I pretend not be shocked when I see the Uber driver taking me to Cameron Douglas’s house is wearing a surgical mask. She drove me up the canyon to a quiet street, to a typical canyon house – white stone, small front yard with a large dog. I knew I had arrived at the right place because the tattooed torso of Cameron Douglas seemed to be rising from the roof. It looked like something you might see from Dynamo the magician, he seemed to levitate. He was actually catching some pale winter sun on his terrace.
He has the face of his grandfather and the intense eyes. In his white wife beater, I even think he has the torso of Spartacus – more elegant than muscley. He puts on a red plaid shirt for our interview. He makes me a good cup of coffee. The living room is covered in baby paraphernalia. We sit in what could be loosely described as a den – grey comfy armchairs, books, hardwood floors, the large dog, a Mastador, lies by the fireplace.
Douglas is warm and friendly and fidgets unconsciously. I wonder if this is nervousness, but the Douglas’s – Cameron, Michael and Kirk aren’t really nervous people. He’s easy company and easy on the eye. Before long we are laughing. He didn’t see me in the Uber and thought that was me in the surgical mask. He was trying to work out if I was a very kind person with a cold that I didn’t want him to catch or I was trying to protect myself from Douglas dust.
He’s just written a memoir, Long Way Home. It’s quite the page turner. It has a great rhythm, pace, graphically drawn characters as he describes relationships that fall apart, the misguided tough love of his father, his drug dependency and drug dealing, misplaced Hollywood glamour, and his eight years in various prisons. Prison soon lost its gangster rap allure. He got into brutal fights, witnessed rape and savagery and for the first few years had the edge taken off with smuggled in Oxycontin and Zanex. When this was discovered it led to many months in solitary which in turn led him to rethink his whole being. To survive prison you had to be strong, if you got into fights you had to win them. You needed respect. His grandfather Kirk, on hearing that he had won fights said, ‘That’s my boy.’
I tell him he inherited his grandfather’s writing skills – Kirk Douglas has written many books but Rag n Bone Man, his first memoir is compulsive, a macho Jackie Collins.
“That’s a great compliment,” he says. He’s always been close to granddad Kirk. “I have breakfast with him every week. I take my daughter over there every weekend to spend time with him and his wife Anne. Grandfather, grandson and great granddaughter all have birthdays in the same week in December. Kirk will be 103 (on December 9), Cameron will be 41 (December 13) and Lua Izzy will be 2 (December 17).
Was it cathartic for him to write this book? Did you have a burning to tell your story?
“That didn’t come in till later. Initially, oddly enough it was my father’s idea. He was quite pushy about it. I had a hard time understanding that because my family had always been very private and I tried to follow suit, but once I started putting pen to paper, I tried to understand where my father was coming from. I came to a couple of conclusions. One, he wanted to give me the opportunity to look back over my life and have a better understanding of where things went wrong…”
Things went really wrong.
A Douglas firstborn to one of Hollywood’s First families, acting royalty and he managed to mess it up royally. He didn’t take himself seriously, he didn’t take his work as an actor or DJ seriously, just used the latter to hang out in nightclubs and score drugs. His father had lots of money and Cameron had a sense of entitlement and then his father would cut him off if he was behaving disappointingly, which is ultimately, he reasons, why he became a drug dealer. His father refused to pay for his apartment and he was on the streets – well, a hotel. With no college education but a sense of privilege, he was not going to pump gas.
He had experimented with drinks and drugs from the age of 13 and by 17 he was taking crystal meth and then graduated to liquid cocaine. And finally, heroin, shooting up 5 or 6 times a day.
He doesn’t pull the pity card though. “I can’t go back and change the past. Obviously, I would do some things differently, but what I can do is take those experiences and turn them into something useful. I think it was a selfless act of love on the part of my mother and father and the rest of my family for giving me their blessing to write this book.”
Certainly, his parents come off as troubled human beings. At one point he says he was always in awe of his father but never close to him. His father’s liberal use of tough love, cutting him off and cutting him out, seemed to propel him into danger and loneliness. His father hired heavies to try and kidnap him to take him to rehab. Yet now he is learning to play golf so he can bond with him further. His father hired lawyers that were out of their depths and he ended up getting an extra 3 years added to his sentence. His father seemed lost on just how to deal with him. There was always closeness followed by estrangement .Sometimes extremely harsh, sometimes loving He writes “My dynamic with dad is seething frustration on his part and wounded sensitivity on mine…. “ His father invited him to New York for Thanksgiving and he git high and was several hours late – Douglas Sr had his doorman say they had left already but h was upstairs with the children too furious to see his oldest son
“That’s where it got complex for him because on the one hand if you are kind, it makes you feel you are helping feed the addiction… it’s a no win situation.”
And he didn’t win. “Well, not in the short term but maybe in the long term.”
Not counting his stretches in juvenile hall, the highlight of which was a brief affair with a woman called Liz a few years his senior. He was in prison for close to 8 years – 7 years and 9 months. He is still friends with many of the people he bonded with while he was there.
“I have really close friends that I speak to. Not often, but often enough to touch base. I am loyal and the bonds that you form when you are in a situation like that – in prison – are very strong. You go through a lot together, you get to know individuals really well and you see them in all types of circumstances because you see them every day and I feel grateful for that.”
The big dog comes over, nuzzles him and lies back down again.
“A lot of guys, when they go to prison they get forgotten. Their families forget about them. I was blessed that my family never gave up on me and in the end that played a huge part in helping me make the evolution I made.”
He now lives clean – drug and alcohol free. His partner Viviane is a yoga teacher. They met in their wild days – she was a Brazilian model and party animal, she is now a yogi. She reached out to him in prison. By the time they started seeing each other they had both changed their lives around.
It seems strange that he became closer to his family when he was in prison and locked away from them than when he was living a drug addled, drug dealing life in New York and LA, with unsuitable friends that he remained loyal to. His uncle, Eric Douglas, to whom he was always being compared, was a lost soul who felt he could never live up to the achievements of his father Kirk and brother Michael. He tried acting and stand up comedy. I saw one of his shows at the Edinburgh Festival. All the jokes that worked were about Kirk and Michael and there were only half a dozen of us in the audience.
Turning into Uncle Eric was another hideous spectre that loomed. Michael Douglas though, seemed to go through many evaluations of his own life. When his son was in prison he somehow found it easier to form a loving relationship. In 2010 other inmates read the tabloids and told Cameron that they felt sorry about his dad’s stage 4 throat cancer. It was very difficult for Cameron to see his father, this larger than life man, shrunken from cancer treatment, but nonetheless on a crusade to help his son.
“He was very supportive. He actually played a major part in shifting a particular law in prison. I lost my family visits for many years. I hadn’t seen my family for 2 years and I had 2 more years to go but my father received an award for playing Liberace and during his acceptance speech he said that the BOP (Bureau of Prisons) won’t allow me to see my son and it’s been almost 2 years. About a month after that I got called to my counsellors office and he suggested I make a formal request to the warden to get a visit with your mother and father. I did and it was granted. And about a month after that one of the wardens told me, ‘I want you to know that we’re implementing the new rule that says if an inmate is having his visits revoked for an extensive period and we feel like it’s undue, then we are going to give it back early. You are the first one. You are the role model.”
“My dad did that. I’m sure it’s benefitted a lot of families.”
I’m not sure if I see a tear in his eye or if it’s an extra sparkle. In his book he says that after going through the all the shenanigans – he was set up, fooled and caught as a drug dealer, first condemned to a shorter sentence then a longer one for not ratting on his drug dealing friends, he lost life as he knew it, and then his father had cancer. He couldn’t cry.
“I’m a very emotional person. Doesn’t take a lot to make me cry so that was alarming. A friend of mine in prison said ‘There’s no shame in crying,’ but I just couldn’t. just something inside of me. going back to acting has been very helpful with that. As I got closer to my release date, I started thinking what I wanted to do with my life. Acting is something that’s in my blood and I’d been doing it most of my life, even though not professionally. After I was released but still in a halfway house, I threw myself into a theatre company. Doing the work in those classes brought the emotion to the surface and it was very therapeutic.”
Was it like the acting classes they have in The Kominsky Method? (Award winning Netflix show that features his father Michael Douglas as a failed actor turned tutor who loves a good emotional workout with his pupils).
“Yes, it was similar to that. In fact, my acting teacher taught my father many years ago. I found it so helpful on a therapeutic level, getting in touch with these emotions that I’d stuffed down deep inside of me. I had some time in juvenile hall but it’s a different ball game when you are in prison.”
Looking back it was easy to see ever since, as a teenager, when he was sent to a strict boarding school while his parents were divorcing, he was always on one of those unstoppable moving walkways.
“In juvenile hall I was well on my way to prison but I didn’t realize it.”
Why didn’t he stop acting out, shooting up?
“Probably I was scared.”
The catharsis would all be so neat if prison set him free and recreated a good relationship with his father but when he came out of prison and was in the halfway house his father rejected him again. What was going on there?
“My father had gotten to a point in our relationship where he thought I wasn’t going to make it, so he started detaching. My father is a very pragmatic man but he didn’t come to this point lightly. For the majority of my life I had been carrying on so coming home from a long stint in a high security prison, I think he was a little circumspect about what results he was going to get and that’s understandable. Catherine actually played a real role in motivating my father, at least initially, to open back up to me and then it has just been showing not telling. Since I have come home I have been working my ass off (he is back acting and starts in an independent film in a couple of weeks) I have a fire and desire inside me that is enormous. I have got a lot to make up for.”
And people to make up to?
“To myself. If it turns out this whole prison experience and all the nonsense leading up to it was all for nothing I wouldn’t be able to live with myself. I have to know in my heart that it was for a purpose. I am on a quest of proving to myself that one day I look back and be truly grateful for having gone through it all.”
You feel for him in the book. The less self pitying he is the more you root for him. The turning point in the book is when he is making a movie in Ireland about mushrooms and had smuggled in enough drugs to last for a couple of weeks. The guy who was looking after his pet rabbit was supposed to send him more.
“I never saw that cute little bunny rabbit again or that friend either.”
Back to the story. He has this idea he can find drugs in Germany. He is suffering horrendous detoxing symptoms and misses his flight back He gets sacked from the movie and has to make the desperate trans-Atlantic flight back vomiting, shaking and all the other cold turkey symptoms. You feel the desperation of all that.
“It was an extremely low point of my life, so low that I turned to what got me into prison. I had the opportunity to pivot and change course but I didn’t. I had already gone through most of the detoxing but I wasn’t willing to let go of my addiction.”
That is when he came back to Los Angeles and his father had decided not to pay the lease on his rental. He gave conditions that he had to separate from the woman he was with. He didn’t like conditions.
“Again, it was a time where I had an opportunity to make some changes but I didn’t.”
In the book you really feel for Erin, she looks after him, she is more than an assistant less than a girlfriend at the start anyway. They almost get married so she can visit him in jail. What happened to her?
He flinches slightly, “She is doing well, she lives on the East Coast.”
Is she in a relationship?
“I don’t know. We were in touch because she inherited my dogs, one passed away while I was in prison, the other a few days ago so we spoke about that.”
Junior was a black labrador and they were devoted to one another. He had his sperm frozen. He was interested in breeding him, even creating a new breed because he was so loving and so smart. He wanted him to mate with a Boerboel to create the first Boerbador
“One thing I prided myself on, I was always able to take good care and raise good dogs. My father still has one of Junior’s children, Maxi, who is 15.”
When he was in prison and Erin was sole parent to Junior, Junior got cancer. He blames Erin for not taking him to the vet before he was riddled with tumors. He was able to talk to him on the phone as he was dying. It was then that his relationship with Erin didn’t continue in the same way.
Junior died and he wasn’t there for him, his grandmother died and they were close, he was unable to be there or even attend the funeral. He was able to phone her but she could no longer talk – he listened to her breathe.
He takes a breath, “Right now I am really focusing on a couple of screenplays that I am writing and the indie film called The Runner. I play a jaded detective who will get the job done by any means necessary. I am looking forward to digging in, getting in front of the camera and hoping it leads to more. I am a work horse. My life is very simple by design these days. It revolves around my family and building a career for myself; nice and simple. Life is good.”
Is he planning on more children?
“I am not opposed to it.”
I wonder how his relationship with Viviane is different. There are many relationships or flings with women in his book, all of them, in different ways, were mother figures to him.
“That’s true, in different ways. Viviane is a great mother and she does take great care of me. She is a yogi and she really believes in that life and practices it. It’s positive and powerful, I love being immersed in that philosophy, that energy. She is a great influence on me.”
Does he do yoga?
“She is a yoga instructor so I take advantage of that. She gives me private lessons.”
Like Sting and Trudie?
“Possibly,” he chuckles.
Do they go tantric?
“I would say I am at the basic stages of yoga. I had started my evolution in prison. I had been on a rock hard routine, I think routines are helpful. I don’t work out as much as I did in prison. It eats a lot of your time and it takes your focus off where you are, it was integral to my life there. Now I am not so worried about being as strong as possible, it’s just about being in good shape and having a clear mind.”
I notice something that looks like feathers inked on his chest, is it a phoenix?
“It’s a butterfly.”
The tattoos are mostly from prison. He also has one of his grandfather’s and father’s faces. Two that he didn’t get in prison on his wrists are in the process of being removed.
“They don’t have any meaning for me anymore. When I see butterflies I think of freedom.”
Another thing that represents freedom to him is going out with his granddad for breakfast.
“He still walks and is sharp and has a great sense of humour. They still travel up to Santa Barbara one weekend a month.”
They really do look alike.
“That’s nice of you to say. I hear that more these days that I look more like him than my father.”
Is that a beautiful thing or a cross to bear?
“It’s a cross I am grateful to bear.”
His grandfather has been married to Anne for 65 years. She doesn’t like to give her age. She told me she always lied about it but certain records have her age as 100. She is certainly strong, she stayed with him while he had various affairs saying as long as he was honest and she was the number one he could do what he wanted.
“I don’t know much about those particulars, but whatever they decided between them seems to work. They love each other very much.”
He changes the subject.
“I want to get involved in prison reform in this country as somebody who has had first hand experience, it is meant to punish and crush you and years of that kind of treatment doesn’t turn out a great individual. The government owes it to the American people to turn out men and women who are reformed.”
On the one hand, he couldn’t wait to get out of prison and on the other he knew it would be very hard.
“As my release date started to get closer guys would say, ‘It will be a difficult adjustment. You have been here a while and the time you have done has been a little more extreme.’ And I would say, ‘You guys are crazy, this is where I don’t belong. I am going to slide back into life like I never missed a day.’ But in reality it was a very difficult adjustment.”
He came out to find there were many new brands of breakfast cereal and everyone had smart phones.
“I will never forget the first time I stepped onto a subway after coming home from prison. Everyone on the platform was staring at something, it seemed like I was in the Twilight Zone. I do have one now and I love the amazing new cereals which I eat at night. I spent 29 years of my life trying to figure out who I was, where I fit in, how I like to express myself and then 8 years trying to figure out who I was in that environment, how I could express myself and making some changes. I came out and tried to find out who I was again, where I fit in and how I wanted to express myself.”
He was released from prison in August 2016. He had a female lawyer with benefits, Meg Salib, wrote a memoir which his hasn’t read, about their sexual relationship. He writes that the forbidden seemed to turn her on, she even liked to have phone sex when she knew all the calls were being recorded. He doesn’t seem to pursue women; they pursue him Maybe it’s in his genes.
Towards the end of his sentence Viviane Thibes visited him in prison and their relationship seemed to move fast when he got out. Before long she was pregnant. Was that because he felt an urgency to make an imprint on the planet?
“Maybe subconsciously. Initially when coming home I wanted to do everything right away because I had lost so much time. We were together fully while I was in prison, she was there waiting for me with my mother, my brothers and sisters and we have been together ever since. I think it was difficult for her. I am trying to please everyone and yet the person who was closest to you often gets what everybody else doesn’t get. To be perfectly honest it was a difficult time but we are both survivors and now, life is really starting to come together.”
He says he is finally starting to become friends with his father, and have the kind of relationship he always wanted. Has his father finished his pragmatic detachment?
“I think so, it just took some time which is understandable. We enjoy each others company.”
And on cue, Michael texts him. They are going to grab a bite to eat.
“I am not particularly religious but I like that saying, ‘Let go, let God.’ It means you make your best effort and let it go and see where it lands. I don’t have to walk on eggshells with him anymore, I have nothing to hide. I have made some serious mistakes but I have paid for them. Now it’s just about proving to myself what kind of life I can put together.”
He and his mother, Diandra, enjoyed a complicated relationship. For a while growing up he thought of himself as the man of the house, for that reason he had to love her and protect and he also hated her for that.
“It was an interesting dynamic. I love my mother a lot and I felt very protective of her. There are things that she has done that I don’t necessarily agree with.”
His mother was certainly beautiful – he writes that she cultivated drama with men
Diandra Luker (Douglas) had twin boys through a surrogate with hedge fund manager Zach Hampton Bacon III, Hawk and Hudson and she later adopted a girl, Imara. All of them visited their brother prison even though often the prisons were over 600 miles away, they made the prison pilgrimage. In her younger life I am not sure she comes over so well. Always chasing a man, and with a taste for exotic pets like a Savannah cat and a monkey and quite often making uninformed decisions with terrible consequences. How did his mother feel about the book?
“Everybody took their ego out of the equation with the understanding that perhaps it could have a greater effect than if I worried about how they looked here and there. I don’t think I paint anybody except myself in a bad light.”
One person that comes off very well is Catherine Zeta-Jones.
“Catherine and I have always gotten along fantastically. We get along as friends but she has been very inclusive with me, with her children and was a major motivating factor in getting my father to open up to me.”
Does he think she helped with the thought love, making it more about love and less about tough?
“Maybe. I see Carys and Dylan fairly often. Dylan is at Brown and he was just in a performance and was fantastic. They both wrote to me and came to see me in prison and my mother brought her kids to visit me as well. (Diandra had twin boys with the help of a surrogate and later adopted a daughter.)”
These days he doesn’t mind being compared to Uncle Eric.
“I would like to think I am like him, he had amazing qualities, a huge heart, and was talented as a comedian. But he was tormented, always beating up on himself. A lot of comedians have that dark sensibility. He is at peace now and he had a struggle with the family and that was probably what I experienced with the family.”
So many demons to live up to and not live up to. Could he be as famous and talented as his father and grandfather and could he be as less troubled as Eric?
“I’ve never really seen it that way.”
Famous parents are a bit like communism. It seems like a great idea but it can never work.
“That’s not true. Carys and Dylan are amazing kids, my father and Catherine have done an amazing job.”
Do you think his father had some kind of epiphany and made a conscious effort to do things differently? Or the chemistry with Catherine was different?
“A bit of everything. Wisdom comes with age and experience. As he got a little older his life was different so he was able to do things differently. And what is most important that he and I have a good time together now. We like to watch sports together on TV most of the time, but we do go to games. He loves golf, I don’t, but I am starting to learn in an effort to find things to do with my father. It’s nice to find a sport you can play through your whole life and he gives me a lot of guidance with acting. The whole process; auditions, introductions, everything. He is very supportive which is the best part.”
He exchanges a knowing look with the Mastador, they know about loyalty, they know about support.
I’m waiting for Elisabeth Moss in the bar of the Four Seasons hotel Beverley Hills. I’ve actually waited a long time to meet her and suddenly I wonder is she the person I hope she will be? The intelligent, sensitive, feminist who wove her way all the epic television series -her character Peggy in Mad Men starts off as a secretary and ends up a boss, through to Handmaid’s Tale, the Margaret Attwood vision of a dystopian future where women are slaves and wombs for hire. And she is the subversive insider.
The series hits all of the feminist marks. Browbeaten women will overcome, so on trend that Kylie Kardashian threw a Handmaid’s Tale themed party for her friend where all the women wore the red capes and white bonnets.
Before Handmaid’s, Moss was in the other great American series, The West Wing. There’s got to be something right about a woman who chooses what are largely considered the top 3 series of television’s golden age.
She has won the Emmy, the Globe and the Critics Choice Award for The Handmaid’s Tale, the SAG Award for Mad Men, the Globe and Critics Choice for Top of the Lake and the Producers Guild of America award for the Handmaid’s Tale.
When she plays Offred in Handmaid’s she is mesmerising. She fills the screen with an expression and inhabits the character. Her acting is considered and intelligent. She makes something unbelievable totally believable. Even when she is not saying anything onscreen, she is emotionally porous. You feel it all with her.
I’m at a corner table and Moss arrives – a white T shirt, cut off denim shorts, a reversible bomber jacket with palm tree motif. She says she couldn’t decide what to wear as she’s in vacay mode. Her hair is blonder and thicker than you’d expect and her eyes have some crazy powerful inner sparkle.
We talk about how it’s not easy to find one outfit for hanging out by the pool, doing interviews and going to a fitting for an awards ceremony all in one day (It was the MTV Award for Handmaid’s Tale, which she won). Then she alights on my cat diary. I’d been sitting transferring events from my hardbacked diary into my phone. She picks it up, exploring each hand painted cat. It turns out she’s a cat woman. Or maybe THE cat woman. When she shows me her ginger girls Lucy, bright red, named after Lucille Ball and Ethel, pale blonde ginger, we coo and then she shows me the picture that would break the internet. Ethel wearing a Handmaid’s tale outfit, the red cape, the bonnet, designed by the Handmaid’s costumer designer Anne Crabtree. This revelation puts me in a kind of trance of admiration and ecstasy. How can I get one for my Lola?
This works on so many levels. A cat with claws being forced into the ultimate submissive outfit. Feisty and volatile, wearing a bonnet. The paradox speaks to us all. And with this I realise Moss is everything I hope she’d be.
“Obviously I wouldn’t be a cat lady if I didn’t have pictures. My cat sitter just sent me a couple of videos.” We look at the pale ginger little tiny faced girl and super confident red ginger Lucy. “They’re my babies. I love them.”
She’s just coming up in The Kitchen – set in 70’s New York in Hell’s Kitchen when 3 mob husbands go to jail, their 3 wives take over. She co-stars with Melissa McCarthy and Tiffany Haddish and it’s written and directed by Andrea Berloff, the Straight Outta Compton writer. It’s thrilling with a killer soundtrack. Moss is a person who chooses her projects cleverly.
Her character Clare has the most interesting arc. She starts off as the woman who always gets beaten up and later channels that into becoming a killer. Once again, there’s that theme of victim to self-empowerment that we all love to watch.
“I’ve never played an assassin or a hit woman, so it was definitely new and interesting. I thought it was a very compelling storyline. The idea of this woman who was so abused and such a “victim” and so interesting to try to understand her instinct of taking her own life back in an extreme way and thinking I’m actually going to own this.”
She had movie assassin training by actor Domhall Gleason with whom her character falls in love. “This isn’t a crazy character arc of all of a sudden she’s a hit woman. Even when she’s abused, she’s not meek. Maybe because of the violence she’s received, she can accept acting violent towards someone else. Of course, she’s had a lot of emotional pain and we learn that she lost a baby when she was abused.”
Her characters are always losing babies or giving them up – Peggy, June/Offred, Robin in Top of the Lake and now Clare.
“Aren’t they? It’s a theme and so weird. Since I was 19 when one of the first films I did, the Virgin, a tiny independent film in which I play a woman who is raped while she’s unconscious, gets pregnant and thinks it’s the second coming. And Peggy in Mad Men of course gave her baby away. June lost two of them. It’s really weird. I don’t know what it is.”
Once could say there’s no such thing as coincidence. Is she really saying I keep losing these movie babies because I have to have a real one?
“No, I don’t think so. I think it’s more that I seem to be drawn to a character that has conflict and it’s the ultimate conflict for a woman. You bond with your child, it presents great conflict and drama, the idea of losing that child. I don’t think it’s a conscious thing but it’s a theme I’ve been aware of for a while. I always try my hardest to keep hold of those babies.” She shakes her head.
She’s ordered Greek yoghurt and honey. It looks good. She invites me to taste it even though I’m wearing bright red gooey lipstick which will make the yoghurt pink. She doesn’t care.
Does she have a really close bond with her mother? “Yes, pretty much so. Maybe it’s manifesting that. We are very close and not in a ‘best friends’ kind of way. You know how some people say I’m best friends with my mom. No, that’s not us. She’s still my mom and I’m her daughter. We’re very, very close and she’s been incredible.
If I ever have a baby though, I’m going to hold onto that thing for dear f***ing life. I’ll have it chained to me. It’ll be a 50 year old kid and I’ll be ‘no, you’re staying with me.’”
Don’t you think the child might rebel? “Probably but I don’t care. I know what happens when you let them out of your sight.”
Did her mother ever let her out of her sight? “Yes, she was great. I moved to New York when I was 19 which now as I’m 36 seems so young, but at 19 you don’t think you’re young at all. I look back and think my God, she let me go to New York at 19. I suppose I was always considered a mature person. You sometimes need somebody to believe in you and not doubt you. A lot of people don’t have that kind of support.”
She started her acting career at seventeen on the West Wing where she played Zoe (President Bartlett’s/Martin Sheen’s daughter). I’ve never met a person who didn’t love The West Wing. Or Mad Men. Or Handmaid’s Tale. How did she pick these compelling women in these pioneering series?
“My guiding principal for picking anything is the writing, whether it’s a film, television or play it’s always the writing. If it’s not well written there’s nothing you can do, no matter how good the director is or the actor is. So that’s always been the biggest guiding principle and this coincided with what is now called the golden age of television. No one can plan something. I was seventeen, I got cast in the West Wing. That and The Sopranos were one of the shows that started the golden age. And then I got Mad Men.”
It’s hard to imagine that former age where it was all about the movies or all about the stage and television actors were dismissed. Now anyone can do anything but mostly it’s the TV actors who rule.
“I did a play the Heidi Chronicles, written by Wendy Wasserstein in the eighties and there’s a line in the play that comes from a television actor. It goes Meryl Streep would never do television. And one of the biggest posters on Sunset Boulevard is for Meryl in Big Little Lies, along with some of the other biggest movie stars (Kidman, Kravitz, Witherspoon). So that’s the end of that. The line that used to exist between film and television. I’ve lived through it. It was a gradual fading but there’s no line anymore. It’s done. And that’s a wonderful thing because now there’s so many great opportunities in all fields.”
Does she feel that woman are more powerful in the industry than they were 10/20/30 years ago? In the years of the kitchen where they turned from wives to mob leaders.
“Absolutely, but that’s not to say they are equal yet. I was reading some numbers on Instagram on the percentage of women who are behind the camera and it’s still really low but it’s not equal yet. But it’s a hundred times better.”
As well as acting the lead role in Handmaid’s, she also produces the show, something she takes very seriously – it’s all-encompassing. Checking casts, checking scripts, checking edits. It’s a role which doesn’t stop when the series does because there’s pre and post production. She’s also involved in the hiring process.
“There are women directors but they need to be hired. When we start looking at directors for Handmaid’s tale which we do at the beginning of each season, we have this incredible grid that’s sent to us. It’s mostly women because we try to hire mostly female directors. There are so many out there that are talented and we don’t have space for them all. It’s the same with cinematographers. They are out there. I think there’s an awakening and a realisation of the inequality and a necessity rising in people for people to fix that which is good.”
Big Little Lies and Handmaids have been pioneers in this respect.
“We have a 50% female hire this year. Over 50% of female directors. We have a male DP and a female DP.”
At this point, a tall tanned blonde arrives and hugs her. It turns out she’s a rep for Dior and she’s going to Paris with her mother for a Dior couture show. “What a dream come true to take my mother to the Dior couture show in Paris. That’s definitely like a wow, I never thought I’d get to do that.”
Her black canvas bag is this season’s Dior. “They gave me the bag. When I go to shops it’s much less expensive places. I’m a huge Chicago Cubs fan, 4th generation. I was looking at Cubs outfits for cats the other day.”
She grew up in Los Angeles. Her mother Linda is a harmonica player, maybe even THE harmonica player who has played with blues superstars like BB King. “She’s really good. She started when she was 15 in Chicago.”
Her father Ron manages musicians. She has one brother. As a child she wanted to be a dancer. As a young teen, she went to New York to study ballet at the School of American Ballet. She home schooled and graduated aged 16. Always wise for her years, she realised that by now her dancing career would be over. As it stands an actress and producer she is one of the queens of the golden age of television.
Her parents are both Scientologists. I’m not sure how serious she is about that religion. She drinks Moscow Mules and Rose wine, both of which are frowned upon by Scientology.
Her role in Handmaid’s Tale has often been described as being part of a scary cult and she’s often asked the questions of how this relates to being part of the scary cult of Scientology and her Scientology beliefs. She thinks it directly relates. “Religious freedom and tolerance and understanding the truth and equal rights for every race, religion and creed are extremely important to me.”
She has a way of saying things simply that are profound and so to the point they feel powerful and heartfelt.”
Her upbringing wasn’t in any way starry or privileged or deprived or oppressed, yet her roles have spoken more about feminism than any current pundit.
“I think there’s something about my generation where feminism woke back up. When I was a teenager and in my early twenties there was no concept that something like Roe vs Wade could be reversed. I didn’t even know you could do that. I didn’t even know they could take that away. So, there’s something about the work that I do and gravitate towards that’s important to me and important to my generation and it’s coincided into this perfect storm.”
We foray into worldwide abortion rights being reduced, how women have gained a little power in one direction and then it’s grabbed away. She nods. “It’s weird, right.”
I wonder how much of The Kitchen is based on reality. “It’s based on a comic book, but I don’t know how much the comic book was based on reality. I know there was an Irish Mob in Hell’s Kitchen and an Italian Mob and they were both extremely violent. But the three women, I don’t think so. For me this story wasn’t just about three women who become best friends and everything ends happily ever after. They’re on top of the world of crime. They had conflicts. Women don’t always get along. It doesn’t end happily for everyone. They become more powerful but there are challenges that come with power. They are three very different women from completely different backgrounds, linked only because their partners are in the mob and led by a necessity to make money and take care of their children. That doesn’t mean everything’s going to be perfect and it doesn’t mean there won’t be a reckoning.”
Although her character Clare is tinged with tragedy, she is the one that gets the hot guy who understands her – Domhall Gleason.
“He’s a fantastic actor who I have admired for a long time. We got the most incredible cast of supporting actors (including Margo Martindale (Sneaky Pete) and superstar rapper turned actor Common).
Being a feminist does not mean that all women love women. It means there’s conflict and competition. That’s why All About Eve is one of the most enduring movies of all time. It was made into a movie in 1950 and it starred Bette Davis, then in her forties. A woman in a lead role over forty is very rare today today.
Moss corrects, “I don’t know. We’ve got Meryl, Diane Keaton, Ellen Burstyn. All About Eve was great writing, great performance. We don’t remember all the shitty movies they made at that time.”
Does she think more interesting female roles are written now or is it just her who happens to get them all?
“I do think they are being written. I think the industry has realised that women go and see things and we are getting more and more opportunities to put women at the forefront. We are a huge audience and we want to see ourselves represented.”
That’s why it works to have three women stars of The Kitchen. We can find ourselves in one of them for sure. What does she watch?
“I watch everything. I’m always looking for new things. I just watched Fleabag and Phoebe Waller Bridge is genius. She’s literally the second coming. I’ve also enjoyed After Life with Ricky Gervais, The Office was one of my favourite shows. Fleabag’s probably the most significant one.”
She lives in New York – Upper East Side. Came back to LA briefly to film Mad Men. As well as losing babies in every role she does, she seems to drink whisky.”
“I think it’s easy to recognise whisky as alcohol in TV and film. A Moscow Mule is less obvious.” We wonder if she should order Moscow Mules now, but she decides that it might make her fall asleep during her fitting. She’s a little bit on East Coast jetlag.
“I used to live in the East Village for about 13 years. Then I moved because I got a little bit older and I thought it’s too noisy and there are too many bars. I need to go uptown with children and dogs.”
Did she think she wanted children and dogs? “No.” At this time she did get married and unmarried to Saturday Night Live actor/comedian Fred Armison. They met in October 2008, married in October 2009 and in September 2010 filed for divorce.
Did it feel that it all happened in five minutes?
“Probably, but it does seem a long time ago.” Her answers are small but heartfelt. There’s no defensiveness. There’s no weird atmosphere. I’d read that she was so busy acting and producing, she didn’t have any time for dating and then she was dating but deciding not to name the person.
“Well that’s true but I now think who cares? His name is John. We’ve been together for over a year and he’s by the pool right now. In a way you want to preserve your privacy but in another way I don’t care. I love him, I’m playing it by ear, he’s lovely and I’m happy.” And they have two ginger fur daughters together. Does he at least have red hair?
“No, that would be amazing. But their actual daddy is a street cat in Brooklyn.”
There was a tabloid frenzy linking Moss to Tom Cruise. According to OK Magazine US edition, he wants to marry her and have babies.
“Not as far as I know. It would be awful for me and my boyfriend. I’m sure he’s perfectly nice but I’ve never met him.”
I wonder if the Tom Cruise rumour came about because they’re both Scientologists? “I have literally never met him.”
So many women of all ages love her, in part because she’s been a vulnerable power taker, a transformer. Somehow that doesn’t fit with becoming a Tom Cruise girlfriend.
“I always try to make my characters end up being heroines and representing feminism. I always try and make them real, whether it’s representing a woman in the workplace or a mother. I never think that’s why I identify with them. I think they’re just like you and I – not special, not perfect. We are not birds that are caged and cannot fly. Nobody is 100% good all of the time. We don’t have special powers. We’re women and we’re human. But real women who are not perfect can find their strength, whether that’s getting out of a bad relationship, telling your boss you want a raise or marching on the capital in a red costume.”
In a way, the red capes are part of a new wave or superhero costumes. “Yes. When I put that on, I feel proud. It represents something important to me. I feel there’s a responsibility in that costume. It’s red. It represents blood, it represents fertility and it can also represent adultery. It’s evocative. There’s a good reason why Margaret Attwood made the Handmaid’s dress red. We feel something when we see that colour.”
She worries that her face is shining so she touches up with Charlotte Tilbury powder “the best,” and a slash of super red lip colour.
Attwood has written a new book so there will be another Handmaid series. “I hope so. I hope I’m involved. There’s a gap between the current Handmaid and the new book which means we can finish our story and do whatever we want with it and it won’t have an effect on the book that’s been written.”
At the end of series 2 there was a decision where June/Offred could escape but she went back to fight from the inside. “There was no way she was gonna leave her daughter there and she has to be on the inside.”
Does she watch on a weekly basis? “As a producer I want to air one a week. As a viewer I love bingeing.” Is this her foray into producing? “No, I produced a film called Queen of Earth with Alex Ross Perry. Producing Handmaid’s is a big job. We’re going over who we’re hiring for season 4 and I’ve got 20 hours of cuts I need to make on episode 11, 12 and 13. It’s a round the year job because I’ve got to be in pre and post production.”
Working and juggling so much may mean that her red cape does indeed have super-powers. “I love working, I love my job, I love what I do. I don’t consider it a job. It’s my vocation. I feel very grateful that I have the opportunity to do it. Not a lot of people get the opportunity to do what they love and make a living.
Up next, she’s in a remake of the horror film The Invisible Man. “It’s the lead but it’s not what you think. It’s a story of female empowerment, not an invisible woman but a woman going from victimised position to a powerful one. You can spend years on television doing that (like Peggy). I’m born and bred in television and I love the longform exploration. I don’t know if the tighter turnaround is easier or more difficult. It’s just you know exactly where you’re going to end up and it’s nice to be able to plot that – whole arc from beginning to end. In a series you don’t know that.”
We look again at Ethel in her outfit looking vulnerable and fierce. “I’m interested in exploring vulnerability and the duality in characters. Most people have both.”
She says this looking vulnerable and fierce and that’s exactly why so many people relate to Moss.
HER SMELL is out in the UK on Sept 9.and The Kitchen is out Sept 20
Ben Whishaw is wearing a navy shirt, dark wool trousers and a fluffy knitted hat. It’s a strange combination of quirkiness and elegance – he’s a one off. Lush, dark curls. He’s all cheekbones and large eyes. The eyes look so intense. They could be the eyes of a very intelligent animal, but perhaps that’s just because you can imagine him so easily as Paddington Bear – he is the voice of Paddington.
He’s also brought a new quirkiness to the quiet genius that is Q in the Bond movies and he’s just fresh from picking up the Golden Globe and Critics Choice Award for his portrayal of Norman Scott opposite Hugh Grant’s Jeremy Thorpe in A Very English Scandal. He was achingly good. Everyone thinks so.
Did he expect this double win? “No idea. You never know how these things are going to work out but it was very nice.”
Is it career changing to have a Golden Globe winning prefix to his name? “I don’t know if it changes anything but it feels nice. They make you feel great being the winner,” he smiles and sips on herbal tea.
We are in a photographic studio in East London where I’ve just seen him drape himself so elegantly and effortlessly over an old-fashioned gymnasium horse and a British flag.
Does he think that winning awards in Hollywood means he will be spending more time there? “I don’t feel it’s my world out there. I just sort of dropped in and it was a lovely thing. I would like to drop in more often. Maybe it opens doors. I guess we’ll see. I haven’t directly communicated with Norman Scott but I gather he was happy and he asked for a signed photo of me holding the award.”
He speaks of Scott affectionately. In the mini series which sees Scott involved with horses and dogs, relating to them perhaps more easily than people? “He definitely feels a kinship with animals. A security that maybe he didn’t have with people.”
He is in London rehearsing a play called Norma Jean Baker of Troy. It will open in New York early April. The director (Katie Mitchell) doesn’t fly so the rehearsals are all in London. He plays a man who likes to dress up as Marilyn and the opera singer Renee Fleming is his co-star. I find it quite odd that Mitchell won’t be coming to the first night of her own play. Whishaw accepts this and says, “She doesn’t have enough time in her schedules to take the boat. She goes to Europe a lot to work by train and Renee has crazy insane schedules to everything has been slotted about what Renee could do. Renee is very open and hardworking and really clever. It’s incredible she’s open to this weird and wonderful thing. We just got the costumes. I wear a dress that’s a replica of the one she wore in The Seven Year Itch – the white one where the wind comes up and they’ve given me bum, hips and breasts although I think they’re not as big as Marilyn’s they made it proportionate to my body. It’s a strange thing, I’m not playing Marilyn but a man who’s infatuated with her so much that he wants to dress up as her to be close to her and because he’s in mourning for the loss of her the play is set in the year she died. Apparently, there was a spate of copycat suicides that year.”
The play will open as the first play in a space called The Shed which is also an art gallery and music venue. It’s been written by the poet Anne Carson. Carson is a Canadian poet and professor of classics and has been described as the greatest poet since Robert Lowell.
He thinks nothing of one minute doing an independent play and then a blockbuster. He moves in and out of both extremes easily. He was last seen in the Disney epic Mary Poppins Returns. It’s what happens to the characters thirty years after the original movie. He played Mr Banks – the grown-up boy Michael, now the father of the family facing 1930s depression and the potential loss of his home after the actual loss of his wife. His children aren’t adjusting and the governess Mary Poppins (Emily Blunt) has never been more needed.
“Mary Poppins was the first film I ever saw. My dad taped it off the telly and we had it on a Betamax tape. I watched it so many times the tape wore out.”
Is it possible to wear out a tape? Isn’t that a metaphor?
“It’s how I remember it.And now I play the grown-up boy who’s now the daddy of the family. His old nanny blows in because there’s been a lot of crisis in the family. Michael is struggling to cope and look after the children and run the household and pay for everything. That’s what motors the film. He’s about to lose the children’s home.”
I can see why they wanted him for that part. A man child, a 38- year old actor who can create the “perfect man with the struggle in his soul.”
“Well there’s nothing interesting about somebody who’s doing fine, is there?
Mary Poppins had a cousin called Topsy Turvy played by Meryl Streep. Did he get to hang out with Streep?
“No. I met her at the rehearsal and she was nice but I’m so completely left speechless when I’m in the same room as her.”
Ah yes, the introvert, extrovert. The actor who once told me he’s afraid of meeting people.
“Do you never feel that speechlessness come on you? Even though she seemed to be the nicest person, I was very timid and shy around her.”
Whishaw has an unusual but mesmerising charm. I wanted to give him my childhood Paddington Bear because it was special to me and his performance was special but my mother had thrown it away. He wasn’t disappointed by this, or at least he’s too charming to show it. He comes over quite other worldly, hyper sensitive but very soft and determined, full of contradictions like shy and actor.
“I haven’t got over my fear of meeting people. I love people but I’m just shy of meeting new people especially when they’re famous.”
Years have passed since Whishaw was fresh out of drama school and at 23 was acclaimed as one of the best ever Hamlets (the next Olivier) in the Trevor Nunn production. He played Hamlet as a teenager alienated from the world. Last year his portrayal of Norman Scott was arguably the best thing on TV. Clearly the judges at the Golden Globes agreed. He actually blushes when I mention this performance – so nuanced, so vulnerable, so creepy all at the same time.
“I’m pleased you found it all of those things. Did it make you laugh?”
Oh yes, and cry.
“He was a very sad man.” Scott loved his dogs. Whishaw loves cats. His father’s cat Bob died recently. He was only 6. He had to give his cats to his dad when he started working away from home a lot. They were a mother and daughter duo and the daughter Yana is now 18, the mother deceased.
“Yana got dragged under a car when she was 3 and her leg was ripped off. They had to stick it back on and ever since she looks fragile but she’s tough, almost indestructible.”
I wonder if he identifies with that. Looking fragile but actually quite strong. He’s very excited to have the role that embodies the vulnerability and the feistiness of Marilyn Monroe. I see the qualities in him.
When he comes back from New York he will begin shooting the new Bond. Of course, no one in a Bond movie can ever tell you in advance what it’s going to be like but I assume it’s a security issue.
“I think they’re probably trying to figure out what to do with the storyline. At least I know that y character is the same someone did tell me this time that there might be a scene with Q’s cats which you would be interested in.”
Have the cats been cast yet? “I don’t think so.” I immediately want to sort out an audition for my cat Roger (Moore). He would definitely have screen presence.
“And that would be a lovely connection named after a former Bond. Does he travel? Can he come to Pinewood? Can he cock an eyebrow?” Yes, he can. That’s why he’s called Roger Moore. “I’ll get onto Barbara Broccoli about it.”
Who is Mr Bond these days? “It’s still Daniel Craig, I think. They never tell you till the last minute.”
I tell him that I preferred Roger Moore’s Bond when they had film titles like Octopussy. The Craig Bond seems a little hard, a little rough diamond. His edges are the perfect contrast to Whishaw’s fluid Q.
He changes the subject back to Norma Jean. “Isn’t it good that I’m going to dress up as Norma Jean?” It is. I tell him I once went to an auction of Marilyn’s clothes and put in a bid for some pink marabou trimmed stilettoes but the winning bid exceeded mine by around £12,000.
“I would have loved to have had something of hers. She really was amazing. She had a lot going on. A lot of sadness on her plate, poor darling. To be a star in that star system and those men.”
If she had been born 50 years later, does he think she would have been part of the #metoo movement?
“I’m sure she would have. I’ve been listening to interviews with her. She doesn’t seem afraid of anything.”
Fearless and vulnerable. That’s another contradiction that could possibly describe both of them.
“Yes,” he says with a ‘cats got the cream’ expression. He loves contradiction. We talk about the contradiction in the song lyrics of Steven Sondheim.
He asks, “Do you know the song Losing My Mind (by Sondheim)?” He sings it. He can sing. All the great divas have sung it.
“I’ve just finished reading a book called Fragments. It’s bits of Marilyn’s diary, notes on hotel paper, poetry. She writes beautifully. Apparently, Arthur Miller was here with her when they were doing the film The Prince and the Showgirl and she opened his diary and read about how disappointed he was with her, how embarrassed he was being around his intellectual friends with her. Apparently, this was devastating to Marilyn. All these men say how difficult she was. It makes you want to strangle them.”
Has he ever read anyone else’s diary? “No, I haven’t but she must have known what she was looking for to see what she feared. It’s like looking at someone’s phone and somehow, it’s easier to look in the phone or the diary than ask the person directly. Isn’t it the thing that you want to have it confirmed but it’s really self-destructive? But maybe you think I have the evidence that would release me from this thing but no, I’ve never checked anyone’s phone or diary. There’s something a bit desperate about that, isn’t there?”
Well, Whishaw is the master of sensitivity. He’d never want to be desperate. He’s just finished a film Little Joe, “about a genetically modified plant that takes over people’s brains.”
I wondered if he played the plant. He doesn’t. how does he choose his roles or do roles come to him if producer and directors think the part needs the Whishaw effect? – something simple made a little spooky, or something spooky made a little normal.
“Usually I want parts where the character is compelling to me but sometimes if I fall in love with the director and want to work with them so much, I’ll do it no matter what they ask. It was my love for the Austrian director Jessica Hausner that made me want to do this film. She did a film called Lourdes a few years ago about a woman with multiple sclerosis who is indeed cured when she goes to Lourdes. It’s about miracles and how they happen or did they? And with Little Joe you’re not actually sure if a disaster is going to happen, if the plant is manipulating people or people are just insane. It’s the same kind of question.
“I play a scientist who has created this plant – a very pretty plant actually.”
The thing about a Whishaw role I find, is it haunts you long after the movie has retired. The Lobster was one such movie. It was surreal and bizarre and black like fairy tale.
He liked doing the Lobster where he played Limping Man. it was a love story. His character was straight, or at least in a sexual way.
Whishaw has created an ever-widening niche for himself –
From the outside Barry Humphries home in north west London is unassuming. Inside, every inch of wall is lined with gorgeous pre-Raphaelite paintings, book cases heave with first editions. There are thousands of books. I wait for him in a pale blue sitting room with tones of hyacinth.
His wife Lizzie is there. She is tall and elegant and very funny. Before long she and I are showing each other our impersonations of Olivia Colman as we discuss her performance in The Favourite. Humphries joins us with, “It gives lesbian porn a bad name.”
He’s wearing a purple linen jacket, a green pullover and purple corduroy trousers but the corduroy is horizontal, in perfect keeping with the idea that Humphries likes to blend in, seem normal but is actually completely the other way. He defends Colman saying she was very good in the Night Manager. Lizzie and I chorus ‘but she’s the same in everything’. Humphries smiles. “So am I.”
Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Humphries is the creator of many diverse personas – Dame Edna Everage, Sir Les Patterson and the ghost Sandy Stone. Often they could say things that Humphries himself could not. Humphries is a rare breed – a man who is altogether a man who is available and unavailable at once. He’s intimate, yet detached, kind and razor sharp, cutting.
We’re here to talk about his return to the London stage for Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage. Did he know Brydon already?
“Yes I wrote to him and I said I admired his work so we met for dinner.”
So, it’s like a bromance? Will he rehearse this probing? No. It’s totally spontaneous,” he grimaces.
You wonder if it’s hard for Barry Humphries to be Barry Humphries. Last year he put on an intriguing show at the Barbican with the Australian chanteuse Meow Meow. It was a fascinating journey through songs from the Weimar Republic, composers who were banned by Hitler that Humphries had rediscovered as a child. He was whip smart and funny as himself.
“I’m getting confidence now to do things as myself. I’ve always preferred to be heavily disguised but a disguise I’ve never used is the disguise of myself.”
He’s just back from Australia and is still suffering from jetlag. Where do I live in LA he asks apropos of seemingly nothing, but the eyebrow is raised.
I am giving you a scoop,” he whispers. “Edna’s coming back. She’s in very good shape. She’s been measured for new frocks and 3 songs have been written. She’s back there at the end of the year after opening in Australia.”
Edna did a retirement world tour a couple of years back where she put away her sequinned winged glasses for good.
“My first song for that show is written and it’s all about why Edna didn’t retire. It’s a wonderful song explaining to the audience why it was impossible to retire. It says there were too many people trying to copy me, including Barry Humphries and it was time they reacquainted themselves with the real thing. Too many clones.”
Edna got into trouble before she retired or maybe it was Barry Humphries because people were saying she was very anti-trans. Is it the same political situation in Australia?
“Oh, nothing has been more grotesquely interpreted. Edna carefully said she thought that men who had themselves castrated did not become women and that got taken the wrong way.”
Edna was still causing trouble even in her retirement.
“She was about as gone as Cher or Dame Nelly Melba of whom your younger readers will know nothing (Australian singer who did many retirement concerts).
It seems Humphries works tirelessly. He’s revising the comic strip Barry McKenzie, writing the new Edna show and the meantime he has the Palladium.
I remember going to an Edna show in Drury Lane and I caught a gladioli. “You catch gladioli like you catch Ebola. Right place right time you get it..” I laugh, he smiles.
“I like anyone who can make me and an audience laugh.”
He hopes his Palladium show will be a conversation about how comedy has changed, about what’s funny and what isn’t.
Does he think that the fashion has changed in his and Edna’s lifetime? “Not in a drastic way. More and more people want to be comedians. In my day not many people wanted to be a comedian as an ambition. It wasn’t profitable. But with television and all the other outlets and also fame attached to being a comedian, comedians are the new rock stars. Billy Connolly was the first rock star comedian.”
What will be some of his greatest comedy moments?
“I’m still deciding but there will be some scenes from the Marx Brothers, Steve Martin and Woody Allen. And I’d like to include some of my own early films. Lizzie says if she hears me laughing in another room, she knows I’m laughing at one of my own jokes. She can tell.”
He remembers going to his first comedy show.
“It was an amazing discovery when I went to The Tivoli with my parents. The Tivoli was a disreputable theatre in Melbourne which had variety shows but on this occasion my parents went because I was a fan of someone called Arthur Askey, a British comedian. To hear a man onstage making the whole audience laugh was a miracle to me. I thought I wonder how they do that and the seed was planted, little knowing that I might one day…”
In the past, Humphries has described Edna as being opinionated, acerbic and bolshy and did he even like her? “I like the effect she has on the audience. She makes them laugh.” Thus, Edna gave Humphries the gift he’d wanted as a child. And it must have been hard for him to give her up to be onstage as himself as he is much shyer.
The prep for Edna – the dresses, the wigs, the make-up, the dancing, the eight shows a week must have been very exhausting. And everyone’s always asking where does Humphries end and Edna begin. Suddenly there was no circle. Edna was ended. But it seems he couldn’t live without her and her voice. She’s coming back later this year. There’s already a tour of Australia and US dates planned.
He is nostalgic about the comedians and the Australia in his youth.
“When they’d done every stage in England several times, when the audience could repeat the words of their comic routines they went to Melbourne to the Tivoli. They made jokes I didn’t understand and I noticed my parents exchanging guilty looks, must have been naughty jokes. Risque. Little did I know I would become a risqué comedian. A blue comic as they were called.
When I first got a gig at a return serviceman’s club in Sydney in the 1950s, they said to me ‘the audience likes blue material and at the age of 22 I was so naïve I wore my Sunday best blue three-piece suit. I thought the material was fabric.”
Humphries has had a 64 year career onstage. By now he knows the difference. It turns out he has quite a thing for Brydon.
“Every time I turn on the television Rob is there on the deck of a ship. He seems to live a wonderful life on board those ships (he does a commercial for P&O cruises). I am consumed with envy of Rob. Benevolent envy.”
As Humphries he’s extremely benevolent. As Edna less so. He cuts an impressive figure today – so colourful and energetic and still has the legs for Edna. Does he feel 85?
“No, I feel 52.” He likes to paint. He enjoys a good restaurant – especially one owned by a celebrity chef – and he has friendships with many luminaries including Prince Charles and Camilla. He’s done countless world tours and has written two memoirs – My Life As Me and More Please, both achingly well written. He has courted danger and controversy throughout.
I’ve always wondered though is it a political statement. Why is it that Edna never wears a bra?
“She’s never been embarrassed to say that she was blessed in many ways but not that way. She waited for something to appear but it never took place. She found the twinset helpful and that if she wore elaborate spectacles no-one’s eyes dropped south of the glasses. She’s never tried to be a sex object. She’s very relieved she’s not known as that. They’re a miserable lot, the sex objects”
He is the master of being attached and detached all at the same time. It’s been so long since he had a drink, he doesn’t really treat it as an issue anymore.
“It’s a nice thing but a life’s a life. For some people like me it’s off the menu. It just doesn’t work. I have it in the house for other people. I could give you an absinthe if you want one. I brought upon myself some horrible events.”
Did he find that Edna had taken away the voice of Barry Humphries so that’s why he found it so hard to return to the stage as himself? And maybe himself was never himself.
“It’s more like I find the voice for it. Whatever the thought it I think who would be best saying this? Me, him, her, it so I choose like a casting agent. When I saw The Favourite, I thought Edna would be very good in the Colman role.”
Edna a lesbian? “No. As she once said, she doesn’t even like the word. It leaves a nasty taste in her mouth.”
I remember her saying that. “It was one of her famous utterances.”
Does he ever think her humour was too cruel? “Nobody ever asked for their money back. she’s fundamentally caring.”
His parents were far from encouraging. I remember my mother saying ‘look at that comedian. It’s pathetic at his age but the comedian she was referring to was only about fifty. These days 85 is the new 50.”
Humphries was not there when his mother died. He was told she was in hospital but it was nothing serious. But contrary to the end she would say, ‘look at these lovely flowers Barry sent me’ but he had sent no flowers.
“I come from a family who have a great deal of prudiness about illness. If someone was very ill we’d say he hasn’t been very well lately, which means dying.”
Also, perhaps the family didn’t tell his mother she was gravely ill.
“That’s right. I had a vision of someone coming back to Australia after a long absence and going to the family home and finding it was occupied by Ukranians and then you say to your sister what’s happened to mum and dad? ‘oh, they died but we didn’t want to worry you.’
Does he forgive his parents?
“Yes, I sympathise with them. I agree with them wholeheartedly about everything that they said to me that offended me at the time. My parents were very nice. They had a hard time with me. Whenever I did a performance or asserted myself in any way at a family gathering my mother would say, ‘don’t look at Barry, he’s drawing attention to himself.’ I thought that would be a good name for a show. Barry Humphries draws attention to himself one more time. Maybe I’ll call my new show that. My mother had a series of phrases. They weren’t original but they were, on her lips, rather devastating. She timed it perfectly. She was a frustrated artist I think and they are dangerous people, frustrated artists. You know Hitler was a frustrated artist. She was very hard to please so I grew up with the assumption that women were impossible to please and some of them obliged me by conforming to this, by being impossible.”
Humphries has had four wives Brenda Wright, a dancer (1955-1957) when he was 21 and she was 19. It ended quickly. Of the marriage she has said, ‘there’s nothing about Barry Humphries that I want to remember. My marriage to him was a long time ago and thankfully every year takes me a little further away from it.’
Rosalind Tong (1957-1970) a dancer, artist Diane Millstead (1979-1989), mother of his two sons Oscar and Rupert and Lizzie Spender (actress and equestrian, daughter of the poet Stephen (1990 till now) He has two daughters, Tessa and Emily from his 3rd wife.
“Women are impossible but not Lizzie. She’s the exception. It took four marriages to find her.”
Perhaps he should have kept them as girlfriends and not actually married them.
“I was doing very well financially and I thought I’ve got to get rid of this money somehow.
Is that close to what happened?
“Yes, the Ukranians improved the family home greatly. Sometimes I think it would be funny to advertise the new show and then say to the audience coming in very sorry ladies and gentleman but Dame Edna has passed away. We didn’t want to worry you.”
Humphries is presented with a contraption and he grimaces. He says to his assistant who has just delivered it, “You had to do that in front of a journalist, didn’t you… So far the grim reaper has made very few inroads but my hearing has suffered.”
His hearing doesn’t seem to be any different with the contraption but I can hear a high-pitched squeaking. The hearing aid has done the opposite to aid and it’s reminding Humphries of all the restaurants he doesn’t like to go in because they’re too loud – “the Caprice is deafening.”
He once wanted to open a restaurant called The Oubliette, which he would fill with Shostakovich like music so no one would be able to talk at all.
“In the middle ages they used to chuck somebody in a hole and then they forget about them so the Oubliette was a restaurant where you are forgotten and the waiter never comes. I remember one time in the 1960’s when a cookery writer at The Express invited me to lunch at The Savoy. I could choose whatever I wanted and she would interview me about food so I ordered Oysters Zarina which are oysters with caviar on them and you dip them in cream. Must have cost a fortune. The chef came to the table and said, ‘you’re the first person to order Oyster Zarina since Ambassador Ribbentrop’.
He seems a little sheepish about being 85. There must be a sense of time running out.
“Is there a follow up to the CBE and if so, how long does it take?” Humphries is already a dame as Edna. Perhaps people might think a Sir would be superfluous.
“People have said it’s not strictly kosher, Edna’s damehood.”
What age does he feel? “I feel about 52.”
We discuss a man in Holland who tried to change the date on his birth certificate because he identified as 45 instead of 65. He wasn’t allowed. One can change one’s pronoun but not one’s age.”
After the trans-phobia, Humphries got into trouble because he was pro Brexit, anti-Brussels and now he is redefined as anti-Brexit.
“I think I have actually but I don’t have any interesting political views. What was lovely about being in Australia was they’ve never heard of Brexit. I was in Sydney writing and Lizzie was visiting her horses. We have a flat with a view of the harbour. I’m reviving Barry McKenzie the comic strip. I thought what would this character so popular in the sixties be doing now and I worked it out.” (it first appeared in Private Eye, now it’s destined for The Oldie.)
He’s come back to England because he wanted to see some Australian mates who are not in Australia any more.
“There are no Australians in Australia any more. Only Chinese.”
The Australians of his generation like Germain Greer and Clive James are very much part of the British heritage. “I wrote a clerihew about Clive James. Dear old Clive James is still alive. We know he’s not dead because he’s telling us about all the books he’s read. Germain is still alive. And I’m very glad. And Rolf Harris is still alive. I never liked his appearance.”
What does he fear? “Obscurity and ghosts. I’m very scared of ghosts. I believe in them and I’m very wary of them. I don’t like to sleep in haunted places and Australia’s very spooky. Ghosts are there. Explorers and senior citizens. I’ve promised to be one. There is a theatre in Adelaide called Her Majesties. They are building it and I promised to be a ghost there.
He once said of his children, ‘I think their abiding memories of their father are a man surrounded by suitcases. Now he says, ‘They’re all doing well. Two daughters in Melbourne, one a painter, the other an actor. My son Oscar is an art expert and dealer. My son Rupert co-wrote a video game called Red Dead Redemption and he’s hugely successful. All of these children of mine are mostly well behaved and don’t require any financial support. What more could you wish? Rupert has twins and I dote on them and Oscar has a daughter.”
“Edna heard that Barry Humphries was claiming to do an Edna act and a few terrible drag queens were doing Edna as Edna. She needed to set the record straight.”
I still think he just couldn’t let her go.
Rob Brydon probes Barry Humphries Live On Stage at the Palladium April 28th