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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Susan Boyle (Event, Nov 2016)

Susan Boyle Cover
Susan Boyle Cover

Susan’s house in on a council estate that seems to be in the middle of nowhere. Down the road there is a small town with a cinema, and a tesocos but Susan’s house is tucked away in the middle of a ubiquitous estate. It’s the house she grew up in. the house she lived with her parents, now long deceased, but it’s important for her to be in this house. it’s a touchstone of who she is, who she was and a life that she’s always grounded in no matter how fragile she may seem or how extreme her life got after she dreamed a dream and became the most famous runner up ever on Britain’s Got Talent.

What the world saw in her then, an enormous vulnerability and uncanny ability to feel other peoples pain and centre it in her voice, it was as if all the pain she had suffered and could never talk about was articulated in those sweet, pure unmistakably lush vocals.

Her house is cosy and stuffed full of ornaments, mostly gifted by her fans. Theres porcelain cats, paintings that her fans have lovingly etched. Our Lord, Our Lady, religious artefacts, angels and framed postcards that say, “If you can dream it, you can do it” and for awhile that was Susan, she dreamed it, she did it yet over the past year there have been all kinds of rumours, her record company had dumped her, she was in her own personal meltdown and couldn’t cope anymore, the death of her beloved sister Bridie, she who was the stabling force in an often crazy family, we’ll come to them later.

Today Susan is nothing but sweetness. Delicious shortcake biscuits and an array of sandwiches “pieces” on offer and the entertainment we play her latest CD, the one the press said would never happen, called A Wonderful World, out on November 25th. The ultimate Christmas gift that transcends Christmas. The songs are love songs, classics that have been Susan-ized. Oh the sweetness, the plaintiveness of wonderful world, the deep emotion of When I Fall in Love, a duet with Nat King Cole, it’s so milky, creamy, her vocals are like a big cashmere robe on this song.

“It’s very romantic, isn’t it? Perfect for a couple who meet for the first time.” and of course it’s all the more sad and all the more deep because of course Susan has never been in love or been part of a couple, not really. So who is she singing it for?

“It’s a favourite of my Mum and Dad’s.”

Theres a picture of them on the wall, her father looks movie star handsome, she giggles “oh I wouldn’t have told him that”.

She does a version of Robbie Williams Angels, and again makes it her own. Does she believe in Angels? “We have a guardian angel with us everyday, I know that. You’re not supposed to see them but they are there.” She says all smiley and cherub like.

She’s wearing a pink tracksuit top and grey sweatpants. Pink cheeks, giant eyes and softer hair. There were even reports her hair fell out and she had to wear wigs, clearly all ridiculous!

She’s actually lost two stone in weight because she’s been walking everywhere, “Yes I walk everyday to where ever I want to get to. I used to walk, but then I stopped but now I like it again. I even walk to the gym and yes I’ve even been going. I like to meet people, I’ll walk to the Regal- theatre in the neighbouring town of Bathgate- see a show and thats me quite happy. I was beginning to feel a wee bit unhealthy so I started a walking regime and I actually like doing it.” Have another shortbread she says, I’m not going to eat them I’m diabetic, type 2.”.

It’s taken her awhile to accept she’s diabetic and I’m going to eat the shortbread and she’ll stick to the tuna. No delicious shortbread? “No, it’s all about healthy living” and laughs at herself. She knows she’s had a ravenous sweet tooth and never wanted to be healthy before.

Despite what people think, she says she’s in a good place. This is the first time she’s heard the finished album. Is she pleased with it?
“I think so, I had a lot of fun making it. Simon picked the songs, she said proudly. I’ll always put my trust in Simon, he’s a bit of a genius.” But wait a minute rumours were that she never saw Simon and he’d lost interest. “No he’s been here to Blackburn, I don’t see that much of him but I hear from him a lot.”

And what about her mate Piers? Her original champion on Britain’s Got Talent. Didn’t he actually kiss her? “I’ve haven’t seen him at all recently but I wish him well with everything he does. He does Good Morning britain now, perhaps he’ll have me on it”. She giggles. “He had me on his other show for CNN”.

She seemed to have her first school girl crush at the age of 47 on Piers, “No. he’s married” she dismisses as if I’m mad. Somewhere Out There is playing in the back ground. It’s Susan duetting with Michael Bolton, “It’s very romantic isn’t it? Especially at the time of year when people are looking for something extra specials.

Is she looking for that? has she got a romance going on? “No, I wish I had though.” she sas very wistfully and I’m drawn in to the ultimate pathos of Susan. Her voice, sometimes is almost childlike when she sings, so full of hope, so persuasive. Especially when she sings Angels, her voice is like a seduction surely she could seduce anyone with that I say to her half joking “even Piers” she says “now you’re just kidding me on”.

The only hint of romance for Susan was with a doctor she met when touring America. She met him in Clearwater Florida. Is that all over? “Well, he’s not over, I just haven’t seen him for awhile. He’s a nice man, he took me out for a meal, but we got friendly, you know. Everyone was going daft looking for me and there I was with this lovely guy. Long pause, “potentially it’s not finished”. She hasn’t seen him but they have stayed in touch.

I’m more and more intrigued that she lives in the house she grew up in. It’s very humble, nothing fancy, yet we’re listening to not any old album, her album, her 7th in fact and the picture of Susan with a horse is to commemorate her world wide smash Wild Horses. “You have to have balance because balance keeps you focused. I’ve got a posh house but I thought it best my neice have that one as this is more me.” By a posh house we are not talking about a mansion.

Her albums, especially I Dreamed A Dreamed, that one album did 10 million. Her total record sales are in excess of 23 million. She could have bought a mansion, in fact she could have bought the entire town of Blackburn, but she prefers to be in three up two down. She didn’t feel relaxed in her posh house, “I’m more relaxed here, theres a lot of nice memories of my family growing up and stuff and theres people all around me if I need help with anything. The Posh house was too big”. I’m told it had four bedrooms of larger proportions and the reception rooms were larger. “Not me” she shrugs “here I have all my lovely familiar things around me and it makes me feel secure.” Security is obviously nothing she takes for granted. And she likes being at home.

“I have had holidays, I’ve been to Ireland a few times, France and Portugal. In Portugal I like to go out and sunbathe.” Her celtic skin must have become inflamed, “Yes, I was a red as a beetroot.” Was she wearing at least factor 50 I say because to be with Susan for half an hour is to be drawn into her life, to care about her, to want to protect her. “Sometimes” she says in a way that I know means whats factor 50? and then she laughs. “You’re very pale aren’t you? And you’re from Ant and Dec Land”.

I tell her we share a love of Cats, her famous cat Pebbles has now died, but says “my Tess is upstairs sleeping, a ginger girl, quite unusual. I got her from Cats Protection in Edinburgh.” Tess does not emerge but theres evidence of a litter tray and Whiskas.

Susan is looking forward to seeing a Streetcar named Bob at there local cinema and also Bridget Jones baby and she reassures me theres a lot going on in the Regal in Bathgate. “We had Ross Kemp there the other week and there nice places to eat, the Cairn Hotel. I do go to these places, but I like to keep busy in the house as well.

Always on My Mind is playing on the CD player, “It’s very reflective, a relationship thats gone wrog, misunderstandings and maybe that person is trying to say sorry. You don’t go around saying sorry, you show it. The best form of communication for me is through music.” and indeed she can sing other peoples words and make it everything she’s ever felt, thats why it’s so emotional.
She nods, “I’m best with music, it’s been well publicised I have Aspergers and it’s a form of autism and communication can be difficult because I can’t find the right words or phrases. If I’ve got a script like a song, I connect with that song and thats the way I communicate.”

I’m not so sure it’s as simple as that, Susan communicates intensely and you don’t have to have Aspergers to feel pain that you can’t articulate in words. I’m also confused, autism is about disconnection and not feeling empathy for the other person, where Susan feels an excess of it.
“Music is about connecting emotions, it’s a love song, it’s not about me, its about someone else circumstances and the circumstances I’m singing about having meaning for them. Thats what my job as a performer is all about, connecting to the listener.
Susan’s Aspergers syndrome has been well documented and usually in the setting of when she’s been unable to cope with something. Like in a recent situation in an airport lounge at Heathrow where she was flying home to Scotland and she had a meltdown and caused a disruption. She was crying and shouting from a place of fear. I don’t like airports I tell her, I got in a fight with security coming to Scotland this very day, “Oh dear, you have to watch it” she says earnestly.
Aiprots make everyone vulnerable, right? “Of course, of course, perhaps you were feeling too rushed” Is that what happened with her? “I want to put it behind me and think of the positive. I wrote an apology to the airport and now everything is ok. Aspergers charities criticised her for writing an apology, saying she shouldn’t have to but there is a lot of ignorance.

What actually happened? “I can’t tell you but it was a misunderstanding thats been resolved and I am going to look at airport travel much more positively in the future. I feel we can all be taught to make things less difficult. I’m struggling at the moment but with time that will improve.”

Does she feel things more sorely because she’s instantly recognisable and people are always coming up to her and she can never travel anonymously? “Yes, but I’m working on that. And although that might be one of the less good sides, there are many great things about my life now. Enjoying the work I’m doing, making albums and hoping that will make people happy.”

Before Susan sang, she trained to be a social worker. “It was good because I like people, I’m a people watcher and theres a lot of psychology going on watching people and their interactions and when I was training it was my job to try and help them. I wanted to work with teenagers who were vulnerable and needed guidance. There are some very mature teenagers, some are parents and I wanted to help them with the changes that came as a result of that. I did this at the local community centre and then Edinburgh and did training there. I would ask questions, “do you have the ability to let go” and I was young and very immature myself.”
Was that question poignant because you couldn’t let go go things?
“Yes, it was, as you get older you learn to say maybe it’s not so important.”
When you say letting things go do you mean arguments or a particular object?
“I think you are over simplifying it. Things that happen in peoples lives that make them the person they are. Letting go of the past, emotional baggage. It depends what you’ve been through.”
What did you have to let go of?
“A lot of things, my father, though a very good man, had a temper, he showed it to me and he hurt me. He didn’t mean to but I held on to this for years and when he was dying, I had to let it go. You have to accept it, thats maturity.”
Accept someones hit you, I’m confused? One gets the impression that Susan isn’t underplaying it but not talking about it as it’s all part of the pain and insecurity that comes out when she sings. Having a parent with a violent temper, has got to be confidence knocking.
“It’s not easy, it’ not easy, but you have to let it go and replace it with a new self, thats what I’ve been focusing on in the last 6 months. It’s difficult, I’ve a lot of good and bad memories, you weigh up the good and the bad. I’ve been coming to terms with it. All of these things that happened in my life and all the things happening now, you have to let go of the bad. I’ve seen the Queen and sung at her Birthday, the Mull of Kintyre by Paul MCcartney. all of that is wonderful.”
You see her struggling here, getting rid of the bad memories, being shouted out, feeling worthless and becoming someone who sings for the Queen.
She was the youngest of 9 siblings “there were no favourites in my family, we all had different talents, Mary is a better singer than me.”

Now she’s playing me her version of “Like A Prayer”. More gentle than Madonna, and more etherial. When she sings it, it somehow pierces your heart. “But Madonna is a great Lady.” In fact Susan has always been a Madonna fan, although they don’t seem at all similar. “I know I do things more intensely, I like this song because it’s emotional and releases emotions in other people. It’s all about releasing.”
That is of course her extraordinary gift, I wonder if Mary can do that? “Mary’s not been given charge. MeI’m all about releasing, releasing in a healthy, safe, environment.”

The track Wish Upon a Star, she says “I wished upon a star and everything came true”
What did she wish for? “To go abroad and meet the Pope. I say Make me a channel of your piece to Pope Benedict. I love Disney, it reminds me of a comic I had that I bought every week. Mickey Mouse, Snow White. It brings back all my childhood memories.”

So what was her childhood really like? “Theres a 23 year age difference between me and my eldest sister. I look back at photographs and I see myself pictured by a piano, I’m only just learning to play it now. I’m rubbish at it. I think everyone was loved equally but theres always a natural conflict within families. Mary, the eldest, was always very wise for her age, there was never any competition there, as I say she can sing better than me. Bridie, was the glue of the family. She shows me a picture of her, she will be sorely missed. I found it hard when she went. I couldn’t cry at her funeral. I felt frustrated, I didn’t want to allow my emotions to come out, months later Bridie died in October 2015, this February, it really hit me and all of these things that were wrapped inside me came out in the recording studio. For Bridie, I sang May You Never Be Alone.

I wonder about her other family members, I’m always hearing about her brother who likes her money and then they fall out and then back in again. “We all get on great she says” with the same expression as yes of course I wear factor 50. Really? “They come and see me, we’re all reunited” But why were you un-united with them? “Well there were differences of opinion, stuff that happens in all families when one person becomes successful. Oh theres been water under the bridge, but we’re beginning a new era”
Is she sure? I’ve read so many stories about how certain family members wanted large donations like a £100,000. “Well that was to begin with, maybe I did feel taken advantage of, but thats what I mean, I’m not hanging onto that. Lets make a fresh start. That’s the way forward.”

You can’t help but worry for her. “It will be fine” What does she enjoy spending her money on? “Well I once invested in a fur coat, it was £300. Thats probably the most expensive thing I own, I love perfume as well, Cartier, Chanel no.5 I used to buy them at duty free but i’m trying not to fly much now, because you know, I don’t want to get agitated. I’m dealing with it” she says sweetly.

Will she go on tour? “I’m not sure? If so what does she have on her rider? She looks at me, scented candles, blue M&M’s, prawn cocktails before the show? “Oh no, I make no demands, although she does like to bring her tea bags and to have a kettle”

Earlier this year she was in Zoolander 2. It was a great appearance. “Weirdly in an airport, but that was really enjoyable because they closed down the airport so we could film. It was in Rome. Ben Stiller was very clever and very funny.” Apparently they had an amazing bond and she’d love to do more. So much so she’s taking acting lessons, “Yes I’m doing improvisation and textual reading.”
What? I thought she’d just said sexual healing, “No, it’s about analysing characters and building things up. I was very nervous about doing Zoolander and very excited.

Theres also talk of making a movie of Susan’s life, a cinematic version of the stage musical. Who would she like to play her? “Oh Julie Walters” she says instantly. But Susan she’s 20 years older than you, “She’s a very talented lady”. But that is interesting that you see yourself as someone so much older? “Yes, perhaps it’s because I had older parents, perhaps I do have an older outlook, but I’m also very young at heart.”
And what acting roles does she feel she would be good at? “I’m open to suggestions”
Did she see the Paul Potts movie One Chance? “Well it was very moving, I’d like my movie to be more funny, ironic, thought provoking” Will she sing on the soundtrack? “I’ve no idea” There would be more money if she did, does she care? Does she know how much money she has? “Oh, thats private!
Is she private about how she voted in Scottish independence? “ I voted No. I didn’t want to be cut off with our own currency, but after Brexit does she think an independent Scotland could remain in the European community? “I’m not going to be drawn into politics, I’m not a politician, I’m an artist.”

When was the last time she saw Simon Cowell in the flesh? A couple of years ago, he’s a very busy man but I watch him a lot on X Factor.
How did she feel when she read stories that Simon Cowell was about to drop her? I read she was in tears at the thought of not being able to sing. “All those things were totally untrue and I had had a very successful meeting with Syco records.” In fact Sony has extended her contract for more albums.
Does she think there is anything in her life missing? “Yes, I’d like to see the man from Clearwater. I’m very busy, and it’s been a long time but I would like someone. I’m very sensitive, I can be loving and loyal and then sometimes I can be pretty hard to get” she laughs.

A typical day in my life, I get up, make my breakfast, sometimes its a Tuna sandwich and Tess breakfast is whiskas. I’ll go for a walk and meet people or sometimes go to the regal for a show. I’m quite happy.” I’m told her neighbours all love her and invite her in for dinner, she;s not short of invites. So she’s never lonely. “It’s difficult without Bridie, but it’s getting easier. She was always there at the end of the phone, but she’s not anymore. I speak to her daughter and she takes on her role of being the glue of the family.” Does she think she’s a little too tolerant of her brother Gerry who seems to be always finding ways of getting hold of her money? “I’m learning to stick up for myself, but theres a balance you always have to be nice to people. How did you find me now? Was I nice?” Susan you were so spectacularly nice!

We say goodbye and you understand why this woman makes you feel love and I want someone special to love her, she deserves it.

Rob Lowe (AWW November 2016)

Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley
Rob Lowe And Chrissy Iley

Rob Lowe’s arm is covered in thick, sticky, vivid blood. Shocking. Or it would be if it was real. We are onset with Code Black where he plays Colonel Willis, a soldier doctor. He’s in army fatigues, short back and side’s haircut but with the same glittering cornflower blue eyes that stared out of so many film posters on girl’s bedroom walls in the Brat Pack era. We’re on the Disney lot and we’re taking a break for lunch at Disney’s restaurant where even the salt and pepper pots are covered in mice.

The fake blood was from filming a scene where he was taking out a guy’s clavicle after an explosion. “Just a little medical heroics before lunch. It’s a tough day’s work. Actors are often asked to play heroes and I find this show gratifying and fun because these heroes actually exist rather than a guy who wears a cape and flies around. These guys are saving lives every day.”

He orders a cheeseburger without the bun and a chopped salad. “I like to eat clean.” We share some chargrilled Brussel sprouts because Lowe’s lunch order sounded so boring. “No it’s not. I have so much more energy if I eat clean.  I’m in the middle of 30 consecutive days without a break. I shoot this show weekdays and then travel to Boston to work on a movie at the weekend along with a speaking tour – in the past five years I’ve done everything from talking about cancer research and advocacy, because my family have a history there (his grandmother and great grandmother both battled breast cancer and his father is a non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma survivor).  And I also talk about recovery from alcohol and drugs. The movie is the sequel to Supertroopers which was a huge comedy cult film. They have been trying to make it for 15 years.”

Last month Comedy Central screened Rob Lowe’s Roast. Why would anyone put themselves up for humiliation like that? “It was a badge of honour. I’ve grown up with that tradition. I watched Dean Martin Roast when I was a kid. Mohammed Ali and Paul Newman. All the cool people of that era did them. They had asked me to do it a number of times and I’d refused, only to see Justin Bieber and James Franco do it, so I figured if those guys can take it I can take it. I love a good hard joke and I really don’t care whose expense it’s at, including my own. As long as it was smart, funny, it didn’t really matter to me, in fact the better I liked it.”

Peyton Manning, Jimmy Carr and various others took part in the Rob Lowe roast. Nothing was off limits. They mocked his pretty boy looks and constantly brought up his 1988 sex scandal with a 16 year old with lines like ‘Rob defies age…restrictions.’ They said he looked like a Ken doll, plastic and something that’s always close to a teenage girl.

Apparently Gwyneth Paltrow who has been a close friend for years refused to take part. “A lot of my buddies were asked. They didn’t want to be mean to me, right? But I thought it’s fine to be mean to me because I’m going to be mean to you. I ran into Justin Bieber just before I did it and he said ‘it’s way more pressure and way more difficult than you think it’s going to be,’ but I didn’t have that experience. My experience was it was exactly what I thought it would be. Really fun, like hosting Saturday Night Live on steroids. And it’s adrenaline. It’s fight or flight. You sit there and take it all night long and then it’s up to you. You go there and deliver.”

The way the Roast is set up is that various luminaries, friends and frenemies of the ‘roastee’ say terrible things about him and he has to wait till they’re all finished before he gets to fight back and defend himself. “The thing that struck me the worst was waiting for my opportunity to respond. That was hard. After the fourth person I was ready to swing back.” His wife Sheryl and sons Matthew (23) and John Owen (21) were all there. Did they want him to do it?

“This is how the dynamic in my family works. My sons are smart, cool guys. They said, ‘Dad you HAVE to do it.’ And then I asked my wife she said, ‘I don’t think you should do it and then she said how much money are they paying you?” I told her and she said, ‘OK you should definitely do it.’ He grins widely.

He met Sheryl over 26 years ago when she was a make-up artist working with him on set. She now designs high end boho chic jewellery using precious stones and ancient symbols. She’s Nieman Marcus’s best seller.

For years people have been commenting on Lowe’s perfect skin. So dewy, so fresh. He’s 52 but could pass for 32.  He’s now bottled his secrets and has his own skincare range.  “I’ve been working on it a long time. It’s a scrappy little company but it’s my own. I’m not a spokesperson and I didn’t license my name. I built it myself so it makes me really proud and gives me a sense of accomplishment but it’s also tremendous hard work because I’ve never done anything like that before. I researched the best labs and the best people who really know the business but what I do know is what kind of products have worked for me over the duration of my career as an actor.  I’ve had the best and brightest people taking care of my skin so here I’m 52 and you see the results.”

What a lovely opportunity to study his gorgeous, chiselled face. Its perfect jaw line. There are no jowly bits and he’s almost unlined, no bags, no puffiness.  “A lot of it’s genetics. A lot of it’s taking care of myself and discipline.” Lowe always lights up when he uses the word discipline. He thrives on hard work and mental clarity. “At the end of the day it’s an inside job – meaning I’ve met people in their eighties but their spirit is young and it makes them look young. I’ve met people I their 30s whose spirits are so old they seem old before their time. A huge part of it is your outlook on life.”

So he has the wisdom and experience of a 52 year old and the face and body of a 32 year old. “I feel that your whole life builds to this moment. You have the experience of getting to this point. You’re in your full power and able to enjoy it. Be able to prioritise and not be confused about what’s important. That’s a big thing.” Does he mean having a clear mind that’s not befuddled with alcohol or drugs? “That for me has been so long I can barely remember NOT having a clear mind and it’s about having a very clear sense about what you want that makes life so much easier.” Has he always had that? “No, no no. at different phrases. But I always knew I wanted to be an actor when I was a kid. I never had that thing that people don’t know what to do with their lives.

The food arrives and he tucks in. He disentangles a microphone from his khakis.  “My character is a military medic, a trauma doctor. Everybody else works for the Los Angeles County Hospital. In this particular episode I’m back in the field, hence I’m in my fatigues.”

When he had to play the part of the Pope in You Me & the Apocalypse (filmed in London) he read the Bible from cover to cover. What research did he do to play a trauma doctor? “Oh, we have one on the show who is advising us but I researched it as well. There’s a lot of reading about medicine. I have a lot of friends who are in service and you can go to a medical bootcamp. They have that here. After lunch I have a fake torso in my dressing room that I can practise on. I’ll be doing sutures (stitching it up) on that.”

Did his friends in the military come back from tours with horrific stories? “We don’t really talk about the bad stuff.  We’ve just revealed in this story that my character was court marshalled in Iraq and found innocent.  We know he was on trial for his life. That’s what I love about this show. It feels real. When they asked me to come on for this season I was struck with its authenticity. Nurses and doctors around the country will tell you that Code Black is their favourite show because it’s real.  It’s not BS you know. These people aren’t banging in the closet of the hospital every day.”

He doesn’t get to bang anybody? “Not yet but there’s time…” he jokes.  “It’s the authenticity of the detailing that I love so much. And I’m working with Marcia Gay Harding. She’s got an Oscar at home so the calibre of acting is high.”

Lowe does not have an Oscar at home even though in my head he got one for playing Doctor Jack (surname) in Liberace. He was Liberace (Michael Douglas’s) cosmetic surgeon. The prosthetics he wore for the pulled-too-tight face lift were in themselves a work of art. “He was my first doctor.” Perhaps he was the inspiration for a skincare regime because his face alone would put anyone off attempted surgery. “That’s for sure.”  He was nominated for a Golden Globe but lost to Jon Voight. He’s completely gracious about that of course. “I’ve never done anything that got more reaction from my peers than that.”

Doctor Jack Startz was part of the reinvention of Rob Lowe in a way. It showcased his talent as a comedic actor, a talent which he honed so brilliantly for Parks and Rec (with Amy Poehler) and The Grinder (add description?). For Lowe, Dr Jack Startz was a stand-out moment. “I would proudly put it up with The West Wing in terms of my work.” The West Wing. What can we say about The West Wing? A landmark television series set in The White House. Some critics say that it, along with The Sopranos reinvented television as an art form. It was the start of television being cooler than movies. And Lowe was right there as press Secretary Sam Seaborn.  Without The West Wing there would have been no House of Cards.  Without Sam Seaborn there would have been no Frank Underwood.  Imagine Aaron Sorkin’s words coming out of Rob Lowe’s mouth. Brilliance. There are always rumours of a revival. “I’ve heard that people want it but I’ve not heard that it’s a viable thing. Until Aaron Sorkin decides to do it, we don’t know.  The West Wing was all about him.”

It could be set in the Clinton or Trump administration. “Let’s hope it’s the Seaborn administration,” he says excitedly. Trump or Clinton? “Well…I’ve met them both and I like both of them personally. I’ve always had a soft spot for the Clinton’s.  They were so supportive of The West Wing.”

At one point there was talk of Lowe’s life imitating art and taking on a political career. Would he ever consider running for office? “Not in this climate. It’s so unnecessarily bruising.” He was very vocal to his 1.2 million Twitter followers about Brexit. “I think now is our (America’s) Brexit moment. It feels as if there is a bit undercurrent of change that people want and dissatisfaction. The question is what are they really going to do? I’ve followed Brexit really closely. Watched it unfold as the vote came in and it’s a sort of similar situation here where a whole group of people think it could never happen and a whole group who want it to.”

After a lengthy decision we summarise Brexit as people who want to be European first and English second and people who want to be English first. “You’re either one or the other, there’s no in between and that’s what’s happening here. I hate election season. I used to love them. They’re so divisive, unnecessarily so on both sides and it grosses me out.  I believe no matter how diametrically opposed people are politically, if you sat them at a table you could think of a couple of things they could agree on. I would say let’s just focus on those things and get moving but everything is predicated on division and differences.”

I had read that he was supporting Donald Trump. “I’m not endorsing Donald Trump, I’m not endorsing anybody.”  He has a keen political eye and is super articulate but he’s less enthralled with politics than he used to be, just because they seem a little sour. “You make a difference when you do things that are still valued as art. Entertainment that is valued. Trying to get stories that aren’t debasing and are smart.”

Lowe has grown in to the smart scripts. Of course it didn’t start off that way. He started off struggling to find meaningful roles because his face was so beautiful.  He emerged in the eighties in the Brat Pack scene with The Outsiders, St Elmo’s Fire and About Last night. Does he ever see his old brat packers Sean Penn, Charlie Sheen, Emilio Estevez, Robert Downey Jr? “I really don’t.  I live in Santa Barbara and work so hard and so often. If I’m not on set I’m at home with my family resting and living life. I’m never out on the scene. “

Do his boys still live at home?” They really don’t. My youngest Johnny is in his third year at Stanford and he ow wants to be an actor. He had a role in the Grinder and also he worked in the writer’s room on the Grinder and he’s working on something that’s coming out called The Nick.  And my other son Matthew just started at law school. He’s Sam Seaborn, The Grinder and his grandfather rolled into one.” (The Grinder is a show about an actor playing a lawyer. His role gets cancelled and instead of finding work as an actor he decides he can work in a law firm.)

Do his boys keep him in touch with current younger thinking? “Yes without a doubt. They are very much my sounding board for so much. I’m not interested in what’s hip and happening. I don’t care anymore as I shouldn’t. I love new music, new artists, new adventures but the score of keeping up popularity is something that everyone should leave behind in their twenties.”

Sitting with Lowe you can’t help but feel high on his energy, his clarity, his drive. He’s been 26 years sober and he takes on his sobriety the way other people might take on a party – with relish.  He’s excited too when he speaks about his wife Sheryl. Proud when he talks about her jewellery range, rare in a 25 year marriage.

He doesn’t know anything about Brangelina or pontificate on what might have gone wrong.  “I’ve known Brad forever but not well. He’s a Midwestern boy like me from Missouri. He’s a sweetheart as is she. But you never know what’s on the inside. You know one of the things I always say is never compare your insides to someone else’s outsides.

I can only speak from my experience. Sheryl and I have been married for 25 and been together for 28 years and it comes down to picking the right partner. Most people don’t pick the right one. It’s really that simple. Because as the years go on you had better be simpatico, whether it’s about your beliefs on travel or child raising. Then you had better be legitimately attracted to them. There’s a lot of boxes to tick and it’s hard to find someone that ticks all those boxes.” Did he know that in the beginning? “A little bit. I knew she was my best friend and if I had one seat on a plane going into space I would want her to be on it with me. I didn’t know how we’d feel about raising kids together but we were always on the same page. Little things can be huge.  I didn’t want my kids to go to a school where you could skateboard in the hallways, wear shorts and call the teachers by their first names. I wanted uniforms.”

Did he have a uniform growing up? “I did not and they did skateboard in the hallways. I wanted old fashioned academics for my kids and they turned out well from it. They did well by the discipline. My kids get enough exposure to the arts at home. At school I’m not interested in that for them.”

Discipline is a passion in Lowe’s life. I’m reminded of that as he tucks into his bunless hamburger.  That wasn’t always the case? “It still isn’t you have to let your id out. You have to.” He comes to the party after all? “No, no, no. mine comes out in adrenaline sports.”  He does a lot of surfing. “Bigger and bigger waves each year. If I had it my way I would really train and do some legitimate big wave surfing. Sheryl doesn’t like me doing it very much. I try to be as careful as I can but you know it’s one of those things like motorcycles which I also have.” The blue glittering eyes go extra glittery. I look with concern or disdain, I’m not sure which. “I got one when I was 48. Total midlife crisis moment.” Couldn’t he just have a glass of wine? “That’s the one thing I can’t do. The only thing I can’t do.” I know the old saying one’s too many and a thousand’s not enough, but big wave surfing and motorbikes seem to be more dangerous. “The irony is you might be right,” he nods.

He’s written – with graphic and hilarious detail all about his alcohol and drug addiction in his memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life.   It was cathartic. “I meet people every day who have read the books and it always moves me. I didn’t know that people would care or what they would think of it.  I was just doing it. It has to be something really personal and then the rest of it is up to the Universe. That people responded was an amazing experience.” He has amazing recall for someone who was out of it all the time. “I wasn’t out of it all the time.” What about a trip to Sydney – where on a radio show he said the only thing he remembered was going to Sydney zoo.  “Here’s what I remember. I remember meeting Michael Hutchence and the guys from INXS on the first night. That’s sort of writes its own narrative, doesn’t it? Then there was the zoo and a tattoo parlour.”

I lift up the sleeve of his khaki tee to see the bicep tattoo. “It was a little koi fish. Really tiny. I would be like here is my tattoo and there was this dainty little thing. When I got sober I needed my own wildness so I got a bigger tattoo because I’m gonna show them I’m still a badass.”  If you peer closely you see a tiny fish in what appears to be green swirling waves. Is he sure that in the teeny tattoo he didn’t have some other girls name in it and had to have the waves scrolled over it so Sheryl wouldn’t see? “No, she was with me. That was at the beginning of our courtship. I do remember what’s worth remembering.”

He remembers only vaguely visits to the Playboy mansion. “But I haven’t been there in so many years.”

I order expresso after my lunch. Lowe declines. “I have about 12 a day. Coffee is the last man standing for me. I’ve gotta have something right?”

He tells me, “There was a great white shark attack on my surf beach a few weeks ago where a guy got eaten. It’s on You Tube. Santa Barbara shark attack. I worry about sharks when I go spear fishing with my son. You go in the ocean with a weight belt to keep you down, fins and a snorkel. You hold your breath. You are not scuba diving. You are breath holding. You dive down with a spear gun and you shoot whatever there is to shoot. Sea bass, whatever. I love it. My son had a tiger shark charge at him at 90 feet in Hawaii at Christmas. He was lucky.”

Doesn’t that scare him? “I respect it.” Seriously he is a fear junkie. Perhaps fear has replaced alcohol as a vehicle to an altered state.

If he could edit your own life what would he change? “Nothing and that’s the best you could hope for.” He’s an emotional man, sentimental even. Can he remember the last time he cried? “Oh yes, three weeks ago. My favourite dog, one that I wrote about in the book Buster, the Jack Russell, we had to have him put down. He was sixteen. My oldest son Matthew is very stoic. The younger is very emotional. I went into Matthew’s bedroom and he was crying.  I got into his bed to hold him. He’s 23 years old. He’s a man. It was a sad beautiful moment. I was happy that I had raised a young man who could still cry over his dog.” Tears start to appear in both of our eyes.