It is more difficult than you can imagine buying someone a fragrance. Men buying perfume for their enamoradas can be the sartorial equivalent of scratchy red lace lingerie. They buy what they think is sexy but without taking the soul and the essence of the person to heart.
Even if you have a signature scent the scent can change as companies get bought and ingredients vary, or the person has changed. Carnal Flower was my go to for several years – I remember Denzel Washington thought it was like a sexy Hawaiian retreat. He liked it so much I bought him the scented candle (many times). It was heady and in your face and one day I wasn’t that person anymore. Years before that my signature scent was Agent Provocateur. People would smell it and know I was there, to me it was about sex. It smelt like a sexual invitation.Agent Provocateur was sexy. It was well crafted and sophisticated but I loved it because it said I’ve arrived. Entering any room with Agent Provocateur was like a smack in the face for people you didn’t like, or the most delicious flirt for those you did.
Azzi Glasser (of The Perfumer’s Story) created that scent and many others. She is all about designing the exotic, the luxurious. A rebel in a traditional industry. She is renowned for creating Bespoke perfumes (for Johnny Depp, Orlando Bloom, Cindy Crawford, Helena Bonham Carter, and also creating scents for some of their iconic characters to help them flip into that other being). You wear her scent and you feel more of yourself or, after lockdown when everyone’s world got small and claustrophobic, you feel yourself again. You can access your own soul and step into it, just like an actor stepping into a role.
My lockdown life was so small I was’t able to do the things that defined me – go out, go to work, touch people. When, with the help of Azzi, I found my fragrance DNA, I stopped being a ghost of myself. We found this with a quiz given to me by her perfume robot, a kind of Artificial Intelligence version of Azzi herself. It asked various questions like did I want a fragrance for him, her, or unisex? Was my mood sensual, edgy, confident, cool, eccentric, caring? How do I like my notes? Woody, floral, oud, animalistic, fresh, sweet, musk? What are my passions? Art, film, travel, books, music, fashion? What is the signature style? Bohemian, edgy, classic, glamour or street? My fragrance turned out to be something called Build and Destroy. It’s hard to describe scent, it does smell animalistic but in an extremely elegant way. I think the reason I love Build and Destroy is because it’s extreme in that it is about opposites and I relate to that. It’s woody and it’s earthy, it’s edgy, it has a fresh polished side which is quite cool and its opposite warm note comes from the incense. The base note and the top note in constant juxtaposition. It’s many things. It doesnt not pin you down.
When I went into hospital recently, I didn’t pack an overnight or rather 3 day bag because with a broken leg I had to be very specific in what I could carry with me, but I took the perfume because I feared feeling anonymous and because I needed to know who I was. Literally I needed to put my scent down. It was animalistic.
For me, this hot and cold thing is also about sex. I like lovers who are cold because underneath the chill, there’s heat. I like it when you feel the heat and the chill both at once. I love ambiguity because it just keeps me hanging on.
I always used to like asking people in interviews do you prefer to be loved, understood or respected? Dustin Hoffman put it best when he said that he wanted to be understood because without understanding you couldn’t have love or respect. The perfume robot is a virtual version of what it’s like to have Azzi design a fragrance, her Bespoke version costs around £15,000 and it’s an intense process where she gets to know who you are and how your fragrance best expresses that. The robot resembles the woman. The Robot is called AI.zz
“I wanted it to look like a robotic but not an exact version of me. My designer worked with pictures of me to create the 3D digital version, but it wasn’t a scan, that was too realistic – I wanted it to look like a fantasy, I made the hair longer though I had AI.ZZ’s nails painted my signature yellow. The biggest way it resembles me is in the way I think and profile my clients to find their perfect scent. My brain and nose had to be the key for resemblance.”
How did she come up with the questions?
“This idea is something I have dreamed of for a long time, the challenge was how to translate it to work for a customer. Fragrance language with traditional descriptions by ingredients and notes can be so confusing and hard to identify with. I did it in the same way I develop a Bespoke scent that I know will really connect with my client by understanding their character, style, personality and passions.
“The Perfumer’s Story range has fragrances that represent characteristics and stories that the customer can immediately relate to and scent evokes connection and confidence. However, I knew I needed to help that fragrance DNA discovery journey further and direct the client to the perfect fragrance and I wanted it to be fun and personal as if I was there with every customer. Since that is not possible the idea of a virtual robot represents me.”
How did she work out what the most important questions would be that the robot would ask?
“I kept the quiz short, since no one has time these days, and I wanted it to be easy. I translated the same questions I always ask my clients to get their scent DNA.”
In other words, she distilled her process to an essence, a bit like the process of making a perfume itself.
“Who is the fragrance for is important because, although all our fragrances are unisex some are more masculine or feminine and some are truly universal. What mood are you in helps describe who you are and more importantly what mood do you want this fragrance to take you into. You might want a wardrobe of scents to match your different moods. The robot has been carefully programmed to think like me, so it can map out, eliminate, and choose the fragrance match by the answer to the questions. When I created each of the perfumes in my collection they were based on these characteristics. That is why you cannot simply create an Artificial Intelligence digitally on a perfume collection unless all the perfumes were designed with this in mind. You can answer the questions for yourself or someone you want to give a gift to that they will actually love. To gift a new fragrance, as scent is so personal.”
The robot version of Azzi replicates what it is like to be here in her perfume den, luxuriating over her various perfumes notes and having characters like Johnny Depp hang out there.
“He is truly like no other. He is funny, intelligent, handsome, super stylish and charismatic and his knowledge of history and art are beyond. The fragrance I created for him is very sexy, edgy and manly. When you smell it, it is like nuzzling the neck of a man you just want to get closer to.”
The fragrances she created for his roles are all very different. The Mad Hatter scent smells of a mad hatter tea party scene, it’s eccentric; tea, sponge cake, icing are all captured in the scent.
Depp say of Azzi, “Azzi possesses a certain sorcery in that she is capable of capturing the perfect essence of a character in scent. So much so 300 years ago I suspect she would have been hung for witchcraft.”
For his character Barnabas he played a 200 year old vampire, the character was dapper, dark, but sweet. The scent mirrored this. Azzi met Stephen Fry at a BAFTA lunch at the Chiltern Firehouse.
“I just love listening to him talk, his views are so fascinating and funny. Stephen loves wearing Old Books. It smells of paper and poetry and sex and rock and roll, and also Tuscan Suede.”
She created Cindy Crawford’s scent as a birthday surprise. She met and adored Helena Bonham Carter, her own scent is quirky and intelligent and since then they have worked together on a number of roles.
“She doesn’t always have roles where she smells great, one time she had a role where she had to smell of cigarettes and whisky, that was her part in Dark Shadows (dr Hoffman)because she was a chain smoking alcoholic. The cigarettes she smelled of is a French cigarette called Gauloises. She would go on set at 6am reeking of cigarettes and bourbon. Princess Margaret is based on the actual scent Princess Margaret wore, I was working with her son, David, so he was very helpful in making a scent for him which was based on his mother. It is quite floral and classic, 1970s. It was a Diorisimmo
They don’t make it anymore, or if they do it smells completely different. The original one had more expensive ingredients. She ordered quite a few bottles when she was working on Princess Margaret. Elizabeth Taylor is really strong, confident, it smells of mink coat and red lipstick.”
Every brand likes to have celebrity clients to draw in others that might identify, but this is different. If you want your scent to be the role you step into, if you want to smell like a rock star or impress as if you are Elizabeth Taylor entering a room, you can. She has got the questions all you’ve got to do is find the answers.
Azzi is also doing a Scentysational Box (The Love Box) especially for Valentine’s Day, everyone’s least favourite day of the year, but if you do the test for your partner with the robot, you’ll know who they are and you can show love, connection, appreciation and desire all at once. If you get the fragrance right it shows that you really know another person and understand them.
There are 3 sizes of boxes that contain your specific scent, and a candle and /or room spray.
Dame Maureen Lipman and I are doing a remote interview ostensibly to talk about her exquisite portrayal of the title character in Martin Sherman’s one woman epic Rose. It is a powerful drama. A memoir of harrowing events of the last century told through the eyes of a feisty Jewish survivor from Shetl in Russia to ghetto in Warsaw, where her husband and child died. She headed to the sewer and then as a woman who didn’t belong anywhere, found a boat to the promised land which was invaded and she was brought back to Europe, yet escaped to the US with an American Jewish sailor and ended up running a hotel in Miami.
It goes out on Sky Arts 27th Jan which is Holocaust Memorial Day. “Martin has done a brilliant piece of work, he is an old soul.” I first worked with him in 1999(?) for Messiah, he has got my voice and I have got his voice. So even the fact that I had to learn 47 pages in a very short time while still doing Coronation Street I knew it was going to be alright because his rhythm is in my heartbeat. You don’t bend the dialog it just rolls out like Cleopatra coming out of a carpet. I love the young director Scott Le Crass We have to go in the garden to rehearse in Media City, just before we recorded it, they put scores of greenhouses; wooden ones, painted ones, We sat in one of these where you are supposed to get parmesan fries with this script with its immense themes. He got me, he realized that I didn’t need to do too much but to let it happen and we had such a nice time. The first day was the worst because I said I had to have the words there in case I dried, like a black hole, dead. The whole thing was made for 2K. There was somebody kneeling beside me with a computer that didn’t do the trick at all. The second day he managed to get me an auto cue, like Barbra Streisand, I just needed the comfort. When I first saw it I was transfixed by what I can only describe was my face and I couldn’t see that it was good. When people were saying it was very good I thought I must steel myself and not be such a wanker. Then I saw it was good.
“Rose is now in Florida and sophisticated, so someone from Angels sent in a blouse but it did not go over my bosom. It so happened I had with me a gray little jacket. It came from my friend Elspeth who was from Germany, she left clothes to her friends. She was 102 when she died and she still did Pilates two times a week. She was a photographer for a magazine called Ambassador and she was an inspiration. Even when the reviews came out they said, even her jacket was redolent of a concentration camp. It is marvelous how you can see what you want to see. At the start of lockdown I wrote a little play for my grandchildren, The Gorilla and the Unicorn. The guardian wrote it as guerrilla , so you see what you want to see.
It’s with the deepest irony Maureen Lipman concedes as her phone was beeping with multiple congratulations for her astounding performance as Rose (which premiered on Sky on Holocaust Remembrance Day, January 27) she was sitting vigil for her partner of 13 years Guido Castro with his three daughters as he lay dying.
“He died after a short Covid related iillness – Not of Covid
“He was such an interesting man – he was old (84); he programmed the first actual computer and one of the first prototypes for Ford.
“He went to every country in the world except Papua New Guinea because I wouldn’t go. He learnt to fly, he played real tennis, he was a lovely gift, a gift to me, I met him when I was three years a widow.
“I’ve just seen a letter from Shirley Conran to the girls… she was his sister-in-law with his first marriage when she left home she slept on their sofa – it’s an amazing letter with him being called the catch of Cairo – he was born in Egypt.
He was Egyptian. He was one of this perhaps little-known group who had an exodus from the Middle East in 1956 when all Jews were kicked out of Iran, Iraq and Yemen. 850,000 of them. Their houses were taken and their jobs were taken. Alan Yentob is one of them.
They had a beautiful house on the Nile and after they were booted out it was given to Madame Sadat — she lives in it today. Guido’s sister, late in life, married Sir Keith Joseph. They were at a do in New York and Yolanda was seated next to Madame Sadat and they had such a pleasant time together that when the dinner was over and they left, Madam Sadat said, “I had such a nice time in your company, please remember if you’re ever in Egypt, my house is your house.”
“Isn’t that brilliant?
“I said to Guido it’s time to go, you’ve got to let go and I think for once in his life he actually did what I told him… I was driving home, I turned the car back and that was it.
“It’s a savage irony that a moment of personal triumph – well you can’t be a really good actor in a rotten part I was very lucky to get that part — all the congratulations came on the same day as I lost my love — again.”
Her first husband Jack Rosenthal died in May 2004 after 30 years of marriage
“There I was sitting with him and his three daughters on the floor of his respite place. On the evening of January 27, I came home, tried to watch Rose but I was too tired, I went to bed and the next day I drove back to see him and it was clear that I was going to see him off; he knew I was there – I did sonnets I sang I Love You A Bushel And A Peck — I told him we’re going to be all right, please let go and he did and all I could hear on the phone with ping ping ping as people were saying “Mazeltov” and “Congratulations it’s the best thing you’ve ever done. There is nothing that’s more relevant to the Jewish experience!”
“He lived a long life and he did everything he set out to do.
When he met me, he was already in his 60s and I was three years a widow in my 50s. He thought nothing of getting in the car at Gerard’s cross and picking me up in Southwark at midnight.
He was gentle, deep and sweet, thinking he didn’t know who anybody was in the world of theatre yet he loved opera and theatre and reading. For instance, when he met Christopher Biggins he said, “What do you do for a living?”
“Shirley Conran said he could meet James Bond and it wouldn’t matter to him; he’d say, “And what do you do for a living?”
He went everywhere in the world except Papua New Guinea and Cracow and Belize. He stopped travelling much when he met me.
It’s only in the last couple of years that he’s seemed weak… in his early 80s, he was beating people at old tennis.
“He had the jab. He got Covid – it wasn’t Covid that killed him but it weakened him terribly.”
I’ve met Ben Whishaw a few times now and I’ve decided he’s the most cat-like of any human being. It’s not just the eyes to mesmerise or a feline, slinky way of moving, it’s that you think he’s going to be all soft and vulnerable, Fluffy even. He seems to call you in and then you find that he’s surprisingly self-sufficient – pragmatic, even. He has certainly been super pragmatic in his acting choices, earning both the moniker of national treasure (he was the voice of Paddington, he’s Q in James Bond, Keats in Bright Star, Sebastian Flyte in Brideshead Revisited) and he is widely named The actor of his generation because of Hamlet (when he was not long out of drama school) and his brilliant Golden Globe-garnering performance as Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant in A Very English Scandal (2019). He has certainly moved with dexterity between roles which were openly gay, sexually ambiguous and straight. He is the first actor to be able to do this – a beacon for others to follow. He is civil partners with Australian composer Mark Bradshaw although I’m guessing they don’t get to see that much of each other, what with him being the world’s greatest actor and all, he’s pretty busy filming around the globe – “Mmm” he says. We’re at his home in Chicago, where he’s currently filming Fargo. It’s in an area called Lakeside because of the views of a sparkling spring lake. It’s in a very old building, and he’s enjoying it. He says, “I think this year I am going to be much more at home – I’m gonna do my house up, it’s the time. It’s nice to be in-demand, but I do think I need to be at home for a little while. It’s been six months here, that’s a long time away. Mark visited, he came out for a month and I was back at Christmas. It’s definitely a big test.” What was unknown to us at the time, was how fast Whishaw’s prediction of home turf would come to light. A few days later, all flights to Europe were banned. There was a small window to get to the UK. Production had been halted and he doesn’t know for how long. Fargo was due for release April 18th, but now, like everything else, it will be delayed.
The Bond movie was the first big movie to announce that it was moving from early-April to November. Does he know why they took that decision so early? “I honestly have no idea, I just got a text message from Barbara saying that they were going to make the announcement. They never explained why – it must be related to the virus.” And perhaps because it’s called No Time to Die. We laugh. Perhaps a little too manically as we know scary times are to follow.
He’s wearing a blue shirt with a white sketched image on the back – a scene from Orpheus and Eurydice – and black trousers. His hair was cut really short in the summer, now it’s back to normal length: “in Fargo I wear a wig”. In Fargo he plays Rabbi X, does that mean he has a wig with Rabbi ringlets? “no, because I’m not really a Rabbi, I’m an Irishman who’s been raised by a Jewish family and now living with an Italian family. They’re all criminals, and they all call him Rabbi. They’re the people he’s part of. You can’t really see it, but I’ve got bits at the top shaved to make my forehead bigger because I have a tiny forehead. So they shaved my hairline to make the forehead higher. I think I look weird. I was happy to cut it very short, it was for a part. But when the filming was over, I properly shaved it all off and that felt great. Have you ever done that?” no, it’s different for girls, “oh, yeah”.
“I really like Chicago. I like being on the ninth floor and looking over the lake. I can watch the sun come up and watch it change. I can just sit on the sofa by the window for many hours and daydream. And I’ve had time to do that, which is lovely. The apartment is an Airbnb which I got sort of by accident.” Who knew that the words ‘Airbnb’ would sound so exotic these days. He’s recently given up meat, “I don’t feel healthier but I made the decision I was going to do it and I like to see things through. I wanted to do Fargo because the writer/director is exploring. It’s a lot about immigrants, it’s a lot about assimilating. How do you become an American and what does that mean? Who is let in and who is left out? My character is an outsider who doesn’t fit in anywhere.” People may assume that Whishaw is an outsider who doesn’t fit in, he always seems to go for the outsider roles and even when his characters aren’t outsiders he gives them quirks. “Hmm I don’t know, things are pretty contradictory.” For instance, Q is a techno-wizard who traditionally has seemed to be a foil for Bond, but living in a separate world of gadgetry. And yet, it is usually Q who comes up with something – a piece of super-enhanced techno that saves the day.
“I find it hard to talk about. Partly because it was long ago, although it wasn’t that long ago. It does feel like it. But also we never did get the full script. I did my bits not in the chronological order so I find it hard. Even though I’m not allowed to tell you what happens in the story, I couldn’t because of the way that it happened. But I can say, very late in the day I give him some technology that helps.”
Do they not give you a full script because everything is changing all the time or because they’re so paranoid that things will be leaked? “that’s a good question. It’s partly the secrecy that always surrounds it, but on this one to be honest, it was a difficult journey. Although it was part-intentional, the director works in quite an improvisational way and we had a very tight deadline……. But as I say, they don’t tell us anything.”
Does he find it hard as an actor to not know where his character is going? “yeah I did find it hard to be honest, they don’t tell you anything.” He doesn’t know if there will be another Bond let alone who that Bond will be, or if he’s in it. “I guess either they’ll call or they won’t. When I go back to London I’m going to do another television series. It’s based on a book called This is Going to Hurt. It’s based on a man called Adam Kay who is a doctor, and it’s about his comedic but also tragic experiences working as a junior doctor in the NHS.” Is the doctor gay or straight, or that doesn’t come in to it? “He’s gay.” In the past decade, there’s been a sexual revolution in gay acting. In the olden days, gay actors only got to play gay roles. And there has recently been a theory that straight men shouldn’t play gay just like abled-bodies shouldn’t play quadriplegics. Personally, I think if you’re an actor, you act these things. “I’m in agreement with you.”
Whishaw was born in Clifton, Bedfordshire, his parents split when he was young and he has a non-identical twin brother. They are totally unalike: “He is blonde, came out first and was very pink. I was a squashed, dark thing. We were always dressed the same and were taken out together even to things I was not interested in, like football. I’ve always defined myself by him, but in opposition to him. I like everything different to him.” Nonetheless, they get on very well, and he is the perfect uncle. His mother worked on the make-up counters in department stores. His father was a footballer. It is often written that he’s an IT consultant: “he’s definitely not an IT guy, definitely not. He’s done all sorts of things – he worked for a company called Re-Diffusion, he ran a nightclub, and he managed a fleet of cars. Now he works in a sports facility. He doesn’t talk about it very much and I don’t press him. He’s barely stopping work.” Do you find it’s difficult to ask questions, like, it’s hard to ask your dad stuff? “no, I do ask people questions but sometimes not the people I know well. I feel with my dad I ought to have asked the question a long time ago and now it’s too embarrassing to ask it. And I know he would play-down what he does. I don’t know why he wouldn’t really want to share that kind of stuff with me, but more importantly, he’s a really good bloke. He gave his father his cats to look after when he started travelling a lot. His favourite cat was called Puki. “I was particularly close to her. She had a lovely voice – she sort of trilled and I do miss her. She was tortoise-shell, mainly black, with bits of orange and an asymmetric patchy face, she was very beautiful. She spent hours in the sink watching the tap – she was mesmerised by it.” We spend a little time trilling and making cat noises. Very important, but they don’t really translate to the written page.
I think people used to speculate more about sexuality ten years ago, or twenty. But ending that conversation – making something private public – was of course massive to him. After the civil partnership, it wasn’t all just easy, but I have the impression that it was easier than he imagined it to be. He is not direct about this. Although he’s open, he’s very private. I remember the BBC show The Hour. I loved it. set in late 1950s BBC. There was a ‘will they won’t they’ get-together situation with Romola Garai’s character. So it’s rubbish to think that if you’re gay you can’t play straight, it just takes cleverer navigation. Sir John Gielgud was out and proud, wasn’t he? He did play a lot of butlers…but some people have always managed to steer a course.
Mark Bradshaw is his civil partner, they are not married. Would he ever want to be? “no.” They met on set of Bright Star, directed by the Australian Jane Campion in 2009, the civil partnering was in 2012 and they have a home together in London. He says he’s looking forward to settling down more in London and the time has come to get cats. He is very much looking forward to cats. The last time we met, he reintroduced me to the lyrics of Stephen Sondheim. This was before Marriage Story, when the song Being Alive was relaunched onto the public. I talked for hours about how the line ‘the coffee cup’ was small but brilliant. His favourite was ‘losing my mind’ and the line ‘or were you just being kind’. Now he says he hasn’t listened to the Barbra (Streisand) version or the Dame Edna version: “I need a break from that song, I find it quite painful to listen to.” My theory is you only listen to painful songs when you’re in pain. “yes, where you can sort of loosen it up – get it out. Wail. Cry. And feel free to let the pain out.” Emotional pain, too, seems something to be nostalgic for along with drinking a cup of coffee in a café. But good to know that he’s not in emotional pain. Just when you think everything is sorted and easy about him, he admits “I’m still afraid to meet people” on Mary Poppins he was afraid to meet Meryl Streep. Does the fear enlarge with the more famous the person is? “no, it’s anybody. I get anxious that I’m really bad at small-talk. And I’ve been doing a lot of hanging around on set, where I should be doing lots of small-talking. I’m just quite shit about it. I don’t know what to talk to people about.” Maybe it’s just because you think if you haven’t got anything in common with that person you can’t do small or big-talk. It’s just pointless. “Absolutely, I get anxious about it so now just think ‘I’ll sit here quietly and do my work’ or I get overwhelmed. There are so many people and I find it quite draining.” Now I see him as that independent cat who stops asking for headbutts and just puts their tail in the air and trots away.
We are in an East London eatery – we sit outside on benches, inside is a vast emporium and lots of chandeliers but its beauty is infected with Corona virus restrictions – there is a track and trace which doesn’t work on my phone, ubiquitous hand sanitiser, and don’t go this way go that way – the vibe is very similar to when we met in Chicago. It feels like the we are seeing the dawn of something much worse that’s going to happen…
Whishaw looks a little thinner and more languid than before – Even in a chunky bottle green jumper and tiny waist jeans he looks like he could fall down the crack of a pavement enigmatically. His wild hair is rather neatly coiffed. it’s as if it’s trying to contain itself and there is facial hair that defines his cheekbones even more than they already defined.
He didn’t come back and get London cats. Although part of him still longs for that moment. He says, “I can’t take responsibility for myself at the moment much less cats.”
There is something portentous about the afternoon – as if it’s going to thunder but it doesn’t. It’s more to do with we don’t know what social restrictions are coming and with them comes a life that nobody wants. Right now he really wants a cheese toastie but somehow he doesn’t go and get it. The bigger picture is that we feel like we’re on the eve of something bad again. “It’s true but this time we’ve gone through it already and we don’t want to go there again but there seems no stopping it, it seems inevitable, inevitable bleakness.”
I change the subject to the TV series Fargo because it is screening soon.
“I was pretty much finished filming, I didn’t have to go back to Chicago but everybody else did and somehow they finished it. Somehow they actually managed to shoot things. Everywhere is running out of content so people are desperate to get stuff finished that was nearly done.”
He was coming back to the UK for TV series about a doctor . It has been postponed to January, “At the earliest,” he says. He has gone from non-stop working to doing? “Nothing… I’ve been a bit of a hermit… Once we were forced to stop I didn’t have any inclination or desire to do anything really…”
The waitress explains that the cheese toastie has to be ordered at the deli counter not from her so he says that he will go up there in a minute but we know he won’t. He is stopped doing everything.
“I wanted to stop, I’ve seen my family when we were allowed to and I’ve gone for long walks and had loads of naps,“ he says, not even trying not to sound bleak.
I tell him that last years meme was “Do one thing a day that you are afraid of,” These years meme is, “Just do one thing.” I tell him about the Instagram live show I did with Malminder Gill – the hypnotherapist. We called it Love In the Time of Corona because there was so many problems when the dynamic of relationships suddenly changed and people couldn’t get away from each other – the divorce rate went up, “Yes,” he nods sagely.
Did he survive? “Yes I’ve survived but I’m not going to talk about it.“ There is no point in meandering around how the dynamic of he and his partner might of changed – he just looks, too done in to talk about it. He also says he’s lost his ability to predict anything, “Everything is so touch and go. And I don’t know how people are going to be feeling if we are we going into total lockdown again. What’s going to happen? I don’t know I’ve given up thinking about it.”
He hasn’t seen the Bond movie in total. “I have seen a tiny bit because as I had to come in and do some ADR.” He can’t be drawn to comment on it. “It seems like I’ve got absolutely nothing to say about anything!!!”
Then he perks up, his eyes igniting. “It looks like Bond is the one film that people might actually want to be persuaded to go out and see. People have been deprived of blockbusters and this is something that is diverse and multi generational, it could unite everybody. It appeals to a vast number of people…”
“It is hard to remember a time before walking around in masks, washing our hands every five minutes and sanitisers and this film was a time when people could go around like ……James Bond. I think the Bond film is just what we really need right now, I really do. We need something that is thrilling and fun and a kind of escapism. “
We talk about how much we miss the theatre.
“I sat in Regents Park and saw Jesus Christ Superstar on a screen I sat on the lawn and listened to I Don’t Know How to Love Him and it was so moving. It had been such an effort, you couldn’t get into the theatre because the seats were sold out because there were so few of them, it was projected onto a screen for people who just wanted desperately to see something live with other people. We saw the bravery and the commitment of the performers to a socially distant performance where the had to stand two meters apart, it was really beautiful. I cried for the first twenty minutes.”
Because it was cathartic?
“Yes, perhaps…. I find that I can’t think about the future at all. I can’t see what is going to happen beyond this second. I can’t see the point in planning. Although some people have been productive I am happy just to exist, get up whenever I needed, nap quite a bit, I have done absolutely nothing,” he laughs.
This is a person that is used to living not only off of adrenaline but pride in his work. Someone who is used to being brilliant and basking in that. He contradicts, “Maybe I was just busy. I trust sometime in the future it will come back. For the moment, during lockdown, I painted my room blue, I learned how to put up shelves and pictures and I actually learned how to develop photographs, that is quite impressive isn’t it?” He says, not so impressed with himself.
This is a man who is used to throwing his entire being not just into another person but into another world. He’s nothing if not overwhelmed by the minutia of lockdown and he just can’t wait to get back. He wasn’t designed to do nothing but put up shelves.
Sam Smith’s voice is like honey seared in raw pain. It vibrates on a level of vulnerability previously not known to human beings. They reach in and grab you by the throat, the heart, the soul, and stain you. If there is pain to feel, they’ve felt it deeper and harder. Propelled by these uncanny abilities, Smith – gender queer who uses they/them pronouns – has won four Grammy’s, three Brits, three Billboard music awards, a Golden Globe and an Oscar. It is also the reason that my burly builders working in my basement turn up to early every day because they know that I am playing the new Sam Smith’s album Love Goes.
I met Mica Paris back in the day when she was a famous pop star, beautiful voice and gorgeous girl. I always knew she was more than just hot glamour and great vocals. We met again recently, just before lockdown via mutual friends, she had cooked amazing Jamaican chicken with rice and peas. This woman can cook. Celebrity Master Chef semi-finalist doesn’t even tell you the whole story. I think you can actually taste love on the plate.
First off, you think ‘what a strong powerful woman’, but her strength comes from vulnerability and faith. She stands tall and confident, but on the very day we met, she’s nursing a heartache. Her best friend – Paul Field – an editor for the Mail group had unexpectedly died. They saw each other all the time and were working on a book together about female singers who rocked the world. Right now, she is about to rock the world with a BBC documentary: Mica Paris and Gospel Music. It’s built around six songs about suffering and redemption over three centuries. Mica has always had faith. She grew up in the church; she and her siblings were brought up by their Pentecostal grandparents. Her grandfather was a pastor and everything was very strict. From a young age, she sang in church. I’m eating her delicious Jamaican chicken: “I’m a food person. I cook really good. I can cook anything – Japanese, Jamaican. I cannot bake to save my life”, then she lets out a big dirty laugh. Rylan was her rival semi-finalist, she loved him: “he’s a wonderful guy, I was very pleased about my Jamaican chicken dish, everyone was saying how wonderful it was. But then I saw flour, milk, eggs and sugar and I thought I was gonna die. It meant baking. I couldn’t even breathe because I knew I was going to get kicked out, and I made the worst crepes ever.”
This week (June 22) she releases the song In Broad Daylight- vocals that reach inside your heart and all proceeds going to Black Lives Matter and Mobo Music awards Charitable Trust
And she’s made the definitive gospel music documentary full of detail and resonance– everyone can relate to these songs. Hearing her sing brings a warm shimmer to the soul, it seems particularly fitting that this program should come out just post-lockdown. Watch it, and even though you might not be religious, you understand why churches need to open. “It’s produced by Lenny Henry’s company. I wanted to do two programs, one talking about gospel music and the other talking about all the women singers – Ella Fitzgerald, Janis Joplin, Whitney Houston – who had been tortured in the business. The BBC wanted me to do the gospel first because it’s my heritage, it’s about me. The program opens up with Stormzy at 2019 Glastonbury performing a rap version of ‘…’. It’s moving, and he literally brings the entire Glastonbury crowd to church. “Church was like a little community. It was a social event, it worked for me. When I was a kid, I felt I had a party trick. I would hold that note and the room went ‘oooommmm’. I felt like Bill Withers on ‘Lovely Day’.
“I come from a family of six, I desperately wanted to be noticed, so you had to do what you had to do.” Growing up, she had to be extremely well-behaved.
It’s normal in Caribbean families that the children are looked after by the grandparents. She saw her parents all the time: “my grandparents were lovely but super strict. As my grandfather was a pastor, we were the first family of the church so we had to be really circumspect. My Sunday clothes and Sunday shoes could not be touched for the whole of the week and on Sunday we had to have a beret to cover your head for church. Everyone looked at the first family for leadership. So when my parents were playing out, I was not allowed. I was in the house doing choir practice. A Victorian house in Lewisham that’s five bedrooms, a garden, a dog, a rabbit, a chicken and a cat. We still ate chicken rice and peas – just not that chicken. Everyone came to the house so there were lots of activities like a Monday prayer meeting, a Tuesday Bible study, so going out wasn’t even an option, but there was always something going on at home. It didn’t even feel weird. When I got to fifteen, I suddenly wanted to go out with my friends. And I did. And my grandmother followed me to my friend’s house. There was this dark figure darting around the street, watching me, going around the corner. She was very strict. But in a weird way, I don’t think she was controlling, just protective. And I’m actually thankful they were like that because a lot of my friends ended up really messed up. And going into the music business actually really helped me. I moved out when I was sixteen and signed my first deal at seventeen.”
She was studying art at Vauxhall college, and went to live with her sister in Brixton. “My grandparents had a complete meltdown and said ‘you’ve got to come back home’ it was horrible.” What were her parents doing at this point? “My mum and dad would visit us at weekends. They were total sixties children, all about the party – so imagine the contrast. The very strict Pentecostal upbringing. My grandad always wore a tie at home, we would have three meals – breakfast, lunch and dinner – and were never allowed to eat between meals. Dinner was served at six o’clock, and then you don’t eat again until the morning. When I used to go visit my mum and dad at weekends, it was curries, goat, chicken all the time and dub music, and people walking in and out of my mum’s house. I actually didn’t like it. I preferred the quiet and chill of my grandparents’. It’s a very Caribbean thing, that the children were looked after by the grandparents. It was about stepping in and looking after the children while the parents work. I remember getting told off by lots of people – mum, dad, grandparents, aunties, uncles. A line of people were telling me to behave myself. You didn’t say anything, it was all about ‘respect your elders and shut up’.” For anybody this would be hard to take, but for Mica, who is all about self-expression and telling it like it is, she found it impossible: “I couldn’t take it. I got to sixteen, and I moved out. I left the idyllic quiet life and strict upbringing and I thought ‘this is great’.” It’s always a woman to embrace extremes and feel quite at home in both of them. She was the youngest of the girls and then three boys followed. The three sisters sang together. Her elder sister, Dawn, has a PhD and is a lecturer The next sister, Paula, is a well known gospel singer.
Singing in church and singing with her first record label were a lifetime apart, much further than the distance from Lewisham to Brixton. “My granddad said ‘you’re going to become a harlot’. I had to look up in the dictionary what that meant. And I told him I was prepared. I had had fifteen years of Jesus and I was prepared.” Curiously, she can still quote with precision and passion from the Bible. She might have left Jesus, but I’m not sure Jesus ever let her go. “No, it never does. In fact, it got me through the pitfalls. You know, how one minute you’re loved and everyone wants you, and the next minute you’re just gone. I’ve had many peaks in my career, and many lows.” Peaks included her debut single My One Temptation – it was a worldwide smash, and two seasons of hosting What Not to Wear, as well as successful Radio Two presenting shows, Mica Meets and West End musical like Fame
“There have been many lows, and it’s my faith in God that gets me through that. I don’t go to church, but I pray. I pray in the morning, I pray in the evening. And I have a faith that is unshakeable. I believe there is something bigger than us, I’ve seen it work in my life many times.
Just yesterday I was speaking to Chaka Khan who is one of my oldest friends, and God-Mother to my eldest, Monet. She wants me to do some shows with her in America. I remember when I lost my second deal with EMI records. It was a time when they had Robbie Williams and they decided he was their next king, and anyone else didn’t get a look in. I made this album ‘Black Angel’, produced it, wrote it, did everything myself. And EMI said ‘this album is too urban we don’t know what to do with it’, I was devastated. I had been making this album for two years, I was with Raphael Saadiq and James Ingram. I suffered for that, it was 1997. Horrible times.” I wonder if anyone would say that these days, ‘it’s too urban’
Urban was a dirty word .it meant unplayable. Despite how far we’ve moved, clearly racism still hurts us all. “I went mental at EMI and said ‘I’m gonna be here after this building is gone’, I walked out, went back to my flat, and suddenly thought ‘what have I done?’ I haven’t got a deal, I haven’t got any money. And that’s when I got a phone call from Chaka who was in London doing a play, Mama, I Want to Sing! and she said ‘I hate it, the only way I can get out of this play is if you take it’. No problem, so the other day I said ‘you know, Chaka, you saved me’. I had no money, and I had paid thousands for this record, then lost the deal. Then I got this, that’s God.
I was in that show for six months and one day a producer Mike Peden, who produced I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For, by The Chimes came to the show and wanted me to do another U2 song called One. I’d never heard the song (even though it’s one of U2’s most famous) so I did my version without being influenced by the original, and it was a massive hit. Bono wrote me a beautiful letter saying I did a great job. It just shows you how, in this business, you have to have faith, everyone had written me off, saying I had had my moment then I had a resurgence.” Here’s hoping that Black Angel will now have resurgence along with her new career as a documentary maker.
She has two daughters, Monet and Russia, and for now she’s a single mum. We reminisce about a man she loved very much, Max Beesley. “We were together for four years, but Max then was not who he is today (a sought-after television actor who starred in Suits) he was playing in Paul Weller’s band. I was just splitting up with Monet’s father, and I was heartbroken then I met Max and we totally fell in love, I couldn’t help myself. I had had a lot of dalliances in my life, Max was one of the best things that ever happened to me. The problem was the timing, I was so traumatised by the breakup of the marriage to Monet’s father it didn’t matter that Max saved up for four months to buy me a ring, he was only a session musician. But he was a legend, the best step-father and the best boyfriend you could ever have. But did I see it at the time? No. I was still traumatised by the previous relationship.
“He’s making another record and he wants me to get involved, which of course I will. He’s married now and living in LA. But if I could rewind the clock… Divorce is not easy, I was 25, had this little girl, Max was amazing, though I couldn’t see it then. We’re still friends.”
Gospel is all about stories of suffering and redemption, you feel it hard when she sings … .. she’s been through it.
In the program, she’s in a house in Memphis, which was a safehouse for slaves seeking their freedom. It was a basement. When the screen goes black and you imagine the darkness that they lived in and their fear for life itself Mica cries, anyone who watches it will cry. It’s no surprise that Mica rose up from nervous breakdowns: “I had a nervous breakdown after I split from Max.”
What happened? “I had a mass of anxiety attacks after I split from him. A doctor came round and called it ‘an anxiety attack’ I couldn’t breathe and thought I was going to die. They gave me morphine and told me I’d taken on too much. I was financially supporting many people and I was getting over the breakup. I had to stop being mummy to everybody, it was killing me. I hadn’t realised how much emotional support Max had been giving me until we split, and that’s when it all fell apart.”
Her pop career was still soaring she became close with Prince he wrote if I Love You Tonight for her. and had had a couple of encounters with Whitney Houston: “I’d just had my first hit record, My One Temptation, and you used to have to go to Germany to do this TV show. – it was like German Top of the Pops. Whitney was there. We had to do several rehearsals because the shows were not live, and all of a sudden we’re waiting in the greenroom and a big stretch limo turns up outside. I mean, you’ve never seen a limo as long as this, it took up the whole street. My record was killing it at this point, I was starting to get the bodyguards and that lifestyle, but not a limo the size of a street. Who’s got a car that big? Six bodyguards walk out, and then Whitney. She sang I Wanna Dance with Somebody. She was beautiful, super thin. Really shy. And awkward. Not comfortable in her own skin. We decided we’d go and have dinner afterwards. I told her ‘I think you’re really great.’ At the dinner table, she was playing footsie under the table, I think she was really into me but I had just come from the church and I was like ‘what? I don’t get it.’ I’m from south London, we don’t do that.”
They had stuff in common, they both came from a church background, “. I was 18, and although I loved her to bits, I was freaking out. Our next encounter was a year or so later when I got invited to Wembley when she was doing a concert. When I met her backstage, I said ‘good to see you’ I thought ‘this woman is so beautiful’. Forget the pictures, in real life she was so mesmerising, and I’m not even gay.” At that time, she was having a relationship with one of her female managers, Robyn. She was the best. She was strict with her but took good care of her. And then Bobby (Brown) came along: “he and I were really good friends, he liked my voice but he fancied my sister. We had a great time and lots of laughs and then Bobby met Whitney. Let me tell you, Bobby was a really good person, but he was influenced by others who were naughty. Do I think Bobby changed when he met Whitney? No. I think when Robyn was kicked out, Whitney went down. I don’t blame Bobby for Whitney, he just wasn’t strong enough to help her i think
The documentary shows the power of singing and redemption in a world where there was none. In a world where there are so many Black Lives Matter protests, it becomes all the more poignant. “We’ve got to remember, my thing is – and this is very hard to say as a black person – I love people, I love everybody, I don’t understand racism. I’ve even been told by my own people that I’m ‘not black enough’ because my children are mixed race. People even told Whitney she was ‘too white’ and that’s why she made the record Your Love is My Love, because she was trying to be black.” Whitney was famously controlled by Clive Davis and tamed into a pop princess. Mica’s record boss was Chris Blackwell at Island Records, who didn’t try to change her. “Bobby was fun, and an amazing performer, but he still had to go home to Whitney. And I don’t think women should ever have to apologise when they’re more successful than their man. He loved her, yes, but he wasn’t as big as her, and he was massive at one time. But he was with the queen so he wasn’t as massive. I feel the same thing happened with Amy Winehouse. I put her on my live show at Jazz Café which accompanied my Radio Two show called Soul Solutions. She wasn’t known at the time.
‘Gospel and women performers are my two loves. And this is the book I was writing with Paul, about why female singers are so tortured. Amy was always apologising for being successful. “Paul and I were best friends for 18 years, we met when my brother Jason was shot three times and killed by gun-crime. It was a massive story. Everyone was asking for the exclusive. Paul called and said ‘just wanted to say Should Have Known Better is one of my favourite songs of all time.’ I had had hell with that song because no one wanted to release it because it was ‘too black ’, it was also Whitney’s favourite song. I was so impressed the journalist even knew it, it had been relegated to a b side – so I said yes to the exclusive. And we became best mates, every month we’d have lunches that would go on for five or six hours. We’d go on holiday with his children and wife Michaela who is adorable Two weeks before he died we had a lovely dinner, and for the first time ever we went out raving afterwards. We were both passionate about food so going to a club was unusual. although he was also passionate about music – he had over 7,000 vinyl records. We went out and danced for two and a half hours, he died right after that. He was my best friend, I loved him. He’d take a bullet for you, in fact for lots of people. His dad had died in November 2019 and I don’t think he ever got over that. He was so good to so many people.”
She’s emotional, composes herself and talks about new projects. Her last Radio Two series was Mica Meets, where she interviewed people like Gladys Knight and Sister Sledge. And before that she took over from Trinny and Susanna presenting What Not to Wear. In an industry which is sexist and ageist, she’s coming into her time again – documentaries, acting and more.
Her cousin is boxer Chris Eubank: “he’s always said the British write you off when you get to a certain age, but if you’re passionate and you want to be relevant you still can.”
In Broad Daylight is out now.
The Gospel According to Mica is out July 25 on BBC 4.
There have been no lockdown haircuts for Michael Sheen. His hair is big. A mass of charcoal cherubic curls, paired with a bushy beard – not the kind you used to see people in Apple Stores sporting. It’s entirely unmanicured. He says he never changes his hair until he begins a part and then they instruct changes. This was his hair in the lockdown comedy drama Staged, in which he stars with his friend David Tennant, an exquisitely observed drama about insecure male actors rehearsing a play – Six Characters in Search of an Author, to be staged when lockdown is over. Sheen has pretty much been the star of lockdown anyway, his dazzling Chris Tarrant from the acclaimed and wonderful Quiz was the high point of the start of lockdown when we were all at our lowest. For a mercurial, sensitive Welshman, he is curiously upbeat. His new baby, Lyra, with his partner Anna Lundberg, a Swedish actress (around 25 years his junior) is complaining loudly in the background. I ask if she’s disturbed, he says she’s excited – how ‘glass full’ is that?
Sheen and I last met a few years ago in a restaurant in LA, his parents joined us – they were lovely. He was living there because he was working full-time on epic series like Masters of Sex and because his first family, daughter Lily with actress Kate Beckinsale lived there.
Theirs was a deep love affair but didn’t stand the tests of time, fame, or whatever it is that makes people who love each other not want to be with each other. He has had many long encounters with beautiful famous actresses such as Rachel McAdams and Sarah Silverman, but with Anna, he seems properly settled and unphased by lockdown: “it was always my plan to take time off and spend time over here with family, my parents are only 20 minutes away and the new series of Prodigal Son will be in New York but nobody’s sure when”. Does he fill with nostalgia when he sees Netflix + palm trees + Californian blue sky: “we don’t get to watch much TV at the moment, we’re busy with the baby, so we listen jealously when we hear other people talk about a boxset or anything else they’ve binged watched. I do miss it a bit, although the weather at the moment is Los Angeles-like in Wales and we spend a lot of time in the garden. I feel really fortunate that lockdown was in this period of time because I wasn’t going to be working anyway. I was just filming Prodigal Son in New York, we came back to Wales, my plan was to have a break – the plan was not to do any work so I didn’t have to pull out of anything and nothing was cancelled, and because of the baby it’s not massively different to how it would have been anyway. We would have been seeing my mum and dad more – which we haven’t done, but in the context of a really strange time for everyone, I am grateful for the small mercies, and it became weirdly busy”. He also appeared in a production of Dylan Thomas’ Under Milk Wood with key workers, doctors and teachers, where each one of them recited a few words about a sleeping Welsh fishing village (it appears online): “a lot of things came in and a lot of things that people ask me to do I can’t do because I’m working, but they knew I wasn’t working or going anywhere so it was harder to say no, and besides I want to help where I can”. ‘Help’ is in his nature, he’s run several charity football matches: ‘Football Stars Against Actors’ for Unicef. Last year, when he staged ‘The Homeless World Cup’ in Cardiff, some funding dropped out and he had to pay for everything himself. He ‘put it all on the line’ for the Homeless World Cup. He said at the time “we got into a bit of a state so I essentially put everything I had into this, you either commit to this stuff of you don’t. I have the opportunity to earn money, at this point I can work as much as I want. I figured, if I’m not prepared to give it all away, what am I doing?” When he was a pre-teen he was offered a place to train with the Arsenal junior team, his parents decided against it, it was one of those moments where his life could have taken a different fork. And even though he is passionate about soccer, he would have never have been an actor if he had been a footballer, and even at twelve he understood when his father explained how few people really make it big in the Premier League and how short their careers are anyway. His mother, Irene Sheen, was a secretary but was super poetic, and he feels a huge kinship to her. His father, Meryick, was a manager but also a full-time Jack Nicholson impersonator. He’d show up at premieres that Jack couldn’t make it to, and try not to speak in a welsh accent.
When Staged came up (for BBC One): “it was a chance to work with David that I thought would be quite fun. I loved working with David on Good Omens and we became good friends. We knew each other socially, although we hadn’t acted together again. In the period of Good Omens, which was a long time, it was just me and him together for a long period. And then even longer promoting it, going around the world. We both had babies at around the same time. David and Georgia had their little baby Birdy, although he’s got about a hundred other children, and we had Lyra, so we had been sharing baby stories.
On the show, they look like impenetrable close friends, but they are good actors so it’s hard to know, even though Sheen insists he’s playing a version of himself. He left it a couple of decades between children so “we’ve been sharing a lot of different experiences, aside from enjoying each other’s company. People talk about our chemistry as characters and it’s true, we do have chemistry and it’s very interesting to explore that. We are playing ourselves but they’re still characters really. David is straightforward when it comes to working, there’s no ego, no mess-around, he turns up, he’s brilliant. He makes it so easy”. And that’s exactly how Sheen is, no ego, no fuss, just brilliant work. And then he deflects from the compliment: “I think David makes me a better person and a better actor”. He doesn’t even mind, although I mind for him, that his Chris Tarrant was reviewed by some critics as an ‘impersonation’, he’s not an impersonator, he’s a wonderfully nuanced actor who is capable of taking the essence of the person, real or fictional, and showing what matters about them most: “it doesn’t matter if people discredit you, the show was so well received. No one ever imagined, when it came out, we’d be in this lockdown situation. It worked in our favour because people were looking forward to things to watch and this is what brought people together”. That, and Normal People: “like I said, we don’t have much time to watch things, but we are slowly making our way through that, and it’s beautiful”. Sheen famously played Blair three times in The Queen, The Deal and The Special Relationship. He was very good at that, after that he went on to play David Frost in Frost/Nixon on stage and screen versions. And football boss Brian Clough in The Damned United, but playing Blair three times made a close association in the public eye, and one horrific experience for me, after I had interviewed him the first time. This voice came on the phone saying it was Tony, and I thought it was Michael pretending to be Tony, but it was actually Tony. So that only led to an association of personal embarrassment. One reviewer referred to Michael Sheen as Martin Sheen, the veteran actor, so Michael’s reaction was to change his Twitter handle for some time. The name Michael was never meant to be his in the first place, his parents called him Christopher, but when he was in hospital, a nurse put the wrong baby tag on him: “due to some complications, I was separated from my mother for a few days and when my mum and dad came to pick me up and take me home, they said ‘we’ve come to pick up baby Christopher’ and they said ‘we don’t have a baby Christopher, we have a baby Michael’, so they named me Michael Christopher. I also did one of those family tree programs where they said that my ancestors had come over from Ireland and one of them had 20 children but only five of them had survived – all the boys called Michael had died, so I avoided the curse of Michael Sheen because my parents had named me Michael. So, by accident I snuck around the family curse”. At the moment, though, he seems more blessed than cursed, even making lockdown work for him. I wonder, could one really rehearse a play in lockdown so they could be performed? “you could up to a certain point, you could work on it. The first weeks of rehearsing anything is talking through stuff.”
Does he miss the theatre? “I do. I miss doing a play on stage in front of an audience. But when I wake up, doing a play, it’s the first thing that hits me – I’ve got to do a play tonight. It feels depressive and I feel anxious before the performance, even though it’s a couple of hours a day, it takes over your life and it’s hard to focus on anything else. It’s much more consuming than working on film and TV, although paradoxically you only spend a few hours doing it, it takes up more bandwidth. I love the feeling of acting on stage in front of an audience”. And the camaraderie of working with fellow actors? “yes, but you get that working on a film or TV show, especially if they’re long-running ones. When you’re in the theatre, you don’t spend much time with other actors until you’re actually on stage. When you’re filming you’re all sitting around between takes, so there’s much more a sense of the group during filming”. So working in an actual theatre with a new baby was never an easy equation: “yeah, it could be a lot worse. It’s not been as disruptive for us personally, but we’re very aware of how it affects people”. She’s quiet now, less disturbed and excited. On the whole is she a good baby? “she’s a baby, I don’t really divide them into good babies and bad babies, the whole experience is just wonderful. It’s all the fun of sleepless nights and nappies being changed. It’s wonderful to go through it again”. Is it surprisingly different from your first baby-daddy experience? “I don’t think so, when my first daughter was born, it was an extraordinary experience, life-changing. It does feel like one of the most profound experiences you can have. It changes everything. So I can’t say I was surprised but on another level you don’t know what to expect. What has changed since last time is car seats. These days they actually fit. I remember last time wrangling around with the seat belt, now you just have something that fits permanently in the car, it’s easy. Prams and stuff, easy. Technology has changed for the better, but the basics of sleepless nights and poo-y nappies are just as bad and difficult to deal with. But it’s amazing, the best experience ever.
Staged focuses on insecurities and quirks that come up with lockdown: “obviously it tests relationships because there are very few people that would spend this much time together constantly. I’m sure some thrive and some are shown crack. I think it’s important to be able to speak to one another and express yourself and what’s going on. So even not in lockdown conditions, relationships can be better if people share what’s going on. A massive generalisation is that men are not as good as expressing their feelings as women”. Paradoxically though, Sheen is good at expressing emotions. Possibly because he has a direct channel for those emotions in acting, but also because he’s fearless about emotions which is a rarity and makes him rare as an actor. “I’ve been lucky in another sense because my parents are only 20 minutes away. My sister and I take it in turns to do the weekly shop for them. I see them then, they stand in the doorway and I stand two metres away and drop off the food. But I know it’s difficult, particularly for my mum (who likes to hug everyone) and she had to have her birthday on lockdown. And even with the baby, although technology allows us to have contact, with FaceTime, Zoom and Skype, the baby’s changing all the time and my mum and dad are really aware of that, and it’s frustrating that they can’t see her much even though we’re only down the road.
They were never comfortable using technology but a lot of people have had to get comfortable with that and step up. Although, saying that, there have been a lot of facetime calls where I’m faced looking at a wall. But the family have done a group-chat over Zoom, so they’ve done really well to do that, and I’m grateful that we’ve been able to stay in contact”. It seems like Sheen didn’t do some of the lockdown things that were everyone else’s insecurities: the lockdown haircut, the lockdown texting the ex, or have the lockdown anxiety that they were going to kill their partner if they heard them blink one more time. “I have seen a lot of dodgy haircuts going on. Friends of mine have said ‘I’ve let my kids cut my hair’ which is obviously taking your life in your hands, so I’ve avoided that”. He also seems to have avoided neurosis, over-self-examination and fears for the future. There will be another season of Prodigal Son, he doesn’t know when. And another season of There’s Something About Movies, for Sky TV, he doesn’t know when. Perhaps it’s the baby, perhaps it’s being home and close with his parents, he’s become extremely patient.
Still as much of a celebrity magnet as it was when it first opened, Nobu, famed for its sushi, has spread from a single LA restaurant to a worldwide phenomenon, these days with bedrooms to extend the experience of fabulousness. This summer, a second Nobu Hotel will open in London, in Portman Square, to join its sister hotel in rather more edgy Shoreditch and two standalone Nobu restaurants, both in Mayfair. How has this American import, which brought the now ubiquitous “black cod with miso” dish to Britain in the late 1990s, managed to evade the vagaries of foodie fashion and become a solid success story? The answer probably lies in its celebrity connection — but one in the boardroom rather than the dining room.
When, not so long ago, I spend time with the Hollywood actor Robert De Niro — co-founder of the chain — I find him gentle, kind, empathic, funny. Initially one thinks “actor decides to be restaurateur and hotelier in twilight years because actor needs back-up as they’re not getting the roles”. But De Niro is getting the roles. His much lauded film The Irishman is up for 10 Oscars next weekend. He was also rather brilliant in Joker , with Joaquin Phoenix — another awards big contender. He’s happy to multitask as an actor and Nobu impresario. De Niro has a very distinctive look. It’s somewhere between angry, tired and curious. He’s wearing a very lived-in jacket, his shirt is crumpled. His new black suede trainers look at odds, his hair is grey but full and longish. When he stands up, you try to work out: is he tall? Officially 5ft 10in, somehow he transcends height. He’s a man who is passionate — his passions also seem to transcend size. He’s a man of few words, but his words are usually either impactful or funny. The eyes, which can twinkle very disarmingly, narrow when he speaks to you, so you’re not sure if he is scrutinising your soul or about to fall asleep. But he’s much more approachable than you imagine, friendly even.
How come someone of such impeccable Italian heritage likes Japanese food so much? De Niro laughs. “I’ve got Italian, German and English all in me.” His mother was of Dutch-French-German- English ancestry, his father Irish-Italian. The story of his side hustle as a restaurateur and hotelier began about 25 years ago, when De Niro was a regular at a small but cool Japanese restaurant in Los Angeles called Matsuhisa, whose chef and patron was Nobu Matsuhisa, running his first place in the city. The Japan-born chef had honed his speciality, black cod marinated in miso (see recipe, page 47), in Alaska. Before that he was in South America. De Niro has worked out that I have trouble saying the name of Nobu’s first restaurant, which is actually Nobu’s last name — Matsuhisa. He tries to teach it to me over and over again as if I am a baby learning to speak. When he’s satisfied, I tell him the first time I went to Matsuhisa, Kelly Osbourne took me. She said it was a family restaurant that she’d grown up in.
“Well, I was there one night with a British friend, Roland Joffé [director of The Mission], and I told Nobu, ‘If you ever want to open a restaurant in New York, let me know.’ And a few years later he said, ‘I’m ready.’” One taste of Nobu’s signature dish was all it took. “I had the cod and that told me right away, this guy is really special,” De Niro says. Is he good at making instant assessments of people? He nods.
“I like him. He’s low-key and I knew that there is no way this restaurant would not have worked in New York.” De Niro brought in his friend Meir Teper, a financier. I catch up with both of them, along with Matsuhisa, at the Nobu Hotel in Las Vegas. Teper, a former fashion impresario and film producer, is now in his seventies, but he’s still lithe and elegant from an early career as a dancer in his native Israel. I wonder, did he meet De Niro on a movie? Teper explains. “We were friends first. I worked with him on movies a couple of times, but I met Bob through another producer friend.”
Was it an instant feeling of a kindred spirit? “It was, actually. We talked, but not that much. Because he had a good feel about me. More than I had about him because he’s the big star. One day he called and said, ‘Do you want to come with me to Deauville film festival in France?’ I said sure. He was there to promote [the 1987 film] The Untouchables. Paramount got me a ticket. I met him in London and we hung out together. Then we flew to Deauville, and after that every time he went on a trip he called me. He felt comfortable travelling with me. We became friends and we started travelling together. If he was going out on the road for promo or location-scouting he liked me to join him. We like the same things. We like looking at things and we like hotels.” Together they could escape the crowds and the media. A comfortable hotel room and a comfortable friend was exactly what De Niro wanted.
“I remember one time we went to London,” says Teper. “We always would travel under different names, but somehow someone at British Airways told the press and when we landed the paparazzi were everywhere. We were in a limo with the paparazzi all following us. Bob says, ‘Don’t go to the hotel. Let’s go to this other hotel that has an entrance in the front and we’ll come out the back and get a black cab to our hotel,’ which was the Savoy. We lost the paparazzi — it was like a movie, but it was real life.” You can see why they get on. They’re both men of few words who, when they warm up, don’t shut up. They like talking about details: food and bed linen, places and cultures. They can go on for ever about such things and they can also be quiet with one another.
In what sounds like a movie title, De Niro, Teper and Nobu Matsuhisa are called The Stakeholders. Stakeholder is where it’s at, rather than CEO or controller; they’ve put in the money, the time, the skill. Teper says: “Bob brought me to Matsuhisa, saying, ‘I found a nice Japanese restaurant. We should have dinner there.’ It was a very small restaurant with 30 seats — and Nobu was talking to every table and cooking for them. We all became friends.” He liked De Niro’s idea to bring Nobu to New York. “The idea was to invest and hopefully get my money back,” Teper explains.
“I used to travel to New York a lot and I wanted to have a place to have food there as good as we have in Beverly Hills, and to meet friends.” Never underestimate that old Cheers bar factor. A place you can call your own. Where everybody knows your name. Or at least your sushi preference. Teper continues. “After New York, we were so successful people started saying, ‘Can we have Nobu London? Can we have Nobu Vegas?’ Nobu’s a chef, Robert De Niro’s an actor. I was the only business person in the group. I understood how to negotiate, how to make the deal.” Gradually Teper’s interests in film and fashion disappeared. “I’m so busy with Nobu and I put so much time into it, everything else has gone away.” De Niro takes pleasure in just observing a room. The image that stays with me is Teper and De Niro sitting in the rooftop penthouse suite of the Nobu Hotel in Vegas. It’s the hotel’s fifth birthday party. Caviar and Moët are being served; Nobu chefs in white coats are making sushi and grilling things while leggy girls serve champagne and lychee martinis.
None of the stakeholders even looks at them. Teper and De Niro watch everything as if it’s on a screen, as if they’re in a different movie of their own. This party is for all the casino high rollers. There is no VIP area, no silver cord, yet the stakeholders keep to themselves. De Niro looks content, approachable, but no one does approach him. How does he balance the Nobu empire with his acting career?
“I’m not doing what they do,” he says, referring to his business partners. “I’m here when they need me. We always ask each other for input. I’m front and centre when needed.” He doesn’t do the deals like Teper does, he is the metaphor for the brand. They need him to be still acting. “These days, we have meetings on set if it’s not a tough day. Sometimes I’m waiting around a lot, so we sit in my camper. Sometimes you need less distraction. It depends. Sometimes you need to get your mind off something. It’s a welcome distraction. ”De Niro and his chef, meanwhile, are very different, yet seem to relax each other, almost like a Morecambe and Wise Christmas show. “I cook from my heart,” Nobu says. “Why does everyone like their mother’s food? Because the mother cooks for the kids with heart. I don’t ever want to forget to cook with heart, with passion. It’s about making people happy. Success never makes people happy.” Was his mother a good cook? “Oh yes. She would always have ask what I wanted to eat tonight, tomorrow? Always with heart.” I wonder if this is the secret. I ask De Niro if his mother was a good cook? “Not great,” he replies.
If he was a Nobu dish, what would he be? “I might be the artichoke salad.”
I was rather hoping to be the artichoke salad myself. Soft and creamy on the inside, crispy on the out.
“OK,” he says without a fight. “I guess I’d be a big fish. The cod.”
”The black cod with the sweet misoon the side that you don’t discover straight away?”
I first met Rupert Grint over 5 years ago – the Harry Potter films were already over but a whole generation still felt they owned him. He was their friend, their brother, their personal wizard. As we sat having coffee in a tucked away street a dozen people in the course of an hour called out “Ron! Ron! Ron!” and asked for selfies. He didn’t seem irritated by this level of invasive fame, he just obliged. Today, it’s been nearly a decade since Harry Potter ended and he’s managed some personal wizardry – people still stop him every day, he is still one of the most famous people in the world and still responsible for revitalising Ginger. Curiously, he has managed to keep such a lot of his life private, for instance, he has been together with actress Georgia Groome (from Angus, Thongs and Perfect Snogging) since 2011, but nobody knew they were a couple until about a year ago.
He is next on screen on Apple TV in which is possibly his first fully fledged grown-up role. The show is addictive, creepy, twisty, turny; I was going to watch 1 episode but binged 5, I couldn’t believe it was so good. Shyamalan says that Rupert was pivotal. He’s not the lead role, he’s the main character’s brother, but he steals the screen in such a way that he makes it his own. In the show, as Julian, he wears his snazzy suit, one of them a blue tartan tweedy affair which is both ridiculous and charming – a bit like him. His sister is Lauren Ambrose, flame-haired actress from Six Feet Under. They actually look as if they could be related: “ever since I saw her in Six Feet Under, I always wanted to play her relation” – see, he manifested it.
Today when we meet in his room in a smart London hotel he is wearing a thick black jacket and black roll-neck and a necklace with a few charms, one of which is a heart that says ‘happy birthday, Anne, 1967’: “I have no idea who she is but I like to think about who she might be. I got it at a vintage market in Philadelphia. I’m a bit of a collector”. Indeed, he’s got a rare elephant bird egg, a skeleton of an ostrich which stands in his dining room, and several ancient bones. Is Antiques Roadshow his guilty pleasure? “Not so guilty – not guilty at all, I love it. I love hearing the stories of the relationships people have with these objects. And I’m into… stuff. Fiona Bruce presents it and she’s really good, I don’t know if I could do it better but I’ve not got a bad knowledge and I can identify bits of ceramic so I wouldn’t mind being a presenter.”
He’s 31, as ginger as ever, and with naughty twinkling eyes. He doesn’t feel 31 (or particularly look it), but because of Potter, he has a weird relationship with age. Potter overtook his childhood so he has a strange relationship with age. When it ended, did he have an identity crisis? “Yes, I suppose so. And I wasn’t sure if I wanted to do anything like it again, or act again. I was quite keen on having my freedom back, I had my tonsils removed straight away”. Does he mean so he couldn’t talk and it was a celebration to have his voice removed? He replied “kind of, but I had massive tonsils, and I had to get them out. I felt like a man – it was good. You can’t speak for a few days and you shouldn’t eat ice cream, you should eat scratchy things.” Why? I thought the whole point of having your tonsils removed was so you could eat ice cream for a few days? “That’s completely wrong, you’ve got to encourage chewing and swallowing textured food. But I did have ice cream as well.” Ice cream has always been important to Rupert – he once wanted to be an ice cream man: “because I always loved the van, it was my first car and I learned to drive in it. It has pictures of 99s on it. Whenever I rode it out it was chaos with people wanting ice cream, but it was a great choice of transport. I still think it would be a nice job, but the ice cream men are very territorial – there’s a whole mafia, you get into trouble if you go onto someone else’s patch.” What’s your favourite ice cream? “I like ‘em all, my favourite’s a 99 and a Raspberry Ripple”. He makes me laugh a lot, his is cute and endearing but he’s also old-soul smart. In Servant his sister suffers the loss of her baby and replaces it with a Baby Reborn doll as part of grief therapy. The doll is made of silicone, hand-crafted, weighted and very realistic. Although his character Julian is brash, he’s the man you’d want in a crisis: “he’s always two steps ahead, and he’s always popping in for tequila. It felt very natural playing Lauren’s brother – I used to imagine we would be relatives in something.” Reborn dolls are real therapy dolls and used when women really want to conceive and they can’t or when they’ve suffered a cot-death. Rupert tells me “I have a Reborn doll, but it’s like a vampire. I’m not sure it’s quite the same thing, but the dolls are really realistic and when you hold them you can’t stop bouncing them.” Perhaps being Julian will finally make people realise he’s Rupert, not Ron, or even Ed Sheeran – who he’s always being mistaken for, including once by Leo Sayer at a car rally who kept asking him about his latest album: “I just played along, it was easier. Being Ron, though, it’s strange. It’s never quite died down. And now a whole new generation is finding Harry Potter. They have this kind of ownership of me – they see me and they think they know me. And, of course, Harry Potter still lives on because there’s a theatre play, and a ride at Universal Studios which I went on at the opening and it got stuck. It’s amazing what they’ve built: a Hogwarts castle, a train and King’s Cross, it takes you straight back. I am very proud to have been part of it, but it could be a bit claustrophobic, especially when we had finished the last one, nearly 10 years ago now. There wasn’t any real period of adjustment. Suddenly everything was over and it was overwhelming. It was the right time to finish – there are no more books anyway.”
Is he aware of the rumour that was circulated that there was going to be an original cast reforming on another Harry Potter? “I don’t think that would happen but I’d never say never.”
“I’ve got a whole new perspective on those years now. We were in this protected bubble but we didn’t really see it. We didn’t really feel that famous. I didn’t hate it but it had its own challenges. I did struggle, I think, because I had naturally merged into the character of Ron. I felt a very strong affiliation with him.” Does he feel that he merged into his character more than Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter) or Emma Watson (Hermione Granger)? He thinks long and hard: “I don’t know.” Maybe it’s because he’s the better actor. “I’ll take that… but I still feel him. I feel protective over him. When I went to see the play (Harry Potter and The Cursed Child) and someone else was playing me I didn’t feel right. But on another level it was really fun – great to see him reimagined.” Is he still in touch with Emma and Daniel, who were his closest companions for a decade? “It’s been a while since I’ve seen either of them… I see Tom Felton (Draco Malfoy). I see them as family but more like distant cousins – it’s great to reunite when we do, but we’re not with each other all the time. It was an intense period.”
Coming out of a role that he played for so long, it must have been difficult to choose projects or characters that were different enough. “It’s never been a conscious thing to remove myself from that world, but I wouldn’t jump at the opportunity to be a wizard again. I enjoy stuff that’s grounded in reality.” Although, Servant is grounded in the creepiest reality. And his Reborn doll doesn’t seem very realistic because “it’s a vampire doll with little fangs. You still want to look after it and handle it carefully. Reborn dolls are a real form of therapy, although I can’t say that I would recommend it.” Why did he acquire his? Was it therapeutic? “No, because people know I collect weird things”. The presence of the babies on set made him actually quite broody: “as well as the dolls, on set we had triplets. They were always around. I love kids, I really do want children one day. Servant taps into this primal fear we have about protecting our young, and that’s how the show twists that part of the brain.” At the moment, though, he is happy to be a Cat Dad to a pinky-white sphynx cat called Milk, “it’s a myth they are hairless, they do have hair, but it feels like suede. And he loves skin-on-skin contact. He’s white but he’s got a pink hue and a bit of red fur on his nose.” He did a campaign for Milk a few years ago, so he obviously feels very close to him and that they have a likeness. He shows me his picture – he looks like a new-born foetus (if that’s possible). Milk doesn’t like to wear outfits but has a special heated bed that he likes, “he’s got beautiful blue eyes as well – owners do look like their pets, don’t they?”
As well as having a confused relationship with his age, he has an even more confused relationship with money. He made several million, some reports say £28 million from the Harry Potter franchise but has no idea how much money he has: “it rings a bell, yes, I couldn’t actually tell you. Money is something that happens in the background. Milk has got very expensive tastes but I haven’t had an issue with money from such a young age, it makes it weird. I think I’m thrifty, I like a bargain – but maybe that’s just because I’m getting older. What age do I feel? I couldn’t put a number on it. Younger than 30 and also forever.” Is it true that Julian is your first grown-up character? “I think you always put a bit of yourself in the character, but Julian is removed from everything that I am. He is hugely confident and not hugely likeable.” I find the lack of confidence alarming. He’s shy and blushes easily but he has every reason to be confident – he is very funny and smart, and has something special as an actor. He has managed to be grounded and private, even as one of the most famous faces on earth. “I think I have a very normal existence, it’s a malleable level of fame and I enjoy it. The Harry Potter films had a profound effect and deep meaning to people, especially of my generation – they get tattoos of it. It’s a real marker of their nostalgia, I’ve learned to embrace it.” Some drinks and some chips arrive, but he’s far too polite to eat them, or maybe he’s just not hungry. His brother now rally drives and his father used to: “my dad used to sell Formula One memorabilia on QVC. I’ve always liked cars, but I haven’t got the ‘car gene’ as intensely. As well as the ice cream van, I’ve got an electric car. We all go through different phases, and this year, I started beekeeping.” He keeps the bees in his garden in North London: “I let the bees have the honey, they’re just amazing things to watch – inspiring and so busy. They’ve all got jobs, there’s an undertaker bee who carries out the dead bees, and the Queen is massive and has a green dot which they paint her with. You’re born a Queen, it’s a fascinating society – the hierarchy of the hive. I’ve got a lot of bee paraphernalia, a bee suit and smokers.
Does he mean he wears a black and yellow stripe suit to tend them?
“No!! a protective bee suit!
“When you open the hive you have to smoke them because it relaxes them, otherwise they can get quite aggressive. It’s a primal thing, they think it’s a forest fire so they stay in the hive. I’ve never been stung. Bees really don’t care about you, they’ve got so much to do: filling the hive with pollen. This year there were mites that hurt the hive, so we’re building them back up and next year we will be able to take some honey.”
Next up, he will go back to Philadelphia for another series of Servant, where he will collect more antiquities and books: “I’ve mainly got David Attenborough books, he’s got an elephant bird egg as well, and I’m sure he likes bees. I would love to meet him, I think we would have a lot to talk about.” I wonder where Attenborough would stand on the Reborn doll.
Servant is on Apple TV new episodes every Friday.
I pretend not be shocked when I see the Uber driver taking me to Cameron Douglas’s house is wearing a surgical mask. She drove me up the canyon to a quiet street, to a typical canyon house – white stone, small front yard with a large dog. I knew I had arrived at the right place because the tattooed torso of Cameron Douglas seemed to be rising from the roof. It looked like something you might see from Dynamo the magician, he seemed to levitate. He was actually catching some pale winter sun on his terrace.
He has the face of his grandfather and the intense eyes. In his white wife beater, I even think he has the torso of Spartacus – more elegant than muscley. He puts on a red plaid shirt for our interview. He makes me a good cup of coffee. The living room is covered in baby paraphernalia. We sit in what could be loosely described as a den – grey comfy armchairs, books, hardwood floors, the large dog, a Mastador, lies by the fireplace.
Douglas is warm and friendly and fidgets unconsciously. I wonder if this is nervousness, but the Douglas’s – Cameron, Michael and Kirk aren’t really nervous people. He’s easy company and easy on the eye. Before long we are laughing. He didn’t see me in the Uber and thought that was me in the surgical mask. He was trying to work out if I was a very kind person with a cold that I didn’t want him to catch or I was trying to protect myself from Douglas dust.
He’s just written a memoir, Long Way Home. It’s quite the page turner. It has a great rhythm, pace, graphically drawn characters as he describes relationships that fall apart, the misguided tough love of his father, his drug dependency and drug dealing, misplaced Hollywood glamour, and his eight years in various prisons. Prison soon lost its gangster rap allure. He got into brutal fights, witnessed rape and savagery and for the first few years had the edge taken off with smuggled in Oxycontin and Zanex. When this was discovered it led to many months in solitary which in turn led him to rethink his whole being. To survive prison you had to be strong, if you got into fights you had to win them. You needed respect. His grandfather Kirk, on hearing that he had won fights said, ‘That’s my boy.’
I tell him he inherited his grandfather’s writing skills – Kirk Douglas has written many books but Rag n Bone Man, his first memoir is compulsive, a macho Jackie Collins.
“That’s a great compliment,” he says. He’s always been close to granddad Kirk. “I have breakfast with him every week. I take my daughter over there every weekend to spend time with him and his wife Anne. Grandfather, grandson and great granddaughter all have birthdays in the same week in December. Kirk will be 103 (on December 9), Cameron will be 41 (December 13) and Lua Izzy will be 2 (December 17).
Was it cathartic for him to write this book? Did you have a burning to tell your story?
“That didn’t come in till later. Initially, oddly enough it was my father’s idea. He was quite pushy about it. I had a hard time understanding that because my family had always been very private and I tried to follow suit, but once I started putting pen to paper, I tried to understand where my father was coming from. I came to a couple of conclusions. One, he wanted to give me the opportunity to look back over my life and have a better understanding of where things went wrong…”
Things went really wrong.
A Douglas firstborn to one of Hollywood’s First families, acting royalty and he managed to mess it up royally. He didn’t take himself seriously, he didn’t take his work as an actor or DJ seriously, just used the latter to hang out in nightclubs and score drugs. His father had lots of money and Cameron had a sense of entitlement and then his father would cut him off if he was behaving disappointingly, which is ultimately, he reasons, why he became a drug dealer. His father refused to pay for his apartment and he was on the streets – well, a hotel. With no college education but a sense of privilege, he was not going to pump gas.
He had experimented with drinks and drugs from the age of 13 and by 17 he was taking crystal meth and then graduated to liquid cocaine. And finally, heroin, shooting up 5 or 6 times a day.
He doesn’t pull the pity card though. “I can’t go back and change the past. Obviously, I would do some things differently, but what I can do is take those experiences and turn them into something useful. I think it was a selfless act of love on the part of my mother and father and the rest of my family for giving me their blessing to write this book.”
Certainly, his parents come off as troubled human beings. At one point he says he was always in awe of his father but never close to him. His father’s liberal use of tough love, cutting him off and cutting him out, seemed to propel him into danger and loneliness. His father hired heavies to try and kidnap him to take him to rehab. Yet now he is learning to play golf so he can bond with him further. His father hired lawyers that were out of their depths and he ended up getting an extra 3 years added to his sentence. His father seemed lost on just how to deal with him. There was always closeness followed by estrangement .Sometimes extremely harsh, sometimes loving He writes “My dynamic with dad is seething frustration on his part and wounded sensitivity on mine…. “ His father invited him to New York for Thanksgiving and he git high and was several hours late – Douglas Sr had his doorman say they had left already but h was upstairs with the children too furious to see his oldest son
“That’s where it got complex for him because on the one hand if you are kind, it makes you feel you are helping feed the addiction… it’s a no win situation.”
And he didn’t win. “Well, not in the short term but maybe in the long term.”
Not counting his stretches in juvenile hall, the highlight of which was a brief affair with a woman called Liz a few years his senior. He was in prison for close to 8 years – 7 years and 9 months. He is still friends with many of the people he bonded with while he was there.
“I have really close friends that I speak to. Not often, but often enough to touch base. I am loyal and the bonds that you form when you are in a situation like that – in prison – are very strong. You go through a lot together, you get to know individuals really well and you see them in all types of circumstances because you see them every day and I feel grateful for that.”
The big dog comes over, nuzzles him and lies back down again.
“A lot of guys, when they go to prison they get forgotten. Their families forget about them. I was blessed that my family never gave up on me and in the end that played a huge part in helping me make the evolution I made.”
He now lives clean – drug and alcohol free. His partner Viviane is a yoga teacher. They met in their wild days – she was a Brazilian model and party animal, she is now a yogi. She reached out to him in prison. By the time they started seeing each other they had both changed their lives around.
It seems strange that he became closer to his family when he was in prison and locked away from them than when he was living a drug addled, drug dealing life in New York and LA, with unsuitable friends that he remained loyal to. His uncle, Eric Douglas, to whom he was always being compared, was a lost soul who felt he could never live up to the achievements of his father Kirk and brother Michael. He tried acting and stand up comedy. I saw one of his shows at the Edinburgh Festival. All the jokes that worked were about Kirk and Michael and there were only half a dozen of us in the audience.
Turning into Uncle Eric was another hideous spectre that loomed. Michael Douglas though, seemed to go through many evaluations of his own life. When his son was in prison he somehow found it easier to form a loving relationship. In 2010 other inmates read the tabloids and told Cameron that they felt sorry about his dad’s stage 4 throat cancer. It was very difficult for Cameron to see his father, this larger than life man, shrunken from cancer treatment, but nonetheless on a crusade to help his son.
“He was very supportive. He actually played a major part in shifting a particular law in prison. I lost my family visits for many years. I hadn’t seen my family for 2 years and I had 2 more years to go but my father received an award for playing Liberace and during his acceptance speech he said that the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) won’t allow me to see my son and it’s been almost 2 years. About a month after that I got called to my counsellors office and he suggested I make a formal request to the warden to get a visit with your mother and father. I did and it was granted. And about a month after that one of the wardens told me, ‘I want you to know that we’re implementing the new rule that says if an inmate is having his visits revoked for an extensive period and we feel like it’s undue, then we are going to give it back early. You are the first one. You are the role model.”
“My dad did that. I’m sure it’s benefitted a lot of families.”
I’m not sure if I see a tear in his eye or if it’s an extra sparkle. In his book he says that after going through the all the shenanigans – he was set up, fooled and caught as a drug dealer, first condemned to a shorter sentence then a longer one for not ratting on his drug dealing friends, he lost life as he knew it, and then his father had cancer. He couldn’t cry.
“I’m a very emotional person. Doesn’t take a lot to make me cry so that was alarming. A friend of mine in prison said ‘There’s no shame in crying,’ but I just couldn’t. just something inside of me. going back to acting has been very helpful with that. As I got closer to my release date, I started thinking what I wanted to do with my life. Acting is something that’s in my blood and I’d been doing it most of my life, even though not professionally. After I was released but still in a halfway house, I threw myself into a theatre company. Doing the work in those classes brought the emotion to the surface and it was very therapeutic.”
Was it like the acting classes they have in The Kominsky Method? (Award winning Netflix show that features his father Michael Douglas as a failed actor turned tutor who loves a good emotional workout with his pupils).
“Yes, it was similar to that. In fact, my acting teacher taught my father many years ago. I found it so helpful on a therapeutic level, getting in touch with these emotions that I’d stuffed down deep inside of me. I had some time in juvenile hall but it’s a different ball game when you are in prison.”
Looking back it was easy to see ever since, as a teenager, when he was sent to a strict boarding school while his parents were divorcing, he was always on one of those unstoppable moving walkways.
“In juvenile hall I was well on my way to prison but I didn’t realize it.”
Why didn’t he stop acting out, shooting up?
“Probably I was scared.”
The catharsis would all be so neat if prison set him free and recreated a good relationship with his father but when he came out of prison and was in the halfway house his father rejected him again. What was going on there?
“My father had gotten to a point in our relationship where he thought I wasn’t going to make it, so he started detaching. My father is a very pragmatic man but he didn’t come to this point lightly. For the majority of my life I had been carrying on so coming home from a long stint in a high security prison, I think he was a little circumspect about what results he was going to get and that’s understandable. Catherine actually played a real role in motivating my father, at least initially, to open back up to me and then it has just been showing not telling. Since I have come home I have been working my ass off (he is back acting and starts in an independent film in a couple of weeks) I have a fire and desire inside me that is enormous. I have got a lot to make up for.”
And people to make up to?
“To myself. If it turns out this whole prison experience and all the nonsense leading up to it was all for nothing I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I have to know in my heart that it was for a purpose. I am on a quest of proving to myself that one day I look back and be truly grateful for having gone through it all.”
You feel for him in the book. The less self pitying he is the more you root for him. The turning point in the book is when he is making a movie in Ireland about mushrooms and had smuggled in enough drugs to last for a couple of weeks. The guy who was looking after his pet rabbit was supposed to send him more.
“I never saw that cute little bunny rabbit again or that friend either.”
Back to the story. He has this idea he can find drugs in Germany. He is suffering horrendous detoxing symptoms and misses his flight back He gets sacked from the movie and has to make the desperate trans-Atlantic flight back vomiting, shaking and all the other cold turkey symptoms. You feel the desperation of all that.
“It was an extremely low point of my life, so low that I turned to what got me into prison. I had the opportunity to pivot and change course but I didn’t. I had already gone through most of the detoxing but I wasn’t willing to let go of my addiction.”
That is when he came back to Los Angeles and his father had decided not to pay the lease on his rental. He gave conditions that he had to separate from the woman he was with. He didn’t like conditions.
“Again, it was a time where I had an opportunity to make some changes but I didn’t.”
In the book you really feel for Erin, she looks after him, she is more than an assistant less than a girlfriend at the start anyway. They almost get married so she can visit him in jail. What happened to her?
He flinches slightly, “She is doing well, she lives on the East Coast.”
Is she in a relationship?
“I don’t know. We were in touch because she inherited my dogs, one passed away while I was in prison, the other a few days ago so we spoke about that.”
Junior was a black labrador and they were devoted to one another. He had his sperm frozen. He was interested in breeding him, even creating a new breed because he was so loving and so smart. He wanted him to mate with a Boerboel to create the first Boerbador
“One thing I prided myself on, I was always able to take good care and raise good dogs. My father still has one of Junior’s children, Maxi, who is 15.”
When he was in prison and Erin was sole parent to Junior, Junior got cancer. He blames Erin for not taking him to the vet before he was riddled with tumors. He was able to talk to him on the phone as he was dying. It was then that his relationship with Erin didn’t continue in the same way.
Junior died and he wasn’t there for him, his grandmother died and they were close, he was unable to be there or even attend the funeral. He was able to phone her but she could no longer talk – he listened to her breathe.
He takes a breath, “Right now I am really focusing on a couple of screenplays that I am writing and the indie film called The Runner. I play a jaded detective who will get the job done by any means necessary. I am looking forward to digging in, getting in front of the camera and hoping it leads to more. I am a work horse. My life is very simple by design these days. It revolves around my family and building a career for myself; nice and simple. Life is good.”
Is he planning on more children?
“I am not opposed to it.”
I wonder how his relationship with Viviane is different. There are many relationships or flings with women in his book, all of them, in different ways, were mother figures to him.
“That’s true, in different ways. Viviane is a great mother and she does take great care of me. She is a yogi and she really believes in that life and practices it. It’s positive and powerful, I love being immersed in that philosophy, that energy. She is a great influence on me.”
Does he do yoga?
“She is a yoga instructor so I take advantage of that. She gives me private lessons.”
Like Sting and Trudie?
“Possibly,” he chuckles.
Do they go tantric?
“I would say I am at the basic stages of yoga. I had started my evolution in prison. I had been on a rock hard routine, I think routines are helpful. I don’t work out as much as I did in prison. It eats a lot of your time and it takes your focus off where you are, it was integral to my life there. Now I am not so worried about being as strong as possible, it’s just about being in good shape and having a clear mind.”
I notice something that looks like feathers inked on his chest, is it a phoenix?
“It’s a butterfly.”
The tattoos are mostly from prison. He also has one of his grandfather’s and father’s faces. Two that he didn’t get in prison on his wrists are in the process of being removed.
“They don’t have any meaning for me anymore. When I see butterflies I think of freedom.”
Another thing that represents freedom to him is going out with his granddad for breakfast.
“He still walks and is sharp and has a great sense of humour. They still travel up to Santa Barbara one weekend a month.”
They really do look alike.
“That’s nice of you to say. I hear that more these days that I look more like him than my father.”
Is that a beautiful thing or a cross to bear?
“It’s a cross I am grateful to bear.”
His grandfather has been married to Anne for 65 years. She doesn’t like to give her age. She told me she always lied about it but certain records have her age as 100. She is certainly strong, she stayed with him while he had various affairs saying as long as he was honest and she was the number one he could do what he wanted.
“I don’t know much about those particulars, but whatever they decided between them seems to work. They love each other very much.”
He changes the subject.
“I want to get involved in prison reform in this country as somebody who has had first hand experience, it is meant to punish and crush you and years of that kind of treatment doesn’t turn out a great individual. The government owes it to the American people to turn out men and women who are reformed.”
On the one hand, he couldn’t wait to get out of prison and on the other he knew it would be very hard.
“As my release date started to get closer guys would say, ‘It will be a difficult adjustment. You have been here a while and the time you have done has been a little more extreme.’ And I would say, ‘You guys are crazy, this is where I don’t belong. I am going to slide back into life like I never missed a day.’ But in reality it was a very difficult adjustment.”
He came out to find there were many new brands of breakfast cereal and everyone had smart phones.
“I will never forget the first time I stepped onto a subway after coming home from prison. Everyone on the platform was staring at something, it seemed like I was in the Twilight Zone. I do have one now and I love the amazing new cereals which I eat at night. I spent 29 years of my life trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in, how I like to express myself and then 8 years trying to figure out who I was in that environment, how I could express myself and making some changes. I came out and tried to find out who I was again, where I fit in and how I wanted to express myself.”
He was released from prison in August 2016. He had a female lawyer with benefits, Meg Salib, wrote a memoir which his hasn’t read, about their sexual relationship. He writes that the forbidden seemed to turn her on, she even liked to have phone sex when she knew all the calls were being recorded. He doesn’t seem to pursue women; they pursue him Maybe it’s in his genes.
Towards the end of his sentence Viviane Thibes visited him in prison and their relationship seemed to move fast when he got out. Before long she was pregnant. Was that because he felt an urgency to make an imprint on the planet?
“Maybe subconsciously. Initially when coming home I wanted to do everything right away because I had lost so much time. We were together fully while I was in prison, she was there waiting for me with my mother, my brothers and sisters and we have been together ever since. I think it was difficult for her. I am trying to please everyone and yet the person who was closest to you often gets what everybody else doesn’t get. To be perfectly honest it was a difficult time but we are both survivors and now, life is really starting to come together.”
He says he is finally starting to become friends with his father, and have the kind of relationship he always wanted. Has his father finished his pragmatic detachment?
“I think so, it just took some time which is understandable. We enjoy each others company.”
And on cue, Michael texts him. They are going to grab a bite to eat.
“I am not particularly religious but I like that saying, ‘Let go, let God.’ It means you make your best effort and let it go and see where it lands. I don’t have to walk on eggshells with him anymore, I have nothing to hide. I have made some serious mistakes but I have paid for them. Now it’s just about proving to myself what kind of life I can put together.”
He and his mother, Diandra, enjoyed a complicated relationship. For a while growing up he thought of himself as the man of the house, for that reason he had to love her and protect and he also hated her for that.
“It was an interesting dynamic. I love my mother a lot and I felt very protective of her. There are things that she has done that I don’t necessarily agree with.”
His mother was certainly beautiful – he writes that she cultivated drama with men
Diandra Luker (Douglas) had twin boys through a surrogate with hedge fund manager Zach Hampton Bacon III, Hawk and Hudson and she later adopted a girl, Imara. All of them visited their brother prison even though often the prisons were over 600 miles away, they made the prison pilgrimage. In her younger life I am not sure she comes over so well. Always chasing a man, and with a taste for exotic pets like a Savannah cat and a monkey and quite often making uninformed decisions with terrible consequences. How did his mother feel about the book?
“Everybody took their ego out of the equation with the understanding that perhaps it could have a greater effect than if I worried about how they looked here and there. I don’t think I paint anybody except myself in a bad light.”
One person that comes off very well is Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“Catherine and I have always gotten along fantastically. We get along as friends but she has been very inclusive with me, with her children and was a major motivating factor in getting my father to open up to me.”
Does he think she helped with the thought love, making it more about love and less about tough?
“Maybe. I see Carys and Dylan fairly often. Dylan is at Brown and he was just in a performance and was fantastic. They both wrote to me and came to see me in prison and my mother brought her kids to visit me as well. (Diandra had twin boys with the help of a surrogate and later adopted a daughter.)”
These days he doesn’t mind being compared to Uncle Eric.
“I would like to think I am like him, he had amazing qualities, a huge heart, and was talented as a comedian. But he was tormented, always beating up on himself. A lot of comedians have that dark sensibility. He is at peace now and he had a struggle with the family and that was probably what I experienced with the family.”
So many demons to live up to and not live up to. Could he be as famous and talented as his father and grandfather and could he be as less troubled as Eric?
“I’ve never really seen it that way.”
Famous parents are a bit like communism. It seems like a great idea but it can never work.
“That’s not true. Carys and Dylan are amazing kids, my father and Catherine have done an amazing job.”
Do you think his father had some kind of epiphany and made a conscious effort to do things differently? Or the chemistry with Catherine was different?
“A bit of everything. Wisdom comes with age and experience. As he got a little older his life was different so he was able to do things differently. And what is most important that he and I have a good time together now. We like to watch sports together on TV most of the time, but we do go to games. He loves golf, I don’t, but I am starting to learn in an effort to find things to do with my father. It’s nice to find a sport you can play through your whole life and he gives me a lot of guidance with acting. The whole process; auditions, introductions, everything. He is very supportive which is the best part.”
He exchanges a knowing look with the Mastador, they know about loyalty, they know about support.
I’m waiting for Elisabeth Moss in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel Beverley Hills. I’ve actually waited a long time to meet her and suddenly I wonder is she the person I hope she will be? The intelligent, sensitive, feminist who wove her way all the epic television series -her character Peggy in Mad Men starts off as a secretary and ends up a boss, through to Handmaid’s Tale, the Margaret Attwood vision of a dystopian future where women are slaves and wombs for hire. And she is the subversive insider.
The series hits all of the feminist marks. Browbeaten women will overcome, so on trend that Kylie Kardashian threw a Handmaid’s Tale themed party for her friend where all the women wore the red capes and white bonnets.
Before Handmaid’s, Moss was in the other great American series, The West Wing. There’s got to be something right about a woman who chooses what are largely considered the top 3 series of television’s golden age.
She has won the Emmy, the Globe and the Critics Choice Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, the SAG Award for Mad Men, the Globe and Critics Choice for Top of the Lake and the Producers Guild of America award for the Handmaid’s Tale.
When she plays Offred in Handmaid’s she is mesmerising. She fills the screen with an expression and inhabits the character. Her acting is considered and intelligent. She makes something unbelievable totally believable. Even when she is not saying anything onscreen, she is emotionally porous. You feel it all with her.
I’m at a corner table and Moss arrives – a white T shirt, cut off denim shorts, a reversible bomber jacket with palm tree motif. She says she couldn’t decide what to wear as she’s in vacay mode. Her hair is blonder and thicker than you’d expect and her eyes have some crazy powerful inner sparkle.
We talk about how it’s not easy to find one outfit for hanging out by the pool, doing interviews and going to a fitting for an awards ceremony all in one day (It was the MTV Award for Handmaid’s Tale, which she won). Then she alights on my cat diary. I’d been sitting transferring events from my hardbacked diary into my phone. She picks it up, exploring each hand painted cat. It turns out she’s a cat woman. Or maybe THE cat woman. When she shows me her ginger girls Lucy, bright red, named after Lucille Ball and Ethel, pale blonde ginger, we coo and then she shows me the picture that would break the internet. Ethel wearing a Handmaid’s tale outfit, the red cape, the bonnet, designed by the Handmaid’s costumer designer Anne Crabtree. This revelation puts me in a kind of trance of admiration and ecstasy. How can I get one for my Lola?
This works on so many levels. A cat with claws being forced into the ultimate submissive outfit. Feisty and volatile, wearing a bonnet. The paradox speaks to us all. And with this I realise Moss is everything I hope she’d be.
“Obviously I wouldn’t be a cat lady if I didn’t have pictures. My cat sitter just sent me a couple of videos.” We look at the pale ginger little tiny faced girl and super confident red ginger Lucy. “They’re my babies. I love them.”
She’s just coming up in The Kitchen – set in 70’s New York in Hell’s Kitchen when 3 mob husbands go to jail, their 3 wives take over. She co-stars with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish and it’s written and directed by Andrea Berloff, the Straight Outta Compton writer. It’s thrilling with a killer soundtrack. Moss is a person who chooses her projects cleverly.
Her character Clare has the most interesting arc. She starts off as the woman who always gets beaten up and later channels that into becoming a killer. Once again, there’s that theme of victim to self-empowerment that we all love to watch.
“I’ve never played an assassin or a hit woman, so it was definitely new and interesting. I thought it was a very compelling storyline. The idea of this woman who was so abused and such a “victim” and so interesting to try to understand her instinct of taking her own life back in an extreme way and thinking I’m actually going to own this.”
She had movie assassin training by actor Domhall Gleason with whom her character falls in love. “This isn’t a crazy character arc of all of a sudden she’s a hit woman. Even when she’s abused, she’s not meek. Maybe because of the violence she’s received, she can accept acting violent towards someone else. Of course, she’s had a lot of emotional pain and we learn that she lost a baby when she was abused.”
Her characters are always losing babies or giving them up – Peggy, June/Offred, Robin in Top of the Lake and now Clare.
“Aren’t they? It’s a theme and so weird. Since I was 19 when one of the first films I did, the Virgin, a tiny independent film in which I play a woman who is raped while she’s unconscious, gets pregnant and thinks it’s the second coming. And Peggy in Mad Men of course gave her baby away. June lost two of them. It’s really weird. I don’t know what it is.”
Once could say there’s no such thing as coincidence. Is she really saying I keep losing these movie babies because I have to have a real one?
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more that I seem to be drawn to a character that has conflict and it’s the ultimate conflict for a woman. You bond with your child, it presents great conflict and drama, the idea of losing that child. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing but it’s a theme I’ve been aware of for a while. I always try my hardest to keep hold of those babies.” She shakes her head.
She’s ordered Greek yoghurt and honey. It looks good. She invites me to taste it even though I’m wearing bright red gooey lipstick which will make the yoghurt pink. She doesn’t care.
Does she have a really close bond with her mother? “Yes, pretty much so. Maybe it’s manifesting that. We are very close and not in a ‘best friends’ kind of way. You know how some people say I’m best friends with my mom. No, that’s not us. She’s still my mom and I’m her daughter. We’re very, very close and she’s been incredible.
If I ever have a baby though, I’m going to hold onto that thing for dear f***ing life. I’ll have it chained to me. It’ll be a 50 year old kid and I’ll be ‘no, you’re staying with me.’”
Don’t you think the child might rebel? “Probably but I don’t care. I know what happens when you let them out of your sight.”
Did her mother ever let her out of her sight? “Yes, she was great. I moved to New York when I was 19 which now as I’m 36 seems so young, but at 19 you don’t think you’re young at all. I look back and think my God, she let me go to New York at 19. I suppose I was always considered a mature person. You sometimes need somebody to believe in you and not doubt you. A lot of people don’t have that kind of support.”
She started her acting career at seventeen on the West Wing where she played Zoe (President Bartlett’s/Martin Sheen’s daughter). I’ve never met a person who didn’t love The West Wing. Or Mad Men. Or Handmaid’s Tale. How did she pick these compelling women in these pioneering series?
“My guiding principal for picking anything is the writing, whether it’s a film, television or play it’s always the writing. If it’s not well written there’s nothing you can do, no matter how good the director is or the actor is. So that’s always been the biggest guiding principle and this coincided with what is now called the golden age of television. No one can plan something. I was seventeen, I got cast in the West Wing. That and The Sopranos were one of the shows that started the golden age. And then I got Mad Men.”
It’s hard to imagine that former age where it was all about the movies or all about the stage and television actors were dismissed. Now anyone can do anything but mostly it’s the TV actors who rule.
“I did a play the Heidi Chronicles, written by Wendy Wasserstein in the eighties and there’s a line in the play that comes from a television actor. It goes Meryl Streep would never do television. And one of the biggest posters on Sunset Boulevard is for Meryl in Big Little Lies, along with some of the other biggest movie stars (Kidman, Kravitz, Witherspoon). So that’s the end of that. The line that used to exist between film and television. I’ve lived through it. It was a gradual fading but there’s no line anymore. It’s done. And that’s a wonderful thing because now there’s so many great opportunities in all fields.”
Does she feel that woman are more powerful in the industry than they were 10/20/30 years ago? In the years of the kitchen where they turned from wives to mob leaders.
“Absolutely, but that’s not to say they are equal yet. I was reading some numbers on Instagram on the percentage of women who are behind the camera and it’s still really low but it’s not equal yet. But it’s a hundred times better.”
As well as acting the lead role in Handmaid’s, she also produces the show, something she takes very seriously – it’s all-encompassing. Checking casts, checking scripts, checking edits. It’s a role which doesn’t stop when the series does because there’s pre and post production. She’s also involved in the hiring process.
“There are women directors but they need to be hired. When we start looking at directors for Handmaid’s tale which we do at the beginning of each season, we have this incredible grid that’s sent to us. It’s mostly women because we try to hire mostly female directors. There are so many out there that are talented and we don’t have space for them all. It’s the same with cinematographers. They are out there. I think there’s an awakening and a realisation of the inequality and a necessity rising in people for people to fix that which is good.”
Big Little Lies and Handmaids have been pioneers in this respect.
“We have a 50% female hire this year. Over 50% of female directors. We have a male DP and a female DP.”
At this point, a tall tanned blonde arrives and hugs her. It turns out she’s a rep for Dior and she’s going to Paris with her mother for a Dior couture show. “What a dream come true to take my mother to the Dior couture show in Paris. That’s definitely like a wow, I never thought I’d get to do that.”
Her black canvas bag is this season’s Dior. “They gave me the bag. When I go to shops it’s much less expensive places. I’m a huge Chicago Cubs fan, 4th generation. I was looking at Cubs outfits for cats the other day.”
She grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother Linda is a harmonica player, maybe even THE harmonica player who has played with blues superstars like BB King. “She’s really good. She started when she was 15 in Chicago.”
Her father Ron manages musicians. She has one brother. As a child she wanted to be a dancer. As a young teen, she went to New York to study ballet at the School of American Ballet. She home schooled and graduated aged 16. Always wise for her years, she realised that by now her dancing career would be over. As it stands an actress and producer she is one of the queens of the golden age of television.
Her parents are both Scientologists. I’m not sure how serious she is about that religion. She drinks Moscow Mules and Rose wine, both of which are frowned upon by Scientology.
Her role in Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as being part of a scary cult and she’s often asked the questions of how this relates to being part of the scary cult of Scientology and her Scientology beliefs. She thinks it directly relates. “Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me.”
She has a way of saying things simply that are profound and so to the point they feel powerful and heartfelt.”
Her upbringing wasn’t in any way starry or privileged or deprived or oppressed, yet her roles have spoken more about feminism than any current pundit.
“I think there’s something about my generation where feminism woke back up. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties there was no concept that something like Roe vs Wade could be reversed. I didn’t even know you could do that. I didn’t even know they could take that away. So, there’s something about the work that I do and gravitate towards that’s important to me and important to my generation and it’s coincided into this perfect storm.”
We foray into worldwide abortion rights being reduced, how women have gained a little power in one direction and then it’s grabbed away. She nods. “It’s weird, right.”
I wonder how much of The Kitchen is based on reality. “It’s based on a comic book, but I don’t know how much the comic book was based on reality. I know there was an Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen and an Italian Mob and they were both extremely violent. But the three women, I don’t think so. For me this story wasn’t just about three women who become best friends and everything ends happily ever after. They’re on top of the world of crime. They had conflicts. Women don’t always get along. It doesn’t end happily for everyone. They become more powerful but there are challenges that come with power. They are three very different women from completely different backgrounds, linked only because their partners are in the mob and led by a necessity to make money and take care of their children. That doesn’t mean everything’s going to be perfect and it doesn’t mean there won’t be a reckoning.”
Although her character Clare is tinged with tragedy, she is the one that gets the hot guy who understands her – Domhall Gleason.
“He’s a fantastic actor who I have admired for a long time. We got the most incredible cast of supporting actors (including Margo Martindale (Sneaky Pete) and superstar rapper turned actor Common).
Being a feminist does not mean that all women love women. It means there’s conflict and competition. That’s why All About Eve is one of the most enduring movies of all time. It was made into a movie in 1950 and it starred Bette Davis, then in her forties. A woman in a lead role over forty is very rare today today.
Moss corrects, “I don’t know. We’ve got Meryl, Diane Keaton, Ellen Burstyn. All About Eve was great writing, great performance. We don’t remember all the shitty movies they made at that time.”
Does she think more interesting female roles are written now or is it just her who happens to get them all?
“I do think they are being written. I think the industry has realised that women go and see things and we are getting more and more opportunities to put women at the forefront. We are a huge audience and we want to see ourselves represented.”
That’s why it works to have three women stars of The Kitchen. We can find ourselves in one of them for sure. What does she watch?
“I watch everything. I’m always looking for new things. I just watched Fleabag and Phoebe Waller Bridge is genius. She’s literally the second coming. I’ve also enjoyed After Life with Ricky Gervais, The Office was one of my favourite shows. Fleabag’s probably the most significant one.”
She lives in New York – Upper East Side. Came back to LA briefly to film Mad Men. As well as losing babies in every role she does, she seems to drink whisky.”
“I think it’s easy to recognise whisky as alcohol in TV and film. A Moscow Mule is less obvious.” We wonder if she should order Moscow Mules now, but she decides that it might make her fall asleep during her fitting. She’s a little bit on East Coast jetlag.
“I used to live in the East Village for about 13 years. Then I moved because I got a little bit older and I thought it’s too noisy and there are too many bars. I need to go uptown with children and dogs.”
Did she think she wanted children and dogs? “No.” At this time she did get married and unmarried to Saturday Night Live actor/comedian Fred Armison. They met in October 2008, married in October 2009 and in September 2010 filed for divorce.
Did it feel that it all happened in five minutes?
“Probably, but it does seem a long time ago.” Her answers are small but heartfelt. There’s no defensiveness. There’s no weird atmosphere. I’d read that she was so busy acting and producing, she didn’t have any time for dating and then she was dating but deciding not to name the person.
“Well that’s true but I now think who cares? His name is John. We’ve been together for over a year and he’s by the pool right now. In a way you want to preserve your privacy but in another way I don’t care. I love him, I’m playing it by ear, he’s lovely and I’m happy.” And they have two ginger fur daughters together. Does he at least have red hair?
“No, that would be amazing. But their actual daddy is a street cat in Brooklyn.”
There was a tabloid frenzy linking Moss to Tom Cruise. According to OK Magazine US edition, he wants to marry her and have babies.
“Not as far as I know. It would be awful for me and my boyfriend. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice but I’ve never met him.”
I wonder if the Tom Cruise rumour came about because they’re both Scientologists? “I have literally never met him.”
So many women of all ages love her, in part because she’s been a vulnerable power taker, a transformer. Somehow that doesn’t fit with becoming a Tom Cruise girlfriend.
“I always try to make my characters end up being heroines and representing feminism. I always try and make them real, whether it’s representing a woman in the workplace or a mother. I never think that’s why I identify with them. I think they’re just like you and I – not special, not perfect. We are not birds that are caged and cannot fly. Nobody is 100% good all of the time. We don’t have special powers. We’re women and we’re human. But real women who are not perfect can find their strength, whether that’s getting out of a bad relationship, telling your boss you want a raise or marching on the capital in a red costume.”
In a way, the red capes are part of a new wave or superhero costumes. “Yes. When I put that on, I feel proud. It represents something important to me. I feel there’s a responsibility in that costume. It’s red. It represents blood, it represents fertility and it can also represent adultery. It’s evocative. There’s a good reason why Margaret Attwood made the Handmaid’s dress red. We feel something when we see that colour.”
She worries that her face is shining so she touches up with Charlotte Tilbury powder “the best,” and a slash of super red lip colour.
Attwood has written a new book so there will be another Handmaid series. “I hope so. I hope I’m involved. There’s a gap between the current Handmaid and the new book which means we can finish our story and do whatever we want with it and it won’t have an effect on the book that’s been written.”
At the end of series 2 there was a decision where June/Offred could escape but she went back to fight from the inside. “There was no way she was gonna leave her daughter there and she has to be on the inside.”
Does she watch on a weekly basis? “As a producer I want to air one a week. As a viewer I love bingeing.” Is this her foray into producing? “No, I produced a film called Queen of Earth with Alex Ross Perry. Producing Handmaid’s is a big job. We’re going over who we’re hiring for season 4 and I’ve got 20 hours of cuts I need to make on episode 11, 12 and 13. It’s a round the year job because I’ve got to be in pre and post production.”
Working and juggling so much may mean that her red cape does indeed have super-powers. “I love working, I love my job, I love what I do. I don’t consider it a job. It’s my vocation. I feel very grateful that I have the opportunity to do it. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do what they love and make a living.
Up next, she’s in a remake of the horror film The Invisible Man. “It’s the lead but it’s not what you think. It’s a story of female empowerment, not an invisible woman but a woman going from victimised position to a powerful one. You can spend years on television doing that (like Peggy). I’m born and bred in television and I love the longform exploration. I don’t know if the tighter turnaround is easier or more difficult. It’s just you know exactly where you’re going to end up and it’s nice to be able to plot that – whole arc from beginning to end. In a series you don’t know that.”
We look again at Ethel in her outfit looking vulnerable and fierce. “I’m interested in exploring vulnerability and the duality in characters. Most people have both.”
She says this looking vulnerable and fierce and that’s exactly why so many people relate to Moss.
HER SMELL is out in the UK on Sept 9.and The Kitchen is out Sept 20
Ben Whishaw is wearing a navy shirt, dark wool trousers and a fluffy knitted hat. It’s a strange combination of quirkiness and elegance – he’s a one off. Lush, dark curls. He’s all cheekbones and large eyes. The eyes look so intense. They could be the eyes of a very intelligent animal, but perhaps that’s just because you can imagine him so easily as Paddington Bear – he is the voice of Paddington.
He’s also brought a new quirkiness to the quiet genius that is Q in the Bond movies and he’s just fresh from picking up the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for his portrayal of Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. He was achingly good. Everyone thinks so.
Did he expect this double win? “No idea. You never know how these things are going to work out but it was very nice.”
Is it career changing to have a Golden Globe winning prefix to his name? “I don’t know if it changes anything but it feels nice. They make you feel great being the winner,” he smiles and sips on herbal tea.
We are in a photographic studio in East London where I’ve just seen him drape himself so elegantly and effortlessly over an old-fashioned gymnasium horse and a British flag.
Does he think that winning awards in Hollywood means he will be spending more time there? “I don’t feel it’s my world out there. I just sort of dropped in and it was a lovely thing. I would like to drop in more often. Maybe it opens doors. I guess we’ll see. I haven’t directly communicated with Norman Scott but I gather he was happy and he asked for a signed photo of me holding the award.”
He speaks of Scott affectionately. In the mini series which sees Scott involved with horses and dogs, relating to them perhaps more easily than people? “He definitely feels a kinship with animals. A security that maybe he didn’t have with people.”
He is in London rehearsing a play called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. It will open in New York early April. The director (Katie Mitchell) doesn’t fly so the rehearsals are all in London. He plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn and the opera singer Renee Fleming is his co-star. I find it quite odd that Mitchell won’t be coming to the first night of her own play. Whishaw accepts this and says, “She doesn’t have enough time in her schedules to take the boat. She goes to Europe a lot to work by train and Renee has crazy insane schedules to everything has been slotted about what Renee could do. Renee is very open and hardworking and really clever. It’s incredible she’s open to this weird and wonderful thing. We just got the costumes. I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch – the white one where the wind comes up and they’ve given me bum, hips and breasts although I think they’re not as big as Marilyn’s they made it proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing, I’m not playing Marilyn but a man who’s infatuated with her so much that he wants to dress up as her to be close to her and because he’s in mourning for the loss of her the play is set in the year she died. Apparently, there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.”
The play will open as the first play in a space called The Shed which is also an art gallery and music venue. It’s been written by the poet Anne Carson. Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of classics and has been described as the greatest poet since Robert Lowell.
He thinks nothing of one minute doing an independent play and then a blockbuster. He moves in and out of both extremes easily. He was last seen in the Disney epic Mary Poppins Returns. It’s what happens to the characters thirty years after the original movie. He played Mr Banks – the grown-up boy Michael, now the father of the family facing 1930s depression and the potential loss of his home after the actual loss of his wife. His children aren’t adjusting and the governess Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) has never been more needed.
“Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw. My dad taped it off the telly and we had it on a Betamax tape. I watched it so many times the tape wore out.”
Is it possible to wear out a tape? Isn’t that a metaphor?
“It’s how I remember it.And now I play the grown-up boy who’s now the daddy of the family. His old nanny blows in because there’s been a lot of crisis in the family. Michael is struggling to cope and look after the children and run the household and pay for everything. That’s what motors the film. He’s about to lose the children’s home.”
I can see why they wanted him for that part. A man child, a 38- year old actor who can create the “perfect man with the struggle in his soul.”
“Well there’s nothing interesting about somebody who’s doing fine, is there?
Mary Poppins had a cousin called Topsy Turvy played by Meryl Streep. Did he get to hang out with Streep?
“No. I met her at the rehearsal and she was nice but I’m so completely left speechless when I’m in the same room as her.”
Ah yes, the introvert, extrovert. The actor who once told me he’s afraid of meeting people.
“Do you never feel that speechlessness come on you? Even though she seemed to be the nicest person, I was very timid and shy around her.”
Whishaw has an unusual but mesmerising charm. I wanted to give him my childhood Paddington Bear because it was special to me and his performance was special but my mother had thrown it away. He wasn’t disappointed by this, or at least he’s too charming to show it. He comes over quite other worldly, hyper sensitive but very soft and determined, full of contradictions like shy and actor.
“I haven’t got over my fear of meeting people. I love people but I’m just shy of meeting new people especially when they’re famous.”
Years have passed since Whishaw was fresh out of drama school and at 23 was acclaimed as one of the best ever Hamlets (the next Olivier) in the Trevor Nunn production. He played Hamlet as a teenager alienated from the world. Last year his portrayal of Norman Scott was arguably the best thing on TV. Clearly the judges at the Golden Globes agreed. He actually blushes when I mention this performance – so nuanced, so vulnerable, so creepy all at the same time.
“I’m pleased you found it all of those things. Did it make you laugh?”
Oh yes, and cry.
“He was a very sad man.” Scott loved his dogs. Whishaw loves cats. His father’s cat Bob died recently. He was only 6. He had to give his cats to his dad when he started working away from home a lot. They were a mother and daughter duo and the daughter Yana is now 18, the mother deceased.
“Yana got dragged under a car when she was 3 and her leg was ripped off. They had to stick it back on and ever since she looks fragile but she’s tough, almost indestructible.”
I wonder if he identifies with that. Looking fragile but actually quite strong. He’s very excited to have the role that embodies the vulnerability and the feistiness of Marilyn Monroe. I see the qualities in him.
When he comes back from New York he will begin shooting the new Bond. Of course, no one in a Bond movie can ever tell you in advance what it’s going to be like but I assume it’s a security issue.
“I think they’re probably trying to figure out what to do with the storyline. At least I know that y character is the same someone did tell me this time that there might be a scene with Q’s cats which you would be interested in.”
Have the cats been cast yet? “I don’t think so.” I immediately want to sort out an audition for my cat Roger (Moore). He would definitely have screen presence.
“And that would be a lovely connection named after a former Bond. Does he travel? Can he come to Pinewood? Can he cock an eyebrow?” Yes, he can. That’s why he’s called Roger Moore. “I’ll get onto Barbara Broccoli about it.”
Who is Mr Bond these days? “It’s still Daniel Craig, I think. They never tell you till the last minute.”
I tell him that I preferred Roger Moore’s Bond when they had film titles like Octopussy. The Craig Bond seems a little hard, a little rough diamond. His edges are the perfect contrast to Whishaw’s fluid Q.
He changes the subject back to Norma Jean. “Isn’t it good that I’m going to dress up as Norma Jean?” It is. I tell him I once went to an auction of Marilyn’s clothes and put in a bid for some pink marabou trimmed stilettoes but the winning bid exceeded mine by around £12,000.
“I would have loved to have had something of hers. She really was amazing. She had a lot going on. A lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.”
If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #metoo movement?
“I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.”
Fearless and vulnerable. That’s another contradiction that could possibly describe both of them.
“Yes,” he says with a ‘cats got the cream’ expression. He loves contradiction. We talk about the contradiction in the song lyrics of Steven Sondheim.
He asks, “Do you know the song Losing My Mind (by Sondheim)?” He sings it. He can sing. All the great divas have sung it.
“I’ve just finished reading a book called Fragments. It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry. She writes beautifully. Apparently, Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently, this was devastating to Marilyn. All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them.”
Has he ever read anyone else’s diary? “No, I haven’t but she must have known what she was looking for to see what she feared. It’s like looking at someone’s phone and somehow, it’s easier to look in the phone or the diary than ask the person directly. Isn’t it the thing that you want to have it confirmed but it’s really self-destructive? But maybe you think I have the evidence that would release me from this thing but no, I’ve never checked anyone’s phone or diary. There’s something a bit desperate about that, isn’t there?”
Well, Whishaw is the master of sensitivity. He’d never want to be desperate. He’s just finished a film Little Joe, “about a genetically modified plant that takes over people’s brains.”
I wondered if he played the plant. He doesn’t. how does he choose his roles or do roles come to him if producer and directors think the part needs the Whishaw effect? – something simple made a little spooky, or something spooky made a little normal.
“Usually I want parts where the character is compelling to me but sometimes if I fall in love with the director and want to work with them so much, I’ll do it no matter what they ask. It was my love for the Austrian director Jessica Hausner that made me want to do this film. She did a film called Lourdes a few years ago about a woman with multiple sclerosis who is indeed cured when she goes to Lourdes. It’s about miracles and how they happen or did they? And with Little Joe you’re not actually sure if a disaster is going to happen, if the plant is manipulating people or people are just insane. It’s the same kind of question.
“I play a scientist who has created this plant – a very pretty plant actually.”
The thing about a Whishaw role I find, is it haunts you long after the movie has retired. The Lobster was one such movie. It was surreal and bizarre and black like fairy tale.
He liked doing the Lobster where he played Limping Man. it was a love story. His character was straight, or at least in a sexual way.
Whishaw has created an ever-widening niche for himself –
From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
His wife Lizzie is there. She is tall and elegant and very funny. Before long she and I are showing each other our impersonations of Olivia Colman as we discuss her performance in The Favourite. Humphries joins us with, “It gives lesbian porn a bad name.”
He’s wearing a purple linen jacket, a green pullover and purple corduroy trousers but the corduroy is horizontal, in perfect keeping with the idea that Humphries likes to blend in, seem normal but is actually completely the other way. He defends Colman saying she was very good in the Night Manager. Lizzie and I chorus ‘but she’s the same in everything’. Humphries smiles. “So am I.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Humphries is the creator of many diverse personas – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the ghost Sandy Stone. Often they could say things that Humphries himself could not. Humphries is a rare breed – a man who is altogether a man who is available and unavailable at once. He’s intimate, yet detached, kind and razor sharp, cutting.
We’re here to talk about his return to the London stage for Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage. Did he know Brydon already?
“Yes I wrote to him and I said I admired his work so we met for dinner.”
So, it’s like a bromance? Will he rehearse this probing? No. It’s totally spontaneous,” he grimaces.
You wonder if it’s hard for Barry Humphries to be Barry Humphries. Last year he put on an intriguing show at the Barbican with the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. It was a fascinating journey through songs from the Weimar Republic, composers who were banned by Hitler that Humphries had rediscovered as a child. He was whip smart and funny as himself.
“I’m getting confidence now to do things as myself. I’ve always preferred to be heavily disguised but a disguise I’ve never used is the disguise of myself.”
He’s just back from Australia and is still suffering from jetlag. Where do I live in LA he asks apropos of seemingly nothing, but the eyebrow is raised.
I am giving you a scoop,” he whispers. “Edna’s coming back. She’s in very good shape. She’s been measured for new frocks and 3 songs have been written. She’s back there at the end of the year after opening in Australia.”
Edna did a retirement world tour a couple of years back where she put away her sequinned winged glasses for good.
“My first song for that show is written and it’s all about why Edna didn’t retire. It’s a wonderful song explaining to the audience why it was impossible to retire. It says there were too many people trying to copy me, including Barry Humphries and it was time they reacquainted themselves with the real thing. Too many clones.”
Edna got into trouble before she retired or maybe it was Barry Humphries because people were saying she was very anti-trans. Is it the same political situation in Australia?
“Oh, nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted. Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women and that got taken the wrong way.”
Edna was still causing trouble even in her retirement.
“She was about as gone as Cher or Dame Nelly Melba of whom your younger readers will know nothing (Australian singer who did many retirement concerts).
It seems Humphries works tirelessly. He’s revising the comic strip Barry McKenzie, writing the new Edna show and the meantime he has the Palladium.
I remember going to an Edna show in Drury Lane and I caught a gladioli. “You catch gladioli like you catch Ebola. Right place right time you get it..” I laugh, he smiles.
“I like anyone who can make me and an audience laugh.”
He hopes his Palladium show will be a conversation about how comedy has changed, about what’s funny and what isn’t.
Does he think that the fashion has changed in his and Edna’s lifetime? “Not in a drastic way. More and more people want to be comedians. In my day not many people wanted to be a comedian as an ambition. It wasn’t profitable. But with television and all the other outlets and also fame attached to being a comedian, comedians are the new rock stars. Billy Connolly was the first rock star comedian.”
What will be some of his greatest comedy moments?
“I’m still deciding but there will be some scenes from the Marx Brothers, Steve Martin and Woody Allen. And I’d like to include some of my own early films. Lizzie says if she hears me laughing in another room, she knows I’m laughing at one of my own jokes. She can tell.”
He remembers going to his first comedy show.
“It was an amazing discovery when I went to The Tivoli with my parents. The Tivoli was a disreputable theatre in Melbourne which had variety shows but on this occasion my parents went because I was a fan of someone called Arthur Askey, a British comedian. To hear a man onstage making the whole audience laugh was a miracle to me. I thought I wonder how they do that and the seed was planted, little knowing that I might one day…”
In the past, Humphries has described Edna as being opinionated, acerbic and bolshy and did he even like her? “I like the effect she has on the audience. She makes them laugh.” Thus, Edna gave Humphries the gift he’d wanted as a child. And it must have been hard for him to give her up to be onstage as himself as he is much shyer.
The prep for Edna – the dresses, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing, the eight shows a week must have been very exhausting. And everyone’s always asking where does Humphries end and Edna begin. Suddenly there was no circle. Edna was ended. But it seems he couldn’t live without her and her voice. She’s coming back later this year. There’s already a tour of Australia and US dates planned.
He is nostalgic about the comedians and the Australia in his youth.
“When they’d done every stage in England several times, when the audience could repeat the words of their comic routines they went to Melbourne to the Tivoli. They made jokes I didn’t understand and I noticed my parents exchanging guilty looks, must have been naughty jokes. Risque. Little did I know I would become a risqué comedian. A blue comic as they were called.
When I first got a gig at a return serviceman’s club in Sydney in the 1950s, they said to me ‘the audience likes blue material and at the age of 22 I was so naïve I wore my Sunday best blue three-piece suit. I thought the material was fabric.”
Humphries has had a 64 year career onstage. By now he knows the difference. It turns out he has quite a thing for Brydon.
“Every time I turn on the television Rob is there on the deck of a ship. He seems to live a wonderful life on board those ships (he does a commercial for P&O cruises). I am consumed with envy of Rob. Benevolent envy.”
As Humphries he’s extremely benevolent. As Edna less so. He cuts an impressive figure today – so colourful and energetic and still has the legs for Edna. Does he feel 85?
“No, I feel 52.” He likes to paint. He enjoys a good restaurant – especially one owned by a celebrity chef – and he has friendships with many luminaries including Prince Charles and Camilla. He’s done countless world tours and has written two memoirs – My Life As Me and More Please, both achingly well written. He has courted danger and controversy throughout.
I’ve always wondered though is it a political statement. Why is it that Edna never wears a bra?
“She’s never been embarrassed to say that she was blessed in many ways but not that way. She waited for something to appear but it never took place. She found the twinset helpful and that if she wore elaborate spectacles no-one’s eyes dropped south of the glasses. She’s never tried to be a sex object. She’s very relieved she’s not known as that. They’re a miserable lot, the sex objects”
He is the master of being attached and detached all at the same time. It’s been so long since he had a drink, he doesn’t really treat it as an issue anymore.
“It’s a nice thing but a life’s a life. For some people like me it’s off the menu. It just doesn’t work. I have it in the house for other people. I could give you an absinthe if you want one. I brought upon myself some horrible events.”
Did he find that Edna had taken away the voice of Barry Humphries so that’s why he found it so hard to return to the stage as himself? And maybe himself was never himself.
“It’s more like I find the voice for it. Whatever the thought it I think who would be best saying this? Me, him, her, it so I choose like a casting agent. When I saw The Favourite, I thought Edna would be very good in the Colman role.”
Edna a lesbian? “No. As she once said, she doesn’t even like the word. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth.”
I remember her saying that. “It was one of her famous utterances.”
Does he ever think her humour was too cruel? “Nobody ever asked for their money back. she’s fundamentally caring.”
His parents were far from encouraging. I remember my mother saying ‘look at that comedian. It’s pathetic at his age but the comedian she was referring to was only about fifty. These days 85 is the new 50.”
Humphries was not there when his mother died. He was told she was in hospital but it was nothing serious. But contrary to the end she would say, ‘look at these lovely flowers Barry sent me’ but he had sent no flowers.
“I come from a family who have a great deal of prudiness about illness. If someone was very ill we’d say he hasn’t been very well lately, which means dying.”
Also, perhaps the family didn’t tell his mother she was gravely ill.
“That’s right. I had a vision of someone coming back to Australia after a long absence and going to the family home and finding it was occupied by Ukranians and then you say to your sister what’s happened to mum and dad? ‘oh, they died but we didn’t want to worry you.’
Does he forgive his parents?
“Yes, I sympathise with them. I agree with them wholeheartedly about everything that they said to me that offended me at the time. My parents were very nice. They had a hard time with me. Whenever I did a performance or asserted myself in any way at a family gathering my mother would say, ‘don’t look at Barry, he’s drawing attention to himself.’ I thought that would be a good name for a show. Barry Humphries draws attention to himself one more time. Maybe I’ll call my new show that. My mother had a series of phrases. They weren’t original but they were, on her lips, rather devastating. She timed it perfectly. She was a frustrated artist I think and they are dangerous people, frustrated artists. You know Hitler was a frustrated artist. She was very hard to please so I grew up with the assumption that women were impossible to please and some of them obliged me by conforming to this, by being impossible.”
Humphries has had four wives Brenda Wright, a dancer (1955-1957) when he was 21 and she was 19. It ended quickly. Of the marriage she has said, ‘there’s nothing about Barry Humphries that I want to remember. My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’
Rosalind Tong (1957-1970) a dancer, artist Diane Millstead (1979-1989), mother of his two sons Oscar and Rupert and Lizzie Spender (actress and equestrian, daughter of the poet Stephen (1990 till now) He has two daughters, Tessa and Emily from his 3rd wife.
“Women are impossible but not Lizzie. She’s the exception. It took four marriages to find her.”
Perhaps he should have kept them as girlfriends and not actually married them.
“I was doing very well financially and I thought I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow.
Is that close to what happened?
“Yes, the Ukranians improved the family home greatly. Sometimes I think it would be funny to advertise the new show and then say to the audience coming in very sorry ladies and gentleman but Dame Edna has passed away. We didn’t want to worry you.”
Humphries is presented with a contraption and he grimaces. He says to his assistant who has just delivered it, “You had to do that in front of a journalist, didn’t you… So far the grim reaper has made very few inroads but my hearing has suffered.”
His hearing doesn’t seem to be any different with the contraption but I can hear a high-pitched squeaking. The hearing aid has done the opposite to aid and it’s reminding Humphries of all the restaurants he doesn’t like to go in because they’re too loud – “the Caprice is deafening.”
He once wanted to open a restaurant called The Oubliette, which he would fill with Shostakovich like music so no one would be able to talk at all.
“In the middle ages they used to chuck somebody in a hole and then they forget about them so the Oubliette was a restaurant where you are forgotten and the waiter never comes. I remember one time in the 1960’s when a cookery writer at The Express invited me to lunch at The Savoy. I could choose whatever I wanted and she would interview me about food so I ordered Oysters Zarina which are oysters with caviar on them and you dip them in cream. Must have cost a fortune. The chef came to the table and said, ‘you’re the first person to order Oyster Zarina since Ambassador Ribbentrop’.
He seems a little sheepish about being 85. There must be a sense of time running out.
“Is there a follow up to the CBE and if so, how long does it take?” Humphries is already a dame as Edna. Perhaps people might think a Sir would be superfluous.
“People have said it’s not strictly kosher, Edna’s damehood.”
What age does he feel? “I feel about 52.”
We discuss a man in Holland who tried to change the date on his birth certificate because he identified as 45 instead of 65. He wasn’t allowed. One can change one’s pronoun but not one’s age.”
After the trans-phobia, Humphries got into trouble because he was pro Brexit, anti-Brussels and now he is redefined as anti-Brexit.
“I think I have actually but I don’t have any interesting political views. What was lovely about being in Australia was they’ve never heard of Brexit. I was in Sydney writing and Lizzie was visiting her horses. We have a flat with a view of the harbour. I’m reviving Barry McKenzie the comic strip. I thought what would this character so popular in the sixties be doing now and I worked it out.” (it first appeared in Private Eye, now it’s destined for The Oldie.)
He’s come back to England because he wanted to see some Australian mates who are not in Australia any more.
“There are no Australians in Australia any more. Only Chinese.”
The Australians of his generation like Germain Greer and Clive James are very much part of the British heritage. “I wrote a clerihew about Clive James. Dear old Clive James is still alive. We know he’s not dead because he’s telling us about all the books he’s read. Germain is still alive. And I’m very glad. And Rolf Harris is still alive. I never liked his appearance.”
What does he fear? “Obscurity and ghosts. I’m very scared of ghosts. I believe in them and I’m very wary of them. I don’t like to sleep in haunted places and Australia’s very spooky. Ghosts are there. Explorers and senior citizens. I’ve promised to be one. There is a theatre in Adelaide called Her Majesties. They are building it and I promised to be a ghost there.
He once said of his children, ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are a man surrounded by suitcases. Now he says, ‘They’re all doing well. Two daughters in Melbourne, one a painter, the other an actor. My son Oscar is an art expert and dealer. My son Rupert co-wrote a video game called Red Dead Redemption and he’s hugely successful. All of these children of mine are mostly well behaved and don’t require any financial support. What more could you wish? Rupert has twins and I dote on them and Oscar has a daughter.”
“Edna heard that Barry Humphries was claiming to do an Edna act and a few terrible drag queens were doing Edna as Edna. She needed to set the record straight.”
I still think he just couldn’t let her go.
Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage at the Palladium April 28th
I meet Dennis Quaid in The Village recording studio, West LA. Every rock God from Tom Petty to Robert Plant seems to have made their greatest albums there. Quaid, 64, is recording his first album with his band The Sharks. He jokes, “The oldest rock band ever to make a debut album.”
Everybody says it but it’s true. He’s handsome. Tall, ripped, good cheekbones and good hair and inquiring eyes – the kind that make you feel he’s interested in what you have to say. He’s in skinny jeans and a dark tee.
He was born in Houston, Texas. Grew up wanting to be a cowboy or an astronaut. As an actor he could and was indeed both. His breakout leading role was in The Big Easy in 1986 famous for his sexy chemistry with Ellen Barkin. He was Jerry Lee Lewis in Great Balls of Fire (1989), played opposite Meryl Streep in Postcards from The Edge (1990) and was Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp (1994).
He disappeared for a while as a leading man but returned in a Globe winning performance as the closet gay in Todd Haynes Far From Heaven (2002). He was in last year’s super weepy surprise hit A Dog’s Purpose.
And he’s next up reprising his role in the Sci-Fi TV series Fortitude (Sky), set 400 miles from the North Pole – the safest place on earth that suddenly becomes violent, dangerous and spooky.
“I really loved it,” he says of the extreme temperature. “I’ve been colder in New York.” In the last series his character (Michael Lennox) went a little crazy. After obsessively trying to find a cure for his wife’s far too rapidly progressing wasting disease, she dies. He becomes undone with grief and starts drinking. “How about that…”
“I connected to my character because we’re both extremely bull headed.”
Astrologically he’s not a bull, he’s an Aries and I know this because he’s the same day as my dad and Hugh Hefner – April 9. He and Hef had a birthday party together once.
“It wasn’t really a joint birthday party. It was his party which I was at. It just happened to be my birthday.” He’s exactly the type who would never miss a Hef birthday bash.
“April 9th people are filled with adrenaline. They are tenacious and optimistic. They run before they think. They are comfortable in extremes. The middle ground is…” (he pulls a face) “we don’t want that.”
Quaid calls himself a romantic – has been married 3 times, divorced 3 times. The first to actress P J Soles (1978-1983), most famously to Meg Ryan (1991-2001), most recently to Texas real estate agent Kimberly Buffington (2004) and his divorce finalised just a few weeks ago.
“I think what divorce does is it takes away your identity. It’s like a death. Your identity is wrapped up in the relationship and if it’s not going to be there…” His eyes are searching, troubled. He finishes the sentence, “who are you?”
Isn’t it death of a family member and moving house that are supposed to cause the most stress to the human psyche?
“And then there’s divorce which is death and moving. The birth of a child is another stressful situation. Not just because things could go wrong (his ten-day old twins were given a thousand times stronger dosage of blood thinner by mistake and the babies nearly died) but also because you have to redefine who you are.”
Does he mean he was no longer Dennis but daddy? “Yes, my son Jack is 26 now. I was 38 when he was born and I realised my life was over. I could no longer have any guilt free experiences… I’m exaggerating but I am responsible for someone else in the world and that’s never going to go away. My mother (91) still worries about me.”
She texts him nearly every day. His mother Juanita was in real estate and his father William Rudy an electrician.
“He passed away when he was 63 in 1987 of a heart-attack. And I’m 64 so when I had my 63rd birthday it was a psychological moment – it definitely ran through my mind then I forgot about it until one night a few months ago I was having trouble sleeping and it hit me. My dad’s birthday was November 21st and he died on February 8th and I started adding up the days and I was exactly that age. Then the next day I realised I was older than he ever made. I made it past. I intend to live until I am 130.”
How did he redefine himself when he had the twins Thomas Boone and Zoe Grace born via a surrogate in 2007?
“It was very different. You have both of them coming at you at once. The good part is that they each have a playmate and the hard part is that you have to do everything double.” They are now 10.
Did having twins change the relationship with his then wife? “Having kids always changes your relationship.”
He says of Meg Ryan “We are friends.” I’m sure that wasn’t always the case. At the time of their separation in 2000 they were the biggest couple in Hollywood. They were at the peak of their careers. When they lost each-other they lost grasp on that, with only Quaid regaining acclaim and ratings. America’s sweetheart got puffy and pillow faced with fillers. Her currency redundant. Quaid stayed himself, determined, chiselled, handsome. He says he works out a lot because, “I’m vain. The industry’s vain.” Plus remember, he’s planning on living to 130
The most unusual place he had sex is in an elevator. “Is that really unusual?” he muses. “It was a slow elevator. It was in Quebec. It must be the French influence. It was the elevator going to my own apartment so it wasn’t like a public building.”
That makes it a little more boring. “Well, not for me.” But there wasn’t the excitement that someone could call the elevator and the doors would open. “It’s true. I knew the other floors were currently unoccupied and no one was coming in but she didn’t,” he laughs. Was this a while ago? “Not too long.” Out of politeness I stifle my giggle because in the next room is his girlfriend of 2 years, French-Canadian model Santa Auzina, 31. She’s tall, blonde, endless legs, tiny lycra shorts, tiny vest, smiles a lot like nothing bothers her. We all wish we had that smile. She’s documented their love, their soulmate status with many Instagram posts of their exotic holiday destinations as a couple.
I think Quaid enjoys talking about his mistakes. We start from the movies he turned down.
“I turned down Big. I hit myself over that. At the time there were three other movies with a similar storyline and Big was going to be second but it wasn’t. I should have taken Big.”
He also missed out on An Officer and a Gentleman. “I didn’t turn it down. I was on an around the world trip with my wife. In those days you could buy a ticket for $1000. My then wife PJ Soles and I were going around the world. We were literally half way round, in New Delhi, when my agent called and said, ‘The part is yours. You just have to come back. Taylor Hackford wants you’. We cut short the vacation. We flew back to LA and either they had decided while I was en route they wanted Richard Gere… I did not get the part.”
Did that contribute to his first divorce – cutting short the big vacay? “No, they even said they would send me back on my vacation if it didn’t work out. They didn’t.”
Curiously, he’s already played several presidents. Why does he think he’s such a good presidential candidate?
“You get to a certain age and you can play presidents if you have that trustworthy/untrustworthy look.”
So far, he’s been Clinton, Bush, and he’s just about to be Regan. “I was Bill Clinton in A Special Relationship (2010) when Michael Sheen was Tony Blair and a Bush like character (President Staton) in American Dreamz (2006). I was offered George W Bush for the Katrina film but I turned it down because of conflicts in schedule. Regan is a very interesting person. So many stories that people who were close to him didn’t really know him.”
He became friends with Clinton. “I spent a weekend at the White House when I was married to Meg. We went there when we were invited to the King of Spain’s state dinner.” (In a frighteningly convincing Clinton impersonation he continues) ‘You’ve got to stay, you’ve got to stay. We’re gonna play some golf.’”
“Meg went home, Hillary was out of town so it was just me and Bill. We played golf, we got in the Presidents Limousine and had a couple of Subway sandwiches. At the time I was better at golf but he would have been a much better golfer if he wasn’t President.
“He was the smartest guy I’ve ever met and very kind to me. When it was announced that Meg and I were getting a divorce he called me from Airforce One. He was over the Atlantic right after Palestinian talks had collapsed. I don’t know how he found me but he did. He just wanted to let me know he was thinking of me.”
The week after our interview he is off to Canada for a sequel to A Dog’s Purpose. He’s heard the stories that people who never cry dissolved during that movie. It’s sentimental, it’s about dogs who are devoted, who love you and then they die but the love goes on.
Quaid has always been a dog person. Grew up with them. At the moment he has a miniature English bulldog named Peaches.
“Just one. I had two French Bulldogs die in the same year. One natural causes as they say, he went into the kids bathroom which he never went into, lay down and had a stroke or heart attack. The other drowned in the pool. It was really hard to take. They weren’t brothers, they were two years apart but they loved each other.”
We wonder could the second one have thrown himself into the pool on purpose? He nods, “It could have been. If you’re going to have pets you’re going to have death.”
In the dog movie the dog is reincarnated and comes back several times as a different type of dog. Quaid has always been interested in various kinds of spiritual thinking – he doesn’t like organised religion.
“When I was 11 I was baptised into the Baptist church. Then I was re-baptised in the Ganges river by a friend of mine who was a preacher. When I went round the world my question was ‘Who is God to you?’ I’ve read the bible twice, the Koran, the Baghavad Gita. I’m a seeker. I used to call myself a Zen Baptist. Basically, I’m a Christian but everyone goes through a crisis of faith. I have crisis all the time… but some of them are champagne crisis meaning that’s a pretend crisis.”
The crisises in his life have been quite documented, especially the divorces and cocaine addiction, yet more recently he had a new addiction – the Swiffer.
“Yes, it’s true. I got obsessed with dusting with the Swiffer. It was right after the divorce in my single life. I would get into bed and my feet were just black from everything. I didn’t like that feeling so I discovered the Swiffer. It works quickly and it picks up all the dust. Doesn’t that say something about my champagne crisis?”
It says that he wasn’t comfortable without someone taking care of the home. It says that the dust in the apartment and the black feet symbolised that he was alone. He still drinks champagne and other forms of alcohol. He gave it up for 10 years as part of the process of giving up cocaine in the 90s.
“Then I started drinking again because alcohol was never my problem. I never liked the feeling of being drunk.”
Alcohol high and cocaine high are opposites.
“I would do coke and I would use alcohol to come down.”
What about doing coke so he didn’t feel drunk?
“That was the deal back then so I had to break the cycle.”
He reminisces. “I liked coke. I liked it to go out. I missed it for quite a while. I used to grind my teeth for four years. I was doing about 2 grams a day. I was lucky. I had one of those white light experiences where I saw myself being dead and losing everything I had worked for my whole life so I put myself in rehab. I had a band, basically Bonnie Raitt’s backing band and the night after we got a record deal we broke up. (Like in The Commitments) The next day I was in rehab.”
“I took anti-depressants back in the day around coming off cocaine because there’s a depression that goes on. It’s a temporary thing. I don’t think they were ever intended to be taken on a long-term basis.”
When he was coming off cocaine did he want to eat a lot? “Yes, I wanted to sleep too. I suddenly discovered sleeping.”
He does eat. I’ve just seen him bolt a giant sandwich down in less than 30 seconds. “I’ve always had a high metabolism. I get high from exercising. I really do. I think it does what all those anti-depressants are supposed to do.”
When he played Doc Holliday in Wyatt Earp, he lost 44 pounds because the character was wasting away from tuberculosis.
“I went down to 138 pounds and it took me a year to put it back on because when you get into that compulsive obsessive behaviour of not eating it does strange things to your mind and it took me a while to get over that self-image of myself. I got over it and now I don’t follow any diet and I like cooking. My signature dish? A Louisiana seafood gumbo.”
“But I also like caviar. Would you like some? I’ve just bought some. It’s here in the studio fridge.” I decline to join the caviar party although any partying with Quaid has got to be fun. I am impressed with his self-confidence, his charisma. He has not had work done he has just worked on himself. For a minute I am confused but he reminds me, at my request, of some chronology. He was not doing drugs or alcohol went he met Ryan and they were married for 9 years.
“I was single for several years and I met Kimberly. We were married in 2005 and our divorce finally wound up a couple of months ago.” The divorce with Kimberly went on and off a few times and the only constant was his band.
He formed the Sharks 18 years ago. He tells me he was always a performer. Always a song writer.
“The Sharks are having a great time. We’ve done about 40 gigs this year. After this last divorce I’ve really got back into music again. I was going to be a musician before I was an actor.”
Has anyone famous ever recorded his songs? “No, that would be an ideal thing. I’ve been going to Nashville quite a lot recently. It’s my favourite city. It’s such a collegiate feeling. Everyone is there for each other.”
We talk about the possibility of living in Nashville. “I tried to move back to Texas (Austin) because I grew up in Houston. But when I moved back I found myself meandering around the house. I didn’t factor in that I’d already spent 35 years in Los Angeles and your friends and the places you haunt… so I moved back.”
“For 30 years I had a ranch in Montana. It was beautiful. I used to spend 4 months of the year there but then it dwindled down with work and whenever I’d go there I’d find for the first week I’d just be fixing things but I felt too guilty to go anywhere else so I decided to sell it.”
“I grew up wanting to be a cowboy but as I grew up in Houston – a space city and I wanted to be an astronaut. Gordo Cooper was my favourite astronaut because he was a bit rock n roll and had a cool name. Gordo is short for Gordon. I read his book and said if they’re ever making a movie I want to play him. And I did. I met him and he put me in touch with a flight instructor. I’ve got my pilots license so now I can fly jets. I’m learning to fly a helicopter. It’s like riding a magic carpet… I love to travel. I just hate to leave but it’s always really great to arrive.”
He does enjoy simple pleasures such as calf roping. “Calf roping is where you’re on a horse and another person is on the left and on the right the calf is let out of the chute. He runs, you catch the horns and the other person catches the foot. It was a skill learned when they gathered cows for branding but you get timed for it.
“Horses are such sweet animals. Such intimacy when you are on a horse, especially bareback. He can feel your heartbeat and you can feel his. They are very sensitive animals, not predators. They always look around for danger.”
He mimics a horse with eyes doing a panorama.
He shows me pictures of the Icelandic horses he encountered when filming Fortitude and teams of dogs pulling his sledge. He explains that the dogs are ranked fastest at the front and get competitive with one another and that the horses are climbers.
“About 3,000 people live there and 5,000 polar bears although I didn’t see a single one. It doesn’t snow the whole year but the snow blows around. They don’t have immigration or tariffs so it reminds you of the old West.”
So once again a dream come true – an Arctic cowboy. He enjoyed the extreme of Fortitude where they had 5 days of almost total darkness. “I don’t know if there will be another series. If you’re an actor in a series you want to keep it going but maybe the golden age of many seasons is over.”
He doesn’t seem to have the slightest insecurity about that.
Santa is patiently waiting in another room. I wonder was it a conflict with his recently ex-wife?
“No, it wasn’t a conflict. I met her very close after my ex and I were separated. I was just going to be single and that was just going to be it. I was going to be stone cold Steve Austin when it came to love and then Santa came along. It was like….”
She replaced the Swiffer?
“She’s better than a Swiffer, that’s for sure. She was not going to let it go. Couldn’t help it. So, I had to go with it. I am a romantic. I like being in a relationship, I really do. It’s fun to be single up to a point but I like being in a relationship. I also like having kids around, as annoying as they can be sometimes, I am a family orientated person.”
Is he planning more kids?
“I’m not planning kids. I don’t rule anything out.”
And that’s how Dennis Quaid gets to be Dennis Quaid… he works out every day and he doesn’t rule anything out.
I’m waiting for Rob Lowe at the Polo Lounge, Beverley Hills Hotel. I’m sat in his favourite table, corner banquette outside. The best spot “for people watching”. When he arrives, the staff perform bowing rituals as if he is royalty. As indeed he is – Hollywood royalty, having started off in the 1983 era defining Francis Ford Coppola film The Outsiders and proceeding to become a high-octane member of the Brat Pack with Robert Downey Jr, Sean and Chris Penn, Emilio Estevez and Charlie Sheen after his role in St Elmo’s Fire.
After a decade of excess (of everything – alcohol, sex) he found his niche proper as Press Secretary Sam Seaborn in The West Wing.
There’s been a profusion of TV series including Code Black and the much loved Parks and Rec, a Globe nomination for his The Grinder and for his role as Dr Jack Startz (creepy cosmetic surgeon) in Beyond The Candalabra and a whole new career as an author. His memoirs Stories I Only Tell My Friends and Love Life are both wonderful reads (both NY Times Best Sellers) with just the right amount of fun, self-deprecation and revelation.
In the flesh he is so handsome you gasp – perfect, chiselled, jaw droppingly handsome. His skin is firm and tan, his slinky body ripples under his dark blue T shirt. His eyes are cornflower blue. Not surprisingly he’s got a skincare range called Profile. Who wouldn’t want to have his skin?
“I’m so hungry,” he announces as soon as he sits down. While you might assume Rob Lowe’s hungry would be for a piece of steamed fish, it’s a burger he’s craving with fries and we share a Macarthy salad to start. It’s an enormous chopped salad involving very bad things.
He’s about to leave for London where on December 1 he will perform his one man show Stories I Only Tell My Friends. He says he’s written it instead of a third book. He’s also going to be filming Wild Bill, a crime drama for ITV set in the Midlands.
When the chunky salad comes it seems as if he’s hungry on another level, an emotional one. Is that a tear glistening in his eye?
He tells me his three-year old dog, Jack a German short haired pointer has just died. He’s in town for meetings. His home is in Santa Barbra and everything happened so quickly he couldn’t get back to say goodbye. “By yesterday he was blind and having seizures. They think he was poisoned. I saw him eating mushrooms in the yard… I pulled him off but I must have been too late… He was such a f****** good boy. I’ll show you a picture of him.”
He shows me the dog – sensitive eyed, brown and white speckled. Lowe loves his dogs. He has another, a Jack Russell called David. He took David to see an animal communicator.
“She would give voice to the animal such as ‘David wants you to know he’s working very hard and he doesn’t feel he’s appreciated.’ David is 17 and every time I go away I think somethings going to happen to him…but it was this guy. He was so happy and I’ve never had a dog that would play fetch with me all day long. David doesn’t do fetch but David was a surf professional. He would surf with his own life preserver on and a dog board but he gave it up.”
Would Lowe ever give up surfing? “Hell no. I’m into it more than ever.” Lowe is into many things. He’s the ultimate multi tasker. Acting, writing, surfing. There’s an energy from him that’s nothing to do with his high caffeine consumption. It’s an inner drive. It’s electric. It’s palpable. He’s used to turning things around. There have been quite a few life changing choices that have gone on for Lowe but more of that later.
“You know all dogs go to heaven.”
My sunglasses fall off my head because the arms are too wide. He tries to fix them. He’s got such elegant hands, long fingers, pink nail beds, an intricate wedding ring and a wizardy looking gold ring with a diamond triangle, both made by his wife Sheryl (nee Berkoff), the jewellery designer who sells at Bergdorfs and Niemans. High end stuff for high end people.
Does the wizardy one have magic powers?
“In a way. It’s the sign for being in recovery.” I’ve never seen anyone with a recovery style ring as beautiful as this one but I’ve never really seen anyone that’s been in recovery for 20 years. He’s passionate about being in recovery. He said if he’d been on the booze he wouldn’t have achieved anything and right now his days are very full.
“This is a very famous salad you know. It feels very Jackie Collins in the best possible way.” Indeed, it was her favourite salad. “I made it into one of her books once. It was a career highlight. It read ‘he walked into the room and he looked like Rob Lowe.’” I tell him no one looks like Rob Lowe. “You’re nice to say it,” and he smiles, happy to have a compliment and I’m happy that he’s not one of these people who say, ‘no, no, surely not.’
The waitress delivers a candle even though it’s daylight to help the flies go away. They noticed from afar that the flies were bothering him. “Flies love me. I hate flies. My wife hates flies. Sheryl Lowe loses it over flies. Once we were in Hawaii. It’s a beautiful day and she says, ‘these flies have red faces.’ There’s nobody more quotable than Sheryl Lowe. I’ve had more people offer to make a reality series out of her than…”
Wait a minute. I thought you already did a reality series with your boys (Matthew 25 and John Owen 23). “Both smart, cool guys. The Lowe Files was us on the road exploring supernatural legends. A very different kind of reality. I loved it and I’m proud of it but if we had the traditional cameras following us everywhere it would be the biggest thing because my family is so nuts…My wife is such an original. Her business is growing faster than she can keep up with. It’s very inspiring to watch but not surprising. One of the reasons I fell in love with her when I was dating everybody under the sun was that she had her own business, her own work life, a tremendous work ethic and she was so driven. And that really comes through in everything she’s accomplished which is awesome.”
There was a time when Rob Lowe really was dating everybody who was A lister ready. And why not? He was young and gorgeous and available. He dated Natasha Kinski, Demi Moore, Princess Stephanie and Melissa Gilbert and admitted to using MTV like a home shopping network. If he saw a sexy dancer on the latest Sting video he would get her number.
The opening chapter of his book Stories I Only Tell My Friends is about how he lived in awe of John Kennedy Junior – his heritage, the fact that all of his girlfriends loved him and when John Kennedy Jr saw that Lowe was married to Sheryl and expressed surprise ‘How did you settle down?’ and Lowe recommended that the gorgeous blonde now chatting with his wife was one that Kennedy should not let go, soon after Kennedy married Caroline. Just after he put Lowe on the cover of his magazine George he was killed in the plane crash.
But how did Lowe do it? How did the most handsome man in the world make monogamy interesting?
“When it came down to it, what kind of woman do you want? There were the Princess Stephanie’s who sleep till 5.00pm, wake up, dinner, no less than 15 people a night, a club, repeat, repeat, repeat. Or there’s the Sheryl Lowe’s who come from nothing and own their own house by the time they are 20.”
We realise he’s missing a pickle and the pickle arrives immediately. Not sure he’ll get this kind of service in the Midlands where he goes to shoot Wild Bill.
“I play an American law enforcement analyst whose father was a cop who never wanted to be ground down by the system. He went to Stanford, got his degree in algorithms and still ended up in law enforcement. He has a 13-year old daughter who’s struggling since her mom has died. He’s been headhunted by the police force in Boston UK to come and take care of the largest crime rate per capita in the UK.”
We’re not sure if the crime rate statistic is fact or fiction but in 2018 the Lincolnshire area crime rate was higher than average and in 2016 it was the highest in the UK.
“It’s a classic fish out of water – cosmopolitan American comes to the Midlands. It’s a different case each week but each case has a direct correlation to the growth and discovery of the character. It’s an interesting hybrid in the way that you could only do it in the UK because it’s a character driven piece with procedural elements. He’s a fly off at the mouth, say anything, hot tempered guy and he runs foul of the skittish British sensibility…”
But first up is the one man show. I tell him I can’t wait to see his show live. It has stand up comedy elements and Q&A. When Lowe endured of those infamous VH1 roasts, no one enjoyed it more than him. He loves a bit of self-roasting. Roasts are scary, people insult you but he was ‘bring it on’. He is thrilled by self-deprecation.
“I’m so excited to see how it plays in the UK. It’s predominantly comedy. I give myself a pretty good beating.”
Why does he do that? Pause.
“All my heroes – and I say this in no way self reverentially – were big movie stars who owned it, had tons of charisma and didn’t shy away from it and were unbelievably self-deprecating and self-aware. They got the joke yet they were also being very serious. So it’s in that spirit that I write my books.”
The books flow. They are serious without taking themselves seriously.
“This is like having a third book that I can continue to amend. A living, breathing thing. My reference and inspiration for the first book was David Niven. Niven had a way of writing that delivered everything you want from a celebrity memoir.”
Humour, revelation and flow. “And self-deprecation. Get in, get out, nobody gets hurt. There’s a substance to his book like when you’re done with it, it’s not disposable.”
And I would say it’s the same of Lowes, which opens with the John Kennedy Jr moments and goes through his uncomfortable family set up (parents divorced when he was 4) The gregarious father was absent and his mother, a teacher, loved language.
Born in Dayton, Ohio he was a working actor at 8, in repertory at 15. There’s a punchy chapter about his excitement at being chosen for The Outsiders and his anguish when he saw most of his scenes had been cut.
Of course, it’s a compelling read – what eighties fame felt like from the inside and how it slipped away. He doesn’t slip away from his infamous incident the night before the Democratic national convention. He was there at 24 supporting Presidential candidate Michael Dukakis. He took two girls that he met in a nightclub back to his hotel room. His age had been checked rigidly. He assumed theirs had but one was only 16. Their encounter was filmed and the result was the very first leaked sex tape. The 16-year olds mother brought a civil suit against Lowe who ended up with a fine and 20 hours community service.
In the book he says that that night “would set in motion events that would ultimately, through a painful, long and circuitous path, lead me to greater happiness and fulfilment than I could ever have hoped for”
In the book he describes his return to TV in the West Wing and all of thats nuances…
“Writing a book for me was like writing an album. Do I want to open with a hit or the radio single? When Vanity Fair excerpted it, they opened with the radio single, the story about the casting of The Outsiders. All of my life I wanted to be on the cover of Vanity Fair. I never got it for my acting but my writing. For me Kennedy is the lead single (the hit). I also looked at having too many ballads, too many epic songs and that’s how I edited the book. When I do the show live, it’s the live album version as opposed to the studio version.
“What I wear has been an evolution. I started with a crisp suit, no tie, now it’s black jeans, black work boots, grey T shirt, leather jacket. It went from movie star to rock star. I base my entrance on the Rolling Stones. One of their nineties tours where all of a sudden there was a flash and they were just there. I don’t have a flash but I’m just there. It doesn’t feel like a show. It feels like a chat. The best part is the section where people ask questions.”
Are there any questions that he dreads? “No. the more unusual and off topic, the better the show is.” I wonder if US audiences talk about the sex tape, now 25 years old.
“I’ve done hundreds of Q&A’s with lots of questions each night and that never comes up.” I wonder if the British audiences are different in that they love the whiff of scandal, the idea of the beautiful being taken down into an ugly world, whereas American audiences prefer to raise people up.
“I don’t have any qualms about anything in my life. Everything’s in my book.” And it is. Those events are intimately depicted. He doesn’t shy away from it. It’s Lowe’s belief, if you front it out it makes it interesting, not dark and it adds to your charisma.
“I get a lot of West Wing questions and I love that. A lot of Parks and Rec questions.” His co-star in that, Rashida Jones referred to him as a benevolent narcissist. He beams when I bring it up, or is that the double expressos arriving?
“The show’s good for all ages. Kids who’ve rediscovered The Outsiders, middle aged women, maybe their husbands, predominantly female but not exclusively which is why you never know what subject they’re interested in.”
His career has been diverse, perhaps that’s the clue to its longevity. “I think you’ve got to have the goods. That’s prerequisite. Then you’ve got to be decently fortunate and pick the right things. Very few people can get it right every time.”
He says if he’d still been drinking, “It would have been over for me for sure. First of all, because of the pace of which I live my life… I did two years of a gruelling show called Code Black, a medical drama, then I went into directing, starring and editing a remake of The Bad Seed. And then I went to Africa for 6 weeks and shot a Netflix romantic comedy movie – Christmas in the Wild – it’s me and Kristin Davis. It’s in the vein of Eat, Pray, Love but in Africa. And then I partnered up with the people who made American Ninja Warrior and we made a version of it – the ultimate obstacle course but for the mind. The most technically complex set every built for a competition series. And my one man show – doing that is as close to being a rock star as I’ll ever get.
“Bradley Cooper’s done very well this year. Everyone’s raving about A Star Is Born and it’s a movie about addiction.”
Does that mean he’s slightly feeling it should have been him up there with the Kris Kristofferson beard, singing, talking amorously to Lady Gaga’s nose. “No.” He says he’s too busy getting on with what he has done to think about what he didn’t do.
His Bad Seed movie for Lifetime TV was a remake of the film noir about a child serial killer. He says, “I’m really proud of it. My books, my one man show and The Bad Seed are the most personal things I’ve ever done because they’re mine and I’m not for hire…”
He downs his double expresso. He once said he’d like to have an caffeine IV drip feed him. He corrects himself. “I love working with the great collaborators.”
The great collaborators of The West Wing tried to stop him getting the solo cover of George magazine which seems a bit mean because he was the name that got the show on TV in the first place. No one had heard of writer Aaron Sorkin back then.
“Sometimes you think you’re crazy and I think was it as intense as I remember? The other day somebody had me sign the cover of the first season DVD. I went to sign my picture and I couldn’t find my face because they’d put me in the back row even though I’m first billed in the show…That’s just mean.
“In all fairness the West Wing was so good it didn’t need me, but it needed me initially for people to pay attention to it and it needed me to get it on the air but after that the show was amazing, the writing was great and everybody was amazing. But everybody runs things differently. It was their show, they called it.”
I don’t think he’s losing any sleep over what happened in the nineties. I like the way he knows himself. Sure, he’s done a lot of work on himself but it’s not that. There’s no false modesty, there’s no self-aggrandisement. There is a love of language and a vivid imagination and a sense of separateness, of otherness and a need to communicate their very being. That usually comes from being an only child but he has a brother Chad.
He nods. “It’s interesting you say that. He was four years younger than me and four years is a big difference when you’re young, especially because from the time I was eight I knew what I wanted to do and every single thing in my life was seen through the lens of wanting to get where I wanted to get, even at eight. So that immediately puts you aside from everybody else.”
He was working in local theatre when he was eight and repertory when he was 15. “I was the breadwinner for the family because my dad paying child support was always a major trauma. He was a lawyer and my mother’s parents had some money. My family was solidly middle class.
But is he a benevolent narcissist?
“All my heroes are benevolent narcissists. Rashida also said that her father, Quincy Jones, is the Mount Rushmore of benevolent narcissists, so anything where I’m mentioned in the same sentence as Quincy, I’m in. There is the element with the stars that I look up to as being larger than life and being unashamed about it. They are approachable and down to earth. That combination is rare but it’s what I love.”
That’s part of the complexity that makes him charismatic. He is larger than life yet approachable and unashamed. And what’s also rare is a lasting marriage. He nods.
“I talk a lot about Sheryl in the show. If I do another version at some point, the show will be almost exclusively on me and my wife. When I talk about her the audience love it because it’s humanising. Everybody is either married, wants to be married or had a bad marriage. I have a long sequence about why it’s impossible to sleep in the same bed as my wife (don’t want to ruin his punchline here. It’s partly because she snores and partly because of her obsessive watching Family Feud 16 episodes a night).”
People want to know how does he make monogamy interesting?
“I do talk about that but a little elliptically. You need to know it’s going to be a struggle at times. I don’t believe it’s a natural arrangement in terms of nature. But in terms of society, in terms of happiness, health, wellbeing, in terms of success nothing beats it. People’s natural inclination is to have a devil on their shoulder saying ‘is this it? Is this the last first kiss I’ll ever have? Is this the last first butterflies I’ll ever have? Is this my last wild, crazy sex I’ll ever have? These are all the things that may or may not be true, that get in the way. The key to it all is the same thing that Alfred Hitchcock said when he was asked what was the key to a hit movie. ‘Casting’. And I was great at casting. Do you know the phrase the picker is broken?”
I’ve never heard that phrase – it means making bad choices. What if you let other people pick you?
“Sometimes I like to let the inertia of events make decisions for me because it takes the pressure off. I’ve done a lot of thinking on this about intimacy and sex, intimacy and love, intimacy and relationships and I’ve done a lot, a lot, a lot of work on it.”
Does he think that sexual intimacy and love intimacy can be the opposite? For instance, one can be intimate sexually with someone and not love that person and vice versa.
“Absolutely. You’ve diagnosed the problem. Many people have that problem and that’s why most people have a hard time with long term monogamy because it’s not easy, but the integration of that is where long term intimacy and long-term monogamy lives. I know this 100% to be true.”
There’s a glint in his cornflower blue eye. It’s not quite a tear. More a chink in his steadfastness. A chink that says he always knows the right thing but sometimes he struggles.
“Left to my own devices I’m right there with you but you have to work on these things. Relationships. And if you’re not willing to work it’s not going to happen. If you’re not willing to forgive it’s not going to happen. People want to die proudly on their sword and oftentimes there’s more dignity in forgiveness. People may be able to grow and change and work on themselves too and not make the same mistakes over and over.”
The sunlight catches the diamond triangle on the wizardy looking ring. Maybe being in recovery is part of the magic because people who are recovering alcoholics have been forced to rock bottom and are forced to talk openly about themselves and to themselves.
“Working on yourself is not fun. Worse than painful, it can be boring. But if I look at the lengths I used to go to to find some bad behaviour, I should be able to go to those lengths to make my life better.”
He has said that his rock bottom came when he decided to finish a bottle of tequila rather than go home to his dying grandfather. Of course, he would never do such a thing now but the fact that he once did makes him much more human.
He’s politically savvy too. Fascinated by the post Brexit world. He remembers, “watching as the vote came in and Christiane Amanpour practically vomiting and crying as the sun came up on Big Ben. There’s nothing worse than a foreigner weighing in on the affairs of another country. That said, I’m so interested. I think there’s a connection to people in the US who are feeling forgotten and ignored and who are really mad. I’m fascinated by all of it. When I was in Africa I was out of the cable news cycle. I had broken my addiction for news and I feel the better for it.”
I’m not sure if I believe that. He’s far too keen to talk about Richard Quest – British CNN newsman.
He’s looking forward to his time in post Brexit Britain because watching people and how things change interests him.
“I must say that London was a tough nut to crack. I remember vividly at the height of my teen idol phase walking the streets of London in the midday sun and it was crickets. They were very slow to the party and I remember my 21-year old ego thinking what’s going on here? I was used to walking down the street having my clothes ripped off. I walked in London in anonymity.”
Really? No one ripped his clothes off?
“Well…..Well I have to go now.”
As he strides out through the Polo Lounge, every head turns to watch him and I’m sure he won’t walk in London in anonymity again.
Rob Lowe Stories I Only Tell My Friends – Royal Festival Hall. December 1, 19:30
Barbra Streisand at 76 has come up with an album of songs that she wrote as a protest against President Trump and his regime. It’s her first album of original songs for over a decade. The songs could be love songs although the album Walls is a mixture of love and anger.
She’s wearing slinky black flares, black suede boots, a black fluffy jumper and a vintage lace collar. Around her neck is a beautiful miniature of her now departed dog Sammy, a Coton du Tolear. The white curly fluffy dog went with her to every interview, every concert and recording session.
Streisand mourned her passing “as if it was a child.” Sammy had an “oddball personality,” so it could have been her actually genetic child. She identified with her intensely. So much so that two of her new dogs Miss Scarlet and Miss Violet are clones of Sammy and a third, Fanny is a distant cousin.
We meet in a studio just across the road from her house in Malibu – the one with the rose gardens and her collection of dolls houses. The dogs didn’t join us. “Because there are three of them and they would take over. The two dogs are made from Sammy. They’re her DNA. They are clones. This is the technique – how they make clones which is used in cancer research. The pet fund wrote me a letter that said thank you for doing this. Cancer is very prevalent and growing in both cats and dogs because of the pet food industry, the pesticides etc… Nobody had to die to make a clone. They took a cell from the inside of Sammy’s cheek and another from the outside of her tummy right before she died. You don’t know if you’re going to get a dog. You can get none, you can get five and I got two.”
Presumably she went via the clone route because she loved Sammy so much she wanted to replicate her so are the puppies like her?
“Not in personality but they look just like her. They’re curly haired like her. The breeder told me she was a rarity because she was a runt. If these dogs are for shows they have straight hair. Sammy was at my last show in New York – it was such a rarity to get a curly haired one so in order to have a curly haired dog I had to clone Sammy.”
It’s easy to conjure the image of Streisand with her tight curly perm in A Star Is Born. Perhaps Sammy reminded her of herself in that. Samantha is now around her neck close to her heart forever. I tell her I have my cat Mr Love’s fur in my locket.
“Uh huh. I have a lock of her hair in my other locket.” It’s a bonding moment. We have both got dead pets round our neck. “It’s unconditional love,” she says “and you know love in sickness and health, curly or straight.
Momentarily she seems vulnerable. You want to reach out to her, hug her even. You feel you know her. You’ve known her songs all your life and her voice has touched you, slipped inside of you so easily. But despite our bonding she bristles as my arm touches her by accident. It goes back to her mother. She wasn’t a hugger and was always very critical, yet somehow despite this she found self-belief and drive. She’s been a star for a lifetime yet still she doesn’t like being photographed. She changes the subject back to the record.
“You’ve heard the album,” she says, eager to talk about it. Every time I meet her I think it’s going to be the last tour, the last show, the last album yet this work feels very fresh. It has a new and different energy to it. You can tell that she’s written a lot of the songs and the ones she hasn’t she sings in a new way. Her voice is fierce, not thin, not old. It cracks into your heart. Oddly even though it’s not about a man woman love struggle it’s passionate.
“That’s exactly right. That’s what it felt like creating it, that it had a different energy.” She has written or co-written 7 original songs which appear on the album including Walls – that keep you in as well as keep you out. It’s a plea to unite a divided country. It’s about physical walls and emotional walls.
The single Don’t Lie to Me has the lyrics “How do you win if we all lose?” She sings it like a diva. The truest sense of the word.
She includes the Burt Bacharach classic What the World Needs Now Is Love, originally written as a Vietnam protest song but equally valid if not more so today. The album ends with Happy Days. It’s a song she’s sung often at the end of her concerts and also for the Clintons at President Clinton’s inauguration and as a celebration of democracy. This time it’s sung with an irony so piquant you can feel her tears.
Lady Liberty is about “how they came from different lands, different religions, languages and culture, all seeing the American dream. The subject of immigration is complex and requires deep contemplation not knee jerk reactions. Now if you look at her face you’ll see tears falling from Lady Liberty’s eyes. Love Is Never Wrong is about love being the most powerful force in the universe. It transcends race, religion and sexual orientation – something I’ve always believed everyone has the right to love whoever they want to. I tell her the record is raw.
“Raw,” she nods. “I’ve never thought of that word for it.” Indeed, you don’t normally associate raw with Streisand. You think smooth or perhaps silky and soaring, definitely comfortable but not this. I tell her when I first heard the album, it was the first time I felt relieved that I wasn’t on Prozac because I was able to feel the full experience.
“Oh!” she says excited now. “Will you say that in the article because that’s very funny? I bet you won’t say that right. But you’re right. Prozac dulls your senses. When my mother was on it she forgot to be angry. She had dementia as well and she forgot that she was always very angry but that pill really helped.”
Maybe it was because of the dementia she forgot to be angry? “No, it was those pills.”
I told her I had a male friend who said he liked me much better on Prozac because I wasn’t angry. I kept on with it longer than I should have. “The guy or the Prozac?” Both.
She was clearly not on Prozac when writing this album because there’s a lot of anger in it. “Oh yes there is. I believe in truth and I believe if I’m truthful in what I’m singing about that comes across as being passionately upset with what is happening to my country.”
Her expression of dissatisfaction with the current president began with a series of very smart Tweets – an eloquent counterpart to the Trump potty mouth outbursts . Then she wrote articles for The Huffington Post (The Fake President and Our President Cruella de Vil) and then came the songs. They are cleverly written. They work on two levels. Love songs that can be interoperated as personal and protest love songs for the world.
“That’s right, that’s right,” she says excitedly. “I’m so glad you get this.” This is why you let me come back. Because I get it.
“Last time you brought me cake. This time I get nothing. But that’s good. I’m on a diet. It’s good you forgot.” I didn’t forget, I was told that she was trying to diet so I didn’t bring the cake “OK, but this President did make me anxious and hungry for pancakes. Buckwheat pancakes. I had to put butter on them and maple syrup to ease the pain. People don’t realise what food does for you. It makes you feel good. My son brought me pancakes at my last recording session from a great place. They’re made of oatmeal but obviously they have sugar in them and that’s why they taste so good. They’re very soothing to the brain.”
Pancakes are very American. It was as if she was eating the most delicious, the most American food to savour it, as if it too was in jeopardy.
“I live in a house that’s filled with Americana. American art, American furniture. I really love my country and it’s painful to see democracy being assaulted, institutions being assaulted and women being assaulted.”
We digress to the painful topic of women’s abortion rights and the possibility of women no longer being in control of their own bodies and having the long fought (in the early 70s) right to choose.
“Can you imagine…?” she says darkly and then, “There’s a war between people who want to live in the future and look forward to the future and people who want to live in the past. Imagine women who after forty-something years who have had the right to choose, now, perhaps won’t.”
President Trump was elected by a small majority but women certainly voted for him. Why would women vote for a man who does not let them control their own bodies? Why would women vote for misogyny?
“It’s a terribly complex thing. A lot of women vote the way their husbands vote. They don’t believe enough in their own thoughts so they trust their husbands. Maybe that woman who is so articulate, so experienced and so presidential (Hillary), so fit for the presidency, was too intimidating for some women. Perhaps she made women feel unsuccessful. Women are competitive and so forth. All of this was so devastating to me and I was heartbroken and very sad so I wanted to write about it, sing about it and deliver an album and it was perfect timing (as synagogues are being blown up and bombs delivered to any luminary who has had something bad to say about President Trump). I just did it.”
I’m not sure she realizes how brave it is to stand up and stand out and I wonder if she ever wanted to take it further – to be that woman who was articulate and presidential and could talk passionately and open people’s eyes. Surely there’s a situation vacant in the Democratic party that she may want to fill?
“No. I don’t want to go into politics. I don’t think I’m articulate enough and it’s too late for me. Maybe when I was younger but not now. I like my garden too much. I like staying home. I like privacy. I like writing my book…sort of.”
She’s still writing that autobiography? “Yeah, four years already. I’m trying to convince the publisher to do it in two volumes so I could stop the first volume with my Harvard speech.” She is very proud of this speech. “It was in a book called The 100 Greatest Speeches of the 20th Century. But they edited it without showing me and that was not nice. I like manners. People in England have manners. They are always very nice to me.”
Streisand comes across as a woman of power, a woman unafraid of being criticised because she’s in control. A woman that feels being seen as controlling isn’t a negative attribute. It’s been an interesting journey to get to that point.
In 1976, as producer and lead actress of A Star Is Born she had final cut of the movie. The ultimate control which is very rare and much sort after but she gave her power away. She cut out some of her own scenes because she didn’t want to be criticised for being a producer and having too much screen time. Why? She shakes her head.
“I love constructive criticism. It helps me learn something but I didn’t want to be … just criticised. “ Maybe this is a deep seated fear locked in by her super critical mother. There is anxiety in her eyes as she talks.
“A woman writer in the New York times criticised when I performed at the Clinton’s inauguration. She attacked my suit. It was a man’s suit and I wore great diamonds with it and a waistcoat. I like the combination of masculinity and femininity. I liked the feminisation of masculinity. I’m fascinated even in furniture, I like strong architectural lines covered in pink velvet. I like men who are masculine but have a feminine side. I like men who cry at movies and they like soft things. It just makes them complex and that’s interesting. So this woman criticised my suit with diamonds. This woman was talking about my sexuality because I was wearing a low cut vest and the legs of the trousers had a slit. I have a passion for design and that criticism was unfair.
It always seems to me unfair that she was never acknowledged as a beauty. Today she has a mesmerizing presence and her skin glows and not in an artificial way. She doesnt look fake. She has a lioness quality.
In the mid seventies people in Hollywood weren’t used to a woman being in control. She was producing ASIB for First Artists – a company originally set up for Paul Newman, Sidney Poitier and herself. In exchange for no salary up front they could make their own film with full creative control and a piece of the back end which they only got if the film was a hit. Her budget was $6,000,000 and any penny spent over that had to come out of her own pocket.
“I was completely responsible for the money and the content.”
She updated the film from the Judy garland original (1954) to reflect the changing of the times.
“I wanted her to write her own songs. I wanted the character played by a liberated woman yet I gave away the title of producer and took a lessor one and I even cut out certain scenes of mine so I would have less screen time.”
Instead of being praised, she was vilified.
“I was put on a magazine cover bald and the title was ‘A Star Is Shorn’ They made me bald. Why? Because I was a woman in control and they wanted…” her voice trails. They wanted her to look horrible. “That’s right. So I got scared and I gave them power. But when I directed Yentl I had power artistically but I had a completion bond on my shoulder so I couldn’t go overbudget. I went only a tiny bit overbudget which was fine. I got an award for directing and I said it’s wonderful not to have to raise your voice because people are finally listening when you are the director. So… I’m going to direct another film and I won’t give power away in the way I did earlier.
“ When I’m directing I do give power away to make people feel they’re needed. I would make sure my understudy felt involved. ‘Why don’t you work with the cinematographer while I’m working on the script. Why don’t you measure distances for the lens and show me what marks I need to hit.’ In other words, empowering people. I want everybody to feel needed on the set.
“I enjoy working in England, perhaps because you have a Queen and you have a woman Prime Minister. I think they are less intimidated by a woman with power.”
Perhaps that just because she doesn’t live in England.
Is she acting as well as directing in the new movie?
“I can’t really talk about it. We’ve signed contracts but until I know more… I can tell you I’m not acting. I don’t like acting. I don’t like make believe. I like real life.”
That’s a shame. She’s so good at it. “I’m crap at it.” It always surprises me when she’s self-deprecating. Its part of what makes her an icon. The ability to take herself seriously and not seriously at all
The Way We Were still moves me – the ultimate impossible love story – she as the archetypal jew and Robert Redford as the archetypal WASP. It won her an Oscar nomination. She’s always played characters who had an uneasy vulnerability – you don’t expect that of her in real life. You do expect that she is a fighter, a campaigner for love, for truth, for dogs.
Its easy to feel powerless – that’s why she’s so compelled now to stand up to Trump – to grab back the power.
I just saw the new version of A Star Is Born. Whether it’s better than the previous version, divides the nation. Did she think Lady Gaga was channelling herself in some parts?
“I don’t know. Did she say anything about that? I haven’t seen it but I know they used the nose thing.”
The original movie, written by Joan Didion, made a reference to Streisand’s nose. At the time she was considered kooky looking, a prominent noise was not seen as a bonafide glamour-puss movie star nose. In the Gaga/Bradley Cooper version they overplay the nose with several references to Gaga’s nose and a lot of nose shots. At the time Streisand’s nose was considered not beautiful and she had to fight to keep it untouched in movies, on record covers and refused any nose jobs in real life. Gaga is not known for her nose but none the less the movie makes a big deal of it.
Streisand shrugs. “I haven’t seen the whole movie but I saw the beginning and it looked like mine. Bradley (Cooper) showed me that and the beginning started with the same concert and then singing in a little club.”
I note the new A Star Is Born has the same producer as her version – Jon Peters – her hairdresser who became her boyfriend and thereafter a big deal producer – with her help. Perhaps that’s why there are some of the same nuances. Because of the same producer.
“Well he was the one I gave the credit to.” Does she mean gave her power away to. “That’s right.” Because he was her boyfriend too?
“Because I wanted him to have respect on the set. He had good ideas. The first time I walked into his house he had crude burnt wood frames paired with lace curtains at the windows. He understood masculinity and femininity. He was complex. I liked that.”
I am sure she still likes Jon Peters although she does not like being reminded that she gave her power away to a man because she feared criticism for being overbearing.
It’s a complex thing, she likes strong men but not bowing down to them . She has the right balance with her husband of 20 years James Brolin
“My husband has the perfect forehead, the perfect jaw, the perfect teeth. Even when he makes me angry I still get a kick out of his symmetry”
She is also immensely loyal – she has had the same manager – Marty Erlichman for 52 years.
Someone else who works with her is waving their hands in a panic. “I have to get out. I have to go.” One more thing. “What?” she says suspiciously. A picture. Streisand has famously and repeatedly said no to impromptu pictures. She’s still afraid of a bad shot, of criticism? She says -she’s going to do it.
It takes bravery and a little bit of control. “I’ll do it but not with your phone. With mine so I can have power to delete.” She directs the way we’re sitting, tells the assistant with the phone, “you’re going down too low.” I move closer to her, so close I’m almost touching her but of course we’re not going to touch. I feel that’s making her uncomfortable.
Her hair sweeps long beyond her shoulders. It’s beigey blonde the colour of a lions mane. It even mingles with mine. I can smell her hair. It smells of roses, perhaps from her own garden. It’s a heady smell. She makes me promise that I won’t put the picture in the paper and before she goes I read her a message from my friend Nancy who grew up with a criticising mother, like Streisand’s, and wanted me to let her know, “She’s helped me throughout my life. She’s my secret mother. I love her. I love the way she sings with skill and abandon. I love what she’s doing today. It shows the spirit of women and it shows that I was right to love her. No one else is sticking their neck out politically and she’s on the right side of history.”
She’s taken the picture and she’s taken the compliment and she likes it very much that she’s on the right side of history.
My all-consuming memory of Luciano Pavarotti is a great volcano of a man emerging from his swimming pool wearing a straw hat and a giant smile. The latter crushing and melting into terror when he noticed I was wearing a purple dress. Purple is the colour of death, or at least according to his religion or superstition.
I felt guilty. He did die a few years later in 2007 but not hopefully from my purple dress. He had pancreatic cancer. At the end he was a shadow of his former 25 stone self. People close to him say he remained optimistic, refused to see anything bad. That was what he was like. A contradiction, seeing good in bad and death in purple dresses. He always wanted to spread the love, but at the same time he was very volatile. He was one of those men who loved women. That is always a little scary – a man who loves women usually needs more than one of them.
He was married to his first wife Adua for 35 years. He had become estranged from this relationship when he met the quietly charismatic Nicoletta Mantovani. When they met she was in her early 20’s and he was 57. She came looking for a part time job to help her through her Doctorate in biology at Bologna university but Pavarotti wasn’t having any of that. He wanted to swoop her off her feet round the world and always be with him.
We are in the private dining room of the Gritti Palace in Venice and if I peer over the table centrepiece – a bowl of perfect Italian vegetables, I can take in Mantovani. She’s one of these people who seems to be able to walk around with several layers of her skin peeled off. She doesn’t care how vulnerable she is. She’s been hated by a lot of people but this small sparrow of a woman was able to set that aside and look after her husband and their daughter Alice.
She exudes caring without being overbearing. She’s interested, curious in what other people have to say but not prying. When the third course of food comes she jokes about how she and her husband’s big fights came when she tried to put him on a diet.
Theirs was an intriguing partnership. While Pavarotti had always striven to bring opera to the people, it was their concept together to bring pop to opera and she produced several successful concerts in the early 2000s – Pavarotti and Friends where popstars like Bono and Zuccero and Lionel Ritchie came to Modena to sing with the big man. She was good at these big ideas but apparently had no actual secretarial skills.
The cliché would be pretty young girl baits and tantalises multi-millionaire operatic king. She might have worn heels, tiny skirts, push up bras. That’s not who she ever was. She’s now 47 with prettily layered tawny hair, black comfortable clothes and flat shoes. Trademark cats eye glasses and strangely more attractive than the young girl who doesn’t seem to fit into her body.
She says she didn’t want to be sucked into his world. She fought it but she felt it was a coup de foudre although she says this in Italian. Coup de foudre doesn’t really translate into English.
Now she’s in the business of looking after the legacy that Luciano Pavarotti left the world. He was consistently described as the world’s greatest tenor with sales of over 100 million records. His music should live on.
Hence, we are here in the very fancy Gritti Palace Hotel in Venice with its views of the Grand Canal and its very special ravioli and Acqui di Parma products in all of the suites.
We are here because she has partnered with Decca Luxe, a new venture that is as over the top as the maestro himself. The concept is – creating a product of rare luxury and a price of £84,000. It’s for people who already have their top of the range Bentleys and their yachts and houses dotted around the world for them to sail between.
They get a box, a very special box, only ten of them will be made in the world by David Linley, Lord Snowdon. Each box would have been 1,000 hours in the crafting. The box will feature limited edition prints of Pavarotti’s paintings which are brightly coloured as naïve as they are sophisticated. You also get the Windsor and Newton oil paints from his palette – a lifetime supply. You get every note he ever recorded including newly discovered tracks in the Decca archives and a player which will give you immersive sound. Immersive sound is a thing of the future. Apparently five years ahead of its time, and in this box. Remember when people thought that VR and AR were the next big thing? Well, now it’s this. A sound so immersive you feel that the man himself is sitting in the room with you. A sound system borrowed from cinemas, the kind of which best sound editing Oscars are given. You know the ones – you’re right there in the battle, in the love, in the pain, in all of it. And then they win a best sound editing Oscar.
And as a person who doesn’t see the point of VR and AR, I was ready to dismiss it but sitting there in the Gritti Palace where Luciano Pavarotti loved to hang out, you feel wrenched emotionally when they turn it off and put on a regular stereo.
In this package called A Life in Art you also get dinner with Nico Mantovani cooked by Pavarotti’s favourite chef and you go on a Pavarotti diet and some of your money goes to his foundation. A bargain I hear you thinking. You also get flown there by private jet which means unfortunately you have to go to Luton, voted consistently Britain’s worst airport, but you soon get over that even though the plane is tiny. They give you enough booze to make you forget about it.
Mantovani was not what I expected. Certainly not the femme fatale, not the husband stealer, although there’s certainly a strength to her. She stopped the publication of Pavarotti’s assistant Edwin Tinoco’s memoir. Not because it was salacious and gossipy, but because she didn’t think he would have wanted it. It didn’t fit in with his legacy.
When they first met, Pavarotti warned her she might be described as somebody “not nice”. All that stuff was easy when he wasn’t there to protect her. “It was harder.
“He warned me that everyone would think I was after his money. We talked about it a lot. He asked me if I was prepared to be seen as somebody not nice.”
How this operatic romantic tragedy unfolded is just far too complicated to describe as just not nice. Scrutiny was inevitable when they met because of the age gap of 34 years. Mantovani wasn’t even born when he married his first wife and Alice and his grandchild are around the same age. Yet, “Luciano always thought of me as the older one. I was more grown up.” He was middle aged, rich and famous. She was young, tiny, not rich and a student.
During their 15-year marriage, there were certainly a few knives out for her, especially at the end when people reported falsely that their marriage was over. No doubt marriage was stressed because she was dealing with her husbands’ terminal illness which he himself decided to treat with more courses of optimism than chemo. She never left his side and made sure that their then 4 ½ year old daughter was with him too so she would have the memories.
Obviously this prodigious and prodigiously rich man would have all the relatives fighting for the spoils.
Under Italian law 25% of his wealth goes to Mantovani, 50% is split between his 4 daughters, leaving another 25% in question. And questions were asked as he’d made 3 wills.
The next day we go to Modena to the house where they lived which is now a museum and restaurant and we experience first-hand the Pavarotti diet. Across the table you see her eyes are flecked with multicolours. She misses nothing. She’s not wearing make-up but the hair is good. She’s made an effort but not too much of one and you like that about her.
Endless cheese and endless sorts of salami and fried dumplings that are called called Gnocco Fritto. You eat with salty prune jam. Then there’s a large plate of buffalo mozzarella, potato, pesto and balsamic vinegar.
Modena has become one of the food capitals of the world with chef Massimo Patron with his 3 Michelin stars nearby. After this we get a Pavarotti’s personal favourite is thick al dente risotto drizzled in balsamic vinegar – he liked to drink this with red sparkling wine – Lambrusco.
Mantovani tells me, “he thought the combination of the risotto and the wine were very healthy. They made you happy so they were healing. He was obsessed with this particular wine, this particular balsamic and this particular salami and of course his own pasta so that wherever he went in the world his entourage would each have to hide the food contraband in their luggage.”
Mantovani adds that she’s not sure if she’s allowed in the US these days as she was always the one who got caught with the forbidden substances like cheese. Pavarotti’s relationship with food was integral to his being. He didn’t eat to blot out emotional pain. He ate for pleasure. He liked his size. It made women feel like they were surrendering to him.
Mantovani says, “even now I miss those hugs – like big panda hugs.”
After our risotto came a salad with strawberries and more balsamic, then an orange blossom ice cream with a walnut caramel balsamic sauce. The man who runs the restaurant sees me about to fall into a food coma and provides espresso.
Mantovani and I go upstairs, just above the bedroom that she and her husband shared. She now lives in Bologna with her parents and daughter and is strangely unperturbed by inviting the public into the home they once shared which is now a museum filled with his notes, his costumes, his paintings and his music.
“I feel it’s a place where people can relax because they can feel him. He was very happy here because he always loved life. He had a very positive presence. He was always able to take the very best out of you. I don’t know how he did it but he did it with everyone. You always felt much better to sit next to him. I tell her that last night when we had the immersion sound it made me cry and I don’t know why. It must have been really emotional for her?
“Yes. It was really strong. It was like having him here in front of me in the room, yet 11 years have passed since he left us. And when he left, part of me left with him…”
She composes herself. “We decided to do this and work with the foundation in order to bring his passions to life. He had a big passion for giving back. He did a lot of charity work, especially with refugees. Music, like sport can keep people united. We have a school in Bosnia that we founded with Bono and two schools in Guatemala. And right now. we’re helping young singers which he always did till the end of his life. He was always teaching them how to be with themselves in public, how to have not just a voice but the right attitude. He wanted his academy to be free because he never went to a conservatory. He always said, ‘a voice is like a white flower. It can grow everywhere, even in the desert but you have to look for it’. In Italy it’s very expensive to create such an academy” (there’s no tax relief for charity).
A percentage of the Decca Luxe boxes will go to the foundation. Mantovani’s English is fluent. Her emotions organised. Not at all like Pavarotti’s. They were very different. You can see also how when something troubles her it troubles her deeply.
“I think he enjoyed every minute of his life because when he was 12 he had an accident playing soccer and he got tetanus. It was during the war when people played with no shoes. He went into a coma for many days. He got penicillin and was saved but from that moment he said I’m going to be happy always. He found ways that bad things can help you become a better person.”
She slips effortlessly into nostalgia and romance. We go over that coup de foudre moment. “I’d not been working for him long and he asked me if I would leave with him for a couple of days to go to Switzerland. I said no and he said ‘come to the airport to say goodbye’, I said OK. The minute I saw him leave I took a plane. That was Culpo di fulmine.”
When love strikes someone like lightning. “That was him. When you let yourself be open to any experience you don’t put any limit on them. He had no borders. No borders in music or in life. As Bono said, ‘he didn’t just sing opera – he was opera’. He was never bothered if he didn’t have a nice review. He would just say, ‘people are free to think what they want.’ Like when he was criticised in the British Press for hugging Princess Diana because it wasn’t Royal protocol. The papers said ‘shame on you’ and he said ‘I was very happy that I got to hug her’.”
When Mantovani and Pavarotti met she was studying biology and completely unable to sing. “We were strangers, completely different kinds of people. Maybe we knew each other from a past life. Everyone was asking him to explain what it was he really liked about me and what happened. He would say ‘if you can explain love, it’s not love’. He would say to me was I ready? Was I prepared? But he was my guardian angel, protecting me from what everyone said. We were always together. It’s different now although I still feel him as a different kind of guardian angel. And now people have stopped talking bad about me, I mean after so many years.”
But what about the rumours that he was about to get back with his first wife on his deathbed and give her all his money?
She sighs, quietly dismissing it. “‘When you are a public figure, you have to accept everything bad and good’ he would say. You cannot play a game where everyone is on your side. You cannot be loved by everyone. I wonder if he left us now, after all this social networking how different it would be.”
Would he have had an Instagram account? “No. he liked to exhibit himself for sure but he was never vain, narcissistic. The engine of his life was that he was always open to new experiences. He was curious – always wanted to try something. He was the first in mixing pop music with opera (his crossover Pavarotti and Friends concert in the noughties).”
Opera was his pop music. “So that’s why he had the idea to bring it to the people even if he was attacked by the purists of opera lovers.”
The moment where he decided to paint came after he played Cavaradossi, a painter in a Tosca opera in the eighties and someone gave him a box of paints.
“He said suddenly he was acting at painting and then he was painting. He painted for one week and didn’t eat and that was a big thing for him.” We laugh. He didn’t like to go long without food so he must have really been obsessed.
She shows me a painting that he and Alice painted together when she was really tiny. Very sweet. It’s blues and yellows, sky and sunshine. She shows me a picture on her phone of the now 16-year old Alice who was four and a half when he died. She looks very rock n roll but has her father’s eyes.
“I don’t think she has a memory of him but she has a lot of stories that have been told to her. She has a deep sense of justice that Luciano had. he was always fighting with his whole self to protect people. Luciano was a very pure soul. Some people think he was childish but he never had any prejudice and always saw the good in people and I think it’s genetic.
“He would always ask a lot of questions. He was never afraid to ask anything like ‘why do you like that science stuff?’ The basis or our relationship was always talking. 24 of hours of the day talking and trying to understand each other’s deepest thoughts and we were always so different. It seemed to give him energy. He would always say ‘you are the eldest of us. You are the old one’ and even if I was 25 he would say ‘could you stop being so old.’”
The first turning point in their relationship came when Mantovani went to a doctor and was diagnosed with MS and the doctor said ‘in a few years you’ll be in a wheelchair.’
“That made Luciano crazy because it’s a terrible thing to say to a young girl and thank God they’ve made lots of progress with the treatment. When we had this response from the doctor I told Luciano I couldn’t stay with him anymore because I would be a big weight. He said ‘until now I loved you but from now on I adore you and the two of us together will win’. I cried and he said ‘no, don’t cry. We’ll make it’. He was really my engine.
First off, Mantovani was given drugs that had side effects so bad she decided to quit them. Recently, she saw a doctor called Zamboni where she had surgery to substitute a vein. He’s based in Ferrar.
“It’s very controversial and some neurologists don’t think it’s right. Worldwide it is recognised that there is a sickness created in the vein block but it’s not necessarily recognised as working for MS. It’s not for everyone – there are so many different kinds of MS but it seems to be working for me.
“In the beginning of my diagnosis Luciano would say ‘it’s not a bad thing. From now on you will change your priorities. Now you won’t take the flowers for granted’. He said this because the MS made me lose sight for two weeks.”
There are two basic types of MS. One intermittent and one progressive. She was told that she may not be able to get pregnant but of course she did. She actually had twins but Alice’s brother Ricardo wasn’t as strong.
“They were both born premature at 7 months. She was a tiny, tiny girl and unfortunately her twin brother had died before. I have beautiful memories of Luciano carrying her around. He was the one who fed her. He came at her with the bottle when she didn’t have enough power to suck and he’d cry ‘you eat! And he made it fun for her.”
Did he really eat like this every day – the cheese, the meats, the risotto, the ice cream, the wine, the dumplings?
“He had pasta every day for sure and he had a lot of butter on food and I was always trying to put him on a diet. We always had fights over that but it was fun and he could also ask me if I could avoid singing to Alice because my voice was so bad and he said I was destroying her ears. He tried to teach me for the longest time because he said at the beginning ‘everyone can sing’ and then he said ‘every rule has an exception and you are that one’. We spent some time where he would perform the soprano role and I would perform the tenor and he would imitate my very bad voice.”
“At the very beginning of our relationship he lost weight then gained it back. Up again down again like a rollercoaster. He used food as his medicine. It gave him a sense of protection.”
Does she mean he wanted a layer of fat to protect him from the world? “It could be but he was not insecure. He had a taste for good food and he was very serious about it.”
I wondered when he was sick from cancer and on chemo if he was still able to enjoy his food? “Not really. He realised he was sick but he was positive for the future. On the one hand he accepted his situation saying ‘I’ve had such a lucky life, a fantastic career, I’ve explored my passion, I’ve helped others and I have a beautiful wife and a beautiful family and 3 daughters before that. He felt lucky.”
She tells me how he worked up until the very end planning his future as if he would go on forever. When he was sick he could still sing. His students would say ‘when he is sick I can hear his technique even better’ and he loved that. he could still sing because he had a fantastic vocal technique and when he was sick he was forced to use it even more. He had the surgery to remove a tumour and then he did the chemotherapy.”
Did he accept that he was dying? “I think he always thought he had a positive future.”
It must have put a strain on your relationship, you knowing how sick he was and him trying to unknow it?
“We were always trying to be positive together because Alice was very young. We coped with his illness as we did with mine. He was always strong for everybody else. I always saw him like a lion so he was….” Her voice drifts at this change of dynamic. “When he was a lion I was a lion with him.”
And when he wasn’t? At this point something really strange happens. For no reason, my tape recorder and my phone fling themselves off the little table between our two creamy leather armchairs. It was as if he was there with us and he didn’t like any talk of sickness or weakness. She composes herself.
“Until the very end he was positive and teaching and surrounded by friends. He was the strong one. He was actually trying to make a new album.
It must have been an excruciating shock to go through the world where they were together all the time, even reading the Harry Potter books to each other, to be without him. Certainly the idea of working with his foundation, opening up the museum is her idea to keep him alive in the world.
“Yes, I miss him and the thing I miss most are his hugs like a panda. This house was too big for just me and Alice so I decided to open it to the public and go and live with my parents in Bologna. He loved this house so much but it was too big for me and Alice.”
Mantovani herself doesn’t find it as easy as her husband did to be happy. These past few years she says have been “heavy” for her. There was a relationship that didn’t work out because the man lied to her and was seeing someone else at the same time. She almost lost her faith in humanity until she refocused into doing so much for the foundation.
“I don’t think there will ever be anyone else. One big love in life is enough, don’t you think?”
Not really. Pavarotti had two great loves, two wives.
“He was more open than me. More curious and more genuine. I’ll try my best but it’s not easy.”
Instead, she wants to take me downstairs to another room in the house where we can see messages from all over the world about how much Pavarotti affected people. The room is called the man who creates emotion.
“because he was always able to create big emotions. Not just for opera lovers.”
He was also able to cause a drama. One time they were in New York and they had a fight, Mantovani insisted she was leaving and going back to Italy but Pavarotti had called the head of Alitalia to stop her getting on the plane and to tell her he’d broken his arm.
“I got home and in full dramatic mode he said ‘you left me alone and look what happened. My world collapsed’. We were having dinner and I was kissing his arm and a couple of hours after the dinner ended I said are you OK? He said ‘of course I’m ok’ and whipped his arm out of the fake bandage.”
We laugh. What did they fight about? “We were always fighting because there was fire in us, fire is passion. But he also did big things for me. When I took my exams in the university of Bologna I went to dinner with my family and heard his voice in my ear. He’d taken a plane from Tokyo where he was performing Tosca just to say he loved me and flew back to Tokyo the next day.”
It’s no surprise that all this drama is to be made into a movie and a stage show. First up it’s a documentary from director Ron Howard and then a West End show. John Berry, British opera producer has bought the rights to his life.
Mantovani herself is producing another movie. It’s about an important figure in the Italian gay and lesbian movements in the seventies. Of the musical she says, “This is a very important project for the West End. There are many ideas so far and I don’t know which way we’ll go. His life was so immense.”
She takes me downstairs to a golden coloured bedroom, sunlight streaming in. the presence on his side of the bed is palpable. This is where he lived, loved, died. In the bathroom which is ensuite, there’s a large set of scales. She tells me sometimes she goes in there and for no reason the scales tip to Pavarotti’s weight and then go down to zero again, back and forth. Perhaps he’s telling her that he’s still here and oddly, the subject they fought most about – his weight, is still the metaphor for an enduring passion.
I’m standing side stage at the Boston Garden. I’ve just seen U2’s eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE show – it covers the optimistic power of innocence and the folly of experience. It’s a life looking forwards and backwards, to dark and light. It’s personal and it’s political. It’s Bono’s life. For the final number there’s no gratuitous group bow, no basking in audience adulation. It’s Bono alone with a single lightbulb, staring at a replica of the house he grew up in. A Bono dolls house.
He comes offstage dripping – a little breathy. Black jacket, black pants, black boots and a towel. We swoop into a black SUV. Other SUV’s are lined up behind but we’re number one.
A police escort will flank us as we speed through the city at night into the bowels of the hotel. But this moment is not just about rock star secrecy and protocol. It’s about looking at Bono, totally spent and soul baring. He talks in phrases about how he’s on the circumference of awkwardness about the reconstruction of the American Dream, not making sense. He’s undone by this show.
I hold his hand. His is a weak but intense grasp. Apparently, a lot of people loathe Bono. I can tell you that no-one has loathed Bono more than Bono has loathed himself, but more of that later.He can see the contradiction in his situation, raging conscience straddling galloping success
Usually it’s his wife Ali who collects him from the stage and puts him in the car. Once it was Oprah. Today it’s me, so if you don’t like Bono stop reading this now. We are friends. I’ve known him for 20 years since we first met over poached eggs in the Savoy several albums ago. I’ve seen him operate first hand in the White House during the Bush regime, I’ve seen him seem to shrink stadiums with his big charisma and soaring voice, I’ve seen him at home as a daddy, as a husband. But I’ve never seen him shake when he comes offstage.
I’m not reading this hand holding as a display of affection. It was more that he needed a hand to ground him. His eyes looked sad and careworn behind his lilac tinted glasses. He had a stubbly face which gave him definition but strangely also a vulnerability. It was as if his face was smudged.
We’re now in the bowels of the Ritz Carlton hotel but it could be any car park anywhere in the world. He is escorted to a lift that will take him to his floor and he will stay in his room. I go in another lift to the lobby where there’s a nice bar and various people who work for U2 are starting to congregate.
The Edge will come down and his wife Morleigh Steinberg who is a creative consultant for the show, but no other band members. They’re all in their 50’s. They’ve been on the road for 3 consecutive years and one senses that they need to preserve their energy for the next night’s show.
Adam Clayton, bass guitarist, gave up alcohol in the 90’s around the same time as he gave up supermodels. Larry Mullen, the drummer has never been a party animal. He’s much too reserved and now he has an hour of physio after the show because all that drumming takes it out on his arms, neck and back.
The next day I’m in Bono’s Penthouse suite. Room service has delivered lunch of chicken and greens. He takes the metal covers from our lunch and clashes them like cymbals.
There’s a clashing noise at the very start of the show where it mimics the deafening sound of an MRI scanner. It’s about facing death. Bono says, “It’s not a very sexy subject, mortality, is it? But what is sexy is being in a rock and roll band and saying here’s our new song, it’s about death.”
Yeah about as sexy as working the circumference of an embarrassment and awkwardness. He nods cheerily. “Yes, that’s right. The end of the show is when you go back to your house, the home you grew up in. You think that’s who you are. But I’m no longer in Cedarwood Road (the house that he grew up in). I’m now facing a different direction. Does it sound pretentious to say that we are an opera disguised as a rock n roll band?”
Yes, it does. “When opera first started out it was punk rock. Opera only became pretentious. Mozart had a punk rock attitude.”
Let’s maybe not say it’s opera. Let’s just say there are grand themes in the show and it’s not just a bunch of songs. “Right,” says Bono. There was a part in the show last night where he was saying how he lost his head along with Adam (Adam going off the rails is well documented) and then he continued, “and then it happened to The Edge and Larry later.” The Edge looked askance.
When did The Edge fall off the edge? “OK, I was just saying it because I was feeling a little mischievous. I don’t like seeing them looking smug. The Edge, a zen Presbyterian looked a little miffed and Larry looked ‘this could be true?’
He is laughing but he’s thinking seriously about change. “Who would want to stay the same is what I’m really talking about. If success means that you trade in real relationships and real emotions for hyper media centric ones then maybe success is not good. But that’s not what success has done for me. You have a dizzy moment where you think your daily toil is of interest to the general public then you realise it isn’t really.”
Kind of tough to be performing in stadiums and thinking that you’re of no interest to the general public. He corrects, “I mean early on in the 80’s I remember being very self-conscious and thinking what newspaper I choose to buy in the newsagent was going to define me. And I remember hanging out with Chrissie Hynde who was so totally herself at all times. It took me a few years to get there.”
He thinks he wasn’t himself for decades. “In public I had different selves and all of mine were pretty annoying. We went to the film Killing Bono and I said to the Edge about the actor playing me, what’s that accent he’s speaking in? That’s not my accent. And The Edge said ‘it’s not but it’s the accent you used to give interviews in.”
The actor must have researched it from old interviews. “It’s like people have a telephone voice, a telephone personality and I had one in the 80’s.”
We both talk in our telephone voices for a while and laugh at each other.
“What happened with my accent was that I had a Protestant mother and a Catholic father. Dublin Protestants tend to have less of an accent because of their Anglicised influence.”
Was this accent purposely odd so that people couldn’t define if he was Protestant or Catholic?
“I don’t know. To be clear I didn’t know I was doing it but if you have a musical ear you can take on any accent.”
I give him my famous accent test which is to talk with a Geordie, Welsh and Pakistani accent and then repeat and repeat and see how long it takes before they all become the same. And after that it’s Australian, New Zealand and South African. And because I’m winning he suggests we might do Dublin Northside and Dublin Southside.
“I had a fear early on when I moved to the southside of Dublin that my kids might have a southside accent and sound like spoilt brats. One night I was coming home with Ali to our house in Temple Hill when I heard a party going on up the road so I said Ali let’s go over and find out what the neighbours are like. She said ‘you can’t just walk in on them and’ I said just for a laugh. She went to bed and I wandered up the road and I walked in to this party. Some cool music, some uncool music, some friendly, some gave me some attitude. One of them, let’s just say he was called Cormac and he had a Mohawk and a bit of attitude and decided to give me some grief. Because I’m a successful singer in a big old rock band and this is 1988. And eventually he says in that Dublin 4 accent, the southside accent, ‘I’m an anarchist.” I grabbed him and lost my temper for a second and grabbed him and said, ‘Cormac, you’re a fucking estate agent,’ because I knew that’s what he’d grow into.
The next day Ali asked me how the party was and I said there was exactly the percentage of arseholes to really cool people that I grew up with in Cedarwood Road, no different.”
The blinding summer sun streams in and we’re submerged in the hot breath of the humidifiers. Bono doesn’t touch his lunch.
In a recent Rolling Stone interview Quincy Jones said that when he goes to Ireland Bono always insists that he stays in his castle because it’s so racist there. Which castle is this?
“I love Quincy. I saw him recently and gave him all the love I have in my heart but I don’t have a castle.”
He does have a Victorian folly at the end of his garden which Quincy may have stayed in. Most guests do. When I stayed there, there was a wall signed by President Clinton and Hillary.
“Now that I think about it he did tell me that he had some racist incidents in Ireland in the 60s and I said it’s not like that now. Come and stay with us.”
Quincy also said that U2 were never going to make a good album again because it was too much pressure. “Yes, and Paul McCartney couldn’t play bass. We’re all having these meltdowns apparently. Most people accept that the album we’ve just made, Songs of Experience is right up there with our best work. It certainly had the best reviews.” The single Love is Bigger Than Anything In Its Way is currently No.1 in the Billboard Dance Chart “which we haven’t been for a very long time.”
Despite what he says it must be a pressure to come up with songs like One or With Or Without You or New Year’s Day or In The Name of Love. Songs that have defined decades.
“One of the reasons U2 are so regarded in the US is because black artists like Quincy Jones have always championed us. And back in the day, Donna Summer. Our music wasn’t rooted in the blues and they found it fresh but also not alien. It’s in some ways harder you might argue to relate to it if you are an indie kid than if you are black and American.”
There’s a section of the show where we see a film showing the neo Nazi riots in Charlottesville. The desecration and reconstruction of the American Dream. This he tells me will be restructured for the European shows. How does he think the Nazi stuff will work in Europe when they start their tour in Berlin?
“We will rethink it but there’s plenty of Nazi’s right now in Europe. I think we can reimagine it with the same spine.” In fact, they decide to start the European shows with Charlie Chaplin’s speech from The Great Dictator. “Dictators free themselves but they enslave the people! Now let us fight to fulfil that promise! Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers.”
“In many ways it’s a narrative based show. This is our story.” The show is personal and political. in the US it aimed to coalesce the centre and bring both sides into a common ground, as outsiders to the US they would not presume to critique. But it held up a mirror and was timely to what was happening there and then. Europe it is a different matter. It’s their home and inspiration. It’s what made them and it’s where they, their families and friends live their lives. Of course they’ll make statements about the rise of the far right. That’s their tradition. Rock n roll with a conscience.
Of course this show seems to be about Bono’s actual life, ono’s actual street that he grew up in etc. but it’s a metaphor for all of their lives. Ts his voice that carries their story. He speaks for all four of them, woven into a singular voice. Bono is the conduit and the lightning rod but it’s about all of their experiences. They are U2. They are a band. It’s not the Bono show although he is a showman extraordinaire.
“One of the stories we tell about ourself is about our country. Countries don’t actually exist, they are drawn. Part of coming to eXPERIENCE + iNNOCENCE is realising that history can change and what we are witnessing in the US right now is that it’s rewriting itself with darker tones. We’re here in search for America at a time where America is in search of itself. It’s happened a few times over the life of U2 but we are looking for the same thing the country is.”
U2 and Bono specifically has always been close to the American dream and those who dreamed it. Bill and Hillary Clinton were not only invited to his “castle” where he signed the wall – I saw it there. A + B = a bed for C. But only the other week Bono went to visit Bush apparently?
“I did. I saw the 44th president last week. If you do work with people you don’t just cut off from people. I’m still close with Obama (he hasn’t stayed in his castle) “but he and his missus and his kids have been in our local pub.
I don’t like to think of my relationships with these people as retail. I like to think that having gone through some stuff together we stay together even when they’re out of office.
I saw George Bush on his ranch. He spent $18 billion on anti-retroviral drugs and I had to thank him for that.”
Last week he also met Vice President Pence because he at some point was involved in PEPFAR Was he helpful?
“Well…we haven’t had the vicious cuts that the administration proposed. I would have to say that Congress have played the largest role in this.”
And what about the orange one? “I’m wise enough to know that any sentence with his name in it will become a headline so I just don’t use his name. It’s nothing personal. It’s just you have to feel you can trust a person you’re going to get into that level of work with. Lots of my leftie friends doubted I could work with George Bush but he came through as did Tony Blair and Gordon Brown – came through in a way that changed the world on development. If they had not made development a priority, other presidents would not have. They made the lives of the poorest a priority for rich nations. 45 million go to school because of debt cancellation.”
And the orange one? Is he with your plan? “No, he’s trying to cut all that stuff at the moment which is why I don’t want to be near him. If he’d put down the axe maybe we could work with his administration. But we can’t with the sword of Damocles hanging.”
We talk about Ivanka Trump and Bono says, “I have no doubt she has the intention to try and move the gender equality debate.”
As does Bono himself. At one part in the show there’s a screen saying ‘Poverty is Sexist’. The show takes place essentially in a round. A cage which sometimes encompasses the band is also used as a screen for the Anton Corbin film where in his potent trademark black and white film, we see children going to school, having their breakfast, wearing army helmets. A nation, a world at war where the children are in danger.
“We started Poverty Is Sexist a few years ago before the #metoo movement. We were getting messages actually from our daughters. You can’t solve the problems in the world using half the brain power that’s available. He worked closely with Harvey Weinstein on the Mandela movie Long Walk To Freedom (2013) where he won a Globe for the accompanying song Ordinary Love.
“He did very good work for U2. My daughters are very unforgiving in this regard whenever I get philosophical they tell me, ‘it’s not your time to speak on this.’”
I can’t tell if it’s sadness I see in his eyes or just tiredness but there’s still optimism, there’s still solutions.
“There are certain institutions that have kept the world in balance like The UN, The EU, The Breton Woods Institution, The World Bank, The IMF. All of these things whatever your position is on any of them you’ve got to admit that there’s a complete transformation of institutional norms as well as international behaviours. Whether you’re an artist, an economist or a voter you can’t not be interested. At least after Brexit, people are arguing, educating themselves.”
Isn’t it crushing to be such an optimist? “No, I’m cautious. For many people in the United States they are grieving after the last election. A death happened. A death of their innocence. And my attitude to that is it’s OK to wake up out of this naïve view of the world where we thought the human spirit would evolve naturally and the world was getting more fair. There is no evidence in 10,000 years to suggest that there’s a forward motion.
It was Dr King who said the moral arc of the universe is long but it bends towards justice. We don’t see evidence of that. I want to believe it’s true but in my lifetime there’s never been a moment like this where you actually think democracy is not a given.”
We talk of mothers separated from babies as they crossed the border and this action being backed up with biblical quotes. “The One campaign fights against the injustice of extreme poverty. People don’t arrive at the border risking life and limb without real purpose. We are Irish people who were economic refugees. We floated past the Statue of Liberty. The idea that we would be separated from our children when we got off the boat…..you could say the European Union was the invention of America. If you think about the post Second World War that was an investment in protecting and unifying Europe because the Americans were smart. General George C Marshall had the wisdom to invest because if we succeeded we would buy their products.”
The Innocence and Experience show is indeed about political grief as well as personal. One minute you’ve got Bono jumping around the room with the room service lids and the next he’s deeply sad.
He said that the poet Brendan Kennelly said he had to write every song as if he was already dead?
“Yes, to imagine yourself free of ego or concerns about what people think about you.”
Was this about his own near-death experiences? By this I don’t mean falling off his bike and having a 5 hour operation November 2014. After he broke his arm in 5 places and his eye socket. At the end of last year he was seriously ill.
“I mean I don’t want to speak about it but I did have a major moment in my recent life where I nearly ceased to be. I’m totally through it stronger than ever.”
He’s talking about this as if he had a decision in it. Did he have a choice whether he could go through it or not?
“No. I didn’t. It wasn’t a decision. It was pretty serious. I’m alright now but I very nearly wasn’t.”
No wonder this has changed the course of his songs, so many that question mortality, that others are letters to his children and wife, reflections, conversations with his younger self about how things could have been, should have been.
“Funnily enough I was already down the road of writing about mortality. It’s always been in the background.”
Sure it has. How could it not be? He was 14 when his mother died. Iris had a fatal aneurysm at a family funeral. He’s always liked to point out how many rock gods lost their mother like John Lennon. Initially he and Larry bonded over the death of their mothers. It was always in the background.
“And then it was in the foreground.”
Did he have a premonition that it was going to happen? “No but I’ve had a lot of warnings. A fair few punches over the last years.”
Like falling off the bike? “That was only one of them. There were some serious whispers in the ear that maybe I should have taken notice of. The Edge says I look at my body as an inconvenience and I do. I really love being alive and I’m quite good at being alive, meaning I like to get the best out of any day. The way I’m set up as an artist is I don’t see the songs as being art or the being in a band. I see life as being what you express yourself with. I certainly have a renewed vigour because it was an impasse. It was the first time I put my shoulder to the door and it didn’t open. I’ve always been able to do that and now I feel God whispered to me. Next time try knocking at the door or just try the handle. Don’t use your shoulder because you’ll break it.”
And this has had an impact on practical things like touring?
“Yes. I can’t do as much as I used to. On previous tours I could meet a hundred lawmakers in between shows and after the show and now I know that I can’t do that. This tour is particularly demanding and it asks of me that I prepare for it daily, that I concentrate on it so I can give myself completely. That’s why these shows are so great. I prepare for it and my voice is stronger than it has been. Have you heard about that Michael Gladwell book the 10,000 hours?”
It’s about you have to put 10,000 hours of work into something to be any good at it?
“I think we just got to 10,000 hours. It’s not genius. It’s just 10,000 hours. I’m not there yet but the band are. They are at their peak. Early on we were good, even great but I didn’t think we were and I didn’t tell them that and I was probably the weakest but I was the front man. I could grab attention. I could propel the songs. They’ve turned in their 10,000 hours and are on a whole other level right now. But nobody’s gonna tell me they saw U2 on another tour and they were playing better. It’s not gonna happen.”
Perhaps it’s because he has a feeling of completion. That it can’t get any better. If you start your show with an MRI and end it onstage alone with a solitary lightbulb, the metaphor is you come in and out of the world alone. He’s 58 but maybe he has lived his life in dog years.
“Everybody gets to this place. Whether you have a face-off with your own mortality or somebody close to you does, you are going to get to a point in your life where you ask questions about where you’re going.” Does that mean this is the peak? There won’t be another U2 tour after this?
“I don’t know. I don’t take anything for granted. U2 in this moment with these songs, these love letters, it’s some of our best work and I’m not sure that can be said about a lot of people who’ve been around this long.”
Bono has always lived in fear of U2 being dubbed a heritage act with greatest hits tours. Last year they did The Joshua Tree tour, not just the hits, they played the whole album.
“As if we’d never recorded the album. As if we’d put them out that year. It’s OK to acknowledge work you’ve done and give it respect, but if it’s the best we can do then we’re not an ongoing concern.”
He tells me that a critic once said ‘being at a Stones show makes people feel good but being at a U2 show makes people feel good about the person who’s standing next to them.’
I tell him the joy of being at a U2 show is that it just makes you feel who you are. The songs and visuals stretch your intellect as well as unfold your emotions.
He winds back to his personal apocalypse and I wonder if his younger self would be disappointed with his older self.
Would his younger self have approved of the album Songs of Innocence gifted to everyone on iTunes? Some people appreciated it more than others?
“We were experimenting. It was intended to be generous. The intention was never the over reach that it appeared to be. I’m not sure that my younger self would approve of where I’ve got to but I like to think that if my younger self stopped punching my face, my younger self would see that I’ve actually stayed true to all the things my younger self believed in. I’m still in a band that shares everything. I’m not just shining a light on troublesome situations, but trying to do something about them. I still have my faith, I’m still in love, I’m still in a band. What about your younger self?”
My younger self would say you fucked up on life, you fucked up on love, you loved all the wrong people at all the wrong times, you’ve been evil and destructive but hey, you’re in a Penthouse with Bono. My younger self would be yay, you made it!
Final word from Bono “You should be the singer of this band.”
I’m back in the Boston Garden Arena. In the winding bowels of the building the U2 production team weave seamlessly. They do this every day and most of them have been doing it for years with a level of loyalty that’s unquestioning. Most of the production staff are women, women who get things done. They pad about in dark jeans or cargo’s and Converse.
I first ventured backstage with U2 a couple of decades ago. There was a different uniform – a floaty maxi dress and platform shoes and women would run, not teeter in vertiginous heels across stadiums. Women no longer have to run in heels and it’s a statement U2 take on board.
I meet Adam Clayton in the guitar bunker beneath the stage. He gives me a tour of what goes on there. The Edge’s technician, Dallas Schoo, is lovingly poring over Edge’s 33 guitars, 25 which he uses every day. The bass guitars are less in number -about 18 but they make up for it in sparkle and Clayton has given them names.
There’s a lilac glitter guitar with a heavily studded strap that he calls Phil Lynott and a more gothic strap that he calls The Cure. They’re all lined up, ready for action. We climb up to the stage itself. I look out at the vast, empty arena and then clamber up into the long slim cage that wobbles. It’s where they perform a chunk of the show. The sides of the cage also double up as a screen for the films for the virtual reality footage and the political movies. I don’t like heights or enclosed spaces and Clayton, ever the gentleman, helps me down.
He’s wearing a Westwood T shirt and Sandalwood. His body is ripped, impressive. He likes to work out. He is 58. We part some makeshift curtains to do our interview which will happen at the same time as he’s having his physio. Soon he is naked but for a towel. The physiotherapist is on tour with the band and Clayton gets his massage before every show.
“I work out a lot – I run and do weight training in the morning so that tightens me up and then in the show carrying the bass and there are various other occupational quirks that affect the body. I have to make sure they don’t develop into real problems. It was a bit of a shock to learn that the things you could do in your twenties and thirties in terms of being a player, when you get into your forties and fifties, they cause repetitive strain injuries.”
Does he mean carpal tunnel? He’s playing his bass and his fingers won’t move?
“Exactly. But actually for me more of an issue is what it does to my hips and lower back, shoulders and neck. You just get so tight you can’t turn, you can’t move. When you go on stage you don’t want to be feeling those things.”
Hargen the physiotherapist is German and he speaks with a German Irish accent. He’s got strong hands that seem to know what they’re doing. Watching someone be massaged is quite meditative.
“It is. You make sure that your channels are open when you’re onstage. You don’t want random thoughts coming through your mind.”
Of course, there was a time in the nineties where Clayton was full of random thoughts and random excesses. The polite gentleman went wild. Fell in love with Naomi Campbell. His man part was the cover of ZOO TV, his inherent shyness replaced by rampant exhibitionism. He’s come a long way since then. He’s married to Mariana Teixeira de Carvalho, a Human Rights lawyer and has a new baby, Alba and his addictions end at exercise, designer T shirts and the perfect Sandalwood scent.
He’s more than come through it. He’s a spectacular player and he owns the stage. His bass guitar strut looks far from tight or injured. He’s pleased when I tell him his 10,000 hours show.
“Ah yes, from Gladwell.” He smiles. Random thought comes into my head. Why does it seem normal to interview a man who’s naked except for a towel, talking about sonic perfection?
“I use only about 6 or 7 guitars. Edge uses 30 different ones. He’s the one seeking perfection sonically. When we started from 1976 onwards, the sound of the punk band was the most aggressive and powerful thing that a teenager could hear and all the bass players were stars. It was much cooler than the guitar so from that point of view – I was. We are also a little more mysterious at the back. I’m a big fan of bass and drum. I realise it’s a bit niche. These days most modern records are programmed and synthesised bass and drums. It’s not real.”
Clayton likes the real thing. “Larry has special needs because for 40 years he’s been pounding something that has been resisting him. He has to get physio done an hour before the show and an hour after. He’s in pain and his muscles need to function properly. Drumming is the most physically debilitating thing you can do. These are things you do in your twenties and thirties. It’s the equivalent of a sports career where you shouldn’t really be doing it past the age of 35 but nobody knew that when rock n roll started and nobody realised it could be a long career. I guess the jazz players of the thirties and forties might have found that out and those people probably weren’t making enough to have doctors to help them. They probably medicated with heroin.”
Does he ever medicate? “If my neck is tight and painful I’ll take an Aleve (like paracetamol).”
Onstage it looks pure and loose but now I’ve learnt it takes a lot of massaging. Three consecutive tours have had an accumulative effect. It won’t continue like that.
“I don’t think so. It’s been good for the band’s playing and the band’s tightness and when you see how much Edge does – singing, keyboards, guitar, Edge is at the top of his game. Bono has learnt to master, to dominate these stages, but we’re due a break. The Joshua Tree tour was a runaway train. We extended it because it was popular and it suited our schedule because our album release date was moved. A lot of people work harder than we do but I think we need a break now. Being in front of audiences that are enthusiastic is an amazing pay off but being away from home for most of the year is gruelling.”
I was only on the road for a few days and I feel a strange kind of exhaustion from travel and from never being never alone. It’s a weird thing. Clayton is looking forward to a holiday “with the rest of the lads with the South of France.” They all have houses near to each other on the French Riviera. Extraordinary that they not only work together but want to holiday together.
“Yes, it’s perverse.” Is that some kind of masochistic syndrome? “No, what really works is we’ve known each other for a long time. Everyone now has children and there’s a whole group of friends that revolve around it so it’s a community and it’s nice to spend time together.”
They all still like each other? “Yes, I’m very grateful for it. I still think that Bono and Larry and Edge are the most fascinating people in my life. They constantly surprise me in terms of their insight, their development, their intelligence. When you find people like that you hang onto them.
We haven’t done anything to embarrass our younger selves. We were young guys coming out of the suburbs of Dublin that didn’t know anything but had a certain idealism of how we thought the world should be and we’ve honoured that. Our tours have always been based on more than crash, bang, wallop and video effects. They’ve meant something.
You learn things as you’re going. Trying to eat as healthily as you can and being in a healthy frame of mind helps you. We have an on the road chef who knows what we should be eating. I’ve gone vegetarian. I’ve heard so much about the meat processing business that I don’t trust anything. I’ve got high levels of mercury in my blood so I don’t eat fish. I’ve not drank for twenty years and that was a completely different life but I notice other people are heading that way. There’s now a theory in the UK that even one drink is harmful to you. I think that’s a bit extreme and a bit of a buzz wrecker but it does seem that alcohol is being thought of as possibly causing cancer.”
Not very rock n roll, is it. But maybe that’s old rock n roll where it was all about living for the moment, doing lines and drinking shots…all night. And now the challenge is longevity and not losing relevance.
After the show in the hotel bar in a cordoned off area, there will still be champagne and The Edge will be the only band member socialising because Edge never does extreme.
Clayton continues, “The longer you are off it the easier it is but I can never have just one. I see people who drink half a glass of wine and I get anxious thinking how can you leave that other half? But there are those people who can have just one glass and leave it and people who the minute they have one they’re off and their mood changes. It’s a powerful drug and a powerful industry. I wonder if the legalisation of marijuana is going to be competitive.”
They have worked the last four summers, either touring or recording. Clayton looks forward to family time and enjoying his daughter’s first birthday. It’s hard to tell if I’m sensing that this could be the end or whether he’s just looking forward to the break.
“Albe really does love banging musical instruments. And she has an eye for looking at the light and noticing. I’m happy to say that there are strong signs that there is an artistic soul in there.”
I’m wondering if his massage therapist has remote superpowers. It has relaxed me too. Clayton’s is the most sophisticated sandalwood. It doesn’t punch you. it gives you a comforting embrace. Edge 56 Bono 58
Larry Mullen was in fact the founder of the band. Mulen is still the heartbeat. Nothing happens without him. He provides dignity, strength. He also has a Dorian Gray thing about him. He’s always looked much younger than his 56 years. He’s always fit and I’ve always loved those drummer’s arms. As we chat in the Boston Garden Arena before the show, he tells me that these days those arms don’t come easy and neither does the drumming. He has to work out, he has to have intense physio.
“It’s not so rock n roll but it’s what you have to do to get yourself up to this. I don’t come from that kind of discipline – the same as the jazz drummers. Technically it’s complicated and physically it’s a different thing.”
He means he’s not the kind of jazz drummer who sits mellow and still and only the arms move. “I’m a street drummer. When you throw yourself about and after doing it for a long time you just can’t quite do it in the same way.”
For Mullen, constant touring has been hard and not just on the arms. In the nineties after a huge tour he simply took off on his motorbike and disappeared with some kind of reaction against the band and also an inability to cope with being home, but that’s long since been worked through. He’s had ambitions to further his acting career. I’m sure his deep, thoughtful presence is an interesting cinematic one. He has had parts in the films Man on the Train in 2011 with Donald Sutherland and A Thousand Times Goodnight with Juliette Binoche in 2013.
“We’ll finish this out and then there will be time to decide what we want to do next. I’d like to take a really long holiday.”
There’s something in the way he says it, not just tiredness, that make me think maybe this really is it.
“I don’t know. You never know. I assume there’ll be another album. I don’t know when and I’d like to think we have some time to consider it. I don’t know that anybody needs a U2 record or a U2 tour anytime soon. People could do with taking a break from us and vice versa.”
Will he try to resume acting? “I’d like to but I had to put all that stuff on hold. The problem is if the tour gets changed the album gets released at a different time, all bets are off. My agent said ‘I can’t do this because you’re just not available so I think I will re-employ the agent and tell them I won’t be doing this for a couple of years. I’d like to do something else.”
Shouldn’t the agent have kept him on the books? “Well, in fairness it was difficult. I wasn’t answering the phone.”
And that’s Mullen for you. He’s not an answering the phone type.
While Mullen goes for his physio I am in catering perusing selections of cheesecake and pasta and soup. I meet Willie Williams the shows creative director over bowls of spaghetti.
This is his twelfth world tour with U2. “What’s been fantastic about working with U2 for so long apart from the fact that they are who they are, is that they’ve always done big, ambitious projects. Then they take a hiatus so I’ve been able to have my own life back and I don’t feel it’s been taken over.”
Williams recently has installed lighting for the Hakkasan group in Vegas. He has designed a centrepiece – a spaceship chandelier at Caesar’s Palace.
Williams also constructed the Innocence tour which was similar in its staging but it’s interesting to see in three years how much technology has moved on.
“For them it’s about finding the connection between spectacle and emotion. We tweak the show as it goes along. The joy of this show is we start with a narrative. We spoke for a long time about the band growing up in Dublin and honing their story so we could tell the experience part of the journey.”
At the time we speak, he is redesigning the show for Europe – the general theme will be Europe at a time of crisis. The European flag will replace the US flag. That should be nicely controversial in Brexit Britain.
There is a cityscape for every night which is redone for every city of the tour. When I see the show this time, Bono has selected different seats for me because he wants me to see other aspects of the show. His attention to detail is like that. For me, it was interesting to watch the stage after having been under it and on it.
After the show we’re back in the hotel bar. It’s Edge and Morleigh’s wedding anniversary. We all eat handmade chocolate cake. It’s a group of people who know each other really well and can move instinctively and swiftly with each other.
The next day we all travel from Boston to New York on Amtrak. U2 have reserved an entire carriage for cast and crew. Once we arrive, the set must be built immediately at Madison Square Garden for their 4-day residency. Edge is the only band member on the train – the others all left after the gig last night to see their families. Edge’s wife and daughter are here with him. Did he give Morleigh a gift for their wedding anniversary?
“You get special dispensation when you are on the road – she is with me and that is the best present.”
He’s very smiley when he talks about family and equally smiley when he talks about guitars. Does he really use 33 each night?
We talk about how in the early days he only used one guitar which meant that Bono had to hit some very high notes.
“These days we try not to do that to him, we try to save his voice. He does hit some very high notes. He has a good range. A ‘B’ would be his top note these days but he has hit ‘C’ which is what a top tenor would hit, which is very, very high – an opera singer would hit that maybe once a night.”
I sense a strong concern for Bono.
“Bono has a very ambivalent attitude to his physical self. He doesn’t naturally take responsibility for his physical well-being, he is more about other things and the body just comes along with it. Which is fine in your 20s but you get to a certain point… somebody once said for the first 30 years your body looks after you and supports you then you have to look after your body. It is a difficult shift for him.
“It is a difficult shift for anybody who is living in the moment, considers himself an artist. It’s about being current, being present. If you spend too much time thinking you are old and past it you probably can’t do it anymore.”
This is the dilemma they all face. Take care of themselves but not so much care that they are over thinking it.
On the road places them in a kind of cocoon. They’re with your rock n roll family doing the things that they always do. It’s not so much holding back the years but not acknowledging their existence. If they think about being old, it becomes difficult to feel relevant.
We see passengers on the platforms peering in. Perhaps they can spot the odd vacant seat in our carriage. They wonder why they can’t get in. You feel set apart, not so much alienated but special.
“As you can see, it’s a family experience on the road, we are surrounded by the people we love so it’s not as alienating as you think although I am not under any illusions that we are not to some extent institutionalised by being a member of U2. How could you not be?”
The train rocks along.
“I must say I am really looking forward to not being on the road.” (They have a break before their European tour starts August 31 in Berlin). “I am sure there will be a withdrawal of a certain type but I think the minute you feel being on the road is normal is when you know you have got to get home fast.”
“The physio keeps us from not getting in trouble in the physical sense. What we do as a guitar player or drummer is use the body in a very unnatural way. It’s like a tennis player; there is a lot of asymmetrical movement. Your body will change shape to make that the norm which plays havoc… I get to the gym when I can, I am not a big believer in heavy weights and the like, I care more about flexibility. I used to do yoga.”
Edge isn’t fanatical about the gym, he’s not fanatical about anything. He is measured, he has always been the balance of other band members excesses.
Does he have Morleigh on the road with him the whole time?
“No, I wish. She was director in residence for a while when Willie was away. She was our eyes and ears in the audience and helped tinker with the show. It’s a constant process trying different things and she has helped Bono over the years with his use of the stage. Her background is modern dance so it’s all about the visual medium; the shape of the show.”
Their daughter Sian is very smart and engaging. It’s her image that is used for the Poverty is Sexist visual and she’s also on the cover of the album along with Eli Hewson. Last night in the bar, she and I bonded over dyslexia.
“I am sort of dyslexic when it comes to music,” says Edge. “I am totally instinctive. I use my ear and am not technically proficient. I am very lazy so I know just enough music theory to get by.”
The other night on stage he looked perplexed when Bono said that he and Adam had gone off the rails and it happened to Edge later.
When did that happen? He laughs, knowing that he has never gone off the rails. The eyebrows arch as he briefly ponders just how devastating that would have been, not just for him but for the rest of the band.
“I have been pretty together through the years – I am sure we have all had our moments and lost our perspective and started to buy into the bullshit. That’s the hardest thing, to hold on to the perspective. The general rule is that everybody involved in any endeavour always overestimates their own importance while simultaneously undervaluing everyone else; once you realise that you can start catching yourself.”
I even caught myself feeling put out because the second night at the hotel the U2 crew did not have the whole bar to themselves as we’d had the first night. We were given a cordoned off area within the bar. And that is me after two days. How could I become so arrogant after such a short time?
“Good question. I think we all have that tendency to enjoy being made a fuss of. It’s a Seamus Heaney phrase, ‘Creeping Privilege’ you have got to look out for it because it can turn you into a monster or somebody who needs help, a victim. And you don’t want to be that.” He laughs his wise laugh.
“That is the good thing about being a band member, we all spot each-others tendencies to go off track. We are peers and equals. Which is not a given because solo artists have no peers or equals.
“We are not afraid of bad news. In the beginning we had to work hard to get anywhere, it was always a struggle. That’s just how it feels, we enjoy the fight and the internal struggle to get where we feel we need to go and a sense that we have got to fight for our position to maintain where we are at creatively and literally.”
Edge has optimism. Edge sees the past, sees the future and would never let U2 become a heritage act.
“Yes, and we should not feel entitled. Because the other part of this creeping privilege is that you get to the place that you think you are entitled just because you are a name and you’ve been around a long time.”
They keep each other in check. Do they actually criticise each other?
“It generally doesn’t have to be said, it just becomes clear. That’s the nature of our band culture. These things get figured out. There have been very few times when we have had to have what you might call an intervention. It’s basically what friends do for each other because that what we are; a bunch of friends. And even when we are not touring we will all be in the south of France with each other. Recently I have been mostly between Dublin and Venice, California. I am trying to build a house in Malibu but not having much luck. Hopefully in the future I will be there. Meanwhile, we are renting a place in Venice, low key, not a big house on a street. It’s grounding.”
“Touring to me is not the same as travel because you are in a bubble. I still try to get out even if it’s just going for a walk in a park, a bit of shopping, maybe a bar, there is something really educational about travelling. Our kids have to travel to see their dads and I’ve watched how their attitude to the world opens and their acceptance of difference is just a natural by-product of seeing the world. It’s healthy. Being insular in your own little group is not.”
“We have made two of the most personal and introspective albums of our entire career but the show is very political so I am hoping to open it up in more Euro Centric ways. But the music, that’s personal.”
The political only becomes meaningful when it relates to the personal. There is of course a bond between the Americans and the Irish. A statistic claims there are 40 million people of Irish heritage in the US. The desecration and reconstruction of the American dream is also an Irish dream. The European tour will be different because the European dream doesn’t exist in the same way.
“We are hoping for a global dream which is hopelessly idealistic. Let’s start with getting the West on the right footing. If you are ready to look into it on a deeper level an anthropological level you will find that during times of crisis people instinctively reach for the monster they think is going to protect. That can be a movement or an individual. In the US it seems to be a bit of both. For sure the orange one with the help of some very smart advisors has tapped into a movement of disaffection which has clearly been brewing for 20 years.
“I was just in Washington on Capitol Hill, all these neoclassical edifices – the statement is of power. Not the power of an emperor or a king but the power of the state. If you are a miner and you are in Washington worrying that you’ve lost your job or health care it would be so intimidating. Someone like Trump talks to the guy at the end of the bar somehow you relate to him. This is a guy who is pretending to represent ever man and he is the most elitist. So many levels of irony. If you look at the longer arc of history what we are seeing now is a backward step.
“The actual drift is in this direction and a positive thing but it relies on respect in the sense of pluralism which is my culture, your culture; my religion, your religion. People have very strong religious ides which we find crazy, dinosaur deniers. Some people who have whacky thoughts; extreme Christians, extreme Muslims to be able to understand where they are coming from and not demonize or look down on them and not say, ‘Your reality is not as valid as my reality’. The problem is that the divisions are big. Europe, weirdly enough on some levels, has less diversity than America. Europe is post Christian for the most part, in America they share a common language but a huge diversity of world vision. In Europe we have cultural difference, linguistic differences, political differences. If we keep our never EuropeEloper can survive and we can all pull together. Brexit is, of course, a bit of a set-back, but we’ll figure it out.
“Picture us at 16 or 17, we were a really awful, terrible band. We managed to persuade the powers that be to let us play a short set in the school disco. I remember everybody gathering into a little room in a panic because we realised, of the songs we were about to perform we had never managed to get to the end of any of them. So now we can get through the songs and we have sold a few records, we have had a long observance in the same direction and that has gotten us where we are. In other words, total blind thinking.”
They started off with the very smart thinking Paul McGuiness as their manager, who remained from the start until 5 years ago.
“To be fair, we found him. He had done a little bit of management of a Dublin band but his day job was in the world of advertising, commercials, assistant director, he had worked on a couple of movies.”
It was his concept that the band should split everything equally four ways. This levelling seems to have been genius thinking. So many bands split up because of egomania and in band rivalry.
“It was a piece of genuine wisdom – he had heard why so many bands disintegrated. It took us about three minutes to consider and go, ‘Yes, that’s a good idea.’”
We talk about science because he’s intrigued where intuition and science meet, the logical brain and the poet brain. They meet in The Edge’s brain.
When the train pulls into Penn station we head off in opposite directions. I’m already sad to leave behind my rock and roll cocoon. Feels like family. I already miss the fact I won’t have a show to watch that night. People to meet after the show…. talk about guitars and lost dreams and reconstructed ones……what if it really is the end?
I order a Lyft car to go to the screening of Denzel Washington’s The Equaliser 2 in Century City Los Angeles. Traffic on Santa Monica Boulevard is murderous and I’m agitated.
“Perhaps you can get to a later show,” says Grace the Lyft driver. No, I say puffing up. It’s a special screening because I’m interviewing Denzel Washington tomorrow. “Oh,” she says. “You’ll like him. His son and my son used to play basketball together. They’re friends. Denzel is a good man, family man. Gave lots of money to the school.”
I decide to run in heels the rest of the way to make the screening and in the opening sequence I learn that Denzel’s character Robert McCall is an undercover Lyft driver. He’s also an avenging angel who rights wrongs violently and proficiently before anyone even asks. He is a dark force for good and he does a lot of his research while driving his Lyft. That’ll teach me to dismiss Grace.
The Equaliser 2 is the first sequel of Washington’s career which has spanned 2 Oscars, 3 Globes and 1 Tony. Although the next day when we meet he’ll shrug and say, ‘Well, nobody ever asked me to do anything twice,” I think it’s because he doesn’t want to admit he’s close to this character and that’s why he was able to so effortlessly revive it.
Also, there’s something perfect for the times that a powerful dark angel exists, a guy who can correct everything that goes wrong with brutality yes because you feel those wrongs. You root for him. It’s cathartic to watch. The fight scenes are powerful, fast, shocking. Washington himself has spent years in boxing training ever since he played Rubin Carter in the 1999 film The Hurricane.
I’m in a suite at the Four Seasons Hotel. I hear him before he comes into the room. He’s got a great laugh – large, infectious and loud. And an even larger presence. He’s 6 foot 1 but seems taller in a black suit and black tee.
Washington likes to banter, to distract. He asks questions about the wallpaper with the utmost curiosity. He doesn’t enjoy questions about himself which is odd for an actor, although there’s nothing about him that’s “Hollywood”.
He grew up in Mount Vernon, New York. An odd buffer between the city and the rich Connecticut suburbs. It was mostly middle class. His father was a preacher who worked for the local water company by day and his mother owned beauty salons. They divorced when he was 14. His mother ruled him with tough love and tried to protect him from the bad boys.
He went to college to study medicine, changed to political science, also considered law and journalism and ended up in a job where he could investigate all of these professions. He started off in the theatre honing his craft and, in many ways, feels that’s where he most belongs. He has revived A Raisin In The Sun and The Iceman Cometh on Broadway as well as Julius Caesar. He’ll stare at you but if you stare back he’ll look away.
We’ve met a few times before and he wants to know what city is my home. I ask is LA anyone’s home? He muses, “I used to tell people who would say oh you live in Hollywood. There’s no place called Hollywood. Hollywood Boulevard has some little stars that people walk by and look at.”
Does he have a star? “Do I?” he tries to recall. “No, I don’t, but I have hand and footprints. “Why don’t I have a star?” he wonders.
I tell him that I loved The Equaliser 2 which I did. “Oh good,” he says, suddenly staring at the large TV screen that’s in the room. He absolutely cannot take compliments and when I call him out on that he says, “Do I look like I didn’t believe you?” No, you look like you can never take a compliment. He concedes, “No, I’m not good. But enough about me.”
We laugh but that’s really as he prefers it. An interview that’s not about him. Then he comes back to my Lyft driver and works out that it is his younger son Malcolm, 27 who’s twins with actress daughter Olivia, who played basketball a decade ago, although he won’t admit what he donated to the school or what basketball team he gave money to as Grace said he wouldn’t.
He’s been married to Pauletta for 35 years by film industry standards, even if there was a lot of partying that’s rock solid. His older son John David, 33 started as a football player but got his big time break in HBO’s Ballers and is upcoming in Spike Lee’s movieBlacKkKlansman. His eldest daughter Katia 30 is a producer. She worked on her father’s movie Fences and Django Unchained. In all they’re a super successful family, revered by people like my Lyft driver for their unity and kindness but I were ever dare to say he’s a role model he would hate it more than he would hate being given a compliment. Partly because being a role model is a compliment, partly because although he’s very aware of the platform he has as a famous actor and a famous black actor, he never takes advantage of it. That’s just him.
He started off his career where people thought he was a goody two shoes having total swallowed his bad boy past. That’s why I think he’s especially linked to this avenging angel character, McCall.
“No,” he dismisses. “You just want to make something good that people will enjoy. We had great success the first time around and when people say hey let’s do this again, why not?”
Equaliser 2 is better than Equaliser 1 I tell him. “I’ve been hearing that but why? Is it because now you know the guy or is it because it’s more personal?” All of that and it’s actually more emotional. You invest in his relationship with his best friend – Susan played by Melissa Leo and you invest in the father/son quality of the relationship he has with Ashton Sanders’ character.
Sanders shone in the Oscar winning Moonlight. He’s the kind of actor whose silence fills the screen with something deep.
In this movie Sanders is a teenager on the brink. He can go to art school or he can join a gang. In real life Sanders is an artist as well as an actor.
“Some of the drawings may have been his. He’s very talented and he’s in a unique place with all the success he’s had right off the blocks. He’s a good dude. I wish him well. He’s got his head screwed on right.”
When I last met Washington, almost a year ago, he was very solid with Sanders and industry people told me he was mentoring him. Washington didn’t like that word but clearly he identified with him.
“I’ve been where he’s going. He asks me questions because things are changing for him. His friends are changing. I have been down that road.”
I wonder if Washington saw in Sanders his own youth? He and his three best friends were all in a band. The others did not fare well. One died through drug related AIDS and at least two of the others spent many years in jail. One of them at least I know Washington helped out by buying him new teeth and there’s always the thought it could have been him had his mother not tough loved him right out of that bad boy set.
Was that the bond? “It was a natural thing. We were spending all this time together and between takes we were talking.”
On screen they looked as if they were extremely close but they’re actors. “I think you can tell when it’s not genuine. At least I can.”
In the movie Sanders character is poised to join the gang with the bad boys and Washington’s character saves him from that. Art reflecting life. It is remarkable of four friends, three are in jail or dead and the other is a full on movie star, reportedly worth $220 million. That’s why the scenes with Sanders are so impactful. How things could have gone.
“It just shows you, in my case growing up I had someone who really cared about me and was willing to make sacrifices to see me succeed and my character takes on that role. In my case it was my own mother but he didn’t have that. He had no example of what it was to be a man.”
And he thought it was all about being a gangster. Washington nods slowly. This is sensitive, empathic Washington. You don’t see him for long and he refers it back to the movie.
“There’s this shot when I look down on him and the guys come and pick him up. That’s how it happens. You know, a kid is isolated alone and trying to fit in and here come the guys. ‘Come with us where the fun is’.”
Washington has always found the fun in being serious or in straight up laughing at me. Laughing at my rambling questions, laughing at my attempts of accents but it’s not a cruel laugh, more playful and curious.
In The Equaliser Robert McCall likes to read books. Washington replaced what was in the script with a book called Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates.
It’s a book written to the author’s teenage son about the feelings, symbolism and realities about growing up black in America. It discusses the racist violence that has been embedded into the American culture and this is the book that Washington chooses to give Sanders character. It’s not obvious. It never is. But this is as close as Washington gets to using his powerful platform as an African American.
Washington likes detail. He’s not a natural preacher like his father although he could be a wonderful preacher. He is partial to an intriguing Bible quote and he himself once went to church with his mother and had the experience of speaking in tongues.
He says he met author Ta-Nehisi Coates randomly and then became intrigued. “I thought, that’s what our story is about – coming of age. My character in the movie reads books anyway so I thought this is a good book to give the kid.”
Because it’s about growing up as an African American? It’s about being black?
“Was there a question in there?” Well I’m just checking in which way the book relates as I haven’t actually read it. “Oh…ok,” says Washington, still not really wanting to go there. It’s not an ugly pause or a silent one. He doesn’t knock any questions back without laughing. In fact, he chortles quite a lot.
He recently did a very funny interview on the Jimmy Kimmel show talking about how he saved the Oscars in 2016. The Oscars he saved were the notorious wrong envelope Oscars where Kimmel was hosting and was mystified when Faye Dunaway and Warren Beatty read out La La Land for Best Picture and there seemed to be something wrong. Washington looked at Kimmel and gestured to him to get Barry Jenkins the director of Moonlight.
“I saved the Oscars. I didn’t win one. I must have been up for one because I was right down at the front.” He was absolutely up for Best Actor and Best Picture for Fences. He directed Fences adapted from the stage by August Wilson.
His first Oscar nomination came for freedom fighter Steve Bilko in Cry Freedom (1988) and then for political martyr Malcolm X in 1993. His first win was for Training Day in 2002 although I think he should have won in 2000 for The Hurricane and 2013 for Flight.
These days he likes to mix up his film work with some directing and the stage where he started off has become increasingly important to him. He’s just finished a couple of month’s run of The Iceman Cometh on Broadway.
He likes to add personal details to scripts such as in this year’s Roman Israel he added the concept of his characters love of peanut butter. In The Equaliser he walks into a room and knows who’s there because of the smell. Asparagus tips and soy sauce and a specific ladies perfume. That was not in the script. It was from Washington because that’s what he does. Smells out the room before seeing it.
“You don’t mean me personally? You mean the character.” I meant both.
Today I looked up the definition of Denzel. “It means a fortress, right?” No actually. It’s a small town in Cornwall, England.
“Really?” he says, disappointed. He was much happier with being a fortress. “I feel like now I’m a little hut on the side of the road and in my mind, I was a fortress.”
Antoine Fuqua the director said that Washington and his Robert McCall character were alike because they like to do good and they didn’t want to be seen doing good. Is that so? Another quizzical look.
Fuqua directed him in Training Day, Magnificent Seven and both Equalisers. Fuqua went on to say, “Denzel wouldn’t want me to talk about it, because he doesn’t want to take credit for it, but he does a lot for people. He taught me something he learned from Nelson Mandela: a shepherd leads from behind – not from the front. He takes that idea and quietly helps people along the way. I think that was important to him to express in Robert McCall.”
Washington corrects. “A leader like a shepherd, sends the fast, nimble sheep out in front so that the rest will follow, not realising they are all being led from behind. A good shepherd doesn’t lead from the front. That’s from Nelson Mandela but I don’t know where he got it from.”
We discuss Mandela’s possible career as a shepherd and the qualities of his leadership and Washington is quick to correct, “But I don’t want to assume I’m a leader.”
I always assume he’s a leader. “Thank you. But a leader of what?” Of course, there are so many ways in which he could be a leader but he doesn’t want to assume any of them.
Instead he tells a Biblical story about pigs being led off the edge of a cliff. “You’ve got to watch who you’re following.”
He took a decision on his 60th birthday (he’s now 63) to give up alcohol for what he calls his fourth quarter. “Moderation is the key. If you drink too much water you’ll drown. I’m not drinking alcohol.”
Has it changed his perspective? “On life? I hope so. I’ll put it this way. When you’re toasted you need a day to recover. You get a hangover. So that’s two days out of your life. I don’t have time to waste. Let’s say there’s 365 days in a year so in 10 years that’s 3650, so how many days do you want to waste?”
Does he still have dream roles? Something he would look forward to or any projects he wants to direct?
“I want to get back to doing some Shakespeare off the top of my head and plays by great writers. Be able to interpret August Wilson, Eugene O’Neill and William Shakespeare. That’s what I’ve been doing the last few years – acting in movies, acting in the theatre, directing movies so those three. That’s plenty.
On most days he boxes. You can tell because of the way he spars onscreen. Very nimble. Listening to music is also a big part of his day.
“When I was on Broadway I’d stay up half the night because I didn’t get home till 11.30 and I wouldn’t sleep till 3 or 4. My character doesn’t go on for the first 50 minutes so as soon as the play would start I would turn off the sound and start playing music.”
If his Equaliser character had a theme tune what would it be? “He’d stay away from certain music because it would bring him too many memories. He doesn’t want to open up to those emotional things.”
And just in case I was going to ask what Washington’s theme tune would be, he pre-empts me with, “Isn’t this a big TV? My TV at home is smaller than this TV but my room is bigger.”
I don’t have a TV. I watch everything on my MacBook. “Really?” he says incredulous. Yeah, because if a TV dominates the room it’s too distracting. “That’s a good point. You go to dinner and look what happens. Everyone’s sitting around a table like this.” He mimes texting.
Is that because you know the people you’re having dinner with so well you feel comfortable with them or you’re trying to avoid them? He laughs. “You’re speaking from experience and you’ve been on both sides,” he says knowingly and then checks his pockets.
“I don’t even know where my phone IS!”
On a recent red carpet, he said of fake news, “If you don’t read the newspaper you are uninformed. If you do read the newspaper you are misinformed. That quote is a hundred years old. Interesting, isn’t it? There’s fake news about me every week. I’ve died or something. Fake news doesn’t even have to be first anymore. It’s just got to be sensational.”
No wonder he’s wary of a newspaper interview.
Does he think that the film industry has changed in the post Weinstein era? “I hope so. I think there are just more rules in place. Time will tell on this one but it’s good right now.”
His daughter Olivia is an actress just starting out, honing her craft. Does he feel that she is safeguarded as a young woman in the industry?
“Yes, plus I will break somebody’s back if they mess around with my daughter. Let that be the message to put out there. Their back will be broken.”
And all this from the man who says he is not an avenging angel.
We are in a small, dark supper club – The Rockwell. We are in a bohemian district of Los Angeles. Packed to the rafters. The waiter warns the food will take a while. But no one’s here for the food. They are here for Jeff Goldblum, to hear him play jazz piano with a curious charm. Soon his be-ringed fingers will flash and sparkle across the keyboards.
Everybody loves Jeff. I’m not sure if that was always the case but somehow, rather stealthily he’s now Hollywood royalty. Not just for reprising roles as Ian Malcolm, the scientist in the Jurassic movies, for blockbusters like Thor and Independence Day. Not just for turning in so many expertly quirky roles including his recent gangster chief in Hotel Artemis. Not just for his iconic and still quiver making performance in The Fly in 1986. But because he survived it all. He’s 65 and has grown into his face and body. 6 foot 4 ½ no longer seems geeky. He’s sexy in a way that he never used to be.
He comes onstage and he’s so fully himself. Random friends are texting me messages like ‘he got me through my college years’. I’m not sure what did other than be around and be a constant but he’s still doing it.
He’s in a sharp suit and thick rimmed glasses and snappy hat. He’s his own warm up guy. He plays a game with the audience called The Movie Game. Similar to that one a few years ago Six Degrees of Kevin Bacon where everything led back to him. Any film, any co-star and then it’s a direct Goldblum association.
Then, in manner of Dame Edna, he’ll select audience members, no point in cowering because he’s coming for you. In his game Would You Rather, first up it’s Johnny Depp vs Orlando Bloom. He asks “Chrissy Iley, which one smells better?” As one reviewer said “You haven’t truly heard your name unless you’ve heard Jeff Goldblum say it.” Its a great voice.
Then it’s Nic Cage vs Matthew McConaughey. I go for Cage and tell the audience about the time McConaughey was getting a haircut and he made the stylist pick up all the hair from the floor in case someone would perform voodoo on it. I think he has researched every person I’ve ever interviewed.
Then the show itself begins. He favours cool jazz from the fifties and sixties. There’s an incredible energy to his playing and his band, the Mildred Snitzer Orchestra all have presence. He’s generous onstage. The audience whoops especially for ‘I Wish I Knew What it Felt to be Free’ which Brits would recognise as the theme tune to Barry Norman’s long running BBC film show.
He’s been doing these shows on and off for quite a few years but Decca Records picked up on his talent when he accompanied Decca artist Gregory Porter – who he met at an airport – on the Graham Norton Show.
The atmosphere at The Rockwell was recreated at Capitol Records with a club set up, Imelda May on guest vocals, Sarah Silverman on Me And My Shadow and a celebrity filled audience for the album recording of his version of Cantaloupe Island, My Baby Just Cares for Me and Straighten Up and Fly Right.
The next day we meet for brunch at the Chateau Marmont. Goldblum is wearing skinny black trousers, a multi coloured knit shirt that looks Italian and a very soft fawn suede jacket. It’s a hug hello and I can feel it’s a body that he takes care of. He gets up at 5.30 am every day, practices piano and then works out. He became a daddy for the first time in his sixties. He now has two little boys, River Joe who’s one and Charlie Ocean who’s three with his wife Emilie Livingstone (35), a former Canadian Olympian gymnast.
He invites me to smell his neck so that at some future point I can compare his scent to Depp, Bloom etc. He smells of dark flowers. “Ah yes, the title of my first autobiography – Dark Flower.” He’s joking, of course. We agree it would be a good title. There is something dark about him but something deliciously floral.
I’m wearing my wide, dark rimmed sunglasses so we match. We swap glasses for a quick photo op.
He’s wearing more jewellery than me. A classic Tank Cartier watch and quirky gold and silver rings on every finger. His wedding band is platinum with rose gold on the inside and his wife Emily had put on an engraving ‘Patches plus Peaches eternal love.’
Who’s Patches and who’s Peaches? “She’s Peaches because she’s quite peachy and my first nightmare which I recalled to her was about a witch trying to tie me down on a tree stump. I was four or five years old and instead of cutting my head off she said ‘Peeeaaches, Peeeaaches.’ I told my two older brothers that dream. We all shared a room and when we went to bed at night they would all go ‘Peeeaaaches’ and scare me.’ He mimics a gurgling witchy tone.
“She is Peachy and she is Peaches and I have a nice distribution of hair on my torso but on one side, right here there’s a little bit of extra. It’s a patch so I’m Patches.”
Isn’t Patch a dog’s name? “I AM a dog!” he says enthusiastically. “I LOVE dogs.”
He was in the Wes Anderson animated movie Isle of Dogs where he was the voice of Duke. He has a dog, a red poodle called Woody Allen. “Officially the term is apricot but Woody is darker and redder.”
Did he name his dog Woody Allen because he admires his namesake as a director or as a clarinettist? “It’s either or both”.
The names of his boys Charlie Ocean and River Joe “were not just tossed up.
I spent years before I had kids fantasising about what their names would be. What would go with Goldblum?”
Charlie had dark feelings about the introduction of his younger brother so we keep them safe and say you can hit the floor. You do not have to suppress your feelings. You can say you don’t like him but you can’t hurt him. And now there are many moments of friendship and sweetness. They bathe together and Charlie helps and protects his younger brother. River always wants to know what his brother is doing. He’s just started to walk. He’s a bit wobbly but he follows Charlie around.”
Goldblum too was a younger brother. One brother four years older (Rick who died at the age of 23 from kidney failure), the other (check name) five years older went into real estate. He also has a younger sister Pamela who is an actor and artist.
At the moment his wife and children are in Toronto with their mother and grandmother and last night Goldblum slept only with Woody. “He sleeps with us anyway. Last night it was just us and we are very close.”
Now we look at pictures on each others phones. I am showing him cat pictures, he is showing me dogs and babies. It’s almost like there’s no barrier and there’s instant intimacy, or maybe it just seems that way. Maybe it’s all part of the smart illusion.
Actually No – he’s an insatiably curious person about all sorts of things . Where do I live? What do I like? Who am I? And I ask if this is a distraction technique just so we don’t talk have to talk about him. “No,” he says, a little abashed and refers me to his acting teacher Sandy Meisner who instructed him that the best performance was always about chemistry with other people and although this is not quite a performance it’s an exchange of sorts and I see him feeling around for the correct level and pitch of the interview. “He said you have to be interested otherwise you’re not interesting.”
Did everyone always love Jeff and how exactly did he help my friend through her teenage years? “Ah yes. I show up and sense somebody on this block having a difficult teenage time and I get them through,” he jokes, bemused at his sudden superhero status. In fact it’s taken a while for him to arrive even though his breakthrough performance was possibly in The Big Chill over 30 years ago.
There was a brief first marriage to Patricia Gaul 1980-86, The Fly co-star Geena Davis 87-90 and a brief engagement to Laura Dern but essentially over two decades as single man. When we tried to play the Would You Rather game at brunch I tell him I can’t throw female stars at him because I don’t know if he’s slept with them or not. “Well there’s that but I think it’s nicer these days in that setting to stick with men. I’m hypersensitive to the challenges of womanhood.”
Has he had experiences of female co-stars crying about having to touch the white bathrobe? “No. I was never reported to about Harvey Weinstein. I never worked with him but if you watch something like Mad Men and you have grown up in that culture you can imagine what women have been subjected to. I have had frank discussions and heard women’s stories. Who doesn’t have a story of some discomfort or even some kind of traumatic circumstance and women all over the world still need to fight and we need to fight it with them for equality and dignity.”
Indeed, Goldblum is a “nice fella”. His comedy skirts the edges of discomfort but never humiliation. He likes the idea that he’s very available. “I’m not trying too hard you know. I like the idea that I’m offering something of interest and amusement. I do it to set up the music. As a performer it’s all about a shared experience. I feel I’m hosting a show. It’s kind of like a sixties one – Playboy After Dark. Hugh Hefner early on had a TV show. When I was a kid I used to go to a special part of the dial to find it because it was at that point one of the only portals into adult sensuality. It was called After Dark and the conceit was you’re in some kind of living room, a salon and there’s talk and there’s music. He was in a smoking jacket and had couches in different areas. Ostensibly it was a party and there was a piano.”
The album has a living room party vibe about it. It immediately places you right there. It was produced by Larry Klein who is famous for producing Herbie Hancock, Tracy Chapman and Joni Mitchell.
Did he imagine that he’d ever have a jazz album? “As a kid I would write on the shower wall please God let me be an actor. I think around eight or ten something happened in middle school where I went to this camp and fell deeply in love with performing. I was baying at the moon about it.”
Was he always a person who fitted in or stood out? “Early on when I was a kid I fitted in to our little family. I developed into my own individual person and then through junior high school and high school I was a fish out of water. I didn’t fit in with some groups until I found the arts programmes in that camp. That in one way or another saved my life.”
Now he’s able to fit in and stand out.
“I had piano lessons from eight years old and studied but I didn’t study acting.
My parents both liked music, my dad particularly. If we went on vacation to Miami they would do the Mambo. They took dance lessons in the Cha Cha Cha. You can imagine that era. They also had a taste for jazz and Errol Garner. He was a famous (jazz) pianist from Pittsburgh and they would bring records home and play on the HiFi. He really is kind of wonderful so I was exposed to that kind of music early on. That’s how I got interested in jazz. When I was 15, I went into a room and locked the door because I felt it needed to be secret and I looked through the Yellow Pages and would call one club after another saying ‘hey, I understand you’re looking for a piano player.’ Most people would say no but a couple said, ‘How did you hear about this? Come down and play.’
So I got a couple of jobs when I was fifteen. My parents would drive me to them and somehow I met a girl singer who was older and could drive and I would play for her. It was never that I was trying to be a musician. It just happened. Even with this record. It just happened. I’m not saying it’s going to be my new career.”
And this career wouldn’t have happened if he hadn’t met Gregory Porter at an airport. “A few years ago I went up to him and said Mr Porter? I love your music. And then I was going to be on the Graham Norton show a few months ago and the musical guest was Gregory Porter promoting his Nat King Cole album so I offered to play the song with him. That’s how his record company Decca got the idea and here we are.”
We’ve yet to order as we’ve been talking thick and strong. He seems very in the moment but says, “I am nothing if not disciplined. I have a conviction about work ethic. When I was a kid I didn’t know about the joys of getting homework done but after that I couldn’t help but practise my piano and now I have to tear myself away. We’ve been playing for about 20 years and it just developed under the radar. At first I wasn’t as good as I am now but I made sure I played so I could develop and memorise everything that we were playing. I would go through them most days even if I was on the road I would talk to the concierge in a hotel, find a music store down the road or play the piano in the lobby.”
So people in the lobby of a random hotel would find him giving an impromptu performance. “Yes I like to play with people around.”
Finally we get to order brunch. He wants scrambled eggs but it’s not on the menu. He doesn’t power order or suggest that most kitchens have eggs. He goes for ancient grain bowl from the menu. He likes to eat clean. “I get up at 5.30, do my piano and my workout first. I like to get eight hours sleep so it means going to bed at about 9.30.”
He now has a gym in his house where he and his wife workout. Emilie was a rhythmic gymnast. “Those are the dance gymnasts. They do all the hyperstretch contortions. She was the Pan American champion when she was young and she studied in Russia from 11 to 16. She’s now learnt Cirque du Soleil aerial stuff. She doubled for Emma Stone in La La Land. She was the dancer whose body you see dancing outside the Planetarium. And that movie Valerian, Rihanna plays a part in it and every time you see her face it’s Emilie’s body who’s dancing. We met at the gym. I saw her working out and toddled over and said well you’re not the usual…”
That was his pick-up line? He stalked her in the gym? “It wasn’t a pick-up line. I was interested in what she was doing. I have no lines and formula but I did start up a conversation. It was Equinox on Sunset and that was seven years ago. I went to see her perform and then invited her to a gig. I said I wonder if she’s going to do some contortion dancing on the piano. I said to the guys we should do the song from Fabulous Baker Boys Makin’ Whoopee, the one that Michelle Pfeiffer sings. He sings “Another bride, another groom
Another sunny honeymoon
Another season, another reason
For makin’ whoopee”
And she got on the piano and she did an amazing routine. We got the dog first. We were talking about children. She introduced it,” he says with a proud daddy smile.
Everyone must have said how strange it was that he got to sixty and wanted children. “Yes, right. I had to think about that and I’m still thinking about what it all means and trying to navigate the calendar and my gift of living every day. But when she said maybe it would be nice to have a baby it was so sweet and deeply genuine. I said if you’re serious we should talk about it. I had a therapist at the time who I took her to see. Luanda Katzman – we began having several sessions over a period of time where we excavated considerations and finally we both got enthusiastic about having a child and getting married. We got married here – in the Chateau Marmont in one of the bungalows with fifty people – mostly her family. We had already started to try to get pregnant and the day before the wedding she presented me with a sonogram saying ‘Look what happened’, so it made the wedding sweet and romantic.
I was a bachelorly kind guy of in the way I never had food in the house. The first time she opened my refrigerator I had a bottle of water and some Chinese takeout. Now it’s a family fridge with abundance all over. It’s great.”
He never wanted to have children before? “Not seriously even though I’ve been married before.”
Then he was alone for a long time. Was that on purpose or coincidence? “I never plotted it that way. There was no strategy but at this point it all seems to have been necessary and perfect, including the not having children.”
Because he wasn’t ready? “I think that may have been part of it, yes. Exactly.”
He wants to know if I can sing. Maybe we could do a performance together. I don’t tell him my story about when I blew Bryan Ferry off stage because my version of Jealous Guy was so much better. I just tell him no I can’t sing.
He suggests that maybe we could do poetry readings together. He once read the whole of Wuthering Heights out loud to someone. “Yes I’ve always loved Wuthering Heights and I was so touched by it I wanted to read the book to somebody. I have often read books out aloud and I’m about to do it professionally for the first time. My friend Norm Eisen who is the US Ambassador to the Czech Republic has written a very interesting book about working for Obama. He is a very wise and wonderful guy. I met him via Wes Anderson when we were doing Grand Budapest Hotel. He said ‘we have a guy who is a model for your character.’ So I went to Prague and he let me stay in the Ambassadors Palace and we’ve been in touch ever since.”
He loves food. Nothing fried or saucy. It’s part of the plan to stay healthy, not for getting good roles but for the role of daddy.
Does he think he’s going to go for a girl child? “I’d love a little girl. The other week Emilie said ‘gee I’d like to see you with a girl but I don’t think she really wants it. I think she’s happy to stop with these two.”
Perhaps he has a girl out there already who’s 25. “Not that I know of. I’ve been pretty good. If I could talk to my young self it would be to expose my young self to many lessons that I have come by gradually. I’ve not always been good. I’m still trying to learn about health and relationships and hygiene and how it keeps revealing itself to me in many more refined ways. It’s good that life happens the way it does really. You don’t get a view and no one can tell the future and it’s all a surprise. I’m amazed and pleased at the way things have turned out. Come on, what’s unpleasing?” We make our exit where everyone seems to greet him to say hello/goodbye. I’m not sure if they are fans or friends. He’s all about making the world a happier place and at the same time he’s all about science, astrophysics, astronomy, practical ways to save the oceans.
“Science is pretty inspiring. The extent and size of the universe and the place of our planet in it. We’re fragile. We need to stick together and do right by ourselves.”
He is all about the feel good – and his gift is to make people feel happy when he plays
Jeff Goldblum debut album is out on Decca records
There’s something disconcerting about having a 6 foot 5 multi-millionaire technocrat come to do a shoot in your home. For a start he’s hitting his head on chandeliers and simply doesn’t fit into my tiny, under the stairs bathroom. The 35 year old Alexis Ohanian manages to make my place look like a dolls house but oddly he doesn’t make it at all awkward. He’s easy company with his charming, beardy smile and his unique ability to switch topics of discussion from crypto currency – he’s a big fan of using money outside the restrictions of any national banking system to his baby – 9 month old Olympia and his tennis queen wife Serena Williams. He shows us videos of the little girl who he refers to as Junior. She’s already training in the gym and standing and walking. In one video, she looks like she’s about to whack a massive serve at the camera. She doesn’t have a racket. It’s just something in that stance. Ahead of her time, fearless and ready for it – traits she inherits from both parents.
Williams became the youngest ever winner of the US Open at 17 and is categorically considered to be the greatest tennis player of all time with 39 grand slams behind her and at 36 she’s still counting. Ohanian became a multi-millionaire at 23 (in 2006) when he sold Reddit – the internet discussion site that he created with his college roommate Steve Huffman. They built it in 3 weeks.
Ohanian continued to work closely with Reddit, watching it grow to be worth $1.8 billion, the third biggest website in America with 243 million users per month, but he stepped back in February this year to focus on Initialised Capital, an investment fund he started with Gary Tan. It has more than $250 million in assets.
Under this umbrella there are hundreds of start-ups and he’s across all of them – this is a man who knows how to multi task. He has a crazy impressive drive, yet he’s an advocate for parental leave. He was able to take off 16 weeks for the birth of his daughter, the latter in flexi time by taking off every Friday although it’s very hard to see how he ever switches off.
He has dived into the tiny bathroom for another shirt change and chandelier avoidance says with an earnest nonchalance, “Yeah, we’ve collected a few portfolios over the years. We invest in about 15 a year. Some get acquired, some go out of business but a strong number continue to grow and our speciality is providing value at the earliest stages.”
He asks for a glass of tap water but I fear I don’t have a glass giant enough so I hand him a litre bottle from the fridge. He looks for relentlessness in the people he invests in.
But how does he know what starts ups to choose? Is he part psychic? “Yes. Intuition is a huge part of it. Also having gone through the experience of having done it before and in particular with Reddit, having started the company, grown the business, it helps identify a well thought out product. You know I always had a foot in Reddit. I was always advising in one capacity or another and about four years ago I had the chance to turn it around. It’s now fully independent from Conde Nast with a hefty valuation.”
People are always asking him does he regret selling it when he was 23 for an estimated sum between 10 and 20 million dollars as it’s now worth 1.8 billion.
“I am not upset at selling it early. It was tremendously great for me and my family. It gave me the freedom to do all the things I have done since and lo and behold I got the chance to come back, get a stake back and get it to the next level.”
Ohanian was an only child who got his first computer when he was eight. “Neither of my parents were technologically savvy but they got me an educational computer from Sears which you can play games on. I found the exact same one on eBay for my daughter when she’s a little older.”
Older like two? “Maybe one,” he says seriously.
He invested in that computer all the time, energy and care that an eight-year-old might invest in their first pet. It wasn’t enough for him to learn how to use it. He wanted to create new programmes. Money was tight and he didn’t want to have to buy them so he made them.
He was born in Brooklyn in 1983. His father Chris Ohanian (a travel agent) was an Armenian American whose grandparents came to the US as refugees after the Armenian genocide, his German born mother Anke was a pharmacy technician at a hospital. He revered her. He talks about her strength. They were extremely close. She died of brain cancer just after he sold Reddit. He’s grateful that he was able to treat her generously before she died and his father to front row season tickets at his favourite football team.
When he talks about his mother I see someone who is both vulnerable and mature. He has a manner of making everything look easy, everything look possible, but I don’t think it ever was that easy for him and that’s what makes him interesting.
His favourite band is Metallica and he was particularly intrigued with their documentary Some Kind of Monster where they employed a group therapist. Metal bands, like Ohanian are not known for their openness. It’s a situation he related to and made him feel there was nothing wrong with having an executive coach to help you and your co-founder work it out. He doesn’t let emotions rule him but he’s modern. Doesn’t keep too much hidden and work ethic is his overriding force. That work ethic is just one of the parallels that bonds Ohanian and Williams. “I thought I was the hardest working person on the planet in the hardest working industry but watching my wife is a humbling experience, seeing what high-pressure situations actually look like. What it takes to be that great. It’s work ethic on another level.”
We’re sitting down at the table and my fat black cat jumps on him. His stomach wobbles and he starts talking about his own little dog – the three-pound teacup Yorkie who managed to trick everybody into thinking he was starving and everybody in the house thought they were the only one feeding him. He’s happy to admit he’s been outsmarted by a Yorkie and in the next sentence he’s all about ruling the world with Crypto currency.
“What Bitcoin and Crypto currency allow us to do is to build a new internet. Things like money or stores of value are built into it and allow a greater efficiency and better user experience (which means we can build on that first version of the internet when we didn’t have the infrastructure to do what we can do today). Crypto currencies are interesting to people in countries where currencies are way more volatile.”
Is he talking about the British pound here? “I was thinking recently in Venezuela there’s been some massive currency swings. There are people who have seen generations of wealth evaporate and have limited faith in the long-term liability of the government, so people are putting their money into stores of value like Bitcoin, which also gives them freedom to move the world without worrying about losing their money. They don’t need to worry about getting to an ATM.”
He speaks in technocrat but senses he might be losing me and when the next cat Roger jumps onto his lap, it reminds him that I might like Crypto kitties. “It is a digital collectible, the digital equivalent of Beanie Babies. Where the artwork in question is what we call a non-fundable asset. In the fiscal world so I can say there is only one of these hats” – he takes off his black hat, a perfectly ordinary cap and he continues. “This is the only hat that exists and it’s special because it’s the only one and I will give it to you in exchange for money you’re willing to pay for it because you have just bought a limited thing. In the digital world a cat is infinitely reproduceable so you would probably not pay me for the photo of that cat because you know that I can make a million copies of it. We try to enforce copyright laws but that’s not easy. What Crypto kitties has proven is you actually create a digital image of a cat that you can say is unique and only one of them exists because there is a global ledger where it’s identified as such and can now be traded. It’s a proven way for you to create a marketplace. The possibilities are limitless.”
Then he gets a text from his wife. He says there’s an emergency and he must call her back. She doesn’t pick up and he replays the video she sent this morning of their daughter.
“She has a lot of grace and a lot of swagger. I think she’ll be a super athlete and a super businesswoman programmer. I really want to give her the opportunities my parents made for me. I owe them everything, even though they didn’t understand what exactly they were giving me. By the time I was in 8th grade I was campaigning for a computer in our home, a desktop. Computers were very expensive back then and it was a huge investment for my parents but I wore them down. I promised them I would use it for homework even though I just wanted to play video games. It was through the video games that I got interested in programming. I would look under the hood and see the parts and think why am I paying someone else to install new memory? I’ll just do it myself. It was very empowering as a kid.
I have two sisters now but back then it was just me and my computer. I had some best friends from my kindergarten who were only children so we were like brothers but I really relished time alone. The time to be bored. I enjoyed doodling in a notebook or staring out of a window. I hope this delight in boredom is something I can instil in my daughter because it’s so much easier now with technology to have mindless distractions and little hits of adrenaline. I feel some of my best ideas have come from being bored and letting my mind wander.”
She doesn’t strike me as bored. She strikes me as switched on. He nods. “That was my yesterday video and it already feels like a hundred years later. It’s a challenge. She travels with her mum while I am working. I’m gone this week then back for a couple of weeks. Then we will all go to Wimbledon together.
She got her first jetlag on a trip to Abu Dhabi when she was only a few weeks old. She was there for 72 hours and was a real champ. It helps that the grand slams are usually in major cities so there are usually tech conferences. Being in London is great because we have investors there so Serena will train in the morning and I will take meetings.
I’m really pushing swimming with Olympia at the moment. A lot of my parental leave I was in Florida. We were all there as a family and we had a pool outside. As a kid my parents took me to the YMCA in Park Slope, Brooklyn. It made me comfortable with water. In Florida I could get Junior out there every couple of days. She can’t swim but is very comfortable and always has been. During her pregnancy momma did lots of pool work for exercise. Every time she got in the water she could feel Olympia kicking and getting excited. Serena made a point of saying this baby loves water and sure enough she does.
It’s things like that which are good daddy daughter moments. As soon as we get her in the pool she loves kicking and dunking her head.” Williams was shocked to discover herself pregnant two days prior to the Australian Open in January 2017. She summoned Ohanian from across the world and presented him with a brown bag containing 6 positive pregnancy tests. He was thrilled and determined to have a strong and enduring relationship with his daughter. “I took full advantage of my 16 weeks parental leave. I always assumed that 16 weeks would be 16 weeks straight but if it’s flexible this is particularly helpful to fathers as we are not needed, at least on the nursing side, so you can build a plan depending on your family’s needs. You can take a month off at first and then take every Friday until those days are used up. that’s how I used it and I found that I had the freedom I needed to be there for my family. And then get out of baby talk for a day or two, get some work done, feel connected and not miss a beat. And I think that goes for women as well as men. It’s part of gender equality.”
Finally, Williams calls him back. The baby is projectile vomiting. Visibly distressed, he takes the rest of the call outside. Ten minutes later he returns composed but he has already reorganised all of his flights so he can return to them on the East Coast immediately.
Much has been made about the start of the romance between Ohanian and Williams.
She was playing a tournament in Rome. He was speaking at a tech conference. They were in the same hotel. Williams and her coach went for a late breakfast by the pool. Ohanian came and sat at the table next to them, which they planned to take over with the rest of their team. One of the Williams camp shouted, “There’s a rat!” in order to get Ohanian to shift. He calmly said, “I grew up in Brooklyn. Plenty of rats.”
He was not only afraid of rats, he wasn’t afraid of Williams. Unassuming though he is, Ohanian has a fearlessness about him. This must have been part of the initial attraction and a component of what they have in common. Williams, worth an estimated $170 million, was then and is now ranked number one in the world. They chatted and she invited him to the French Open in Paris. He referred to it as an LA style invite – once you extend because you’re sure it’s never going to happen.
He did go to Paris – saying he was there on business. They met, wandered through the city in the daytime and came across a zoo. He was by her side when a bunny was fed to a big cat. She winced. He held her and knew then he wanted to protect one of the strongest women in the world for the rest of their lives. It was love. The proposal came nearly a year later at the same hotel in Rome. He came armed with a plastic rat. They were already talking about children.
“We are different in a lot of ways and that is helpful because we learn from each There is a set of values that we share. Work ethic and competitiveness. I don’t understand what it takes to do what she does but I understand the level of commitment and doggedness that’s required. She might be up early to train or working on a Sunday on her fashion line but we’d never fight about that. We never fight about ambition or drive. That level of respect and understanding and shared values helps tremendously because we both want to be the best at what we do and that includes being parents and partners. In that way we are very aligned. If there’s a setback or a mistake, we are both geared to self-improvement and we have a lot of the same values in the context of being parents.
We were surprised to be pregnant. So many close friends have spent their thirties trying to conceive and we knew children was something that we wanted. We were grateful it was so quick. No more babies for a little bit because mom is so focused on work right now but we’d love to have more.”
He often refers to Williams as mom or mumma, Does he see the benefit of Olympia being an only child like him? “I do, but now I have two much younger sisters I relish my role as an older brother. But I didn’t have to share anything as a kid.” He laughs.
He has soft eyes and a soft chuckle. It juxtaposes his inner steel but it doesn’t hide it. “My father remarried and his wife adopted these girls so they are my family now. Best of all worlds. But I don’t have the childhood memories that Serena has with her sisters. They all shared a room so were very close literally and figuratively. Early on I joked about wanting a football team. 11 kids are not gonna happen. I’ll settle for a basketball team of 5 although I don’t think that’s gonna happen. We are happy with one. Serena’s got more work to do. In France (earlier this year) she flipped another switch. She’s always had this resilience and toughness mentally and physically but now she has this mom strength button that she pushes and it’s just so powerful. You read these stories about moms lifting cars off their babies. That’s mom strength.”
Williams does indeed play as if she’s lifting a car from a baby with every hit. At 36 she defies time. Ranked number one in the world longer than Stefi Graf and Martina Navratilova, her training must be excruciating but losing would be more excruciating.
“There are moments that are just a shadow of her full power, especially after she had such a traumatic birth. She nearly died and was laid up for a couple of months. To have all this happen less than a year ago and is now back to competing at this level is phenomenal.”
Williams had to endure an embolism during her pregnancy which was very high risk. Ohanian says solemnly, “I’d been tested a few times in my life but I’ve never had to spend a night in hospital myself. I’ve experienced it through the lens of people close to me but this was the next level.”
Becoming a millionaire and then so shortly after his mother dying must have been traumatic? “Yeah,” he nods, the brown eyes making rare eye contact. “In a lot of ways it convinced me that I wasn’t going to fail. It put into perspective – the struggle of being an entrepreneur. It made me more resilient, gave me fewer excuses. I had a bigger purpose. I knew that my worst day was nowhere near as bad as my mom or my father in supporting her. I see in Serena a superpower to respond and react in the way she did. To get to see her as a mother and a wife with this power… but I’m never gonna play tennis with her. I didn’t even watch tennis before Serena. I played a lot of team sports growing up because of the camaraderie. Because I was an only child there were always 10 other guys in a field helping carry me. When you’re out there in a sport like tennis it’s just you and you need to reset your brain after every game. I appreciate it now, not just because I am in love with someone who’s the best at it but because it combines a physical and mental challenge. My dad is really into boxing. There’s a barbarism to it. Tennis avoids the barbarism and is guilt free to watch but it has some of the same elements. I was named after a boxer, Alexis Arguello, a Nicaraguan fighter who my dad idolised so I would watch boxing with him as a kid and I think all these boxing sessions trained my brain to appreciate the mental and physical battle that’s required for tennis. When I watch Serena play I can’t help. I feel a visceral reaction.”
Does he have that same visceral reaction when he acquires a new start-up or grows a new company? He nods. “Partly. You cultivate it in your own head. It’s this idea of them against the world. You are gonna build a team to be successful. Somewhere there’s going to be a need to go through the wins and the losses as quickly as one might do on a tennis court and find the ability to reset. To reset mentally after losing the first set when all eyes are watching you takes mental strength. It’s not dissimilar. Those eyes watch you when you launch something new into the world. I show up to work and I don’t have millions of people watching me in a meeting, which would be traumatising, but they are watching even though it’s not a camera.”
Certainly, Williams and Ohanian have more in common than you might initially assume but these days technocrats are the new rock stars. It’s all about the Beauty and the Geek. Technocrat king Elon Musk, creator of PayPal and founder of Space X married British actress babe Tallulah Riley twice before finally divorcing her in 2016 where he was rumoured to date Cameron Diaz and Amber Heard. And now he is dating Canadian pop star Grimes. The powerful creative geek and the female superstar is a meeting of equals and work ethic supremo’s.
A quick swig from his water bottle and he changes track to talk about freedom on the internet. He has been dubbed the Mayor of the internet after constantly standing up to Congress against over regulating of the internet.
“We definitely lost a set in the US with the FCC repealing neutrality. But different states, including the state of California, are proposing bills to enforce it at a state level so you could start to build a case to get to Congress.
Without the safeguard of neutrality, it means any internet provider in America can discriminate traffic which means for the consumer that instead of paying $60 a month for internet where they can go to Google or Facebook and your internet will start to look like your cable television where you have to pay an extra $10 a month to visit Google or Facebook and as soon as you tier and discriminate across the internet you break the free market. The only people who don’t want neutrality are cable providers and politicians who get paid by them. Net neutrality…I still have to remember it’s game, set and match. We might be a set down but we’re still in the match.”
Ohanian talks effortlessly in tech speak as if it’s a language he owns. I switch us to talk about the Royal wedding which he attended with Williams. Williams was in a dusky pink Versace creation which skimmed and ruched in all the right places. “It was a lot of fun. I was a history major so I was geeking out to be in Windsor castle.”
Was he the tallest person there? “Yes, I think so, I’m used to always being the tallest person in the room. Idris Elba was pretty tall.”
He is only 6’3. One rarely sees a Brit who’s 6’5.
“It’s really unsettling to meet someone who is 6’5 because I’ve never seen eye to eye with anyone so it’s startling if someone’s taller than me. I will watch them all night and make sure I don’t turn my back on them.”
And there you have it. Alexis Ohanian, technocrat, multi-millionaire always has to be a head above everyone else. He looks down, not up.
“I never call anything my enemy because it’s a negative emotion. I’m just not eating them.” she laughs. She’s rigorous about releasing any toxic energy. Especially that surrounding certain words. She’s not a cancer “survivor”, she’s a cancer “thriver”. Only in the tabloids do people “battle” cancer. She explains to me once you set it up as a war, as a fight, it’s already negative.
In May 2017 she was given the news that the pains in her back that caused her to postpone her US and Canadian tour dates were not in fact the sciatica she suspected. Her breast cancer had metastasized in her spine. She seems very carefree as she piles blueberries and blackberries on her plate. “They’re very low in sugar and I can have butter if it’s grass fed. I believe my body wants and needs a certain amount of fat.”
Because you’re fine-tuned in listening to your body and psychic? “Well, it’s a mixture of reading up on these things. People say to me ‘how can you go without sugar?’ I say, when it’s about your health you just make that decision.” Because it’s life or sugar? “Yes, exactly. An easy choice. I also have an amazing husband who is incredibly knowledgeable about health and plant medicine so I’m very lucky.”
As if on cue, her husband John Easterling (sometimes referred to as Amazon John because he once had a company that sold herbs from the Amazon for health benefits) sits down to the table. He’s tall, rangy, handsome, funny. He reaches to hold her hand as he forks up his pancakes with the other. They’ve been married 10 years. They love each other. You can smell it, touch it, feel it. Every morning he makes her a smoothie augmented with his specialist botanicals. “Every day I make Olivia a smoothie. Apple juice, reishi (a form of mushroom), cannabis leaves which I’ve trimmed from my personal garden, some rainforest herbs. The smoothie supports the immune system, detoxes and balances hormones and supports liver and kidney health. We start the day like that.”
When she discovered the breast cancer had returned, she was in so much pain she couldn’t walk. Surely this was a dark time? John says, “We got lots of messages from people saying I can only imagine what you are going through. We thought it’s stage 4 breast cancer. Nothing to freak out about. We know what to do. We’ll just take care of it so we went to this wonderful clinic in Georgia that has special ways of monitoring the system and that does a variety of IV’s with herbs and minerals that get extraordinary results. The pain level went from a 10 to a 1 in days and her energy levels are back and the counts are good. The more standard trained practitioners are going to have standard protocols but this is a time in history where there’s an explosion of information and discoveries to educate yourself. We have to rise up.”
Did she mix alternative therapies and conventional therapies? “Very limited conventional. I don’t take any pills. Last year I did a course of photon radiation which is very targeted radiation to the problem area. Apart from that, plant medicine and herbs.”
In California cannabis and cannabis oil CBD is totally legal and my cat has been prescribed it. She is 20 and doing very well but it’s not legal in Australia. Even the oil is difficult to get. “It’s crazy isn’t it? That has to change. In Australia they are not up to speed with America yet so it’s harder to get there. Hopefully becoming less so. It’s helped me a lot and should be available for patients, particularly those going into palliative care. We went to Australia to talk to the politicians about making it easier for people to get it and its benefits. I feel it’s my duty to talk about it as a cancer thriver myself.”
It’s hard to get Olivia to talk about pain, even to remember it. She takes a breath and recalls, “I was working in Vegas. I thought I had sciatica. Well, I did have sciatica. I don’t know which came first. I was in chronic pain and one day my girlfriend had a birthday and her favourite thing is tennis so we all went and played tennis and at the end of that day I couldn’t walk and the problem went on and on and on.”
Did the sciatica mask the cancer? “I don’t know if the cancer escalated it or it was always there. I’ll never know. It didn’t occur to me that it could be the return of cancer until a year went by and I was still in excruciating pain. I had an MRI and we found it was in there.”
It’s unusual for breast cancer to occur so many years after its original appearance and at the time of its discovery Olivia had referred to some dark moments but now she’s wiped them away. “The clinic in Georgia suggested the radiation as a safety measure because in the bone it’s hard to get to and since then I’ve only done natural healing.”
I tell her that I had a friend whose breast cancer metastasized to the spine and she did chemo which of course made her feel terrible but she was never offered an alternative. Olivia nods with empathy. “I understand. When I went through this 25 years ago, even though I was terrified of chemo and I didn’t want to do it, I did it. I chose to. I can’t blame anyone else for choosing but people would say why don’t you do it as a safety measure and I’m glad I did it because now I’ve had the experience so when patients at my centre are going through it I have compassion. I understand that it’s really difficult and it leaves you with a chemo brain for years. You’re really kind of hazy. I’m still hazy or at least that’s my excuse!” She laughs, a really sparkly laugh and then she says, “I wouldn’t do it again. It’s a very old fashioned way. We’ve just been watching The Truth About Pet Cancer and even though it’s about pets, it’s still about barbaric ways of treating them with chemo. There are other ways. I have my own herbal guru here so I would and whenever my dog (a black German Shepherd) gets anything, she gets natural therapy from my husband.”
John tells me that he’s actually working on a formula for pets that will build up their immune system and help them be less prone to cancer.
“My whole background is in plant medicine. Cannabis is in the plant kingdom. We’ve had access to it for thousands of years and it’s only recently been interrupted. Our relationship with that plant is very important and now we discover that there’s a system in our bodies that’s very receptive to this plant so people should have access to it. I don’t think it should ever be called a drug. It’s clearly plant medicine. “When we are in Australia we’ll visit politicians, share information, educate and influence where we can.”
John and Olivia use the ‘we’ word a lot as if they think as one. They had known each other for about 20 years before they had the coup de foudre moment. I ask John, didn’t he have any thwarted longings when he knew her as a friend? Any persistent pangs that they were meant to be?
“No,” he grins. “We met at an environmental show where I was displaying my botanicals because they are sustainably harvested.” Olivia and a couple of mutual friends came to the show. John continues, “They sampled some herbage and then they came back the next day because they were pretty excited about all the things they did that night because they got a herb jump before. They got herbed up, yes. I had a herb company for 27 years and still formulate products for doctors’ groups. For years we supported the same charities but that was it. We didn’t get together.”
There wasn’t an immediate special connection? Olivia answers, “No, not for either of us.” John says, “I was busy and I thought that if you’re involved in Hollywood you must be a nutcase and I was doing real stuff for real people. We’d see each other every year at charity functions and the more I got to know her I thought oh, she’s a really nice person. She really does care about people and animals, the rainforest. So we became friends and that’s as far as it went.
Then I was doing a talk in California. She came to it and I stayed in her guest house. The next morning I was driving to the airport and drove off a cliff.” Olivia says, “You see, he didn’t want to leave… He went to the hospital and he wouldn’t take any of their painkillers.”
John was X Rayed and it was discovered he had a fracture in his lower spine. “I could barely move so I stayed on her couch till I could travel again but she had a dog, a setter. Dogs are very intuitive and that dog stayed with me all night, bonding with me. Olivia said. “And then he went on the plane the next day.”
But the dog Scarlet was going to have puppies. John says, “I had just lost my dog so she said she was sending me a puppy. She definitely picked the craziest dog and sent him up. I had never heard any of Olivia’s music. Her first stuff was just not my genre of music and I never saw Grease.”
What? You were the only person in the entire universe that never saw Grease? Olivia confirms, “He was.” John says, “It’s true. I haven’t found anyone else that hasn’t seen it and I’m still looking.
I was living in Florida and her assistant called and said Olivia’s doing a concert if you’d like to come. You can bring your girlfriend. I said I’ll bring the dog so I took the dog and when the lights went down I heard this Peruvian music. Then she walked out and started singing Pearls on a Chain which is a very healing song and that’s when I recognised who she was. She’s a healer and this is her medium of healing. All I could think of was I want to introduce her to other healers who work in the Amazon so after the show I asked her if she wanted to come to Peru and she said yes and I thought oh no I’m taking her to Peru. I’d better watch Grease.”
I wonder about this healing notion. There is a reason why people go to her shows, love her and feel uplifted and touched by something and I’m not sure it’s just when she does Peruvian flute music. There is something extraordinary about her. There’s enormous bravery for a start. We can’t all identify with that but we all want to glimpse it. Plus she’s very switched on to other people’s needs. She shrugs that off and continues with the story. “It never occurred to me I was a healer.” Of course it didn’t. “It was my friend Nancy’s 60th birthday so they came with us, the four of us to Peru. I was really going because it was Nancy’s birthday.” John says, “She heals people all the time.” He smiles at her adoringly.
“I do my show and I’ve done an album recently about grief with Amy Sky and Beth Nielsen Chapman. It’s called Liv On. After my sister passed away and after I went through breast cancer I wrote an album. It was the first album I’d written on my own called Gaia. About the spirit of the planet. This is before John and I were together. One of the songs is Don’t Cut Me Down about the rainforest. We were on a parallel path. Then I did an album Grace and Gratitude after I went through another life crisis. Music is always my healing.”
Grace and Gratitude was released in 2006 and I wondered if it was about her partner of 9 years Patrick McDermott who went missing and was presumed dead after a fishing accident in 2005.
“When I’m going through something my way to express it is through music so Grace and Gratitude was another album about coming through something difficult and seeing the beauty in life, being grateful for it and then live on. I have done three albums like that, not pop albums but they are kind of healing.”
Her Spa in Byron Bay is called Gaia, voted consistently best Spa in the world. “It’s a very special place, a healing place and then there’s my hospital (the Olivia Newton-John Cancer Wellness & Research Centre in Melbourne) which is my passion. I have been introducing wellness programmes in a cancer hospital environment. Introducing the patients who go there to the kind of therapies that I was able to have access to but most people can’t afford.”
The people in the hospital have these therapies largely as an extra to chemo. “My dream is that one day the hospital will take off the word cancer and it will be a wellness and research centre because there won’t be cancer anymore. They will have found the answer.”
She doesn’t like the word cancer and she particularly doesn’t like the words ‘MY cancer’. “It’s THE cancer. You don’t own it and I don’t like when they talk about fighting cancer because that sets up a war in your body which can cause inflammation which is the very thing you’re trying to settle down. I use the words “say goodbye to”. I think we manifest these words.” and John continues “and that’s where people get stuck.” Olivia says, “I use the words ‘winning over’ and ‘living with’ because there comes a point where you can’t get rid of every cancer cell in your body. Everybody is dealing with them all the time. Some people don’t even know they’ve got it. It’s a normal part of the cycle. Cells are programmed to die. Cancer cells too.”
Taken out of context it may seem a little woo woo to be so particular about these words but it makes sense that if you have cancer you have to stay calm. You have to stay positive. I do believe what you think becomes true and all these words just help in making us fearful. John says, “Fear is the problem. It’s in a state of fear where you make irrational decisions.”
I still can’t imagine that she wasn’t a little afraid when it came back. “It’s unusual, yes. You do think ha, it’s over. It didn’t occur to me that it would have been that. I felt pretty good. I was working and enjoying my work and now I’m just staying healthy and staying strong, taking a lot of supplements. I did some shows last week. I’m taking a little break from more shows and I’m not sure what I’m going to be doing for the Grease 40 year anniversary.”
One thing that she is going to be doing is auctioning the original Sandy leather trousers. She has kept them all these years. They are of course tiny but I bet she can still fit into them. Everybody had a character in Grease that they identified with.
“They still do. It’s unbelievable. When I do the show there’s every age group. Grandparents my age (hollow laugh), their children and their children’s children. They all have something to connect with.”
For the 25th anniversary of Grease, John Travolta piloted a Quantas plane and Olivia was the flight attendant in full uniform. She laughs with just a hint of nostalgia, but quickly moves on to talk about her wellness walk in September.
“We’re going back to Australia in May to talk to the government about cannabis but the walk is in Melbourne in September. People come from all over the world, some of my die-hard fans. They form little groups and compete with each other to see how much money they can raise. And for people who can’t come to Australia, there’s a virtual walk. It raises money also for the families because to be a caretaker is difficult and very wearing for people.”
Hmm. And that is said by a super caretaker. Meeting her for just a couple of hours, you can see she’s nurturing to the core. What about her dark moments? Who nurtures her? Pause.
“It’s interesting you say that. I’ve about four friends who are going through cancer now. I stay connected with them. I don’t think about mine. It’s not on my mind constantly. I do all the things that I should be doing on a regular basis but I like to support other people because I’ve been there before and I am still here. I think that gives other people hope. If I can encourage them by saying come on I’ve done it before, we can do this together now, it makes ME feel good.”
We talk about some of my friends with cancer, some going through it now, one who didn’t make it and one who said she would rather kill herself rather than have another round of chemo. She shakes her head. “Poor thing. So horrible. I think everybody goes through that moment.” But really she’s nurturing other people. Who’s nurturing her?
“Gosh. I had a good support team for sure. The first time is so long ago now. I had my first husband, my sister, my friends…”
Should people be encouraged to look beyond chemo? “I think yes. I think you should do the research and see what feels right for you. I would never tell anybody you should. Should is not a word that I use but I would encourage them. What else am I doing? I’m involved in many things like trees. I started One Tree Per Child with my friend John Dee. Tree Day in Australia and everyone plants a tree and in the end we’d planted 10 million trees in Australia and 50,000 trees in England so kids grow up from an urban society that they are environmentally conscious.”
She’s also written two cookbooks –Live Wise, Grace & Gratitude and has supervised the Gaia cookbooks. They are all on her kitchen shelf and in regular use. She’s also working on an autobiography coming out in September. Was that fun or miserable? “It was cathartic. I worked with someone who helped me because it would have taken me at least ten years if I’d had to do it by myself. It’s stories from my life, positive ones.
They’ve also done a movie of my life in Australia with Delta Goodrun playing me,” she grimaces. “I probably won’t watch it. When they told me they were doing it I was horrified, because despite the fact I’m well known, I’m kind of private and my private life, even though it gets into the papers, is not something that I want to talk about. I worry about the people in my life. It’s not their fault they were married to me or were my boyfriend so I didn’t want it to happen but then I realised it was going to happen whether I wanted it to or not. So I decided to make something positive out of the negative so I asked that any money that would come to me would go to my hospital so that way I can do it and feel I care about it. I love Delta. I think she’s a really good actress and a great singer so that made it OK because we’re friends.
But in the beginning she called me. “Shall I do it or not?” I said first, I’m not sure and then I said, oh you do it. I haven’t read it and I don’t know how accurate it is because it’s a movie and people weren’t there at every moment of my life but the money will go to the hospital so some good has come of it.”
An expression of pain suddenly fills the large all feeling eyes. She’s remembered it’s time to give one of her chickens Goldie her antibiotics. She’s recovering from a toe amputation in a separate coop with her sister. I thought giving a cat pill was an epic but giving a chicken a pill… “It’s easy,” she says as she scoops the golden feathered creature up in her arms and buries a pill into Goldie’s favourite sourdough bread. The other chickens – 18 hens and 2 roosters, live in a mansion of a chicken coop and they are all various different breeds, colours, speckly bits and feathered feet. We feed them cheese, salad, blueberries and just a little of their favourite bread. Olivia’s chickens eat better than most people. She’s also rescued 2 miniature horses which are so small only the chickens can ride them. How did this great rescuer of wild things come to be?
She was born in Cambridge where she lived till she was five before moving to Melbourne. Her parents were academics. Her father a professor and her mother the daughter of Nobel prize- winning scientist Max Born.
“They were not so much into showbusiness but what I got from them was work ethic. They both worked really hard. My mum wanted me to finish school or go to RADA in London. I did none of those things. I got a job on TV in Melbourne when I was 15. I was lucky. I got to learn the ropes young, rather than going to school and then learning them. I was interested in singing and I’ve had a really blessed life. I’ve been lucky with my managers, my producers…”
In fact, her current assistant has been with her since Grease and she still works with John Farra who wrote all the songs from Xanadu and many other hits.
“I’ve worked with Steve Kipner and Peter Allen many times. I’ve always worked and I’ve always worked hard. Even in the beginning with Pat Carroll when we were Pat and Olivia we worked all the crummy clubs, staying in local digs. We had fun. I never thought this is horrible, this could better. This was my reality and we had a great time.
Even though we came from an academic background, my sister too became an actress. She passed away 5 years ago from a brain tumour very quickly. In the beginning she was what we laughingly called a chaperone. She was funny and cheeky and gorgeous.”
Is she saying she led her into more trouble? “Yes, exactly but she kept me out of too much trouble and we definitely had fun. I think I was more HER chaperone if the truth be known. She always encouraged me because I think I was doing what she wanted to do. She got married very young and had a family and didn’t pursue it.
In the beginning my family really wanted me to go university. I didn’t have the brain of the focus. I could do it now but then… I had the determination. I didn’t settle down till my thirties. I was afraid of marriage because my father had had three marriages and my sister had three so I was nervous and finally I have the perfect husband. I am so happy.”
She reminds me she was 59 before she found the love of her life. Not that she didn’t always have a good relationship with her first husband Matt Lattanzi. “We’re good friends and Chloe is living up in Portland near him. He has a wonderful wife that we both love and we’re all friends.”
I marvel. Most break ups are toxic and carry at least some bitterness. She sighs. “Life is about love and forgiveness and moving on. He’s still the father of my daughter. We actually made a pact very early on, even before we got married that if we ever had a child we would never allow anything to come between the relationship with the child and we’d never make her part of a pawn thing that people do. We’ve watched our friends go through divorce.”
Was she always so grown up? “With those things you have to be because it’s about another life.”
What does she look for in a friend? “Everyone’s different. I have a wide and diverse range of friends. A lot of them go back to when I was really young. People I can trust and have fun with. When I go back to Australia I stay in touch with them and my family. My sister’s children and my brother. He likes to be out of the limelight.”
I didn’t even know she had a brother. “Actually I have two. A brother and sister from my father’s second marriage. They live in Sydney. He is a doctor, a pain therapist. My sister works in administration. My father was a professor of language. He worked at Bletchley Park, cracking the codes in the second world war. He spoke perfect German and had an incredible ear. He was a good singer so maybe I got it from my dad. He won scholarships to Cambridge and spoke German with a perfect accent. When he joined the air force they made him the interrogator of German prisoners of war (including Rudolph Hess).”
Her life here couldn’t be further from academia. It’s all about living and working with the land. John tells me “We love to be with nature with the chickens, the horses, the dog, the cat. I was a tropical guy for a long time in Florida so we like to go to Florida and get in that ocean. We like to be here and hike and just have a good time together. We laugh a lot.”
Olivia muses contentedly, “I get up, feed the chickens, collect the eggs and make sure they’re OK. I used to have a full grown horse but since my reoccurrence last year I haven’t been game enough to ride. I don’t know if I should. I have to make sure everything has grown back in before I do that. It could be good for me but I’m not convinced. My instinct will tell me. My instincts are pretty good.”
Yeah, she made me pancakes when she was going to make me Portobello mushrooms and scrambled eggs.
She thinks her ranch is very healing.
We go to take a walk in her healing paddocks. It’s hard to imagine that this year she turns 70. She doesn’t look 70, not that I’m sure what 70 looks like. With the trademark blonde hair in a tousled, long bob, she strides across the paddock still with determination. Despite being so warm and open in her spirit, there is part of her that is guarded, that doesn’t easily trust, but I don’t see that part today. I must have told about 3 people that I was doing this interview but word spread and during the time I’m there messages from all over the world are coming in for her. Some of my friends actually know her and are sending her love and she sends love back very graciously. She is totally unassuming and if she is self-protecting she does so in a really classy way. When I hug her goodbye, it’s a real proper hug. Dare I say it, a healing hug.
We are in a rehearsal space near Waterloo. The occasional train thunders and shakes our space. We are in a room where actors in yoga type outfits are howling like dogs then slapping their bodies like seals on the shiny, blonde wooden floor. Then they growl like big cats and culminate by bouncing and shrieking like monkeys.
Intimacy coach O’Brien is guiding this workshop. Later she will instruct the participants how to incorporate these animalistic movements into simulated sex scenes – the more they are animal, the less they are human, the less post-traumatic stress will be involved. Plus if you can slap like a seal and bounce like a monkey, you’re basically mimicking some very lively sex.
O’Brien is a woman with sad, sparkling eyes and a gentle but controlled disposition. She tells me, “it’s not about censorship. It’s about safety.” When I first heard of Ita O’Brien, Britain’s first intimacy director for stage, film and television, I thought surely she is a product of post Weinstein hysteria in the industry. Before Weinstein, former impressario and guru of The Oscar there was tacit approval that sexual predatory was just part of what went on. He did not create the culture but his downfall ended it. No one said anything about casting couches, impromptu sex scenes, on and off camera. No one mentioned the word abuse until everybody did. After Weinstein was exposed, the bigger picture was this was an industry where it was easy for the powerful to take advantage of the vulnerable – a little like life itself.
After Weinstein’s behaviour was outed, many others followed. Kevin Spacey was condemned for bullying, for paedophilia. Applauded television hosts like Charlie Rose was written off as a sex pest. Even the unlikely multi-national treasure Dustin Hoffman came under the cosh. The abused took the stage and encouraged others to speak out and the #metoo generation was formed, urging for rules to change.
O’Brien with her background in movement and her desire for carefully choreographed safe sex scenes with no improvised surprises, seemed to be the perfect navigator to chart the unrippled waters of the new climate. But far from being a product of this climate, she’s merely seized her moment.
She has been campaigning for guiding principles for actors and directors working with simulated sex scenes and intimacy since 2015. At this point she didn’t have an agent and only Carey Dodd would take her on. Together they campaigned to get her proposals to equity and now she is the hottest client on their list. Everyone wants her. Her plans are now catapulted into the spotlight and into Equity and into the Managers Association and into workshops in the hope they will be adopted as guidelines for best practice.
Weinstein-gate was a tsunami and suddenly O’Brien and her work is riding on the crest of that towering wave. But what exactly is her work? I feared for sure it would be censorial and it would revolve around distance, cover ups and no kissing. Or maybe that 1950s movie kissing with no tongues. Actually it’s way more intriguing.
She points out that productions always have a stunt director who helps coordinate the movements away from physical danger so intimate scenes should have the same. Her argument is if the actors feel more comfortable they will perform better.
A few of her rules for best practice are: “Intimate scenes including nudity should be identified upfront by producers and directors. Any scenes with simulated sex should be discussed before signing the contract and she argues that it’s important to “establish boundaries around areas of concern, keep the actors personal intimate expression out of the rehearsal room and focus on the role in the scene, the beats of the scene, the characters physical expression of intimacy by exploring animal mating rhythms,” and she says it should be standard practice to agree to areas of physical touch – no surprises.
As more and more of the recent abusive practices unravelled, we learned of for instance an alarming practice for the movie Traffic – where without notice actors were asked to be involved in sex abuse scenes. Some suffered post-traumatic stress. O’Brien believes that there is a direct correlation between abuse in the audition and on set to the kind of abuse that young actors allegedly suffered from Weinstein and the like. They obviously felt threatened if they didn’t perform something unspeakable they wouldn’t get the part.
O’Brien’s workshop is about giving young actors the confidence to stand up for themselves and with those I talked to later it seems to be a valuable education. O’Brien’s background is in dance and movement as well as acting. She recently worked as a movement director on Humans training the feet of the actors so they could move like synths. She’s moved from training people to be robots to training them to have safe sex on screen. She says, “I see helping the actors with intimacy is helping them to open out rather than close up.”
Does she mean like foreplay? Getting the connection? She laughs nervously. I overhear one of the actors talking about how much the seal movement has helped him with his upcoming sex scene. He’s demonstrating as his body flops on the floor – slap, slap. O’Brien continues and opens up about her own personal relationship with abuse.
“In 2009 I devised a play (April’s Fool) which was about sexual abuse in our society. I thought if I’m going to ask an actor to play this I want to make sure that they are safe. When abuse happens some of your voice gets cut off and I wanted to use that healthily. It’s not just that you can’t speak. It’s part of your personality gets cut out. We get stifled. So I wanted to create a container and an ensemble warm up that’s open, present and grounded.”
I notice her own voice gets quiet when she’s talking about being stifled and I sense she is talking through her own personal pain. “My story was of a girl who was abused by an uncle and the fallout from that which the family felt. It was just a Catholic family story…It was my story.”
So the abuse happened to her? “Yes. If it’s alright I’d rather not explore it further and go into the detail of what happened… but I can talk about how it affected me – that is I have a sense of and a reason to keep myself safe. And I know how abuse affects you. It has ripples through your life. I’ve done a lot of work on personal healing from that but I have an awareness and understanding to bring to this work.”
Indeed, she channels that pain into helping others. We weave back to that important correlation – being abused in a sex scene or audition and the wider aspect of abuse within the industry.
“Yes of course it is linked. That’s what I thought when I did my piece in 2009. In 2010 there was all the abuse of the Catholic priests and then Jimmy Saville. Abuse has been inherently part of our society. Things are so bad now that there is a call for change. Enough is enough… A relief in a way.
She starts to give examples of historic abuse within the industry and how the actors were not given support or guidelines. “For instance, if you do an audition for, say, Romeo and Juliet and you know there’s going to be sexual content have the conversation with the director before you take the job about their vision about how they want the intimacy to be portrayed and then you can agree or not.
Maria Schneider in Last Tango in Paris was one of the worst cases. She was only 17, a minor. The details of the sex scene was not in the script. Marlon Brando and Bertolucci came up with the butter/anal scene idea themselves on the day. She initially said she didn’t want to do it. Brando said ‘it’s only a film’ and she says now ‘I felt abused and raped by them.’ The thing with sex scenes is that you are using your body intimately and that has an impact unless it’s done safely. People can have shame and emotional injury.”
She insists that this is not about tampering with the director’s vision – merely about clarifiying. Schneider never worked in a big budget international movie again. She said afterwards, “During the scene, even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and to be honest I felt a little raped, both by Marlon and Bertolucci.”
More recently Nicole Kidman talks about the violent scene in Sky Atlantic’s compulsive seven part serial Big Little Lies where she is essentially raped by her husband. The relationship is one where outwardly Kidman is the powerful lawyer and her husband is addicted to sexually demeaning her. This culminates in a shocking scene where Kidman’s character who has previously seemed ambivalent to the S&M, can’t fight back anymore. There is brutal scene which leaves her unable to fight back, curled in a ball on the floor. And Kidman says she felt “exposed, vulnerable and deeply humiliated.”
Another example was in BBC’s The Night Manager. There was a scene with Tom Hiddleston and Elizabeth Debicki where after months of sexual tension he finally took her and had her against a wall. The scene got a lot of attention because of Hiddleston’s buttocks being exposed and he had many admirers at the time but Debicki said how she found the scene awkward. She said that they did it in one take, everyone looked around and left and we met at the tea caddy as if it never happened. According to O’Brien, that means one moment of improvisation sent Debicki into a place of shame and denial.
Basically O’Brien is saying that safe onscreen sex has to come with no surprises. Then she says, “If you have a dance scene you have a choreographer because you don’t want someone twisting their ankle. If you have a simulated sex scene there should be the same sort of guidelines. Sculpted in a safe way with agreement and consent of all involved.” But doesn’t that mean you’re censoring the director? “No. If there’s a fight scene there will be a stunt director. They’ll talk about their vision. They’ll talk about how they want it sculpted and the stunt director will choreograph it making sure the techniques are safe and the director is absolutely being served.”
I wonder about spontaneity and haven’t some of the most impactful scenes in movies come from the actors imagination and improvisation on the spot? I wonder if Daniel Day Lewis has ever been told how to sculpt a sex scene?
“When you’re asking an actor to do something that’s just improvised they don’t know personally if they’re safe so they can’t be artistically vulnerable. What you want is that the actor really serves the emotional content that’s required. If you sculpt a scene then it allows the actor to be spontaneous within that boundary. It allows the actor to really give themselves fully to the emotional content because they know what’s happening is agreed and consented to.”
So improvisation is dangerous? “Yes because you feel not safe.” Does she think that there are actors who carry around shame because of the scenes they have been forced to do? “I have run these workshops now for over 3 years and I start by asking people to share their experiences and I would say that in a group, most people have had unpleasant experiences and only a couple would have had safe experiences. This is the proportion.”
The more O’Brien is opening up the more complexities I see. You can’t dismiss her as a censor. She is a huge fan of one of the most controversial directors of sexual content Paul Verhoeven who is renowned for his visceral sex scenes. He won last year’s Golden Globe for the sexually explicit Elle where Isabelle Huppert was nominated for an Oscar for her performance as a post-feminist rape victim. O’Brien is a fan because he personally story boards all of the sex scenes in advance which is extremely rare in the industry. “He talks very pragmatically about vaginas and nipples so there’s no confusion, no titillation or infantalisation. He does detailed story boards and everyone knows what’s being asked of them.”
Verhoeven says, “All the actors knew exactly what they were going to do. All sex scenes in my movies are precisely choreographed. There is no question of, do I lick her nipple or not? Do I go down on her? How far? And what do you see? Every movie is already clear before we start because I talk with my actors and actresses in a very open way about what would be visible, where the camera will be, and what the actions are. I do it in extreme detail, using words like ‘nipple’ and ‘vagina’ continuously to make absolutely clear to the actors how we’re going to shoot that scene, and when we shoot it we really stick to the script. I don’t come to the actors later with additional details that are perhaps unacceptable. It should be clear in the script what’s happening.”
From the actors I talk to today, this kind of clarity is indeed rare. The very beautiful Serena Jennings graduated from drama school two years ago and was attracted to the workshop because she liked the idea of protection. Since graduating I’ve done various projects with sex scenes – one where I had to masturbate. Often you were just thrown in and expected to perform without having boundaries. There was another sex scene in the same web series about a couple having problems in the bedroom. “I knew it was there but I had no one talk to talk about it. I did carry shame from the masturbation scenes.”
On another project she had to do an improv with a director that she wasn’t comfortable with. “He said ‘take off as many clothes as you can until you feel you can’t go any further.’ And then afterwards he said ‘so, you got down to bra and pants. You won’t really understand the character because you didn’t strip fully’ and for me that was utterly haunting. That’s why I was attracted to having an intimacy coach, guidelines. It was the most uncomfortable five minutes of my life.”
As the workshop progresses the actors split up into groups and are given various intimate text to work with. Swapping the roles of actor and director to discuss the approach, after that they map it out with words like ‘I touch you here’. Then they do it just physically so you see the seals, the monkeys and the dogs panting right back in there. Once it is compartmentalised it loses its potential power as a catalyst to shame and disgust. One text being worked on is a scene from a play called Cowboy Mouth by Sam Shephard and Patti Smith. It’s about a couple who never leave their room. Eat sleep and have sex constantly.
It’s being directed by Miriam Lucia, an actor/director and actor/trainer who runs the Clerkenwell Actors Studio. She has an elegance and composure that you’d not want to mess with and was working with her actors to create a sense of trust. “I found it rather liberating to use words like roll and thrust. We have incorporated the animal work into the scene of the play so it’s a great way in. I know that actors clam up and freeze because they are caught up in wanting to please and wanting not to make trouble and feeling ashamed.
If they don’t want to do the sex scene they feel someone else will do it and they’ll lose the part. It’s very important that you bring up this situation at casting.” I’ve heard horror stories about auditions – generally from girls but not always. They are asked ‘roll up your skirt, stick your chest out, wear higher heels. It’s shocking and a power play. Especially when the directors are saying ‘look like you really want to f**k now’ with someone who’s 17.
If the script is clear and you don’t want to do it a body double may be hired. O’Brien says, “You should also absolutely be able to agree to what scenes they use. If people are thinking that it’s your body and there’s a simulated sex scene and there’s something you’re not happy with or it doesn’t serve the work then it’s gratuitous and not good. From training people to be robots she’s moved on from training people to have safe sex. “There are many movement directors who can choreograph sex scenes but the point is there need to be clear guidelines.”
“I want to have a clear and effective code of ethical practice. At the moment there is an absence of industry guidelines and that’s what I want to fix.
“Do you know the video A Cup of Tea? It explores the concept of agreed consent – if someone comes to your house and you ask them if they want a cup of tea and they say yes, you make it and by the time you come back they say I don’t want a cup of tea now. You don’t open their mouth, pour it down their throat. You can see that this is ridiculous therefore you can’t force someone to have a sex scene. It’s using the idea of agreement and consent. For instance you agree if you’re happy to be touched and where. Regarding genitals you should never have bare genital touching. The lady should have a murkin and the gent should have a cock sock.
“Part of the guidelines is that you talk about this beforehand. Work with wardrobe to make sure that the “coverings” are available in the right size. There’s one story that an actor had to do a gay sex scene. He was given a cock sock that was too small so the wardrobe department went away and came back with another one that someone had already worn. It was the right size but this gentlemen was of colour and the previous gentleman was white.”
She says all this very demurely and it’s not a surprise to learn that her dancing career started off with Irish dancing. Not just because her heritage is Irish but it’s about keeping very still while your legs move very fast. Contained, like a duck. Everything going on underwater. “But Irish dancing has a heartbeat that releases something?”
We digress into our education with cruel nuns. She had a Sister Mary Helen who beat the girls with a stick. Another reason why safety and boundaries are important to her.
“Actors should always be able to say stop if they are not comfortable.” Isn’t it hard if an actor really wants the part and they’re told in an audition, as was the case in Traffick, they have to do a sex scene? Would a director ever give the part to the girl who walked away?
She nods. “I agree and it’s hard but with this present climate I hope things have shifted and changed.” She points out starts of these changes.
“Tom Hanks says that the industry post-Weinstein, all studios are going to have to have a code of conduct printed on their doors. The climate has changed so this is now possible. The Old Vic (Kevin Spacey’s previous domain) are coming up with a code of conduct and The National too and The Royal Court. What I’m offering to the actors is that they should take autonomy. They should think do I want this or not? Is this serving who I am as an artist or not? And it is hard to walk away but if you’re in a situation that compromises you, you have to think. For an example, as a dancer I got sent along to be a possible body double for a star in a film who had to be a pole dancer. I was told they wanted me to be the top half and somebody else will be the bottom half. I told them no.”
Was that the thought of being half a body? “Yes and also the thought of me having to dance topless. When I thought about it I felt that I would go into shame and trauma so I said I can’t do this and that’s what I’m inviting people to do.”
She can’t remember who the star of the film was but it was back in the eighties when she could have done with the work.
O’Brien is currently teaching student producers and directors at Mountview. “Basically educating people across the board that there should be a code of conduct.” (In the past she’s taught at the Drama centre LAMDA).
The actors from Cowboy Mouth are really getting into their seals and monkeys. Very balletic versions of them as they take over Sam Shephard and Patti Smith’s play. They are the most impressive. The other script being worked on features an incest scene from ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore.’
Sculpt is one of her favourite words. She’s always talking about sculpting a scene so that everybody knows what they’re doing. What if the scene changes? “That’s when the director needs to come to the actor and re agree what they’re comfortable with. You can change the script but it’s just being aware… Say you want a breast being groped and someone’s not happy with it. Find out where that person is happy to be touched and you can still have that (she makes a sound of whimpering ecstasy)”.
“Bring solutions not problems. Actors need to equip themselves. It’s also important that the man checks where he is happy to be touched. In particular when I was exploring the dynamic of sexual abuse in our society, getting everyone to find when they were the victim and find the physicality for that and the next day everyone had to find what happens when they were the perpetrator. That was really sticky. People acknowledging when they were the ones doing the pushing, the taking. One actor said ‘I have realised all I have to do is stand with my arms out and I’m the perpetrator, yet I think of myself as a nice man. They can be equally in need of being taken care of as the victim because you’re asking them to go to a place that they find very disturbing.”
Clearly different people have different personal histories and sensitivities and what disturbs some destroys others and others may not be affected. “That is why it’s important to be upfront and honest. Yes it’s going to be hard to say certain things, that’s why I contacted Equity. Their guidelines were unfathomable and archaic and that’s why new ones need to be set in place.”
We’re in a high-rise New York hotel room. Outside is bitter cold. Denzel Washington is wearing an exquisitely tailored black suit and neatly coiffed hair. Very much the opposite to how I’ve just seen him in his new film Roman Israel Esq. It’s about a lawyer who is weirdly brilliant and also just weird. It’s about being a truth teller and how his life becomes undone. For most of the film he wears an oversized burgundy suit that seems to belong to part of the last century and sports a mini fro.
He immediately takes issue. “Burgundy? You think that was a burgundy suit…?” The eyebrows raise. “I thought it was maroon. You don’t think there’s a difference between burgundy and maroon?” He’s straight off the top, on sparkling combative form and continues, “And what do you mean mini fro? That was a fro!”
I tell him of a chance encounter with the film’s hairstylist in the lobby who said ‘it was a collaborative idea. “Huh!” said Washington affronted. “It was my idea and my hair. Mini! That was seven months of hard work. It was the full fro. It was Billy Preston. I don’t want to talk to you now.” He theatrically folds his arms and leans back into the mock mid-century grey and teak couch.
“I did a lot of work. I should have kept it but they cut it off. Maybe it’s a black community thing. When my first son was born we cut the pieces of hair from his first year and you keep it. I guess it’s like keeping baby teeth.”
But this is adult Washington hair. He is 63 and coming into what he calls “the final quarter”. I’m not sure how his system of quarters works but turning 60 was a landmark for him. He wanted to concentrate on his physical and mental wellbeing, making sure he would explore more of the works of great American playwrights on stage and stay healthy enough for the physical demands. He doesn’t look like he’s nearing his final anything. He has a brooding and charismatic physical presence. He laughs a lot and when he laughs his eyes dart and his smile is very sparkly. He loves to chat. I’m not sure if he loves the process of the interview. Sometimes if he feels he’s being interrogated he just changes the subject completely.
We circle back to the topic of hair. Isn’t it a bit spooky to keep hair? “I didn’t but I should have.” In a way this wasn’t Washington’s hair, it was Roman’s. The flawed lawyer savant he plays in the eponymously titled Roman Israel Esq. it was a movie written for him by director Dan Gilroy who felt Washington was the only person who could play it. It’s a nuanced and powerful performance which earned him a Golden Globe nomination. Gilroy was inspired by Washington’s 2012 Award winning performance in Flight. Gilroy was excited to see Washington do vulnerable. The scene that got him was the one at the end where the pilot with a sense of entitlement was brought down and admitted to being an alcoholic.
That kind of vulnerability sustains Washington’s portrayal of Israel throughout the film. He’s generous on the brink of crazy. Smart on the brink of broken. Compulsive about peanut butter sandwiches eaten over the sink and the contents of his old fashioned big iPod. Somehow, he makes you root for him in the way that only Washington can do. This character is peculiar yet he is so human.
Washington is never one for analysing or at least not in public. He doesn’t so much want to sit down and talk as sit down and play. And remind me of past interviews that I’ve done with him, particularly ones that did not go so well. He looks at me with a ‘Come on what have you got for me?’ expression. He often repeats a question as if he’s been asked it for the very first time but I’m sure there’s not a question he hasn’t been asked. Still we try.
His football team is The Cowboys who were in the news recently for kneeling for the flag as a protest. Owner of The Cowboys threatened to send the kneelers home. What does he think?
He shrugs? “You gotta pay the cost to be the boss. You can take a knee but don’t complain if you go home, you know? It’s a free country. You have the right to protest. Are they being benched? I don’t think so. You can’t bench a whole team.”
Washington dances around the political issue. He’s very wary of being a spokesperson for black issues. He just won’t go there. He’ll try and change the subject but at a talk he gave at the national theatre last year he said, “look black people don’t be talking about what the white man won’t give you. I got roles.”
Washington has been married to Pauletta for 35 years – before his film career began. In public they show the kind of solidarity that comes with being together for such a long time. They have two sons and two daughters, all college graduates. His oldest daughter was a producer in the Oscar nominated Fences in which he both starred and directed. His oldest son played in the National Football league but now has a TV career. His youngest son graduated from the American Film Institute in directing and worked with Spike Lee and his youngest daughter has made her way in both film and stage.
What advice did he give to his youngest daughter Olivia about her acting? “I actually said be the best, learn to act on stage not film. Don’t compromise, don’t be intimidated. It’s going well for her. She’s just finished the Taming of the Shrew with the Chicago Shakespeare Company. She is a working actress,” he says proudly.
As the father of a 26-year-old daughter does he worry about the entertainment industry? Does he worry about the recent revelations where the powerful have abused the vulnerable? He’s nodding sagely. Does he think that the #metoo backlash will have a significant effect on the way the industry works?
“I’m sure it already has. I’m sure there are those who thought they could get away with anything and they don’t feel that now. I mean I hope they don’t. I think it will change the industry for good. Hmm Harvey,” he reminisces. “It’s about 10 years. I haven’t talked to Harvey in about 10 years.” And with that Weinstein is dismissed.
Washington is next up in a play on Broadway – The Eugene O’Neill heartbreaker The Iceman Cometh. A play for which the now disgraced Kevin Spacey received plaudits. How does he feel about stepping into Spacey’s shoes? “Whoah,” says Washington. “I’m not!” his eyes ignite with ferocity.
But he’s playing the same character. “And?” he laughs. “I’ve played Othello and you don’t think about the other actors who have played Othello. There have been many Othello’s.”
Some people have made or at least remade their career on playing that role. I was thinking Lenny Henry. “Yes I heard about that man. In fact I heard about him doing Fences. I’m glad to hear that Othello reinvented him because he was a comedian. I met him in the eighties at one of those Nelson Mandela concerts. Lenny Henry and Ben Elton were the MC’s. it was a big concert to raise money for Mandela’s children’s fund.”
Just this morning I saw Washington on the news talking about parts that he didn’t get. He almost didn’t get Cry Freedom. Attenborough said ‘If I don’t find an African you’ll do.’ “I don’t remember it like that. It was more like a meeting but I came in prepared to audition and it was a good meeting.”
So Washington’s come a long way from maybe you’ll do to having a movie written for him. “That’s what I’m hearing now. I’m glad I didn’t know that ahead of time.” Why? Because he would have felt too responsible? Too burdened?
“I don’t know.” (Director) Gilroy had said if Washington wouldn’t do it he would have shelved the project. “Yeah I’ve heard that.”
Washington does this often, distances himself from compliments, distances himself from responsibility – he knows deep down it really is all about him. It’s just that he doesn’t want to know.
I tell him that I was at a Bafta Q&A where Gilroy said he had an epiphany moment while watching Washington’s performance in Flight the way he balanced power and vulnerability and that’s when he wanted to play someone who was flawed.
Washington of course doesn’t know how to take this compliment but simply says “Oh really, that’s excellent. Would you like a gummy bear?” He offers me one from a jar on the coffee table separating us. He sees me poke around and asks me, “Does colour matter to you? You see I’ve been stealing all the red ones.” He arranges the pot of gummy bears out on the table so we can see the colours. “What’s your second pick if you don’t get a red one?” Orange. “Yes!” he says excitedly. “Orange is the obvious second choice, but sometimes I like to go for the yellow one. It’s kind of neutral. But look at this! A pink one.” I take the pink one. “Roman would know exactly how many were in there, the calorific intake of each one and what was the law behind the company that made them. Roman was trouble, poor guy. Just trouble.”
I would have said he was more troubled than trouble. “Mmm…” Washington savours the thought. Gilroy said Washington came up with the idea of making him obsessed with peanut butter sandwiches.
“Dan started adding jars of peanut butter everywhere. I came in one day and there were 20 jars in my kitchen so the idea must have been collaborative.”
So much peanut butter though. Can he ever eat it again? “I didn’t actually eat much of it. I like peanut butter though but peanut butter and honey. Do you know the actor Delroy Lindo? He and I went to theatre school together – The American Conservatory. We didn’t have much money. We had bread, half a gallon of milk, peanut butter and a jar of honey and that’s what we would live off for a week.”
Didn’t he get bored with it? “That suggests I had options. I was more bored of starving. Washington grew up in Mount Vernon, a suburb of New York. His mother was as hairdresser, his father an ordained preacher. His mother saw that he fell in with a bad crowd at school and sent him to a strict military school. He doesn’t see much of his three best friends from school anymore. At least a couple of them have ended up as bad boys. “We used to ride the trains together, jump the turnstiles, go into town and hang out. When I did Julius Caesar on Broadway one showed up at the play. He’d been in the penal system for 28 years. Another one died, the third one is a chef doing OK and I am the fourth one.” Quite a difference between four friends. Washington has a primary school in New York named after him. 10 years ago, the Columbian Gorillas insisted they were only prepared to release three hostages if Washington was the negotiator. Washington is of course more than an actor and a director and sometimes he speaks like he too has been ordained. And the rest of the time he jokes around.
Three years ago he gave up alcohol on his 60th birthday. “I just had enough. Some things you can have enough of. Not peanut butter yet but all alcohol. I gave it up on my birthday 3 years ago December 28th with the idea of putting my best foot forward I tried everything else, let’s try this.”
He wanted to make his final quarter a healthier one? “Yes, yes. That too,” he says, now studying the gummy bears that remain – mostly green and a weird white one.
Alcohol stopped giving him pleasure. He still likes boxing. He first discovered it when he played boxer Ruben “The Hurricane” Carter in the movie Hurricane. And has made it part of his regime. He looks powerful of course – tall, strong, but at the same time there’s something very soft and endearing. He’s a music fanatic too and was advisor on the movie’s soundtrack which is a mixture of 70’s classics and cool jazz.
“My character is constantly listening to music so I just liked to use different songs so that we could build a library of what my character would listen to. We had 28,000 songs.” Does he have a vintage large iPod in real life? “I have all of the iPods pretty much.”
So just as you’ve got Washington down as this one-time bad boy who now likes to look after himself, the survivor of the friends, the one who remained the ultimate cool dude, he reminds you of a religious experience he had. I’d never thought of Washington following his father’s footsteps. I’d always had him down as more of a rebel but he is in fact there is a religious side to him and at one point he says the Holy Ghost came inside of him.
“Yes,” he says matter of factly. I ask him why is he making this sound as if it’s normal. “Well, you know, I was in church and in church at the end of the service they ask if you want to go into the prayer room and they talk about speaking in tongues and then – other than the overwhelming power of the experience what I remember is letting go. Not having any doubt. Not being cynical, just thinking OK let’s go for it and see what happens so yes I spoke in tongues.”
What exactly does this mean? He spoke in different language? “Yeah a foreign tongue and I remember calling my mother afterwards. I remember sweating and getting really emotional and I remember calling my ma and saying this is what happened and she said ‘oh yes that’s right.’ And I said my cheeks filled up and she said ‘that was a purge. Purging the bad spirits coming out of you.’ She was very, not matter of fact because this was serious but she was giving the explanations to the things I had experienced very calmly. Things I didn’t understand and she explained to me so succinctly and that seemed to be proof it was something she had seen and experienced before. She could describe it without having seen it. I think we get far away from what’s natural when some things hit us. We think they are actually supernatural but you have to allow it, be open. It’s not like I’m the expert on it cos there’s lots of things I don’t know.”
Does he think he was ready for it? “It was ready for me. It was actually a bit overwhelming. I was like wait a minute. I’m not ready for this whole commitment.” When did this happen? Was it in the 80’s? “Actually I’m not sure. I just remember thinking does this mean I can’t go to the club? Does this mean I can’t have wine and the answer was no. I had lots of wine through most of the 80’s as I recall.”
Did it change him in any way? “It gave me concrete proof that the Holy Spirit exists and that it’s real. No question about it. I’ve gone back there and I wonder did they let some mist off in the room that gave you a funny feeling? I don’t know. I remember some people in the room not going through the experience I had but it was real for me.”
His mother had an experience in her hairdressers where one of her clients wrote in automatic writing about Washington’s future. He corrects, “Well I don’t know if it was automatic writing but she had a prophecy which was that I would preach. She said I would preach to millions of people.” Well he does, kind of. “Kind of, yes.”
His phone rings and he jokes, “ah that’ll probably be my mom now…the prophecy also said that I would travel the world and that through my work I would speak to millions of people. At this time in my life I’m now unafraid to talk about it. She said that I would have millions of followers. Maybe she meant thousands and then added too many zeros. Maybe she said I was actually going to preach to ten people ha ha ha. I try not to use the word preaching. It sounds like I know more than you. I’m just sharing my experience.”
Preacher or not, he is a kind of mentor to Ashton Sanders who was in Moonlight. He’s working with him now in The Equaliser. “I don’t know if I’d use that word but I like him and he’s very talented. He’s a good kid and I’ve been where he’s going. He’s talking about how things are changing for him. You know how his friends are changing. I’ve been down that road.”
Does he mean that he has to readjust his circle of friends and get rid of the users? “No, not anything like that.” It’s just who does he talk to? Who has walked the walk he’s walking? “Of course I don’t tell him what to do but I can share.”
We have spoken before that he might have walked a different walk had his mother not taken him out of school that time. “Yes, that’s true. Two of those friends did jail time and the other one lost his teeth. That was a few years ago now. I got him some good teeth but I haven’t seen him recently. I have one or two old friends from my twenties not that far back. When I moved to LA I stayed friends with all the people I came up with in the 80’s.”
Are they actors? “No.” I read somewhere that said Washington is not friendly with any white actors. He looks at me with an ‘as if’. “That’s not what I said and I don’t even remember what I was asked. I might have said I wouldn’t surround myself with just acting friends and he twisted it.”
People are saying that last year was the Black Oscars because the year before it was all super white. “What do you mean the Black Oscars? What people say this? Who are these people?” I suppose media people say that there were more black nomination in 2017 to counteract the year before when there were none. He looks at me as if I’ m mad, shrugs and says, “we’ll see what happens… None of it’s up to me. I’ve done my job.”
Does he care about awards? “Of course people care about them. First of all, it’s an opportunity for the industry to celebrate those who have achieved. I don’t know if it’s a measuring stick… I remember they all used to go to Swifty Lazar’s party at Spago’s after the awards. There used to be a parking lot and you could drive up and look down over Spago’s and I remember seeing people going in – Warren Beatty and people like that and I said to myself someday I’m going to get in there. It wasn’t so much about getting the award, it was like I wasn’t invited to the party and I needed to be.” He laughs. “One day I’ll be able to get in there I said.”
Now they don’t have parties at Spago’s. That particular Spago’s doesn’t even exist anymore but I think we can say if it did he would definitely be at the party. Does he think when he looked down he manifested his award-winning future? “No I think I was already headed that way.” Was he always driven? “Yes, driven but you know you can get bored and sometimes you have to reboot or refresh. Like going back to theatre woke me up. When I went back to Broadway I was like oh I remember now.”
He rebooted his Broadway career with Julius Caesar in 2005 and then there was Fences and A Raisin in the Sun. I saw him in a packed out short run of the latter with my mother. I think we paid $700 per ticket.
I wonder if he loved Obama as much as I did. Does he think that the US will ever recover from the loss? He looks puzzled. “What do you mean recover?”
Obama was a good guy in charge. A good President and a good man and now we have the opposite. “Well it’s early days yet…” Really? At this point the Fire and the Fury had not been released but Trump had pulled a few corkers like the flight ban from certain countries and not quite being able to explain his relationship with Russia and his potty mouth on Twitter.
“It’s not like Barack and I are old pals you know. I think he watched someone and was inspired by someone and someone will be inspired by him.”
Does he really think that the current regime is inspiring? “Is it not?” he says ambiguously. OK, politics is not an inspiring conversation point for Washington. Although he’s sat in front of me, in his head he’s already left the room. Although he looked pretty mesmerised while watching Oprah’s Golden Globes speech. Ostensibly it was her acceptance speech for her Cecille B De Mille award but many are viewing its galvanising passion as a bid to run for the presidency in 2020. In response to the #metoo audience all wearing black she spoke about how speaking your truth is the most powerful thing to do and warned the abusers, “Time is up.” But then he comes back to explain his position on the black president followed by the orange one.
“There’s a pastor talked about this. I think his name is A R Barnard and I think it’s Daniel Chapter 10. He says that God puts Kings in a place for a season and reason and we don’t always know the reason so this is what it is right now. There’s a reason behind it and I say to people if nothing else we should be more unified. All the more reason to work together.” He beams, rather godlike and then laughs. And it’s one final gummy bear before he goes.
Jon Bernthal an actor who previously admired Spacey, says that his behaviour on the set Baby Driver was also reprehensible. Not in a sexual way. He was just rude and a bully. “Working with him, made me lose all respect for him and I was enormously disappointed.”
Well, I am never one who likes to miss the party but if that had happened I would have said, “Harvey you are a fat pig. You are not attractive and even though I might like you to make one of my scripts into a movie I’d like you to do that because you thought the script was attractive, not because you want to expose yourself to me.” Ok I might not of thought of that at the time. I might have been upset and horrified.
There were 13 alleged victims referred to in Ronan Farrow’s story in New Yorker, three of whom allege being forced into sex acts. Farrow, son of Mia Farrow and Woody Allen, wrote, “Sometimes it took months and months for them to go on the record… each of them talked about their own fears or what they believed he (Weinstein) might do to them. How they believed people around them would react, how they believed it would affect their careers, and so that was a lot to process for every woman in this story.”
These were mostly women who had worked for him and feared they would lose their jobs and reputations and more.
There were, in the few days after the story appeared, another eight women who alleged sexual harassment – and they were give settlements of between $80,000 and $150,00 — gathering the pace of the most vicious tornado more and more jumped on the hate trail.
At one time Weinstein’s table was the one who everyone wanted to be placed on but not as soon as he became tainted they, or their publicists, felt dirty by association. They wanted to shower themselves clean of dirty Harvey. He went from king of the movie world to untouchable in days. Just days. The speed of this escalation is incredible.
Ashley Judd started the tidal wave. Twenty years ago she was filming with him and he asked her up to his hotel suite for room service – she ordered cereal – then he asked her for a back rub and to watch him shower. She did report it at the time – people ignored her out of fearing to upset a powerful man. Clearly something wrong with that. Then came Rosanna Arquette, Angelina Jolie and Gwenyth Paltrow.
Paltrow says she was 22 and working as the star of Weinstein’s Emma when he invited her up to his room for a massage. She was so frightened she asked her then boyfriend Brad Pitt to sort out Harvey. There is a step back for Weinstein but a bigger step back for womankind. Who knows if she was frightened standing on podiums winning Oscars with Harvey?
One can show respect and empathy for Angelina Jolie, who feels she was sexually compromised many years ago. She warned everybody not to have anything to do with him and completely distanced herself and never worked with him. That is the proper reaction.
Of course, I can see that if your boss is harassing you, you might be afraid to lose your job, after all, your other boss is your boss’s brother. But that turned out to be a wrong move because brother Bob was planning on a rewrite of Cain and Abel. He tore his own brother down from the company he’d made which had been so internationally applauded and awarded, deemed his brother unfit and ensconced himself. Now the world’s greatest independent film company is run by a chump. Oh, yes, Bob, I have met you, too.
Everybody knew that Weinstein had what turned out to be a fatal flaw. Everybody knew he liked to chase women. Seth McFarland, in the 2013 Oscar’s, cracked a joke as he read out the nominations for the best supporting actress, announcing, “And these are the women that no longer have to pretend to be attracted to Harvey Weinstein in order to win awards…”
My point is, people knew it was happening for as long as there have been casting couches in Hollywood. And those couches were tacit approval to sexual predators. It was an unspoken deal – the film industry treats women with contempt. Weinstein is not the cause of this – merely the effect. Was it disgusting? Yes. But nobody spoke out so he is right when he says he was born into a different culture. It was a culture where powerful men made deals involving body parts of women who wanted to be famous or seen as talented or respected, weirdly.
Think Marilyn Monroe. Where would she be without the favour of the casting couch? Alive to a very old age? She wouldn’t have had to die because she wouldn’t have felt used by men. But that is another story. Although there is a tenuous link … one of her alleged abusers, John F. Kennedy, is considered one of the greatest American presidents. He was also a womaniser. Did that make him do a bad job at the presidency? Bill Clinton, too, was a lover of the bj, but a brilliant economist and looked after America’s budget better than any of his successors. So while everyone is busy tearing down the mogul I just want to point out he did not make his great achievements because of or in spite of his horrible behaviour.
Of course, I don’t – and no one can — condone what he has done, but is he paying the price for an entire industry’s wrong doing.
These are some interesting things about Harvey: He is fantastically well read. He’d read all of Dostoyevsky by the time he was 12 because it was feared he was going to go blind so he wanted to read everything before he lost his sight. He was extremely driven, he made movies for which he had passion and marketed them as if he was conducting a philharmonic orchestra in an opera house. He believed in people when no one else did and while he was confident of his abilities he had a very low self image. Without his contribution to the film industry there would be more movies involving other galaxies – robots – car chases and all male casts. Only 17 year old males would watch them. There would have been no Shakespeare In Love, no The English Patient, no Pulp Fiction, Kings Speech, Finding Neverland or Silver Linings Playbook.
He green lit all of these – and now Bafta have suspended his membership, Cannes Film Festival have denounced him and some British politicians are urging the stripping of the CBE awarded to him by Queen Elizabeth in 2004.
It seems ridiculous – you can’t unmake these clever movies that were also great box office. He was known as Harvey Scissorhands not because of the way he touched people but by the way he touched movies. He cut them up, cut them down, falling out with directors who felt they were scalping their own babies but invariably he made the movies better, more accessible, more universally loved.
This public horror show will not stop the film industry from objectifying women. Asking for body doubles with bigger breasts and tighter bottoms for nude scenes and using leading men over 50 with female love interests 30 years younger is disgusting. The culture that influenced Weinstein is wrong. Yet in this culture Weinstein romped around for more than decades. No one said anything – till everyone did. Weird.
When I last met Harvey at the Oscar party for Lion I wanted to ask him something. I wanted to say, “I have written this brilliant script, I’d love you to be involved.” I didn’t say it because it was inappropriate at a party. If I met him now – unlikely because I am told he’ll be forced into some kind of extreme rehab for being Harvey – I would still say, “I would love you to be involved.”
Today I was at a funeral for the Australian actor/writer/opera critic Charles Osbourne. Barry Humphries was giving the tribute. Even he made a joke about Harvey Weinstein in a eulogy. This is how far and how fast it has spread. And the table is about to turn. Yesterday we were appalled. Today it’s a joke.
Afterwards, the talk was not only about Charles Osbourne but about Weinstein. It’s reached that kind of circuit. funeral chat.
People said that complicity is the devil and the silence only encouraged this behaviour, not just Harvey’s but any man of power in an industry that can so easily disrespect women. People said now Weinstein was being humiliated and so universally punished this would make other abusers think twice and it could change the way the powerful men manipulate the weaker sex. Really? Are we the weaker sex? Will it change anything? The buck stops with such men. But I believe it also stops with the women. Let’s be more Jolie and less Paltrow.
What is it about Idris Elba? Everyone seems to be in love with him. Certainly I was hooked on his TV series Luther where he played good copy/bad cop all in one. Luther was tough and smart but also haunted. You see this haunted quality in his work and in the man himself quite a lot. You also see that he likes to deliver dichotomy to his roles. In The Wire he was a vile Baltimore drug kingpin but utterly beguiling. His Mandela was as ruthless as it was heartfelt (for which he was nominated for a Golden Globe in 2014).
His latest role as the gunslinger in The Dark Tower also shows him as haunted but extremely violent – a hero with brutality. He enjoys al this multi-dimensional stuff. He enjoys not being pinned down. It’s his art form. The Gunslinger is based on the Stephen Kings books and King himself talks about the Gunslinger as being a concentrated force, a reticent hero and that Elba was perfect for the part.
When you meet him you see that force.
He’s a thinker, onscreen and off. He’s always weighing things up, eyes rolling. I met him several years ago socially. He was a friend of a friend, we were in the Soho House Los Angeles. It was post Luther, pre Mandela, TV star, pre film star but he carried himself with a shuddering presence. We talked about being only children – probably my attempt to bond or flirt. All the obvious things like if you’re on your own it’s good for developing imaginary characters, a sense of self, a sense of independence but it also makes you selfish and not good at sharing. He remembers the next part of the story slightly differently. There was a plate of cookies which we both pounced on and both announced that we never share dessert. He says he let me have them.
Today I’m waiting for him in a chic London hotel in Soho, the waiting room has a cookie plate but only the chocolate macaroons are good so I order a plate of just the chocolate macaroons. Then I’m summoned to Elba’s suite. Guess what? He has a plate of only the chocolate macaroons. Nobody has to share. Good.
He doesn’t look like he’s been indulging in too much chocolate recently. He lost a lot of weight when he was on an extreme diet for a year of kick boxing – proper matches, the lot. He looks svelte in his stone coloured ribbed sweater and navy slacks. He’s narrow hipped. I tell him he’s much thinner than I expected and he complained that I was inferring he used to be fat in that typical I’m not going to take a compliment from you kind of way.
He’s chatty and distant all at once. Extremely tired because two days after we meet he is to start shooting on his first film in a directorial role, Yardie, based on the book by Victoria Headley set in London in the late 80s, charting the life of a boy who comes from Jamaica. Maybe he’s a little daunted.
“No not really” he shakes his head. And there’s the thing. He is available then unavailable, all in a moment. It’s completely tantalising because when he’s there he’s 100% there, present, fills the room, fills every pore of himself and he fully connects with you. His presence is so strong and so sexy you could bottle it, call it Idris and it would sell out, but the unavailable thing – he courts it, treasures it. He has over one million followers on Instagram yet follows no one. Connected and disconnected, see what I mean. Elba grew up in London, Hackney on an infamous estate called Holly Street – later on the family moved further east to Newham. His father, originally from Sierra Leone worked a variety of poorly paid jobs. His mother from Ghana also worked hard at many unrewarding jobs. They were strict and aspirational as parents. They liked rules and had hard work ethic instilled into Elba, who’s always throwing himself into something. No switch off button. Life was hard and rough. The kind of place where, “I got run over once and they just drove off. But I stayed out of trouble on the straight and narrow and my parents were very protective.”
His father wanted him to be a footballer. “Even though he didn’t think English kids were as good as African footballers.” Was he any good? “Yeah but if I hadn’t been into acting it would have been music. Although I was in all the sports teams, drama was more cool. He passed the audition to get into the National Youth Theatre but his mother said he couldn’t go because he didn’t have the money. His drama school teacher advised to him to apply for a grant from The Princes Trust. “Without that £1500 I don’t know what I would have become. It got me into drama school.”
When he prepped to become Mandela he ended up recording an album with some South African musicians which inspired the documentary Mandela, My Dad and Me. His father died just before the movie was released and he linked Mandela, international freedom fighter and his dad, the union guy, to be the inspiration for it. Mandela’s family invited Elba to the private funeral. There he was with every world leader and when it was announced that here was the man who recently portrayed Nelson Mandela, people clapped. “All I heard was Elba, my old man’s name…”
As an only child he was close to both of his parents. I don’t detect anything but love and respect when he talks about them, although he is happy on his own. “You make up your own language. You make up your own friends.”
He tells me softly, “I’ve become less selfish now. I like sharing. I like the feeling of sharing more.” Why is that because it’s a new feeling? “Yeeeah,” he laughs, a big old laugh. “It’s different!”
How different? We have our own separate plates of chocolate macaroons. “Well it would be rude of me to offer you any of those they’re just a bunch of crumbs now. You’d be ‘no thanks mate!’” On the contrary. I’d take his crumbs.
He looked in splendid form as the gunslinger Roland Deschain in the Dark Tower. In the movie he says things like “I shoot with my mind and I don’t kill with a gun. I kill with my heart.” He is a gunslinger with depth and troubles. A similar kind of vibe to his character in Luther which he’s about to start making another four part series. Even though we all thought Luther had ended, The BBC tagline to the new series is “The face at the window. The hand under the bed. The shadow at the end of the street. Who’s going to stop them, if not John Luther?”
“Interesting you saw them both that way and you’re right. Luther is a haunted man, character and Roland Deschain is a haunted man. It’s true. He’s also a loner and he’s a very good gunslinger. He’s haunted because he’s the last of his kind which makes him responsible for the salvation of Dark Tower. “Everything has been taken away from him and he is on a quest for vengeance – it’s become part of him and his consciousness. I do like the action and I really get into that. I’m really into the fight sequences. I love the choreography of it. Being able to work out these really complicated moves and then learning it and doing it again and again. I really love that! It was a tough film to make but after all is said and done, I’m very glad that I made it.”
Do you know the Stephen King books at all? Not that the movie’s anything like the books. The books are very cerebral, very descriptive, very deep. You can really get into the wormholes. It’s based on eight books, each one of them 700 pages.”
Elba is undaunted by this. He’s very much a reader. Our conversation wanders to discussing Netflix. We think we’ve seen everything on Netflix as well. Elba is a man with an appetite. At one stage of his life he read the book The Alchemist by Paul Coehlo twice a year because he found it transformative. Every time? He nods.
“It’s a story that reminds me to pay attention to being present. There are things to remember in your own life, sort of counting your blessings. Seeing something that you might deem as a bad thing at the time actually propels you forward. It’s clever and I think it can touch people. I first read it when I was 22/23.”
Was that the living in a van period? He spent a while homeless in New York looking for acting work. He did this because he thought the Big Apple had more diversity, more parts.
Back then in the early nineties, British black actors seemed to struggle to land leading roles. They were always the drug dealer or the gigolo.
He recollects. “My van period in New York was later.” Early in my acting career was when the book was really good to read.” Was that because it was hard starting out and he had to see disappointments as opportunity to survive? “That’s right.” He pulls at his beard. It’s an unconscious twiddle. And then he suddenly looks nostalgic, sad even and I wonder the haunted gunslinger, the haunted Luther – how much of this is haunted Idris?. Is it just because he loves identifying with other people’s hauntedness? Or perhaps because he seems not to prefer not to answer questions in full sentences
“I’m not sure. If I think honestly about my characters…” his voice trails. He’s thinking. “Luther is haunted and now this character, but I don’t think I am haunted so it’s not a trait, but I like to think that characters who have something of a past they suppress are interesting to play because there are a lot of different dynamics.”
He even made the sea lion in Finding Dory seem like an angry outsider. He laughs and does his cockney sea lion performance where he played up against his Wire co-star Dominic West. “No I’m not haunted. I feel I’m an open spirit. I’m not really afraid of anything.”
He certainly likes to test his fear muscles. In 2015 he not only entered the arena of kickboxing, he learnt how to drag race and broke a land speed driving record. As well as this he writes, he directs, he DJ’s, he raps, he sings, he lives dangerously.
“I feel like fear is a really boring waste of time.” Logically of course it is but fear is illogical. How does he rationalise, diminish it? “It’s a muscle. It’s an exercise. It’s pushing the uncomfortable zone, going past the comfort zone. I think being an actor you get asked to do lots of things that are outside your comfort zone. Trepidation happens when you’re in your trailer and you go onset and do it. That’s the process and I’ve gone through it a few times.” And you’re saying it served you well? “Yes, I suppose so.” But isn’t the risk too much? Kickboxing is very dangerous. I read that his mother could scarcely watch the hits and he could have been a gunslinger with broken legs.
“And I could have got run over on my way here today. You can’t live a life thinking it could go bad. You go into things thinking what’s going to be great about this?
I’m directing a film at the moment. That’s what I’m really doing so I’m sort of low energy today. My brain is a little fried.” You can expect first time directors to be a little haunted but Elba doesn’t come over as quite that, just simply tired from learning how to work the new demands of the film director.
But there again Elba has a kind of super brain. He once read that we only use about 12% of our brains so he began working on how to access the rest of his brain and become superhuman in the process.
“Well yes. I’m not sure whether doctors think it’s possible to expand your brain capacity, but there are certain exercises – rubbing your belly and tapping your head at the same time that extends capacity.”
I had a friend recently who did brain training. It’s all the rage in LA. My friend showed me some exercises that were crossing one arm and using the other to tap his ear. Elba nods enthusiastically. “If you push that even further and do more, do everything that you can, all the different things that you can do, I feel you can push capacity. So putting the same amount of detail into DJ’ing as you do acting means that you can push the capacity of the brain a little bit more. I’ve got a theory that the answer is yes. People think I’m good at this and that’s all I can do and I’m saying if you did something else you’d be good at that as well. Listen I’m going to be 45 this year. Life expectancy is about 80. I’m over half way there so I just wanna live – live more. I just wanna do everything.”
So that’s one reason he’s directing. “Yeah… It’s a human story about a kid from Jamaica who comes here. I play a small part in it as well. It’s being shot here and in Jamaica. I’ve written parts of it. Well I’m not really a writer. I’ve rewritten parts of it. The writers have written it but there are things that I’ve jigged about. I’ve also got The Mountain Between us (with Kate Winslet) and Molly’s Game (with Jessica Chastain) and Thor (with Benedict Cumberbatch and Cate Blanchett) coming out this year. It sounds a lot but they were shot over the last 2 years and with the exception of Thor they’re all leading roles.”
So how was being stuck on a mountain with Kate Winslet? He laughs very naughtily. I’m not sure why. “You’ll have to wait and see,” he says.
The kickboxing overlapped the movies. They weren’t all planned to come out at the same time. It just happened that this is the summer of Elba.
“The end of my fighting was the end of last year but I’ve been doing a lot of DJ’ing. It’s a reset button. I love it. I’m falling in love with it more and more and I’ve been making music as well.” Yes, there’s one track called Sex in your Dreams where the lyric talks about ‘a dick thick like homemade butter’. I ask him to explain.
“Homemade butter,” he says deadpan, very serious. “You won’t get me going on that one. “Homemade butter is what is says it is on the can.” But butter is soft. He says, “Homemade butter?” I’m slightly confused. I tell him I don’t’ get it. I don’t get it at all. If he made it would it be runny or thick? “Thick because that’s the way you like your butter.” He pauses then laughs. I’ve really no idea what we’ve been talking about but it feels like it was very filthy. He tell me that when he went on James Corden’s show Corden asked him about his homemade butter lyrics so when I met Corden I asked if he could shed any light. He didn’t know either. Maybe that’s an only child thing. The need to have thick butter? “That’s right that’s right. You need that butter.”
I wonder if being an only child influenced him as a father. He has two children – a daughter Isan now 14 (born 2002) and a son Winston aged 3 with different mothers. “I don’t want to talk about my kids today. I can’t talk about being a father without talking about my kids. I love being a father. It’s my favourite thing.” But then we would talk about how busy he is and how he’s away a lot of the time and how he probably doesn’t see much of them and he wouldn’t want to talk about that that. “But I DO see my children. I see a lot of them. I live a busy life. But I love being a dad. It’s very fulfilling.”
There’s a pause of non-flowing conversation and to make it even more awkward I ask him to clarify details of his wives and girlfriends. He was married to make-up artist Hanne Norgaar in 1999 and they split up shortly after she gave birth to Isan after 3 years. He was going through a very transitional phase and then he had a very brief marriage of only 6 weeks to real estate attorney Sonya Nicole Hamlin and his current girlfriend Naiyana Garth is described as being on/off. Is that correct?
“On an off with who? I’ve been married yes, married again, yes and I’ve had a girlfriend for a long time. That’s right.” Long pause. “But I’m also human. That’s normal I think.”
I’m not sure exactly what’s normal, all the details about his being human but one certainly sees or hears of him linked to various beauties like Jourdan Dunn (actress and model) and he’s also got about 35 years left and lots of women want him. He said recently that suddenly his demographic of women who fancied him had increased. That it used to be one demographic, now it’s older women, younger women. Basically all women.
He laughs, not bashfully though. “A lot of people find actors attractive. They find a certain man attractive and he’s an actor. He’s very attractive. It’s amplified because of what we do for a living. The point I was making is it’s not just the girls in my neighbourhood but everyone. Well not everyone but a lot of women.”
We’re staring at each other. It’s one of those very connected and not connected at all moments and the PR pops her head round the door. “Last couple of minutes.” OK, the moment, if there was one, was gone, so I change the subject completely. Apparently President Obama is a fan. “Oh yes Mr Obama. What a lovely man. What a kind human being. What a good leader and he was a fan of The Wire, or he liked the character called Omar, not my character. But he had the grace to tell me I like you too and I’m just getting into Luther. His wife Michelle was well into Luther.”
I can imagine. Why do you think Michelle liked Luther? Because he’s complicated. Because she likes complicated?
“OK, yes, yes, you’re right.” So where did you hang out with the Obamas? “We had dinner at an event he threw.” Did he share dessert with him?
“No I didn’t have dessert. I was on my regime where I had to lose a lot of weight. I had to cut out certain food groups like sugar and gluten, very low carb and I had to eat fish and chicken.”
Was he forced to have it steamed? “No, baked and every now and again I had it…” long pause, eyes roll, “I had fried chicken.” I’m not sure why but the way he says fried chicken is as if he’s saying fried sex, he makes it sound really, really naughty. “I’ve lost a few pounds. Are you saying that you remember me really chubby?”
No, I’m saying. that he is now looking very fit. “I’m only teasing you. I do remember the whole plate of cookies that we demolished. I think if you remember, it was you who ate the cookies. And I was like I don’t share desserts, you have all of them……. I like your bag,” he says. My Bag has a cat on it and says Meow. He sits on his couch, still looking a little tired, purses his lips and says “Meow”.
The Dark Tower is out Aug 18
Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building. Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.
I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy. The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender. And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.
Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it. The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.
The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”
The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.
With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.
Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems. What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”
Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him. “I guess, maybe but not really. I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”
So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”
Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful. We couldn’t book anyone for a long time. The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.
“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best. Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.
Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad. You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little. Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”
I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”
The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone. Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.
I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”
This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true. I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”
And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK. To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK. And I think he returns to feel the love.
Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”
His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”
Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).
They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”
He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”
I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh. It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”
At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”
Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it. Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey. Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.
He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.
“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play. I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die. We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”
In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write. That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey. There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”
His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying. There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”
And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.
He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”
Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”
I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”
He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.” Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”
Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know. And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”
So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful. We certainly dated for a while.”
Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”
It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working. Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”
Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.” He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.
When I first met Boy George – lifetimes ago – in the early nineties, everything about him was a melodrama. He could be charming but he was also outrageous. He was always in trouble for saying the first bitchy thing that came into his head. He definitely did not understand boundaries. That was what brought him success but it also brought trouble. At the height of his fame, he was hooked on heroin. Friends and family didn’t expect him to survive. His younger brother even went on national television to expose the addiction, a desperate cry for help. George was always extreme.
We are astral twins. Born on the same day June 14th. We share this bond with Che Guevara and Donald Trump.
After the plea for help, George was arrested for possession. Over the years, his life continued to spiral. The arrests and run-ins with the law stacked up – all awful, predictable stuff. Then, in 2007, he was sentenced to 15 months in prison for false imprisonment – he chained a male escort to a radiator.
A decade after this rockiest of rock-bottom moment, he is back on top of the world. After first appearing as a judge on the Voice UK, George has somehow rehabilitated himself via the unlikely medium of mainstream reality television.
In the US earlier this year, he was the runner-up in Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Celebrity Apprentice. In Australia, he has become a household name once again after a feisty role as a judge on their version of The Voice. In supermarkets down under, kids who are far too young to remember Karma Chameleon and Do You Really Want to Hurt Me ask for selfies. “It’s funny that I’m so popular with seven, eight, nine years old,” he says. “These kids were really sweet – no attitude. There’s this niceness about Australia, it reminds me of England in the seventies.”
He also finds himself settling back into life on the road. After sporadic reunions, he and the original members of Culture Club set off to tour on a wave of 1980s nostalgia, first in North America (“land of second chances”), now the UK and, towards the end of the year, Australia. “We haven’t had a big row for years,” he says of his bandmates. “Even when we do argue, it gets resolved quickly.”
“I could be more fluid if I did my own tour. With Culture Club, the view is that the audience expects certain things and that’s what we’re going to give them. Rampages on stage are a thing of the past. It’s not that everybody loves everybody but we’re very structured.”
Structure is clearly a new thing in George’s life. After a lifetime of undoings, accelerated by drugs, his years of sobriety have given him clarity. He looks back on the old days with amusement, bemusement and, for the good times, a fair dose of nostalgia but now, as he puts it, “I’m happy.”
Are you in love, I ask the man who sang I Just Wanna Be Loved
Maybe that’s why you’re happy.
“Yes, maybe. I’m not in love but I’m open to persuasion. But I’m quite busy at the moment and I’d rather be working than loving. I’d rather get paid than laid.” Just like the old Boy George. The one who said he preferred a cup of tea to sex.
Work, work, work, then. When he’s not touring, he’s working on his new album. Next year he will have a residency in Vegas with Cyndi Lauper. He’s excited about being a star in Sin City and just how “fluid” that show will be.
But the fluidity has strict limits. Today, he is as dedicated to life as he once was to destroying it. “I talk a lot with my closest friends about happiness,” he says. “I try to find happiness in almost anything. Going to Starbucks, watching videos about new exercises, like ones you can do on a flight when you clench your buttocks.” We practice clenching and he bursts into laughter, neatly exemplifying the point. He likes to fit in a few moves as he walks down the street to Starbucks – if you cross your arms over your chest you burn more calories as you walk. “Finding happiness instead of misery at any given moment is not always easy but I do think it’s the key to survival.”
Food was the last excess to go and, after years struggling with his weight, he’s now back to his skinnier original self. He’s on a regime where he has to wait several hours between eating. Sugar is banned and exercise must be regular but, again, there are limits. “I have been reading articles about naked yoga classes,” he says. “Nudity is the enemy of style and I would never do it.”
George has always been about individual style. He is very anti the selfie generation. “Everybody on Instagram looks the same. Everybody looks like Kim Kardashian. I suppose we had a version of the selfie in the eighties when we would dress up and go to a photo booth but you had to make an effort. You had to have a bit of pioneering spirit. There was never the opportunity for such narcissism before.
Today, he’s using what he learnt in the photo booth to build a burgeoning modelling career.
“I thought if I could do some modelling in my fifties that would be a real triumph,” he says. “You know, you’re always looking at these things as a measure of where you are.” So at 55 he became a model for Dior. “I like to start at the top.”
He’s even taking up a new career in art and he’s planning an exhibition. “It’s a mixture of painting and graphic stuff with a narrative starting in the seventies, being the decade that really shaped me as a person. Glam rock, punk rock, all of the things that have remained my aesthetic. I’ve never lost my love of Vivienne Westwood. I don’t know where the exhibition is going to be but I’m very serious about it, even though it just started off as me doing stuff and people really liked it. A lot of my career moves have been accidental.”
There’s no doubt George looks good but be careful how you tell him that. “It really annoys me when people say you look good for your age,” he says. What does that mean? I’m like fuck off.”
Back in the very beginning of George, there were almost no gay pop stars. Obviously he was gay. He came out to his mum when he was 14. During his acceptance speech for best new artist at the Grammys in 1984, he said: “Thank you America. You know a good drag queen when you see one.” It was, of course, the first thing that came into his head and, even though it was obvious that he was gay, it still made his press agent weep. “It was a period in history where people didn’t want to have it confirmed,” he says now. “Radio stations stopped playing my records. Oh well. Can’t turn the clocks back now.”
George has never hidden who he is, unlike the other eighties George, George Michael. In the eighties, the two Georges were compared constantly “We both were called George. Of course we were rivals.” Boy George had plenty to say about George Michael’s reticence to come out. “It was the eighties. That’s what people did. They were bitchy.”
Boy George said everything that came into his head. George Michael was the opposite. He didn’t use drugs flamboyantly but he used them consistently, and never attempted a clean-up. He only came out after his mother died because he knew she would have worried about AIDS.
“I cried when George died,” he says now. “I felt very sad. You know I was never close to George. We never really became friends. We tried a few times. We had a lot of mutual friends. There were a few evenings where the girls from Bananarama tricked me into going for dinner and he was there and whenever we met we got on great. We had more in common than we didn’t.”
“Don’t you think that there was lots of stuff that was manipulated about him? If shower them with luxuries you are partly to blame as well. I feel you can always separate what you think about somebody on a personal level from what you think about them artistically.”
“I’ve been listening to a lot of George Michael’s music recently. I made a playlist the other day as a reaction to when someone put the boyfriend’s 999 call online. I just tweeted ‘I’d rather hear this’.”
People always thought of George Michael as an outsider but Boy George was just as much of an outcast, albeit for different reasons. “Back in the day I used to be not invited to quite a lot of things. Remember that song, Don’t bring Lulu she messes up a party? That was me. During the eighties I would hear about these fabulous Elton parties that I was never invited to. There’s a price for being opinionated.”
Today, he is far from reticent but he is certainly slower to unleash his feelings. “As I grow older I think I get better at being a human being,” he says. “I’ve got better at not saying everything that I think because I do believe in our most intimate relationships, we are held together by the stuff we don’t actually say. I try to not put myself in situations that are bad for me like eating the wrong things, being unreasonable. It doesn’t necessarily stop you doing A, B or C but the clean-up is quicker.”
It’s taken him all of his 56 years to get to this point. For most of his life, his first reaction was an extreme one. He was quick to explode with pain, anger, rage, whatever, and just as quick to get over it. “Perhaps that’s because I grew up with a father who would throw the entire Sunday dinner on the floor and then be, ‘OK let’s put the kettle on.’ He would be fine so everyone else had to be.”
His father Jerry was a boxer and a violent man. When he walked out on his mother after three decades of marriage in which they raised six children, their relationship broke down altogether. They made up shortly before he died and these very different days, George enjoys boxing as part of his fitness repertoire. But he has had plenty of time to process his feelings on fame and bad behaviour.
“When you are successful, people allow bad behaviour just to get things done,” he says. “For instance if a record company is trying to get you on a TV show and you are behaving appallingly they condone your behaviour just to get you to the microphone. If that is repeated over a period of time, you start to think it’s OK. The good side of things that I learnt from my father is don’t dwell. I don’t hold grudges. There isn’t anybody in the world I wish harm to but I said some things that I shouldn’t have just to get a laugh.”
One thing he hasn’t got over easily was the death of David Bowie. Without Bowie there would have been no Boy George, no Culture Club. He was the major influence on the teenage George O’Dowd. “I knew he wasn’t well but you never know how unwell,” he says. “He first got ill in 2002. We were talking a lot during that time and then, quite suddenly, communication halted. I never really understood why. I didn’t know what I’d done wrong so I took it personally. We were never big mates but I did feel like he was my family. The first time I met him I’d just been dropped by Virgin and I was backstage at a Nine Inch Nails and Bowie gig. All the heads of Virgin were there so it was awkward and then Bowie opened his dressing room door and shouted “Georgie Boy!” and gave me a big hug. He was very real, very genuine but, of course, he was complex too. He managed to create this mystery around him. The worst thing that could ever happen is that people think you’re ordinary.”
Of course, he’s right. Ordinary is bad for business, but isn’t it also important if you want to stay sane, saty balanced?
“I don’t know, maybe,” he says. “Maybe nowadays, I can be ordinary.”
To the point of settling down.
“No, that’s not for me. Everyone thinks I’m alone and miserable but I have suitors. I’ll never go hungry. When people say where is this going, I say why does that matter? In that respect, I’m an old-fashioned gay man. I like that fact that being gay exempts you from the military. Gay marriage? Of course you should be able to do whatever you want but I don’t want to marry anybody. I’m happy with my own company. I can close the door and watch TV. I can have people come to stay but I like to see the return ticket.
“I don’t do the App thing. The worst thing that could happen with one of those is ‘Do you know who you look like?’ I prefer a cool customer. I’m not interested in anyone who’s a little bit eager. If there are 30 people in the room I’ll be interested in the one who isn’t giving me attention. “
With sobriety comes emotional self-sufficiency. Or maybe that was always there. “I think I am emotionally self-sufficient. I think you have to like yourself. I’m quick to judge and quick to say I was wrong about all sorts of things. Of course I make mistakes. Some people are exciting to be around and that’s fun. Too much of it is exhausting.”
I leave the new Boy George checking out the contents of the many hat boxes in his room, just a small part of his distinctly unordinary collection of beloved, bejewelled head gear. He is still exciting to be around. He is a long way from ordinary but he’s a long way from the old Boy George too. He’s survived the dark years, he’s paid the price of fame and he’s happy on this side of the boundary.
The last time I met Shirley MacLaine, she told me that the only thing that could ever break her heart would be the death of her beloved dog Terry. She felt such kinship with the rat terrier, she was convinced they’d known one another in a previous life.
This time, when we meet in the restaurant of a beachfront hotel in Santa Monica, Terry is no longer with us. “She had come to the end of her time,” she says, lowering her voice. “I was full of guilt about having to her put down but she just began to disintegrate. She tried to do away with herself. I wouldn’t let her and she resented that. She let me know in no uncertain terms that she was ready to go so I finally did it.”
Terry’s death has taught MacLaine so much that she’s rewriting her memoir of Terry, Out on a Leash: Exploring the nature of reality and love.
“I’m writing now about what I had to face in myself in order to do that and to celebrate her passing, not contaminate it with sorrow and loss. I sent love out into the universe. Apparently love attracts guides and teachers that I’d never let in before.”
The Oscar-winning actor has this advice for everyone who has to put down a beloved pet. .“Don’t dread it,” she says. “They are just following their destiny. I didn’t allow Terry to follow her destiny. It was so hard to separate from her.”
Is she waiting for Terry to come back? “It’s up to you to recognise their souls and if you want to reconnect with them. Dogs are actually not permitted to come back as people or people as dogs. There’s no transmigration of souls. You have to come back a