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 –
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?
Outside Television City in Los Angeles – the CBS building – here’s a giant billboard of James Corden smilingly promoting the Late Late Show, which has been one of the most runaway successes a television host has ever had. He inherited the show when it was bottom of the rung for guests and viewers alike. Now The Late Late Show’s You Tube channel has over 2.6 billion viewers and after his first year the show was nominated for 4 Emmy Awards in 2016. Once inside he reminds me that he’d been working at CBS for nine months and the show had been on air for several weeks and he still had to show ID to get into the building. Not any more. In 2015 he was knocking on publicists doors hopeful to get someone to sit on the sofa and he could only dream that proper stars could do Carpool karaoke with him. A year later he’s driving around the grounds of the White House with Michelle Obama and Missy Elliot singing Get Your Freak On.
I’m here to watch the show, which is fast paced, high energy and filled with joy. The guests were Diane Lane, Benicio del Toro and Michael Fassbender. And a new Carpool Karaoke with Harry Styles was premiered. I’ve sat in taped talk shows many times. They’re usually boring with sound bites edited and re-taped, mistakes etched out and filmed over. Not here. It’s a continued burst of infectious jaw aching laughter and pace with the odd self-deprecation where he’ll say things like he thinks he’s thin until he watches the show back. But more of that later.
Afterwards in the green room I tell him his show was great and he seems genuinely touched, modest to a fault. He’s bringing the show to London June 6-9th He’s more anxious than excited about it. The UK loved him as a Fat Friend (he co-wrote wrote with Ruth Jones of Gavin and Stacey fame) and in Gavin and Stacey but then he became scrutinised. He could do no wrong and then he could do no right. He was called arrogant. His sketch show with Matthew Horne was panned yet on stage in One Man, Two Guvnors he enthralled. He took it to Broadway in 2012 and this in many ways set him up to become the talk show that he is – part musical theatre performer, part television actor, part existential joy. The guests all love him. He manages to be funny without being cruel. A rare gift.
The next morning I see him on the rooftop of the CBS building. He’s mid shoot and pretending to eat a chip from a newspaper wrapping. Quintessentially English but not necessarily quintessentially Corden. He tries to be good about the chips and he’s already done an hour in the gym. Once we’re ensconced in his office he abandons his desk in favour of a cosy sofa and comforting green juice. He shrugs, “I try.”
The office outside is filled with rails of suits and shoeboxes from Prada and Paul Smith. In one of the boxes is an award from Victoria’s Secret. TV’s sexiest host. He blushes pink and shuts the box tight.
With Corden there’s no interview tightrope walking. There’s no awkward moments. There’s no warm up. He’s very much as he is on TV. Always on always present, always to the max. Producers and assistants weave in and out to ask questions about the London shows. He asks them if he can tell me who the guests are or anything about it. They tell him no and he obeys.
Is he excited to return to the UK with a super successful show? “I feel more anxious than excited. Shows have gone across America but taking it to the UK brings a lot of technical problems. What does the stage look like? How do we build the set? How do we afford it?”
Is he also anxious that the Brits may not embrace him in the same way as the Americans? You see him thinking as if it’s the first time it’s occurred to him but he’s used to people embracing him and then not embracing him. “I guess, maybe but not really. I think we have to be mindful that we are making a show or a predominantly American audience but it airs in 150 countries so were just going to make it as exciting as we can.”
So the guests that you’re not going to reveal. Do you choose people that you love or people that you already know? (he always seems to get on intimately with the occupants of his sofa). “I never know who they’re going to be till they’re here at the show. Most people are lovely and the environment of our show is warm and we just create organic conversations as much as you can.”
Of course nothing was organic as the start of his because American publicists did not want their clients to share a sofa with other guests. They were used to the traditional talk show format with guests coming on separately. “That’s where Graham Norton’s show was unbelievably useful. We couldn’t book anyone for a long time. The show traditionally had not been a slot with the widest of audience and after driving around to publicist’s offices they would often say my clients don’t sit with anyone else and I would say but they already did a year ago on Graham Norton. So we were starting below zero and that can be incredibly daunting. But what you have to do is take in all of the negative and make them plus points and people love an element of discovery. And as much as I was painfully aware of how unknown I was here, I had done my 10,000 hours.”
Malcolm Gladwell said you had to have done 10,000 hours of something to be good at it in his book The Story of Success and now in a total of 2 years, on You Tube alone, 2.6 billion You Tube views and ten million subscribers making it the fastest growing subscription channel in history. “It’s lovely,” he beams. There’s a padded heart on his shirt which seems a perfect metaphor. He’s wearing his heart on the outside and he’s not afraid to show the love. People feel at ease with him which is why Carpool Karaoke – the guests and James sing as they drive around in a car – works so well.
“There’s a humanising environment.” Oddly Mariah Carey was the first Carpool Karaoke of the Late Late Show although the idea had been premiered with George Michael back in 2011 and Gary Barlow for Comic Relief in 2017. Was he nervous? “Not really because I knew it was a good idea but in many ways I’m always nervous. I’m a fan of nerve. Nerves are good because if you’re nervous of something it matters. You want to do your best. Like when we did One Man, Two Guvnors I remember so vividly the first preview of that show at the National Theatre. I wasn’t onstage for the first seven or eight minutes and I’d wait behind this door. The most nerve-wracking moments of my career have been behind that door and the day before this show started airing and I was behind the curtain and you know there’s a moment where you’re going out on the stage you have to enjoy nerves.
Does he fear being judged? “Of course, everybody does.” You’re only ever setting out to do something that’s your best. No-one sets out to do something bad. You just want any criticism to be fair.” His eyes look a little distant. A little pained. Ever such a little. Perhaps because there was a tine I the UK where criticism was heaped upon him. Was that one of expected? Was it one of those we’ll build you up to knock you down? Themes? He wasn’t allowed to stay on a Gavin and Stacey high forever. He nods. “It got out of proportion perhaps but the fundamental ting was the work I was doing wasn’t good enough. The sketch show (with Matthew Horne) wasn’t good enough. I hosted the Brits not well enough and then the film came out called the Lesbian Vampire Killers and it was awful. Really bad. But in many respects I’m thankful to it because it makes you realign yourself and think this is a serious thing and you’ve got to take your work seriously. The only time I got obsessed by it was the only time I felt there was an enjoyment I the bashing.”
I’d meant to warm up to this moment. I hadn’t meant for this difficult stuff to come so early in our conversation but he doesn’t mind. “Also something has changed in the retelling of this that somehow my career was over. I was responsible for the film, the Brits and the show that wasn’t good enough but it wasn’t like my career was over. At the very point that all these things were happening I was writing series 3 of Gavin and Stacey the most anticipated comedy of the year. So if that’s my low point I’ll take it.”
The shows finale which went out on New Year Day 2010 had an audience of 10 million and considering the show started off on the scarcely watched BBC3 this was an absolute milestone. Does he feel he’s more appreciated in the US because Americans like a warmer tone and maybe the British humour is crueller? “No. Victoria Wood was warm, French and Saunders were quite warm. I don’t subscribe to that notion. “I don’t have any interest in making people feel uncomfortable. It’s not enjoyable to be constantly elevating yourself as a superior being which is what it is when you’re mocking someone or something. It can be funny once or twice but it’s a sure-fire way to get your show cancelled if you have one note and one tone. You have to keep changing it up and making it interesting for people.
I think the biggest difference is America doesn’t have a national press. It’s harder to get a momentum going…” The Corden bashing seems to him “a long, long time ago. It was before I met my wife about 8 years ago.”
This co-incides with a period where he seemed to be looking for love at all the wrong parties. He was on/off with Sheridan Smith then he met his wife Julia who worked for Save the Children and has been described as ‘a hot Mother Theresa’. He chuckles, “That wasn’t my line. That was Ben. Ben Winston my best man (and producer at CBS). It feels like another lifetime. Then I did a series called The Wrong Mans which I’m very proud of the I was in Into the woods and then I moved to America and launched this show. I’ve had my ratio of hits to misses. I hope I’m on the right side of hits. The misses had zero impact on my career. I never felt I came here and had to start again. I just carried on. Some people wrote things which weren’t very nice but you carry on. I think there’s a fine line between confidence and arrogance and I would say I haven’t always trodden that line properly. I can understand why people might think I’m arrogant but I also don’t think it’s true. I do have a sort of confidence if you like which can be perceived as something different. I don’t even know if that’s true. I think you can’t sum up the people of Britain buy what a few journalists have said. You can find something bad in anybody.”
And as Corden well knows, you can also find something good in anyone or any situation. “Part of the reason we want to take this show home is we felt a huge and overwhelming sense of positivity from the UK. To appear on Carpool Karaoke you can’t take yourself seriously, yet Corden has had Adele, Michelle Obama, Stevie Wonder (driving) Madonna, One Direction, Katy Perry. Harry Styles, Red Hot Chili Peppers and Justin Bieber singing live with Corden, all of which have gone global. He has introduced a new audience to the show so they feel invested in its newfound success. Carpool Karaoke has had a zillion Facebook shares which means there’s a genuine anticipation for his return to the UK. And I think he returns to feel the love.
Corden was born in August 1978 (38) in High Wycombe, the only boy with two sisters. His father was a musician in the Royal Air Force and is now a Christian bookseller. Corden seems remarkably well adjusted. His childhood was nothing like Oranges Are Not the Only Fruit but when he grew up both of his parents were in the Salvation Army. “Being in the Salvation Army was a huge part of our life until our parents realised that the particular Salvation Army we went to was full of the least Christian people you could ever meet. They were people who just wanted to wear a uniform.”
His mum and dad had the uniform but he left before it got to the stage of him wearing gone. “Maybe all churches are strange organisations because religion is one thing and people are another.” Is he still a Christian? “I don’t know…” There’s a pause while we shuffle cushions around on his couch. “I struggle with it sometimes. I am not one to question science. Science is great but at the same time if you’re growing up in a house but have the overwhelming feeling that all of this can’t be for nothing, it means you don’t know. I don’t think it’s as cut and dried as heaven and hell but I hope there’s something else.”
Now a few years back when he was going through a bad time his mum and dad came round and his dad said, “We should all pray,” and they did. He found it comforting. “It was essentially my parents saying ‘you’re not on your own now. We’re here.’ And it’s incredibly moving when you spend any of those moments with your parents. I feel very fortunate that I’ve always had supportive parents… they pop up in the show and I’m sure they’ll be in London every night. My dad will be playing in the band.” (He plays saxophone, clarinet and flute).
They were in the audience at the Grammy’s and possibly will be again next year when he hosts the 70th Grammy’s in Madison Square Garden. This ear he’s not doing the Tony’s. “I felt I might have a little too much on my plate but the Tony’s is one of the best nights of my career.”
He was really at home on stage there. He knew everybody who was winning and losing. “It was an unbelievably supportive room.”
I’m not sure if it’s thinking of his recent trip to New York on the red eye and back again the next day but he yawns. I yawn. Why is yawning contagious? “It’s weird isn’t it? Also why can’t you tickle yourself?” we laugh. It’s a very good thing laughing is contagious. “We bank on that on our shows. Last night he’d had a drink with Michael Fassbender and Benicio del Toro while Harry Styles was rehearsing. “It was lovely,” he smiles “And Harry. I’m very proud of him. I believed in all of those boys.”
At one point Styles moved in with the show’s producer Ben Winston who was like a godfather mentor figure. Did he ever have a mentor? “There have been people who have been unbelievably influential. Shane Meadows who cast me in a film called 24/7, a boxing movie with Bob Hoskins. He was 24 at the time. If you’re 17/18 working with a director who’s 24 you think oh, you don’t have to wait to do anything. You can just do it. He was an incredibly influential person in my life and the other one is theatre director Nick Hytner. I’ve worked with him twice in the History Boys and One Man Two Guvnors and these were both incredibly formative points in my life. I remember when I watched the first cut of the first ep of Gavin and Stacey. I was incredibly down and called him and he said are there three moments that you think are good enough and I said yes. I suppose so. And he said if you think there’s three there’s at least 10. It’s a bit like if you watch the movie of the book you wrote you’re visualising what was going on and what could never ever be but the more you live with what’s on screen the more you’ll fall in love with it.” He was completely right.”
Fortunately for Corden a lot of people fell in love with it. Corden created Gavin and Stacey with Ruth Jones when he saw his peers, the other actors in The History Boys and his flatmate Dominic Cooper being offered roles in movies – leading roles and he would get offered the fat boy who delivers a TV to Hugh Grant. If there was no future for chubby boys as leading men he would have to create one so he and Jones created Smithy who was so loveable in Gavin and Stacey. Does he miss acting? Being onstage? Acting on TV? His schedule is so intense it makes it almost impossible although he did do a few days shooting for a little part in Oceans 8.
He also plays Hi Five in Emoji Movie which opens this summer. It’s a big part and it’s super cute but it’s animated voiceover so it’s the kind of movie you can show up in your pyjamas and still do a great job. From doing so many TV shows he’s not only put in his ten thousand hours but his comedic timing is honed to perfection.
“I’ll be really disappointed in myself if I didn’t do another play. I’m doing this show 4 days a week but not 4 days a week until I die. We’ll see. We’ll burn that bridge when we get to it.”
Corden was always a natural actor and prankster. When he was about 13 “I called in Richard and Judy on This Morning and told them I was being bullied at school. I was off school on a teacher training day but my Auntie Marilyn recognised my voice and called my mum and then I had to hang up. I’m not proud of it but I guess there were worse things I could have been doing at the age of 13. I said I was Chris from Buckinghamshire or something.”
In reality he was never bullied at school. He was never the fat boy who had to make jokes to be popular, and he even says there were plus points. 2my size and shape has helped me as many times as it hasn’t and that was the very thing that made me want to write. That’s when I started talking to Ruth Jones about Gavin and Stacey. There were eight of us boys as History Boys, all of similar ages and points in our careers and I’d be the character who’d drop a TV off or be the newsagent and everyone else was coming in with film scripts under their arms. And I had to think I’m only being offered these parts because some people would say if you look a certain way you’re not interesting to people and your stories are not as valid as other people’s. I always felt like I’d be offered a lead in something and then it became clear that that wasn’t going to happen and that’s when I thought OK. I ‘m going to have to muscle my way in here because no one was saying come and have a seat at the big table. That’s how the writing of Gavin and Stacey came about.”
His weight has been constantly fluctuating. He’s been stones bigger than he is now and lighter. He lost a lot of weight doing Amelia Freer diet that was successful for Boy George (look up) Her book was Eat Nourish Grow. “It’s always going to be a constant battle. I went to the gym this morning and look at the green juice. I’m trying. There’s so secret to it. It’s eating less and doing more and trying to avoid bread. That’s my biggest weakness.”
And what about drinking? “I don’t really drink very much. I’ve never been a big drinker. I’ve never been let’s get a glass of wine. There’s a delicious cocktail at the Soho House called Eastern Standard and I like them but my biggest problem is avoiding toast. My children are always eating toast. Me and my wife in bed with marmite on toast at 10.30 watching Big Little Lies.” He beams, an extraordinary ear to ear blissful beam.
He has a six year old son Max and a 2 year old daughter Carey. “There’s not a diet I haven’t done. I’m trying to be good and going to the gym and there’s a dance class I like to go to every now and then.”
Is he not too famous for a dance class open to the public? “No, clearly not. Who is too famous to do a dance class?” Harry? “No he’s not.” Katy Perry? “No. once you’re in it you’re in it. You can’t start living your life like that.”
I tell him about when I did a Pilates class with Nicole Kidman and there were 300 paparazzi’s outside the watching us leave. He enthuses about the dance class. “It’s called Plyo-Jam and it’s dance using Plyometrics. Lots of jumping and moving and sweating for 45 minutes and old fashioned fucking star jumps.”
He finishes off his green juice. Very LA. “We’re here for another few years without question unless I get fired. We’ve just bought a house and we feel very settled as a family.” Does hot Mother Theresa Julia work? “Yes. She’s got an amazing job looking after two and a half children – me being the half.” Where and how did you meet? “Through my old flatmate Dominic Cooper. They’ve known each other for years because they grew up in Blackheath. He introduced us.”
Was it love at first sight? “It was for me. I doubt it was for her but for me she’s incredible. People always talk about me and how much work the show must be but it’s nothing compared to what she does. Our daughter was only twelve weeks old when we moved here. I had to come out earlier because my daughter didn’t have a passport. It was a massive thing to just pick up our life and come here, you know. And we’re happy because we’re together all of the time. It’s not like I’m doing a movie where I say I’ll be back in a few months or a play with eight shows a week where every night you’re on your own. Predominantly this show is me being here in this office coming up with ideas and then we go and shoot stuff and do the show. Home every night.”
So in a way it’s more stable for them as they see more of you. “Without a question. Yes. I’m off at weekends and that’s just glorious. I watch football on TV and play with my children.” Is he a good husband? “I hope so, yes. I certainly try to be.” Was he a good boyfriend? “I hope so otherwise I don’t think she would have said yes.” What about other relationships. His on/off with Sheridan Smith. Was that fun? “Yes,” he says hesitantly. “I really don’t want to talk about other relationships in my life because I wouldn’t want to read about my wife’s ex- boyfriend. I don’t know if Sheridan has got a partner but I don’t imagine he would want to read about fun times that we had so I always try to be respectful. We certainly dated for a while.”
Does he stay in touch? “No, no. I don’t. No.” Is that because your wife wouldn’t like it? “No. it’s because we were together, then we weren’t.” And that’s it? “Yes.” Seems very definitive. Is he like that? “I don’t know if I’m like that or not but that’s the situation. My previous girlfriend before that, Shelley, I was with for seven years. We lived together and I think there’s a reason you stop being together so then to carry on in any other way is not my thing. It’s not anything that I’ve ever thought about doing. It doesn’t mean there’s any acrimony but it’s just not part of my life.”
It seems weirdly brutal if you think about it and especially odd for a man who’s so full of warmth but it has a logic to it. Things aren’t working, no children involved. You get on and concentrate on another relationship that IS working. Is he the same person at home as he is at work? As full on? “I try to be but sometimes the days here are a spiral of constantly talking and I get home and the last thing I want to do is talk. However my wife would have spent the day talking less so I’ve realised is wherever you are and whatever you’re doing you just try to be present in that moment right there. Like I’m trying to be as present as I can in this interview as opposed to thinking after this I’ve got to do this, I’ve got to do that. It’s the same in your home life. I try to be a present father and a present husband. It’s something you have to learn to do really.”
Does he sleep much? “Are you kidding? Last night I slept like a baby. 10 o’clock until 6am because the last two nights I was on a plane to New York and only got three hours sleep on a plane. Not fun but sometimes you’ve got to do it. You just don’t have any choice.” He yawns again. “I could genuinely fall asleep right now but I’m not going to. I consider my job being the thing I have to care about every single second until the moment the show begins. Then all I have to care about is enjoying myself. That’s all I can do.
I meet Goldie Hawn in Santa Monica. It’s one of those Hockney-esque days – blue sky and palm trees. Everything you’d expect. I expected Goldie to be blonde and cute and somehow frozen in time. I expected a little facial landscaping, but there’s none of that It’s hard to believe that it’s been 15 years since Goldie Hawn made a movie (The Banger Sisters), because somehow she’s one of those actors who has a continued presence. People are always being compared to her and she’s often photographed with her very famous (Almost Famous) daughter Kate Hudson. You never know which on screen star is going to be frosty and who’s going to be lovely. Goldie does not disappoint in the warmth department. She radiates it along with calm and Zen.
Michelle Williams arrives at the restaurant. Her ultra-blonde boyish cropped hair strangely seems to make her look uber-feminine. She’s straight off a seven hour flight from New York to Los Angeles – and I mean straight. No make-up whatsoever, her skin has a luminosity that captures the whole room. Even the hip LA crowd can’t help but gawp. There was a time when she minded this. She minded it quite a lot. There was a time where she was hounded and hunted by paparazzi with giant lenses wanting to get a glimpse of her pain when her ex but much loved boyfriend and father of their daughter Matilda, Heath Ledger died of an accidental overdose in January 2008. She’s wearing a denim jacket and a loose boho dress. Waif like, sure but even in her somewhat ordinary outfit and big bulging flight back there’s something about her. We hug hello. I’ve met her only once before but I feel that I want to. I love a Michelle Williams performance. Something about it stays with you long after the movie. She has flown to LA for the weekend of the SAG awards where she is nominated best supporting actress in Manchester by the Sea.
Her performance in Manchester is extraordinary. Not much screen time – it’s been estimated at only ten minutes – she manages to pack in a lifetime of emotions, grief, despair, loss, survival all into her character Randi: a woman whose husband was drunk (Casey Affleck) and accidentally set the house on fire, causing the death of their three children. What she brings to this part is her real life experience of loss that she was ready to confront and cauterise into her art for the very first time. Affleck said she told him that this was the part she wanted to leave as a record of herself for her daughter. She snuggles into the booth “I spent a lot of time preparing for it and I tried to squeeze a lot into those scenes.”
Sometimes her big bambi eyes look right at you, unafraid. Sometimes she closes her eyes while she’s thinking without any self-consciousness.
“I figured in my imagination over the years how much I wanted to work for (director) Kenny Lonergan (Margaret, Analyze This). While I was preparing for this I wasn’t doing anything else so I had time to spare. I spent hours and hours. It was my obsession, my daydream. You know you spend so much time waiting in lines, getting something fixed or cooking a simple recipe and SHE was what I thought about ALL of the time. I never treated it like a small part.”
And in this sense it wasn’t. Her characters’ presence was the essence of what Manchester was about – loss and how to survive it. She invaded every screen moment by not actually being there. “I like to spend as much time as possible before a project just easing myself in.” Because she wants to get it perfect or because she feels that she need to work so hard? She is after all one of those all thinking, all analysing Virgos. “I think research is helpful and it bears fruit, even in the most circuitous parts you take. I think it’s a way to work through anxiety. It’s also the only way I know how to construct a character.” Does she think it was kind of therapy to live out someone’s grief onscreen rather than her own private grief? “I never look at it like that. I look like how can I be of service to this character. Kenny wrote a character who was very different to me so it was interesting to find out more about her, not about myself.” But in so doing does that make her feel more or less of who she is? “It has nothing to do with me. I don’t think I understand myself through exploration of these characters. I use my life to understand myself better. My work is to understand other people.”
Of course it is. Williams is not a narcissist in any way. She’s all about other people. For instance, she’s worried how I felt waiting in a restaurant for her on my own, not about her eight hour plane ride and how she fell asleep with her neck in a funny position and now it hurts. She mentions it only when I notice she is cocking her head to one side unconsciously. Partly I’ll admit it. I have a girl crush on Michelle Williams and party because she’s the kind of girl who’s smart and funny and I think anyone would want as a girlfriend. Talking to her is easy. When we talk about risks she’s fascinated by the risks I have taken in life that she hasn’t. “I never want to go above the speed limit, that’s true, but obviously I’ve taken some risks in my life. I try to keep things simple, be at home a lot and only take the risks when I work. I knew there was a lot riding on my scenes in Manchester. Those scenes feel very loaded.” Was that what drew her to the movie? “I hadn’t worked in a very long time on a movie. And what drew me into it was the writing. It was Kenny. He was on my bucket list. Before I die it would be my dream to work with him. I like the feeling in life when you see circles close.”
She’s not very hungry but she doesn’t want me to eat alone. We order salad even though I see a box of supermarket salad in her bag, which she’d intended to eat on the plane but didn’t. It was a huge risk for her to play Sally Bowles in Cabaret in 2014 and then return to Broadway for Blackbird in 2015, singing on stage, certainly one of those work risks that paid off. It was also designed to keep her close to home and Matilda. It’s been an interesting and continuous transformation for her.
We next see her on screen in Kelly Rheichardt’s Certain Women. She worked with Rheichardt before (Wendy and Lucy and Meek’s Cutoff) and has always been attracted to her poetic film making skills. Williams is a big poetry fan. When she wakes up she doesn’t go on Instagram or Twitter, she reads a poem. She likes the idea of a lot happening in a short space of time. And she likes to constantly challenge her intellect. Perhaps that’s something to do with leaving school at fifteen to come to LA to act before eventually ending up in the long running television series Dawson’s Creek. Her best friend form that show, Busy Williams, calls her now. She talks to her excitedly and says it’s the best part of coming to LA for awards. She gets to hang out with her friend.
Williams turns down wine. I ask her is that because she wants to look non bloated in her dress at the event? (And what a dress it turns out to be. Who knew sequins could look so cool). “Usually I’m a partaker of alcohol but I feel like I have more energy and it’s easier to get up in the morning and be bright eyed and bushy tailed without it. It’s also nice to have inhalation and exhalation.
There’s a few different ways to take care of yourself and sometimes it means indulging your desires and sometimes it means the opposite. I’m usually an indulger because I find it’s so comforting when life is stressful. Sometimes I think I’m going to take care of myself by letting myself have what I want, but recently I’ve been working with the idea that taking care of myself would be to give myself things that are healthy for myself,” she laughs, as if to imply she’s not been very good at it.
Certain Woman is based on the short stories of Maile Meloy. It’s three interwoven, loosely connected tales and Williams plays a wife and mother who wants to build a new home and keep things really authentic with natural sandstone but she’s less authentic on the inside. It’s the kind of ambiguous character that Williams thrives on. Also Certain Women is set in Montana, but for Williams it wasn’t just about the awe inspiring, bleak landscape and the vintage trucks. It was her childhood. She lived there until she was eight. “I have very, very, very happy memories. The happiest. I really loved being a kid there – lots of space and freedom.” Thereafter the family moved to San Diego. Michelle’s home maker mother, brother, sisters and father who had his own commodity trading business ran for Senate as a Republican twice and lost. “It was less happy probably by virtue of it being my preteen hears which are perhaps unpleasant wherever you go.”
At fifteen she got a legal emancipation from her parents. The primary reason was so she could work unrestricted hours as an actress in Los Angeles but there is sense of fracture. Her need to be alone yet she admits to being terribly lonely and that she had no idea how to look after herself, even by her Dawson’s Creek days. “I’d eat McDonald’s as a matter of course – cheeseburger, fries and I’d order two pizzas. One for dinner and one for breakfast with orange juice. I didn’t go to the dentist for ten years. I was a kid. I didn’t know going to the dentist was a real thing. I thought it was a scam. I had so many other things to take care of I wasn’t thinking about my teeth and then they started to hurt.”
We share experiences of dental trauma. “I am so dentist phobic I cry as soon as I sit on the chair. I found a dentist who gives you gas so you’re completely and totally out of it and you have no idea what’s going on. You get sleepy, warm and cosy. You should do it.” She’s worried that I have PTSD from a barbaric visit to the dentist when I was six. At this point we discover how delicious the flat bread is. “Surely it must have been fried.” We pluck bits off it so that it looks like a man with a beard and then we pluck off another bit and it looks like a bird with a beak.
“I’d forgotten how truly beautiful Montana is. It’s truly majestic and felt like home. Of course I admire Kelly so much as a film maker. I always want to surprise her and come up with things that she might not have expected. But ultimately Kelly has a very clear picture in her head and I’m just trying to understand what it is so that I can give it to her.” Her character in Certain Women is not very likeable. “I don’t care at all if people like me as a character because that’s real love. Real love is when you accept the totality of someone – when you see their darkness and their lightness. Real love is saying I see you for you and I still love you. I guess that’s what I’m still looking for.” In this instance the words are so resonant I’m not sure if she’s talking about a character or herself. Her intelligence is fierce and I think she enjoys a little ambiguity. “When you don’t pin something down directly it opens up to so many interpretations.”
Williams strikes me as a woman who can love fiercely and deeply. She has been romantically linked to Spike Jonze, Jason Segal and Jonathan Safran Foer. And while she’s happy to talk about what love means, the concept of love, she doesn’t want to talk about these individuals. You can see it’s a conflict for her. She rarely gives interviews and she wants to give her all in every moment in everything she does but she has learnt there has to be boundaries. After Heath Ledger’s death she almost gave up acting all together, then she realised it was just the attention she didn’t like. It was a double loss for her. She lost him when the relationship ended and then he died and she lost him all over again. They met on the set of Brokeback Mountain which she has described as “a very charmed time in my life.” They both got Oscar nominations. They fell in love, she fell pregnant. The paparazzi were fascinated by this couple because of its normalcy. They went out to breakfast with their Stroller to local diners in Brooklyn, their kid cuddling giant stuffed animals in her McLaren buggy. It seemed real, grounded and like it would go on forever.
In a statement shortly after his death she said, “My heart is broken. I am the mother of the most tender hearted, high spirited little girl who is the spitting image of her father, all that I can cling to is the presence inside her that reveals itself every day. She will be brought up with the best memories of him.”
She’s checking her phone to see how her daughter is. “She’s with friends. Everything is OK. OK. She’s eleven so we’re not quite pre-teens yet. She’s just a kid right now.” So what is she like? Do you think she’ll want to act? She has the genes. There’s a pause and Williams is thinking. She’s very careful what she says about her daughter because there was a time when “men and women in suits were cashing cheques off my daughters face.” There were also other horrible moment where a little girl at Starbucks approached Matilda and asked her what it was like to be famous because she had a daddy who died like Michael Jackson.
“She’s not looking to declare herself. She’s really still a little girl.” Williams was ready to declare herself as a kid but maybe Williams was never a kid. She’s told me before that she thinks we have many ages within us all the time. She strikes me as someone who is both young for her age and old.
She knew growing up that she wanted to be away from San Diego. Acting wasn’t always her passion. She wanted to box. “I wanted to be a boxer. I think that was kind of sad because at the time I didn’t distinguish between sexes and weight categories. I was going to go out there and fight the champ Mike Tyson. I was a big fan of his growing up and I wanted to be against someone really tough.”
“Matilda has all kinds of hobbies and passions. I don’t want to make a strong statement on her behalf in one direction or another.”
Her daughter is the reason that most of her projects have remained on the East coast. She lives in Brooklyn and has another place in upstate New York. “We have stayed home. I haven’t made a movie that has taken us on the road for five years. I’ve been doing plays and small parts in movies. For Manchester I would just go to Boston for little day trips and for Certain Women it was shot over the Spring break so she came with me.”
It’s extraordinary to think that Williams has garnered so much critical adulation and awards nominations over the last five years and has rarely been far away from home. That requires extraordinary juggling skills. She was Oscar nominated for Blue Valentine in 2011 in which she starred with Ryan Gosling – a relationship that went from happy passion to toxic chaos – and again for playing Marilyn in My Week with Marilyn. Certainly she must have identified with the much loved tragic heroine. For Marilyn she would go to sleep watching her movies. “Like when you’re a kid and you put a book under your pillow hoping you’d get it via osmosis.”
Williams is a pretty powerful sponge. Even jetlagged and exhausted she seems able to absorb everything. It’s not long before she is dissecting my love life and is giving me advice. At the moment she’s working in Brooklyn again on a movie called The Greatest Showman in which she plays Charity, the wife of P.T. Barnum, played by Hugh Jackman. It’s a musical. She says, “Have you ever interviewed Hugh Jackman? I love that man.” I tell her we sang during the interview – An Englishman in New York, except I can’t really sing. “But I bet he made you feel good about it.” Apparently Jackman made Williams feel good about her singing because her next role is playing Janis Joplin. “Nothing like a challenge. It’s gonna get me going,” she says, pulling a scared face.”
Her desire to challenge herself with singing happened when she sang in Blackbird on stage. “I fell in love with singing and now I just want to sing. I find it terrifying too but once you do it it’s not like the dentist – it’s kind of fun. Don’t you ever sing to yourself in the shower and it kind of makes you feel good?” No, sadly not. “OK what about dancing? There are just certain things that make me feel I’m a kid, that make me feel I’m a little bit free and a little bit unbound and I love it. “I dance with Hugh Jackman.”
I tell her my parents were champion ballroom dancers. Her eyes open wide. “Were they really in love?” Only when they were dancing. “Dancers always look so in sync with one another. There’s so much communication that happens when you dance.” Then she looks sad for me. “And you never felt the rhythm?” No, not at all.
I want to talk about her family, not mine. “I have an older brother, two older sisters and a little sister who just had a baby. My parents are divorced, each doing their own thing in different places.” Were you more like one parent than another or an alien? “Nobody in my family ever acted or wanted to act. My mum sings though. She has a lovely voice and her dream when she was growing up was to play the cello on the Lawrence Welk show, so I like to think in some small way, me singing and dancing with Hugh Jackman is giving her something she missed out on.” And her father, what does he do now? There’s a sticky pause for the first time. “I really don’t know,” she says and shakes her head and she shakes it a second longer to be emphatic in a quiet way. You can see there’s something painful that went on before but the ‘I don’t know’ is as far as she takes me.
This is a woman who has turned her vulnerability inside out to survive it. A woman who was on her own in Los Angeles when she was fifteen. It’s a place of broken dreams and nasty egos. She must have felt alone, lonely and then of course there’s her more public loss of the partner, months after they had split up. And if that loss itself didn’t tear her down, being hounded by the paps almost did. “If you’re never left alone to live your life, you don’t feel alive.”
Anyone else I might push a little harder to find out what went on with her dad, but Williams feels everything so sharply and it feels cruel. Instead she spies me looking at her big plane bag, stuffed to the brim. “I bought this book of poetry with me. I’m very excited. It’s one hundred poems. I truly love them. When I don’t have time to pick up a novel or I’m doing other things I can dip into a poem. I always have time to read a poem – that’s what I tell myself and I get an email from Poem a Day that I subscribe to. Does she ever feel like writing poetry? “No. I’ve read enough to know that I’m not capable of writing one. Where would I start?”
One gets the impression that Williams could tackle anything. I like the metaphor of this waif like creature wanting to be a boxer. She’s ready to fight for anything. She’s ready to plunge into something that terrifies her, like a biopic of Janis Joplin. “It’s going to be a lot of work but I’m thrilled.
“I do like to fight. Not with people but for things that I want. I really enjoy the experience of wanting something and crossing the distance to get it. I don’t want a lot of things but the things that I do want burn me up inside and I get very excited about trying to reach them. I wanted to play Janis badly and I reached for it.”
“I don’t mean I want objects. I want experiences and people. It’s nice to want something and think about what you could do to pull that thing closer to you.” She’s a dazzling presence, this waif like creature that seems such a fighter and very far away from that time where she felt it was hard to be alive because she was being watched all the time. “That was hard. You feel self-conscious. You don’t want to jump outside the box. You don’t want to embarrass yourself. You don’t want to make a bold move. You just want to spend your life staring at your feet so people can’t catch your eyes. Not a nice way to live.” Especially not if you’re already sad. “Yes.” She closes her eyes again as if to remember the pain so she can digest it, expel it.
How did she get out of that? “We moved outside of the city.” There’s a little pain when she says the words and I recall an article in a glossy where she talks about when she had to move and she worried “How would he find us?” meaning Ledger. It wasn’t an easy move but it was a move that was needed. And now they have another place in Brooklyn in a different area. “We don’t get hassled in the same way. It’s really quite manageable.” How did she succeed in getting it to be manageable? “I really try not to attach any feelings to a state of being, not success or failure. So when somebody says I’ve succeeded I don’t hang onto it because I know that life is long and things are bumpy and when somebody says I’ve failed I don’t hang onto that either. I try to let things bounce off me so I don’t become locked in one identity. I’m too afraid to let things go and be comfortable. It’s a fact of life. Everything goes up and down.”
Wise, heartfelt, vulnerable, strong. And off she goes to bed with her book of poems.
When I first arrived at the house I thought this house is too small, too nondescript, too unshowy. It can’t be the house where The Spartacuses live.
Then I spot the mezuzah on the door – Kirk Douglas is a dedicated Jew and then a nurse with gently slippered feet lets me in. I knew I was in the right place. The Douglases are old and need full time care.
The house feels alive when you get in. Cosy but with exquisite art, like the Picasso vase at the entrance bought by Anne Douglas when she worked for the Cannes film festival so so many years ago.
Anne is fully made up, fully coiffed in a blue long sleeved T shirt and navy slacks. Her feet in orthopaedic velcroed shoes. Kirk comes in on his walker. He looks fragile of course, who wouldn’t? He’s a hundred. Or will be on December 9th. But as he stares out at me, his glinty eyes still look to charm. There’s something fierce about him still. He has white hair but he has hair. He speaks with a mighty slur – a remnant of a stroke in 1996. It’s difficult to get used to understanding it but not impossible. He was pretty depressed about being rendered speechless. Not much an actor can do without speech unless silent movies are making a comeback he would joke. Except it wasn’t a joke. He contemplated suicide but knew it was too selfish an act and Kirk Douglas, born Issur Danielovich, is a survivor. He knows how to pick himself up. He is the last living legend, the last screen hero of the golden years. The action hero that started it all. He was a Viking and he was Spartacus. He did his own stunts and had a personal trainer well into his nineties and all this is in him still. He’s learnt to communicate in a different way. He looks at me with a frisking my soul kind of look. “I bet you’ve never interviewed a hundred year old before,” he challenges.
At the start of our meeting he looks to Anne for support, but then he seems feel who I am with his eyes. If I don’t understand the words he’s saying, he’ll intuit it and communicate by sheer telepathy. It’s hard to explain this. I got a full and absolute sense of the man because he didn’t try to hide everything. Or if he did try to avoid questions like how many lovers did his wife not know about? He’ll shrug and just laugh and jokes, ‘I don’t understand the question.’ He tells me how glad he is to see me, a little bit of London in LA. “I haven’t been able to travel to London for the last four or five years. I have been…” and he tries to finish the sentence and just shrugs. ‘I’ve been here.’
Is he thinking about his hundredth birthday plans? “Well I found out when you reach a hundred they forget about you. I think a hundred is a very lonely age because all my friends are gone, all the one from the movies.” Maybe he has new friends I say cheerily, because who couldn’t be sad that Burt Lancaster and Lana Turner and Lauren Bacall didn’t make it to celebrate with him. He’s not suddenly thinking about death. He’s always thought about death. He says, “If you’re Marilyn, you will always be remembered as 36 but if you’re old….I don’t know. I think he will always be remembered for his bare chested bravery, for his virility, for his rogueish handsomeness.
Surely he must have some friends coming to the party? “I have my wife. She is equated to about five friends.” He looks at Anne and Anne raises her eyebrows. He can still joke. The jokes are all based on mocking himself.
He was born in 1916, the only boy with five sisters. His mother told him he was born in a golden box delivered by angels and for many years he believed that – he must have always felt he was special? He shrugs. “Yes. I had six sisters and only one of them now lives. I was brought up more by my mother because my father was busy drinking in the saloons.” His father Herschel was a ragman, which means he had a cart that pulled rags door to door, bought and sold in the poor neighbourhood of Amsterdam, New York. His parents had emigrated from Russia. They were illiterate and they were Jews. There wasn’t great opportunities for them in this time of great prejudice. The ragman sold his rags and spent his money in the bars. He was a big strong man who knew peasant ways, like how to insulate the house for winter with horse dung but not how to be an emotional communicator. He was distant and discouraging even though the young Issur/Kirk wanted to please him, he rarely did. He admired him because he was his father, yet he was absent both physically and emotionally.
How did that affect Kirk as a father to his four sons Joel, Michael, Peter, Eric? He nods sagely. “Of course a hundred years and I think about my father a lot and I realise that my best friends were always women, maybe because my mother was wonderful.” By this I interpret he wanted to be a very different father to the one he endured. “We were poor. We were living in a terrible house. We had nearly nothing and if my mother saw a hobo they would come to the house, knock on the door and while we didn’t have much food, my mother always saved something for them so yes, I was closer to my mother. I called my company Bryna after my mother.” And because of her he always found it easier to become closer to women? In touch with his feminine side? “Yes,” he beams. Even now, slumped in his chair, he’s tough. The least likely man to be in touch with his feminine side, yet somehow he is. “My mother couldn’t speak English when she first came from Russia. I remember taking her to New York City in a big limousine for a premiere. I said Ma, you see, America is a wonderful land.” Did it make her happy to be in the limo with you? He says, “She never expressed it but I know she was.” Neither of his parents were good at expressing love, were they? “Well, it was so difficult to live.”
For many years Kirk blamed himself for his youngest son Eric’s lonely death from a drugs overdose at 45. Eric was always the crazy one. Even as a child he had anger issues. He was a talented actor and in later years a stand-up comedian. I saw his act at the Edinburgh festival. It was based on jokes about his father and his more famous brother Michael. Kirk for years agonised over it and wondered if it was because he wasn’t there enough or because he thought he was too big an act to follow. Eric had been addicted to drugs and his parents had paid for many rehabs and sober buddies. They tried to get him involved in forming a facility to help others. Eric was too far gone for that.
I remember interviewing him after his show in Edinburgh attended by about 25 people. Glad of the attention he followed me back to my hotel and shouted outside the window all night for me to come out. I didn’t. A year later he was dead. Eric Douglas was 46 when he was found in his New York apartment dead for an overdose. He had gone into rehab a month before with renewed efforts at sobriety
Kirk and Anne used to visit his grave twice a week. They did that for as long as they could easily walk.
Anne who is strong and clever and self-controlled was inconsolable. So many other dramatic events informed her life.
She was born in Germany around 1930. She doesn’t give her exact age. As a little girl she was extremely close to her father. “My parents were not too great together. My mother was a beautiful women and we always had a governess. My mother was away a lot. She got the best dresses, the best cars. We had a big silk manufacturing place and my father had a sales lady there that he wanted me to become friends with, so we formed a close friendship. My parents divorced. I had an extremely close relationship with my father. We told each other everything. At night before I went to bed I would write to him in a little blue book and he would write the reply. One day he said, ‘I’m going on a short business trip.’ I trusted him and relied on him. When he came back I ran downstairs to meet him and he was with my friend the sales agent and he said ‘This is your new mother.’ I cried my eyes out. He betrayed me. I started work very young and went to live in Berlin where my mother was. She continued her deluxe life and I had a little divan in her dressing room and got a job in a doctor’s office.” Then she went to work in Belgium and ended up in Paris Hitler had invaded.
“I was working by putting German subtitles on French movies because I spoke three languages. It was very tedious. It looked like I was writing in code and my maid gave my translation sheet to the Nazis so at 5am they picked me up and arrested me. It was difficult to explain to them what I was doing but eventually they let me go.” She must have been terrified. “That was an understatement. I was brought up during the regime of a dictator and a persecutor and now I feel that years later in America, Donald Trump is a dictator and it scares me. People should have lived in Germany where they thought that Hitler was OK. They said, oh he wasn’t too bad. They thought he wasn’t really doing what he was doing. People thought that Hitler was a buffoon and people should realise that Donald Trump is a dictator! It scares me. She speaks with certainty and passion. At whatever age she is, you can tell she was never anybody’s fool. The couple look at each other throughout, checking.
“I worked in the film industry when the war was over and I was sent everywhere because of my language skills. I was asked to do public relations for American films that were being made in Paris.” Kirk chimes, “And that’s where I come into the story.” Kirk grins and his eyes flash. It’s almost as if they’re flirting with each other. Anne continues, “I was asked by a director to work on An Act of Love but I told him no because I had just finished working on Moulin Rouge and had been invited to take the leading lady to Hollywood.” When she came back they still wanted her to work on the movie – a Kirk Douglas movie. “I went to the studio and a friend of mine who was working on set said, ‘I will take you into the lion’s den.’ And that was it.” I look at Kirk. So…he was the lion? He smiles rather sweetly, not even nostalgically because he still thinks he is a lion.
Was Anne a little wary of the lion? She chuckles. “Not at all. He asked me if could do some secretarial work for him and I said no but I’ll find somebody for you.”
Kirk adds, “This beautiful girl was in the lion’s den. I tried to get her to work for me and I was amazed when she said NO. I escorted her to her car and asked her to have dinner with me at Tour d’Argent – the fanciest restaurant in Paris and she said she was going home to make scrambled eggs.” Kirk was obsessed with what he couldn’t have? “Yes.” This wasn’t part of Anne’s massive game play. She just was too sensible, too vulnerable to throw herself in the ring with what was then the world’s biggest movie star. But scrambled eggs I ask her? “Sure. I was exhausted. I’d just come back from LA to Paris and in those days it was propeller planes. You stopped everywhere. It took two days so I said no thank you I have to go to bed.” This must have made her incredibly exciting to this lion here. “Yes,” says Kirk very definitely. But hang on, Kirk, wasn’t he engaged to another women called Pier Angeli? “Well, yes.” And wasn’t she about twelve and he had to take her on dates with her mother? “No. you are exaggerating. She was 18 when we met. 21 when we were engaged.
Meanwhile Angeli was touring the world, with or without her mother and being extremely elusive and Anne was in Paris, as was Kirk. Eventually they went on a date at the circus, a very famous circus I’m assured. Kirk said, “I was surprised when she said yes.” Anne finishes the story. “Everybody was dressed up and it was very elegant and then he appeared on the show with a pooper scooper for the elephant in a tuxedo.” Kirk beams with recollection of the perfect night. “Everybody thought I was very funny but I made her laugh and then we became good friends that night.” How good friends? “Well…” he gestures and for a minute I think is he hamming it up. Anne corrects. “We kissed that night and that was a little more than a friendly kiss and that’s how it started and every so often when we got in the most passionate way he reminded me that he really was engaged to Pier. It was a secret engagement. It hadn’t been announced. I worked on the movie in France and then I was hired for his next picture in Italy called Ulysses, produced by Carlo Ponti.”
He tells me that every night they were filming he would drive up to see Anne. But what about his fiancée? He talks about a day where he and Anne had a boat and they went on a romantic little pleasure trip up the coast, where they thought they were hidden in a private harbour, but somehow Pier found out. “I could never find her when I wanted to but she always knew where I was,” he says, Anne looks irritated to this day. “She was a little devil. She was devious.” Kirk, was he really in love with her? “I was young.. she was a fantasy.” Anne continues. “He and I were very close and the last straw was I was driving him to the airport in my little Renault. He was going to go home to the US to finish 20,000 Leagues under the Sea and at the airport a stewardess comes to the car and says to Kirk, ‘Miss Pier Angeli is waiting for you on the plane.’ That did it. I broke up with him and I told him I’d never see him again. I went to a friend’s apartment in Nice and I told my maid not to tell Mr Douglas where I am. I am gone.”
So how did this make Kirk feel? “I now had my girlfriend Pier without her mother, on her own. This was New Year’s Eve and we were walking in a garden on a river and I was thinking of Anne.” So now he had Angeli he was bored? “Yes, maybe but she seemed to know. She took off the ring I gave her and threw it at me so next morning I used a lot of charm and made Anne’s maid tell me where she was. And I got my passport and went right to her.” Anne continues, “I had told him this was it but then he bribed my maid. I told him I didn’t want to see him again. I didn’t want to start it up again. And somehow he got me to go ski-ing with him in Switzerland. I went to Paris and he went back to America and asked if I would come and visit for two weeks. I told everybody in Paris, either he’s going to marry me or I come back for good. We had a wonderful time and then he said to me, ‘my ex-wife and children are coming in ten days.’ I said don’t worry I will have left. And he said, ‘No. don’t leave.’
Then one day he came home a little bit late, went down on his knees and asked me to marry him and tried to give me Pier Angelis’ ring.” She raises her eyebrows and I ask him what was he thinking? “That’s nothing compared to what she did to me when we were in Paris and she made a birthday party….” Anne finishes the story because she’s proud of it. “Every girl, including the one from the night before when he said he was seeing rushes – he never sees rushes – was invited to that party. Every woman that he’d had an affair with in Paris that I knew of, and that line was very long already and I’m sure I missed a few, was there to greet him. And I was standing at the end and he turned to me and said, “You bitch.” We all laugh.
And you realise Anne’s humour, fighting spirit and ability to brush things off, just like she brushed off a Nazi interrogation, made her probably the only woman that was strong enough for him. They went to Vegas to get married.
Anne recalls, “Because I didn’t know the word lawful I said I would take him to be my ‘awful’ wedded husband. As soon as we were married, Frank Sinatra was in one room performing, Mickey Rooney was in another. We were in a big suite in the Sahara hotel but we went from one place to another. I said to Kirk come on now to bed. He said, ‘we’ve been sleeping together for a year, tonight we are gambling.’”
Kirk and Anne refer to Kirk’s first wife Diana … the woman he married on leave from the Navy and Michael and Joel’s mother as ‘our ex-wife.’ Anne says, “We became instant friends and we never called her by her name – always our ex-wife. The first independent movie Kirk made was The Indian Fighter. He asked, ‘Do you mind if my ex-wife is in the movie?’ I said of course not.” Kirk says, “The kids have to come and live with you and the nanny as well. Is that OK? So the kids moved in while me and the ex-wife made the movie.” Anne was never jealous? “No, well not of her. If I would get jealous it would have become a ridiculous habit. I said to him if it happens, you tell me. If I hear it from other people it hurts me deeply. If you tell me what you’re up to I can get by with it. Maybe I missed a few hundred. I don’t know.”
Kirk, how many affairs did he confess to? “Oh I don’t know,” he says, suddenly put on the spot. “I’m not very good at keeping secrets.” Anne reminds me, “One year he asked me would I like a surprise birthday party? If I have a bottom line it is to say that we were fantastic lovers and better friends. That is what gives us serenity and a great attachment. And now we are, I suppose it’s corny to say, but now we are one.”
They look at each other, their eyes both lock, it’s a sly exchange rather than an adoring one. She catches me observing that. “It has been that way for a long time.”
Why did she convert to Judaism after fifty years of marriage? So Kirk could say, ‘I finally married a nice Jewish girl?’ She smiles. “I told the Rabbi I would like to convert and he said you don’t have to and I said I do for my husband.” The Rabbi comes every week and he and Kirk read scriptures, discuss the Torah and life. “So I did it. I did the Mikvah. Do you know what that is?” It means you have to submerge yourself in water, symbolic of a total cleanse. “Yes all the way in. my hair got wet. I was upset about that. The Rabbi said ‘invite whoever you want,” and I said sure. I’ll invite all my friends and they’ll see me with no polish no make-up, my hair hanging down. No thank you but then I ran to the hairdresser and became that nice Jewish girl.”
The one that Kirk always wanted? “Well, not really. Well…” he says coyly.
Anne Douglas is perfectly coiffed. Full on eye make-up, nails, everything and that’s just for sitting in the house. The Mikvah must have been quite a trauma. Kirk was Barmitzvahed twice. Once when he was 13 and he had to give all his Barmitzvah money to his father and the second time when he was 83. “I never brought my kids up Jewish. Both my wives were not Jewish but Michael’s children Dylan and Carys were interested in it. When Dylan got to be 11 he wanted a Barmitzvah. He said ‘I want to be Jewish.’ Michael also always wanted to be accepted as a Jew, even though his mother wasn’t Jewish. Eric was Barmitzvahed and Peter and Peter’s children. It’s good. They came to it by themselves. Am I a good Jew? I don’t go to the Synagogue but the Rabbi is a friend and he comes every week.” Anne says, “And Kirk takes his confession.”
Kirk, for the first time not joking says, “Let’s not talk any more about religion because nobody really knows. I’m a hundred years old and I don’t think I’ll be going to heaven.” Anne says, “Yes you will be going there. I will send you there and wherever else you want to go.”
They have written a book together, Kirk and Anne, the letters. Letters from when they first met. Letters when Anne was at home looking after the children and Kirk was on location after location. Kirk says, “I’ve written eleven books. I’m always talking about myself. I’ve never given credit to my wife. Why don’t we do a book together?” Anne continues, “Unbeknownst to me I’d kept all the letters. I found them among letters from famous people like Henry Kissinger.” Douglas and Kissinger were friends and he was close to several presidents.
While they were separated on different continents they wrote to one another all the time. It’s interesting to see how he feels. He was so excited when he got the financing for Vikings but Tony Curtis wanted to be in it and take the role that Kirk had earmarked for himself, so he and Anne worked out the decision through letters. Anne encouraging, “give it to Curtis. It will be good for box office.” And in another letter Laurence Olivier said that he wanted to play Spartacus, which obviously didn’t happen.
I wonder if all this swooping up of memories is him preparing to die. What does he think happens after you die? “What do I think of what?” He doesn’t want to talk about it now but he’s written another book, Let’s Face It (he was 90 insert).
Steven Spielberg calls him dad. Why is that? “His mother had a restaurant, the Milky Way and I used to go there for lunch. His mother was so good. I got to know him and he became like a kid to me. I admire him. He’s a great guy and the only billionaire that I like. I won’t hold his money against him.”
My pedicurist went to their house a few years ago and she told me in the bathroom was a framed dollar bill. It was the first dollar he ever made and he framed it so he could always know what it was like to not have any money, to know that he made it on his own. A little touchstone.
He held out for Dalton Trumbo to write the script of Spartacus even though at the time he was blacklisted. Douglas was the catalyst that ended the cruel blacklisting in the McCarthy era. It was the era of the Cold War and anyone in the film industry who was suspected rightly or wrongly of being a communist was blacklisted.
Kirk bought the last ever Trumbo script Montezuma “and Steven bought it from me. I doubt it will come soon because it’s a huge project.” There’s a tangible sadness. Obviously Douglas would have liked to see the movie made and jokes, “will we get any Mexicans in it or will they all be back in Mexico if Trump gets in?” Kirk changes the subject to Michael. Michael is a good son. I never paid attention to him when he was growing up. I said Michael I want you to be a doctor or a lawyer and suddenly he got this part in a play. I told him Michael you were terrible.”
Michael Doulas has referred to this often. It must have hurt him. “No,” says Kirk, “because two months later I went to see him in another play and he was wonderful. I said Michael you were really good and he’s been really good in everything he’s done.” Kirk bought XXXX, a Broadway Play for Michael and he also bought One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest for Michael, even though Jack Nicholson ended up taking the role. Kirk and Michael had a constant banter about being rivals. They can do that because they’re very close. It’s been written that one close up of Kirk Douglas’s face in Spartacus is more powerful than the whole of Lawrence Olivier’s acting career. That’s a very tough act to follow. You see him talking about Michael with pride and with love, something which his own father was never able to do about him. You feel glad that he was able to survive his past and not repeat it.
“You know when I got sick, the thing that hurt me was I couldn’t go to England. Burt Lancaster and I did the Palladium, you know. We were a big hit.” And then he starts singing. And the singing is really not bad, in fact he’s singing more in tune than me as we both attempt ‘maybe it’s because I’m a Londoner that I love London town.” It’s sweet. We laugh and he says, “I’m glad you brought London to me.”
Kirk Douglas is the last remaining star of the golden age and seeing him, this hundred year old man who has struggles with his knees, with hearing, seeing, talking, you see that spirit, a spirit that wants to not only survive not only conquer but charm. If his father had loved him maybe he wouldn’t have needed the world to love him so much and he wouldn’t have been as good at it. In a couple of hours he has totally charmed me, a man who can barely speak has utterly seduced me and that’s why he is a star.
I first met Mel Gibson over 15 years ago at a party on the Sony lot for the movie The Patriot. He came up behind me and turned me upside down and carried me around. I was hysterical but this was one of his party tricks. This was Mel. Maverick, wild, funny, unpredictable. Not much has changed in him since then but in a way everything has. He’s still wild in his heart. But he’s had to rein it in because of the periods where he was completely out of control. Everyone has an opinion about Gibson. Especially after his drunken, Anti- Semitic rant on the PCH Highway when he was stopped for driving under the influence in July 2006. And then in 2011 there was the “leaked” recordings of nasty rows with his then girlfriend, Russian model and musician Oksana Grigorieva, mother of his 7 year old daughter Lucia. For some he’ll always be a hero. He’ll always be Braveheart. Alec Baldwin, Jodie Foster and Robert Downey Junior have all spoken up for him, the latter when presenting him with an award addressed the audience, ‘unless you are completely without sin, in which case you picked the wrong f****** industry to join me in forgiving my friend his trespasses and offering him the same clean slate that you have me…’
Hollywood are of course slow to forgive. His directing genius was quiet and mostly unseen for this past decade. Of course he apologised. Of course he worked on himself but the industry needs something different than that. It needs a movie that is so powerful it erases any other feeling except awe for Gibson. Hacksaw Ridge is that movie. Powerful, spectacular, emotional, gripping. I sat through it hardly able to breathe. In Venice it got a 10 minute standing ovation.
It’s the Mel Gibson comeback movie. Here he is, Hollywood reupholstered, repatched and re-treaded for the road with a story that’s brutal, graphic and emotional. Hacksaw is the story of Desmond Doss, the first conscientious objector to win the Congressional Medal of Honour for bravery in WW11. Doss was a seven day Eventist – his religious beliefs meant he couldn’t carry a gun but as a medic he could save lives even though constantly endangering his own.
This kind of shining bravery is just what Gibson loves. I’m waiting for him in an office in West Hollywood. He arrives with an air of fluster, announcing that he NEEDS a coffee and something to eat. It’s lunchtime and he hasn’t eaten yet. He’s wearing dark jeans, a navy pullover and a giant beard grown for an upcoming movie, the Professor of the Madman with Sean Penn. He likes to twiddle on this beard quite a bit. He combs it and strokes it unconsciously.
His eyes stare out, not so much at me. I tell him that I loved Hacksaw but he’s too focused on his hunger to take the compliment. I ask him how the story came to him. “It was given to me by Bill Mechanic (the man who used to run Fox) three times and on the third time I said yes. I turned down Braveheart and then looked at it again.”
Braveheart (1995) was the 13th century Scottish epic where Gibson the movie star and Gibson the film maker collaborated in perfect reel. His first impact was with Mad Max (1979) a post-apocalyptic thriller. It made Gibson a star in his native Australia and after that Gallipoli (1981), Peter Weir’s epic Australian First World War drama made him a star worldwide.
He directed and funded the Passion of The Christ (2004). It drew controversy – of course, but remains the biggest grossing independent film of all time. It’s been 10 years since he helmed Apocalypto (2006) about the decline and savagery of the Mayan kingdom. It was received well but Hacksaw is being spectacularly embraced.
Is he happy he made it now rather than a few years ago? He nods enthusiastically, pointing out that 10 years ago when it landed on his desk, its leading actor, Andrew Garfield would have been too young for the part. Garfield’s (Boy A and Spiderman) portrayal of Desmond Doss is remarkable. So weedy, yet brave. Handsome but awkward.
“He’s got a very soulful quality. He wasn’t like some muscle guy. He’s just a guy. Good looking but not like a pretty boy and that’s who Desmond was. An ordinary guy.” Did Gibson meet Doss before making the movie? “No. he passed away in 2006 at 87 but before he died he’d given his life rights to his church to dispose of. The church were pretty concerned. They didn’t want to give it to just anybody so Bill Mechanic was very sensitive to their requirements and wanted to honour the story of Desmond. As early as 1948 Hal Wallace (American producer of Casablanca and True Grit) was trying to get the rights to make a movie but Desmond never even went into a cinema. They even commandeered Audy Murphy (one of the most decorated American soldiers of World War II) to talk to him and say, ‘look I’m a war hero and I’m making movies. It’s ok. But Desmond said, “I’ll just stay here and grow my vegetables.” He was humble but then he realised that two or three other men followed his lead as a conscientious objector medic and he realised that his story would inspire other people. Desmond was selfless. He put his life on the line for somebody else in a heartbeat and would do it over and over again.”
When Doss first joined the army and refused to carry a weapon he was not only mocked by his fellow soldiers he was tortured. “The persecution was more protracted. We don’t show all of it in the film. And yet this was the man who got 75 guys, dragged them and pulled them on a rope down a big cliff and he was only 150 pounds. He stepped on a grenade to save a friend and as he was being carried off in a stretcher he saw someone who was wounded, so he jumped off, treated the guy and put HIM on the stretcher.”
The ultimate battle scene in Hacksaw is in Okinawa where Desmond pulls out men from carnage – it’s Gibson at his best. Blood, gore, salvation. There’s a guy in it who gets his legs blown off played by a soldier who lost his limbs in Afghanistan. He had to re-enact losing his own legs. He wore his prosthetics for the rest of the movie. Was that not a bit traumatic for him? “Yes it was. He approached the scene with trepidation but he’s a courageous guy and he found it cathartic.”
There’s also a lot of blood in this movie. “Yes,” he says enthusiastically. “I really like blood.” Really? “Yes. Okinawa was the worst place in the Pacific. 350,000 dead in a 10 week period. There were rivers of blood. I didn’t go too far, believe me.” I notice at the beginning of the movie there is a shot of Desmond getting a blood taste. The blood is shot with awe. “Oh well,” he shrugs. “Doss met his wife while giving blood. He did it a few times, initially because he wanted to help people.”
Did Gibson identify with Doss? Long pause. “I think we all want to think we can be like that. When we see somebody like him, it reassures us that the human spirit is capable of just about anything and when things look really bleak that’s a good message to get. This is an extraordinary guy who did extraordinary things in extremely difficult circumstances. And that would test the mettle of anyone’s spirit, heart and mind and it’s also a great story.”
Hacksaw was shot in Australia so that too has a feeling of renaissance for Gibson. It was also a family affair. His son Milo was in it. “I’m not helping him. He’s doing alright on his own. I have another son who worked on the film who was a Steadicam operator.”
It was good to work with family? “Yes.” There’s a twiddle of the beard. “Yes it was good.”
His eight children range from 6 to 36 in age. Seven of them are with his ex wife of 31 years Robyn. He was married to Robyn when we met. He described her as his rock, more organised than him – a nurturing figure. There was never a hint of a betrayal in those years. Word is he was devastated when she left him, but even when they were at their happiest he found it difficult to talk about love. Way too girly for him. Gibson is a guy’s guy. He doesn’t like talking about soft stuff but he’s happy to talk about his children, raving about their talents. One son is a sculptor and glass blower, another is a chopper pilot and TV producer, another (Louis) is a film director whose first movie has just been completed. It was just announced that he is expecting his ninth child with writer Rosalind Ross, his girlfriend of two years, a former equestrian high jumper . She’s 26, he’s 60. While much can be made of their 34 year age difference, the relationship seems both steady and steadying. What does he think about having a ninth child? “Delighted.” According to People magazine he’s had the happiest two years of his life.
The conversation circles back to the Venice ovation. “Nine minutes 52 seconds.” How did that make him feel? Happy, relieved, back? “Absolutely. It’s like being a chef. If people eat it and go yum yum it’s gratifying. If you’re a story teller it tells you that somewhere in your quiver you’ve got a bunch of bolts that are aimed true. It’s affirmation for the work you do and that your story telling ideas correspond with humanity at large.”
I think about this. Is he admitting it was hard for him to have people not forgive him and now he feels accepted again? He says, “Well it’s not like I stopped working….There have been many projects…but this is my first as a director for ten years.” Yes there have been movies in which he has acted, notably the Beaver which was about a man having a break down, who only has the ability to speak through his glove puppet Beaver. It was a poignant performance directed by his friend Jodie Foster. It struck a chord with me because it seemed to echo Gibson himself, in pain and unable to speak except through rage. And more recently there was Blood Father which has been well received. “Peter Weir or Terry Malick, these take ten years between projects. It’s because they are very discerning. I am discerning and I’m not sure that I want to reach into my own pocket anymore because it can pay huge dividends or you can get totally killed.”
The Passion was the biggest grossing independent film of all time. “Yes, so that was an excellent bet.” I have read that there’s going to be a sequel. “Not a sequel, but a continuation. There’s resurrection, there’s stuff before, stuff after, stuff in other realms but it’s a very big subject, deep and profound so it will require a good deal of thought. It has to be enlightening and work on a lot of different levels that all have to dovetail so it will be tricky.” He has said before “I love directing. It’s the most fun you can have standing up.”
Eventually someone brings him a croissant. He tears into it like a caveman into an animal. He hasn’t eaten since the veal chop and spinach last night. “I need carbs. Every now and again you have to snort some pasta.” Bits of croissant flake into the bushy beard which he strokes proudly. In The Professor and the Madman, Sean Penn is the Madman but it could have easily gone the other way round. “It could. We gravitated to those roles. Sean can be just as crazy as me. My theory about great actors – and Sean is a great actor – they have to be a little bit kooky and he is.”
Hard to say who is king of kooky but Gibson has certainly reigned supreme as the practical joker. He’s been good friends with Julia Roberts since they worked on Conspiracy Theory (1997) and likes to send her freeze dried Norwegian rats. “I love her and I love to hear her scream. I put a Norwegian freeze dried rat that comes from a store in New York City in a parcel and when she unwrapped it she screamed.”
We laugh about the rat and now he seems perfectly relaxed. People can forgive him for sending rats to Julia Roberts but does he worry that other people haven’t forgiven him? “Really? Are there? I’m not aware of it.” So that’s me in a question cul de sac. If you can’t admit that you ever worried about people not forgiving you, the problem doesn’t exist, therefore we can’t plunder the coalface of his rage and alcohol issues. He’s apologised of course and says, “Look, I’ve done all the necessary work over the years to come back and I’m in a healthy place. As you can see I am tee totalling.” He gestures to his coffee cup. Is he sure there’s no vodka in it? “Not even a drop.”
He rummages in his bag and gets out a picture of the man he’s going to play in The Professor and The Madman. The beard is even longer. A rabbinical Santa Claus? “Kind of but he was very scholarly and a Scot and he was the editor of the English Oxford Dictionary. The movie is not dry at all. It’s incredible.” Soon he’s off to Ireland to shoot it. “Sean and I are going to look like ZZ Top.” I tell him he looks like he could work in an Apple store, his beard is so long. “I would be proud to get a job there. Those techy guys are usually pretty bright. Maybe fur does confer brains. Con-fur?” he jokes. There’s no doubt that Gibson is beyond smart, an instinctive story teller who knows how to manipulate his sc reen audiences emotions.
In the initial tests for Hacksaw I was surprised to see that women liked the movie more than men. “The hard combat and the violent aspects are not gratuitous. They are justified in the context of the story and it is emotionally engaging. It’s not just a bucket of blood being thrown down. It has a point. One of the points being the understanding of the kind of sacrifice someone makes in the conditions that they are operating under. You hear the expression war is hell. I wanted to show you just a little peek of hell. I thought it was important to have the audience feel that they were in a foxhole too and to bring them some understanding of what post-traumatic stress disorder is like. I’ve talked to people about this since the beginning of my career when I was in my twenties and they were in their eighties. I’ve talked to World War I guys (when he did Gallipoli), I’ve talked to World War II guys like my dad and guys who have been in the Vietnam war and guys who have been to Afghanistan. It doesn’t matter what the war was, they all got PTSD.”
In the First World War they called it shell shock, didn’t they? “Yes but I don’t think there was enough attention paid to it. Something is needed and I hope this could bring awareness to the problems we have today with returning service guys who are suffering.”
Did he miss directing, being ten years away from it? He doesn’t answer yes or no, but says, “I didn’t want to stick my hand in my pocket again.” Next up he’s doing a TV show called The Barbary Coast with Kurt Russell. It’s set in San Francisco 1849 at the time of the gold rush. They are writing it and directing it together and Kate Hudson will be in it. “It was a crazy place. Corruption, debauchery, murders, lawlessness.” He said the word lawlessness with relish. “Yes, because we are talking about an anarchic society that has its own rules. Remember Lord of the Flies? If you leave people to their own devices you see what animals they become. It shows the best and the worst of us.”
He seems excited and a whole lot more relaxed. I think that’s a lot to do with the croissant. What would he be like in that gold rush? The sweetest version of himself or the cruellest? “I don’t know,” he says, pensive. “When you’re thrown in to situations you never know.” If he were in Hacksaw Ridge would he be the medic that saves lives? “No, that would be crazy. What would I do? I don’t know. How do you survive in that world?” His stories are usually about survival and sometimes redemption. “Yes, sure. These are all primals. I think if you stick with themes that show us who we are and find situations that accentuate who we could be or shouldn’t be, those are the interesting stories.”
I give him a gift that was made for him by an enclosed order of Welsh Nuns – hand carved beads with Celtic cross and Star of David. The nuns gave it to me for him a few years ago because they’re all about forgiveness and this particular cross is only worn by these nuns, the Poor Clares. Basically you have to be a nun to get one of these so they made a special effort. He looks mystified, bewildered but he likes the idea of these nuns who were once fallen women. And now he has something that can only be worn by nuns, is he in touch with his female side? “Oh sure, yes…. I remember I was in a film years ago and how the dialogue went when I was getting in touch with my female side.” Really? “Yes, the dialogue was like this:
“Last night I cried in bed.”
“Were you with a woman?”
“No, that’s why I was crying.”
That was the B grade dialogue from Lethal Weapon 1 and I can attribute that to Shane Black.” So despite the fact that Gibson did a movie What Women Want and he waxed his legs for it, he makes a point of not wanting to know what women want and not wanting to be in touch with his female side. “In fact I feel we should do another movie. What women don’t want.”
I’m on the 25th floor of the Trump Tower in New York, sitting opposite Ivanka Trump. She’s a dazzling presence, tall and elegant.At 34, she is the eldest daughter of Donald Trump, the billionaire businessman and would-be president of the US, and his first wife, Ivana, the Czech-American socialite and former model. Ivanka’s skin is luminously moisturised. Her hair, though silky, golden and long, is contained; let’s not forget that in the world of hairstyles, few have had as much impact as her mother’s rock-hard beehive or Donald’s famous swoop-over lift-off. Ivanka looks more like her mother, but she has inherited her father’s superhuman work ethic. She sleeps, she says airily, only“about 4½ hours a night”.
In March this year she gave birth to her third child, Theodore, and only a week later was back on her father’s campaign trail, looking poised and super slim. What happened to the baby belly? What happened to exhaustion hormones? All in check. She said at the time: “As a young girl growing up, my father told me I could do anything that I set my mind to.”And that’s exactly what she did. She was briefly a model, before graduating with an economics degree from Wharton business school in 2004.Along with her two eldest brothers, Ivanka is an executive vice president of development and acquisition at the Trump Organization. She has her own successful fashion brand, and she is writing a book, Women Who Work.
Oh yes, and she and her siblings are increasingly influential in their father’s presidential campaign. Donald, 70, the presumptive Republican nominee for president, is now on his third wife. The real-estate tycoon who helmed the American edition of The Apprentice is taken far more seriously in the US than in Britain, where many see his utterances as unhinged. In America, people look up to the man who is not afraid to say what many think.Trump has five children — three from his first marriage and one each from numbers two and three, the youngest of whom is 10. But it is the elder three who wield the greatest influence over their father’s business ventures and political ambitions.
Ivanka and her brothers Donald Jr, 38, and Eric, 32, are all major players in the Trump presidential campaign, travelling on his campaign plane and sitting with him at his conference table.A few days after we meet, they successfully press him to sack one of his top aides, campaign chairman Corey Lewandowski, who they worried had become a control freak. Reports suggest it was Ivanka who delivered the ultimatum to their father, threatening to distance herself from the campaign if Lewandowski was not removed.
She was right, of course: people were starting to complain that Lewandowski was becoming too abrasive — particularly towards women.At an event in Florida, he was caught on video grabbing a female reporter by the arm. Ivanka is all about taking out the heat, rather than creating it.“Ivanka, Eric and I have the ability to be very candid with our father,” Donald Trump Jr has said. All three children work at Trump Tower, on the floor below their father’s office. He has always involved them just as he was involved himself in his father’s real-estate business, making it an empire, going on to buy ever grander properties. Last week,Trump and his brood were on parade in Scotland boosting their brand at the grand reopening of the Trump Turnberry golf resort, where he hailed Brexit and congratulated Britain on “[taking] their country back”. He attributed the Leave vote chiefly to uncontrolled immigration, and said other countries would follow suit.
When we meet, however, it is clear Ivanka intends to remain above the fray. She is wearing a black and coral floral dress from her own fashion range: V-neck, slightly flared, feminine and in no way overt. Whereas her father thrives on the adrenaline of saying the first thing that comes into his head, Ivanka carefully manicures her thoughts. In person, she’s measured, impressive and athletic-looking.A giant desk separates us. It’s filled with books, notes, her magazine covers and a printed card with what appears to be the Trump manifesto: “We are Determined, Respectful, Engaged,Ambitious, Motivated, Dedicated, Optimistic.” I’m flustered as I grapple for my tape recorder. Ivanka’s voice is soothing as she recommends one of her own handbags with many compartments and a charger for your phone: “It’s coming in the new collection.”
The clothes line is only a small part of what’s occupying her time alongside the Trump campaign, the family’s real-estate deals and, of course, her three kids. She tells me she’s always literally running home to check on them.There’s a camera linked to the office, too, so she knows what they are up to. Ivanka recently tweeted that baby Theodore has started sleeping through the night at two months. How did she manage to get him to do that?
“With each child we got them on a sleep schedule in a quicker fashion,” she says.“However,Arabella [her oldest daughter, aged 4] was a disaster because we didn’t know what we were doing and it took a year. Joseph [aged 2] was half that, but with Theodore we’re learning how to do it.”
Her husband, Jared Kushner, is also involved with Trump’s campaign. He is another American businessman — the publisher of The New York Observer and heads his family’s real-estate development company, Kushner Companies.They married in 2009 after she converted to Judaism for him.“I’m incredibly in love with him and he’s my best friend,” she says. He was raised Orthodox. She is observant of the Sabbath and has even learnt to cook kosher.“I was a terrible cook. I’ve always loved entertaining and having people in my home but I would normally order food.When I got married I decided that was something I would learn how to do,” she says.
As well as an apartment in Manhattan (on the Upper East Side) they have a cottage at one of the Trump golf clubs in New Jersey, next to her father’s. She and her family escape there at weekends. How is Donald as a grandfather? “Excellent, excellent. My kids love him and we spend a lot of time together, especially during the summer. It’s very cute that my daughter has picked up little things from him. A couple of months ago we were walking down the street in New York City and she spotted a pothole in the road. She points at me and looks at it and says,‘Mom, Grandpa would not like that.’
We laugh and then she goes,‘You know, that sort of meticulousness that he has.’ He is incredibly close with my children.”Her eyes light up when she’s talking about her dad. “My father has tremendous warmth,” she continues. “He is a fiercely loyal person to his family and friends. He has an amazing — and albeit sometimes wicked — sense of humour. He has been an unbelievable father to me and my siblings.” Trump is a man who doesn’t think before he speaks and doesn’t realise that his “jokes” can often be taken out of context — and she hasn’t always been shielded from them herself. A former Miss Universe contestant recalled the time Donald called his own daughter“hot”, asking: “Don’t you think my daughter’s hot? She’s hot, right?” Ivanka was 16 at the time. Does she think his sense of humour has been taken in the wrong way? “Potentially,” she says cautiously. Perhaps he shouldn’t joke so much in public, I suggest. Ivanka demurs, as she does about all his controversial politicking. Rather than try and defend his divisive views, she says: “He is also authentic.A component of his success has been that people respect the fact that he’s incredibly honest with his opinions, and in politics that’s remarkably rare, if not unheard of. So I think that’s a refreshing quality. Regardless of whether people agree or disagree with a certain political stance, I do think there’s an appreciation that he is not afraid to say where he stands on a given issue.”
So,Team Trump.Would she, could she, be a running mate? It has been suggested she would be his perfect foil.“Oh gosh, he’s keeping me busy here at Trump. I also have my own business and a young family. Quite a few things on my plate and I’m very happy.” It’s not exactly a denial. Of course, everyone has been asking me: what does she think about Trump’s plans to build a wall to keep out the Mexicans, and banning Muslims from entering the US? What does she think about profiling? But of course she’s not going to tell me — those questions are off limits. She sails on unruffled, super-controlled, immune to his turbulence.The best I can do is ask her how things would change if she was to get the title First Daughter? “You’ll have to ask me in a year from now. I’m trying not to think too far ahead of myself. I’m an adult now, so obviously it would be a different experience
than if I were a child. But I’m still a daughter.” I read that she was close friends with the former First Daughter Chelsea Clinton.“Yes, we’ve known each other for years and she’s a wonderful person and a very good friend.” So despite their parents running against each other, their friendship remains. Ivanka is very much a feminist.“I 100% believe in gender equality so by definition that makes me a feminist, which I’m very proud of.” Surprisingly, she also thinks her father is a feminist — despite many accusations against him of misogyny, objectifying women and generally cussing them out (but who does he not cuss out?).“I do, yes and it’s a big reason I am the woman I am today. He always told me and showed me that I could do anything I set my mind to if I married vision and passion with work ethic. He’s also surrounded me with strong female role models who have done just that since I was a little girl. People talk about gender equality. He has lived it, he has employed women at the highest levels of the Trump Organization for decades, so I think it’s a great testament to how capable he thinks women are and has shown that his whole life.” I think she’s always been a daddy’s girl. She used to watch Donald in the office and on construction sites when she was little, just to observe his process. She becomes a little more hesitant at this; you can see her choosing words carefully.“Yes I did. I think there’s a genetic component as well as an experiential component to my love for real estate. Both my parents really loved what they did professionally and shared their passion with us starting from a young age. It’s no coincidence that my brothers and I like showing up for work.That’s what they modelled for us.”
“But they didn’t force it upon us,” she adds.“The number one thing my father said to me my whole life was that you need to find what you’re passionate about, because life is too short to do something you don’t love and if you are not passionate you will never be great.And I’ve noticed that to be true. People who are the most successful are the most passionate. It’s much easier to cut corners if you care less deeply.”
Born and raised in New York, she was a straight-A student and responsible for earning her own spending money, which is why she took up modelling in her teens. In her book The Trump Card, she wrote: “It’s as ruthless an industry as real estate… models were the meanest, cattiest, bitchiest girls on the planet. Entitled, unsupervised, under educated and pampered teenagers whose every success came as the direct result of someone else’s disappointment.” She got out of that fast,went to university and worked for other companies before joining Trump.
She’s not someone who thinks that famous parents are a curse — despite what she went through when her parents,who were very much the New York power couple, divorced in 1992. She learnt all about her father’s mistress, the actress Marla Maples,who became his second wife. Reporters would ask her about her father’s sexual prowess and she was hounded by paparazzi.
Yet, the Trump name is, she says,“a tremendous blessing. I look at the great fortune I’ve had my entire life.There are people starving around the globe. Some people think having a successful or famous parent can be paralysing in that they feel they could never live up to what was accomplished by the generation before them.The flip side is that it can be a great motivator if you harness that energy and use it productively.”
She’s close to both her parents and said in the past that the divorce “brought me closer to my father, not because I was taking his side but because I could no longer take him for granted”. So she supported him, a week after giving birth, on that podium in New York. Was that not hard? “I try to live my life in accordance with my priorities. My family is always my first priority.”
She believes her attitude to raising children is very different from that of her mother’s generation.“There used to be a work life and a home life. Now there is one life,” she says.“No one I know has a work wardrobe any more, or an area of their closet that’s designated for work.We transition through roles more fluidly.
Technology has been a huge enabler of that because it became normal to respond to work emails at 11 o’clock at night and therefore permissible to pick up the phone when your child was calling at the end of the school day.” She adds: “I don’t do it all myself. I’m very fortunate to have childcare to help me while I am at work.” In fact, she rejects “the concept of ‘having it all’ because that’s the wrong way to look at things. It implies there’s one definition for personal and another for professional success and I don’t believe that to be true.And I think people are trying to cast women as uniform and one-dimensional.A better way to look at it is, you are the architect of your own life and you have to live in accordance with the things you prioritise.”
She has recently started to enjoy running.“I absolutely hated it, then my team here and I trained for a half marathon in Central Park. Now I run with my husband on Saturday mornings. I’m probably the only person who runs without music, without a phone. It’s just great to be able to talk to him.”
Every year, she and Kushner like to go to Turnberry, which she says “is without doubt the greatest golf resort in the world”. She thinks the only way to reallyget to know someone is during four hours on a golf course. She claims not to be a “particularly good” golfer, though I doubt there’s much in her life that she’s not exemplary at. She disagrees, and worries that I might think she’s too perfect.“You know, I get very messy. I don’t want to project an image that everything is simple and easy, because that’s not helpful to women, because raising children is really tiring and exhausting. I sleep very little, and I don’t advocate that, but there are things that I want to accomplish. I will leave the office early to have dinner with my kids, put them to bed and get back to work rather late. It’s a choice that I feel good about. I’m OK about losing a little bit of sleep to create a schedule that works for my life.” “I’m also of my generation,” she says,“a millennial woman who is ambitious. I have a lot of things to accomplish professionally.And I swing for the fences.” What does that mean? “It’s a baseball expression. It means I dream big.” And live big? “No I don’t. I don’t live to excess.”
Indeed. Everything about her mindset and physical appearance is contained, balanced, the antithesis of her father. I like her, but I still don’t feel I know who she really is. I put it in another way: if she were a shoe, what kind would she be? “Oh, I would be my Carra pump from my own range.” She takes off her coral-coloured stiletto and shows it to me for inspection.“It’s my go-to. Remarkably comfortable, but I could run a marathon in these.” But that heel is four or five inches high.“They’re comfortable. I would never wear a shoe that would require me to teeter around.” Mystery still unsolved.A woman in 4½in stilettos can only run a marathon if she’s Ivanka Trump.
Everyone has a little bit of Chelsea Handler in them — the bit that can’t suffer fools and likes to make fun of people,the bit that thinks they’ve got something special and should never have to fly economy.Most people don’t know how to unleash their inner Handler.They worry what people will think. Handler has never cared about that. She’s made a career out of making fun of people.
The American comedian, actress, writer, producer and close pal of Jennifer Aniston remains only the second woman to have a US late-night talk show (the first was Joan Rivers). Chelsea Lately aired for nearly eight years on the American channel E! It was compulsive viewing, attracting guests such as Lindsay Lohan and the Kardashians,even though Handler was never sycophantic, possibly even a touch cruel. She has written five bestselling books — including 2005’s My Horizontal Life: A Collection of One-Night Stands and 2008’s Are You There,Vodka? It’s Me, Chelsea — and has racked up almost 6m Twitter followers, but she remains relatively unknown in Britain.That’s changing thanks to the four documentaries she has made for Netflix.The series is called Chelsea Does and tackles marriage, Silicon Valley, racism and drugs. The 41-year-old says she learnt a lot. She also reveals a lot: behind her rapier wit, there’s a vulnerable side.
I arrive at her house in Bel Air. It’s modern, comfortably furnished,with arty photos, furry dining room chairs, outside deck and pool. Most surprising is that it seems really lived-in.We go up to her bedroom to talk and sit on opposite couches. She’s wearing ripped jeans and a fawn sweater, no shoes, no make-up, no brush has been through the hair. Her bed is unmade.A pair of Stella McCartney stilettos is discarded on the floor. It turns out McCartney is a good friend and they’d been for a night out recently. She doesn’t mention Aniston.
As well as the documentaries, she’s launched a Netflix talk show, which mixes live action, politics and documentary footage, and it airs three times a week. I ask if Donald Trump will be vain enough to appear. “I doubt it. I’ve been pretty public about calling him an asshole and last week I was in Mexico with a piñata of him. I tied it to a tree and everyone beat the shit out of it.The video went viral. I’d love to have Hillary Clinton on it, I love Hillary.” Chunk, her dog, trots in, fluffy-fresh from the groomer. He’s part chow and part German shepherd; he looks like a teddy bear. Handler calls everything she loves Chunk: her first boyfriend, her mother, who died 10 years ago.“We called each other Chunk.” Her first boyfriend, a Brit called Peter, makes an appearance in the documentary about marriage.They met for the first time in years to be filmed and he revealed that she used to reallywant children. She pooh-poohs his suggestion: “ I love kids most of the time if they are my friends’ or my family’s. He confused that with a desire to have them, which there was not.”
At 41 there still isn’t. On the table in front of her is a green drink.“This is what I have to drink every day, do you want to try it?” I decline.“Dieting is rough, it’s a pain in the ass for everyone.A lot of people in this town just don’t eat.” Does being on TV all of the time make her extra aware? “Yes, and I work out all of the time, and I actually enjoy that, but the dieting is really hard for me. I’m good for a few days and then I go off.” She thinks she might be an alcoholic.“If I don’t drink for more than three nights you can tell in my personality. I just need alcohol in my system . I love alcohol — it makes me happy.”
Handler was 39 when she quit E! because she no longer found her show challenging. For most women, the cusp of 40 isn’t the age when people start afresh; it’s not when confidence is at its highest. But Handler isn’t most women.“Like anything in my career, I like to excel at something and then I’m done and want to be out of my comfort zone. I was bored with the sound of my voice and I wasn’t feeling particularly grateful any more. I was bored with these celebrities on rotation. I just thought this has afforded me tons of luxury and access to many things, but it’s not like I’m saving lives. I thought I should be doing something more interesting.”
Cue the documentaries. How did she decide on the four subjects? “It was important for me to do something that everybody is familiar with. Marriage is something everyone can talk about. I never had the desire to be married and I’ve never been interested in that kind of construct. Drugs: I love doing drugs. Racism: I thought, let me see if I can do something serious but with a sense of humour.” In the tech documentary she creates an app.
The racism documentary is emotional, especially when she goes to Jerusalem to speak with the former Israeli president Shimon Peres.“He said,‘Walls are meant to be torn down.’ I loved it when he said that. My father once said,‘When you read a book, even if you don’t like it,there’s always one sentence that should resonate.’That was the line that was really powerful.” Handler’s father appears often in Chelsea Does. He is perhaps the reason she never became someone’s wife; he told her that she wasn’t the type of girl that anyone would marry, which she took as a compliment.
Her father was a used-car salesman and they grew up in a Jewish suburb of New Jersey. Her mother was a Mormon of German descent who converted to Judaism. Handler is the youngest of six, the eldest of whom, her brother Chet, died in a hiking accident when he was 21. Handler couldn’t wait to leave suburbia, so at 19 she was West Coast-bound with a backdrop of determination over tragedy. She thought she would try acting, but ended up waitressing before turning her failed romances into comedy gold. “It was when Peter [the British ex-boyfriend] and I broke up that I started to get good material for stand-up, so I stopped being a waitress.”The day after they split up, she let herself into his apartment to find him in bed with someone else.“I was angry, and when you’re angry, you come up with good stuff.”
In the marriage documentary she also reveals a preference for dating foreign men.Yet two of her most famous exes are American. In 2010 she was briefly with the rapper 50 Cent and in 2013 she dated the hotelier André Balazs, who is behind the London celebrity haunt Chiltern Firehouse. “He’s not anything you’d imagine, but that was just a flash in the pan,” she says of 50 Cent. Was she in love with him? “No!” What about British Pete? “He was my first love.” She says she is “independent and I always wanted to be.That was important to me because both my parents were hot messes.They loved each other, but they had no financial security and it was constantly,‘Don’t answer the phone, it might be a bill collector.’We weren’t poor, but you never knew what was going to happen.”
As the youngest of six, did she have to make her mark? “I think I was born that way, intent on being something bigger. For me, my life was going to begin once I left [New Jersey].When I came here I didn’t know what I wanted to be, I just wanted to be known. As a waitress I got fired from many different places. I went off on people if they were rude.” She asks if I mind if she uses the restroom and do I want to watch her? I don’t.While she is away I notice a plate on her coffee table that says: “Look, sweetheart, I can drink you under any goddamn table you want.”
Alcohol isn’t her only vice. For the documentary on drugs, she tried the mind-expanding drug ayahuasca. She says she enjoys doing drugs.“Last night I smoked a little pot, went to bed at 8.30pm and woke up at 7am. It was great. I’d rather do that than take a sleeping pill.”
I tell her my theory that women can’t be sexy and good at stand-up. Female comics who do well are often fat, misshapen or unlucky.“I don’t think that’s true,” she says.“I think I’m quite tomboyish — I don’t wear skirts in real life, so why wear one on stage? But it wasn’t hard for me at all.There’s a constant discussion about gender disparity, and of course it exists, but in my experience it’s been a huge advantage to be a woman.” And this is where you see her inner Handlerness, made of titanium.
In 2014 she posed topless on a horse — mirroring the shot of Vladimir Putin, the Russian president. She didn’t realise it would cause a stir.Thirty minutes after posting the picture to Instagram, the site removed it, saying she had violated the app’s terms of service. “I was making a joke.The reaction was incredible. Why is a man allowed to ride topless when a woman isn’t? Because we have big breasts? What the f*** is that? I just wanted to highlight its idiocy.”
She says she could never have done anything other than comedy.“If this didn’t work out, I’d have to marry someone really wealthy. I’ve always wanted nice things, and I never want to fly economy again. Ever! And I need to be working to do that and doing something that’s compelling. I don’t have a lot of skill sets, so I have to try and be really good at the only thing I can do.”
She smiles, happy in the knowledge that the thing she can do is all she needs.
There is no doubt about it. Helen Mirren has a simmering sexual presence. Hot and cold, withdrawn and flirty, disciplined and out of control. She tells me when we meet in her hotel suite she’s just eaten eight croissants. She says it as if she’s rather impressed with herself. She says it without guilt, but kind of licking her lips.
I’d just seen her in the children’s adventure movie Inkheart. It’s about what happens when you have the ability to make characters from books come to life. She plays an eccentric aunt who rides a motorcycle very fast. Lady Godiva hair swirling in the breeze. She says she took the part for that bike ride.
Was it hard to learn to ride it? She looked extremely comfortable on it. “Well I didn’t have to learn because I already had a motorbike when I was in my early twenties. So I thought I don’t care what else happens, I want to be on that motorbike again.” What happened to your own motorbike? “Mm, it was a bit of a disaster. I got it when I was in Stratford because I needed transport and I thought it would be cool, and also cheap, because I couldn’t afford a car. But it wasn’t cheap because you have to buy all the clothes.”
You imagine Mirren in her leathers. Striking. “The major problem was when you stop at a light you can’t balance, so you have to put one foot down and hold the bike up.” She stands up and straddles as if riding a bike to demonstrate. She’s wearing a cotton suit in milky beige and a white T-shirt. As she bends down the skirt stretches over her bottom and thigh. Extremely tight.
“I wasn’t strong enough, so every traffic light I would absolutely topple over. I had it for three or four months and thought, this is not working out. But on the movie set I could just go and stop and someone would hold up the bike. It was lovely.”
Since her Oscar she has worked steadily and variably, thus avoiding the Halle Berry curse of Oscar – everything you take on flops and your career backtracks. She was twice Tony nominated for plays on Broadway; for Turgenev’s A Month In The Country in 1995 and with Sir Ian McKellen in Strindberg’s Dance Of Death in 2002. Is now about to start filming The Tempest. Reconnected with her Russian roots doing Michael Hoffman’s The Last Station about Tolstoy’s last days with Christopher Plummer. And she’s been working with her husband, director Taylor Hackford (Officer And A Gentleman, and Oscar nominated Ray). Lots of zig-zagging the planet. I tell her I’ve just arrived from Los Angeles. She wants me to have a croissant. “Because when you’re jet lagged you feel entitled to absolutely anything, don’t you.”
She wants to know why I live in Los Angeles and London. She wants to ask me many questions. Not as an aversion technique as some interviewees enjoy rather than talking about themselves, but because she seems curious. engaged, alert, curious. “My husband’s film is called Love Ranch. It’s a brothel in Nevada in the Seventies,” she says with a glint, an ever so tiny glint, but nonetheless a perceptible glint of naughtiness in her eye.
Are you a madam? “Yes, of course. I’m not one of the old girls,” she laughs. Well you might be, I say, knowing very many people who would definitely pay to have sex with her. “Although they do it for a long time and funny enough the older prostitutes are the most popular.” Because they are experienced? “No, it’s because the guys think they are user friendly. They are comfortable with them so they don’t feel intimidated. And guys who go to brothels are obviously not the most successful guys in the world sexually, so that’s what they need. It’s all about not being intimidated,” she says managing to seem intimidating and inviting all at once.
I don’t think she was born this much of a sexual being. I think she earned it with confidence, with wit, with intelligence. You look at her face. It’s so animated. You see her feeling everything. Sure there are lines, but it’s not the lines you notice. It’s not the age, which is 63. You just think she’s hot and not hot for her age.
Was it fun to work with your husband? “It was lovely to go home at night and be with my husband,” she corrects. “Working with him I have to say was not easy. My husband in work mode is not the easiest of people, although a lot of people absolutely adore working with him. But because I have the emotional connection with him I would get upset if he was shouting, not at me, but at someone else demanding something. I would be seeing it from their point of view. I would find myself rushing around trying to mop up after him.” Then she backtracks and contradicts herself as she is prone to do. “But it was great. I love the fact that he got the film together and he created a wonderful role for me. But you know, husbands and wives don’t need to work together. We are professional people in our own worlds. There’s nothing I love more than going to my husband’s set and being his wife. But this, it mixes the roles up. It either gets too cosy, which is not a good thing, because it’s not very creative. Or it gets the opposite…” Which sounds like it was with you. “Yes. He didn’t make me cry, but he made me very cross.”
Perhaps the secret of their longevity was the fact they hadn’t worked together since 1986 when they met on the set of White Knights. Mirren once told me it was because they came together late, as fully formed people. They eventually married in the Scottish Highlands in December 1997. “We came to each other grown-up, professionally formed. I was in my late thirties and I just so aligned to him. We were generous to each other and loyal in terms of each other’s work.”
Before that she had intoxicating love affairs with photographer James Wedge, who liked to experiment with sexuality in his images, and actors Nicol Williamson and Liam Neeson. The latter told me how much he adored her because she taught him sophistication and how to eat prawns. There’s only a hint that she wasn’t always as well put together as she seems today.
She says she cries easily when it’s with pleasure. We both cried at the Inkheart movie’s happy ending. “I always cry at peculiar times. For example, I weep openly if I see a parade, or people marching down the middle of the road, especially if they’re dressed up in their best. I think it’s because they’re trying so hard. Spelling Bees make me cry. Marching bands with drums, I’m in bits. The Olympics made me cry.” She puzzles, “Isn’t that strange?”
What is also strange is the fact after the year that she collected her Emmy for playing Det.Supt. Jane Tennison in stripper shoes and a Marilyn dress, her Golden Globe and Oscar for her emotionally hemmed in performance of The Queen, is that she should want to follow it with a children’s movie and play an aunt who doesn’t really like children. Is that like her? Does she like children?
“I’ve never been hugely maternal, but I’ve always loved children as an aunt, a naughty aunt. I’m very happy to be able to give children back to their parents… Not that I’ve actually ever been alone with them.” She’s never wanted to have children of her own. She decided that when she saw a movie at convent school when she was about 13 of a woman giving birth. “Out of our whole class there must have been more than me who was traumatised by it. To this day it was horrific and it gave me an absolute horror of childbirth. We had no mention of sex in my school, even in biology. They just avoided that subject. So they herded us all together into a room with other girls the same age, and boys, and this dykey woman in tweeds and short grey hair said, ‘What you are about to see is a miracle’. And this film starts and it’s a midwives instructional film. There was no sound, just the camera going whirrrr, and words would come up at the bottom: Now prepare the rubber sheet. The lights came up at the end and every kid was white and sick and silent. The boys couldn’t look at the girls and the girls couldn’t look at the boys.”
So there it was, a pivotal moment in the young Helen’s life. She was destined never to be a mother and never to mind about it. I wonder if this adds to her particular kind of sexual omniverousness. I tell her that my boxing trainer, who used to be in the Army, used to have her picture as a pin up, as did several of his soldier mates. He said, ‘Everybody in the army fancied her. We all had posters up because the thing about her, even though she was older, she was never going to be your mum.’ She laughs fulsomely and then says, “But this must have been years ago?” Yes, but he still fancies you. “Oh, fabulous. And he’s absolutely right. I was never going to be anyone’s mum or grandmother. But you know I can dig that beautiful earth mother thing, feeding the masses. I’m thinking of Nigella Lawson. Does she have children?” She does. “Do you know what I mean. She’s sort of gorgeously fertile. I think that’s sexy.”
Mirren is looking at me in an intriguing and intrigued way. And I ask her, have you ever done girl on girl, had a lesbian thing? “I actually won my first Emmy for something called Losing Chase. Kyra Sedgwick and me fell in love with each other, and it was a lovely piece about women loving women.” Was it a stretch? “What, for me to love a woman? No, because I do love women. In my heart of hearts I love women more than I love men. I mean, sexuality aside, I am heterosexual.” Then she pauses to rewind. “I guess I’m heterosexual. I loved my friend that I had at college because there was a sense of camaraderie and physical closeness that doesn’t have to be sexual.”
I wonder, Mirren is quite a tease. In her last interview she talked about how much she liked to take cocaine at parties. Only stopped when she realised that Klaus Barbie was living off the proceeds of others who made their money from cocaine in South America. Then she told Piers Morgan in GQ that she’d been raped and never bothered to report it. I wonder why she’s now telling me she loves women, but telling me in such a naughty way. I tell her that I’m glad she loves women. “In general more than men.” But I was reading one of her interviews where she had requested that the interview be with a man because she gets on better with men. Was that true then? Did she change her mind?
“Well, it was a man who did the interview.” Perhaps he just wanted to believe that? “No, I think it’s more that I prefer male journalists because there’s a streak of female journalism – the bitches – I have no idea whether you are part of this particular movement. This bitchy mean-spirited and nasty because you are another woman and want to make you feel crap. It’s very upsetting. I must say I’m more careful when I’m being interviewed by a woman because I know from experience as well as reading articles with other women I know there is a little stiletto knife hidden behind the back.” She’s laughing as she’s sizing me up. But I think she’s right. On the whole women don’t like other women because women are more competitive with each other than men. It’s all about having the best shoes, the best boy, the smallest size of jeans.
She says, “If there was a rape case the courts in defence of a man would select as many women as they can for the jury because women go against women. Whether in a deep-seated animalistic way, coming back billions of years, that sense of tribal jealousy or just antagonism, I don’t know. But other women on a rape case would say she was asking for it. The only reason I would think of is that they were sexually jealous.”
We’ve gone from loving women to hating women in just a few seconds. But that only makes me like her more. And I reveal to her that I used to have a recurring dream that I was in a court explaining that I’d been raped and dykey woman of the jury were saying it was my fault. “Yes. That is terribly unfair. And that used to happen, didn’t it, in those days.” She says this with concern and perhaps even empathy. She’s said in the past that when she was forced to have sex against her will it was the lethal result of a combination of feminism, not wanting to be victim, and innocence of not knowing how not to be a victim. She has said that it wasn’t about just saying no because the man wouldn’t take no for an answer. When you see Mirren as vulnerable, it skews your judgement of her and you understand all those layers of confidence that have appeared over the years and how they could be torn away very quickly.
Did she learn to be more confrontational and direct with people? “No, I am not confrontational at all. I think I met a great guy and then I met another great guy, and had a series of fantastic relationships with nice men.” And that cured you from the bad boys who disrespected you? “Yes. Up until that point I was thinking that men were horrible, all horrible; they were boring, boorish, vulgar, they were unplesant, they were selfish and arrogant and prices. And then I met a guy who was funny and lovely to me and I loved him. That was Ken, my first boyfriend. I learnt from wonderful men, wonderful relationships. They gave me support and made me feel good and they made me laugh. And now I think men are absolutely great.”
Do you think your early experience of feeling so antipathetic towards men is that you didn’t know very many because you went to an all girls school? “Yes, absolutely. And the generation I grew up in. But I don’t blame it. But I was 18 years old, suddenly in London, and I’d never been out past 11 o’clock at night before. I never thought I will never have sex till I get married because I never wanted to get married. So sex was on the cards but I wanted it to be incredibly romantic. I decided it had to be snowing.” And was it? “No, of course not. It was probably a disgusting rainy night, but I can’t remember.”
Was it with some random boy? “Yes.” Did you ever see him again? “I don’t want to talk about that. Sorry.” Suddenly the air is thick with imaginary needles of pain. What did you learn from that experience? “I didn’t learn anything. I learn from the positive not from the negative, but I do believe in getting on with it, taking responsibility for yourself and not blaming other people is an incredibly important thing.” This is key to Mirren’s mystical sexuality. She can be vulnerable, but she’s never going to be the victim. That is extremely attractive.
“But I’m not particularly competent actually in terms of answering phone calls, getting things done. I put on a good game. So to people like you I look incredibly self-confident and on top of everything.” You mean you are acting? “Yes, kind of.” You are acting in this interview? “Kind of. Sometimes I blow it. I’m certainly incredibly vulnerable as far as my career is concerned. I’m full of self doubt.” But you’ve got an Oscar now. Surely that says don’t doubt it. “It doesn’t stop you getting up and having to do it again.”
Suddenly I notice her tattoo, a little naive star on her hand. She did it on impulse in an Indian reservation in Minnesota. “Many years ago. I just wanted the tattoo and I was a bit of a bohemian. I got it at a time when women did not have tattoos. Now girls are covered in them, like Amy Winehouse.”
The tattoo is not particularly pretty, but it’s a symbol of her going against the grain and a kind of fearlessness despite the self-doubt. A psychic once told heer she wouldn’t have success till her fifties, which absolutely devastated her at the time. She was born and brought up in Southend-on-Sea. She was the daughter of a taxi driver whose father had come as an emissary from Russia to buy arms during the Russo-Japanese War in 1917. He was unable to return home because the Bolshevik revolution had started. The Bolsheviks confiscated the family’s estate and he was to be forever separated from his seven sisters who remained in drastically reduced circumstances. Her Russian name that she was born with is Ilyena Vasilievna Mironov. She made an emotional pilgramage last year to the family’s old estate in Russia and the family Gzhatsk near the city of Smolensk, 250 miles west of Moscow, and she’s always had a passion for Russian roles. Her recent Tolstoy story being particularly resonant.
In the beginning of her career she felt marginalised by being blonde and big breasted. She felt dismissed. Perhaps that’s why she could play the frumpy queen and the tired Det. Supt. Tennison so comfortably. She knew she wasn’t just about that and she was confident of her own sexiness anyway, she didn’t a role to prop up her sexuality, although she played plenty of those sirens too. She’s been Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth and naked a slew of times, notably in The Cook, The Thief, His Wife And Her Lover, and then in Calendar Girls.
“As you get older naked stuff gets easier because it’s more to do with the role than what the men in the audience are thinking. There’s a liberation about it.
You imagine to be so confident about her body she is extremely attentive with workouts and healthy regimes. “No, I’m very lazy. I go through phases of exercising. You know, if you start getting puffy when you go upstairs I will force myself back into minimalistic exercise. I am a great believer in the Canadian Air Force exercises because they only take 15 minutes.”
How do you feel that the world loves you in your bikini? “I feel very lucky. I looked at those pictures and thought, ‘I wish I looked like that’ because I don’t look like that at all, they’d just been taken at a great angle. The next day I started exercising because I thought if I exercise maybe I’ll look like that.”
Have you ever felt the pressure to look a certain way for a part? “No, but I’ve done it to myself. I mean, actors are always on a diet. It’s lovely to get a great role. Then you think, oh, I’ve got to go on a diet. My whole life I’ve basically gone backwards and forwards the same 10lbs. I can wear clothes from 20 years ago. At my thinnest I’m a couple of pounds under nine stone, and at my fattest I’m a few pounds under ten stone. I’ve gone through many diets that are also very boring. You stop eating and that’s what makes you lose weight, not eating. But as you get older, losing weight doesn’t make your body look better, don’t you think.” I tell her I’ve never been a few pounds under weight, so I wouldn’t know. Then she tells me that I’m gorgeous. And then I say no, and then she says “Yes,” and then I’m embarrassed and change the subject to Russell Brand who is the latest younger boy to talk about how much he fancies her.
“I don’t know if I fancy him. I haven’t met him yet. I’ll decide when I do. Talent is sexy. I love that alertness. I think Frank Skinner has it, and Jonathan Ross and has it, and they are a little bit radical. I love those guys, and Russell Brand is definitely one of them.” So she concedes she might fancy him.
All the men that have been in her life have had one link. “They have all loved boxing. So through various men I have watched a lot of boxing. I do love the human drama of it.” When she’s not talking about working with Hackford she talks softly about him. She talks about building things, like their flat in New York, and like,. “The ruin we are renovating in Italy. It’s going to take up all of our spare time until we are too old and too poor to live in it… But it’s incredible fun.”
In Inkheart some of the characters who have escaped from books have the book written all over them. If she had to have a book written all over her, what would it be? “I would have verses from the Song of Solomon, which is so beautiful. I would want beautiful things written on me that people could read and go wow.” She beams mesmerisingly. As I get up to go she stops me and says, “And thank you for the view?” I blush, because I’ve just come back from LA I was jetlagged, couldn’t find any clean underwear so I didn’t wear any. I was wearing a tight skirt, I didn’t think she’d notice. But she did. “When you sat down and when you got up.” I think she’s a minx for making sure I knew she’d seen it. She laughs with a laugh that’s very naughty.
At her house – a mock Tudor cottage in the Hollywood Hills – Dita Von Teese greets me with ultra politeness. She’s suprisingly composed – and rather perky for someone who’s just arrived back from a two-week stint at the Crazy Horse in Paris – the world’s most famous erotic cabaret venue. Von Teese doesn’t do jet lag.
The interior of her home is exactly what you’d expect from the world’s most famous burlesque star. It’s a playhouse with lots of feathery things – a stuffed peacock, a black swan and a white one wearing a little diamante crown – as well as a stuffed tiger, a leopard ‘welcome’ mat, pictures of pin-ups, chinoiserie, lace lampshades with fringes. Pinkish walls and an emphasis on side lighting ensure that everybody who enters will automatically look their best.
Dita is wearing her lounge outfit of black capri pants, form-hugging vintage sweater and black ballet pumps. Her alabaster legs complement a white velvet complexion; her look is completed by black glossy hair in a chignon and her trademark crimson lips. She’s soft-spoken – shy even – or is she just checking me out? We’ve met briefly the day before at the photoshoot, for which she was all plumped up and corseted. When I took a picture of her on my phone, she told me off. But that’s forgotten now: we’re here to talk about her latest project, a debut album called Soundtrack for Seduction.
It’s quite a beautiful thing – a limited edition vinyl record made in partnership with 12 on 12, part of the Cutting Edge group. A shrewd choice: the Cutting Edge Group are known for providing music for film and television, and this year have two of the five Oscar nominated soundtracks (Carol and Sicario). Von Teese’s album will be the pioneer for a series in which artists – sports stars, actors and others – will collate the soundtrack to their life. And it will be available only for a limited period of one month only, therefore assuring instant collectability and investment potential. Another shrewd choice.
The first side of the album is the retro Von Teese; songs from her burlesque shows, and the soundtrack she uses when she bathes in a giant martini glass. She actually sings on some of these tracks. The second side is modern; ultra contemporary moody tracks, again with some including her own singing. It’s all very bedroomy, and her singing voice – a kind of Peggy Lee on ice – is purring and kind of sweet.
Sweet is, of course, an adjective that you would never use for Dita Von Teese the artist who is all about being super-confident and commanding. Weirdly, her real name is Heather Sweet. Born in West Ranch, Michigan, with mousey blonde hair, she somehow manages to span both personas with ease.
These days, you can’t tell where Heather ends and Dita begins – part of her power is the dichotomy of encompassing traditional values in a bad-girl body. When she wears red lipstick, she can rule the world; without make-up she is uncomfortable and even vulnerable. Apparently, she does a make-under for Halloween, with beige lips and a natural golden glow, and finds this look “interesting” but “difficult”. If Von Teese has any insecurity today, she has painted over it immaculately. As I slump into her velvet sofa, she sits perfectly upright with the posture of a ballerina. Only her eyes move when she starts talking about Soundtrack to Seduction.
“I like the word ‘seduction’. A lot of people think that seduction is going after someone and deciding you’re going to make them yours – but to me seduction means something totally different,” she says. “The way to properly seduce someone is to be living on your own terms and make your world a place that other people want to be invited to.”
I’m assuming she means not just a world filled with ostrich feathers and lace. The subtext is plain: she means creating a persona that is so enticing and self-assured that you couldn’t possibly pass up the chance to be with her.
She continues: “Seduction is about creating a poetic space at home with lighting, with fragrance, with music, lingerie. But I don’t put something on because he is going think it’s sexy – I wear things that I think are beautiful and make me feel good. And I wear them all the time so that I am living my entire life in a seductive way, because it seduces me and it’s easy to seduce others.
The album is about capturing a mood and setting a tone. It’s a nonchalant seduction because ‘nonchalant’ is top-level master seduction: you sit back and wait for them to come to you.” Has she always been like this? Super-confident, waiting for men to come to her? “Well…no…I’m a 43-year-old woman; it takes time to arrive at that.”
Indeed it did. It took years of working in lingerie shops and as a stripper for Von Teese to discover her own sexy and pull the Dita out of the Heather. And it took a flamboyant marriage to goth rocker Marilyn Manson and a subsequent divorce to break her heart and set her on a new learning curve.
They married in a castle in Ireland in 2005 after being together for five years. In December 2006, she filed for divorce, dramatically packing all her stuff onto a truck on Christmas Eve, and moving into a rented home. She was no gold-digger: she left with nothing of Manson’s – not even a piece of furniture that they owned jointly.
A burlesque artist and a rocker may be the kind of people you’d expect to have an open relationship, but Von Teese and Manson did not. She doesn’t specify what went wrong but has said in the past that she didn’t support his ‘party’ lifestyle. In all probability, she’d made the classic mistake of marrying the man and wanting to change him – to normalise his craziness, to tame him.
“I still believe in marriage. I’m a very traditional person,” she insists. She claims not to be tainted by the experience, and is now in a full-time relationship with a boyfriend called Adam, who is a creative visual designer at Disney.
They share their home with Aleister – a Devon Rex cat with a curly, poodle-like coat who has 60,000 followers of his own on Instagram and an operatic voice. In her sitting-room, there’s a portrait of Aleister in an oval curly gold frame. She looks at it with a flicker of pride – her boyfriend drew it early on in their relationship. I guess that was his form of seduction.
A thought is obsessing me. If my cats were in a room full of stuffed birds, they would pull all their feathers off and play endlessly. “My cat is so well behaved. He’s not interested – he’s totally over taxidermy. He does only one thing that’s naughty – he likes to sit on the tiger’s back.” She laughs for the first time.
As for the album, it seems to be another tool in her constant search for reinvention. She wants people to know that she’s not a cliché: “I’m not just a girl who sits around listening to big band music, floating about in a marabou-trimmed robe all the time. I want people to understand that there’s more to me than the music I use on stage. Since I was a teenager, I’ve always liked two kinds of music [Retro and electronic dance] and not much in between.
“In my twenties, I was very involved in the electronic dance music scene in Los Angeles, from 1990 to 1994. I was dressing in my retro style and creating my burlesque shows, and then at the same time I was doing performance art in rave clubs. I’ve always liked the dichotomy.”
Dichotomy is a key theme. Sometimes, with her milky skin and questioning eyes, she looks very pure. And at the same time, very maitresse. “I’ve always loved the good girl/bad girl – the pin-up combined with the fetish, playfulness combined with sexuality,” she says. “It’s very interesting to me.”
Was she nervous about singing? The first track on the album is Lazy, which Marilyn Monroe sang in There’s No Business Like Showbusines – quite some act to follow. “I can’t control my voice like a singer,” Von Teese admits, “but this one was a good tone for me. I like the talking moments. It was definitely intimidating and challenging, which is why I worked with people that I am really close to.” She has lipsynced to the song in her show, but never let on that it was her voice on the recording.
Those few who do know it’s her voice have sometimes expressed surprise at the sheer professionalism of her sound. Something of a perfectionist, Von Teese has never had any interest in singing along to backing tapes. “When I’ve recorded songs for my burlesque shows, it’s one of the biggest expenses of performing. There’s no substitute for real brass and real drums and people playing real music and that’s not done inexpensively.
“Let’s Do It, Let’s Fall in Love is one of my most used songs. I’ll use it when I’m in my martini glass or my black bathtub. I use it for fan dances. For the seven minutes that I am on stage, I am saying ‘let’s all fall in love,’” she enthuses.
She may strip in giant martini glasses, but she is not a martini drinker herself; she hates the idea of having a hangover. Occasionally, she’ll have a tequila. “Mescal is my preferred; I drink it neat and sip it slowly. Two drinks maximum. One glass of water, one booze.” That’s very self-correcting. ‘Yes. I’ve found my head in the toilet no more than five times in my life.”
She also loves to cook. “I love comfort food, and I make slow-cooked things like pot pies. I also make a lot of vegan dishes, very healthy things. I’m one of those daytime vegans; I find I have so much more energy when I don’t eat meat during the day.” And then she has a pot pie at night? “Yes, maybe. Not every night, that’s for sure.”
Is it true that she wears corsets every day? “No, when I was 19 it was my thing for a while. I would wear it every day but it was never my intention to achieve a smaller waist; I just loved the look. These days, everyone is on the corset bandwagon.” I glance at her to see if she’s raised a disapproving eyebrow, but her face is as still as her body.
She goes on to talk about the song A Guy What Takes His Time, originally a Mae West song, which she performs on the album with Chuck Henry. Is that what she likes – guys who take their time? “Obviously,” she says. “I really hate fast movers. And I love that moment when you get to the point when you really know someone, and they know you, and you can spend hours and hours… That’s when you can really get involved in the details of love-making, not just the ‘ahhhhhh-ahhhhh’. I think fast is fake.”
Really? “The longer you spend, the better the payoff is at the end.” Some women, I tell her, prefer multiple orgasms and not just one pay-off. She tries not to look shocked. “I hope you get to move with the fast movers and I get to meet the slow movers. Slow and meticulous.” Is Adam slow and meticulous? “Yes. He’s from Chicago. He’s not interested in showbiz at all. We’ve been together two years and he’s slow and steady.”
Does she think she’ll get married again? “I think about all the pros and cons of marriage all the time; I have a list going. The pros are: I love ceremony, ritual, promises, symbols. What I don’t like are the business and financial sides of things.” At this point, Aleister wails at the top of his voice. She continues: “I also don’t like divorce, I’ve been divorced and I really don’t want to do that again.
“And I also have a list of the pros and cons about children. A lot of people have great experiences of having children and others, dreadful ones. I get anxiety about the state of the world – and it’s hard to have a child when you’re working. Sometimes I wish that I’d had a child in my twenties, and now I’d have some amazing adult child that I like hanging out with. But that kind of slipped through my fingers.”
Given that her business is all centred on her body, wouldn’t having a child present difficulties? For instance, how could perform with an obviously pregnant body? She nods. “All the travel would be difficult, too. It’s not like I’m a pop star that takes a couple of years off and puts on five pairs of tights to go back on stage and everyone says: ‘She looks amazing’. I’ve just got the spotlight.
“Perhaps I don’t need to be on stage so much. But then again, I love my freedom. It must be great to have a child before you realise how lucky you are to have your freedom. People get caught up in it all – they fall in love, have a baby and they don’t know any difference.” She doesn’t seem tortured by the idea she may have missed the baby window. But part of her, the part that loves tradition, isn’t ready to completely let it go. Perhaps that’s why one of her favourite tracks is Peggy Lee’s Is That All There Is. “It’s very dark,” she says brightly.
The album, she tells me, will come in pink vinyl and if you want to pay extra, you can have one that she’s kissed with her vintage red lipstick. The flipside is the moody electronic side – she describes it as sexy Depeche Mode. And the first track is by Bryan Ferry, Jonny and Mary – “My boyfriend discovered that song for me. We share our Spotify playlists.”
How cute. She also sings on the Blur track Girls and Boys, performed by Monarchy. “Andrew surname?? – who is Monarchy – is a close friend,” she says. “We met in Paris and he asked me if I’d guest-sing on a song, and I said: ‘I don’t sing.’ He said: ‘No, it’s going to be great’ – and we recorded it at my Paris apartment two years ago. It’s a cool song. I wish it wasn’t my voice on it because I would enjoy it more.”
Insecurity about her voice is perhaps the only chink in her supreme confidence. Or perhaps it’s not that; perhaps, because she really does have impeccable taste, she genuinely thinks someone else could sound better.
Otherwise, she is supremely confident at self-presentation. The sitting-room, for instance, has been subtley bathed in her signature scent, called Erotique. “Perfume is one of the stepping stone to glamour,” she says. It’s certainly another layer in the creation of her persona as a seductress. As we go through her album track-by-track it’s a slow peeling off, layer-by-layer. But even when she strips, she never reveals everything; an aura of mystery remains. Perhaps the songs are as close as she’ll ever come to revealing her naked self.
Her album comes out on Valentine’s Day – is she a Valentine’s Day kind of person? “I’m not. It’s very much a Hallmark holiday, isn’t it?,” she says disparagingly. “Don’t buy lingerie for your sweetheart on Valentine’s Day – [a woman should] buy it for yourself.”
I find it intriguing that a woman who basically strips for a living is actually the ultimate feminist . She’s rewritten her life on her terms, and created a character who provides her with confidence and direction. She sighs. “Ultimately, women should be able to do whatever they want – that to me is what being a feminist means, as well as having the same choices and opportunities as men have.” Perhaps her take on feminism has been to reinvent what she believes to be the essence of womanhood. She laughs – she likes that idea.
Does she feel sexy? “Sexy is not about how much skin you’re showing. It’s usually about how much skin you’re not showing and what you’re not saying. It’s about breaking standards and not feeling you need to be sexy for a man. Right now, for instance, I’m wearing my own-label bra and underwear – it’s Toile de Jouy, with a little bit of bondage going on.” She likes the juxtaposition of a pattern that could be on the curtains of a French cottage with something that’s actually pornagraphic. You can buy her lingerie in Harrods – I’m sure it’s a very good pick-me-up.
“I worked in lingerie from the age of 15 and I segued into cosmetics, “ she goes on. “I feel naked without colour on my lips. I like a matte face, red lips, mascara. If I do a photo session, I like to do my own make-up – it shaves off so much time.” This is typical Von Teese: one of the girls, practical, controlling. “Red lipstick was a life-changer for me. It was in the Eighties and everyone was wearing peachy frosty lipstick. When I got my hands on my mother’s red lipstick, I didn’t see why I would ever use anything else.”
Does she feel beautiful? “No,” she says, after a pause, as if she’s never asked herself that question. “But I like to put my lipstick on to face the world, for sure. I wear it even to the dentist – wipe it off and put it back on. It takes so little time for a lot of pay-off.” Would she be insecure without it? “I don’t know – I just do it and I enjoy it. It’s like brushing my teeth.”
Her old friends still call her Heather, as do her relatives. Is she still Heather? Is the red lipstick all about stepping into Dita? “No,” her voice trails for the first time. “There’s definitely a vulnerability that comes when I’m not wearing make-up or nails. When I am I think: ‘Here I am’. People think I must be Heather Sweet from Michigan and a really great actress, but I am not acting. I get my confidence when I get my make-up on.
“It might be the same for a person who loves to wear her jeans and beige lipgloss – if she was forced to wear my gear, she might feel a bit weird. I don’t feel I have an alter-ego or anything like that. You can still see Heather Sweet on stage if you look for her – if you know what to look for.” And what should we look for? “A girl saying: ‘This is hilarious, I’m getting paid to ride this mechanical bull’ and sit inside a champagne glass!’”
One of her favourite performances is when she steps out of a giant powder compact. “It’s very classic, based on Evangelina, the Oyster Girl, who in the Fifties did an act where she comes out of the oyster shell and mates with a pearl. She’s still alive and still teaching it to different girls.”
Her balletic poise finally dissipates when she talks about the history of burlesque, lingerie and the pin-up. Suddenly, she seems to become fluid and relaxed.
She sees herself as inextricably linked to those pin-up girls from the 1930s and 40s, who also worked as burlesque dancer
“I liked that look. I liked that I could create that look and be different to what I was. To me, this was art. Becoming a pin-up wasn’t something that was being done very much in the early Nineties.” That’s when she created Dita? “Well, Dita came from the strip club. I was working in a strip club as well as selling lingerie, and I was also a go-go dancer at rave parties because my then boyfriend was one of the biggest rave promoters here in LA.
“I discovered pictures of Betty Page, so I decide that I wanted to be a retro-fetish star. Then I started doing bondage videos and things like that. In one, I got captured by cannibals and they tied me up and put me in a pot – kinda old-fashioned.”
How hard was it incorporating her work into her own life? How did the people around her react? “My parents were, like: ‘What’s going on?’ My dad was disapproving. But then my dad was disapproving when I worked at a lingerie store. I just thought the lingerie was pretty but my dad was sexualising it.” She insists, however, that her father, a machinist, and her mother, a manicurist, are both very proud of her today.
Growing up, she didn’t pay much attention to their disapproval. “I was very independent, working full-time since I was 15; I had my own credit cards so I was very much: ‘No one tells me what to do’.
“Looking back I was very pro. I was super-strict. I wasn’t a party-girl. I was always sober and professional, because I liked controlling situations.”
How difficult was it to incorporate bondage and boyfriends? “It was fine. I mean, there were moments, small moments when it might not have been. My first boyfriend, the rave promoter, was the one who took me to the strip club and said ‘you should do that’ and he was the one who said ‘let’s make you a webpage’. The next boyfriend would tour with me to make sure I was safe. If I started dating someone new and they were jealous of what I did, they simply wouldn’t last long. All my love affairs have been for five or six years at a time. I’m kind of a homebody and I like monogamy.”
I also heard that she had enjoyed same-sex relationships. “I wouldn’t say many. I worked in a strip club, I had dalliances, I experimented. I had girls that were really close friends. But unfortunately I would call myself fully hetrosexual. I wish I were bisexual.”
“I find bi-sexuality super evolved. Wouldn’t it be amazing if you could just love whoever you meet if they just loved you? Wouldn’t it be great to feel sexual with a man or a woman, if you didn’t distinguish? I think that’s just supercool.”
When she says she’s a girl’s girl, she doesn’t mean in a sexual way. “I love women who are interesting and talented. I am not intimidated by them at all. There are girls who walk into a room and they are sexy and commanding and their shoulders are back and their heads held high. Those are not the ones you have to worry about. The ones you have to worry about are the ones who are hunched in the corner, the ones who seem unassuming. Those are the schemers. The ones you don’t think could steal your man. Those are the ones figuring out how they can.”
Are these conclusions from experience? “YES!” She’s soft now. Her laugh is vulnerable yet sure of itself. Is she intimidated by anyone? “Every time I talk to Madonna I’m super intimidated. Same with Prince. But I love being intimidated by people whose talent I really admire.”
Does she think she’ll ever be blonde again? “I have to dye my hair every two weeks. I do it myself from a box at home. You can see my dishwater blonde roots. It’s a major process to get rid of black. If I could go back and forth, I would. Black hair dye is really bad for you. I would love to be free of it but if I change my hair colour now, I’d be considered a traitor (by her fans). My fantasy is that one day I will be a great silver fox.”
It’s hard to imagine a silver fox burlesque artist but it’s not something she’s worried about. “Lighting is everything. I guarantee that I could take any woman and light her with pink spotlights and beautiful side lighting and make her body look amazing. I hate it that everything is so retouched right now. You make a beautiful sacred space and if you’ve got pink walls you can look amazing naked in every room.” She gestures to her pink walls and I briefly imagine her patrolling naked among the stuffed birds.
Was she always so confident in her body? “When I started I was 20-year-old and i just didn’t think about it. I didn’t mind it at all. I was raised in ballet. I was used to being in front of mirrors with very little clothes on and noticing how I could change how my body looks according to which posture I’m in. I noticed how to pay attention to carriage. You can totally manipulate how your body appears.”
It seems that Von Teese, or Sweet, is pretty good at manipulating not just her body but everything. She has recreated a whole person. It’s not just performance art, it’s living.
SOUNDTRACK FOR SEDUCTION will be available to purchase for $20 on www.12on12.com/ditavonteese from the 14th February – 14th March. These vinyl albums will be made on a bespoke, limited edition basis – after the 30-day order window, each edition will only be available on the re-sale market, making them the ultimate collector’s items.
Aretha Franklin has been called the Queen of Soul since she demanded Respect in 1967. That’s a lot of years to be regal and I suppose you can’t expect someone who is constantly revered not to feel a little distant from the world, a little divaish.
Her new album after all is called Aretha Franklin Sings The Great Diva Classics. Things like I Will Survive, People, You Keep Me Hanging On, and I Am Every Woman mashed up with Respect. Basically an album where she out divas every other diva.
It’s a compelling album. Her voice on it at 72 is not effortless. It no longer swoops and soars with dexterity, but instead it delivers something else, something that shows struggle, grit, terrifying emotional strength and triumph.
Of course I was excited to meet the diva of all divas. She rarely gives interviews. She hates giving interviews. For a large chunk of time she hated leaving her house.
Her last album with Arista Records – the company that first released her – was in 2003. Sure, there was a Christmas album after that merely to fulfil a contract and in 2011 there was a studio album made for Wal-Mart stores. But the Diva album is a proper return with music impresario Clive Davis at its helm.
The album has been generally applauded, as has her refreshed energy and weight loss. For some of those silent years where no one saw her it’s been said that she became huge. Her weight ballooned in the 90s after she stopped smoking because it was hurting her voice.
Last year she had a mysterious illness and undisclosed medical treatment. She came back after it fitter and thinner. Certainly there was a sense she was ready to take on the world again. What I wasn’t ready for was to take her on.
The interview had been on and off several times in several locations. Over a period of weeks. Finally it happens- within an hour of it being confirmed I find myself en route to Detroit, to the suburb of Southfield and the Westin Hotel, close to her home.
The interview is to be at 7.30pm. Would I go down and meet her to try to charm her? There was a fear the interview would be cut to ten minutes. Of course I would. At that time I didn’t realise she was uncharm-able.
It turns out she didn’t want to meet me first. She wanted to do the interview at 8.30pm, so I decided I would take a restorative bath. Five minutes in the bath I get a call she wants to do the interview now. Still wet I drag on clothes to meet her in the lobby. As the lift door opens and I go to get out she gets in.
She is wearing a black leather blouse, black trousers, black and gold trainers and a zebra print rucksack. She looks a little plus-sized but you don’t see her as fat, you see her as a presence. I would guess she’d be a UK size 16-18.
I wasn’t there at the exact time. Had she decided to leave completely? Was she angry? Will she come back? A few tense moments. Apparently she will come back and she will give me as close to my full hour as possible. The PR warns that I should ask any important questions first which does not bode well because you can’t really ask first off: Are you an emotional eater? What pain were you trying to bury? You can’t ask who in fact was the father of the son you had when you were 14? Or the next son a couple of years later?
You can’ t say how did it feel when your first husband Ed White used to rough you up and why did she want that bit deleted from her autobiography.
Her father was a super preacher who had a turbulent marriage with her mother who left when Aretha was six and died shortly before her 10th birthday. Just after her mother’s death Aretha began singing at her father’s sermons. She debuted with the hymn Jesus Be A Fence Around Me. That fence never came down. Can you even begin to ask her why? No, you cannot.
People become interviewers because they want to ask the questions we all want answers for. Asking questions requires a kind of fearlessness which has always come naturally to me. I have faced plenty of divas – pop stars, prime ministers and wannabe presidents. None of them have awed me. There’s something about Aretha. She’s absolutely terrifying.
I’ve seen her on TV interviews making mincemeat of fawning reporters. One look, an ever so slight roll of the eyes, reduces them to gibberish.
We are in the grand ballroom of the semi chi chi hotel. Me and Aretha poised opposite on low under-stuffed armchairs. There is her son, her granddaughter, a record company person, the British PR, and another man to whom I was not introduced.
There is a sort of wall around her. Later I learn from the staff at this hotel where she regularly comes often for omelettes they have dubbed her The Wall. One staff member who begged not to be identified says, ‘You just can’t get through to her and she makes everyone feel scared. It’s hard to be normal with her. Once I asked her son for tickets to her show but he said even he was afraid to ask her.’
Aretha is sat in front of me with the beginning of an eye roll and I am afraid, I am petrified. But unlike the song I Will Survive I fear I won’t. I tell her that her album is great. And it is. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says.
I tell her when Sinead O’Connor sang Nothing Compares 2 U you felt she was going to kill herself, but when Aretha sings it with her own lines added, that not even ‘a strawberry sundae or ham hocks and greens, or roller skates or garlic toast,’ compare, you feel she is expressing triumph and joy and power. ‘Uh-hmm,’ she says, which I’ve come to learn is Aretha’s very succinct way of expressing what she feels which is that I’m full of shit.
She tells me, ‘That was Andre 3000’s idea to take the tempo up and just refresh that song.’
I tell her that on I Will Survive she sounds particularly empowered. ‘No. That was the basic thing that Gloria Gaynor did. Then we mashed it up with I’m A Survivor (Destiny’s Child) which is one of my granddaughter Victorie’s favourite songs. So I said “Hey, let’s put that there”.’
Victorie is here with us. I think she’s about 17. Hair in a ponytail and a striped T-shirt. ‘Victorie is going to be a singer. Every time I type her name in my phone it comes up Victories with an s. Maybe she’s going to have some victories. I hope so. I’m taking her there. I’m mentoring her. She performed for me on the BET tribute.
Does she coach her because she sees herself in her, because they have a special bond? Her eyes swivel and look through me. ‘I coach her because she’s my granddaughter and she wants to sing.’
I laugh nervously.
‘I’ve been around a while, so in terms of coaching her as a vocalist why not, hmmm? I did have vocal coaching at one time when I was a teenager and I was also taught choreography by Charlie Atkins who taught most of the Motown artists.’
I’d read that she wanted to be a dancer at some point. ‘Well, I could have been a prima ballerina. I took classes at the Academy of Ballet where I would do plies, semi-plies, grand plies.’
The barre workout is very popular now. Is that what she does for exercise? ‘No. Really. Is that what people do?’ She looks incredulous. ‘I walk. I have my fitness regime where I walk the big superstores. – K-Mart and Wal-Mart. I walk the whole store. Sometimes twice if it’s not a superstore. I don‘t do it with the cart. Security people mind the cart and I do the walking.’
Do fans recognise her and come up to her? ’Sometimes.’ Pause. Do they ask her to sign something? ‘Yes. Peaches or a lettuce.’ We laugh. ‘They are usually very nice and they want an autograph or a selfie.’
She smiles sweetly and for a moment she seems relaxed so I ask her why was there a period of no albums for a while? ‘Because I was between record companies and during that time I did a lot of concerts. I noticed somebody the other day, I’m trying to think who it was, and they said they hadn’t recorded for nine years, and I understood that perfectly. I love recording, but if you’re in concert as much as I was you’re just not thinking about it and of course you’re minding the store at home. I have four children, so that’s what was consuming my time.’
This puzzles me. Her four children, all boys, or rather men, are fully grown up. The oldest, Clarence Franklin, is in his late fifties, followed by Edward Franklin and Ted White Jnr., who by all accounts is a wonderful kind person, and Kecalf Cunningham, a musician who is known professionally as KPoint.
I want to ask her about why she still feels she needs to look after them but this is the first time in our interview there’s not been a silence. It’s been question, answer, silence. Her talking about walking the superstores is the nearest thing we’ve got to a conversation.
‘I love walking the superstore. You can shop, pick up things you need, and it’s good exercise.’
What is her favourite thing to shop for? ‘I love beautiful things, beautiful clothes. Pretty much what the average woman likes.’
The silence returns suddenly. There is no twilight moment. No cooling down, segueing in. There’s warm friendly and then cold silence. This is not your average woman. So I change the subject. She grew up near here, then moved to New York and Los Angeles.
‘Well, I had to come back to Detroit because of the incident that happened to my dad.’ She had been performing in Las Vegas when she got the news in 1979 that her father Clarence LaVaughn Franklin, known as CL Franklin, was shot twice at point blank range in his Detroit home. He spent six months in hospital and was returned home needing round the clock nursing care. ‘I came back to stay with him and my sisters and my brother so we could alternate looking after him.’
That must have been a terrible shock? ‘Yes.’ Long pause. Did they ever find out who did it? ‘They did and they were arrested.’ How did it happen, was it random or planned? ‘I couldn’t tell you, but let’s move on.’
Now there’s not just a silence but a silence with pins and needles in it. She was always extremely close to her father. ‘Yes, of course, sure. I travelled as a young featured vocalist. I would sing before he preached.’
I’ve read that his sermons were mesmerising, it was like going to a concert. ‘No. I would not say it was like a concert at all. My dad was a theologian and he ministered the congregation, very enlightening and educational.’ He had a compelling speaking voice? ‘Oh yes. He was famous for that.’ He recorded 39 volumes of sermons and he was quite the singer as well.’
Is she like him? ‘You could say that with respect to certain things.’ She was a daddy’s girl? ‘You could say that.’
And he had great friends? ‘Yes. Dinah Washington, Oscar Peterson, Art Tatum and Dr King. These people came into the city to perform on Saturdays and on Sundays knowing about his sermons came to our church.’
I want to know more about what it’s like growing up with all these legends and how does this compare to our modern divas like Beyoncé and Miley but before I can say the word twerk my throat closes up. I know she’s not going to talk about these things, I just know, and I’ve never had that feeling in an interview before.
I wonder if she too is afraid. When I heard that she was terrified of flying it seemed ridiculous that an artist of her magnitude with her 18 Grammys and over 75 million records sold and her constant breaking of Billboard records should have any fears at all. She is a legend.
‘Mmm-hmm,’ she says, almost savouring the moment that I’ve grasped she has fear. ‘Aretha is a woman like every other woman. Everyone has something.’ She looks at me sweetly. ‘I flew for 21 years and it’s just ridiculous for me not to fly. I’ve started working on it. One of these days you’ll see me back in London.’
Will she take a boat? ‘I don’t think so. There’s too much water. I’ll take eight hours on the Jumbo jet. I am thinking about that.’
What happened to create this fear? ‘A bad flight. A small plane. Two engines. Up and down, up and down. And I decided I would not fly again. I was not happy. Not a happy camper.’
It is at this point it strikes me Aretha has the wall because she feels pain like no other. She had a bad flight. She decides she can’t bear it. And that will never happen again.
The wall is not so much a fortress but a place where she traps herself inside herself. The wall I think would have come anyway, due to the tragedies in her early life and how in order to be the Queen of Soul she is the queen of sensitivity. Fame and being feted didn’t cause this wall, it just helped it stay in place.
‘I have a custom bus that I very much enjoy. I can go from city to city and see points of interest, get out and stretch my legs. If we go to California we have all these different things in the desert that you can see. I can do things on my bus that you can’t on a plane. You can’t stretch your legs at 30,000 feet.’
Does she have a bed on her bus? ‘No. I don’t want that. That’s too much bus. I get a good night’s sleep and then get back on the bus.’
Is it true the things she fears most are airplanes and interviews? ‘Where on earth did that come from? Never even heard that. Here we are in an interview and the planes as I said I’m working on it.’
Does she see a hypnotherapist? ‘No, no, no. I would never do that. I went to a fearless flyers class organised by US Air. I missed two classes. Last time I was standing at the gate when the rest of my class flew away because I’d missed a few lessons, but I am determined that I will graduate from that class. You do things like a rejected take-off where the plane goes down the runway, they start the propellers and everything, but then they stop and come back. We do that and actual classes where you watch films and find out a lot of things about planes.’ There’s another silence now.
Later on I speak to Versa Manos of Gorgeous Media Group. Manos was her PR at Arista Records 25 years ago. She looked after Aretha and Whitney Houston. I wonder was she like that then? ‘She is extremely sensitive, so if an interview becomes intimate or is about to discuss any of the big tragedies in her life it might make her cry, so it probably would be stopped before it got to that point.
‘She has had a very harsh early life. She expresses it in her voice all the time. Her detachment from the world is because she is so sensitive. That’s why she became slightly agoraphobic at some point.’
When she sang about demanding respect in 1967 it was when a black woman was rarely granted such a thing and now she is a legend she can demand it.
She sang for President Obama at his inauguration. ‘It was a tremendous moment. Certainly a historical one and I was delighted to be part of it. Throngs and throngs of people that morning as far as you could see. Unbelievable.’
She met him at Rosa Parks’ funeral. ‘Yes. That’s exactly where I met him. He was on his way out of the door and someone saw him leaving and said “Hey, Barack, you haven’t met Aretha and said hello.” He stopped, turned right round and came back. And that was a nice moment. He’s a very nice man. He’s very much in person as you see him on TV, charismatic.’
Did she maintain contact with him? ‘No, no, of course not.’ The eyes roll again. Did he ask her to sing again? ‘No. There is only one inauguration.’ But there’s a second term. ‘Oh. Well, how can that be an inauguration the second time? That’s not the same thing. The moment that was historical will only happen once in history and it happened when I sang the National Anthem. That’s the first time it ever happened. How can it happen again? I was there at one of the greatest moments in history. I was touched. That moment was the fruition for many who were involved in the Civil Rights Movement, particularly when we saw Reverend Jackson and there were tears flowing. I’m sure many, many things went through his mind, Dr King being one of them. It was the fruition of the hopes and dreams of a nation. Ah-hum,’ she says triumphantly. It’s an ah-hum that says her father would be very proud. ‘Ah-hum-hmm. Absolutely.
‘They were great friends Dr King and my dad. The march in Detroit was a precursor to the march in Washington. He actually did the “I have a dream” speech here before Washington. The applause was so thunderous the walls were shaking. There have been so many gains, but there’s certainly still a way to go.’
She says this with such passion I wonder how close she was to Dr King? ‘He was a guest of my dad’s.’ Not a personal friend? ‘Oh, please stop, definitely not. I understand exactly what you mean. None of that.’ She says this with a quiet ferocity, but then the moment passes and she becomes sweet again.
‘When he was a guest of Dad’s in our home we had a housekeeper who I used to call Catherine the Great because she was such a great cook. She asked Dr King what he would like for breakfast. Bacon, omelette, grits, or sorjetses because she couldn’t say sausages. Dr King thought for a moment and he says, ‘Well Catherine, I’ll have some bacon and I’ll have some of that sorjetses. He was such a gracious man he didn’t make fun of the moment or try to correct her, he just went along with it.’
At this point a voice comes in and says the interview must stop but Aretha is having none of it. ‘I love cooking. I do a great chicken and dressing and I do good spaghetti and omelettes. I also like banana puddings and peach cobbler. You know, these days I just very lightly taste. I don’t over taste when I’m cooking. If you mess up there you can gain a lot of weight. My favourite food to eat and cook and the most difficult thing for me to give up was ham hocks and greens. I just love ham hocks and greens.’
Maybe she should just stick to the greens? ‘Well no, I’d rather have the ham hocks with a little hot sauce, some cornbread. What could be better?’
A voice cries out, “The interview must stop.” Aretha says, ‘No. Let’s have another give minutes. She came all this way.’
So this is the even weirder thing. The minute she knows the interview is going to end she doesn’t want it. She becomes relaxed and super chatty. She tells me there are three deals on the table for the biopic movie of her life. ‘There might be Audrey MacDonald, Jennifer Hudson, or a gospel unknown playing myself. I don’t know yet.’
What about Alicia Keys? Aretha covers Keys’ No One on the Divas album so I thought there might be a connection. ‘That’s so interesting,’ she says animated. ‘There a possibility of Shonda Rhimes (writer and producer of Grey’s Anatomy) writing it. Uh-hmm,’ she says savouring it. Would she control the script? ‘I would certainly have edit approval and I don’t think you could beat that except maybe with the ham hocks.’ She giggles.
Her posse want the interview to finish and now we have passed a few sticky moments I think Aretha doesn’t want it to finish. The hot and cold is perplexing.
I ask her if we can have a picture. I sit on the floor before her and it looks as I am kneeling at the feet of a queen. ‘Do stop with that,’ she says. ‘There’s only one Queen, your Queen, and she’s still handling it. I really admire that Queen of yours. Such maturity from such a young age, and such great walking shoes.’
The tape recorder is off now and she is much more relaxed. She wonders if the Queen walks around the palace maybe as she walks around the superstore. She admires my eye make-up, which is dark and glittery, just like her eye make-up, which is dark and glittery.
Suddenly there’s an incredible warmth to her, or maybe it’s relief that I’m going. Puzzled I speak to Roger Friedman, Showbiz411.com columnist and friend of Franklin. Sometimes she’s sweet, sometimes she’s not.
‘Yes,’ he concedes. ‘She can be a puzzle.’ He tells me that changing her mind about interview dates and times is just because she changes her mind a lot and nothing more should be read into it. He tells me that she comes to New York to learn classical piano and teaches her teacher gospel piano in return.
‘A critic in the New York Times had accused her of using Auto-Tune on her Divas album. I asked her if this was true. I heard her ask, “Do we use Auto-Tune in the car?” She had no idea what it was. Of course she doesn’t use Auto-Tune.
‘What you have to remember is Aretha is a living legend. James Brown is gone, Dinah Washington, Ella Fitzgerald. She wanted to do this album as they were her idols. It’s so easy to make fun of celebrities. They are so daffy or whatever. But we have to appreciate who we’ve got and what they mean to us. Every singer wants to be Aretha Franklin and they never will be. She is singular. She can still make an album with all the trills and whoops and everything she adds that no one else can do. It’s easy to make fun of her as she is the ultimate diva, but all the other divas who are legends are dead. We have to treat her with respect now.’
She is indeed the ultimate diva and respect is something she not only demands, but has earned.
I am waiting in Malibu in an over-stuffed flamboyant house, lots of velvet, gold leaf, plumped pillows, chandeliers. It could be Cher’s house but it is in fact the house of a rich Russian person who has rented it out for my interview. Cher lives in another Malibu house eight miles away in her own gothic glory.
Cher, her manager, her make-up artist, her photographer, get lost in those eight miles and arrive a little late. The photographer has been hired to take my picture with Cher. It wasn’t something I asked for but Cher thought that I might like it.
She arrives with a green drink in her hand, giant hazel eyes sparkling as much as her giant treble-diamond ring. She is wearing a black tailcoat, white waistcoat, foamy chiffony shirt, dark jeans, thick boots. Rock chick clothes. Oddly she pulls it off. Her best features are her hair and her eyes which are so mesmeric you forget to look to see if you can see if the skin on her face has been pulled and tightened.
What everyone really wants to know about Cher is how did Cher, gay icon, gothic rocker, activist, former hippie chick, disco diva, Oscar winning actress, daytime vamp, the woman who launched a thousand drag queens, really feel when her daughter Chastity first came out as a lesbian and then underwent full-on sex change therapy to become a man.
You wonder just how you are going to ask her about this because you’ve read that she was mortified and you could imagine she would be. Cher, so slinky and feminine, loves men, manicures, sequins.
She made dresses for golden ringleted Chastity who would appear with her parents on the Sonny and Cher Show in the Seventies. How could she have imagined that her little girl would grow up first of all thinking she was a bull dyke and then realising she wanted to be a man, a very fat man at that?
I am surprised that Cher is warm with a relaxing motherly presence. Still, how does she feel about her daughter becoming a son is a difficult question.
Now the only child of Cher and Sonny Bono is 43 and renamed Chaz and is delighted to be burly, bearded hairy backed. He had death threats when he appeared as a male partner on Dancing With Stars, the US equivalent to Strictly.
I stumble over the pronoun. She and the he somehow get mixed up in my mouth and Cher gives me a look of concern and empathy for my embarrassment.
‘You mean Chaz. Don’t worry. I screw up the pronouns all the time,’ she says with a Mona Lisa smile and it reminds me that she won an Oscar for Moonstruck. Is this calm facade brilliant acting? Remember she was also nominated for her very un-Cher downbeat role in Silkwood, and so hilarious in The Witches of Eastwick. Of course more recently there was Burlesque where she simply a parody of Cher-isms. I decide rather than studied introspection what I see before me is real.
‘I would have said that Chaz is like Sonny and there is a portion of him that’s like me.’
What about when Chas became Chaz? ‘Oh yes, I had a hard time.’ She looks me right in the eye. You can tell her heart was quite pierced by this.
‘I didn’t have a hard time in the beginning because when Chaz came to see me and told me this is what I want to do I said well if you’re miserable then you’ve got to do it. But then as it was starting to happen, you know, it’s a strange change for a mother to go through.’ To suddenly have two sons instead of a boy and a girl. ‘Right,’ she says. I am surprised by how easy it is to talk to her about this.
When it was first happening she was afraid to see him in case she didn’t recognise him. She asked if he would save his old answering voice because it was his girl’s voice before it had been lowered by his daily injection of testosterone.
He had his breasts cut off and fat redistributed in a thickset blokish sort of way. As yet he has not had an operation to reconstruct his clitoris into a penis. He talks at transgender conferences and provides counselling for others in a similar situation. He is a pioneer. Perhaps he really is like his mother.
‘When I’m talking about Chaz in the old days it’s very difficult. [to get the pronouns right]. If I’m talking about something that’s happened with Chaz when we were in Aspen and when Chaz was little, he was she. But things that happen from now, or from a little while ago, Chaz is he.’
Did she have a sense of loss and mourning for her daughter? ‘It was difficult but now I don’t think about it so much. We talked about it on and off for years. He would talk about doing it and then he would go off it. And then finally he did it. It’s a huge decision and not something you make lightly. But it’s turned out well.’
Her voice has a certainty in it, and almost a soothing quality. ‘For the people who don’t understand it I try to help them understand it by saying, you know, I just love being a woman so much, but if I woke up tomorrow and I was a man I couldn’t function. And that is the only way to describe it to someone who doesn’t understand. But it’s hard to relate to, oh, I must change my sex. But I know that if by some miraculous something I woke up as a man I would hate it so much I can’t tell you.’
I look at Cher with her white fingernails, the pointed tips painted black, her ultra pouty pink lips and feathery-mascaraed eyes, her long dark glossy curls. There’s something almost doll-like about her. I stare at all of this. How could Cher, the most girlie of girls, cope with having a daughter who wanted to be a son?
‘You know, your children go their own way and I think it took so much courage. I don’t think I would have had that much courage. But he was so miserable in that body and now he is happy. Totally happy.
‘When I say I knew he wanted to be a man I don’t know what I really knew. I knew that he wasn’t happy but I didn’t know the exact reason he wasn’t happy, but this seems to be the thing that was missing. [When he was a lesbian] he was in a relationship [with a girl] but they broke up a long time ago. She is a lovely girl.’ Jennifer Elia, an attractive brunette, was his partner for five years and he’d always told her about his gender struggle, but when the change was complete the relationship faltered.
Was that because she was in love with him as a girl? ‘I don’t know. I think she was having a hard time with her sobriety for a while. But also they had been together for a really long time and I think the transition for her was really difficult.’
Apparently when Chaz was charged with all the male hormones he got aggressive and sexually demanding and in a documentary Being Chaz, Jennifer admitted that her sobriety had been tested over her girlfriend becoming her boyfriend and she said, “He’s not the person I fell in love with.” Indeed he (she) wasn’t.
What’s impressive is that Cher is old school. You ask her a question, she answers it unflinching. She doesn’t even try to plug her new record. She is not like some newbie pop star who only wants to talk about her music. That said, it doesn’t mean she doesn’t know how to be modern. She has come up with a record that is relevant – tracks produced by Paul Oakenfold and a song with Jake Shears from Scissor Sisters and songs written by Pink.
At 67 she still has the stamina to tour constantly (new world tour in 2014) and in silly tiny sequined outfits where she must feel she’s literally turning back time. At the end of her hot and throbby performances during her residency at Caesars Palace, Las Vegas from 2008 to 2011 she always said, “Top that, you bitches.” Sure, she likes to run with a young set because she likes to outrun them.
‘You know we were working out this morning, my teacher and a couple of friends and I said give me a break, I’m older than everybody here, but the teacher said, you’re full of shit, you’re 30. You work out better than my 30-year-olds. So in some ways I forget how old I am and in some ways I don’t.
Cher’s age is indeed a conundrum. I’m not sure what 67 looks like but it doesn’t look like Cher, and she doesn’t act it. Sure, she might have had a little help with her face. She admits to a nose job and a breast reduction. She denies the constant rumour that she had one of her ribs removed. She says that her good friends are often the teenage and twenty something children of her friends. ‘Young people like me. I don’t know why.’
Certainly she was friends with Lady Gaga. There was going to be a collaboration with Gaga’s prolific producer RedOne – a track called The Greatest Thing. RedOne thought instead of the original plan of Cher singing it, it would make a great duet. In the end Gaga was disappointed with the result and vetoed it. Cher voiced her own disappointment that the two icons could not be on song. When someone leaked a version of The Greatest Thing. Cher was all over Twitter in her anger at the unfinished version’s appearance.
Cher is an epic tweeter. I’m surprised she could take the time off tweeting to talk to me. She tweets whatever comes into her head. No censorship, lots of swear words,1.7 million followers. In her tweets she is forthright, funny, and likes to complain about Madonna. In person she is a lot less flighty.
Her new album Closer To The Truth will be her first in eleven years. ‘I am not a Cher fan. I don’t listen to the records I’ve made for fun. This one I’m surprised by.’
Has she now become a Cher fan? ‘No, no, no, let’s not go that far. It’s just my voice is very distinctive and it’s not a voice that’s appealing to me. And on this record there are a couple of songs, Silence and My Love, that I sing in a different way, a kind of straight way, no vibrato.’ Indeed, these songs do not sound like Cher. The voice is high and melodic.
Does she feel like a different person to who she was ten years ago? ‘I feel like an older version of myself. I don’t think I’ve changed much in what I think is right or wrong or what I think is bullshit. My mother is 87 and she’s pretty much the same person as when I was little.’
Recently she made a documentary – Dear Mom, Love Cher – about her mother. Georgia Holt looks tall and strong and at least 20 years younger than her 87 years. She also sings and sounds exactly like Cher. Her mother was six times married and says, “Don’t pay attention to age and it won’t pay attention to you.” Her mother is part Cherokee, hence the high age-defying cheekbones.
‘I had two grandmothers, one died at 87, the other at 97, and I said to the 97-year–old one, “Nana, how old do you feel?” And she said, “Darling, I look in the mirror and wonder who that old lady is because I feel so young.” And that’s sometimes how I feel. I forget that I’m older.
‘The other day somebody said how old are you and for a minute I forgot. I thought I was ten years younger and I still thought that was old. It’s not easy getting older in this business for sure.’ I notice she doesn’t mention any numbers here.
Does she feel that in her business becoming old is the same as becoming extinct? ‘No, there’s just not the access to older performers that there is to younger performers, especially women, because it’s a young person’s art.
‘More than any other time in history the people who came up in my time are now having a hard time. We don’t want to stop singing. The Stones don’t want to stop and I don’t want to. But it’s hard. You try to find your niche and stay relevant in your music and you keep going.
‘I hoped there wouldn’t be a prejudice because I was a certain age and people wouldn’t even give the record a listen.’ She says this in a deadpan way but it is obviously something she’s thought about.
Was that why it took so long to get the record out? ‘No. In those eleven years I wasn’t thinking about it. Honestly. I just forgot. I forgot to make a record. I was on the road, I was in Vegas. I did the movie Burlesque. I had some vacation and I didn’t really have a contract for a while, I was in limbo, so I went on the road and didn’t think about it.’
She performed a lot of shows. ‘That was very stressful. On the last day I wanted to kill myself. I cried and cried and cried. We were at the Hollywood Bowl and I spent the night on the tour bus. I’d never done that before. It was so weird that suddenly I just didn’t want to stop. The only thing that is stressful about being on the road is the road. The shows themselves are fabulous. I love that part. I just don’t like the road, the isolation of the road.
‘It’s hard because I can’t go many places. We might buy out a movie theatre or miniature golf course or paint china or go bowling. The only way we’d do those things is if we buy them out and no one else is there. We want to be where there’s no people with iPhones.
‘I remember going to the movies thinking why is everybody texting and emailing, and then I realised they weren’t, they were taking photos of me. So it’s hard for me to go about in a normal way. I love having freedom. In the old days the paparazzi were polite. They would say can we take a picture? They wouldn’t ambush you and be aggressive.’
‘Once we had to get a restraining order against a paparazzi. He made my boyfriend go into a ditch and we rolled our car. This was in the eighties.’ Her then boyfriend was bartender Robert Camilletti.
‘My boyfriend went to jail because he was so angry he went to their car and he ripped it apart and they said he tried to kill them. If you saw these guys they were just old and just wankers. If he wanted to kill them he could have done easily. But after they’d forced us to roll the car he was so furious he tore their car up. He went to jail for a day and then got so much community service. I think he could have killed someone and got less community service.
‘We had a restraining order on these paparazzi and they came on the property and they broke the restraining order and he was angry the whole time because he was trying to look after me. Whenever I went out I’d have to sneak out the driveway and lay on the floor of the car.’
Is being too recognisable a double-edged sword? Is there pleasure in being an icon as well as pain at the lack of freedom? Would she swap?
‘No, I’d rather have both of course.’ She pauses: ‘I’d probably go for freedom. Fame is great and then it gets hard. Like things you used to take for granted you can no longer do. Like if I wanted to make a run to Safora (a beauty supplies shop) I have to know exactly what I want to get and go for it, like a hunting expedition.’
It must be tough being Cher. It must be even tougher being Cher’s boyfriend. Traditionally Cher has dated men who are younger than her, but not always less gothic looking than her. There’s been Val Kilmer, Gene Simmons of Kiss, Bon Jovi Richie Sambora, and biker Tim Medvetz.
Did she find it unsettling that boyfriends didn’t like being Mr Cher? ‘It wasn’t so much unsettling for me. I’ve also had some amazing boyfriends and some really famous ones but it takes a certain kind of man to be able to put up with it. It certainly puts a strain on them. Like Robert for instance. He didn’t buy into go into jail or having people chase him. He’s a private citizen and people were very mean to him. That stuff doesn’t keep you from having relationships it just makes it harder to go for a walk on the beach or something like that. You have to outsmart people and try and just live your life.’
What have the men she’s gone for had in common? She perks up. ‘Actually many of them have had amazing senses of humour and they’ve all been really kind. I love people who are kind and I wouldn’t date anyone who wasn’t, it just wouldn’t work for me.’ Kindness is very underrated. ‘Yes, and it’s a game changer for me. Intelligence is great but I don’t know that it trumps everything. Kindness and an adventurous spirit is what does it.
‘I still like to do dumb things. I like to do kid things. So I like it when the person I’m with wants to ride a paddleboard or go-karting or take a run to Disneyland or go to Hawaii. I like people who are adaptable because I have to pick my moments.’ Meaning if she suddenly finds a break in her schedule she likes to make the most of it.
Does she have a boyfriend now? ‘Er, well, actually, no. I just broke up with someone. Or let me rephrase that. It went to a certain place and I couldn’t see me putting any more time into it so it wasn’t really a break-up. I think relationships have to go in stages and we just couldn’t go to the next stage. We are really good friends but there was no impetus to keep going. Love feels to me like unbelievable fun, and if it’s not unbelievable fun you stop it.’
Is she the person that ends a relationship? ‘Most of the time. I am a serial monogamist. My relationships seem to go for two and a half years, maybe three, and then that’s it.’
She was married to Gregg Allman, from The Allman Brothers, from 1975 to 1979, but her longest relationship was with Sonny Bono. They met in 1963 and broke up in 1972, but didn’t divorce until 1975. He died in a freak skiing accident in January 1998, aged 62. Meeting him, loving him and losing him were the most important things that happened to her.
‘Meeting him changed everything and leaving him changed everything as well, and losing him was huge. It’s like when people say losing a parent is a huge defining moment. It was like that. Even though we weren’t that close at that point in so far as we weren’t seeing each other very often, but it was a huge, huge loss.
‘I was in England when it happened and I remember going to a certain place that I didn’t think the paparazzi would follow because I was so upset. I got there and I was sobbing and sobbing.
‘It was the end of an era for me. It was the end of a time that had been so important for me. It was the end of something that had been a major part of my life. It was like a parent dying. When I met him I was 16 so he was…’ I finish the sentence, a father figure. ‘…Well he was a mentor. He got me a job background singing and he always believed in me and wanted me to be a solo artist and I didn’t really want to and then we became famous together. I had so many milestones with him that would never have happened without him. I wouldn’t have done any of that. I had the energy but I was so scattered. He was the person who focused it all.’
She was born on May 20, 1946, the last day of Taurus. In some astrologers view the beginning of Gemini. Is that scattered energy her Gemini side? ‘If you knew me you would see that I am very Taurus. I am sturdy, in my own way a plodder, but I have the vocal energy of a Gemini.
‘Taureans can be very spontaneous and are stubborn. And I’m really stubborn, ridiculously. A lot of Taureans can end up quite corpulent because they like food, like Orson Welles, and I like food when it is good, but it’s not a major thing for me to eat for the sake of it, but I’m very materialistic. I like my house and I love things.’
Did she have to fight against the love of good food? Is she very disciplined? ‘No. When I was growing up we were very poor and my mother was from the South and we didn’t eat a lot of meat because it was expensive so I never got a taste for it. I eat vegetables because meat is something l don’t like the taste of. I do have a terrible sweet tooth.’
They moved around a lot when she was growing up and her circumstances could change dramatically depending on who her mother was married to or if she was on her own. Mostly she grew up in California where her mother had bit parts on TV shows.
‘She married my dad twice, I don’t know why. She told me she never loved him that much. She just said he was very convincing but that never made much sense to me. I didn’t meet him until I was 11.’
How was that? ‘He was nice. I enjoyed him.’ Wasn’t her whole life trying to find her missing father figure? ‘No, because when I met him it was fun. I was a lot like him in certain ways. Suddenly I knew where a lot of my expressions came from.’
So nature rules over nurture? ‘Right. Elijah is like that too with his dad.’
Unfortunately, Elijah, 37, inherited his father’s addictive personality. Gregg Allman was a heroin addict. Elijah had a problem with drugs. ‘There are so many thing that Elijah that Gregory does which is odd because they never spent much time with each other.’
Didn’t Allman once try to kill her when he was high on drugs? ‘No, he didn’t try to kill me. He would never have done that. But he lost his temper when we were in Jamaica and I had to spend the night on the beach with this fabulous who was the housekeeper in the house we rented and we sat on the beach all night while guys with torches hunted crabs. It turned out to be an interesting adventure. We didn’t split then. Not then. He and I went back and forth, back and forth because I was crazy about him. But you can’t have people that are doing drugs that are around your kids.’
Elijah inherited that side of him? ‘Well, yes. But he’s okay now. He’s great. But it took a chunk out of his life. A chunk out of both of them. He very much looks like his dad. I think he is going to be a manager.
Does she think not having her father around made her attracted to a certain type of man? ‘It might have done because Sonny was very nurturing. And when I first met him I was very sickly. He was much older than me and he had a vision. I was just running around dancing and hanging around with my friends. I wanted to be a singer, I wanted to be an actress. I didn’t have any focus. Maybe I would have got there anyway, but Sonny was the one who said if you do this, this will work. This will be the right thing to do. He was a catalyst for everything.’
Was that when she fell in love with him? ‘Oh no, I did that way before. We didn’t work together at first. I think I hero-worshipped him because he was as very extraordinary person. Not fabulous all the time for sure, but he was a very forward thinker, interested in life. He would do things that maybe men would have had a problem with. Like I used to dress him crazy in the beginning and he just said okay, fine, this is fun. He was open to a lot of things. He wasn’t open to a lot of things as well and we got into fights, but he liked to stretch himself. I think he’d given up before he met me and I was a spark for him too. He tried to have a career that didn’t work out so we sparked each other.’
So what happened with this man that was such a huge influence, what went wrong? ‘It didn’t go wrong. I was just finished. It started to become more about the work than the relationship. Plus I was 27 and I didn’t need to be told what to do any more.’
She says this without a trace of regret because regretting nothing is all part of her mantra. She takes a swig from her wheatgrass drink. ‘Honestly, it doesn’t taste disgusting. It’s got powdered vitamins in it. I’m not the kind of person who wants to suffer ill health.’
I’d heard she had a phobia of getting sick ‘No, that’s not true. But a long time ago I had Epstein Barr (syndrome) and it made my life a misery for two years.’ The symptoms are extreme tiredness, lethargy. ‘I’m not very phobic at all. In general, I’m very happy.’ If this is not the case, she’s done a very good job of convincing me.
At the end of my last meeting with Kylie I walk away with the feeling that I know her. Not just as a result of many interviews over time but because she allowed herself to be known. Something that’s new for her. In the past she didn’t really want people to get her. These days she’s friends with vulnerability; sees its point, its strength even. Before, certainly before cancer, and even coming out of it she didn’t want to be known. That was just too invasive. She was too shy. She is a mass of contradictions she never wanted people knowing her business, yet her business is show. The cancer stripped her, forced her to let people in, in a way that she had not welcomed before, because she’s always been guarded, perfectionist, ambiguous. Comfortable being an equation in people’s heads that was something like Neighbours, I Should Be So Lucky, Michael Hutchence, hot pants, Can’t Get You Out Of My Head, cancer, survivor icon = Kylie. She’s always been more comfortable hiding because she carried around longer than anyone else the image of Charlene the mechanic with the frizzy eighties hair. And she’s far too proper a person to ever want to exploit anything that happened to her; be it heartbreak or cancer. She would never do a documentary humiliating a lover like Madonna did, or an interview wearing only fishnets and a bra like Gaga.
Gradually there was a point where she thought, probably not consciously, that it was OK to be herself. I talked to Stuart Price, who was the executive producer on Aphrodite, not released yet, but already the buzz is that it’s her best album yet.
Price worked with Madonna on her Confessions On A Dancefloor album, so he knows his way around the pop diva. “Early on I said this should be 100 per cent you singing about the things that people had a feeling that went on for you in your life that you’ve never spoken about. It’s good to reveal ups and downs on record and what she brought to the studio was a combination of joy, sadness confusion and put it on a record so that you can connect to what she’s been through. Arrogance is not in her dictionary, but she stakes a claim in a way that is captivating and a way which shows that records are a truth serum.”
The record shimmers in Kylieness. When we first meet she smells of Kylieness. Her own perfume Sweet Darling, musky and slinky. Like everything she does she throws herself totally into it. She’d never wear a perfume that bears her name that she doesn’t wear. We are in Blakes Hotel. In exactly the same black lacquer room with orchids and Buddha’s that we met in a year ago. She likes it there. It’s old school stylish, covert.
She’s wearing black skinny jeans, platform suede clogs with a silver flash, a silver top and black tight leather jacket, clear nail polish and make-up made up to look natural. Her eyes a pale sparkling blue. I stare at her face which is much less mannequin shiny. There’s a couple of lines around the eyes and mouth. Her skin doesn’t look like what you’d imagine the skin of a 42-year-old who has cancer but there are not many reference points for that. She’s stopped doing botox. “It gave me a bad rap. Isn’t that the same?” It did seem very unfair that Kylie survived cancer, strove to get back to herself, to look as good as she could, to find only that people complained she didn’t look real.
“It fascinates me that I’m asked so much about it when advertising for face products is forced down our throats. There are some things you can do. Most people have done them. You can have microdermabrasions and micropeels. If these things are going to give you better skin why not.”
The tabloids ran with a line that these days all she used was Pond’s because her grandmother did. Is that your must have regime? “No. I use all different things. I’m always trying different things. I’m quite spoilt because a lot of products are sent to me. In Neighbours they used it to take your make-up off because Pond’s dissolved everything. It takes me back to the smell of your grandma. I have used it because one day recently we were in the States and I ran out of cleanser and somebody had some Pond’s, so I took my make-up off and it had a moisturizing effect. So that’s the story of what’s keeping me youthful.
“My face has gone through a lot of changes. If you look back to before I was ill there was nothing of me. I didn’t realise it at the time but in a way I looked much older than I do now. All of me is just fleshier now, but my face changed. It filled out, it puffed up with the drugs. It’s not puffed now but it was because of the chemotherapy and steroids. Nobody saw me much I was under the radar, but there are pictures of me. I could see from my peripheral vision my cheeks… I’d never noticed my cheeks before, but I could look down and I was like those are my cheeks.
” I tell her I remember the pictures of that time when she looked chic in a headscarf. “I try to keep it up just to lift my spirits if nothing else.” By keeping it up she means appearance, façade, telling the world she was OK even if she wasn’t. Do you feel that because you’ve been stripped bare you had less to lose and was less wary of people and more open? “I think I know what you’re saying… I was pretty much laid bare. I was at the mercy of all those different specialists, doctors, hospitals, other hospitals.
” I Imagine what it must be like if you’ve always been a person who liked to keep a certain control in your life to have nothing. To go to a doctor when you were feeling terribly ill and be told there was nothing wrong with you. To misdiagnose your cancer. To go back and insist that they were wrong and then have other doctors tell you what to do. After that making a documentary where you allow people to see what goes on in your kitchen must seem a whole lot easier. “I didn’t really want to do White Diamond, but Willy (William Baker) kind of got the better of me. But yes, I feel I can deal with that sort of thing now. But that whole getting back on stage and doing the Showgirl homecoming tour?” She wonders now not why she did it, but how she did it. “I can’t afford to be stressed and the more I let go of the better. So you’ve just got to find cruising speed… but I was trying too hard and being way too hard on myself and carry along old baggage.
I still had those layers from where they were in the beginning. Those nagging thoughts; she can’t do this, she can’t do that. I was like I can do it. I’m so stressed by it, but just do it. The point is I’m easier on myself.” I wonder though just how easy she is. Old habits she’s always been a connoisseur of the perfect leopard print, and I haven’t seen those spots changing too much. The album is euphoric. I’ve only listened to it on a computer stream which makes most things sound tinny and awful, but it still sounds great. She smiles when I tell her. Not a trace of smugness in that smile.
“I think the euphoria came when we brought Stuart Price on board. He’s so delightful and I was so relaxed recording with him because we got on like a house on fire. We just did it on the studio mic (not a recording booth). I wasn’t separated in another room. I felt confident with him. He allowed me to shine.” This is something that Kylie always does; compliment other people, express gratitude. It’s more than just politeness, it’s who she is. Price told me he wanted to get “something new that you haven’t heard from her before but at the same time it’s so unmistakably her. “Kylie must have visited the majority of vocal booths in the world and we wanted to break that mould. We recorded it in the control room, speakers up, designated dancing zone.
Kylie is one of the most accomplished singers in pop music. She rarely sings a bum note.” Was she confident working in that pared down way? “I love having the challenge and I loved having Stuart.” While Britain was gripped in the post-election standoff, only one thing could knock politics off the front pages, and that was Kylie’s bum. Wearing hotpants taken at a video shoot for the single All The Lovers She laughs, “I was not expecting to be wearing that kind of outfit ever again. In fact the brief for the video, pardon the pun, was long flowing dresses. But when I got there the director said ‘I think of you and I think hotpants.’ I was thinking everyone’s gone to so much trouble to call in white flowing dresses and I had to wrestle with my feelings about it and then I thought that the long dresses wouldn’t work for this video, so I would go with it, but some paparazzi were outside and that’s how those shots happened. But I survived.” More than survived. It was a celebration.
She looks falteringly and says, “Now it gets written about because I’m in that age group ‘she’s in her forties and she’s still got it.’ I’m suddenly in that age range where you’re spoken about like that, and I’m like shut up because at some point it won’t be.” I recognise this Kylie. The Kylie that’s super hard on herself. That doesn’t think she looks as great as everybody else thinks she does. As gorgeous as she really does. I remember when we met just after she was in remission. She was really hard on herself, coming to terms with her fuller face and noticing changes in her body, feeling grateful to be alive but finding her new body hard to confront because she lost a lot of weight then put on a lot of weight, and for someone who has been pretty much tiny all her life it came as a shock. She’s still tiny, but she notices more that she’s not as tiny as she was. “It has changed a lot and I still have to deal with it.” In what way do you feel it’s changed?
“Well, I’m here and that’s what I have to remember when I start to get down about it. I still take medication, and there’s a lot of women who stop taking the medication because they just can’t stand the side effects. You definitely put on weight.” I tell her again she doesn’t look like she’s gained weight. “But I notice it. Weight was never an issue for me. Before I could just eat anything.” But everyone feels that. Metabolism slows down after a certain age. “Well it does but it’s hard for me to tell what exactly it is because it’s over five years that I’ve been on medication. I have just under a year until I get my five year clear.” And after that you stop taking medication? “After that yeh. When I think back now going on that Homecoming tour I just can’t believe I did that. I get upset thinking about it.” I wonder exactly what she gets upset about.
That she forced herself to do it when she still was feeling unwell, that she wanted to prove that she could do it and it was harder for her than she thought, or because she did it because being on stage makes her feel alive and she wanted to know that she was alive. “That was it. I wanted to know that I could do what I do. Admittedly it was in a different way. We had to put an interval into the show.” She says this as if putting an interval in a show meant she was letting the audience down, making them suffer and a sign of terrible weakness. Lots of artists have intervals in their shows. “Mm,” says Kylie, unconvinced that she wants to be that kind of performer. “I fought against the interval and two nights before opening I realised if the show were to work an interval would be a good idea.” I remind her doing any show at all was an enormous undertaking for someone so recently after treatment. “It was,” she concedes. Will there be a tour for this album? “Next year, yes. At least I’m being positive and thinking at the start of next year I’ll be celebrating. That’s the first big mark.” It’s almost as if her cancer has been talked about so much it’s been sanitised, tabloidised. It’s been triumph over tragedy. But there’s very much a sense it shadows her. She tries in that very Kylie way not to make it a haunting shadow, but a let’s be in the moment sort of shadow. Despite the euphoric mood of the album and the euphoric reactions to it, she seems a little tired. Perhaps it’s the jet lag. Perhaps every time she gets tired she gets worried that it’s more than tiredness. Perhaps it’s the effect of the meds. What exactly are the other side effects of the medication you’re on now? “Not stuff I’d like to share,” she says, although she confirms tiredness is one of them. She doesn’t trade on sympathy, she trades on dance tunes, happy things. She really doesn’t want people to worry about her.
She doesn’t like a fuss. She’s very contained. The opposite of confessional. The opposite of Madonna. Price, who has worked with them both, says they are almost opposite personalities. “Madonna has a lot more of an aggressive and determined approach. Kylie is much more instinctive.” Madonna likes to show off and quote from the Kabbalah. Kylie’s intelligence is much less self-conscious. Kylie says she’s porous, by which she means she takes in other people’s moods and absorbs them. A record company insider who has worked with her for over a decade says, “There’s a lot of humility about the way Kylie operates. She operates with a concern for the people around her. Tours which are always such a difficult thing she manages to create an incredible atmosphere. She is very concerned with making other people feel good.” Has she changed over the years?
“I think she’s the same. She never kicks up a fuss. If she commits to doing something she’ll do it. She manages to be one of the most famous women in the country and very private.” Weirdly in all the time I’ve met Kylie I’ve never heard her moan. Even when all her hair fell out and I suggested she might have been depressed she said, “When you put it in perspective it’s a sign your treatment is doing what it’s supposed to do.” When she broke up from French actor Olivier Martinez she never bitched about him or was bitter. “I’m a fatalist. I always feel that a relationship runs for the duration it’s meant to.” There are some things that Kylie is sensationally chilled about, and others that stress her completely. “I do moan,” she pipes in. “I moan with my PA. We’ve been together over ten years. We have a good old moan together.”
She doesn’t moan with or about her current inamorato, Spanish model Andres Velencoso. They met about 18 months ago at a party for the burlesque dancer Dita Von Teese, and she says she’s still blessed out with him. “He just left this morning actually. We had take away Spanish last night because I’m very good friend with the Spanish restaurant. I liked it before I met him.” Do you speak Spanish? “No, but I’ve started to understand it a little and I recorded a version of All The Lovers in Spanish. Andres and I were in Spain driving in the car, listening to mixes, and I can’t remember if it was him or myself who said I wonder what this would sound like in Spanish.
So I thought let’s try it and he did a translation for me.” Interesting that she doesn’t remember who it was. It shows that she’s close. “Yes,” she smiles. Is there a lot of separation involved? “We try not to leave it too long between seeing each other. But he’s used to travelling. I’m used to travelling. That’s how the relationship started. It works for me and I think it works for him.” Do you prefer it? “In a way, to have time to do your own thing, to be compartmentalised like that, yes, I think you’re right. When I try to do everything at once, it’s when I have a meltdown.” We discuss the gemininess of the extremes of her personality. Some people call he Kylie, and her close friends call her Min, Min for Minogue or Min for miniature. “Not sure,” says one friend, “but she’s the maxiest min you’re ever going to meet.” “I think there are more than two of me. There’s a committee. The voices in my head have all been so loud I think I’ve said something and discusses for instance when we’re going on tour, but I’ll realise I’ve only discussed it with myself.” I imagine the committee all have different views about her future with Velencoso. Sometimes I imagine it seems relaxed and easy going. I remember one time I met her when she was launching a linen range she seemed intensely in love. She was doing a lot of golf and said she’d taken up cooking. At the time I asked her if she was a piece of her own bed linen what would she be? “The finest linen top sheet. One that goes over you in summer, that just skims you so you are not cold.”
Kylie has a lightness and a non-invasiveness. I wonder about the permanence of her relationship with the Spanish one. I get the impression it’s one of these things that she likes to love in the moment. For his birthday last year she got a blue topaz stone from India where she did a cameo in a Bollywood movie. “I wanted him to have something jewelleryish but not ostentatious. I had some string and I plaited it into a sort of web into which we put the stone. The stone was tiny and I knew it would be lost in the string, but that was the beauty of it. He wore it for a while and then the stone got lost. OK, gone to the universe. Then he kept wearing the string until that finally wore away. So that’s the jewellery I got him. Something precious and something from the kitchen cupboard. Knowing he would lose it and it wasn’t secure was the most beautiful part.” It seems like a metaphor for the relationship. Does she think she will have babies? “I don’t know. I would love to, but…” Her sister Dannii is pregnant. The irony is not lost on her that Dannii is the last person who you’d ever expected to get broody. “She’d say the same thing. Life’s funny isn’t it. She’s blossomed.” Kylie doesn’t know if she can get pregnant, but she’s always wanted to have kids.
“It’s very hard.” I tell her a lot of people who concentrated on their careers feel terrible that they put it off for too long. “Perhaps if you are resolutely sure that that’s not the path you want to go down that’s OK. But if there’s an element of doubt you can’t help but question it. It’s not fun.” I agree. It’s not fun. And what brings you out of that? “Pineapple Dance Studio does it for me,” she laughs. There’s also her ongoing lifelong relationship with busy. “Busy and I are getting on quite well at the moment. We are negotiating how fraught I will become. The committee meeting in my head has looked at the next week and is trying to be relaxed. Sometimes I get it right and sometimes I slip into old habits. But I’m not as bad as I used to be.’ Do you find you throw yourself into busy to get away from other things that are not very pleasant and not easy to deal with? “Partly yes, and partly it’s a challenge.
I love what I do and the more I learn the better I am at it. It’s like discovering a certain freedom. “If I didn’t tour again I’d think oh no, I’ve finally just found my stride.” Do you mean that when you’re performing you know who you are? “In the broader sense, yes. I’ll be in the old peoples home trying to do a high kick down the corridor. I felt it at the end of that video shoot. I felt about 1,000. Dancing on those heels. I ached.” Yet she makes everything look effortless. “Yes, I try.” Why is that so important? “I like to make a happy environment. At the end of this video shoot I said thanks to the extras because they’d all been shivering for so long and the second unit director said in 20 years of doing video shoots he’d never seen anyone get on the mic and thank people. And that just astounds me because thanking people is just being a normal, thoughtful person. There are enough difficulties in life.” Don’t you think if you make things look too effortless people aren’t aware of your pain? People take you for granted? “There is that. But that’s a whole other… that’s not a barrier reef, that’s a big deep sea.”
I leave Kylie thinking about the deep sea of unsaid things and the unspoken burdens that she must carry around with her. We meet a week later. She is dressed in gold. Everything seems brighter and more flippant, but she says that’s because my mood has changed and she’s picked up on it. We talk about the importance of having a gay husband and how much she loves Will Baker. “I think the 2.4 family is down the drain these days. Every girl has to have her GBF. In my life it has to work.” Does Baker have to approve of her boyfriend? “Yes, they like each other. We all met on the same day and that helped. Before that I remember when I dated some guy for a little bit and he absolutely bristled and still goes on about it. It’s sweet, I guess.”
Does she think she wants to have a non-gay husband? “Mm. what I might have said before is marriage might not be for me.” I don’t think Kylie sees things that black and white or conclusively. Not living in the moment stresses her out. And she seems flustered by the question. We are in her management offices, which have an assortment of her lilac satin and feather cushions. Everything is very bright and I can see her skin even more clearly, and she seems extremely happy in it. “I think I’m at the point in my life where I’m feeling good within myself.” She agrees she is less guarded, more open, less afraid. “But I think that’s because the perception of me has changed. Not least because I was shown to be susceptible as everyone to a terrible disease and to be human, and perhaps because a certain amount of time has passed and I’m still here.”
It takes a long time to process going through cancer and come out the other end to actually admit it happened to you. I remember talking to her soon after it was announced she was in remission in 2006. She didn’t know how she felt about it. She needed to make an album because she needed to know that she could still sound like her. She needed to make a perfume to know that she could still smell and make a happy smell. But it’s been a long process and many decisions of what to keep in your life because it reinforces who you are and what to let go of.
“I’m prone to anxiety, that’s for sure. But my current motivation is to try and enjoy the moments that are good and address the moments that aren’t good because they colour each other. If you can get a number of moments in a row that are good, that’s a reason to be joyful.” Does she have plans of what she wants for the future? “I’d like to do some more acting. When I did Dr Who I felt taken back to my acting beginnings and in my spiritual home. I like that people feel the spirit in this album and I’d like it to be joyful.”