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 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.”
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?
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.