted because it’s easier. I’m trying to figure my life out. I’m not saying I won’t make any mistakes but I am going to make my work a priority and stay extremely focused.”
Does she find it hard to navigate her sexuality and love life in public? She nods solemnly. “No one signs up for that. Every experience I have had has been beautiful genuinely.  But it’s also been a huge factor that almost destroyed me.”
She’s referring to Bieber. “It was people having an opinion on a choice that you make and you don’t want to be criticised for that. I didn’t think I was doing anything bad by falling in love. There’s such an emphasis on people being the perfect thing and then destroying them because it’s good press.   Also throw in the fact that you are a teenager it makes it more difficult. Now, at 23 I am able to step back and know that there are things that I will have to accept that are different in my life.  The next relationship will be something dear to me…” Her voice trails off. She offers me some of her tuna tartar.  “There is no way I will ever hide my life…”
It’s a tricky navigation, to be honest and try to preserve privacy.   “Some days I wake up and I hate it.  I wish I were never in the spotlight. Then I say ‘this is a life I chose.’  I work really hard, I love my job more than anything. It goes back and forth.”
I have interviewed many celebrities who have given me the ‘I don’t want to talk about my private life speech’, but never one so heartfelt.  Besides, she’s not closed, she’s open. Choosing a role in Harmony Korine’s Spring Breakers in 2012 was the first indication of her transition. The film was about debauchery on a spring break: sex, drugs, darkness, bikinis. Gomez was the only one who kept her bikini on.
“Spring Breakers was a crucial decision because I wanted to change the dialogue of who I am.” It was a rites of passage movie.  “Yes, I was in that place for sure.  Harmony wanted me to audition for one of the other girls’ parts. But I didn’t feel comfortable doing that.” (The other girls’ parts were more sexually overt, more reprehensible).  “I was 19 and I could relate to (her character) Faith. I’ve lived her life a little bit. More innocent than the other girls.” And she never got naked.  “That was a plus. I thought ‘I will save that for later’”.
Is faith still important to her? “I’m proud of having faith. The quote on my Instagram is ‘By grace through faith’ – one of my favourite lines from The Bible. It’s about handling every decision as gracefully as possible.”  And with that she graciously orders the bill and insists on paying for dinner.

Ian McKellen (May, 2015)

Ian McKellen and Chrissy Iley

The first thing you notice about Ian McKellen is the blueness of the eyes.  It’s almost other worldly in its sparkle. One can’t use the phrase ‘piecing blue eyes’ because they do not pierce you they do not even look at you.  He in fact looks out, as if on a stage, to the view at the large window that overlooks The Thames.

We are seven floors up in his hotel suite in Canary Wharf, which is just around the corner from his home.

I remember those eyes. Specifically I remember them gleaming out on stage where I have seen him in Macbeth, Richard III, Bent. He has this unque ability to make everyone in the audience feel he is looking at them and make them understand Shakespeare even though they went just to see him. They are the eyes of Gandalf the kindly wizard from Lord of the Rings epics.

He is tall, slim handsome.  Dark grey skinny jeans, black boots, blue shirt.  He doesn’t dress like a man of 75 (76 on May 25). He looks much younger than I expected but that could be because I’ve just seen him play the 93-year-old Sherlock Holmes in the exquisite film, Mr Holmes.

I wonder did it unnerve him to play someone so close to death?  “I am 76 this month.  People you know very well die all around you, so you discover you do think about death quite a lot; theirs and your own.  So to play someone who at the onset, who is so old and is trying to find some sort of elixir of life to remember everything – I can understand it.

“Playing old used to be a matter of deciding which foot to limp on. But it’s up here,” he points to his head. “You have to tell your brain how old you are.  It’s a cliché isn’t it? But inside you don’t feel your age but you are reminded when you take your pills or in particular when friends are dying, that at last mortality becomes reality.”

I find this strangely emotional, even though he didn’t mean it to be. I’ve read how he completely underplayed his need for hearing aids, dental implants and the removal of cataracts from his eyes. He even shrugged off his diagnosis of prostate cancer assuring us he was completely fine.  I shudder. Mortality is horrible. “I don’t know about that. It’s what happens?

“I’ve seen quite a few people at the ends of their lives and they all seem ready for it. I think the preparation has been going on for some time.  You are frightened aren’t you? And as you get older you accept it. Deaths of friends that are accidents, mistakes are dreadful for them and the people they leave behind. But if I saw an obituary that said Sir Ian McKellen died aged 76 you would think ‘well he had a good life.’”

What? There’d be a nation in mourning. And yes, we would be shocked because 76 doesn’t seem especially old. “Young people say he’s really old, he’s well into his forties.”

Does he hang out with many young people? “Sometimes. Sometimes not. If I have a party there will be people my own age and younger ones. Friends who have children. For them the younger generation is a big part of their lives. I do have young people I’m fond of….”

He seemed to become super friendly with Harry Styles when they met on the Graham Norton Show. Did they stay friends? “We exchanged emails. He wanted to see the latest Hobbit film and because of who he is he couldn’t easily go to the cinema so I arranged a screening for him in New York. Since then he has had other things to do…

“I think it’s a mistake to restrict your friends by age.  You wouldn’t say I only act with people my age.”

The Mr Holmes he played was a brilliant man who was losing his mind and trying to remember everything. Was that frightening to connect with?

“No. Most parts you play you have some connection with. You just say he’s that sort of man, I’ll adjust to his way of thinking. The work has been done, the lines have been written.  It can sometimes be enough just to say the lines. You don’t see the significance of what you have said until you see the film.”

It was perhaps more poignant for me because my father had a brilliant mind that he lost to Alzheimer’s.  McKellen suddenly looks up and at me, right at me for the first time. “Was he miserable?”  No he was angry. He wanted to know the details, the minutiae of his mind unravelling and how long it took. I notice he is much more animated, much more comfortable talking about other people than himself. But then again he is much more comfortable being other people.

“Mr Holmes doesn’t have dementia, he’s got most of his faculties.  He’s just trying to gear himself up with energy and solve problems, which I think is very optimistic.  And you feel at the end of the movie that he’s a better person for what he has discovered and for what he goes through. So for me it wasn’t depressing at all, it was a sunny film.”

I wonder has he seen the other Sherlock Holmes’s, Benedict Cumberbatch, Jonny Lee Miller, Robert Downey Jr. Which was his favourite? “I’ve not seen Robert Downey Jr’s. I’ve seen little bits of the Benedict one which was clever and witty.  My favourite was Jeremy Brett for Granada Television. He took the character very seriously. It’s a detailed performance, very black, upsetting and not comfortable and I think that’s what I like about it.

“There have been so many actors  that have played Sherlock Holmes you can’t worry about how good other people have been otherwise you would never play anything, Hamlet or Macbeth. I’m quite used to playing parts other people have played,” he says demurely.  “Of course they didn’t play this particular Holmes. It is mine, I’m the oldest Holmes so far.” He smiles as he says the word “oldest” with relish.

The movie meshes the past and the present. It’s rather haunting when it trails back, searching and nostalgic. Does McKellen himself look back or live in the present or future?

“I just had a very nostalgic three days with my cousin Margaret. We worked out quite quickly that even though we don’t see much of each other, we are each the person the other has known the longest.  There’s nobody who’s known Margaret longer than I and vice versa.  Is that nostalgic?  We spent a lot of time remembering things that happened and talking about our parents.

“I wish I had been more nostalgic for the past when my sister Jean was alive.  She was five years older than me and died six years ago.  Together we would have remembered things about our childhood that now I’ll never know. Things that happened in the war. I was thinking about writing a memoir so I’m trying to remember the evacuees that stayed with us.  We lived in the north and they were evacuated from Middlesex. The father was a fire fighter so he didn’t come but the mother and her two children came, Tony and his younger sister, I can’t remember her name, and we lived together for a year.  Can you imagine, a little house, four of us and then suddenly three strangers moving in.”

McKellen was born in Burnley, grew up in Wigan and later went to Bolton School for Boys where he was head boy.  His father Dennis was a civil engineer and a lay preacher, his mother a theatre lover and home maker.

“I try not to think of the future, I catch myself thinking I’m glad I didn’t have any children. I would worry for their future. Besides I don’t think I would have been a very good parent. I don’t think many people are. I think it’s the most difficult thing anyone can do.”

Did he never think about being a parent? “I’m a gay man. In my generation you would never imagine having children. Some people want that. But I see my friends struggling with being a parent. You have to be so generous don’t you?”

Does he mean gay or straight friends? “Both, I don’t think there is any difference except perhaps if you are a gay parent you must have thought really hard about having children. It would never have been a quick night in the sack.

“I don’t think gay man of my generation ever thought about it.  We didn’t think about getting married. The state wouldn’t allow gay relationships to be declared.  And then they pointed at us and said look, they are irresponsible, they are not like us, they don’t have families.  No we don’t because you tell us we can’t. It’s silly.” He says all this matter of factly, the anger sucked out of it. It’s an inner dialogue that must have gone on for so many years of his life. He knows its every twist and turn.

He came out when he was 49, almost by accident on a Radio 3 talk show when he was discussing Clause 28, the 1988 bill that said no public servant, including teachers, could be seen to be promoting a gay lifestyle. He has always talked about coming out as a huge relief. Of course his friends and theatre family knew he was gay and he was fully established in his career but letting the world know was not just an emotional milestone it paved the way for other actors to declare themselves.

At the time he was Britain’s most famous theatre actor. It is only after this date that what were to become his most renowned film roles started to come in – The Lord of the Rings movies, the X-Men franchise, The Golden Compass, The Da Vinci Code,  Gods and Monsters.

Perhaps it was easier because at 49 the romantic lead roles were dwindling and many of his characters were asexual. When Rupert Everett came out he said that he regretted it because then he was never taken seriously as a heterosexual romantic lead again.  “Rupert is a bright man and that was how it seemed to him. But I would not say that is true for me. When an actor’s career doesn’t go in the direction they want it too it’s not just down to one particular reason. I suspect his views have changed now. I would take acting out of the equation. I have not met anybody who thought that coming out wasn’t the best thing they had done in their life. It was the most important thing, life changing and life-affirming.”

I wonder if coming out is an old fashioned phrase as things have moved on immeasurably.  “I know people who are not at ease saying they are gay but I don’t know many young people who have problems with it.  I hope in fifty years we will look back and wonder what all the fuss was about.”

For him and his generation things were much harder. Life was closed and full of stressful secrets. It is perhaps easier to come out to your friends then siblings and parents last.

McKellen’s mother died when he was twelve. “That relationship is irreplaceable. When my father married two years later I think one of his motives was to provide me with a mother, which she never was.  She was Gladys and I had a very different relationship with her. I ended up being very close to her. But she wasn’t my mother and I would love to have known my mother as an adult.

“My father died when I was 25 (killed in a car crash). We weren’t that close and for the previous four years I’d been at university.  I don’t know how different my life or my thinking would have been if they had both been alive.  There would have been a lot for them to get over. In that we weren’t a family who….” He pauses, even now finding it difficult to find the right words.

Confronting who you are and telling your parents in a time when it was illegal would have been so hard. His first proper love affair was with history teacher Brian Taylor from Bolton. It began in 1964, coincidentally the same year his father died. It endured until 1972. Six years later he met Sean Mathias at the Edinburgh Festival and they were together as a couple for a decade. They still work together. Mathias directed him in Waiting For Godot (2009) and together with another businessman they purchased the lease on The Grapes pub in Limehouse, close to where he lives.

There is nothing about him that seems extravagant.  He is not over the top with his emotions?  Does he do anything that is excessive, luxurious? “Compared to other people my house is luxurious, but it’s within my means. And I’m never tempted to live anywhere else. It roots me.”

It is in this moment that I wonder how different he would have been if his mother had not died. What if he could ever have confronted his feelings? He would he have ever have come out at all? Did his parents easily access their emotions and talk openly?

“There was a lot of love and caring and no-one ever lifted a hand in anger. But they were not emotionally open. It never became a problem but I think it would have done if they had been alive. We didn’t seem to talk about things that were important. I would have to have come out and God knows how that would have gone down.  It’s a deep regret that I didn’t have the chance to tell them.”  He has stopped looking out of the window. The conversation is suddenly important to him.  As his mother died when he was twelve, surely he didn’t know then if he was gay.  “No I didn’t.”  Post war Britain didn’t encourage introspection, it encouraged getting on with things.  He nods.  “Clearly there are a lot of families that don’t really nurture each other and some that do.”

Perhaps the fact that who he really was had to remain hidden and disconnected from his parents. It informed his desire to be an actor where you are connecting with everybody. “That is an astute observation and there is some truth in it.  One of the things that strongly appealed to me about acting was that it was a substitute for real life.  I know more about acting and what it involves, it’s effects, it’s craft than I do about anything else in my life.  I think I’m a good actor but I couldn’t say that I have a strong grasp of other areas.  So initially it was a substitute, a lot to do with being gay, unable to be myself in real life because the law said you couldn’t be. That suppression is cruel and barbaric.

“Within the theatre, one could not only express emotions publicly, although not your own – they were your own but filtered through a character. So that was an outing, a healthy one within the community of theatre. There was acceptance and love that you didn’t get anywhere else.”  Does he mean the theatre was his real family?  “That is right.  Acting is not about ego and drawing attention to yourself, it’s about getting on with people and doing it together… but then I have to come and talk about myself,” he says with a gently raised eyebrow.
He really doesn’t like revealing. It’s not in his make-up.  He’s learned too well to keep important things hidden.

When he was 18 he won a scholarship to St. Catharine’s College, Cambridge, to read English Literature. A grammar school boy suddenly mixed in with very posh people.  Was that alienating?

“There were a lot of divisions when I was university between men and women, between boys who had come from doing their National Service and those who had come straight to university.  They had killed people and now they were coming back to the rules of the university.  There was a division between north and south and I was mocked for my accent.  There were scholarship boys like me and those from southern public schools.  Many divisions, and that was just one of them. Those divisions helped you to find yourself and find your friends.”

Trevor Nunn, David Frost, Corin Redgrave and Derek Jacobi were all at Cambridge around the same time. He had a secret crush on Derek Jacobi, the actor with whom he stars in the ITV comedy series Vicious where they both play outrageously mean and camp individuals. Back then it could not have been more different. “I wouldn’t take it any further then, you just didn’t. We didn’t ever talk about being gay, it was a secret.”  They didn’t even come out to each other.

“My best friend at school qA David Hargreaves. We acted at school, we went to the theatre a lot, we were inseparable in the way kids could be. Right thorugh school. He ended up a professor of education at Oxford and Cambridge and he was gay. We never knew, we never talked about it. Isn’t that interesting?”

They were kindred spirits and didn’t realise why.  “Even my friendship with Derek we never called ourselves gay. I can’t remember what we did call ourselves. I remember I was meeting people like myself and many of them would go to the theatre but I didn’t wake up sexually until after Cambridge.”

Did he ever have a girlfriend.  “Who I had sex with?” He looks a little shocked.  No, had feelings for, who he kissed, who he felt maybe he could go there with?  “Yes, a little bit.  It didn’t seem quite right to me. I had a few who were a bit sweet on me and of course I couldn’t tell them I wasn’t attracted to them so I went along with it, a little bit.  I was experimental as many straight men were experimental. I don’t mean to make it sound clinical. I had some very close relationships with girls that had I been straight would have led onto a serious relationship. Of my closest friends there are as many women as there are men.” Does he want to fall in love again?  “No it’s nothing I would like in my life. My passion in life is that I know a bit about the status of gay people in this country and around the world.  It’s nice to have something that I have a strong feeling and connection with.”

I’m slightly haunted about his mother.  About if she hadn’t died when he was so young how he would ever have come out.  And what a difference that would have made in his life and what a difference that would have made in the rest of the world as so many gay men have looked to him as a mentor.

“I didn’t know my mother was dying. She was sleeping downstairs and had been in hospital. I didn’t know she had a mastectomy until after she died. I was away on a school camp.  I thought she was ill but she was going to get better. I didn’t see her in any distress.”

The 12-year-old McKellen chose not to come back for the funeral which seems to illustrate just how separate he could be from his emotions and the deep places he found to bury them. Emotions that later would be filtered through characters that would dazzle us.

He did once go back to the house they lived in growing up and talked to the woman who had bought it. “We had moved from Wigan to Bolton and that was where my mother died.  The woman who bought the house (in Wigan) claimed that on the day my mother died, she felt a presence.  She didn’t know that my mother had died but she found the lights being turned on and off and then she thought she saw someone come up the stairs. She had the idea that my mother would have gone back to the house where she was happiest at the moment of her death.”

In 1998 he did a one-man show called Knight Out in which he discussed his life and career. The speech that he would do at the end was called Letter to Mama by Armistead Maupin.  It was the letter that Maupin wrote to his mother when he came out.  It would touch everyone in the audience. Perhaps because he was using it as his channel. Perhaps it was the letter he would have written to his mother telling her things that he could never have done.

“I’d been watching some little films that my uncle took. My cousin Margaret bought them down. My father was a handsome bugger and my mother was pretty. You see them as kids just getting married. They couldn’t have known what they were letting themselves in for.”

From whom did he inherit the electric blue eyes? “I am colour blind so eyes don’t register with me. It must be the blue shirt that makes my eyes look more blue.” The eyes, his mother’s eyes, twinkle, the same other worldly twinkle.

Mr Holmes is out June 19

Sophia Loren (Seven Magazine, Sunday Telegraph, Nov. 09, 2014)

Sophia Loren has always seemed to epitomise glamour, pure sex and the Hollywood state of mine, even though many of her movies were in fact Italian including Two Women, for which she won an Oscar.
There is probably no greater on screen chemistry than Sophia Loren and Cary Grant in Houseboat (1958). They met when they made The Pride and the Passion in 1957. They were really in love. Or at least she was enthralled with him. And he was besotted.
I loved the chapters about Grant in her autobiography Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: My Life as a Fairy Tale. They shimmered with charm. The book is poetically written and reasonably entertaining. It is a detailed account of her life in movies. Forensic details about actors, actresses, directors, sets. Sharply contrasted with the poverty and desperation of her war torn childhood without a father.
I have gone to Geneva where she has lived for the past 36 years to meet her. In a quiet chi-chi hotel penthouse suite I am ushered in and there she is. She handles herself with grandeur.
She is wearing a black and white trouser suit. Her late husband Carlo Ponti once told her she should always wear suits. She is slim and voluptuous. A great body, even at 80. Her breasts still buoyant. Her eyes brown like chocolate melted over honeycomb. Giant eyelashes, giant lips.
She has always had the giant lips. After her very first photo shoot she was told that her facial proportions were wrong. That her nose was too big. And she wouldn’t dream of changing anything. She knew who she was.
So it is with sadness that I note the evidence of some facial landscaping and her hair is in fact a rather stiff wig. Nonetheless it is still her. She is still full of Italian mama warmth and spiky charm. She misses nothing and gives the impression that she is fresh and tireless.
Has she always been a write? ‘I used to write in my diary every day. I am a Virgo, so annoying and boring. I found the diary and I said let me see how many years ago I wrote this? And I saw many things in it. Many things that I didn’t want to ever let go from my own intimacy. So I tore out the page. And then another. And then another.
‘And then I thought I don’t want these books to be around if I’m not there one day. I would like to keep my privacy. All these things have to be finished. So I burned them. All of them.
‘So every year when I write my diary. A phrase here, a date there. A note about meeting someone. And every year I destroyed them. There are some things I want to keep just for myself.’
I’m rather puzzled at why she’s written an autobiography and she’s here to promote it and she tells me first off she burned the juicy bits. It’s not that the book is bland or without detail. Her childhood for instance lays out so many details you can practically smell the Parmesan cheese being grated. That’s if there was a cheese. Most of the time they were too poor for cheese and had to beg people in the street for a crust of bread.
Later on where she talks of her desperation for children and her endless miscarriages, it’s gruelling and after that when she was wrongly imprisoned for tax evasion, her prison diary reads like a scene from a prison B Movie. Now I want to know what she’s left out.
‘The book is a story of my life read as a story. I think you put other things in a diary. Just feelings, not facts. Perhaps nothing to do with your life. Anyway, why should I give it all out?’
She comes over as an interesting mix of shyness, reserve, confident to the point of fearless, open and wary in equal parts.
‘I wanted to give in the books the facts of my life. How I succeeded. How my life was during the war. I wanted to do that with all my heart because people have written books about me and sometimes it was not real, people completely made it up. Sometimes they put in something they read in the papers.
‘It’s not like I wanted to put the record straight, just that I wanted to say what happened to me, because I am proud. I was really a nobody, a little girl, unhappy, in desperation because of the life I was living with my family and no father. Everyone was starving during the war.’
Her voice trails. What she was starving for all her life was a father. She had a father. She knew him. But he never married her mother. Her mother looked like a starlet. It was her dream to be an actress. Her mother Romilda Villani won a contest held in Italy by MGM Studios to find the new Greta Garbo when she was just 17 and the prize was to go to Hollywood. Her parents said she was too young and wouldn’t let her go. Romilda, according to her daughter, ‘oozed allure.’
Instead she had a passionate, calamitous on off relationship with Riccardo Scicolone Murillo and became pregnant with Sophia. Riccardo came from a good family but was one of these aristocratic losers. He gave his name to his first child but Sophia had to buy his name with her first pay cheque for her sister Maria.
The older authoritative male figure is something that she was always searching for, which is perhaps why she felt so instantly at home when she met Italian film producer and director Carlo Ponti, who was nearly 22 years her senior. Cary Grant was 30 years her senior.
She doesn’t remember ever thinking she was beautiful or special, but she found her old school book, part of the inspiration for writing her memoir. On the first page it was written in Italian “Sophia Scicolone will become a great star.” It was some kind of premonition that she would be famous. ‘Why did I write that? I don’t know. I have no idea.’
The book must have been some kind of catharsis for her. She looks blankly. I’m not sure she understands the word. Sometimes she answers in Italian. She does perk up when I talk about her father, as he seems to haunt the book. He buys her a present, she loves it, she’ll keep it forever. Then he disappears. He gets back together with her mother and then they break up. They get together again and he leaves her again and again and again. At what point did she decide he was a useless human being?
‘When you are five, six, seven, you follow what your mother tells you because you want to make peace. You want the normality, which we didn’t have. My father would always comes to see me when my mother sent him a telegram saying, “Sophia’s very sick. Come.” It didn’t matter why he came. What I always wanted, because all my friends had it, was a father. I wanted to be like them, to be normal. But this was not possible. ‘So you see these things when you’re 13, 14, when you’re almost grown up. You see it for what it is.’
Does she think this lack of a father is what attracted her to men who were older, that they were fulfilling a mentoring role? ‘No,’ she says abruptly. ‘I was never attracted to men like that.’ You see her nostrils flare slightly, still expressing disgust at her father.
She agrees though she did want to learn. ‘And I had a lot to learn because I lived in a small town. There was no opportunity for me to have experiences even with younger men. It was all impossible, impossible.’
The first time she met Ponti ‘I felt at home. When I was leaving him to go home after we’d seen each other I would feel calm. I would ask myself why do you feel like that? Because I trusted him. I was terribly young. I was 17 and we didn’t have anything together until a long time later. It’s not like today.
‘He gave me confidence. He taught me many things. One day he bought me a suit and he said, “You should always wear suits because it suits you very well.” But he was always saying stuff like that. I cut my hair to look like an actress who was very successful at the time, Lucia Bosè and Carlo said, “You should always wear short hair.”
‘Each time I did something that he liked he would always say “You should always do that” and yes, this gave me confidence. He was protective and he… took my insecurities away, yes. He looked and sounded like he would take care of me which no other man had done.’ And did he take care of her? ‘Oh yes.’
By the time she met Cary Grant on the set of the Pride and The Passion (1957) she and Ponti were definitely an item. They were together but couldn’t marry because Ponti couldn’t get a divorce. The laws in Italy at that time were extremely high end Catholic. This was a source of great frustration to Loren because of course all she ever wanted to be was normal.
At this vulnerable moment enter the gently seductive impossibly charming Cary Grant who courted her on set with many intimate little dinners and then proposed to her. Why on earth didn’t she take Cary Grant?
‘They were very different men. It was difficult. I was doing my first American language film and my American language was so very terrible I was upset. Many times I needed help with the language and Cary would help me.
‘Cary belonged to another world in America. I felt that I would never fit in there. I would never have a future there because of my nationality. I was scared to change completely in life without knowing if this relationship or quasi relationship was going on.
‘The picture finished. We exchanged numbers and he said he would call. In fact he did come on to the set of Two Women and then when I was doing a picture in New York he came to the house. I was together with Carlo and already had my son.
‘One day he called me in New York where I was for another film. “How are you?” I’m fine I said, why are you calling? And he said, “Because I wanted to say ciao.” That was it. He died. He must have known he was dying.’ Her voice is shaky with sadness.
Something in the book that puzzles me. On the day her second film with Grant wrapped he sent her a giant bunch of yellow roses. She was leaving with Ponti on the plane and boasted about the yellow roses. ‘Yes, it was not a nice thing to do. Maybe I wanted to test him, to test how he felt. I was young and thought if he got angry and jealous it meant he loved me.’
In fact Ponti was so angry and jealous he hit her. ‘Yes he did. Very softly. Let’s not exaggerate it. But that’s what made me feel okay. That made me feel I’d made the right choice.’ I tell her I still don’t understand and that jealousy doesn’t equate to love. She is quiet, which is unusual because she’s extremely chatty.
What about all these other iconic men that she worked with – Marlon Brando, Charlie Chaplin, Richard Burton? Was she ever daunted by that?
‘What is daunted? I was friends with them, never nervous. Richard was having a very difficult time in his life. He was suffering a lot and we took care of him. He would play with the children and have a wonderful time but then Elizabeth would come and have lunch and it would not be good.’
Was she attracted to him? ‘I admired him and he was very handsome and he had a beautiful voice. And when he was acting he was the end he was so good. So I learned a lot from him.’
Were there any other of your co-stars you felt passionate about?
‘No.’
No?
‘You ask me these things so simply. You think you can ask me that and that I’m going to answer you? Very funny. You sounded naïve but you’re not naïve.’
This is probably the most charming put down I’ve ever had in an interview and now I realise what might be missing from the book. She is certainly not going to tell me.
I also found it hard to fathom when she was nominated for an Oscar in 1962 she didn’t want to go to the ceremony because she’d be too upset if she didn’t win, so she waited at home. It was many years before live telecasts and while she waited she went to make sauce to calm her down. She was up against Audrey Hepburn for Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Natalie Wood in Splendor in the Grass.
She aged up over a decade for her character in Two Women. She played a mother in Italy during the war and put every emotion from her starving and sometimes terrified childhood into it. It was a big deal. It was an Italian language movie. She felt it didn’t have a chance.
‘Cooking is something that gives you a sense of home. If you have a sense of home you feel fine, or at least I do. I feel protected.’
What is her signature dish? ‘Eggplant parmesan.’
I tell her that I had that very dish last night.
‘Oh, but in a restaurant. It’s something you have to do at home.’
So she made her tomato sauce instead of going to the Oscars because if she won she might faint and if she didn’t win she’d be too upset? ‘Yes, that’s true.’
But later that night. In fact in the early hours of the next morning, she got a call from Cary Grant saying, ‘Darling, you won.’
Soon after this in 1964 she and Ponti moved to Paris because there was still no divorce in Italy. ‘In fact Carlo and his wife had to become French so we could get married. The situation was very complicated.’
Years before she thought she was married by proxy in Mexico. She says that it made her feel better. It alleviated her pain. It wasn’t a valid marriage but at least made her feel that Carlo wanted her as a wife. ‘It was very stressful but I thought that Carlo loved me and that was what counted. Life is not easy when you have the law against you and you can so easily get yourself in trouble and that was the last thing I wanted for our harmony.’
Loren of course always wanted to be a proper wife, have a proper family, be normal. ‘It took a long time but it happened. And then I had a bad time because I couldn’t have children. Or at least I got pregnant but I lost them.’
Heartbreakingly a doctor told her she’d never have children. ‘But then I met this wonderful doctor who realised the miscarriages were coming because of a lack of oestrogen. He gave me oestrogen and then I got pregnant.’
Her two sons Carlo Jr, 45, and Edoardo, 41. One is an orchestral conductor, the other a writer and director are very much adored. ‘No, I don’t like to exaggerate. Two boys are fine. They made me so happy with my life. And I have four grandchildren. Carlo’s son is very much like Carlo. And the girl is like his wife who is Swedish. They have blue eyes,’ she says flashing me her enormous golden brown orbs.
Does she think her eyes are her best feature? ‘No. No, I don’t. My character is my best feature.’
She jokes that for a long time she had to live with a newspaper who claimed her beauty and her figure was all down to eating lots of spaghetti. The quote went viral. ‘I never said that. I think the quote was “Everything I am I owe to spaghetti.” How rude,’ she says laughing. ‘I like to eat simple things. Yes, like eggplant Parmesan. Yes, like ragout. It’s very heavy. I suppose I like things that are not light.
‘I exercise every day for about 20 minutes. I think it’s important to do that instead of just lying in bed.’
What makes her happy? ‘A good day when I can do what I want. When things work. Something that I’ve been thinking about for a while and something suddenly happens, a breakthrough.’
She is happy with her life in Geneva. She may love Italian food but the Italian authorities and religion and tax regime certainly don’t please her. Was it painful for her to write about her time in prison?
‘It was painful because all the time I was innocent. It was bad management but they went on with the trial. They gave me a month in jail and released me after 17 days.’
Because they realised you were innocent? ‘No, it took 40 years and 40 years later I won the trial. It was not true. I had paid every penny. It’s not really true that that put me off Italy but I made a lot of films outside of Italy and it was convenient so we moved.’
Does she have work coming up? ‘Yes. I do have something in mind that I’d like to do but I can’t talk about it because we’re still working out the rights or at least the producer is. I’m just doing the acting.’
She won’t hint at what the role is but it feels good to know she’s not giving anything up. She is still tireless, still charismatic and unswervingly warm. As I leave she promises she’s going to make me her eggplant Parmesan. Can’t wait to have her in my kitchen.

Robert Downey Jr. (October 12, 2014)

I arrive at Robert Downey Jr’s four-storey headquarters in Venice, California. I use the word headquarters for many reasons. Firstly – there’s a sense that team Downey is running to change the world, taking on interesting projects with verve and enthusiasm. Secondly – it’s far too spectacular to be called an office.

Downey is wearing a T-shirt and sweats. He is fresh from the gym. He is a mixture of calm and perky. He tells me the building used to belong to a British photographer and as we wind our way upstairs past various warrens and the workforce, he shows me his son Exton’s playroom which used to be ‘the playboy suite where the photographer would take all of his models and then they would shower in the opaque glass shower room.’
Upstairs where there used to be a swimming pool it is now a sundeck, pillows and day beds, a kitchen and a dining area where Downey’s chef Charles makes us a wonderful lunch as healthy as it is exquisite – avocado, seaweed, heirloom tomatoes. ‘Did you like the movie?’ Downey asks, with only a hint of nervousness.
I did like it. I laughed. I cried. I loved the Downey/Duvall chemistry. Duvall hid everything on the inside and Downey threw out every minutiae of feeling.
The Judge is the first team Downey production. (Downey stars and his wife Susan is at the production helm). A radical contrast to all things Iron Man and The Avengers. It sees Downey – who it is said is the highest earning actor in the world reputedly collecting between $50 and $75 million per movie – returning to the style of acting where he first started Off-Broadway. It is dialogue driven, a story about coming to terms with his life via its emotional history and clashes with his father. It stars Downey as an ambitious, clever lawyer, a chancer who is a master manipulator of the law and Robert Duvall as his father the judge, upstanding, harsh but fair. The man with whom he has an impenetrable rift.
It was a powerful and emotional script. What drew him to it? ‘I wanted to make it so that we couldn’t think about doing any other movie but this. I was the only fixed element of the casting.’ He pauses toying with a piece of teriyaki chicken. ‘These days I hear things like “We’re going to have a chemistry test between so and so and so.”’
Has he ever done a chemistry test? ‘I think they weren’t calling it that then.’ It’s true that he had to audition for Iron Man. The story of his own life reads like a superhero transformation. Downey was always brilliant but troubled, self-destructive. He was in the news with various drug charges, even a stint in jail and in 1999 a term at the California Substance Abuse Facility Center.
He came back in 2003 with a brilliant portrayal of The Singing Detective, a movie for which the only way he could be insured was due to the generosity of his friend Mel Gibson. After a number of well received movies including A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints and A Scanner Darkly. He came back into mainstream lovability with Kiss Kiss Bang Bang. But Iron Man of course was the big comeback, the fanfare, all singing and all dancing. The Downey that everyone loved.
‘A chemistry test is something to try and find the thing that (Gwyneth) Paltrow and I have in Iron Man. It’s something where you have to think this movie is going to work because of you two.
‘I’d seen Duvall in a movie called Get Low and I thought wow. I want to be able to hold down a movie for an hour and a half then have a five-minute monologue at the end that is actually the highlight of the movie. He’s a powerhouse.’
Indeed, there’s already talk of Duvall getting an Oscar nomination for The Judge. It’s a movie with deep emotional resonance for many people, especially those who may have a strained relationship with a parent and enjoy the catharsis of a way in to mend a rift. I wonder if Downey found inspiration for his performance from his relationship with his father Robert Downey Sr, an underground film maker who when they were growing up on the East Coast often included Downey Jr in his work. He made his acting debut at the age of five playing a sick puppy in the absurdist comedy Pound (1970). And then at seven appeared in Greaser’s Palace. His mother Elsie Ford once played 17 different characters in the movie Two Tons of Turquoise to Taos Tonight.
I remember him telling me that once when he was young and broke and needed $2 his father wouldn’t give it to him. He said at the time that he respected that and it helped make him who he is. That had shocked me.
‘I’m glad I was feeling so expansive at the time.’ There’s a pause and a raised eyebrow lost in thought. ‘My father was trying to make a point; that there’s no handouts. I think there are elements in any father that are similar and others not. Duvall doesn’t have any kids. Isn’t that interesting?’
Did it take him back to his childhood and parents? A pause. ‘Everybody got something out of this shoot for some reason. I don’t know why it’s so cathartic for me to speak about it. The first thing I learnt in acting class at Santa Monica High School was that you have to have an aesthetic distance from what you are doing. And then my buddies at Strasberg’s were all telling me how they were vastly growing as artists. But what I learned at high school seemed very practical. You are a liability if you’re out there turning the role into therapy. And by the way I know some people who need to do this. Everything has to have deep resonance for them. But no. I was there dressed in a suit and dressing like a dad and if you’re with good professional folks it’s really easy to create a false reality.
‘Susan was there with Exton. Charles was there (his chef). So I’d be sitting with the food and rocking him to sleep. More than any movie I’ve ever done I think this is good. I can’t wait to see it with an audience again. I’ve never been in a movie where so many people had something to tell me right after they saw it, how and why it impacted them. And I really appreciate that. I think there’s been some pixie dust on this project. We all would get emotional talking about it. And although I wasn’t thinking about my dad it’s almost there like a wave, like that sound machine that puts kids to sleep. This movie allows you to feel safe and entertained.’
What is even more strange about this movie is another way that art has imitated life. The starting point for the movie is when Downey’s character must take the trip back home for his mother’s funeral.
‘Because of what just happened recently it’s very much an art imitates life movie.’
Downey’s mother Elsie Ann Ford died just three days before our interview. He shows me his desk which is placed opposite his wife’s desk. Susan’s is full of work in progress. On his desk is a black and white picture of his mother in a check 1950s dress and a nipped in waist. Her eyebrows are slightly vulpine and arched and her dark eyes pierce out of the photo frame. His eyes are her eyes. He nods that he was a lot like her.
He doesn’t want to talk about her. He says, ‘That’s what’s called a boundary.’ He wrote it all down in a moving tribute about how she dropped out of college and moved to New York with dreams of becoming a comedian. She met and married Downey Sr and had two children and worked in her husband’s movies. The marriage fell apart. Her acting career already suffering due to her alcohol addiction. Downey Jr lived with her and her boyfriend Jonas Kerr who became a second father in a two room five storey walk-up in Manhattan. She finally got sober in 1990.
“When I strived to have the kind of success that eluded her my own addiction repeatedly forbade it. in the summer of 2004 I was in bad shape. She called me out of the blue and I admitted everything. I don’t remember what she sang. I haven’t drank or used since.”
His tribute continues: “My ambition, tenacity, loyalty, moods, grandiosity, occasional passive aggression and my faith, that’s all her.”
Elsie moved to Los Angeles to be with Downey and to be a grandmother but was plagued by health problems. She suffered a cardiac arrest in March and was put on life support. Her wish was to be left to die if there wasn’t a reasonable chance of recovery. She came back from that completely lucid, then had a further set of seizures. She was 80 when she died.
He ended his tribute saying, “If anyone out there has a mother and she’s not perfect, please call her and say you love her anyway.”
Today though he didn’t want to go there. You don’t get the sense of him hanging on by a thread, desperately holding himself together. He is the same sparky, personable, loveable self, but he is one of the greatest actors of his generation.
Death brings me on to life. Does he have a name for his baby girl? ‘No. With Exton it was really easy. I asked Susan do you have any eccentric uncles and she said, “Jay Exton Turner.” And we looked up Exton and it’s a town where a bunch of roads cross,’ he says enthusiastically.
What about his first son Indio, 19? ‘Indio is a town on the way to Palm Desert where Coachella happens.’
Indio was recently arrested on drugs charges. Is he doing okay? ‘I suspect he is. He’s in treatment. He’ll be home soon. He and I are extremely close. He’s a musician. He’s putting a new band together.’
He is resolutely bright when he talks about Indio. If there’s an apple and tree conversation he’s definitely not going to be having it.
‘I’ve noticed in journalism recently some changes. People pass away and the next minute somebody’s asked me what I think. It’s actually I just heard that and I’m trying to process it.’
He goes on to give various examples. Afterwards I realise it’s all about his mother.
The Judge though, very much asks many questions about the father son relationship. Downey Sr perhaps gave Downey Jr too much free rein. It’s often been written about that he introduced him to smoking weed when he was just a kid and in general they lived a very bohemian existence.
‘Yes, maybe too much free rein. The other thing that’s happened in the last couple of years is that people admit to me who had the same counter culture upbringing as I did, that they rebelled against it by becoming squares. They rebelled by becoming materially successful in a way that’s very above board.’
It’s hard to imagine Downey, who at one point seemed like the poster boy for rebellion as dreaming of being square. He is after all a man of great extremes, complex but at the same time easy going. He is now 49 and enjoying the regime of a marriage that is on careful and strong foundations. These days he enjoys boundaries.
‘I don’t think I aspire to it intentionally because I didn’t think I had a shot at it. I thought I deserved it but it probably would not happen. But from day to day my perspective changes.’
Downey’s life of course is constantly changing. The major catalyst to that change has been a strong woman who loves him. A producing partner that is also his wife Susan. She is about to give birth to their second child, a daughter. His own family unit is pure strength.
He tells me that he has been involved in helping organise a retrospective of his father’s underground movies and he will come out to California for the screenings. ‘I nudged it along because he will come out and it’s a great way to see him and talk about stuff. But in many ways Paul Thomas Anderson has been a better son to my dad than I have. He dropped off this little manila envelope of interviews he’s done with him when they were taking train rides together and there’s also a shot of my dad in a Life magazine, he’s probably about 30-years-old, he’s wearing a pea coat and a cowboy hat and it says “Robert Downey makes vile movies.”’ He laughs.
‘It’s interesting when you’re old enough to take a new objective approach looking at your parents, frame them in a way where you are actually taking yourself out of the equation and just look at the things that are true about their life.’
Is he close to him? ‘Medium close. But that’s 100 per cent because of distance. He’s a diehard New Yorker and I like LA.’
So while The Judge absolutely pivots on the father/son relationship, its aftermath sees Downey involved in creating a retrospective of his dad’s films.
So maybe The Judge did open some psychological doors? ‘Maybe,’ he says, still thinking. His eyes fix you but you can see wheels turning. ‘When I was in New York I would go to the cinema with him and the move would start and my dad would be “Let’s go. This is bullshit.” I walked out of more movies than I saw because my dad would deem that what they’d done he’d already seen and it was no good. So I just assumed that if my dad said so, he’d be the one to judge because he’s a movie guy. People say that his movies are revolutionary.’
Richard Attenborough was also a father figure to him and his recent death was a great loss. He talks about their last meeting. ‘I went to see him and Sheila. I was a little apprehensive so I brought Guy Ritchie with me. I felt like I had some closure and stuff to do. They were in an assisted living facility. When Beauvoir Lodge wound up being sold I felt they had no idea what the future would hold. I never thought there’d be a time when Lord and Lady wouldn’t be in the Lodge.
‘When I was doing The Avengers sequel I was staying in Richmond so I could pass by. If we got invited to Beauvoir Lodge, A) It meant we were going to have a lot of fun; B) We’d see his art collection. And there’d always be interesting people there. I didn’t know my last time would be my last time. I thought I’d be back again. But you never know when the last time is, do you? He was the greatest.’
Attenborough directed him in his first Oscar nominated performance Chaplin. Was he a nurturing director? Perhaps more nurturing than Downey Sr? ‘My dad is actually very affectionate, although nurturing is the wrong word. I definitely felt given the lifestyle he had making underground movies without a budget, he was kind. They went out of their way to have some sense of normalcy. And when I’m being intimate or snuggling with my kid I remember that I learnt that from my Dad; lots of saying I love you, lots of tucking into bed.
‘Attenborough was very different.’ He mimics Attenborough’s voice. ‘Darling… When it came down to who was in charge or who had authority he would put me through my paces. But less than anybody I ever knew he had no judgement on my glaring character defects.’
Downey falls into being hard on himself easily. It’s just something he does automatically and when I point it out he says, ‘OK. I don’t have any anymore…
‘But there was a minute during Chaplin before we started shooting where I thought he should let me rewrite the script. And I told him as much and I said you should come over because I’ve rewritten the script with someone you’ve never met and he was really pissed off.’
Why did he decide to rewrite the script? ‘We’re talking about the point of view of a scared shitless 26-year-old who was about to do something that was going to define him one way or another. There is nothing more entertaining than an actor who hasn’t started shooting. Anyway, Lord Attenborough was really f****** haughty about it and from the first day of shooting he worked me like a rib. I realised I would be going where he said, doing what he said. The working hard was fun. I really like harmony. I don’t need to get into spats with people. There was just that one and then he was sweet again through the whole thing.’
The Judge was shot in small towns in Massachusetts and that was resonant for him. ‘There was a time where we lived in the middle of nowhere in Connecticut near East Hampton. We lived at the end of a dirt road. We were only there for about two years and then we were in Upstate New York in Woodstock.’
‘Next up I’m developing a very absurd and heartfelt version of Pinocchio that I’m crazy about. It’s live action and I might play both Pinocchio and Geppetto. I like mainstream movies that are completely off the wall.’
I wonder if that’s how Downey sees himself; both mainstream and off the wall. It seems to fit. Iron Man made $582 million, and the franchise has grossed over 2 billion at the Box Office was certainly mainstream yet he imbued the character of Tony Stark with an uncommon amount of flair, verve and vulnerability.
Is there going to be an Iron Man 4? ‘Not that I’m aware of.’ Is that the end of Iron Man? ‘Not that I’m aware of.’ He just appears in Avengers movies? ‘Avengers was another opportunity but they’re not talking about Iron Man 4. I was kind of bombed out to tell the truth, but maybe they’ve got bigger fish to fry and I trust their overall vision. The funny thing about these genre movies is you’d think they were national secrets.’
The Avengers movie in 2012 was one of the biggest grossing in box office films in history at $1.52 billion, and while Downey was certainly ready to return to the more traditional character acting, I’m sure he’s very protective of Tony Stark. He often refers to the weekend when he auditioned for Iron Man as the weekend that changed his life entirely.
‘I’m sure that there’s an end game, a plan of how to wrap up the whole phenomenon.’
Does he get a little jealous when there’s another superhero movie, another Spider Man or another Bat Man? He pauses: ‘Honestly the whole thing is just showing the beginning signs of fraying around the edges. It’s a little bit old. Last summer there were five or seven different ones out. I feel that they are critiqued by a different metric to any other movie.’
Surely that metric is box office? ‘Right. But also they are more forgiven because they operate on a different frequency. It’s like a bunch of really good dancers and you’re looking for the one who keeps changing her leg warmers. They make a lot of money.’
Iron Man has made him a lot of money. ‘Yes, I’ve done very well.’ It’s such a lot of money, is it real to him? ‘It’s funny how quickly you can get used to radical changes. Also if you’re raised with a poverty mentality nothing is going to change it. I do know some really stingy billionaires. I come from such a generation of hand to mouthers.’
Is it hard to adjust? ‘Right. But the nice thing is if you have ten pints of ice cream in the freezer and it’s night-time you go I’m not really feeling it for ice cream. If you don’t have any you’re craving ice cream. If you’ve got plenty of ice cream you’re not going to eat it and think there’s never going to be any more. There’s not the kind of famine psyche, you know. There’s a whole generation of kids who have had to stomach this privilege and try to individuate in spite of it.’
Does he worry that having too much money could have a bad effect on his children? Does he go along with Sting who said recently he wouldn’t be leaving any of his money to his children? ‘Anything Sting says I agree with,’ he says grinning.
It turns out that Downey is a huge Sting fan. Trudie Styler produced the movie A Guide To Recognizing Your Saints (2006) in which he starred. ‘Sting is so authentically himself even though he’s always changing. He might say now I’m in my medieval phase. I’m only playing medieval instruments. I’ll let you know when I’m done.’
I don’t get the impression Downey is particularly materially driven. I think he always has wanted to do the best possible job. ‘I want to make a movie that’s commercial and the studio will not lose money but I want to do something that feels like a departure.’
He says that he’s talking about a Sherlock Holmes III and how he hopes to return to London. He does a very funny Guy Ritchie impersonation. And he speaks of Jude Law with great love.
‘There isn’t anybody I’d rather be figuring out fight choreographies or how to sell a moment with. He is like my acting wife. Totally trustworthy, technically and intellectually sound.’
How about his actual wife? What is team Downey really like? ‘She’s a really good den mother and I really like being under her wing when we’re working. I bring in other people that are a little bit complicated and she sorts them out. She always knows the really cool venue or what people to bring together, who will get on with whom. No one feels like they’re not invited. It’s so emotionally healthy. I have never met anyone who can be so cut and dried about things yet is able to say things in a way where people’s feelings don’t get hurt.’
He says he is looking forward to taking things at a slower pace –
fewer projects, more family time, especially with his new baby daughter about to arrive. He is about to leave for a short promotional junket.
‘I guess I’m self driving,’ says Downey. Does that worry him, that a driver isn’t on hand? ‘Not at all. I’ve got a little convertible number, a promotional vehicle from Audi and I love it. As long as they want me to drive them I’m going to be seen driving them.’
Is there anything that he loves to spend money on and anything he hates? ‘I love spending money on gifts. I hate spending money on a septic system in my house. They run the pipes away from the house and then the house stinks more than it ever did after you spent all this money on it. I hate throwing good money after bad.’
I have been drinking bottles of raw tea which I’ve never seen before. Downey loads me up with several more bottles to takeaway. He is just a generous guy.

Robert Downey Jr – April 20, 2013 (The Times Magazine)

Robert Downey Jr strides into the Santa Monica beach front hotel room, hugs me hello and starts to pace around the table. He is wearing a cream lose knit sweater with a thin T-shirt underneath, soft grey elephant chords, neatly manicured facial hair. His eyes round puppy dog saucers.

He’s wiry . A body hard from work out. The eyes swivel and dart, they don’t want to miss anything. He talks fast, sometimes at tangents, but he talks as if whatever he has to say has to be expelled from him, an urgency and a passion.

He is carrying a tiny black suitcase. He flips it open to reveal Chinese herbs and other such pills. He is still pacing and talking as he paces. I wonder if it’s a ritual. Then he opens his mini-suitcase. Telling me he’s got nothing to hide. He wants me to see all his pills. He is dedicated to being as healthy as possible

Now one of the most sought after and richest actors on the planet, reputedly earning £31 million from his last movie The Avengers alone. He is the star of the money minting franchise Iron Man and also the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes franchise which has grossed more than $1 billion. It’s interesting to consider just how spectacular his success has been when many predicted he would not survive, not just in the industry but be alive at all.

We are here to talk about Iron Man 3 where he reprises his role as the eccentric but brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is perhaps the most psychologically complex in the trilogy so far as Stark feels he must answer the question does the man make the suit or the suit make the man?

A similar line of questioning Downey must have asked himself. From 1996 to 2001 he was arrested various times on drug related charges. Rehab didn’t work. He trespassed when on parole. He had to do time in jail.

During that time though he never delivered less than 100 per cent on set and always turned up on time, even getting a Golden Globe in 2000 for his stint on Ally McBeal.
Iron Man 3 director and writer of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, said that, ‘Tony Stark/Iron Man is the story of a true American hero. Robert Downey is the American hero. Someone who is passionate, sometimes misguided, sometimes pompous, a genius and a one time drunk.’ He says it with an affectionate smile and adds, ‘People don’t just come out of jail and become possibly the biggest actor in the world.’

Downey’s trajectory is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and traumatic tales. He was always a great actor. How did he miss that Oscar for Chaplin? He swapped the red carpet, the fancy hotel suites, for a jail cell. Took it with grace; took it like he knew he deserved it; he chose to feel grateful not sorry for himself. Following his stint in jail, he was uninsurable. His friend Mel Gibson paid his insurance for The Singing Detective, after which he met Shane Black for the first time who directed him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

He had to audition for the first Iron Man, gruelling but he did it. He survived without moral censure to become loveable again where so many others couldn’t and haven’t.

What is it about Downey? His charm, his cleverness, his ability to make anyone laugh. All of that of course. But essentially he’s utterly loveable. Those big eyes when they look at you with their mix of playful and sad win you over every time. Also he never complains.

He is about to be 48 (April 4) and has perhaps become the man he never thought he’d be; living in a lovely house with a lovely wife called Susan and a cute baby called Exton.

Iron Man/Tony Stark has brought him financial contentment, but he brought to Iron Man edge, vulnerability, an ability to be iron hard and emotionally soft. The vulnerability draws you in, to the character and the man. This is the man who opens his little suitcase and lets me see his little pills, all of his insecurities.

‘I love Tony. I love Iron Man. I love the character, the people I get to work with. Will there be another? I don’t know. Do the audience want more? I am fortunate, I don’t have to overstay my welcome. I don’t say things like I feel this is my brand and I really need to influence the way it goes I don’t. I am married, I have a kid, I have a real life without cameras rolling.

‘How would I feel if someone else played Iron Man? Well, my ego would suffer. It would be smashed. But maybe that would be the best thing for me. I hate seeing people’s egos suffer. I hate it when people have to learn those painful lessons of humility.’

He says this with a permanently raised eyebrow, an ironic wink at himself. His ego of course has suffered, and when his life fell apart, ‘I think I have a good amount of humility in the bank, and as long as I don’t create a need for more humility I’ll be around.’

‘There is something very humbling about playing a character that may be somewhat of an extension of yourself. It’s a meditation in character defect.’

Tony Stark is a know all, a show off, someone who constantly learns hubris hurts. Finally we have sat down. I wonder if he had to circle the table a certain number of times otherwise something terrible would happen? He doesn’t answer that specifically. He doesn’t answer much specifically. But he answers with rawness and heart.

‘Rituals are very important as long as you don’t become dependent on them. We are always growing and developing spiritually and we always have different needs for different devotions and different prayers. I started off with this prayer: Can I please just play baseball? Can I just be on a team and maybe if I get on a team I can hit a home run…

‘My spirituality has more to do with maintenance than achievement now. Maintenance is three times harder than achievement.’

He says he is fine to see other people have a drink at a restaurant, but if a waiter asks him if he would like a glass he says, ‘No thank you. I have plans for Christmas.’
He has referred to himself as a Jewish Buddhist. Intense martial arts workouts have meant the endorphin high has replaced the drug high and his relationship with his wife Susan Levin, who he met when she was a producer on Gothika, has given him emotional calm.

‘Stability, intellectual peer, and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.’

Their son Exton was born just over a year ago and Downey talks excitedly about him. His secret to a happy marriage? ‘Realising that two people become a third thing. I take on some of her characteristics and she takes on some of mine. It’s like having a full length mirror in front of you all day long.’

Downey seems to relish the idea of checking in on himself. It’s as if he enjoys being hard on himself. Shane Black says that after working together on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ‘we felt like kindred spirits. Robert doesn’t change with a big budget. We still had the same kind of meetings hashing things out, trying to get to the heart of what scenes are about. Yet there’s a little kid inside him.’
Downey says, ‘I love everything he says. For sure there’s a kid inside. I’m not sure what kid. Some kids like a rough and tumble atmosphere. Some need to know they’re very safe. Some are too coddled and some aren’t loved enough.’
You wonder briefly if he ever felt loved enough as a kid. Robert Downey Sr was an avant garde film director. Downey Jr played a puppy in one of his movies Pound.
His mother was an actress comedian and his parents divorced when he was 13. Downey is chewing hard on his Nicorette gum. The last time I interviewed him he smoked at the same time as eating tuna tartare. ‘It’s the best. What’s awful is smoking cigarettes.’

Tony Stark has nightmares. What keeps him awake? ‘Pretty much every night I put my head on the pillow, unless my wife is mad at me, which is not very often, I’ve got a clear conscience. I’m happy. Whenever you have a new opportunity or a new relationship, for me it’s a new baby, these instincts come out. Protective instincts.’

Was he worried about reprising the success of Iron Man? ‘I know when you have this much, I don’t want to call it pressure, let’s call it money on the table from a major corporation that has Mickey Mouse hand towels in their planes, there is a huge expectation. You have to perform at a certain level and you have to hit a lot of marks. By that I don’t mean doing it by numbers, you just have to do it.

‘They trusted me. They trusted me to go to places where he needed to go and sometimes be quiet, and in case you haven’t noticed I like to talk. I’m getting better at not having to hear my own voice as often and I think that’s a positive affirmation for the future.’

Does his success feel like revenge on the people that didn’t want to insure him? ‘No. I know certain people say creative capacity is based on revenge. It’s really not true. I have mellowed although I still have fire in my belly. I’m a firm believer if you are not on your side why should anyone else be, why should a studio be?’

Is it really easy for him to have faith in himself? ‘As I’ve gone on I’ve become much less falsely confident. The missus said to me, “You’re a bright guy and when people say these nice things about you, you quickly agree with them. There is part of you that was raised in a very abstract way and you paid a high price for some of your weaknesses, and there’s a part of you that’s making peace with everything going as well as it has”.

‘As you mature things unravel. You start to address them. For me the process of maturing was very dirty, uncomfortable and embarrassing, but necessary.
‘I have often been my greatest impediment in moving forward and being gainfully employed. This (Iron Man) is not the most important thing but it’s given me an incredible amount of leverage, and I’ve got that leverage without having to sacrifice my enjoyment.’
Halfway through the shooting a stunt went wrong. ‘I did a wire jump. I didn’t want to rehearse it. I don’t know why. We shot so many stunts I thought maybe I’m impervious. I’m 47-years-old, what kind of moron says I don’t’ need a safety harness I’ll just jump. The next thing I know we have to shut down production for six weeks. I really yanked my ankle. It hurt. Everything was a mess.’
Does he feel like a superhero in real life? ‘Absolutely not. I mean I did, but not any more. I did for that five seconds and then I was in hospital.’
Downey loves to bring intensity to a character. Maybe he just does it naturally. Offloads some inner turmoil. Certainly Tony Stark is a more complex superhero for everything Downey’s given him.

‘Am I that intense? Maybe it’s unmanaged anxiety. I think I’m calming down. Maybe that makes me more capable of playing these tense people, very wired and agitated.’
Is he happy at the moment? ‘I am embracing the possibility of happiness. There are certain things I want to say I can’t control. I decided I didn’t need to rehearse a dangerous stunt. I did a jump that busted my ankle and I couldn’t believe that had happened to me, but why not me? In a way it was the best thing that could have happened. It gave me time to think about the movie and time to see what we’d already shot.’
There’s something in Downey’s headset that’s ruthlessly optimistic. How could anyone think a painful twisted ankle was a good thing? But that’s why he has survived so much worse.

‘And now I have a set of understandings about my physical limitations. I had trained hard. I was in fantastic shape. I was convinced that I would not be injured.’
He believed in his own superpower. ‘I know. It’s embarrassing. It was hubris. That’s what it was. Oh God, not hubris again.’
‘Do I think I have an inbuilt destruction mechanism? I don’t know. I don’t know how much I’ll be doing this sort of thing because a I have other interests and b it’s inherently dangerous and c I’m having a very nice run.’
So you want to quit while you’re ahead? ‘Right. I look at people’s careers. I look at the choices they’re making. I look at what the studios are doing. I look at who’s watching them. Then I think oh, they’re twisting this up a little.
‘Me and the missus started a production company and I don’t want it to be one of those companies that develops things into oblivion. We’ve had in a script from a guy who lives in St. Louis who’s a headhunter. He’s turned in the best script that we’ve ever come across. It’s about a lawyer and his judge father. I’ll play the lawyer.’
Robert Duvall is set to play the judge father. So he will be revisiting a father son relationship? ‘Yes. The first image I ever had of a superhero in my lifetime was when I saw my dad in a Superman T-shirt with long arms. The judge needs to be a mountain of a man. My dad and I get along well but there’s a certain amount to be explored there.’
Interesting to say he gets along well. Wasn’t there a time when he was desperate for money and his father wouldn’t give him any? ‘Yes, but he was right. He was trying to prove a point. He tended not to give me a hard time, but that time I think he was right.’ Downey called him broke and homeless and asked for money. His father refused to help. ‘If he hadn’t said go and get a job, get it from friends, I might never have discovered my ability to hustle and that life wasn’t a handout.’

His father also helped him discover a liking for smoking weed? ‘Yesss.’ He puts on a faux embarrassed face. ‘It was all great but the price was so high. It’s a different generation, a different set of understandings.’
‘It’s the same with chocolate cake. If you like chocolate cake and you know a really good bakery you have to ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price of getting jacked up on sugar. I don’t want my cheeks to be all puffy if I am shooting a movie or a cover so I’m not going to eat that chocolate. If you’ve ever lost the ability to make that decision, you realise that when you get that ability back it’s the most precious and glorious thing you can posses.
‘There have been some times recently where I’ve been eating ice cream. I discovered a great ice cream company. They have cookie dough and mint chocolate chip. I’ve gone in phases where I’ve banished them from the freezer and then they find their way in and I’m secretly delighted. I’ll do several nights in a sustained carpet bombing of my colon. I’ll do it for a couple of nights and then I’ll leave it. It amazes me if you have a dependency for something if you get away from it for long enough you can return to it. But I would never do this with drink or drugs. Ice cream and cake. Nobody should fully give up. Just pick a couple of days a month where you can get down and dirty with it. You still pay a price.’
He delves in his little suitcase. Each of the Chinese formulas are designed to do something different. There’s also sunglasses and wet wipes and more Nicorette gum. ‘The supplements are if I’m feeling low in energy. I have an acupuncturist and many secret weapons. I train with martial arts. I am brown belt. I don’t do it every day. Some days I stay at home so I can see the boy.’
The boy Exton is an Aquarian. ‘I had an Aquarian girlfriend once. I’m not sure how that translates to baby boys. We are not in touch any more. She got mad at me for something that was probably my fault. She felt very strongly about it. Even if you have evidence to the contrary, if someone feels very strongly about something it’s always best to assume they are right.’
Before the current Mrs Downey he was married to actress Deborah Falconer after a six-week whirlwind romance. They were married in 1992. They had a son, Indio, now 19. The marriage broke down after Downey’s repeated trips to rehab and jail and ended in 2001. The divorce was finalised in 2004.
Before that he had an eight-year relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker. He told me once that he never left anyone. ‘I’ve only ever been left. They made that decision. They were never abandoned. Abandonment is something I’ve experienced.’
I don’t think he likes to dwell on the past. He’s very much in the present. He likes to brim with enthusiasm not weighed down by regret. He is not abandoned now by any means. He seems nurtured.
‘The missus and I work incredibly hard to stay current with each other, to be kind to each other, to ignite each other when we can because if you’ve gone out and done your day and she’s done her day and you come home exhausted you need to try harder. You don’t want to be just co-existing. I don’t want to be too tired for her.’
The promotion tour for Iron Man 3 is a juggernaut involving Beijing, Seoul, Paris. ‘We have a two week rule. We are never apart for more than two weeks. We have another Sherlock coming up, or at least we’re going to write a script and see how it turns out.

‘We’ve got very strong relationships in Britain. I love London. When we did the first Sherlock we learnt a lot about British people which is if you’re doing something difficult don’t just grind the monkey till the wheels come off, be civilised. Offer everyone cheese. Always chat for a little while.
‘The last time we were in London with Sherlock the missus was pregnant and that’s when we got very British. She said, “I can’t be on set with you unless you are behaving like a gentleman the whole time”. And since then we have sought to bring the same sort of energy and civility to whatever we do.’
Does he prefer to love or be loved? ‘I prefer to love although I’m getting better at the other. I’ve allowed myself to be loved up for a good five years.’ You can’t help wishing him that for many years to come. Robert Downey Jr strides into the Santa Monica beach front hotel room, hugs me hello and starts to pace around the table. He is wearing a cream lose knit sweater with a thin T-shirt underneath, soft grey elephant chords, neatly manicured facial hair. His eyes round puppy dog saucer eyes.

He’s wiry . The eyes swivel and dart, they don’t want to miss anything. He talks fast, sometimes at tangents, but he talks as if whatever he has to say has to be expelled from him, an urgency and a passion.
He is carrying a tiny black suitcase. He flips it open to reveal Chinese herbs and other such pills. He is still pacing and talking as he paces. I wonder if it’s a ritual. Then he opens his mini-suitcase. Telling me he’s got nothing to hide. He wants me to see all his pills. He is dedicated to being as healthy as possible

Now one of the most sought after and richest actors on the planet, reputedly earning £31 million from his last movie The Avengers alone. He is the star of the money minting franchise Iron Man and also the Guy Ritchie Sherlock Holmes franchise which has grossed more than $1 billion. It’s interesting to consider just how spectacular his success has been when many predicted he would not survive, not just in the industry but be alive at all.

We are here to talk about Iron Man 3 where he reprises his role as the eccentric but brilliant industrialist Tony Stark/Iron Man. It is perhaps the most psychologically complex in the trilogy so far as Stark feels he must answer the question does the man make the suit or the suit make the man?
A similar line of questioning Downey must have asked himself. From 1996 to 2001 he was arrested various times on drug related charges. Rehab didn’t work. He trespassed when on parole. He had to do time in jail.
During that time though he never delivered less than 100 per cent on set and always turned up on time, even getting a Golden Globe in 2000 for his stint on Ally McBeal.

Iron Man 3 director and writer of Lethal Weapon, Shane Black, said that, ‘Tony Stark/Iron Man is the story of a true American hero. Robert Downey is the American hero. Someone who is passionate, sometimes misguided, sometimes pompous, a genius and a one time drunk.’ He says it with an affectionate smile and adds, ‘People don’t just come out of jail and become possibly the biggest actor in the world.’

Downey’s trajectory is one of Hollywood’s most fascinating and traumatic tales. He was always a great actor. How did he miss that Oscar for Chaplin? He swapped the red carpet, the fancy hotel suites, for a jail cell. Took it with grace; took it like he knew he deserved it; he chose to feel grateful not sorry for himself. Following his stint in jail, he was uninsurable. His friend Mel Gibson paid his insurance for The Singing Detective, after which he met Shane Black for the first time who directed him in Kiss Kiss Bang Bang.

He had to audition for the first Iron Man, gruelling but he did it. He survived without moral censure to become loveable again where so many others couldn’t and haven’t.
What is it about Downey? His charm, his cleverness, his ability to make anyone laugh. All of that of course. But essentially he’s utterly loveable. Those big eyes when they look at you with their mix of playful and sad win you over every time. Also he never complains.
He is about to be 48 (April 4) and has perhaps become the man he never thought he’d be; living in a lovely house with a lovely wife called Susan and a cute baby called Exton.
Iron Man/Tony Stark has brought him financial contentment, but he brought to Iron Man edge, vulnerability, an ability to be iron hard and emotionally soft. The vulnerability draws you in, to the character and the man. This is the man who opens his little suitcase and lets me see his little pills, all of his insecurities.
‘I love Tony. I love Iron Man. I love the character, the people I get to work with. Will there be another? I don’t know. Do the audience want more? I am fortunate, I don’t have to overstay my welcome. I don’t say things like I feel this is my brand and I really need to influence the way it goes I don’t. I am married, I have a kid, I have a real life without cameras rolling.
‘How would I feel if someone else played Iron Man? Well, my ego would suffer. It would be smashed. But maybe that would be the best thing for me. I hate seeing people’s egos suffer. I hate it when people have to learn those painful lessons of humility.’
He says this with a permanently raised eyebrow, an ironic wink at himself. His ego of course has suffered, and when his life fell apart, ‘I think I have a good amount of humility in the bank, and as long as I don’t create a need for more humility I’ll be around.’
‘There is something very humbling about playing a character that may be somewhat of an extension of yourself. It’s a meditation in character defect.’
Tony Stark is a know all, a show off, someone who constantly learns hubris hurts. Finally we have sat down. I wonder if he had to circle the table a certain number of times otherwise something terrible would happen? He doesn’t answer that specifically. He doesn’t answer much specifically. But he answers with rawness and heart.
‘Rituals are very important as long as you don’t become dependent on them. We are always growing and developing spiritually and we always have different needs for different devotions and different prayers. I started off with this prayer: Can I please just play baseball? Can I just be on a team and maybe if I get on a team I can hit a home run…
‘My spirituality has more to do with maintenance than achievement now. Maintenance is three times harder than achievement.’
He says he is fine to see other people have a drink at a restaurant, but if a waiter asks him if he would like a glass he says, ‘No thank you. I have plans for Christmas.’
He has referred to himself as a Jewish Buddhist. Intense martial arts workouts have meant the endorphin high has replaced the drug high and his relationship with his wife Susan Levin, who he met when she was a producer on Gothika, has given him emotional calm.
‘Stability, intellectual peer, and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.’
Their son Exton was born just over a year ago and Downey talks excitedly about him. His secret to a happy marriage? ‘Realising that two people become a third thing. I take on some of her characteristics and she takes on some of mine. It’s like having a full length mirror in front of you all day long.’
Downey seems to relish the idea of checking in on himself. It’s as if he enjoys being hard on himself. Shane Black says that after working together on Kiss Kiss Bang Bang ‘we felt like kindred spirits. Robert doesn’t change with a big budget. We still had the same kind of meetings hashing things out, trying to get to the heart of what scenes are about. Yet there’s a little kid inside him.’

Downey says, ‘I love everything he says. For sure there’s a kid inside. I’m not sure what kid. Some kids like a rough and tumble atmosphere. Some need to know they’re very safe. Some are too coddled and some aren’t loved enough.’
You wonder briefly if he ever felt loved enough as a kid. Robert Downey Sr was an avant garde film director. Downey Jr played a puppy in one of his movies Pound.
His mother was an actress comedian and his parents divorced when he was 13. Downey is chewing hard on his Nicorette gum. The last time I interviewed him he smoked at the same time as eating tuna tartare. ‘It’s the best. What’s awful is smoking cigarettes.’
Tony Stark has nightmares. What keeps him awake? ‘Pretty much every night I put my head on the pillow, unless my wife is mad at me, which is not very often, I’ve got a clear conscience. I’m happy. Whenever you have a new opportunity or a new relationship, for me it’s a new baby, these instincts come out. Protective instincts.’
Was he worried about reprising the success of Iron Man? ‘I know when you have this much, I don’t want to call it pressure, let’s call it money on the table from a major corporation that has Mickey Mouse hand towels in their planes, there is a huge expectation. You have to perform at a certain level and you have to hit a lot of marks. By that I don’t mean doing it by numbers, you just have to do it.

‘They trusted me. They trusted me to go to places where he needed to go and sometimes be quiet, and in case you haven’t noticed I like to talk. I’m getting better at not having to hear my own voice as often and I think that’s a positive affirmation for the future.’
Does his success feel like revenge on the people that didn’t want to insure him? ‘No. I know certain people say creative capacity is based on revenge. It’s really not true. I have mellowed although I still have fire in my belly. I’m a firm believer if you are not on your side why should anyone else be, why should a studio be?’

Is it really easy for him to have faith in himself? ‘As I’ve gone on I’ve become much less falsely confident. The missus said to me, “You’re a bright guy and when people say these nice things about you, you quickly agree with them. There is part of you that was raised in a very abstract way and you paid a high price for some of your weaknesses, and there’s a part of you that’s making peace with everything going as well as it has”.
‘As you mature things unravel. You start to address them. For me the process of maturing was very dirty, uncomfortable and embarrassing, but necessary.
‘I have often been my greatest impediment in moving forward and being gainfully employed. This (Iron Man) is not the most important thing but it’s given me an incredible amount of leverage, and I’ve got that leverage without having to sacrifice my enjoyment.’
Halfway through the shooting a stunt went wrong. ‘I did a wire jump. I didn’t want to rehearse it. I don’t know why. We shot so many stunts I thought maybe I’m impervious. I’m 47-years-old, what kind of moron says I don’t’ need a safety harness I’ll just jump. The next thing I know we have to shut down production for six weeks. I really yanked my ankle. It hurt. Everything was a mess.’
Does he feel like a superhero in real life? ‘Absolutely not. I mean I did, but not any more. I did for that five seconds and then I was in hospital.’
Downey loves to bring intensity to a character. Maybe he just does it naturally. Offloads some inner turmoil. Certainly Tony Stark is a more complex superhero for everything Downey’s given him.
‘Am I that intense? Maybe it’s unmanaged anxiety. I think I’m calming down. Maybe that makes me more capable of playing these tense people, very wired and agitated.’
Is he happy at the moment? ‘I am embracing the possibility of happiness. There are certain things I want to say I can’t control. I decided I didn’t need to rehearse a dangerous stunt. I did a jump that busted my ankle and I couldn’t believe that had happened to me, but why not me? In a way it was the best thing that could have happened. It gave me time to think about the movie and time to see what we’d already shot.’
There’s something in Downey’s headset that’s ruthlessly optimistic. How could anyone think a painful twisted ankle was a good thing? But that’s why he has survived so much worse.
‘And now I have a set of understandings about my physical limitations. I had trained hard. I was in fantastic shape. I was convinced that I would not be injured.’
He believed in his own superpower. ‘I know. It’s embarrassing. It was hubris. That’s what it was. Oh God, not hubris again.’

‘Do I think I have an inbuilt destruction mechanism? I don’t know. I don’t know how much I’ll be doing this sort of thing because a I have other interests and b it’s inherently dangerous and c I’m having a very nice run.’
So you want to quit while you’re ahead? ‘Right. I look at people’s careers. I look at the choices they’re making. I look at what the studios are doing. I look at who’s watching them. Then I think oh, they’re twisting this up a little.
‘Me and the missus started a production company and I don’t want it to be one of those companies that develops things into oblivion. We’ve had in a script from a guy who lives in St. Louis who’s a headhunter. He’s turned in the best script that we’ve ever come across. It’s about a lawyer and his judge father. I’ll play the lawyer.’

Robert Duvall is set to play the judge father. So he will be revisiting a father son relationship? ‘Yes. The first image I ever had of a superhero in my lifetime was when I saw my dad in a Superman T-shirt with long arms. The judge needs to be a mountain of a man. My dad and I get along well but there’s a certain amount to be explored there.’

Interesting to say he gets along well. Wasn’t there a time when he was desperate for money and his father wouldn’t give him any? ‘Yes, but he was right. He was trying to prove a point. He tended not to give me a hard time, but that time I think he was right.’ Downey called him broke and homeless and asked for money. His father refused to help. ‘If he hadn’t said go and get a job, get it from friends, I might never have discovered my ability to hustle and that life wasn’t a handout.’
His father also helped him discover a liking for smoking weed? ‘Yesss.’ He puts on a faux embarrassed face. ‘It was all great but the price was so high. It’s a different generation, a different set of understandings.’

‘It’s the same with chocolate cake. If you like chocolate cake and you know a really good bakery you have to ask yourself if you are willing to pay the price of getting jacked up on sugar. I don’t want my cheeks to be all puffy if I am shooting a movie or a cover so I’m not going to eat that chocolate. If you’ve ever lost the ability to make that decision, you realise that when you get that ability back it’s the most precious and glorious thing you can posses.

‘There have been some times recently where I’ve been eating ice cream. I discovered a great ice cream company. They have cookie dough and mint chocolate chip. I’ve gone in phases where I’ve banished them from the freezer and then they find their way in and I’m secretly delighted. I’ll do several nights in a sustained carpet bombing of my colon. I’ll do it for a couple of nights and then I’ll leave it. It amazes me if you have a dependency for something if you get away from it for long enough you can return to it. But I would never do this with drink or drugs. Ice cream and cake. Nobody should fully give up. Just pick a couple of days a month where you can get down and dirty with it. You still pay a price.’
He delves in his little suitcase. Each of the Chinese formulas are designed to do something different. There’s also sunglasses and wet wipes and more Nicorette gum. ‘The supplements are if I’m feeling low in energy. I have an acupuncturist and many secret weapons. I train with martial arts. I am brown belt. I don’t do it every day. Some days I stay at home so I can see the boy.’
The boy Exton is an Aquarian. ‘I had an Aquarian girlfriend once. I’m not sure how that translates to baby boys. We are not in touch any more. She got mad at me for something that was probably my fault. She felt very strongly about it. Even if you have evidence to the contrary, if someone feels very strongly about something it’s always best to assume they are right.’
Before the current Mrs Downey he was married to actress Deborah Falconer after a six-week whirlwind romance. They were married in 1992. They had a son, Indio, now 19. The marriage broke down after Downey’s repeated trips to rehab and jail and ended in 2001. The divorce was finalised in 2004.
Before that he had an eight-year relationship with Sarah Jessica Parker. He told me once that he never left anyone. ‘I’ve only ever been left. They made that decision. They were never abandoned. Abandonment is something I’ve experienced.’
I don’t think he likes to dwell on the past. He’s very much in the present. He likes to brim with enthusiasm not weighed down by regret. He is not abandoned now by any means. He seems nurtured.

‘The missus and I work incredibly hard to stay current with each other, to be kind to each other, to ignite each other when we can because if you’ve gone out and done your day and she’s done her day and you come home exhausted you need to try harder. You don’t want to be just co-existing. I don’t want to be too tired for her.’

The promotion tour for Iron Man 3 is a juggernaut involving Beijing, Seoul, Paris. ‘We have a two week rule. We are never apart for more than two weeks. We have another Sherlock coming up, or at least we’re going to write a script and see how it turns out.

‘We’ve got very strong relationships in Britain. I love London. When we did the first Sherlock we learnt a lot about British people which is if you’re doing something difficult don’t just grind the monkey till the wheels come off, be civilised. Offer everyone cheese. Always chat for a little while.
‘The last time we were in London with Sherlock the missus was pregnant and that’s when we got very British. She said, “I can’t be on set with you unless you are behaving like a gentleman the whole time”. And since then we have sought to bring the same sort of energy and civility to whatever we do.’
Does he prefer to love or be loved? ‘I prefer to love although I’m getting better at the other. I’ve allowed myself to be loved up for a good five years.’ You can’t help wishing him that for many years to come.

Robert Downey Jr

The word that is most used to describe Robert Downey Jr is loveable, albeit, a loveable tornado. That is what it can be like to be with him. Exhausting, emotionally rearranging, destructive, and thrilling, and he pulls you in. From his debut as a cocaine addict in Less Than Zero to his Oscar nominated Chaplin, he totally inhabited these characters. He found a way to bring them into himself and put that part of himself right out there to touch you. He always made you feel that you could own a part of him, take him home and nurture him, possibly illustrated in his best performance ever – his own life. In and out of jail and rehab, time and time again he would try, fail. It wasn’t just the normal Hollywood combo – great talent and self destruction walk hand in hand down Sunset Boulevard – because it was more human than that, and more outrageous. However, it was only ever his self he let down. Already on probation for speeding, possessing drugs and a gun, we can all both laugh and cry with him for the goldilocks incident, where he had fallen way off the wagon and staggered into the wrong house, believing it to be his own and collapsed comatose in the bed of his neighbour’s 11 year old son. He seemed at the same time helpless and not a victim, even though in court he came across an avenging Puritan judge Mira, who, time and time again, wanted to set an example by not lifting the punishment, making no excuses. During his time in jail and in rehab, there was a constant internet vigil. Websites called “To Know Him Is To Love Him” where Downey Jr was drawn as a Botticelli cherub and lavished with love poetry by fans across the world who boasted a 12 month international prayer chain. Another reason people find Downey so loveable is that he was on the edge and he almost fell over. He is the pole by which people measure themselves, grateful they could never feel things so sorely and fall apart so proficiently, but magnetized watching him put himself together again. How we all loved him raise the game of Ally McBeal, win his Golden Globe, only to be dashed again in a Palm Springs Hotel room, where allegedly, his own dealer tipped off the police. He’d been doing drugs and there was the threat of incarceration again. When we meet in the plush L’Ermitage Hotel, home of the $45 salad and a constant rushing fountain and James Woods and a puppy in the foyer, it seems a different universe. But of course, it isn’t that far apart, or even that different. Downey is all wiry limbs, agitated animation, both elegant and ungainly, raw and marinated. His body is toned and there’s no cheruby cheeks. His skin looks like it’s felt too much for one lifetime. Not that that makes him unsexy. In fact, quite the contrary. There’s a huge sexual energy about him. You could see it shining out of him even as he played Dennis Potter’s psoriasis suffering Singing Detective.

His arms were pocked like a pizza, his skin a mass of painful flakes and sores, and even as his own nightmare fears and paranoias enveloped him, you were with him. You wanted him to be saved. Dennis Potter wrote the feature length Singing Detective just before he died, as he was unhappy with the way Hollywood reworked his Pennies From Heaven into a movie. Downey is aware of carrying the heavy mantle, delivering Potter’s last and perhaps most poignant words to the world. He didn’t have a problem seeing himself as the depressed, drugged, immobilized in hospital Daniel Dark, but when the scenes intermingle with childhood memories, and he is the cool Singing Detective himself, he felt momentarily floored “Because I am not cool. I am not Bruce Willis. I am not Mel Gibson. I can’t be the guy who looks good with a gun.” No, much easier for him to be the guy that can seem to shimmer out of a thousand sores. The script was delivered to him by Gibson while he was in rehab, along with the videos of the television series which he and the other rehabees watched greedily. “Gibson said ‘Maybe it’s something we can do together’ and got in his helicopter and left. Once I wanted to do it, he said “You’re going to do the first five and a half weeks by yourself and I’m going to come in for the last three days.” Their scenes together are very intense and nurturing. “Basically, that’s how he is. He’s like a brother to me.” Gibson put up his own money for Downey’s insurance costs, which were astronomically high due to his record of instability. “I hope I’m in a position one day to be fostering that same kind of exchange and support with someone a couple of years my junior and giving something to them that I could probably have done myself. He was serious too. In some of those scenes, where he was like, ‘Do you plan to get better?’, that wasn’t just the characters. It was he and I.” And do you plan to get better? “Yeah. I was already on the way. But I don’t know if I planned it or not. What is the movie about? In essence, it’s about someone who’s traumatized by everything they needed to witness and an inability to move past your initial female attachment.” We’ve been together for about ten minutes when he looks at me right in the eyes and says “I didn’t get the movie until last week. I didn’t get it.” For him, the aftermath of a movie, like when he became embroiled with all the coincidences and similarities between him and Chaplin and he got to know Chaplin’s daughters long after the movie had wrapped, is as an important part of the process as the acting. In The Singing Detective, his wife, played by Robin Wright Penn, might be cheating on him and might have stolen his script. Or, she might be standing by him. “She’s there because she’s a principle of feminine healing energy that’s not judgmental and shows up and tries to quell that masculine boring fucking paranoid energy. What I mean is, she’s good girl and why would good girls hang around miserable assholes? No good girl would ever stay with guys like us. Any good girl would kick you to the curb. And because of that, you believe you will never attract a really good woman.” And maybe when you do, you think they’re evil? “Yes. Thank you. And that’s what happens. In the movie he’s already halfway home because she’s been showing up for him.”

And is that what happened to you? “Yes. Finally, I get it.” Downey’s love life has of course been as passionate and as volatile as it gets. He was with Sarah Jessica Parker for 7 years. It was a constant battle between her and his addictions. Most of the time, she won, but said although he was always emotionally available, he couldn’t be faithful. But it’s because of that emotionally available thing that you can’t dismiss him for it. Or at least you could if you were Deborah Falconer, the model he married after 6 weeks, with whom he’s now separated and with whom he has a son, Indio, now ten. His new girlfriend is a producer, Susan Levin. He met her on the set of Gothica. She works for Joel Silver and keeps him on a choke chain, but he says “I love it.” He seems deliriously in love with Susan. He has a separate cell phone which only she can call and a polaroid style picture of them together stuck on it. They call constantly. “Since I’ve met this girl, it’s been really weird because there’s been closure with my ex and separation from my mother.” It’s as if his investigation of female energy in the Singing Detective has brought him closure in his own life. His mother is someone who seems to have been both brilliant and unnurturing. Do you believe in that Freudian thing that all men marry their mother? “I thought if I changed the outside, I wouldn’t keep stamping repeat every cell again and again, so instead of short, Scottish, brown eyed stocky, I’ll go for tall, midatlantic, blue eyed down for the cause Amazon.” And, was it all the same thing? “Right. But now, as you can see, I’m dating a very attractive Jewish woman and I’m so glad I’ve found her. It would be hilarious to be right, but could Joel Silver be cupid?” In Gothica, he plays a doctor who is incredibly sweet. “It’s a smart movie, today’s version of The Shining in an institution, and I try to rehabilitate poor misguided and often violent sinister women.” Do you like misguided women or do you prefer grounded ones? “I’ve done my tour of duty… No. I am going for stability, intellectual peer and monster sex machine. And she runs the show. She has strength and realism and she is someone who is unscathed by her first dozen years of experience.” Are you choosing that to compliment your childhood which was very scathed? “Well it was, but I’m not a bitterball about it because we can all choose our experiences on some level. There are no victims. And if I hear one more person talk about how they are destroyed because they never got their dad’s approval… Oooh. That’s just self centred to the extreme.” Downey is very agitated because although they brought us our food – spicy tuna fish in coconut juice – he has not been brought his cigarettes. He’s only distracted from his agitation when I tell him that I had met Dennis Potter who showed up for the interview wearing polythene bags around his feet so he wouldn’t shed. Only now, he’s insatiably interested in Dennis. “At the time, I was just pretty busy trying not to go nuts. One day we’d have full body makeup and the next I’d put on this suit and have to look cool and confident, so it really took me out of my head, especially doing the singing stuff. The choreographers were like ‘You did Chaplin, you can move around,’ and I was like ‘Nooo.'” So, were you miserable? “Well I’m not right now, but that miserable guy is in there,” he says, looking like he’s going to burst out of his own skin for his need of a cigarette. “I’m tired of the faux depression thing. It’s just an excuse to take your favourite medications. What’s depressing about life, really?” he says, sending himself up. He seems to want to downplay his anxiety, his pain. The cigarettes arrive on a silver tray. When do you get miserable then? “Either not getting what you want or thinking you’re going to lose something you have. And if we got what we wanted, we probably wouldn’t want it by the time we were done eating. If ifs were gifts, every day would be Christmas, right?” Well Christmas, that is usually depressing for most people. “No. I’m ass backward. I’m going to have a great Christmas. I’m thinking of taking my gal and we might roll over to Hawaii, crash at Woody Harrelson’s estate, get butt naked.” He’s impressed with himself that he has plans for Christmas and he even has plans for Hallowe’en. “I’m going to call up one of my friends who lives in Malibu Colony so Indio can be on a little strip to trick and treat.

Do you think I should go as Dennis?” I think that might be a bit scary. “The last time I did Hallowe’en, I wasn’t entirely in remission and I picked out a costume, an off the shelf costume, and it was called Creepy Skelabones, and some people prefer to call me that to this day as a painful reminder of what is possible. Skelabones 2000.” He seems constantly hard on himself, relentlessly attacking his former self, and I wonder, does that mean he’s going to fall off the edge. “I’m not presently struggling with the idea of imagining that it would be fun or would serve any purpose to remind me that it’s it’s own world now. It’s an iron curtain country for me. It’s the past. It’s hard enough to be conscious and trust the universe. I don’t want to put myself in that lab rat condition where I’m an experiment. You know, it’s like Renee Zellweger said in that Jerry Maguire film, I choose us, meaning the family and all of that. “Do I really want to say, “I choose psychosis? I mean, there’s something to be said for it, because it’s interesting and that’s the rub. People want me to be interesting. It feels like it’s been ingrained in me, but why would I have to act out? It’s about interrupting that pattern, isn’t it?” Do you know where your pattern came from in the first place, I ask, feeling like I’ve asked a very loaded question. “Uh huh. I think there’s an inherent drive to alter consciousness and also, want to get some kind of spiritual connection. And one is socially groomed to smoke a blunt thing. Man takes drink, drink takes man. At a certain point, you are not longer of the constitution to call the shots. Can you imagine what it’s like, every day you got up, you go on a flight and the flight was hijacked. You have two chances. We’re going to let them turn us around and run us in there, or we’re going to nail them and lose us all in the Allegheny Mountains. It doesn’t matter. There’s no positive outcome regardless of what you do. It’s groundhog day in hell and there’s something really glamorous and very attractive being that very warped fucked up, oh he’s such a sweetie. Yeah, right” he says, turning a venomous tongue against himself. He clearly feels he’s played that Hollywood loves a comeback role and embraced it for all it’s worth only to lose faith in that role because he’s not really playing it for himself. He’s bored and tantalized and annoyed with that character.

That character was a little too victimy for his liking. Do you think people identified with you and felt good because they only went to the edge and you fell off so it validates their bad behaviour or addiction? “I feel like that when I see other people go off the rails. I feel I have been obligated to perform in society. You know, there I was, still drunk, but now a drooling guru status. Please. No victims,” he says, intermittently flashing me burning eyes. Bringing us back to where the pattern might have started, it is just possible it could have been with his father, Robert Downey Sr, with whom he first shared a joint when he was eight. They continued to use joints as emotional bonding after his parents were divorced when he was 13. The drugs were the connection. Downey Sr was a film and stage director who had his son once play a dog in something called Pound, bragging at the time that it was cheaper than getting a babysitter. It has been reported that his father liked to see him do drugs because he thought it was cute. Agitatedly, Downey Jr says, “That’s a misrepresentation, and a word I want to strike from the dictionary. Cute.” He says the word with contempt. “My dad was nothing along the lines of Cassavetes and Altman. Compared to those guys, back in the day, he was actually pretty conservative. He was a handsome Irish Jew and my mother was a comedian. They got caught up in it more by osmosis, but I think there must have been a genetic predisposition to drugs.” He puts his eyes heavenward in mock deification of the demon drugs and says theatrically. “‘Oh, at last, my long last love’ and we were all fucked.” Downey comes in and out of anger and calm, the theatrical relish of words and quiet analysis. “But I have to say this about the over the edge. Over the edge was not me. Over the edge was people that I have buried, people who can no longer see their kids, other people who are fighting cases now and they’re not 38, they’re 45, 59, 62. Addiction is incarnate. It can’t be stopped unless by an outside force.” Is that you, eating and smoking at the same time, I say, as he waves his cigarette above his tuna. He seems to have misplaced the matches. “Oh, no, no. Not quite. But I’m about to be smoking.” One gets the impression that the edge, whatever that might be, is a moveable line and Downey does have to be constantly aware of it and swivel and shift . He has to keep himself ultra in check.

“Yes, because every day you have to reimprint yourself. Every cell is like a comic book stamp, and for me, I couldn’t have done it without the support of very good friends. And while I participate in that ‘one day at a time, powerless now and forever’, that kind of a programme is a huge mallet that just hits the largest amount of lemmings that need to be kept off that edge. It’s not an exact science. That’s why at a certain points, it didn’t work for me. I promptly got arrested, or as some might say, rescued. But the funny thing is, the same kind of discipline and humility that you need to get over any personal power issue is the same kind of thing that you need not to have a bad reputation on the Fox lot. And that is what you use in getting over this.” It’s been a double edged sword that Downey has always delighted the directors that he’s worked with (Robert Altman in Short Cuts, Oliver Stone in Natural Born Killers and James Toback in Two Girls and a Guy), won them accolades, and however unravelled he might have been, he always turned up. It might have been a tool in his recovery that he knew how to do that perfectionism, that he knew how to always get the job done. But the fact that he could get the job done and sometimes done brilliantly when he was using drugs worked against him because it didn’t give him the impetus to stop. His life has always been full of mesmerizing contradictions. The director Mike Figgis said of him that the openness that is necessary to be a good actor can be lethal in real life. In Figgis’s One Night Stand, he was the lynch pin to the movie, a theatre director dying of AIDS. He did it on one of his just released from jail spells and found it easy to inhabit that rattled psyche. Despite the fact that all these directors talk about him lovingly, he says, “I always have a personality meltdown and blame it on the director. It happened with this (The Singing Detective) and it happened with Chaplin. I was fortunate to have a very nurturing and wise person at the helm who didn’t take it personally.” He once said he wasn’t afraid of failure but mediocrity. I don’t think he has a love for any kind of middle ground. When he’s not talking in intellectually complex flamboyant metaphors showing us his brilliant mind, he’s lashing out, angry that he could ever have been a victim. He tells me he’d like to use writing as an outlet for all of this, but he’s too afraid of being criticized. He suffers from a high sense of ego and low self esteem all at the same time.

“It’s almost as if there’s a huge Jackson Pollack mural in the back of you and that represents everything up till now, you can go ahead and look at it, and you think that thing is not really representative of me anymore. But I could operate in that place, you know, that egomaniac with an inferiority complex. But I can also not. I can also recreate a different type of painting. “I heard a guy talking the other day and he said, ‘I used to have really no self esteem and I made this incredible journey to low self esteem’. Well, that’s what I did. But you know, if I was Dennis, and I really had something unmanageable, I would have rolled with it, just like he did. The Veuve Cliquot and just enough morphine to stay so you can work, and smoking whatever it was he smoked. By the way, your tobacco sucks. Benson and Hedges, ugh.” He is smoking Camels. It’s Camels and caffeine all the way. One gets the impression that the hardest part of jail for him must have been the nonsmoking aspect. That, and the horrible tear jerking moment he must have read in the tabloids where Indio, who was then about 7, said “Is daddy a bad man?” Was that made up, or was that tabloid exaggeration? “I think it was a bit of both.” I worry that Downey’s new addiction is that he likes to punish himself too much. He talks about Indio a lot, all the places he’s going to take him and the things he’s going to do with him. Every promise bearing the scars of how emotionally traumatizing it was to have their relationship so disrupted. Right now he’s euphoric that he gets to take him to school, that he gets to be a soccer dad. Are you moving towards living together with him? “We’re moving towards something not unlike that. His mum is really stable and that’s great for him, and I show up as much as I can. I had him last night and we made triple decker peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for his lunch with an Asian pear and Gatorade so his electrolytes don’t drop below an acceptable level after gym time. Saturdays are the soccer games, where he is the leading scorer in the universe. He got three out of six goals, but after he got two, he started doing a very non 20th century thing. He was passing the ball to other players. Bend it like Indio,” he says, tangibly brimming with pride mixed with relief and contentment. The jail time must have been harsh, but he tells me, “The worst was when one of the jail staff asked me to read a script about unicorns. ‘Don’t worry,’ they said. ‘It’s not your usual unicorn story.'”

Although, we both know the unicorns were not the worst torture and with typical Downey dexterity, the scene can shift. He takes my hand and places it between his eyes so I can feel the scar. “And that didn’t happen in a fight about you’re not the usual unicorn synopsis. Not was it fighting with a bunch of your brothers over a banana. See this, right above my eyebrow to the middle of my forehead to the middle of my nose? It was all split open. Just the jailhouse love tap,” he shrugs. “They were trying to muscle me into giving some sort of payoff for protection, and I said when I’m done reading the Stephen King novel, I’ll come over and we’ll talk shop. But you don’t come with that in jail, because the next thing I knew, it was on. [It being a full on blood splattered brawl] And well, it was cool after that, they didn’t fuck with me.” Because if you had admitted you needed protection, that would have been the end? “Absolutely. In prison things are so established it’s not going to matter what you do. Sometimes, everyone’s playing handball, and it’s perfect harmony. Your intuitions strengthen to an extreme and you know intuitively when something’s not right. When you’ve got 1200 guys in a yard and you can all of a sudden hear a pin drop, it’s time to get out of Dodge. The map never changes. I learned some lessons. “In a weird, way, the melee of experiences were the same as situations in Hollywood or New York or the midwest. The world is that yard. I don’t want to sound too zen about it. The first time I was in there, they brought in this guy, a minister, he came to the cell and started laying me onto the power of Christ. Out of my depths came the most appropriate word: bullshit.” He kind of howls it, even now, pressing his face up to the sky. “He turned tail and walked out. These days, I’d give him a hug and we’d break it open, see what was going on. At a certain point I decided I’m going to show a good face and develop my own philosophy.” In fact, enthusiastically, he says, “Cellies are great. If you’ve got a great celly, it doesn’t get any better than that.” And if you’ve got a bad one, it doesn’t get any worse. “Correct. But I don’t know about the bad celly experiment because the California Corrections Institution is sharp.” You mean, they match make? “Well, yes. In jails, they either have you there for six months or a year. You’re there because you’re about to catch the chain up to where you really are going to do your time, and while you’re in there, you can’t smoke and you can’t do anything. Or you’re waiting to get in your own personal 12 unit nirvana. Either way, it’s the great and possibly final road trip.

So they always used to put me with the guys that had something to hold on to. I learned a hell of a lot, stuff I can apply to my work, my parenting and street situations. I was raised in Manhattan on the street and was a latchkey kid but there are very few things that could occur now that I wouldn’t have some way of applying my jailhouse mentality to.” Do you keep in touch with your cell mates? “I do. The one I stay in touch with most is probably one of the most brilliant, introspective and selfless guys I’ve ever met, currently serving a life sentence.” What for? “Three strikes law. Details would be unimportant.” Three strikes is a Californian thing. Even if your third offence is stealing a pizzas, you get life in prison. “He calls and you press 5 and accept the charges and he is an incredible source of strength because when you’re at a place where you have to accept you’re through with money or doing all day, (it means doing life), you can be incredibly strong.” Did jail make you have a different attitude to money, as in real money? “I was able to hold onto it in the pen as well as I am in the street. (Which is not very well) “But I’m a hustler. I’ve always known how to hustle.” It certainly seems that way. Whereas a checkered record of being in and out of jail would have finished most actors, he came out first time to get one of the highest paid per episode in television on Ally McBeal, and after that he got sent back to rehab and came out to do Singing Detective and Gothica back to back. What did he think about the yards of finger wagging editorials that said Hollywood is so unforgiving? “Hell, that’s not true. I have nine lives, nine lives. I mean, any situation can change in the blink of an eye.

He has a knack of trying to credit people who perhaps really damaged him. “One of the best things my dad ever did for me was a real tough love thing. I was 17, called him from a phone booth and said I didn’t even have a token for the subway or money for lunch. He said, call your friends. I said I had and he said sorry kid, and hung up. I can’t thank him enough because I’ve been self supporting since I was 17.” I suggest that might mean ingrained in him is a kind of desperation about money; to disregard its power. It doesn’t mean anything so I’ll get rid of it and I can get it again. “I’m not sure that financial instability is the problem. It’s fear of financial instability that fucks things up.” Right now, he doesn’t strike me as someone who’s terribly afraid of that. More as a person who is redefining himself and not let any fears define him. A hard task when it’s not what you’re used to, and when the world wants to adore him for his craziness. As he’s already explained, just because you might have a mural at the back of you (the Jackson Pollock) that’s riddled with fears that define you, it doesn’t mean to say you can’t reorganize those fears.

He is fighting them and he is on a constant course of reinvention. The reason he can survive that reinvention is because he’s not only loveable, he is clearly loved. When Elton John chose him to play himself in the video I Want Love, it was a cameo of a demand. He needed love and he seemed to get it because whatever a bad boy he might have been, he is essentially absolutely loveable.

Jacqueline Bisset (August 17, 2014)

Jacqueline Bisset has arrived early to meet me at Daphne’s restaurant in South Kensington. She is wearing a fitted tracksuit top with the zip pulled down enough to reveal her famous voluptuous cleavage, and the skinniest of skinny jeans that make her legs look like a ballerina’s. Her eyes are an extraordinary sea green. They peer right into you with an uncanny depth.
Her face is lined, sure, but still beautiful at 69. She doesn’t believe in botox or having work down, and as she said in her now infamous rambling speech when she won her Golden Globe for Stephen Poliakoff’s Dancing On The Edge in January, ‘You have to forgive everybody. It’s the best beauty treatment.’
‘I don’t think it gets rid of lines. It just fills you up with an eternal light. I have massive lines, but I feel okay about them,’ she says as she instructs me about never looking back, never wasting energy on regret. ‘Also, as one gets older, one doesn’t have enough time to go through all this angst stuff.’
Her thanking everybody she’d ever met in her life speech which went on long after the get off the stage music had started playing was the highlight of this year’s ceremony. She simply didn’t want to leave. She admitted later that the shock after so many nominations, including one as Most Promising Newcomer for The Sweet Ride in 1968, had made her get ‘things a bit twisted up.’
People said at the time she appeared tired and emotional, but talking to her now where she speaks in long paragraphs searching for the perfect word, I think she was just being herself.
She seems to have always courted controversy with her unique blend of beauty and intellect, English propriety and French laissez-faire.
Everyone said she was having an affair with Frank Sinatra in her breakout role in The Detective (1968). She was not. And later that year when Bullitt came out they said the same of Steve McQueen.
When she was the lead in Truffaut’s Day For Night (1973) everyone thought she was French. She is not, although her mother was born in France. She was brought up in Reading but has been in as many French movies as English language ones and was awarded the French Legion d’Honneur in 2010.
In 1977 she starred in The Deep with Nick Nolte. The poster from the movie with her diving with her wet white T-shirt stuck to her became one of the most iconic images of the seventies. An image for which she did not pose and was papped underwater during filming on a closed set.
We are about to see her in what is set to be this year’s most controversial film, Welcome To New York. The film is based on the story of the disgraced former head of the International Monetary Fund, Dominique Strauss-Kahn, and his heiress second wife Anne Sinclair.
Her character is called Simone and not Anne, and Gerard Depardieu plays her husband, the head of a finance fund, called Monsieur Devereaux. The names are changed, but other details from the sex scandal are fully in place. The fictional character is also on course to become the next President of France.
He too is an unrepentant sex addict, a prolific one – we see endless sex – but is undone just like Strauss-Kahn, when he abuses the chambermaid of a smart New York hotel.
Some of the same interrogating officers were used as actors and much of the film is shot in the actual safe house where Strauss-Kahn remained under house arrest. Yet it’s not a biopic, so it can be as racy as it wants.
‘I think of Anne Sinclair as a beauty with a lot of spark and warmth and charisma, and I didn’t have that as a starting point for my Simone. I had an on-going thing that women struggle with – men behaving badly.
‘Gerard’s character moves cheerfully through life, avoids thinking because he has his own adventures. No remorse.
‘A lot of the lines were improvised. She feels like she is losing everything. She is beyond sad and shattered.’
The film is half in French and half in English and Bisset says, ‘I speak French well but not fluently. In the film it’s good because I choose the words I know. There is a lot of improvisation, but with structure.’
Bisset is the only woman in the movie who is not having sex with Depardieu, whose large bulk is naked for a good portion of it. What was he like to work with? ‘Charming most of the time. His acting is compelling. He wasn’t always in a good mood, but his energy is always very strong.
‘There was a love scene we had towards the end where we were both in bed. We weren’t having sex but it was a very tender scene with him. I think I have reached the age where they don’t ask me to do sex scenes any more, and that’s quite a relief.
‘Actresses these days seem so easy with their bodies. The sex scenes seem so realistic. The women used to be always underneath. Now the women are on top. Interesting, isn’t it?’
I wonder if she would have been as frustrated and controlling as her character. Has she ever had a relationship with a sex addict? ‘No, but I’ve known very sexual men. In the film Gerard’s character says he needs the sex to make him feel young. Everybody’s needs are different and everyone’s sexual appetite is different. Some people are fitter and healthier and they like sex more than people who put on weight, and there are some men who are just terribly sexy. Gerard is a man of big appetites generally. He is always talking about restaurants and wine and he’s very charismatic.’
His character though is an addict. He can’t change. ‘I have really tried not to change men. I am good at letting people be who they are, to my own detriment. If you allow somebody to be who they are they can be happy, but that’s not necessarily good for you. It means that you could be having a difficult time.
‘I remember somebody saying to me once, I understand why so and so stays with you. You let him be completely free. I thought he’s just being who he is and I don’t feel threatened by it. He was just very alive and a little bit wild.’
I wonder which of her sexy but wild lovers to which she refers. ‘It doesn’t matter who. I’ve had very good relationships, but where people have had addictions it’s been difficult. People who are artistic often have weak areas and may not be the strongest people in the world. Their thrust for life is powerful, you can’t say they’re weak.
‘I’ve always fallen in love instantaneously and mutually. My heart just becomes alert, a feeling that I’ve known someone for a very long time. You feel like you know them, so you are not in a hurry to know them or change them because you have time. You feel like you are witnessing someone who is witnessing you.
‘I had a good relationship with my father and I understood men pretty well.’ By this I think she means she never put on any pressure for the men to marry her.
She had long – around seven year – relationships with high profile, high-octane men. Firstly They Shoot Horses, Don’t They actor Michael Sarrazin (1967-74), ballet dancer Alexander Godunov (1981-88). In 1988 she met Swiss actor Vincent Perez when they starred in La Maison de Jade, and was with property and hotel magnate Victor Drai in the early nineties. From 1997-2005 she was with martial arts expert Emin Boztepe.
She has given various reasons in the past for not getting married to any of them, such as she didn’t want to live with a man with bad habits, she had a fear of commitment. ‘A variety of things. My first relationship the man had two children and he hadn’t married her so I thought if he hasn’t married that woman he’s not going to marry me. it was at the beginning of our careers and I enjoyed having a relationship with somebody who was teaching me a lot about life.
‘Also I was running backwards and forwards between England and California looking after my mother. She was a priority.’
What happened to her? ‘My mother got MS when she was about 47 and she started to have dementia in her early fifties, so both together it was a hard one. It was awful for her, and not easy for me. I was living in California, but also had a base here.’
Her mother Arlette Alexander was a lawyer turned housewife. During the war she cycled from Paris and boarded a British troop transport to escape the Germans. Bisset’s father Max was a GP.
‘He took off, which was a bit of a shock, as he was a doctor and mummy was really not well. I was about 22 when he finally left her. She was already ill. I did adore my father but I found it hard to imagine that he could leave somebody who was so ill and basically plonk mummy into my lap.
‘He remarried and I got very fond of his wife. They had a son who I am very close to. My father had the child when he was 70 and died when he was 71.
‘The problem was how would I cope with my mother. She had forgotten all about him leaving her. The dementia had set in and some of the painful bits she just forgot. It’s really extraordinary when you think about it. When you are older you can forget painful stuff and reach a state of bliss again.’
At this point she may be trying to be blissful, but the pain she went through is almost tactile. We order a glass of wine and she tries to be jolly.
‘I had to keep finding people who could help. In the end I took her to America. She didn’t know where she was but it was the best thing to do. She had dementia from her early fifties until she died in 1999 at 85.
‘I have a brother, Max, he lives in Miami. He doesn’t like Los Angeles. I was the one that…’ Her voice trails. ‘You just have to be there. Life has to go on and you have to deal with it. I had periods where I just didn’t know what to do and then I gradually started to sort things out with my mother.
‘The men that I was with, it was not always perfect. They didn’t do anything for her, but at least they didn’t nag me and understood that I always had to go and that she was my priority. Sometimes they were playful with her, which she adored. Sometimes you can find a jolly place where you can giggle. You have to give up all conventional thinking. You can’t think is the house tidy etc. The world becomes their world. There were people who were sympathetic and people who weren’t.
‘The thing I found most difficult was that people didn’t want to come and visit me. They would come if there was a meal for them or something, but they didn’t actually come over and just sit with the person who was not well. I think people don’t know how to cope with what was going on. It’s like when somebody dies people don’t know what to say. The biggest thing you could do for somebody who is in a situation like that is offer to give them just a half day off so they can get a break.’ And people did that for her? ‘No, they did not.’
It seems to me that her lack of life partner has nothing to do with lack of commitment but because she was already committed to looking after her mother. Is that the real reason? ‘Well… There are lots of brave people who do these things. For me it was a particular combination of trying to be a successful actress and have a life when my mother was a priority. I got very tired.
‘I put my back out when I was lifting her. I remember there’d be times when she’d be terribly giggly when I couldn’t lift her out of the bath. I had to call the Chelsea police station in order to get help. Some days she would lock herself in the bathroom until I took the lock off the door.
‘When people have Alzheimer’s it’s not every minute of the day, they go in and out. I was always wishing my mother could be more emotionally supportive to me because it was so emotional. It wasn’t a tug of war exactly, but some part of it was.’
Did she feel the need to support her in some weird way because she needed the support herself? ‘God knows what the psychology was. It just had to be dealt with on so many levels and it was all compounding, but eventually I got into the swing of it,’ she says brightly. She hadn’t wanted to talk about any of this. She hates looking back.
She says that she loves being in England but when she’s in California she feels healthier and she has trained herself not to miss being in London and not to miss Cadbury’s chocolate, so we indulge in a chocolate mousse.
Known for her on screen shimmer and incandescent beauty, she reminds me, ‘I’ve done very few raunchy scenes. That stupid photograph underwater. It was tacky, awful. I thought they had covered me up completely. We never saw the rushes. We didn’t know what my T-shirt looked like. I was more worried that I was going to die in the water. I was diving down 30 or 40 or possibly 90 feet of water and when I was swimming down the T-shirt was pressed against me. I think that picture was taken by the National Geographic photographer because he was the only one allowed on the beach. I tried to stop the whole thing, but I’m not going back there. I’ve got over it.’
As a teenager she loved to dance. ‘It got me in a state of bliss and every night I would dream I was choreographing amazing ballets. Margot Fonteyn was my absolute idol.’
So her love of ballet attracted her to Russian primo ballerino Alexander Godunov. ‘He was amazing. He was one of those people that when I met him I thought I knew him already. We were together for seven years and stayed close friends after that. It was complicated.
‘He is dead now. Alcohol killed him (he died at 45 in May 1995 due to complications from hepatitis due to chronic alcoholism). My two longest term relationships died for reasons I would say were alcohol related. (Michael Sarrazin died in 2011 aged 70 of cancer).’
Perhaps this is what she was referring to when she said that it can be negative if you let people be free. ‘I didn’t recognise it. I’d never seen anybody drink like this. I didn’t know what they were doing. The ballet dancer was a great soul and had a great spirit. I’m so sorry it didn’t work out for him.
‘I don’t think I have an addictive personality although I think I can be addicted to people. Certainly I can get passions for them, and that can be dangerous too.’
For the moment she isn’t addicted to anybody. ‘I don’t have a romance now but I have a very nice friendship with somebody. I don’t think I want it to turn into a romance, I don’t know. Am I looking for somebody to have a romance with? I’m not sure. I don’t meet anybody except people who are in relationships already. Everybody says the same thing.
‘I am not on any of those dating websites. I know friends who like them but I’m not sure. If I meet somebody who is my kind of person it’s just boom. I’ve never been a person who dates people. I’m either in it or I’m not. I mean I must have had a date in my life, but very few. I think conversation with a person who is alive is a great thing. I like people who are intelligent and self made. Life is more interesting if you are in a relationship, I do think that,’ she says slightly wistfully, but she never wants to dwell in a sad moment.
She seems to contradict earlier reports that she had a fear of commitment. Her relationships that lasted for seven years did not end because she had a seven year itch. ‘Things could have broken off much sooner but I wouldn’t give up on them. I don’t give up on things. That’s my motto.’
She started off in California because 20th Century Fox offered her a contract in 1967. ‘I didn’t like the idea of being owned by anybody. I didn’t mind if it was a man, but a film studio? I was preoccupied in thinking I have to keep going back to England for my mother. Instead they gave me a ten picture deal and they treated me well, and by that time I’d met an actor in the first film I made in America – The Sweet Ride (1968) – and that was my life then.’
When she was making that first film with Sarrazin in New York she got mugged. ‘I’m easily panicked, but on this occasion I was very calm thinking if they stab me I’ll have to go to one of those hospitals that we’re filming in. please God know. I started talking in ridiculous American jive talk. Suddenly I was talking in another language just as she was doing. She took my wallet and I was calm.’
She is godmother to Angelina Jolie. ‘Unfortunately I don’t have much of a relationship with her but I was really close to her mother. Her mother didn’t have an easy time and neither did Angelina, but whenever I see her I find it extraordinary how calm she always looks.’
Maybe her calm is an act, just like hers? ‘I don’t think so. I’m always worrying about things. One of my fears about living in California is that I am in an area prone to fires. I’m always thinking of what I would save.
‘I was shooting a film in Buffalo and the hotel I was in had a fire alarm go off in the middle of the night. The only thing I took with me was the wig for the film. If the wig was gone I would be hanging around until they made another one and I really wanted to get out of that place.’
She tells me with great amusement that a hair salon close to the restaurant we are sitting in today straightened her hair in the late sixties and it all dropped out. ‘So I wore wigs for years. Once I went on location and I took my cat. I’d had him fixed but he still sprayed occasionally and he sprayed on my wig when I was out filming. I was in Denver and when I came back to my room there was a horrendous smell and then I discovered it was my wig that he sprayed on.’
She shrugs it off reminding me that she was friends with Sharon Tate and was round at her house a few days before she died at the hands of Charles Manson. ‘She invited me to come over the following Friday. I cancelled at the last minute. And that was the day she was murdered.
‘Los Angeles changed completely almost overnight. Fear and paranoia and no one had a clue where it was coming from. It didn’t make me want to leave but it made me fearful. I am less fearful now. I feel like I have a big spirit and I am a lover of life and I don’t live in the past.’
With that we finish the chocolate mousse and she embraces me goodbye.

 

 

Susan Sarandon (Psychologies Mag, July 16, 2014)

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.”

 

 

Richard E. Grant (Mail Weekend, March, 2014)

At first glance Richard E. Grant appears to be licking the racing green leather walls of the lift in the Ivy Club. He is actually sniffing it. His olfactory powers are on turbo drive since he spent the last year creating and is about to launch his new unisexy perfume Jack.
He is glowing from the experience, that the anticipation of his first days on set as an upstairs character in Downton and a part in the juicily dysfunctional twentysomething comedy drama series Girls, and playing a narcissistic ostrich in the animated Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale. In fact he is looking splendid: tall lithe, sweeping hair and a large Union ‘Jack’ scarf. He wears the large grin of a person who can’t believe his good fortune. The cat who discovered his cream was full fat.
We meet on the day before he is to go on set for his Downton debut. ‘Four episodes,’ he says, looking savour it. Is he a Lady Mary lover? ‘I am an upstairs character and they’ve told me that I can’t say what I am for fear of my knees being removed. I was in Gosforth Park also written by Julian 12 years ago. I was a downstairs character, a footman. Now Julian Fellowes has promoted me to upstairs.’
Did he write it with him in mind? ‘You would have to ask him,’ he says looking constrained. I think he wants to tell me but he can’t. It just came out of the blue? ‘Yes,’ he says… Was he always hoping that Fellowes would write him a part in Downton?
‘It is the thing that my mother who is 84 has asked me on a monthly basis since it started. “When are you going on Downton? Why are you not in Downton and when will you be in it?” She always thought it was about time. All her friends have seen it. She is in Africa so it’s gone global. I spoke to her last week and told her she can tell her fellow bridge players it had come to pass. But you know, until you actually do it and it’s edited and comes out you are always slightly wary because you don’t know if your part will be cut.
‘I am always excited by a new job. That has never gone away and I think the day it does go away is the day you have to hang up your tights and put away your make-up. I am a Downton fan. I have watched it all the way.’
I try to make him tell me more about his part. Are you playing a vet? Isa the Labrador seems to have been around since pre-Titanic. ‘I will ask tomorrow if the dog is going to dog heaven but they’ve already got a vet. I can’t tell you any more.’
Do they give you the script in advance or just your character? ‘I have three scripts at the moment. The fourth one hasn’t been written yet.’ So he knows what’s happening to everybody, not just his character? ‘Yes I do and I can’t tell you, but it’s going to be good. It’s a bit like being the new boy at school. They’ve all been working on this for four years and then people from outside come in…’ He pulls a nervous face. ‘Word is that everybody has a good time. When you reach a certain vintage you already know quite a few of the actors. I was amused that somebody sent me a Google link the other day saying that I was a veteran actor, so there you are, I’m a veteran,’ he says savouring the word.
I’ve always known that Richard E. was special. He is complicated, tangible and at the same time elegantly distant. He was mesmerising on Richard E. Grant’s Hotel Secrets and the second series is coming up. ‘I loved the hotel series. The second series covers Hong Kong, Tokyo, Miami, New Orleans, Venice and Berlin. It did feel very risky at the beginning going literally into unscripted territory where I had to meet people and interview them.
‘My favourite was Heidi Fleiss when I had to interview her in Las Vegas about sex and sex scandals in hotels. She lives with 40 macaws and was extraordinary. In fact I love interviewing people. Being a nosey parker and being paid for it, brilliant.’
When I last interviewed Richard E. he bonded with my un-bondable cat, a ninja warrior of a cat who attacks all who come near her. In fact Richard E. Grant is possibly the only person from whom she has not drawn blood. I have always thought there was something cat like about him.
He says he coped with his hotel series flying around the world subjected to jet lag because ‘I am like a cat, I can sleep anywhere. Sitting upright in a chair.’
I don’t see him as a lap cat though, or as a dog, even though he had one. More of a cheetah. ‘He raises an eyebrow. I’ll go for anything that’s fast and can change its spots. Nobody really changes, do they? Your essential nature I think is unchangeable.
‘When I was doing My Fair Lady in Sydney I saw someone called Richard Clarke who I hadn’t seen since I was 12-years-old since they emigrated to Perth. We had remained pen friends for a year. We had not seen each other for four decades, before our voices had broken. And then I looked out of the lobby window and recognised the signature of his walk from a distance even though now he was a middle-aged man. We met and we talked. We started at six in the evening. Dawn came up and we were still talking. At some point he said, “You haven’t changed at all.”
‘And I thought oh, you hope that some barnacles of wisdom or something is going to accrue to you over the years. And he said, “No, I mean it in a complementary way. You still ask too many questions and you still talk too much.” And I felt the same about him. Essentially he was the same. I think unless something catastrophic happens to warp you off kilter, who you are is a meridian line’
I wonder if Richard E. Grant, 56, is the same as Richard E. at 12. I wonder if what happened to him at 10 traumatised him to the point of changing him completely. He woke from a doze in the back of the family car to see his mother having sex with one of his father’s friends in the front seat. Subsequently he watched his father slip into alcoholic despair, and then was bullied and brutalised by him.
‘It was traumatic, but I think if you are optimistic by nature that is something you don’t have any control over. That’s in your DNA. So I never ever thought that I was going to go under. I think it’s enormously lucky to have that in your life.’
One of his survival mechanisms was the catharsis of diary writing. His memoirs were wonderfully written and he wrote and directed the movie Wah-Wah based on his early life. He stills writes most days.
‘I write on an iPad because my handwriting is not very good and if I write it on paper it disappears because I’m a hoarder. I love stuff. I like to be surrounded by things that I’ve collected or have been given to me.’
Smell has always been the unlocker of memories, a key to him. How did the smell of Jack come about? ‘I was in the Caribbean two years ago and the designer Anya Hindmarsh saw me with my head in a gardenia bush and said what are you going to do about that? And I said do you mean psychiatrically? And she said no, have you thought of making a perfume? And I said it ahs been my dream.
‘She took out her iPhone and magic wanded a list of numbers of people to go and see. Roja Dove the perfumier told me that I have a very sharp sense of smell, possibly because I’ve never drunk or smoked.’
He insists that his intolerance for alcohol was not because he had to suffer the fallout and abuse from a father who became consumed with grief and alcoholism when his mother left him. ‘But because like Gaga says, I was Born That Way. When I was 18 I went to a doctor and found out that I have no enzymes that deal with alcohol. It’s like pouring poison down my throat. I have tried it and been violently ill for 24 hours, so it’s not worth it.’
He gets out a tiny bottle of Jack, which smells exotic, quirky, peppery, but oozing comfort, sexuality and elegance. Mesmerising and curious; a little like Grant himself.
‘So far I’ve had an amazing response. I wake up, live and breathe it. Having never done anything businessy in my life, never passed a maths exam, I think this has been the steepest learning curve for a man in his late 50s as it is possible to get.’
He is actually only 56. I wonder why he exaggerates his age? ‘I suppose you notice it so much because I’ve now lived four years longer than my father did, so every year feels like a bonus to me.’
A pause, a sigh. ‘He drank himself to death with unrequited love for my mother.’ He says this with surprising compassion. His father, Henrik Esterhuysen, was Minister of Education Swaziland.
His drunk father would be cruel, telling him he was ugly and untalented. At one point fired bullets at him that narrowly missed his head. ‘He wasn’t himself when he was drunk. I have come to terms with all that now. You forgive as you get older.’
Surely he missed his mother and he didn’t think oh it’s for the best I’m living with an alcoholic abusive father? ‘No, but the thing that really helped me through it all was writing a diary. Being involved in plays and having a puppet theatre. It was a hobby that was all so engrossing. It enabled me to be on my own and be content to be on my own. And in retrospect that gives you a sense of yourself and your own value and self-possession.’
I always think of Richard E. Grant as a composed person, fiercely independent and a loner. I’m not sure exactly why I have a sense of that. I always imagined him as an only child. He in fact has a brother from whom he is estranged.
‘I think I am an only child in the sense that my brother (Stuart) went to a different school and we had separate friends and I felt like I was an only child. I haven’t had any contact with him for years. I last saw him at my father’s funeral. I don’t know what he does, where he lives or anything about him.’
Is he not curious? ‘Absolutely zero interest.’
He is curious about everybody, why not him? ‘Because if you feel someone harbours resentment towards you or ill will you don’t gravitate towards them. That’s just animal instinct. It’s not something I’m going to poke my nose around. Leave sleeping animosity lying.’
I have read that his brother complained that Richard E. turned up at his father’s funeral with orange hair – it was for a part in a play – and lobbed him a few insults. It sounds like there has been a lifetime of murky discord. Has his mother never tried to get them to patch things up? ‘No. I think she understood. More than anything a parent knows if two children don’t get on.
‘My mother has been married to her second husband for 38 years. She loves gardening, she loves dogs.’ About 15 years ago when he was thinking about making the movie he had a period of depression where he found it hard to get out of bed. He went to a therapist recommended by Steve Martin who he met on the set of LA Story and his therapist asked him how he would feel if his mother died and urged him to make contact. He sent her a fax asking if she could explain what happened on the day he saw her from the back seat of the family car.
She wrote an 18-page letter about what it was like to be a woman in a colonial set-up with a strict hierarchy. She had no idea that his father had become an alcoholic mourning her loss. It is easy to see why he fled to London to drama school. Swaziland remains bitter sweet to him.
He met his wife, voice coach Joan Washington, when she taught a class in 1983. They were married in 1986, the year before he was to star in one of the greatest cult films ever made, Withnail And I. His performance as Withnail remains one of the most brilliantly poised and cleverly observed recreations of a drunk ever to hit celluloid. He went on to win acclaim in How To Get Ahead In Advertising, The Age Of Innocence, The Player, Gosford Park and as Michael Heseltine in The Iron Lady.
His contacts book is pretty impressive. He has worked with just about anybody who matters and one of the actors who matters most to him is Helena Bonham Carter.
‘We have been friends for 22 years. I’ve worked with her twice, first on Twelfth Night and then on Keep The Aspidistra Flying. She’s one of the most innately funny people you could ever wish to work with. When she starts laughing it’s a giggle box you can’t resist. She’s as smart as a whip too. Nothing passes her. I adore her. She is also very very good. Did you see her as Enid Blyton? Her portrayal of this monstrous woman was extraordinary.’
When I ask him about Khumba the animated tale of the zebra who is only half striped and its metaphors with wanting to be accepted he tells me that he hasn’t seen it and he can’t remember much about it.
‘I went into a studio, no make-up, no costume. Everyone in the studio on their own with a sound engineer. It’s cheaper that way because it’s cheaper to fly a sound engineer than some actor who has to be picked up from an airport and put in a chichi hotel. It does feel like a fraudulent job sometimes when everybody else at the coal face working, drawing, doing all the colouring, all that stuff they do in animation. They give you a rough sketch of a character and you only see the bits you are in.’
He doesn’t even know whether Liam Neeson, who is the voice of the one-eyed lion, has an Irish or an American accent. Perhaps he needs to be finessed by Joan Washington. I wonder has Richard ever had any voice lessons from his wife?
‘Yes. My first television job called Sweet Sixteen in 1983 playing a Gloucestershire yokel, and later on I needed a southern American accent for Suddenly, Last Summer with Natasha Richardson. All I can say is don’t do it. It’s the life lesson of marriage. It’s a little bit like getting a driving lesson from anyone you are close to. They are not going to be as patient as they could be with somebody else. That’s par for the course.’ Family and loyalty are very important to him. The scars of his childhood meant he grew up thinking he would be betrayed or abandoned.
He says he misses his daughter Olivia, now 25, even though she only lives a mile away from him in Richmond. They talk every day. ‘Olivia has graduated in creative writing from East Anglia and has been working as a production assistant on four films including Philomena, The Invisible Woman, Posh about the Bullingdon Club and The Theory Of Flight about Stephen Hawkins.’
Recently he had a fire in his house in Richmond. ‘I have a flat roof on the garage at the bottom of my garden and it was being repaired. The roofers let a blowtorch on a fir tree, which went up in flames, and everything caught fire. Fire engines and everything were called. I was terrified of the whole thing. I thought I was going to lose everything but the fire brigade who are literally ten minutes from my house arrived so quickly and were brilliant. I was home alone and I saw it from my study upstairs. Suddenly the tree was on fire. It was in the summer so there was a hosepipe in the garden so I got that out before the Fire Brigade arrived.’
He gives a slight shudder. Possessions collected over the years, the memories of the family home, all very important to him.
He misses Joan when she is away. Currently she is voice coaching on a film in Toronto. She only ever does big films. This one is called Crimson Peak with Tom Hiddlestone and Jessica Chastain.
How has he managed longevity in love? ‘I have no idea… Well, we started talking to each other in 1983 and that conversation has not stopped. It’s a 30 year conversation.’
The life of an actor is by its nature rollercoaster high then dry. ‘Yes, we’ve carried on despite all of that. Her work is consistent. She consistently works with the best people. And her job absolutely dovetails with mine. She understands how actors operate, which is a good thing.’
He is not glib when he says all of this. There have certainly been some bad times. When they first married she suffered miscarriages and their first daughter Tiffany died after half an hour of life. ‘That was 27 years ago. It feels like a long time ago but I still think about it because the road to where we live goes past the cemetery in which our first daughter is buried. I pass it every day so you can’t not think about it. I think you don’t get over something, you go round it. You accept it because that’s the nature of how you live otherwise you wouldn’t be able to get through a day.’
Was it one of those things that if it didn’t break you as a person and as a relationship it made you stronger? ‘Exactly it does, you know, children and whatever happens to them. It’s a thing I’ve seen so often in partnership that causes discord and it shouldn’t.’
More so than having twentysomething lovers on the set of Girls? He laughs: ‘They are very special to me, the cast of Girls. After all, I am a veteran,’ he says, relishing his status with a naughty glint.
The creator of Girls, Lena Dunham, saw Withnail And I and wrote the part especially for him. ‘Lena Dunham is extraordinarily bright and disarming. She said she wrote a part for me after she’d seen Withnail. They haven’t killed me off. There’s a possibility I could come back. I am an older English gentleman who meets Jemima Kirk in rehab. I am a recovering cocaine addict and she is a recovering multi-addict.’
And they have a twisted dysfunctional romance. ‘That’s a very good way of putting it. More in my head I think than hers, in character of course. It’s alarming when you go on set and they are all the age of my daughter and I am older than most of their parents.’
He promises he doesn’t think about the ageing process too much. ‘Not like Bruce Robinson who wrote Withnail who constantly talks to me about how many Christmases he thinks he’s got left. He’s 67.’
Does your mother talk about how many Christmases she’s got left? ‘Never. No. She just gets on with it. Bruce likes to indulge in a maudlin cynicism with me on the phone.’
Richard E. Grant couldn’t look more alive. His skin vibrates with its own glow. His eyes seem to have a constant sparkle. And besides he eats Christmas pudding every month. ‘And then I have a slice of it for leftovers fried for breakfast the next day.’
How is it that he isn’t 25 stone? ‘I have been running around chasing my tail all my life. I think that’s it.’ And with that he needs to leave on urgent perfume business and no doubt more tail chasing.

Jack launches exclusively at Liberty on April 2 and online at www.jackperfume.co.uk.
Khumba: A Zebra’s Tale is out on April 11.

Niki Lauda (August 25, 2013)

I am not sure how, or even if, I can look Niki Lauda right in the eye. I am waiting for him in a multi-chandeliered and cream cake heavy hotel suite in his native Vienna. I have just seen the movie Rush. Utterly compelling.
It is based on his story, the danger, rivalry, excitement and brushes with sex and death in the world of 1976 Formula 1 when the sport was so dangerous at the beginning of each race there was a certainty 20 per cent would not make it to the end.
The Ron Howard movie chronicles the impassioned rivalry between Lauda and the first British Formula 1 champion James Hunt. In one vital race at Nürburgring in the 1976 Grand Prix Lauda’s tyres lost grip and his Ferrari caught fire. He was dragged out
‘Another ten seconds and I would have died.’
There followed gruelling operations to remove smoke and debris from his lungs and his face was irreparably burned, he lost half an ear. He refused to give up. Showing spectacular strength and verve he appeared just a couple of months later at a race meeting in Monza with for want of a better description, a new face.
Fellow drivers recoiled in horror and couldn’t look at him. He was shocked and hurt. The damage was horrendous and this was first time he saw the impact on the rest of the world. Even though he’d missed races he was still in the lead.
He enters the room relaxed, jeans, checked shirt. Eyes like pale blue Swarovski crystals, they burn and sparkle. His charisma almost takes my breath away. He sees me looking at him, examining him and gives a slow knowing smile.
He has just seen the movie, which is basically his story – he was a constant companion to writer Peter Morgan and helped him with memories and knowledge of the sport. Apparently Morgan knew nothing about Formula 1 and he tells the story with the passion of its discovery. Undoubtedly his best work.
I look at Lauda’s face. The scars have faded with age. He is now 64. ‘Yes, the wrinkles improved it,’ he says with an almost impossible confidence. He is comfortable with me looking right at his face. In fact he enjoys. He enjoys staring tragedy and disaster in the eye and dealing with it. He enjoys strength. This is a man who has not only learned to live without his face but has enjoyed living despite it.
‘When after the accident I came out into the world and people looked at me they were shocked. It upset me. I thought they were impolite not to hide their negative emotions about my look. When I saw the movie it let me see the story from the other side, from the point of view of other people looking at me. It helped me understand why people were shocked.’
What was it like for him when he first saw the scarring? ‘My then wife fainted when she first saw me, so I knew it could not have been good. I wondered is this really the way I look? As I get older the scars get lost in the lines and well…’ he shrugs to himself, ‘you just get used to it.
‘It took a long time though. I never realised because I accepted the way I looked at the time. I never thought about it, I just kept on going.’
It’s interesting in the age of cosmetic microsurgery where transformations are commonplace that Lauda refused to have any more work done after the initial surgery to keep him alive.
‘I only had to do surgery to improve my eyesight. Cosmetic surgery, it’s boring and expensive and the only thing it could do is give me another face. I had the eye surgery so that my eyes could function and as long as everything functions I don’t care about it.’
You believe him when he says that. He is striking in the way he has very few insecurities. Born to a wealthy Austrian family in Vienna. His parents had expected him to follow into a comfortable life. Lauda wanted none of it. He’d never been afraid of speed and always had a passion for the way things worked.
He peers out from under his ubiquitous red cap that only slightly disguises the fact that half of one ear is missing. ‘You have to accept it. You can’t think how you would be until it happens to you. If a person gets burnt somewhere when you are in that situation you think differently, you think what do I do now, how do I find my own way of handling it and when you’ve found it it doesn’t bother you any more. People who have never been in your situation they can’t imagine what they would do. They just ask themselves why is he like this? Why doesn’t he do something about it?
‘Maybe if they were in my situation they would behave the same way as I did. I was always being offered cosmetic procedures. See this little thing here and he gestures to the side of his face. This was done by Ivo Pitanguy in Brazil. He was the most famous plastic surgeon in the world at the time. He wanted to do everything. He asked me, “Are you nuts? Why wouldn’t you want this?” I just don’t like the look of it.’
He looks up at me, through me, examines my face. ‘You have not had work done. What do you think of the stupid women who get work done all the time?’ I’m not sure. Ask me in ten years.
‘I think it’s bad. If you have something done people can see right away that you’ve had surgery.’
The point of good surgery is that you don’t see. ‘I see it straight away,’ he says as someone who is hyper aware.
‘What about women who have their lips done and have all this shit? (He mimics the trout pout). I hate it because it becomes part of your personality.’
Does he automatically find a woman unattractive if they’ve had any cosmetic surgery? ‘I would hate it. It means they can’t stand whoever they are. I’ve had a lot of incidents in the past where people were wondering how I looked. At least I can say I had an accident. The idea that people would work on themselves, who hadn’t had an accident… I can’t stand plastic surgery. You have to have enough personality to overcome this beauty bullshit and find the strength to love yourself the way you are.’
There’s no point in telling him many people could never find that strength. When you look at him you don’t see scars you see strength and that strangely makes him really good. His eyes seem to glint even bluer when I tell him this. He says, ‘I’ve learned from my life experience. I think I was much less charismatic before.’
In the movie it shows the young Lauda being very determined, practical and pragmatic. His personality was the opposite of the flamboyant catnip to all women James Hunt.
Actor Daniel Brühl who played him had to have prosthetic teeth. He was known as the rat for his protruding large teeth which strangely you don’t notice at all now.
‘Marlboro was the sponsor. They put The Rat on my visor. A marketing guy thought of it because of my teeth. He wasn’t vain before the accident or diminished by being called The Rat and he wasn’t diminished afterwards. He has never counted on his looks.
His psychological journey to overcoming his brush with death and a face that was so scarred it shocked people, was one that he treated with his usual sportsmanship and pragmatism and got on with it. He didn’t falter. Was he ever afraid?
‘I’ve had lots of positive and negative experiences. I don’t really have any fear.’
Did he ever have fear? ‘I was brought up in a well-educated family here in Austria. I knew how to use a knife and fork. I had a very good and stable personality from a very young age. I don’t know the reason I don’t have fear in me. I’m very secure and always have been. I went through a lot of terrible things, like my accident, which again taught me how to be stronger.’
He retired from Formula One in 1979 but made a comeback in 1982 with McLaren, hanging up his helmet in 1985. Still fascinated with fast and powerful travel he decided to start airline Lauda Air having gained his own commercial pilot’s licence. It did well for a while.
‘Another terrible thing was the airplane that crashed, the Boeing 767.’ The flight crashed in Thailand in 1991 killing all 223 people on board. He talks of it still solemn.
‘I’ve been through a lot and I realise the future can’t be controlled. I’m not worried. You can always learn to overcome difficulties. That said, I’ve always been a stable person.’
Is that why he was attracted to Formula 1? You wanted to test that stability. ‘No. Formula One is simply about controlling these cars and testing your limits. This is why people race, to feel the speed, the car and the control. If in my time you pushed too far you would have killed yourself. You had to balance on that thin line to stay alive.’
He says this recalling the precision not the danger. It was always a mathematical equation for him. ‘I was more technical than the other guys. I didn’t just want to make it go quicker, I wanted to understand the car so I knew exactly how to make it go quicker. I always knew that the car makes me successful. The faster the car the better my chances of winning were, but in those days it was always a fight to stay alive. You had to push to the limit without making any mistakes.’
Much is made of the physical scars that remain from his 1976 crash at Germany’s Nürburgring, but it left his lungs weakened and he was in severe pain. It took him all of his strength to breathe. Was there never a moment where he felt simply grateful to be alive and not need to get back in the car? ‘No, not one moment, because I knew how things go, I knew about the risks. They questioned me, did I want to continue? But I always thought, yes, I do. I wanted to see if I could make a comeback. I was not surprised to have an accident. All these years I saw people getting killed right in front of me.’
He was married at the time to Marlene – who passed out when she saw him and went on to have a nervous breakdown. ‘Yes, I remember. I expected her to tell me that everything would be alright but she passed out. It didn’t help at the time. Other than that it didn’t really affect things. We went on to have two sons.’
Did having children change your desire to race, to take those risks? ‘No, I was very focused and continued racing and now I am married again and have twins, a little girl and a little boy.’
He talks of his Max and Mia born in September 2009 with great pride telling me that his wife is away, that he’s been looking after them on his own. Does he think his twins will be racers? ’I hope not. Too early to say. My daughter though is fearless. She climbs everywhere with not a care at all. She is like me. This is actually my first time alone with the kids while my wife is in New York. I’m going to rush home after our meeting because that’s when the nanny will leave and I’m looking forward to it. It’s a nice experience. Birgit Wetzinger (his second wife) said I would never be able to do it, but it’s all working out.’ He beams.
Birgit, 34, used to work for his budget airline company FlyNiki, also now sold. She was a stewardess. Did he meet her on a plane? ‘I met her at a party and I fell in love with her. It was one of those things where you see someone and you just know. I connected with her right away because of her boots. They were a hippy type, flat boots. The opposite of the high heels that everyone else was wearing at the party. That was my first interest.’
You fell in love with her because of her boots? ‘Yes. Then I found out she was working for me. Long story short I asked her out and that’s where it started. We got married and after eight months Max and Mia came along. She is a Scorpio and I am a Pisces. Scorpios are very difficult to handle,’ he chortles to himself.
In the movie we see that he met his first wife when she hitchhiked a ride. Is that true? ‘Actually I met her at a party but I did drive her somewhere soon after and she did not recognise who I was and she thought I was a tennis player.’
In the movie he picks up hitchhikers and half scares them to death when he is suddenly not the sedate saloon car driver they imagined him to be. They then recognised him by the way he drove.
Is he still in touch with his first wife who he divorced in 1991? ‘Yes, very much so. She is part of our life. We have a house in Ibiza. She lives there. My old family and new family often get together. We went to a restaurant the other say, Marlene, Birgit and myself. She is an outstanding woman. When everyone is happy she is happy. We were joined by Lukas and Mathias (his sons) and their girlfriends. There’s no issue at all. Marlene never wanted to get married. I wanted to as everyone I knew at 28 was married. Later on I said I wanted to divorce and she said “Okay, if you stay who you are and take care of me” – which I do – “I have no problem with this.” We got divorced but we are still friends. Nothing has changed. What is more, Birgit is her friend too. It’s really an outstanding situation thanks to Marlene more than anyone else. She’s a secure, straightforward and warm hearted person with a positive way of thinking.’
The more I sit with him the more I’m impressed by his positive way of thinking, the more I realise what an unusual person he is to make seemingly impossible situations miraculously straightforward.
German actor Daniel Brühl did a very good job of capturing him. ‘He speaks English better than me. He came to Vienna to meet me and studied me for a while. I also took him to the Brazilian Grand Prix a couple of years ago. I like him. I asked him what he found difficult. He said because people know me from television, interviews and talks, they know how you speak so you can’t not get that right. He did a good job.’
Nowadays Lauda lives a little outside of Vienna. ‘Nothing fancy,’ he shrugs. I have a Mercedes CLS Shooting Brake.
Does he ever get tempted to speed through suburbia? ‘No, but when I am stopped by the police if I go a little fast I always tell them I cannot help it, it’s in my blood. They either laugh or give me a hard time.’ He laughs now, an easy throaty chuckle.
His relationship with James Hunt is one where he laughed. In the movie they are portrayed as extreme rivals who eventually come together out of mutual respect and become even friends. ‘Yes, we were friends. I knew him before we met at Formula One (Formula Three). We always crossed each other’s lines. He was a very competitive guy and he was very quick. In many ways we were the same. When I looked into his eyes I knew exactly what was going on. I had a lot of respect for him on the circuit. You could drive two centimetres from his wheels and he never made a stupid move. He was a very solid good driver.’
The movie shows them as very different characters, Lauda very serious and pragmatic, Hunt loving to party, to womanise, to drink.
‘I liked his way of living. I did a little bit of what he did. I was not as strict as I appeared in the movie, but I was more disciplined than he was. I would never drink before a race. Certainly after it, I had to. Every race could have been my last. It’s different today, but then it was a tougher time. Every race we went out and survived we celebrated, had a party. It was a different time. We all had lots of girlfriends. I was not as bad as James but we were similar. He was just more extreme, so the movie emphasised this. We never had rivalries over girls. With the others we would have a beer after the race and then goodbye. That was not friendship. With James it was different. James was different.’
Does he think that Britain could ever produce another driver like Hunt? ‘No. Today life is different for the racers. They start younger. They do go-karts first. Everything is as safe as possible. The last driver to be killed was Senna 19 years ago, and the improvements were so big since that. Now nothing ever happens. It’s just not the same.’
Does that make it less exciting? ‘Maybe. But Hamilton did well in the race the other day. A little into the race his tyre exploded. He is a very good guy. A great personality.’ Then he gets a little gossipy. Asking me if I’d seen the tabloid headline about Hamilton and Nicole Scherzinger breaking up. He knows her well as he doesn’t often miss a race. ‘I have to as I’m in charge of the Mercedes team and I also commentate for German TV.’
Did he ever love airplanes as much as cars? ‘No. Cars are my profession. Airplanes I use for my own comfort. I’ve been a commercial pilot for many years, so if I want to go to Brazil I would go in my own plane. I go to any races I want on my Global 5000 12-seater airplane which can fly for 12 hours at a time. I never fly commercial.’
Does he miss his own airline? ‘No. I sold it as soon as I started the job I have with Mercedes. (He runs their team). Air Berlin wanted me to sell. It was the right time and the right price, so I did.’ He refuses to say how much he sold it for.
Can I assume that he doesn’t need to work for money any more, just for love? ‘I’ve never worked for money, never raced for money. You cannot do this for the money. You have to first race and if you are successful money comes. This is the way I’ve gone through my life. I did things I liked, and if I did it right money came. Money is not important to me at all. It’s nice when you have it.’
It’s been written that he’s not a very emotional person although I can’t believe that’s true? ‘I am emotional but I don’t show it. I protect myself. I’m always being watched so I cover myself. I cry easily when I see a stupid movie. I don’t know why, but I cry.’
He is very unflamboyant, not like his friend Bernie Ecclestone. Did he go to Tamara Ecclestone’s wedding, said to be one of the most lavish and over the top ever in the history of nuptials? ‘No. There was a race somewhere. But I know him well. It’s not Bernie who is ostentatious. He is the opposite, but the rest of his family. When I’m in London I go for lunch with Bernie a lot.’
Does he stay in touch with Hunt’s family? ‘I’m in touch with his brother, but that’s it.’
What quality does he think he shared with Hunt to make them both not ordinary drivers? ‘In many ways he was my opposite. We both tried to win. It’s sad that he’s not here now sitting with me. He had a rough time. He was sober and clean for four years and then had a heart attack. He died too early, too young. I wish he’d been here to see the movie. It would have been the best.’
I’m not sure if I don’t see a little watering in his eyes just now. He himself has no fear of death. He recently had a kidney transplant. Was that related to his lung damage? ‘Nobody knows. My brother gave me one of his kidneys which lasted for eight years and then I had one donated by Birgit. Unbelievable. She was a perfect match for the kidney. At first I refused to take her kidney. I found it impossible after only eight months of knowing me she wanted to donate an organ, but I felt responsible for her and she kept insisting. It was very hard to find a match. My son would have given me one but he was not a match. Lukas manages a company in Barcelona, and Mathias my other son is in Bali surfing. He raced cars until last years.’
Was he good? ‘He was medium.’
He has another son Christophe from an extra-marital relationship. ‘I have no contact with him. His mother wanted to have him on her own. That was it. He’s now 31 and I respect her wishes. I know him. We just don’t have day to day contact.’ He says this very controlled and matter of factly.
Did Birgit donating you a kidney make you more in love with her? ‘No. I was always in love with her.’
Could anything tempt you back into getting into a car and racing again now? ‘No. I’ve tried every type of car in every possible way. I retired. I came back. I nearly killed myself. I’m not interested any more. Now I behave.’
Fortunately he says this with an extra twinkle in his eye so I know he doesn’t entirely behave.

 

 

James Franco (April 14, 2013)

James Franco’s mood can shift from wary to jokey in a heartbeat. This I find particularly charming. As well as his faded grey and white check shirt, distinctive cheekbones and eyes that dart.
He has flown into Los Angeles for the day to talk about his latest movies, Harmony Karin’s Spring Breakers. It is just one of many projects. He has an incredible nine movies in development as an actor or producer. He is also a multimedia artist, a soap star, a Playboy columnist and an author. He has become an eternal student studying for his PhD at Yale while also a teacher to film students at UCLA.
He takes his literary side extremely seriously. His 2011 collection of short stories, Palo Alto, was praised by critics. Palo Alto is the town where he grew up with his maths teacher father and poet/writer mother. He asked her not to read it. It referenced his teenage years where he got into trouble for drinking, shoplifting and graffiti-ing.
He said at the time, ‘I think I was running. I didn’t know how to focus my energy because I was scared of failure.’
Perhaps that is where his tumultuous drive originates. He is still determined not to fail. He excels at performing delinquency and hurt.
His portrayal of James Dean in a 2001 biopic won him a Golden Globe. He seems to enjoy throwing himself entirely into a character.
He ended what he called his ‘young leading man in bad movies phase’ when he enrolled in UCLA in 2006. He’d always regretted dropping out of college to go to acting school, paid for by a job at McDonald’s.
It is quite mesmerising the amount and variation in his work. He was Sean Penn’s boyfriend in Milk and Peter Parker’s ex-best friend in Spider-Man. Weirdly he played a character called Franco in US daytime soap General Hospital. He was a charming and menacing multimedia artist. He then wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal about the aesthetic legitimacy of soaps and coordinated a video installation at the Pacific Design Center in Los Angeles in which Franco examined the implications of Franco playing Franco.
In Spring Breakers he plays Alien, a sometime sweet, sometimes crazy gangster rapper. He is unrecognizable with multiple cornrows and a mouthful of silver teeth. His co-star in the movie, Vanessa Hudgens, told me, ‘I have no idea who James Franco is. I know who Alien is. I don’t know what James Franco is all about as a human being.’
Franco is as method as Daniel Day Lewis. For City By The Sea he played a homeless person. He hung around junkies and street people, poured beer on himself and ‘really stank’ so homeless people would recognise him as homeless.
He hung around with real-life male hookers in New Orleans and paid them by the hour to listen to their stories when he played in Sonny, about a man who was brought up into prostitution by his mother.
He obtained a real pilots licence for his role in Second World Drama flyboys. He spent eight months learning horse riding tricks – somersaulting and leaping from one hors to another in Tristan and Isolde only to find his big battle scene had been cut.
In the US Spring Breakers got an R-certificate, not the dreaded NC-17. You wonder about this because I’ve never seen so many breasts on screen since the ill-fated Showgirls.
Korine, whose credits include the screenplay for Larry Clark’s Kids, is an agent provocateur director. It shows the mythic dimensions of a spring break – boobs jiggling, beer swilling, cocaine sniffing. It’s all shot in anamorphic widescreen and burns and dazes with its fluorescent colours. The character Alien is as far away as Franco can get from academia and his previous career as a matinee idol.
I ask Korine was he surprised at his R rating? There was a sharp intake of breath where he says, ‘Let’s just say it’s very good. It’s actually a secret morality tale.’
Harmony Korine lives in Nashville where he paints until one of the images he creates inspires a movie. He is twelve years sober with a new wife and baby. Of his previous existence he says, ‘I was out of it. Debased. I got to the point where I just decided I’m going to try this other thing,’ he says by way of explaining a movie that’s fuelled with sex and drugs and girls in bikinis and ski masks.
Did Franco draw on any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? ‘He came from a lot of different sources. Harmony (Korine) and I started talking about this movie a year and a half before we shot it. We talked about the character before there was even a script.
‘As an actor I look for things I can relate to, so yes I’ve been to parties and I understand that in a liberated state people just let loose. That’s one of the big reasons people go. It’s an environment where you don’t have rules, so you don’t have to take on the same persona. It’s a phenomenon that’s been going on forever. Even in the past where they had maypole fairs and carnivals.
‘I can relate to Alien in that he’s a teacher, a mentor, albeit a very dark one. He’s a mentor in the ways of the underworld. I am a teacher and I teach students the same ages as the characters in the movie but I try to teach them other things other than how to be criminals.’
It is an impactful movie. Clever. At times you feel like you are drowning in mammary flesh. It’s a non-stop party where lines of cocaine are sniffed from buttocks. Alien, with his braces on his teeth, his crazy cornrow braids is wild and abandoned.
Did he draw any of Alien’s qualities from his own early life? He talks very energetically, very enthusiastically. He doesn’t come over as a person who lives on catnaps. But how does he fit it all in, the teaching, the writing, the acting, the preparation. Does he sleep?
‘I sleep on airplanes a lot. I do sleep at night. I do a lot of things but I collaborate with a lot of people so I’m able to work on one project while another is being developed. I never do nothing. People always ask me do I relax? I guess that means sitting on a beach and reading a book or watching television. I do all of that. I don’t know what nothing is. If it means going to a bar and just getting drunk I don’t want to do that. I’m in a fortunate position where my work is the same thing as my passions. So when I’m working I’m happy and I don’t really need a break in the same way that somebody who hates his job might. I work with all my friends and people I love so work is also my social life.’
His production company is called Rabbit Bandini after the struggling would-be writer in the John Fante novels. It’s as if he sees himself as a person who is still struggling.
He once told me that he used to feel an outsider when he was growing up. ‘In high school they don’t pay attention to the arts, so if you’re interested in those things you do feel an outsider. When you surround with people who care about the things you do it’s incredibly invigorating.’ Perhaps that’s why he now likes to surround himself with like-minded people.
Recently he has co-directed a short movie called Interior. Leather Bar. where he plays the leading character called James. It has been called a cruising movie, an exploration of sexual freedom. What is fascinating is the way he juxtaposes the overly gay with the over the top heterosexual – Alien with his love of threeways and he is upcoming as Hugh Hefner, the ultimate heterosexual playboy.
Is it intention to express extremes? ‘I have a lot of different interests and there are a lot of different sides to me and sometimes different sides come out at once.’
It is as if he is constantly looking at himself in a fairground mirror, each time finding a new side, a new route to becoming a potentially great artist, and certainly a prolific one.

Monica Bellucci (June 17, 2012)

Monica Bellucci comes into the room and the room gasps. We are backstage at the Dolce & Gabbana fashion show in Milan. The room is dark, lit by floral chandeliers. Monica is wearing a dramatic black lace blouse, black flared jeans and dominatrix heels. Her long black hair is a silk sheet. She is not model tall. She is womanly with a magnificent décolletage.

Bellucci, 47, is known for her daring film choices like Mary Magdalene in The Passion and a rape victim in Irreversible. She is married to the actor Vincent Cassel, 45, who always seems to go for the sadistic roles, most notably as the artistic director who slept with the leading dancers in Black Swan.

She is Italian. Her essence, her style, her embrace are all Italian. He is French. And together they have two children Deva, seven, and Leonie, two. The family have houses in Italy, France, England and Brazil – though Monica, who comes from Citta di Castello in Umbria says her heart will always be in Italy.

We have met to discuss her latest role – as the face (or at least the lips) of the new Dolce & Gabbana lipstick, which comes in shades ranging from the dramatic Magnetic Monica, which is a compelling purple, to the classic red Chic Monica. Even Natural Monica, which is the most understated in dark beige, manages to look standout. Monica is wearing it for our interview to demonstrate that on her less is still more. “I have always loved lipstick, she says. “For women, that love comes from our mother and grandmothers. It seems so natural for a woman to open up her mirror, look in it and apply lipstick.” Here she happily discusses the joys of motherhood, marriage and her favourite Monica lippy.

I have been friends with Domenico and Stefano (Dolce & Gabbana) a very long time. We’ve done many beautiful things together, beautiful campaigns and they make beautiful clothes. We are close friends and I respect everything they do. I love what they do. Their clothes are sensual and elegant at the same time. They are real artists who love and respect women. Their inspiration is Italy – our culture and our tradition. They are inspired by great Italian movies – by Fellini and Rossellini and those amazing Italian leading ladies like Sophia Loren and Anna Magnani. And you can feel like one of these women in their creations. They have such a strong identity and you can tell they are Italian.

I am Italian through and through. Wherever I go I am Italian. The way I talk, the way I eat, the way femininity is important to me. The way I love Italian food. For this season’s fashion campaign Dolce & Gabbana shot me eating at a picnic with a family. That is beautiful – it’s not about the biological beauty, it’s about another kind of beauty. It’s about the womanliness that comes to your face and your body from your life and your experience.

I met Vincent working on a movie – my first French movie The Apartment. And we have now been together for 17 years (married for ten). It was not an instant thing, not at all. I was attracted to him – at the same time I wasn’t sure of him. We got together, I don’t know why. I feel we don’t really choose the person we are with. It happens for us – they are there and that was how it was and that’s how it is. For now.

You never know how long it will last. I can never say what’s going to happen. Of course I’d be very happy if we were together forever. But I don’t know. You never know. You should never take things for granted, especially in a relationship. But we do have our children and the love of them means that that love is forever. I hope our relationship will be forever but live this day by day. My relationship with Vincent has changed since we had children. We were together 10 years as a couple – a long time – so of course everything changed but for the good. I accept the fact we can never be in one place {because of our work} and so does he. This is our life. We are like gypsies travelling around.

I always wanted children late; I had my first daughter at 39 and the second at 44. Before that I wasn’t ready to become a mother. I wasn’t ready for something so incredibly huge, something that would change my life forever. I think it was because I am an only child. In a way I always felt a child – too much into myself. I worried I wouldn’t be ready to give myself. When the first one came, I thought I’d have another really quickly because I knew I didn’t have much time left. I was breastfeeding for the longest time and ultimately I wanted to have time with just her and be really confident with and know who she really is before I could get pregnant with my second. I was lucky to get pregnant at 44. We didn’t have to try for a long time. It was natural.

I would have been disappointed if I had left it too late to have a second child. But life is hard sometimes and you just have to accept things. They will either happen or won’t happen – it’s not in our hands. We have to be really humble and accept destiny. Some things happen that you just can’t change.

I have really changed since having my daughters. I feel more complete and they helped me grow up. In a way they help me escape from my childhood, which was like a prison to me. Not that my parents weren’t great, they were. But because I was an only child there was some loneliness, a disconnectedness. It was difficult for me to come out of these feelings. I had plenty of cousins and people around me, but always that same loneliness that made me sad. It was strange because now on the other side of it I feel that need for aloneness, a need for freedom, a need to be just by myself. And at the same time having children helped me learn how to love and be connected fully with others.

My children make me happy. When they are calm and sleeping in their beds I look at them and say, ‘love you.’ That makes me calm and happy. There are some days though where I wake up in the morning and maybe someone I know is not doing so well or the world is not doing well, and I feel sad. Usually I wake up happy. I have a cappuccino and maybe I’ll see a friend and everything feels fine to me. Usually I’m only sad when something sad happens. I am not a melancholic person. I like to live very much in the present. If I was an animal I’d be a little cat. They know the best things in life – they like to live life. My animal instincts come out every day. I feel that is important.

I travel so much that my oldest daughter speaks four languages – Italian, French, English, and Portuguese. I speak a little Portuguese but my daughter speaks it better than me. I always feel Italy is my home but it is important for my husband that we also live in France. Sometimes we live as a family all together but as we are two working actors sometimes we have to be apart. Sometimes I’m shooting a movie, sometimes he is. Now that we have the kids we try to make it that if one is working the other doesn’t work. The ideal would be if we could work together. We have worked together before but not in a long time. Luckily we are going to be doing a new movie together in Brazil. It is a love story about a couple who have been living together a long time and problems develop because they have lived together so long. They separate and we see how they deal with that. It will be filmed in Brazil and it’s going to be in Portuguese and English.

I don’t know if my work/life balance is perfect. I don’t work all the time. That’s why I waited to have kids until I was ready for that. I try to organise my time according to my kids because my kids need me. I don’t want to put my work first anymore because it’s not as important as my kids.

We are so scared about losing beauty as we age. I try not to worry about these things. I am scared about death because I have two kids and I want to see them grow up. There is nothing you can do about getting older, you just have to deal with it. Before I had children I didn’t think about death and I didn’t really feel that I was ageing. When I had my second child at 45 I felt old because I realised that I felt much stronger physically when I was younger. Having said that, I feel much better in myself mentally today than when I was 20. I am confident and I deal with my problems better. I accept who I am and that perfection doesn’t exist. I did a Vanity Fair shoot when I was pregnant In 2004. I didn’t care about being fat and pregnant. I think it’s beautiful.

Sometimes I think if I gain weight I will just wear black because it’s easier. I used to never work out. And even now I don’t like to work out every day. I don’t like to watch what I eat every day. I don’t want to be a machine. After my second daughter was born I realised that I needed to pay more attention to workout regimes. Before then it was much easier.

I have just finished an Iranian movie (Rhinos Season) which is coming out this year. I play an Iranian woman who is living 30 years after the revolution in Iran. (The movie is a love story set against the backdrop of the political changes in Iran from before the revolution to the present day). And I’m about to shoot a French movie where I play an over-the-top Italian, very exaggerated. It is a comedy and the first time I’ve done comedy. I’m looking forward to that. I think I can be funny.

The most important thing for my daughters is to find a passion in their lives. I want them to find that passion. When we are growing up we want to please our parents, as we grow older we have to articulate what we want for ourselves. I intended to study law at university (in Perugia). But there was a moment where I was asked to do some modelling and from that I fell in to acting. That was difficult time for me because all my friends were coming out of university and I didn’t know what to do with my life. I didn’t know if movies would be my future. I was really insecure. I felt really lucky that movies worked for me. You have to be ready to accept whatever happens. I certainly didn’t have the answers then.

I have a house in London and I come back to London all the time. I have some good friends there. In Italy we are much more provincial. In Britain you are much more courageous, especially in the way you dress. I feel a freedom there and that people care less about what people think. I don’t know if I dress differently there. In fact I usually dress in Dolce & Gabbana, but because of the way the clothes make me feel.

Monica On Make-Up….

I always wear some make up, even on quiet days when I am not doing so much with my time. I like to start using Perfect Finish Creamy Foundation as a base as it’s lighter than air and doesn’t make me feel ‘caked’.

I am also never afraid to try new colours – why not? For lipstick I love all the shades in the Monica Collection and feel drawn to the different shades depending on how I feel. I adore the Attractive one, which is the shade I wore for the advertising campaign. It’s a really fulsome red that is just timeless.

When you choose a red colour it’s because you feel you want to be looked at more. Sometimes you like this kind of feeling, and sometimes you just want to be natural. When you put on a red shade it’s because you accept people looking at you. The red is such a strong colour and it’s about you – this is not necessarily a sexual thing. If a man sees a woman with red lipstick he admires her, but often he won’t feel like kissing her.

Rules are made to be broken sometimes. I also don’t think it’s necessarily always the case that you should only play up lips or eyes – sometimes I like to wear a strong lip and then finish the look with a defined eye.

Lipstick is a statement that I’m ready for anything. Even if I pay no attention to anything else, I will put on a layer of mascara and add a slick of lipstick too, even if it’s a super natural shade.

I can’t compromise on the mascara and even if I’m wearing very soft make up I always wear mascara, usually a black one. It helps me to feel ‘finished’ and ready for the day. I love to use Dolce & Gabbana Intenseyes Mascara as nothing else creates such a beautiful full, feathered look.

Monica’s Hot List

Style Icon: Leading ladies like Claudia Cardinale, Sofia Loren, Gina Lollobrigida, Silvana Mangano…those stars of the golden age who oozed sensuality and feminine charm. I tried to channel that slightly audacious, knowingly provocative attitude in the shoot for my collection.

Favourite book: Irene Nemirosky.

Favourite book: La Dolce Vit

 

 

Carrie Fisher (Saturday Times, November 19, 2011)

Carrie Fisher’s house is like the witch’s house in Hansel and Gretel. In the winding path leading up to it there are grassy verges with giant toadstoolsand on the porch a wooden bird swings with a key in its mouth. There are stained glass churchy looking windows that make the light inside dappled and spooky. There’s a moose head over the fireplace, tan leather couches, vintage tapestry candlewick cushions, oak carved picture frames and owls. One wall is covered in oil paintings of Victorian cats and poodles. Everywhere there’s glass baubles and fairy lights, hand-painted lamps.
Tchotchke collected over a lifetime. Carrie Fisher is a hoarder of objects, yet maybe the sentiments behind all of them she’s had to relinquish from her mind.
Carrie Fisher had an A-list mind. It was sharp and sarky and required at all the best parties. Although she partied a little too hard, was bipolar, depressed, ended up in rehab and in hospital rooms having her stomach pumped a few too many times.
As she has documented in Postcards from the Edge and Wishful Drinking. Her latest book Shockaholic is about the shock therapy she had to level her out, to kick back those addictive demons and her desire to mute out once and for all the shrieking feelings that tell her she is not good enough.
She can’t remember the exact moment where she decided ECT wasn’t as frightening as something from One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest or Frances, that it wasn’t a punishment or an act of control or submission or tantamount to a lobotomy. She can’t remember that because a lot of her brain, the bits with the pain in it, has been shocked out of existence.
She describes it as ‘like getting your nails done if your nails were your cerebral cortex.’ She goes every six weeks and she says it feels as if her brain once set in cement was blasted open like a Hoover dam.
A lot of people float in and out of her house; her cleaner, her cook, her assistant, her mother’s assistant her mother Debbie Reynolds lives in an adjacent house.
She arrives tiny, bare feet, unpedicured, thin legs in black leggings, large breasts pulled inside a purple cardigan. Long dark hair pulled back. Her eyes look haunted and at the same time blank.
She is smoking a pretend cigarette. ‘It’s a pacifier with vapour. It makes me look like an idiot.’ I admire her moose and she tells me that she’s having a tiger’s ass delivered for the other side. ‘You see, that’s what I’ve been missing all my life. A life without a tiger’s ass is not worth living and not worth writing about.’
She likes to write everything down. Little phrases going round and round in her head constantly being perfected. Her clever mind took her such a long way, further than all the galaxies that Princess Leia could never even imagine.
She’s just been to the dentist and had a tooth pulled. She can’t have any pain medication. ‘My teeth are all new as of last week.my whole thing with painkillers is you take them when you’re not in pain. And right now with the ECT I’m on a blocker so I can’t feel painkillers even if I took a truckload.’
Fisher always liked to block things out and now all of her short-term memory is completely dissolved. Large chunks of her vocabulary , something that was very precious to her, have gone and been replaced by simpler versions of the same word. She thinks that maybe it has improved her writing, made it more straight.
This book is definitely different to the others. It’s hard to put your finger on what’s missing. Maybe nothing. Maybe it’s just more direct. It’s certainly compulsive reading.
It’s hard to put your finger on what’s different with this book. It feels direct, raw. It is certainly compulsive reading. ‘I am a terrible liar and this book… I got frightened that it was too personal.’
The book talks about waking up next to her dead friend Greg Stevens, a gay Republican political operative, celebrating Michael Jackson’s last Christmas with him, her relationship with Elizabeth Taylor, who stole her father Eddie Fisher away from her, and making up with Eddie Fisher, and losing him again when he died.
They had a lot in common. Nice singing voices, a desire to be heard and a desire to take drugs. But more of that later.
There is no filter mechanism with Fisher. She says everything she’s thinking. Most of it comes out in an unstoppable jumble of random thoughts that are tenuously linked.
‘I went to the shrink and I said I don’t have any secrets except the secret I get loaded. He said maybe that’s my only of giving myself a private life.’
When she was born she was public property, her birth across all the tabloids. She was born in the goldfish bowl. ‘You know how you saw your father more on TV than you did in real life. I don’t think many people would say, “Oh God. You too.”‘
A man with platinum hair peers in. ‘He lives with my mother. They are lovers. He is her gay husband. She’s copying me.’ The man turns out to be her mother’s carer. But Fisher did indeed have a gay husband, chairman of CAA Bryan Lourd. He’s an uber agent, flamboyant, generous, well-loved within the Hollywood community. Didn’t she realise he was gay when she married him? ‘He must have forgotten to tell me. And my mother also had someone come in and die in her house.’
She likes to talk about history repeating itself. Stevens was one of her greatest friends. He liked to as Hollywood folk call it ‘party.’ Apparently he had not been partying the night he died, but he took three OxyContins and he was next to her.
This was the catalyst for her mind to implode. She felt haunted. She felt grief and she seemed to process all of it in quite a psychotic destructive way.
Her daughter Billie suffered because she was full-time crazy. She feels very guilty about this now. Billie went to live with her father and now is studying at NYU. She doesn’t remember exactly how bad it was for a teenager to be living with a bipolar mother who got back into drugs.
‘The short-term memory is shit so I keep notes. Do you want some cereal?’ She is snacking on a bag of Jenny Craig cereal. Since her ECT therapy she forgot what she had to do not to gain weight. She gained 60lbs and has now lost 50 of them by sticking with Jenny.
In her book she writes, “Craig is great. Craig is good. Thank you for this portion appropriate food. Amen! And by men I mean the four or five that might look at me again in a few Jennified months.”
As she puts what look like Rice Krispies in her mouth one by one she puts on naughty face. ‘This is my contraband. They hide the snacks from me because I’m a truant. I like to get away with something. Also I slipped – Baskins and Robbins chocolate ice-cream. You don’t think I’m good all the time?’
Fisher would hate to be thought of as good. ‘I don’t know what the fuck happened. I went on the road. I wasn’t exercising, which I did freakishly do ever since I was in a mental hospital. I would exercise in the morning, then go to the mental hospital so at least I had control of my physical body. For 15 years I was exercising regularly. I went on the road. I was older. I would eat crap. I ate ten peanut butter balance bars a day and full fat Coca Cola.’
You didn’t have Diet Coke? ‘I don’t know why I didn’t. I got a little manic. It all started when Greg died. Then I started doing ECT and I’ve been more productive these last four years but I got fat. I stopped the drugs, but instead I was eating and shopping. And the sex. This was with strangers. People at bus stops. I didn’t have a relationship.
Manic depression comes with excessive promiscuity, spending. And then I stopped. And I stopped the substance abuse.’
She’s joking about the sex. She has not got rid of her addiction to shocking. She was supposed to have stopped the substance abuse years ago but somehow she got someone to give her OxyContin.
‘You die in your sleep. I have done that. But I didn’t do this this time. When I slipped four years ago I did it. That was my moment in the sun. everyone was devastated. I shouldn’t have but I did. I shopped. I brought presents and sent them all around the world. They had to stop my Barneys card.
‘I was spending everything I was making and I had to maintain this residence while I was on the road. Now I’m allocated a certain amount of money and I like getting away with something. She puts on a little girl’s voice. ‘Hi, can I have another $400 because I want to get shoes.
‘But between the shopping and the eating and the ECT I had the most productive four years of my life. The little slip thing didn’t do my daughter any good. She’ll never be able to think that I’ll be OK forever. Nobody who has been an addict can ever think that.’
She speaks about Billie with surprising maternal pride. ‘She’s kind, good, a fantastic girl. She’s a DNA jackpot. She just worries about me sometimes and I’m sorry for that but that’s her good little heart. She hated me for a minute there, sure. I did too. It was like a club. I wasn’t stumbling around or anything, I just checked out.’
She talks about shopping, sex, all with the same tone. ‘ECT is attractive if you’re suicidally depressed. I wasn’t suicidal but I came to a point where nothing was helping and I thought I was a burden on everyone. Being depress, being bipolar, medication I was or was not taking was not working. They flew me back from my show to do the ECT. You get to the end of the hall. There were no options. And this has made things possible.’
She means she was in a vicious spiral? ‘And now I’m circling the dream. They asked me to do it before and I said no. I’m not suggesting you feel a little bit blue get some ECT. But if you’ve exhausted the options of talk therapy coupled with medication and hospitalisation stays and none of this works you are obliged for the sake of your family to try it.’
She says ECT doesn’t hurt. ‘They put you to sleep and there’s no convulsions. It’s a short acting anaesthetic and they put you next to this thing that looks like a DVD machine. And the doctor puts these two little pieces of film here.’ She points to her temples. ‘They say dream a nice dream. You have a headache, you come home, you take a nap, you’re done.’
Only the other night did she move back into the room in which Stevens died in 2008. How did she end up sleeping with him? ‘The house was full.’
I’m only there for one afternoon and there’s been a constant stream of guests. Sean Lennon had a room there and James Blunt wrote a few songs in her bathroom that has a piano while he stayed there.
‘It’s a clubhouse. It’s fun. No wonder Greg wanted to die here.’ And then shouting: ‘No. He wanted to live here. Imagine, just three little pills and then he died. Like bam.’ She goes over the minutes of the night or as much as she can remember them, which is actually quite a lot for someone who has had their brain cells zapped. Even the shock therapy can’t quite remove it.
What you’re never sure of with her is the chronological order of events and when they happened. It all spills out of her like separate dream sequences.
‘I went to AA the whole time. It’s because of AA I’m not dead. But they don’t want me to talk about it because generally people talk about it then they get loaded. I went to meetings and I lied. I went to AA meetings on drugs.’
I think she’s very remorseful about this. It’s just her voice isn’t remorseful. It doesn’t register sad or happy. It’s as if she can only feel the emotions in the present.
‘In this period of time I have been doing ECT and AA. Anything with letters in it. My bra size was so big it was an L. Beverly d’Angelo (an actress friend who likes surgery) wants me to go in and have twin reductions. Right now I’m ignoring them. I hear it’s a painful surgery.’
She tells me that she read that she had a breast lift but didn’t remember it because of the ECT. Googling herself was another addiction. ‘I don’t like to look. This morning I read one about me being gay. People say bad stuff about you, like I’m not bankable.’
She lists the current Top 10 bad things said about her on Google. It’s strange she can remember. For instance if she sees a movie she can watch it over again because she can’t remember the ending, but she remembers everything bad said about her on the internet.
‘Even if I had half a brain that half would remember each bad thing. It’s emblazoned.
‘I can watch a movie from start to finish and not remember seeing it, so I’m constantly entertained,’ low chortle. ‘It happens with books. I keep getting to this passage and going wow this is really familiar. It turns out I’ve been reading American Pastoral three times. It’s about ageing.’
‘With age comes wisdom and a whole bunch of other bad shit, bloat and wrinkles and terrible things with the neck. I say in life you can live on one side of the magnifying glass or the other. The side that makes big things small or the side that makes small things big.’
And she can do that without mind numbing drugs? ‘Yes. You learn to be surrounded by the right friends. I don’t want my daughter to have to worry so I will do what it takes. When I slipped it was with opiates. I had to lie to get them and remember I don’t like lying.’
Does she think she and her daughter’s relationship survived the patch when she was in an altered state? ‘We did. But it cost. My purpose is to make her life comfortable. For her to live in a space where she’s the best person she can be. That she can be as happy as she can be in life. I have failed her but she has forgiven me. She will always have the hairs on the back of her neck stand out. They’ve been trained to.’ By this she means Billie will always be frightened of what her mother might have got up to.
‘She is doing incredibly well. She’s had the same boyfriend for two years. No one deserves this good a daughter, except maybe Nelson Mandela. She is studying music and music business, so there’s a little bit of her being like her dad, and there’s a creative part of her. She’s very responsible. She’s got a good voice. She takes singing, writing and philosophy.’
How does she get on with her ex-husband? ‘We have a good relationship. His hairs are also trained. The three of us went to Amsterdam for her birthday. And then we went shopping and decorated her apartment. We were in ABC (trendy homeware store in New York) for the entire day. I asked Bryan to get back together with me. I told him it would be good for his image. It could be seen as compassionate, weird and complex. I didn’t really mean it. He said what about his boyfriend? I said it would all stay the same.
‘Then there was that hurricane that wasn’t a hurricane and I’m in New York. Bryan, his boyfriend Bruce, and Billie are all somewhere else. Billie calls me and says “Daddy says you should go to the apartment” and I say I’m smelling a reality show. The idea of me moving into the apartment with Bryan, his boyfriend and Bryan’s boyfriend’s daughter who’s four. I thought maybe I could sleep with Bryan’s boyfriend, and then Cindy, my lesbian assistant, could sleep with Billie’s boyfriend.’ She booms with laughter at her own scenario.
‘We’ve come a long way. Even if we weren’t always in the best of shape our priority has always been our daughter. But we are actual humans, so we might have not got along as one might not.’
She loved him madly at some point? ‘Yes. I picked him to have a child, so it’s not like I’m unaware of his strengths.’
Was he a love of her life? ‘No.’ She picked him for his DNA? ‘No. He took very good care of me. He’s a good father. He was a reaction. He wasn’t Paul.’
She’s talking Paul Simon. They went out for six years, were married for two, divorced for one, and got back together for another three. Twelve years altogether. He counts as love of her life.
Does she mean that Bryan was the opposite of Paul? ‘I mean he’s a caretaker. Paul probably is a bit more now but he and I were not a good mix in a relationship. And to have brought other people into it would have been a scream. We understood each other. We had a blast. We were way too similar.
‘We stupidly read our horoscopes one day – we are both the same sign. It said Librans either get along like a house on fire or they fight like cats and dogs. We were a good match in this way but it didn’t work. It would be interesting if we wrote down what we were saying to each other. Sometimes we totally understood what the other person wasn’t saying. We are the same species and that does not make a good relationship.’
It makes a passionate yes. ‘Yes,’ said deadpan. They probably had great sex. ‘Probably.’ A dry laugh. ‘We had make up sex we broke up so often. Every time we broke up I would take that lamp with me and he knew it was for sure.’ She gestures to a hand painted glass lamp on the piano. ‘I would get that lamp and I would say I’m leaving. It cost $20,000. That was my break-up lamp.’
Interesting the treatment hasn’t made her forget any of that stuff. Her recall about Paul Simon is vivid and she is the most animated talking about him. ‘Yes, I remember Paul very fondly. I remember I took a lot of LSD at that period as well.’ Does she remember the LSD? ‘Very fondly.
‘Oh, shall I call my doctor now and say my foot hurts, I need some LSD.’ You get the impression she is used to calling up doctors for whatever she wants. She shared a dentist with Michael Jackson and bizarrely they spent his last Christmas together.
‘His kids are adorable. He was a good dad. He gave them whatever it was he hadn’t had himself. All that love. And you can see it. You cannot fake that.’
The dentist, Dr Chandler, is now deceased. He was happy to let his kid hang out with Michael Jackson and sleep in the same bed and then suddenly there was all those allegations of abuse.
‘He killed himself. Don’t you think he might be guilty? His own son stopped speaking to him and said it was all a lie. He trapped Michael. That guy was a monster. He was evil and manipulative and dark. Whereas Michael was good and sweet.’
Did she not find it scary that she and Jackson had a dentist and doctor in common, evil facilitators? She doesn’t answer directly.
‘Arnie (Klein) was his skin doctor and probably gave him pain medication because of the burns he had. I don’t think he would have had Demerol. But you know, doctors in this town, the bigger the celebrity the larger the prescription.’
What was Michael like to hang out with? ‘Well he wasn’t ordinary. There was no one like him. He was a mensch. He had a sweet kind of presence. He loved people and he wanted everyone have what they wanted. He wasn’t dark, he was just really odd, and wouldn’t you be? I’m odd. But there was a very ordinary part to him and there is to me.’
Part of her oddness comes from always being in the spotlight, even if in her case to start off with it was bathing in her mother’s glow. ‘We were in the public eye. He was in the iris, I was more in the whites. We both had complicated intense relationships with our parents. He danced his stuff away. When we went to the ranch we found out in the morning he was in this dark room and he’d been there dancing all night. Sweet.
‘It must have been hard for the siblings to have him and the mum, you know, always having to apologise for what he was so that you didn’t feel diminished by it. You never want to say this is a problem. Michael wanted to fit in. He wanted to make you feel comfortable, and when he couldn’t his solution was drugs. He trusted children because they couldn’t come up with ways to manipulate him or wrong reasons to love him. He liked people that didn’t know who he was. That somehow diminished something ugly. They were innocent, therefore he was innocent. But he wasn’t so innocent that he didn’t know when people around him were corrupt.’
Did she see him often with her short-time stepmother and his fantasy mother Elizabeth Taylor. ‘Oh, they were very peaceful together. They didn’t have to explain anything. They didn’t have to make the other person feel not so bad about being famous. It’s a very complicated club to be in.
‘When Paul and I were together the issue of celebrity was neutralized. We didn’t have to talk about it. We didn’t have to say fucking shit here come the paparazzi. Whereas to everyone else that seemed the weirdest thing in the world. What rendered that manageable was finding an ordinary space in this extraordinary one.’
Is she ever in touch Paul Simon? ‘Not really. Paul and I didn’t have children together. It was a very intense relationship. I don’t know how people do that. We can’t stay in contact because we had that kind of relationship: boom, boom, boom. It would be hard to maintain it to settle into some other kind of one. We have communicated through a friend of mine in England. He’s got a life now, a peaceful place. I saw him perform at Glastonbury and he’s fantastic. Introspective, intellectual.’
We backtrack to Elizabeth Taylor. Not that she purposely doesn’t want to talk about Paul Simon. It’s as if we’re constantly talking about everything at once and I can never be sure that our interview isn’t like that book she keeps reading over and over again and forgets that she’s read it.
‘Elizabeth Taylor and I became friends. She would ask me to present her awards and I would say “Here’s to the woman. Thank yo for getting Eddie out of the house.”‘
By Eddie she means Eddie Fisher, her father, who left her mother for Elizabeth Taylor. ‘She called me at one point to get Eddie’s number. I didn’t realise they hadn’t spoken. He didn’t believe it was her. Then she was telling him to talk to his doctor about his medication. They had a sweet talk. I called her when Eddie died and she cried. She was a good person.’
Was Eddie a good person? ‘Good person. Terrible father. I did not have a traditional relationship with him. (He was absent from most of her childhood and appeared later on in life.’ At one point they were drug buddies. Later on they became inextricably close.
‘I loved him and I know who he was and that’s because I stopped needing him or expecting him to act like a father.’
She thinks the apple didn’t fall far from the tree. They both had similar addictive personalities. ‘I knew he was insane and to a certain extent I catered to it. I made him laugh. He was hilarious and a darling, a child, a boy. He wasn’t a man at all, but not like Michael, he was sexual. Sex for him was an appetite. He was a darling man and I miss him.
‘My mother came over the other day and said “lots of pictures of Eddie in here.”‘ She pulls face of disapproval. ‘He had just passed and somehow all the pictures had arranged themselves around me in the room.’
Her mother was upset to see so many pictures of the husband who left her? ‘She took note.’ They never made up then? ‘No. they both came to my show the same night. He was in a wheelchair and she was in my dressing room and he came to see me and she hid behind the costumes. Then she went out into the hall and they met in the elevator. But it was the only chance they had to see each other.
‘He could always sing and once he sang at my show and they gave him an ovation and he stood up out of the wheelchair. He’d been healed by show business. I feel cheated that he died. We were having such a good time.’
She didn’t have him in her childhood and then she found him again. They seemed to be children together. ‘Then I got him only to lose him again. But at least I got him. He would have flirted with you. He was also really losing it. He thought this guy I was seeing who was white and 39 was Barak Obama. We both loved Barak Obama.
‘He smoked a lot of drugs and he liked to smoke a lot. We got him this pipe that looks like a woman’s ass. I used to get him strippers- although he hated the last set of strippers I got him. There’s the holocaust and then there’s Eddie’s strippers holocaust. They put chocolate on their tits and had him touch it. He didn’t like that. It’s not a good memory to have. I wish ECT had given you a menu: take this bit.’
Will she forget today? ‘I will forget details. They are not my strong suit. I forget words. I am used to being lickety split. And now I don’t connect as fast. Who knows if it’s ECT, LSD or AGE.
There’s a kind of optimism though. ECT has given her hope, not despair. ‘I don’t have a boyfriend. I’m going to go on the internet. Maybe there’s a web site I can start for over the hill celebrities. I would like a British boyfriend. I would like him to be black and a professor at Oxford. The white thing hasn’t worked and basically I worship Obama.
‘Salman is saying I could be Lady Rushdie. I’m having Halloween with him, but I know he likes much younger women.’ Her white fluffy dog starts wagging its tail excitedly. ‘That’s because my mother is here. Can you imagine sharing a dog with your mother? Can you imagine him having to choose between the two of us?’ Suddenly her voice breaks from its monotone. There’s an edge of competitiveness neediness, and we glimpse the old Fisher, the one who needs the dog to love her most.

Kylie Minogue (June 13, 2010)

At the end of my last meeting with Kylie I walk away with the feeling that I know her. Not just as a result of many interviews over time but because she allowed herself to be known. Something that’s new for her. In the past she didn’t really want people to get her. These days she’s friends with vulnerability; sees its point, its strength even. Before, certainly before cancer, and even coming out of it she didn’t want to be known. That was just too invasive. She was too shy. She is a mass of contradictions she never wanted people knowing her business, yet her business is show. The cancer stripped her, forced her to let people in, in a way that she had not welcomed before, because she’s always been guarded, perfectionist, ambiguous. Comfortable being an equation in people’s heads that was something like Neighbours, I Should Be So Lucky, Michael Hutchence, hot pants, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, cancer, survivor icon = Kylie. She’s always been more comfortable hiding because she carried around longer than anyone else the image of Charlene the mechanic with the frizzy eighties hair. And she’s far too proper a person to ever want to exploit anything that happened to her; be it heartbreak or cancer. She would never do a documentary humiliating a lover like Madonna did, or an interview wearing only fishnets and a bra like Gaga.

Gradually there was a point where she thought, probably not consciously, that it was OK to be herself. I talked to Stuart Price, who was the executive producer on Aphrodite, not released yet, but already the buzz is that it’s her best album yet.

Price worked with Madonna on her Confessions On A Dancefloor album, so he knows his way around the pop diva. “Early on I said this should be 100 per cent you singing about the things that people had a feeling that went on for you in your life that you’ve never spoken about. It’s good to reveal ups and downs on record and what she brought to the studio was a combination of joy, sadness confusion and put it on a record so that you can connect to what she’s been through. Arrogance is not in her dictionary, but she stakes a claim in a way that is captivating and a way which shows that records are a truth serum.”

The record shimmers in Kylieness. When we first meet she smells of Kylieness. Her own perfume Sweet Darling, musky and slinky. Like everything she does she throws herself totally into it. She’d never wear a perfume that bears her name that she doesn’t wear. We are in Blakes Hotel. In exactly the same black lacquer room with orchids and Buddha’s that we met in a year ago. She likes it there. It’s old school stylish, covert.

She’s wearing black skinny jeans, platform suede clogs with a silver flash, a silver top and black tight leather jacket, clear nail polish and make-up made up to look natural. Her eyes a pale sparkling blue. I stare at her face which is much less mannequin shiny. There’s a couple of lines around the eyes and mouth. Her skin doesn’t look like what you’d imagine the skin of a 42-year-old who has cancer but there are not many reference points for that. She’s stopped doing botox. “It gave me a bad rap. Isn’t that the same?” It did seem very unfair that Kylie survived cancer, strove to get back to herself, to look as good as she could, to find only that people complained she didn’t look real.

“It fascinates me that I’m asked so much about it when advertising for face products is forced down our throats. There are some things you can do. Most people have done them. You can have microdermabrasions and micropeels. If these things are going to give you better skin why not.”

The tabloids ran with a line that these days all she used was Pond’s because her grandmother did. Is that your must have regime? “No. I use all different things. I’m always trying different things. I’m quite spoilt because a lot of products are sent to me. In Neighbours they used it to take your make-up off because Pond’s dissolved everything. It takes me back to the smell of your grandma. I have used it because one day recently we were in the States and I ran out of cleanser and somebody had some Pond’s, so I took my make-up off and it had a moisturizing effect. So that’s the story of what’s keeping me youthful.

“My face has gone through a lot of changes. If you look back to before I was ill there was nothing of me. I didn’t realise it at the time but in a way I looked much older than I do now. All of me is just fleshier now, but my face changed. It filled out, it puffed up with the drugs. It’s not puffed now but it was because of the chemotherapy and steroids. Nobody saw me much I was under the radar, but there are pictures of me. I could see from my peripheral vision my cheeks… I’d never noticed my cheeks before, but I could look down and I was like those are my cheeks.

” I tell her I remember the pictures of that time when she looked chic in a headscarf. “I try to keep it up just to lift my spirits if nothing else.” By keeping it up she means appearance, façade, telling the world she was OK even if she wasn’t. Do you feel that because you’ve been stripped bare you had less to lose and was less wary of people and more open? “I think I know what you’re saying… I was pretty much laid bare. I was at the mercy of all those different specialists, doctors, hospitals, other hospitals.

” I Imagine what it must be like if you’ve always been a person who liked to keep a certain control in your life to have nothing. To go to a doctor when you were feeling terribly ill and be told there was nothing wrong with you. To misdiagnose your cancer. To go back and insist that they were wrong and then have other doctors tell you what to do. After that making a documentary where you allow people to see what goes on in your kitchen must seem a whole lot easier. “I didn’t really want to do White Diamond, but Willy (William Baker) kind of got the better of me. But yes, I feel I can deal with that sort of thing now. But that whole getting back on stage and doing the Showgirl homecoming tour?” She wonders now not why she did it, but how she did it. “I can’t afford to be stressed and the more I let go of the better. So you’ve just got to find cruising speed… but I was trying too hard and being way too hard on myself and carry along old baggage.

I still had those layers from where they were in the beginning. Those nagging thoughts; she can’t do this, she can’t do that. I was like I can do it. I’m so stressed by it, but just do it. The point is I’m easier on myself.” I wonder though just how easy she is. Old habits she’s always been a connoisseur of the perfect leopard print, and I haven’t seen those spots changing too much. The album is euphoric. I’ve only listened to it on a computer stream which makes most things sound tinny and awful, but it still sounds great. She smiles when I tell her. Not a trace of smugness in that smile.

“I think the euphoria came when we brought Stuart Price on board. He’s so delightful and I was so relaxed recording with him because we got on like a house on fire. We just did it on the studio mic (not a recording booth). I wasn’t separated in another room. I felt confident with him. He allowed me to shine.” This is something that Kylie always does; compliment other people, express gratitude. It’s more than just politeness, it’s who she is. Price told me he wanted to get “something new that you haven’t heard from her before but at the same time it’s so unmistakably her. “Kylie must have visited the majority of vocal booths in the world and we wanted to break that mould. We recorded it in the control room, speakers up, designated dancing zone.

Kylie is one of the most accomplished singers in pop music. She rarely sings a bum note.” Was she confident working in that pared down way? “I love having the challenge and I loved having Stuart.” While Britain was gripped in the post-election standoff, only one thing could knock politics off the front pages, and that was Kylie’s bum. Wearing hotpants taken at a video shoot for the single All The Lovers She laughs, “I was not expecting to be wearing that kind of outfit ever again. In fact the brief for the video, pardon the pun, was long flowing dresses. But when I got there the director said ‘I think of you and I think hotpants.’ I was thinking everyone’s gone to so much trouble to call in white flowing dresses and I had to wrestle with my feelings about it and then I thought that the long dresses wouldn’t work for this video, so I would go with it, but some paparazzi were outside and that’s how those shots happened. But I survived.” More than survived. It was a celebration.

She looks falteringly and says, “Now it gets written about because I’m in that age group ‘she’s in her forties and she’s still got it.’ I’m suddenly in that age range where you’re spoken about like that, and I’m like shut up because at some point it won’t be.” I recognise this Kylie. The Kylie that’s super hard on herself. That doesn’t think she looks as great as everybody else thinks she does. As gorgeous as she really does. I remember when we met just after she was in remission. She was really hard on herself, coming to terms with her fuller face and noticing changes in her body, feeling grateful to be alive but finding her new body hard to confront because she lost a lot of weight then put on a lot of weight, and for someone who has been pretty much tiny all her life it came as a shock. She’s still tiny, but she notices more that she’s not as tiny as she was. “It has changed a lot and I still have to deal with it.” In what way do you feel it’s changed?

“Well, I’m here and that’s what I have to remember when I start to get down about it. I still take medication, and there’s a lot of women who stop taking the medication because they just can’t stand the side effects. You definitely put on weight.” I tell her again she doesn’t look like she’s gained weight. “But I notice it. Weight was never an issue for me. Before I could just eat anything.” But everyone feels that. Metabolism slows down after a certain age. “Well it does but it’s hard for me to tell what exactly it is because it’s over five years that I’ve been on medication. I have just under a year until I get my five year clear.” And after that you stop taking medication? “After that yeh. When I think back now going on that Homecoming tour I just can’t believe I did that. I get upset thinking about it.” I wonder exactly what she gets upset about.

That she forced herself to do it when she still was feeling unwell, that she wanted to prove that she could do it and it was harder for her than she thought, or because she did it because being on stage makes her feel alive and she wanted to know that she was alive. “That was it. I wanted to know that I could do what I do. Admittedly it was in a different way. We had to put an interval into the show.” She says this as if putting an interval in a show meant she was letting the audience down, making them suffer and a sign of terrible weakness. Lots of artists have intervals in their shows. “Mm,” says Kylie, unconvinced that she wants to be that kind of performer. “I fought against the interval and two nights before opening I realised if the show were to work an interval would be a good idea.” I remind her doing any show at all was an enormous undertaking for someone so recently after treatment. “It was,” she concedes. Will there be a tour for this album? “Next year, yes. At least I’m being positive and thinking at the start of next year I’ll be celebrating. That’s the first big mark.” It’s almost as if her cancer has been talked about so much it’s been sanitised, tabloidised. It’s been triumph over tragedy. But there’s very much a sense it shadows her. She tries in that very Kylie way not to make it a haunting shadow, but a let’s be in the moment sort of shadow. Despite the euphoric mood of the album and the euphoric reactions to it, she seems a little tired. Perhaps it’s the jet lag. Perhaps every time she gets tired she gets worried that it’s more than tiredness. Perhaps it’s the effect of the meds. What exactly are the other side effects of the medication you’re on now? “Not stuff I’d like to share,” she says, although she confirms tiredness is one of them. She doesn’t trade on sympathy, she trades on dance tunes, happy things. She really doesn’t want people to worry about her.

She doesn’t like a fuss. She’s very contained. The opposite of confessional. The opposite of Madonna. Price, who has worked with them both, says they are almost opposite personalities. “Madonna has a lot more of an aggressive and determined approach. Kylie is much more instinctive.” Madonna likes to show off and quote from the Kabbalah. Kylie’s intelligence is much less self-conscious. Kylie says she’s porous, by which she means she takes in other people’s moods and absorbs them. A record company insider who has worked with her for over a decade says, “There’s a lot of humility about the way Kylie operates. She operates with a concern for the people around her. Tours which are always such a difficult thing she manages to create an incredible atmosphere. She is very concerned with making other people feel good.” Has she changed over the years?

“I think she’s the same. She never kicks up a fuss. If she commits to doing something she’ll do it. She manages to be one of the most famous women in the country and very private.” Weirdly in all the time I’ve met Kylie I’ve never heard her moan. Even when all her hair fell out and I suggested she might have been depressed she said, “When you put it in perspective it’s a sign your treatment is doing what it’s supposed to do.” When she broke up from French actor Olivier Martinez she never bitched about him or was bitter. “I’m a fatalist. I always feel that a relationship runs for the duration it’s meant to.” There are some things that Kylie is sensationally chilled about, and others that stress her completely. “I do moan,” she pipes in. “I moan with my PA. We’ve been together over ten years. We have a good old moan together.”

She doesn’t moan with or about her current inamorato, Spanish model Andres Velencoso. They met about 18 months ago at a party for the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, and she says she’s still blessed out with him. “He just left this morning actually. We had take away Spanish last night because I’m very good friend with the Spanish restaurant. I liked it before I met him.” Do you speak Spanish? “No, but I’ve started to understand it a little and I recorded a version of All The Lovers in Spanish. Andres and I were in Spain driving in the car, listening to mixes, and I can’t remember if it was him or myself who said I wonder what this would sound like in Spanish.

So I thought let’s try it and he did a translation for me.” Interesting that she doesn’t remember who it was. It shows that she’s close. “Yes,” she smiles. Is there a lot of separation involved? “We try not to leave it too long between seeing each other. But he’s used to travelling. I’m used to travelling. That’s how the relationship started. It works for me and I think it works for him.” Do you prefer it? “In a way, to have time to do your own thing, to be compartmentalised like that, yes, I think you’re right. When I try to do everything at once, it’s when I have a meltdown.” We discuss the gemininess of the extremes of her personality. Some people call he Kylie, and her close friends call her Min, Min for Minogue or Min for miniature. “Not sure,” says one friend, “but she’s the maxiest min you’re ever going to meet.” “I think there are more than two of me. There’s a committee. The voices in my head have all been so loud I think I’ve said something and discusses for instance when we’re going on tour, but I’ll realise I’ve only discussed it with myself.” I imagine the committee all have different views about her future with Velencoso. Sometimes I imagine it seems relaxed and easy going. I remember one time I met her when she was launching a linen range she seemed intensely in love. She was doing a lot of golf and said she’d taken up cooking. At the time I asked her if she was a piece of her own bed linen what would she be? “The finest linen top sheet. One that goes over you in summer, that just skims you so you are not cold.”

Kylie has a lightness and a non-invasiveness. I wonder about the permanence of her relationship with the Spanish one. I get the impression it’s one of these things that she likes to love in the moment. For his birthday last year she got a blue topaz stone from India where she did a cameo in a Bollywood movie. “I wanted him to have something jewelleryish but not ostentatious. I had some string and I plaited it into a sort of web into which we put the stone. The stone was tiny and I knew it would be lost in the string, but that was the beauty of it. He wore it for a while and then the stone got lost. OK, gone to the universe. Then he kept wearing the string until that finally wore away. So that’s the jewellery I got him. Something precious and something from the kitchen cupboard. Knowing he would lose it and it wasn’t secure was the most beautiful part.” It seems like a metaphor for the relationship. Does she think she will have babies? “I don’t know. I would love to, but…” Her sister Dannii is pregnant. The irony is not lost on her that Dannii is the last person who you’d ever expected to get broody. “She’d say the same thing. Life’s funny isn’t it. She’s blossomed.” Kylie doesn’t know if she can get pregnant, but she’s always wanted to have kids.

“It’s very hard.” I tell her a lot of people who concentrated on their careers feel terrible that they put it off for too long. “Perhaps if you are resolutely sure that that’s not the path you want to go down that’s OK. But if there’s an element of doubt you can’t help but question it. It’s not fun.” I agree. It’s not fun. And what brings you out of that? “Pineapple Dance Studio does it for me,” she laughs. There’s also her ongoing lifelong relationship with busy. “Busy and I are getting on quite well at the moment. We are negotiating how fraught I will become. The committee meeting in my head has looked at the next week and is trying to be relaxed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I slip into old habits. But I’m not as bad as I used to be.’ Do you find you throw yourself into busy to get away from other things that are not very pleasant and not easy to deal with? “Partly yes, and partly it’s a challenge.

I love what I do and the more I learn the better I am at it. It’s like discovering a certain freedom. “If I didn’t tour again I’d think oh no, I’ve finally just found my stride.” Do you mean that when you’re performing you know who you are? “In the broader sense, yes. I’ll be in the old peoples home trying to do a high kick down the corridor. I felt it at the end of that video shoot. I felt about 1,000. Dancing on those heels. I ached.” Yet she makes everything look effortless. “Yes, I try.” Why is that so important? “I like to make a happy environment. At the end of this video shoot I said thanks to the extras because they’d all been shivering for so long and the second unit director said in 20 years of doing video shoots he’d never seen anyone get on the mic and thank people. And that just astounds me because thanking people is just being a normal, thoughtful person. There are enough difficulties in life.” Don’t you think if you make things look too effortless people aren’t aware of your pain? People take you for granted? “There is that. But that’s a whole other… that’s not a barrier reef, that’s a big deep sea.”

I leave Kylie thinking about the deep sea of unsaid things and the unspoken burdens that she must carry around with her. We meet a week later. She is dressed in gold. Everything seems brighter and more flippant, but she says that’s because my mood has changed and she’s picked up on it. We talk about the importance of having a gay husband and how much she loves Will Baker. “I think the 2.4 family is down the drain these days. Every girl has to have her GBF. In my life it has to work.” Does Baker have to approve of her boyfriend? “Yes, they like each other. We all met on the same day and that helped. Before that I remember when I dated some guy for a little bit and he absolutely bristled and still goes on about it. It’s sweet, I guess.”

Does she think she wants to have a non-gay husband? “Mm. what I might have said before is marriage might not be for me.” I don’t think Kylie sees things that black and white or conclusively. Not living in the moment stresses her out. And she seems flustered by the question. We are in her management offices, which have an assortment of her lilac satin and feather cushions. Everything is very bright and I can see her skin even more clearly, and she seems extremely happy in it. “I think I’m at the point in my life where I’m feeling good within myself.” She agrees she is less guarded, more open, less afraid. “But I think that’s because the perception of me has changed. Not least because I was shown to be susceptible as everyone to a terrible disease and to be human, and perhaps because a certain amount of time has passed and I’m still here.”

It takes a long time to process going through cancer and come out the other end to actually admit it happened to you. I remember talking to her soon after it was announced she was in remission in 2006. She didn’t know how she felt about it. She needed to make an album because she needed to know that she could still sound like her. She needed to make a perfume to know that she could still smell and make a happy smell. But it’s been a long process and many decisions of what to keep in your life because it reinforces who you are and what to let go of.

“I’m prone to anxiety, that’s for sure. But my current motivation is to try and enjoy the moments that are good and address the moments that aren’t good because they colour each other. If you can get a number of moments in a row that are good, that’s a reason to be joyful.” Does she have plans of what she wants for the future? “I’d like to do some more acting. When I did Dr Who I felt taken back to my acting beginnings and in my spiritual home. I like that people feel the spirit in this album and I’d like it to be joyful.”

Robin Williams (August, 1999)

Robin Williams is very furry. He once said he was too furry ever to play a proper sexy leading man. OK. So lots of twitching therapists and Mrs. Doubtfire and child men. I suppose they ‘re not sexy. And even though it is a dense fuzziness that coats him, it ‘s warm. You imagine that children may want to stroke him. It occurs to me that he might be the missing link between primates, from homo erectus to homo sapien. But he is so warm and so touchable. He may not consider himself sexy, but he is actually extremely sexual because being with him is kind of magical. I went to meet him in Paris, where he manages to make a European promotional tour for What Dreams May Come into a thrillingly intimate experience. I had quite dreaded it because I had been warned that he would immediately go into a torrent of funny voices, of Mork speak, accents, personas, man of a thousand voices and a trillion quick fire responses. He would be a vortex, I was told, of other characters and it would be hard to find him, the real him. I was told I ‘d be lucky if I got him at the end of the day when he was exhausted, because an exhausted Williams is your best bet of getting a near normal conversation and only if he was massively fatigued would he be at the same energy level as a normal human being. It ‘s easy to presume that Robin Williams might think ‘who wants Robin Williams to be a normal human being? It ‘s easy to think he might give you a comedy routine because he wants to impress you or he wants to be defensive, throw you off the scent of who he is with a thousand other characters. But actually, Robin Williams just does it. It just comes out of him, whole torrents of other people ‘s voices.
It ‘s not learned or for show. It just is. And if it comes out of any desire to please, it ‘s because it usually does please. He ‘s not trying to hide anything though. He ‘s far too vulnerable, too empathic, too obvious for any of that. Specifically, I wanted to talk about What Dreams May Come, a metaphysical speculation about what happens when you die. In this case, his character finds that paradise for him means falling into the world of one of his wife ‘s paintings. It means custom designing his own heaven. But heaven of course was no good without his love of his life. Love, sex, death; all fertile serious interview ground. But the thing is, I was just ready to laugh the whole time. Perhaps its because I ‘m nervous. Why is this, I ask him, unable to get a grip and dig myself out of the quicksand wit. Why was I laughing so much? It ‘s a sad reaction to me. The moment you see me, its like cheaper than Prozac. Bring him up. People all of a sudden go ‘I laugh at you.’ It ‘s OK as long as we ‘re not having sex. Just don ‘t laugh a me then.’ Really? You don ‘t laugh during sex? ‘I love to laugh during sex. That ‘s the best time.’ He goes into a voice ‘Don ‘t talk to the puppet. Oh, it spit on me.’ Out of voice. Laughter and sex? Wonderful combinations.’ Of course if you make someone laugh, its usually the quickest route of getting to the sex part and Williams once said he never had a problem with women. He was always intimate with women straight away, but with men, he used to be more aware that he would go to the joke to do the bonding.
I had the impression, that the need to bond was extremely important to him, part of the reason he is who he is and does what he does. He likes to know he can touch you. ‘To bond…It ‘s just important to have close friends, which I do. To meet is OK. But to bond is something that takes time.’ Don ‘t you believe in an instant soul mate connection? ‘Not with every guy you see, but with a few. Most of my friends I ‘ve known for a long time. We ‘re connected because we ‘ve been through so much.’ You know that the so much is quite a lot. All the cliches about the funniest people being the most deranged because they are the darkest, you sense it from him. That ‘s why his humour is maniacal, genius and on the edge. It used to be only edge, drug fuelled and self-destructive. But that was 15 years ago. Just as you can feel yourself reaching out to him, you think you ‘re having an instant connection, he ‘ll ground you with ‘My really good friendships usually start off rocky. For example, Billy Crystal. Here are two comics and it was like…’ ‘Rivalrous? ‘It was rivalrous. And now, he ‘s almost like a brother to me.’ Taking advantage of the film ‘s theme, I suggest perhaps a brother in a former life. ‘Siamese twins.’ So you don ‘t believe in the not on the film suggests that you could meet someone in this life and you might meet him in another and find out he was your son in the previous one? ‘Or you meet a woman and say you were Catherine the Great and I was the horse.’ He trills like a horse. ‘Sometimes you get a feeling there was some kind of previous connection, but I don ‘t go in for any of that reincarnation. Because everyone who was reincarnated always says they were someone extraordinary. You know, Nefertiti’s gynaecologist. There ‘s never anyone who says ‘I was Phil. I was an accountant.’ ‘I was Murray. I lived in New Jersey. I died alone.’
But what about the idea that your souls could have been connected in another time in some way? ‘I don ‘t know. I know the movie espouses that stuff, but personally, I ‘m not sure. Annabelle Sciorra (who plays his wife in the movie) has a great answer. She said ‘I think you die and then there ‘s a lot of dirt.’ What do I think? I hope to get to see my father. You do get to talk to those people who have had those out of body experiences. A guy who was a friend of mine had died and said as he was dying he was talking to someone and he wasn’t on drugs. The conversation was like ‘I don ‘t want to go. All right. I ‘ll go.’ As I someone was trying to convince him to leave. And other people have said they ‘ve come back into their bodies during surgery or they ‘ve been dead physically, then returned and they ‘ve been in a tunnel and it ‘s always a light at the end of the tunnel. You think if it isn’t heaven, it ‘s one massive shared hallucination. If you think of how many people who have been probed rectally by aliens…’ Then he goes into a voice. ‘They put big thing up my heinie. I remember a light and an almond eyed man screaming like a fax and then my garage door opens every time I take a dump.’
Probably, you had to be there and witness all of this live. And then he turns semi-serious to make the point ‘It ‘s also weird, but not many people have said when they had these out of body experience that they went to hell and found a massive smell of shit.’ Did you want to meet your father because there ‘s more you would have liked to have said to him before he died? Was it an incomplete relationship? ‘No. I had a great relationship with him. I got to know him very well before he died. When I was growing up, he was working all of the time and I didn’t get a chance to see him, but when I was about 16 he retired, so that ‘s when I got to know him well, and that was what saved me years of therapy with all of that where was your father.’
There are stories of Williams growing up with a young vibrant mother, older father no brothers and sisters, moving around the East Coast, mostly a lonely only child. At one time spending time by himself in a 40 room mansion. ‘There was a time we rented a house in Michigan which was a big old house. I had the attic to myself and it was supposed to be haunted. It wasn’t so much scary as strange. But lonely? Being an only child was a little lonely, but that ‘s what allowed me to have imagination and that allowed me to perform.’
I have many theories about only children, that they ‘re more self- contained, more self-sufficient, that they grow up faster because they mix in adult world with adult emotions more easily than other children. Also, only children have a greater need to bond and a greater knack for empathy. I tell Williams that I also am an only child. ‘Was it rough?’ he says, with all the concern and empathy and warmth that you ‘ve seen in some of his best doctor/teacher roles. You remember the teacher from Dead Poet ‘s Society, the therapist from Good Will Hunting, the doctor from Awakenings and there ‘s another doctor coming up in Patch Adams. I tell him that I didn’t notice being lonely as a child, but probably the way I played was different, often with imaginary characters and stories, and then felt strange to be with other people. His eyes light, as often they do. ‘Yes. They take you to a friend ‘s house and there would be other children there. ‘Who are you? You ‘re not imaginary.’ You ‘d go to parties and all of a sudden they ‘re bringing in other children and you would be forced to mingle. That ‘s strange, that mixing thing because you ‘d be taken out of the world that you ‘d made.’ I tell him that later on I was much keener to communicate because I didn’t like the sense of not fitting, of being an outsider. With incredible empathy, he says ‘It was the same thing for me.’ You actually feel his empathy coming over you like a fuzzy blanket. You feel softness and those eyes boring a hole in your soul. There ‘s just a tiny fraction of something bordering on hysteria in his eyes. He gets excited, goes off into journeys\ and you know he ‘s fast. You know he could be lost forever. You know he could fall somewhere dark or somewhere cruel, but he just comes back and tells you a story about going to a private boys school for three years.
‘I had this thing of desperately trying to fit in. I was desperately into sports and I was studying like crazy because it was a competitive school and you had to find some way to excel. But it was this truly desperate thing and I thought this is what I ‘ll do. But there was still a sense of isolation and it drives you. It drives you to find some way through. Then I went to this public high school and that ‘s when comedy started to come in because it wasn’t competitive. It wasn’t intellectual. It was like ‘Dude. What are you doing?’ So you try to connect on whatever level. You find a way. It started because you had to create characters. It was all part of inhabiting someone else because there was no one else. It ‘s this ability that drives me in acting. I ‘d rather be a character than be myself. It ‘s easier.’
Certainly there seems like there was a period of non -recognition of self, of not being able to find out who he was for all his abilities to do his funny voices and mimic accents and draw people off into tangents. Recently he says he ‘s had to find recharge time. Certainly in the characters he ‘s chosen to portray, he ‘s found a level of seriousness. In What Dreams May Come as the confrontation with death. OK, it ‘s not super intellectual. It ‘s Hollywood and one gets the impression that it was once perhaps more complex a script than it ended up. Certainly his character in Good Will Hunting for which he won the Oscar was extremely complex and multi-faceted. ‘I can ‘t dance for everyone. They want you to be on and I can ‘t. You have to have moments where you sit and walk.’ He also likes to ride his bike, up to 40 miles a day. Bike riding in San Francisco up and down those hills sounds more exhausting than relaxing, but he finds it gorgeous. He likes to read, currently he ‘s reading the essays of Oliver Sachs. Sachs reflects on the nature of the mind. He likes to read science and science fiction and likes to go online, visit websites of bizarre and new agey things.
Out of this more self-sufficient and quiet phase, yet to come, is the film Jacob the Liar. Set in a Polish ghetto in 1945, Jacob is a radio broadcaster and starts making up all sorts of things to give the Polish people hope. Providing hope where there is none is a Williams speciality. Is this broadcaster a more haunted version of the DJ in Good Morning Vietnam? The next new movie, Patch Adams is about a doctor who clowns around to emotionally bond with the patients. It ‘s another one of these where he ‘s trying unorthodox methods of curing and helping people. Is this doctor related to Oliver in Awakenings? Williams says ‘I ‘ve had too many doctors now.’ Is it that he wants to swap the funny for the serious? Having made the transition from one of American ‘s most popular stand-up comics successfully, skilfully and not painlessly, to the man who can get movies made, is he now looking for something else? ‘No. The bottom line is laughter. It connects you to people immediately.’ But where does it all come from really, the need to be funny? ‘It comes from my mother. She is funny, and I realized how that works. She lives just outside of San Francisco and she ‘s an outrageous character. A lot of people know my mother as well as me. She ‘s very vivid. Especially in the town she lives in.’ Another San Francisco comedian confirmed to me yes, everyone does know his mother, and the unusual thing about comedians is that they are usually driven by a desire to copy their father. That ‘s where their humour comes from. The fact that he was more influenced by his mother is interesting. Perhaps it ‘s what adds the magic. Perhaps it ‘s what helped him do The Birdcage and helped him create Mrs. Doubtfire. Certainly at the premiere of the Birdcage, Williams says ‘All the drag queens were going ‘Ooh. I love your mother. She ‘s fabulous.’ My mother always did outrageous stuff, like pulling rubber bands out of her nose and my father, he must be the side that drives me into the dramatic roles. He was very intense and very ethical and very dry in terms of humour.’
Williams lives in a big house in San Francisco, devoted to his children, and these days going to bed at an hour where he used to be just going out. His two younger children, Cody, 6, and Zelda, 9, live with him full time. Perhaps because his own childhood was so dislocated, he overcompensates and it always up there driving his children crazy. Apparently, Zelda is forced to say ‘Daddy, don ‘t use that voice. Just be Daddy.’ Williams however, is completely effervescent with love for his children, preferring always to do movies as near to home as possible, more because he needs to be with them. ‘I spend a lot of time with them, but I also know they need their space. They will literally tell me ‘This is my time. I ‘m just doing this on my own now. Zelda especially. There are times they want to play and times that they are very happy being alone.’ He has another son, Zachary from his first marriage to Valeri Velardi, who is 15 and lives with him part time. He says ‘He has a very good soul. There ‘s incredible kindness in the way he treats people.’ Zachary likes to mix records.
It was when Zachary was born that a huge personal revolution occurred, or actually, just before. At this time, Williams was calling himself the snow king and pounding around on Columbian marching powder. Cocaine addict big time and swilling it down with a bottle of Jack Daniels, his friend John Belushi died of an overdose. That shocked him. Then he felt he didn ‘t want to miss what could be the most important part of his life. The primeval protective urge got the better of him. He wanted to be sober for his son. ‘It was an evolution basically because I realized I wanted not to miss it. It was a conscious choice to end an unconscious period. I don ‘t want to be gone for this. I want to be there. I want to notice. I want to be part of it. So I just stopped. I didn ‘t go through twelve steps. It was just one step. No AA, Assholes Anonymous, no therapy, although I do go to therapy now. This was a definite boundary. You have this other person. You have to stop. For the first year, you talk about it. Sometimes I miss wine or I might look at someone having a really nice cocktail and I remember the smell of Jack Daniels and that warm feeling when it would go down your throat and the next thing you wake up in a field. So I traded that off. Rational conversations that I can have now versus the irrational places I ‘d end up in.’
I tell him that I ‘m incredulous that he could just stop, especially as I spent the last three days drinking hugely. He shoots me one of those worried for me looks, piercing me with the eyes. ‘Did you have a night where you drank so much that you don ‘t remember anything?’ he says, with a mixture of empathy and panic, as he must have had many of those nights. And then lightens up with ‘Did you wake up in the morning going who are you?’ No. Did you? ‘I ‘m not going to deny that there weren ‘t some fun times. But the bad side of alcohol and drugs is the hangover, vicious and awful. It was ugly.’ Soon after his druggy time ended, marriage to Valeri ended too. I tell him that I ‘ve known many people who were in one relationship when they were not sober and when they got sober, the whole dynamic of that relationship altered. Is that what happened with you and your first wife? ‘No. It just altered. Everything changed over a long period of time.’ And then he looked right at me, knowing that he could have left it at that. ‘She found somebody else and eventually I went ‘Oh. OK.’ It was very painful and it wasn ‘t really OK. It was Oh no. And then finally, I found someone else.’
Much has been made of the someone else. Her name is Marcia and she used to be Zachary ‘s nanny. Stories that say the affair started at this time anger him. It ‘s interesting to me that it ‘s always assumed it ‘s the man who ‘s going to play around first. In fact, this was not the case. Even though Marsha, after her stint as nanny came back to be his personal assistant, their relationship was a slow burn. ‘She was very much not involved. She was my assistant during a really brutal time. She was amazing. I would be getting furious, saying Valeri ‘s off with someone else, and she ‘d say So are you. Get real. Get a life. And slowly I did. That ‘s when I did start to get therapy. I got anxious that finally Valeri was happy and it wasn’t with me. I would talk to Marsha who would talk to me as a friend, saying stop this. Eventually I realized how to get a life, how to get stronger. Comedy was my kind of salvation, although there were times when I thought I could never be funny again. Slowly but surely, I thought wait a minute Marsha is extraordinary and we started to get involved. It is amazing when you find someone who compliments everything you do in such a wonderful way, a gift, a joy. It ‘s weird. It just keeps getting better.’ It seems like it was Marsha that was his salvation. He says she took him down from his hyper highs and brought him up from his lonely lows and kept him from turning into a human exocet missile. It seems like she grounded him and lifted him. Now, she will help him to say no, stop his need to try to say yes to do everything. She has been a producer on Jacob and on Patch Adams and she ‘s found him several other projects that are in development. She reads the piles of scripts os that he doesn ‘t have to. Are you in tune with eachother ‘s taste? ‘No. I try to be in tune with her taste. Her taste is quite extraordinary, the opposite of mine. I’m very sentimental. She ‘s much tougher. She stops me from being a parody of myself. She ‘ll push me to go and perform again on stage to remember that I really love to do this.’
In What Dreams May come, he falls into a Monet like painting, and that ‘s his idea of heaven. ‘Our heaven would probably be a Miro because being with her is really so extraordinary. You think it ‘s going to level out, but it doesn ‘t. It just gets more wonderful.’ For some of the jokes and some of the voices, you best appreciate them in person. Same goes for his tributes to his wife. Perhaps they appear schmaltzy. But they come delivered with a genuine incredulity of someone who just can ‘t believe his luck, someone truly in heartfelt love delirium. So has he completely mellowed now? ‘I enjoy things differently’ he says with the kind of tact that you know dark forces can still intrude. So does he ever get depressed still? ‘Deeply depressed. Things still bother me. When I read stories about sad things that have happened in different parts of the world, insane politics and stories of abused children I get deeply sad.’ Does he get depressed about anything in his own life? ‘I? Can get disappointed. Its like you thin you ‘ve made a right choice and then it doesn’t turn out like that. You get bummed out. But you made that choice and you have to go with it and you feel you have wasted your time. It ‘s been four months. You expect a movie to work and you work really hard to promote the hell out of it and it will tank. I ‘m not going to say that that doesn’t hit you. But your ego had gone into overdrive and when you worried this may not work it said you can do this. So one part will always say well, you knew all along. You can ‘t get too upset. I suppose you have to get to the point where you ‘re honest with yourself upfront.’ Was he sated by winning the Oscar? Does he feel that whatever drove him stopped driving? ‘No. The Oscar was a interesting thing. Once you have it, you think what now? Your ego worries. Another one? There ‘s a brief relief and then you think you ‘ll have to do it again. You feel like Rainman.’ He goes int perfect Dustin. ‘Gotta do it again . Yeah. Jack has three. Keep going. Tom has two. Maybe three this year. Real good.’ Despite his warm furriness, his insecurity is his focus. His ambition still drives him. Playing all those therapists, doctors, he must have cured so many parts of himself. Now he thinks perhaps he doesn ‘t want to resolve someone ‘s pain, but cause it, play someone really evil. ‘I ‘d like to break the mould of warm and happy. I ‘ve done enough lonely guys, enough mentally damaged, enough children.’ Remember Jack, boy trapped in body of 40 year old? ‘No more children. You ‘re 47. No more arrested development poster child. No more damaged but interesting. A real villain. Interesting, but not damaged’ he says with a maniacal flash that is completely unconvincing. The PR comes in to stop the interview, but he ‘s far too nice to stop it until he thinks I ‘m finished. On the other side of the door, Marsha is waiting for him. They leap at each other like they ‘ve been separated for centuries. They are all over each other, even though it can ‘t be more than a couple of hours since they were last together. He ‘s almost giving her a piggy back out of the smart hotel and into the rain for lunch. He kind of shines. I don ‘t know if he could ever find in himself a truly evil energy. I don ‘t know that he ‘d know where to look. Sometimes after interviews you feel exhausted. Sometimes even humiliated. Often bored. And you wish you ‘d never been there. Robin Williams just made you feel warm and energized. You want to protect him and he wants to protect you. You think all that emoting that he does so expertly on film is a brilliant act. When you see the act live, you go away feeling that he ‘s probably one of the cosiest, furriest human beings you could ever have met, the kind of person who provides hope when there is none, the kind of person who is able to do this for other people because he had to find it for himself.