Terence Stamp has been such a willing and wondrous raconteur over the years that it's hard to know where to guide him in an interview. You do your research and you find the most amazing stories about making his big-screen debut as the titular Christ figure in BILLY BUDD, turning down the role of ALFIE (thus launching his friend Michael Caine to international stardom), working with Marlon Brando in SUPERMAN: THE MOVIE, playing drastically against type as transsexual Bernadette Basinger in THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA: QUEEN OF THE DESERT and wreaking thickly-accented vengeance on Los Angeles scumbags in THE LIMEY. Do you opt for the greatest hits package, or do you go searching for that one untold gem lurking somewhere behind those piercing blue eyes?
Judging from previous interviews, Stamp is game to go anywhere, but at the moment he's quite keen to discuss his starring role in Paul Andrew Williams's UNFINISHED SONG, which hit DVD this week. Stamp plays Arthur, a grumpy retiree devoting what's left of his life to caring for his sickly wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave). As her condition worsens, Arthur reluctantly takes an interest in the local show choir to which she belongs, and, wouldn't you know it, the old curmudgeon slowly emerges from his craggy shell. It's a familiar story and an unabashed tear-jerker, but the opportunity to watch Stamp and Redgrave on screen for the first time together makes it pretty irresistible. And good luck holding it together when Stamp solos on Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)".
Stamp is justifiably proud of his work in UNFINISHED SONG, which is just the latest triumph in a career riddled with unforgettable performances. I was given twenty minutes over the phone with Stamp (which is fairly generous in my line of work), and it flew by. For the most part, we discussed his latest film, and how it's something of a departure for him in terms of the emotional vulnerability required and the ordinariness of Arthur's working-class existence. We also touched on his work with William Wyler in 1965's THE COLLECTOR, and the status of the sequel to THE LIMEY (for which Stamp wrote the screenplay). While I didn't tease out any fascinating new anecdotes, I did get a fantastic interview with one of the greatest screen actors working today. I'll take it.
Mr. Beaks: This is a movie that allows you to step front and center and be quite vulnerable emotionally. Is this a type of role you'd been pursuing?
Terence Stamp: On the contrary, it was the last kind of thing I was looking for. But the thing is, when you've been doing it for as long as I have and you get a really good script, that's a real plus. It was just such a wonderful screenplay. I wasn't certain that my best shot would be the best shot for the movie, because I did feel that what made the story so unusual was that it was a twin-soul relationship; it's a real love relationship where they're both kind of enhanced by their feeling for each other. But they were ordinary. In other words, they weren't like like Romeo and Juliet or Layla and Majnun; they were just an ordinary working-class couple. That was my reservation really. I can do ordinary, but I don't do ordinary very well.
Beaks: (Laughs) I would beg to differ. Right from the start there is this lovely, lived-in dynamic that you share with Vanessa Redgrave. How did you go about finding that natural rapport?
Stamp: It's kind of hard to explain to someone who's not actually a performer. We never spoke about it at all. I had worked with her in the theater, so I knew that she was a very top-line kind of performer. I think we trusted ourselves and trusted each other to go into the take kind of empty. We both knew what was being asked of us, but it wasn't anything that we discussed or rehearsed. It was seemingly spontaneous, but in a funny way our whole careers have prepared us for this kind of performance, which is sort of ninety-seven-percent internal really.
Beaks: This is the first time we've seen the two of you share the screen. Had you looked for projects to do together in the past?
Stamp: Well, I had worked with her in the theater. About twenty years ago, we did THE LADY IN THE SEA [by Henrik Ibsen] together. It was in the round, which is particularly testing for an actor because there's no prompter. You can't make any mistakes. So I had a real sense of how wonderful she was. It wasn't something that I'd thought about, to be honest, but when I heard she'd accepted the part [in UNFINISHED SONG], I agreed to do it instantly. I thought to myself, "I've worked with her in her milieu..." because she's known as a great theater actress. And I thought, "At least this is what I know. I know about cinema. So at least I have a chance to work with her in something I'm really comfortable with." That's how it came about. But we had a really good experience in the theater.
Beaks: How did you approach the singing aspect of the role? Was there much rehearsal or any other kind of preparation for that?
Stamp: My doing the part came together very late in the day. In other words, I only had about two weeks to prep before I was on location. In truth, whilst I have always studied my voice - there's not been a day when I haven't worked on my voice in some way or another - I only had an opportunity to have two hours with the singing teacher, who I really admire and trust. I had two lessons with her, and she walked me through the song musically. Then I was off on location... and I didn't have any opportunity to practice the song at all other than to sing it to myself when I was not working. But in the film itself, it went so well. They seemed a really top group of actors, and we all seemed to be giving it our very best shot. At the beginning, prior to doing the movie, I had been terrified of the song, because it wasn't just singing. It was the climax of the movie. Also, symbolically, it was the guy finding a new voice. It was a redemption in a funny way. Prior to shooting, I'd been really, really worried about doing the song, but the truth is the film went so well that I just stopped thinking about it. And when it came to pass, it was the last day of shooting, night shooting, the theater had 500 or 600 extras in it, and we only had time for one or two takes. And we got it on the first take. The song itself is a live rendition. It was the last take in the movie. It was just one of those things that was meant to be. I received a wonderful email from the composer of the song, and he was just thrilled with the way it all worked.
Beaks: From Billy Joel?
Stamp: Yes. And that was wonderful praise for me. I am kind of in awe of composers, to be honest with you.
Beaks: That's terrific. Musically, I tend to associate you with the harder, more rambunctious rock-and-roll of the 1960s, like The Who. Were you a fan of Billy Joel's music coming into this?
Stamp: Well, I didn't know a lot of his music. The few things I knew I thought were wonderful. To be honest, I realized "Lullabye" was a really beautiful song, and realized it had potential for a really emotional delivery. I was hoping I would be able to deliver that. I wasn't too concerned about the quality of my voice. My main concern was getting the emotional canvas correct; this is the kind of song where you can really feel it, and it was really pertinent to the story. I thought to myself, "What is Arthur learning about this? How is he different at the end of the film from the beginning of the film." And my feeling was that, when his wife died, he understood the love he felt was within him, and his realization was the love within him wasn't dependent on an object outside of him. And I thought the song was a wonderful vehicle for that kind of inner expression. There is something very different about singing rather than speaking. When you sing, you can't help but be vulnerable. People can hear so much more about you when you're singing than when you're speaking.
Beaks: Particular to that vulnerability, does Arthur remind you of any characters from throughout your career? Do you sense any echoes from other films?
Stamp: I thought this was quite peculiar initially, but a couple of friends of mine, both actresses... one of them said, "It's the best thing you've done since BILLY BUDD." And the other said, "You've fulfilled the promise that you showed in BILLY BUDD." They must've been talking about the last part of the movie, when he was completely vulnerable. The character of Billy Budd was vulnerable because he was only good. He was an innocent. He just saw the beauty in the world. He saw the beauty in everybody. In literature, he's a very unusual creation of Melville; he's the epitome of goodness, and he bears witness to the goodness within him and the goodness that he sees in the world. I certainly never thought about that when I was playing Arthur, but that was something that was said to me after people had seen the movie. I can relate to that, but what's different in Arthur is that he comes to that. In other words, this great grief, the loss of the one great love in his life, reveals the best in him. That's what made the role so challenging for me.
Beaks: You've worked with many amazing directors throughout your career, and one who stands out to me is William Wyler. It was the 1960s. There were all these young, upstart directors launching their careers, and Wyler sort of represented Old Hollywood. What was it like to work with Wyler at that time, and how did he differ from other directors of that era?
Stamp: The thing about Wyler in my life is that... at the time I got to work with him, I thought he was one of the greatest directors in the business. I was in awe of him. So to be chosen by him, it gave me an amazing confidence. But, in truth, Wyler saw something in me that I wasn't aware of yet in myself. He saw a potential in me. So I think it was the first real big shift in my life. It was like I was a ship set sail for Scotland, and Wyler was able to shift one of my bearing points, and years later I wound up in Iceland. It was an incredible moment for me. When I worked with him, and I discovered that he was so spontaneous, and his spontaneity made him incredibly modern. I don't think that I worked with a director that was more spontaneous than Wyler. His real quality was what one would expect from a young director. He was towards the end of his career, but he was so completely in the moment. He knew so much about film that he didn't bring any baggage from his other films onto the set; he was completely present in that moment, and he was open to anything. Speak to any actor who worked with Wyler. He was very happy to hear anything they said.
(The publicist informs me that we need to wrap it up.)
Beaks: I want to ask you about this sequel to THE LIMEY that you wrote. How is that progressing, and what about that character struck such a deep chord with you - enough so that you wanted to write about him?
Stamp: I was really inspired by Soderbergh. It was absolutely his idea. He wanted to do a sequel to THE LIMEY. I tried to get people to write it, and nobody was interested. So I thought to myself, "If I don't put pen to paper, it's not going to get done." So I put pen to paper, and it just fell out of my left hand. It came so easily. And then the bastard decided he was going to retire. The whole reason I wrote it was that I was inspired by him! The last thing in the world I wanted was to direct something, and then he slowly got off the bus. First of all, he said, "If you direct it, I'll shoot it." And then it was apparent he didn't want to do that. And then it was apparent he didn't want to make any more movies - or he didn't want to make any more movies in the foreseeable future. It's just a really beautiful screenplay, but it's not a problem. Once I got over the fact that we wouldn't be making the movie together again, it was a very rich experience to write it. But as I say, I don't really have any real psychological ambitions at this point in my life. I'm not one of these actors who wants to direct because he feels he's been unfulfilled when he's performing. It's just something that I did, and it was wonderful being inspired by him. But I haven't heard from him for a long time, and I think he's taken another path.
Beaks: Well, if you could get it done some other way, I'd love to see that character again.
Stamp: Aw, well, you're obviously a discerning guy!
Beaks: (Laughs) I try.
UNFINISHED SONG is currently available via DVD and the VOD outlet of your choosing.