Born in East London to a merchant seaman, Terence Stamp was Oscar-nominated for his screen debut in Peter Ustinov’s film of Herman Melville’s Billy Budd (1962), before becoming one of the defining actors of swinging 60s Britain. Roles in Ken Loach’s Poor Cow (1967) and John Schlesinger’s Far from the Madding Crowd (1967) earned him critical acclaim, even as his offscreen relationships, with Julie Christie among others, kept him in the media spotlight.
He lived in Italy in the late 60s, working with Federico Fellini on his ‘Toby Dammit’ section of the Edgar Allan Poe portmanteau film Histoires extraordinaires/Spirits of the Dead (1967) and Pier Paolo Pasolini on Theorem (1968), in which the actor plays a mysterious visitor who seduces each and every member of a bourgeois Italian household.
When leading roles dried up after this, Stamp disappeared from the public eye to live in India, returning to mainstream filmmaking when he was offered the part of General Zod, playing opposite Marlon Brando, in Superman (1978).
Adjusting to a career as a character actor rather than a top-billed star, Stamp has continued to seek out creatively interesting projects, starring as a retired gangster living in Spain in Stephen Frears’s The Hit (1984), a transsexual in the Australian road movie The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert (1994), and – most recently – an ageing husband coming to terms with his wife’s illness in Paul Andrew Williams’s Song for Marion (2012).
We spoke to him about the tumult of his early celebrity life, the directors he admires (and the ones he doesn’t), and his knack for a comeback.
Were there any films or actors that inspired you to become an actor?
The first film I ever saw was called Beau Geste (1939), with Gary Cooper. My mother took me to see that. I was probably under four years old. It was Cooper playing a soldier in the Foreign Legion. I didn’t realise the impact, but it made an indelible impression on me.
What did your parents think of your acting ambitions?
It was so private for me. I never spoke about it at all. It wasn’t until we got our first TV – I would’ve been about 17 I think, and I was already at work – that I started saying things like, “Oh, I could do that.” My dad just turned me off it. He was probably trying to save me a lot of aggro. He genuinely believed that people like us didn’t do things like that. He was a stoker, for Christ’s sake. But it didn’t deter me. I continued not talking about it, but that made my determination stronger in a funny way.
How did they respond to your newfound fame?
Of course my mother loved every second of it. In retrospect, my mother must have always wanted me to do it and must have wished that she could have been more supportive. But my dad was the head of the family and I never really knew what he thought of it because he was of that generation. He was a merchant seaman, he shovelled coal, and in that confined living quarters any show of emotion would have been considered unbearably flash. By the time the war finished, he was really emotionally closed down. He never congratulated me. He must have been enormously proud, but he never communicated that with anybody.
Did you draw on your knowledge of your father and his work to play the seaman in your first film, Billy Budd?
Not consciously, but I guess it was in the DNA. I always felt at home on those old galleons. I did get seasick, but once I got used to the motion I was fine. So I guess there were a lot of things that came out [in my performance] that I wasn’t aware of then. I saw some clips of it when I was at the Lille film festival; they showed the big scene between myself and Robert Ryan. I was amazed how good it was.
Do you often revisit your old films?
No, I really don’t.
During the early 60s you shared a flat with Michael Caine. Was he a good flatmate?
The young Michael Caine was a joy to be with. We had lots of wonderful times. I’m sure he wasn’t trying to educate me, but he did. I was very new to showbiz, and he was a whole era older than me and had been in the business a lot. He’d never done anything really, but he’d been making his living since he’d come out of the army and the Korean war, so he knew a lot of practical, day-to-day things about the business, and I was like a sponge at the time. He was the first guy who gave me pointers about the artistic life.
You became one of the archetypal figures of swinging London, and are even referenced in the ‘Terry meets Julie’ lyric in The Kinks’ song ‘Waterloo Sunset’ – were you flattered by that?
My brother told me that at the time the song came out. I’ve heard from some people that Ray Davies is now denying it, but my brother Chris told me that Ray told him that when he wrote those lines he was picturing Julie Christie and myself. In the headlines, we were like the young people of the day. So I was very flattered by that.
Were the 60s like the mythology, or something different?
It was like the mythology, but it’s something different to read about it than to live it. We knew it was special, but we didn’t think of it like an era until ’67, ’68. It was just that the 50s had been magically transformed, initially by the music, then by the writers, then by the actors who the writers wanted to play their stuff. I just thought it was happening to me: it coincided with me becoming famous, so of course it was special for me. It was an incredible moment in my life, so I was seeing it through glasses more heavily rose-tinted than anybody else’s.
When you found yourself at parties with the great artists and musicians of the time, were you starstruck or did it just become the norm?
It became the norm very quickly, because the wonderful thing was that we were all young and – for the most part – we were the first wave of the educated, real, working class. [Peter] O’Toole and that were older than me, but I felt I was in that kind of milieu.
You then spent some years in Italy, starting with a project with Federico Fellini. How did that come about?
Fellini had been paid to do a segment of an Edgar Allan Poe trilogy. When he was pitched it, he was told it was going to be Orson [Welles] doing one, and Luis Buñuel doing one, and he was going to be doing one. So they gave him some money and he spent it. But then they came to him and said, “Well, we haven’t got Orson and we haven’t got Buñuel, but we’ve got you and you’ve got the money so get on with it.” So he adapted one of the Edgar Allan Poe stories. Now he’d been approached a lot when he was in London by Peter O’Toole. O’Toole had met him at lunches and things and said we must do something together, so [Fellini] did write it with Peter O’Toole in mind. But when he sent the screenplay to Peter, Peter read it and said “I don’t want to be in this.”
So [Fellini] called a casting director called Dyson Lovell and said “Send me your most decadent actors.” I was one of the decadent ones that went, and that was how I met him.
What was Fellini like?
He was just everything and more – I think he was one of the most wonderful human beings I’ve ever met. And he bore witness to his talent. He wasn’t one of these guys who makes great movies like Antonioni, who’s like this dry, boring academic in real life. He was full of life – funny and witty and smart, and adorable to hang out with. There was never a moment wasted with Federico.
Was there ever the possibility you’d work with him again?
I always wanted to do this masterpiece he’d written called The Voyage of Mastorna. He’d written it for [Marcello] Mastroianni really, but we’d got on so well. He never really considered it for me, he said “You’re too young”, but he did give me the screenplay to read and it was just a masterpiece. The canvas was the hinterland after death when an individual doesn’t know he’s dead yet. His life suddenly becomes very strange and dreamlike, and he’s not aware that he’s not in the body anymore. It was beautiful. It never got made, but that was my dream: to do that.
How did the experience of working with Pier Paolo Pasolini on Theorem compare?
No comparison at all really, just chalk and cheese. Pasolini was closed down emotionally, small, unsociable, never communicated with me. I’m sure he had an enormous mind and I’m sure people thought the world of him, but I had no rapport with him at all. He never made any effort; as a matter of fact he was very offhand with me. We never had conversations, beyond the first meeting.
But he did give me something invaluable by what he was and with his vision – which I had to work out for myself, it wasn’t anything he ever talked to me about. Because he was filming me secretly, when I wasn’t supposed to know that he was filming me, I thought he doesn’t want to know what I can do, he wants what I am. Suddenly that opened a whole new dimension to my performance.
Did the years out you spent living in ashrams in India change your approach to acting?
Work dried up after The Mind of Mr. Soames in 1969. Hu-Man (1975) was the only serious film I did [during those years], and that was really independent. We’d get some money, shoot for a few days, use the money, “See you a few months later!” – it was that kind of thing. So I travelled. I thought I’m not going to stay around here facing this day-in-day-out rejection and the phone not ringing.
I wound up in India and that opened a whole new world to me – that was an amazing thing to happen to a young performer. It’s quite widespread now, but to go there as a very young man and to meet great thinkers and great sages and to learn about breathing and movement and the whole canvas of mysticism…
I never really thought that my career was over. The belief that I clung to was that if you have a long career you either don’t get started till late like Jack Nicholson or Mike Caine – they didn’t get a break till after they were 30 – or [there are] people like Cary Grant who have a lull in the middle. So I always thought, I’m doing my lull now and there’ll be a day when I’ll come back.
All these things I was learning, I was adding to my performing skills – about voice, movement, breath, presence. I thought when the call comes I’ll be really ready. It didn’t come till ’77.
But the great blessing of that period, when I look back on it, was that during those years I had been transmuted from a leading man to a character actor. I was still under 40, but I didn’t think of myself as a leading man anymore, because I’d been rejected as a leading man. The kind of parts I then got were Prince Lubovedsky in Meetings with Remarkable Men (1979) and General Zod in Superman – neither of which were leading men parts, and leading men wouldn’t have done them. I only did them because I was hungry to get back into the industry. From then on in, anything that’s good I do.
What was sharing scenes with Marlon Brando in Superman like?
It was a benchmark in my life really, because he was up there with Gary Cooper. Brando was the one. I thought Brando and James Dean were the two actors that I most identified with as a young actor, and so it was a dream come true. Not necessarily to work with Brando, because we only had one or two scenes together, but to hang out with him, and the conversations we had. Looking back, the respect was mutual in a way, because once I got underneath the funny surface of him, he had very serious feelings about being a performing artist.
The Hit now seems like a precursor to films like Sexy Beast (2000) and even The Limey. Is that a shoot you remember fondly?
Yes, it was a great moment for me. I never made a lot of money, but I was really, really broke at the beginning of the 80s and I’d had to do a TV series because I didn’t have money for rent or to live. I did this series called Chessgame (1983), and it wasn’t bad but I hated appearing on TV. I hated the work, I hated the workload, I hated that it was about dialogue not pictures. But I’d done it because I was broke.
In the last few days of that shoot, which was in Manchester, I got this chance to meet [director] Stephen Frears and [producer] Jeremy Thomas. It was wonderful; I regarded it as another comeback. It could have been the beginning of the end: once you do big TV shows, that’s all you get offered, so to be offered The Hit was like guys running out on the football pitch with a stretcher.
Did you take much persuading to perform in drag for The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert?
It wasn’t something I’d have ever considered really. I thought it was a joke, but a woman friend of mine just happened to be present when I was getting calls from my agent about the script and she pointed out to me in a very incisive way that my fear was out of all proportion to the possible consequences. That’s the thing about fear: you’re only really subject to it as long as you don’t spot it. It’s not easy to realise when you’re turning down things from fear or genuine discernment.
She said, “Look, just say yes and maybe it will go away. And if it doesn’t, you’ll just have to address the fear.” And then she said this wonderful thing: “Terence, this is not a career move, this is a growth move.” So it was a challenge, a challenge I couldn’t resist because [otherwise] my life would have been a lie.
But it wasn’t a fun thing, or anything I was looking forward to. It was, “Fuck me, this is the last thing in the world I want to do: be in fucking Australia with paparazzi.” It was like a nightmare. But it was only when I got there, and got through the fear, that it became one of the great experiences of my whole career. It was probably the most fun thing I’ve ever done in my life.
What did you make of the experience of being in Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace (1999) for George Lucas?
It was just bland really. He’s obviously a visionary, a really smart man, but he’s not the kind of filmmaker that I’m interested in. It’s about kids and toys and special effects. I’m sure it’s fascinating in his head. I don’t think he’s interested in actors, frankly. I suppose I should talk to other actors about him, but I haven’t, so I don’t know. With me, it was the opposite of the law of like kinds I’m afraid.
There’s a line there. They weren’t for children. There’s a whole generation of people for whom Superman movies were the first movies they ever saw. But Dick Donner wasn’t making them for the lowest common denominator. It wasn’t like Star Wars or Harry Potter, just for all the kids in the world to go and see. They were comic films for adults, the humour was for adults; it was just that kids loved them as well. Also they’re the benchmark. I’ve made Elektra and stuff like that, but what set the trend was those first two Superman movies and there’s never been another two movies like that in my opinion.
Which version of Superman II do you prefer, the original Richard Donner cut with longer scenes with Marlon Brando or Richard Lester’s edit after Donner’s removal from the film?
If you cut Brando because you’re frightened that he’s going to sue you for his points, and you substitute Superman’s mother, where are you at? Which movie would you prefer to go and see? Marlon Brando or Susannah York, bless her heart?!
Are there any filmmakers that you would have liked to work with, but never had the chance?
I would have loved to have worked with Buñuel. I’d love to work with Soderbergh again but I believe he’s retired. I loved William Wyler – I could have spent the rest of my career working with Wyler. He was just a heavenly guy. He was pure intuition. I think he was probably the greatest director who ever lived in the sense that he never made a failure either artistically or financially.
These guys like Fellini and Wyler, they just sit under the camera: their energy is there for you, and you feel it. They bring amazing things out of you. I was incredibly lucky that my first two movies were with Ustinov and Wyler, because they saw things in me that I was unaware of myself.
Are you working on anything at the moment?
I was inspired by Soderbergh to write a loose sequel to The Limey. It’s not a sequel but he wanted to make a thriller in London and he gave me this wonderful idea and I wrote a screenplay of it, which he loved. But between his giving me the idea and me writing the screenplay, he decided that he was going to retire. Whenever I bump into him, he says “You should do it. You wrote the screenplay, you’ve obviously got the vision.” So he’s lumbered me with that!
But at this moment in my life, I don’t really have any psychological ambitions. I’m not one of those guys who are like, “Oh, my looks are going, I’ve got to become a director” – I don’t think like that. I have written the screenplay, and it felt very, very good when I wrote it – it just fell out of my left hand. I believe it’s something good, but I’m not someone who can go out and ask for millions of dollars to do something that just came out of my hand.
Would you like to direct it if given the chance?
Oh yeah, absolutely. There’s nothing I don’t know about film, it’s just that I’ve never actually done it, and I’d like to do it with a proper troupe. I’d like to do it with people who are like kinds, people who I look on and admire. We could make a troupe; it wouldn’t just be a crew, it would be a troupe of artists doing something together.
Is there any part you regret turning down?
I regret turning down King Arthur in Camelot (1967). I should’ve done that. I turned it down from fear; I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to sing the great score. I thought that it would put a big stain on my early career if I was revoiced, but I could’ve done it. I could’ve done it as good as Richard [Harris], that’s for sure.
If the BFI was only screening a weekend of your films, rather than a full season, which are the films you’d like to have seen included? The films you’re proudest of…
The Limey, Priscilla, The Collector (1965), Billy Budd and the Fellini.