Interview by Roger Durling with Terrence Stamp
Roger Durling: Everyone please welcome the great Terence Stamp.
Terrence Stamp: Thank you.
Durling: I have to say before I started talking to you that—I’m jumping out of my skin. I have been such a huge fan of your work for so many years with The Limey, Billy Budd, and so on, as well as this performance. I am so honored as well as thrilled that you’re here with us today. Let me start by asking what convinced you to take the part of Arthur in this film?
Stamp: I had a great experience initially, only I thought it was one of those screenplays where I just felt that I couldn’t give it the best shot. I thought it would be better portrayed by somebody other than me. The reason this sounds bad—it’s not really—I felt that because it was such a deep relationship, it’s the sort of relationship that I think of as a twin soul relationship. A twin soul relationship is usually depicted like in Romeo & Juliet; they’re kind of very exceptional characters. What I thought was very beautiful about this screenplay was that it wasn’t a twin soul relationship but they were very ordinary people. And I can do ordinary. I’m able to do ordinary very well. Then I met the director and he told me, “No no that’s not right because I wrote it about an uncle and he’s equally grumpy.” But then I heard that in my career, I’ve only ever—I’ve turned down a lot of good stuff—but the only thing I’ve turned down that I have a real loss and regret is that I turned down Josh Logan when he wanted to cast me in Camelot, and I was only like 23 I think at the time. But he actually went down on his knees in the restaurant and begged me to do it. And I didn’t do it because I was frightened. I was frightened that I wouldn’t be able to sing the score and that they would have to re-voice me. In other words, I turned it down because of fear. How that affects this film is that, while I was still thinking about if I could do it they assigned Vanessa. And I thought, “Wow, she played Guenevere and my character is called Arthur and he has to sing!” So it seemed to me that the universe was giving me a second chance.
Durling: You mentioned that there is this twin relationship with the other character of Marion, played by Vanessa Redgrave, and you guys have this amazing—it’s not chemistry—you have this mythic…it’s so believable that you can marry her and share this home and everything. Then I read that you barely had any rehearsal for this. That’s true right? You didn’t have much time to…
Stamp: We didn’t have any.
Durling: How could you develop…I mean there’s this whole vocabulary between the two of you that tells us that you two…how did you and Vanessa work that?
Stamp: I’ll give you a clue because we never spoke—none of the cast spoke. I mean we were friendly but we never spoke about the project. There was just kind of an unspoken understanding; but I’ll give you a clue about Vanessa and I. The director is very young with his second or third movie. He’s very clever, but he looks very rough. He’s got more ink on his arms that I would use to write a book; but he sensed it. And in the second week, Vanessa and I were on set we had just done something. And he said sort of loudly so the crew could hear, “Wow, you and Vanessa sort of nail it on the first take.” And I looked at her and I looked at him and said “Listen man, when you’ve got Redgrave and Stamp on set you’ve got a hundred years of movie acting.” And she looked at me and she said, “A hundred and one.”
Durling: So you never discussed all the doings about the history between the two people? It just came natural?
Durling: You talked about the director. Yes, he had done three movies prior to this and they were thrillers and horror films. This is quite a departure for him. It feels like such a personal project for him. Why do you think he had to work on this piece that is so different from what he had done before?
Stamp: He doesn’t like me to say that he wrote it about his dad. That is my theory about it. I thought that it was incredibly personal. And it was the kind of rapport between Vanessa and I and all the cast actually, was that my own inside into the movie was after he convinced me that he really wanted me. Then I thought to myself and began thinking about what would be a good example of a twin soul relationship. And then I thought about my own mum and dad and my father—it was real love. They were both good looking. He was unusually good looking, my dad. He was more handsome than all his sons. We were just a bit of his looks. But the thing about it was that he had been a merchant seaman from when he was fifteen and my mother said she wouldn’t marry him unless he gave up the sea. She said “You love the sea more than me.” She was very dramatic. But then when World War II started he went back into the merchant navy, he was shipwrecked three times and when the war ended and he came home—he was about twenty-eight, twenty-nine—he was gray and I had a feeling looking back on things as a grown man I can see the grace had been broken from his character because of the terrible years he lived in the war. So I know having been shown emotion from him and I know he was truly, really truly devoted to my mom that he was emotionally closed down. So once I had an insight, if I got in trouble I could revert to my dad. It made it very easy for me. And the thing about Vanessa—I had worked with her in a play. We had done The Lady from the Sea about twenty years ago, so I knew her as an actress. But the fact was I never got cast, I was a stage actor working in the theater. So when I started this film with her, I was very happy to be on level pay with her. What happened was, in the twelve months before she started this movie; she lost her daughter, her sister, and her brother. When I walked on to set that first day, I just thought to myself, “My first job here is to her keep in mind” because she was in great grief. So I guess that was—in a way the universe sometimes tests things up—that was like it couldn’t have been better to start with. I was like the character. I was taking care of this woman who was in trouble.
Durling: You talked about the twin relationship with Vanessa. There is another interesting relationship, which is of course with your son. You’ve dealt on your side the father relationship. How was it working with that person and developing that rapport that you had with him?
Stamp: It was just instant in many ways. I was the son and the father by kind of placing my character as my dad. I was playing my dad but I had lived through my relationship as a boy with a man who is emotionally closed down. There was nothing to talk about with Chris. When I heard, I asked who was playing my son. They said Chris Eccleston and I thought “That’s fine, he’s a good actor.” But I said, “How’s his voice?” What I meant was, “how is his dialect?” because in England we’re very concerned with that, with class. That was relayed back to him that “Oh Terence said ‘How’s your voice?’”. What he did, which I thought was very smart—we have this wonderful program. We have wonderful radio in England with all these BBC radio stations with no adverse—terrific to listen to—and we have this famous program with discs with celebrities on them and you get to choose like eight songs and you talk about them and it goes out live. And what he did was he got BBC to send him my discs. So he listened to my voice and he played to my voice, which was a great help to me because I didn’t have to worry about his voice.
Durling: We talked briefly outside about the British cut, the original cut of the film that the director did and Harvey Weinstein bought the film and put back the scene that had the cut between you and Gemma Arterton, the young gal. It’s a pivotal scene because you see the arc of your character. Would you talk about why you thought that scene was important to have in it?
Stamp: I guess, literally, the context of the characters. The thing with Vanessa was very easy, because the fact is its Vanessa and I didn’t have any problem playing the first half of the movie. What was interesting to me as an actor about the part of Arthur was that when he loses her, I was kind of in a new territory because in fact my dad died before my mother did. And so I had no frame of reference really. But was more interesting to me about the way in which the screenplay was written was that in the second half of the movie the story is about the redemption of this character. And this is kind of symbolized by the fact that he finds his own course, so the reason he’s more youthful at the end of the movie is that this is the man whose love is reserved for this one woman and son when she’s not there. And he doesn’t really like anybody else. He’s never had to like anybody else. She’s more than enough for him. I was kind of back to my problem as a performer by how can I tether this performance to the very best in myself. I like to have those kinds of things. The solution I came up with was that there’s kind of a realization within the character that the love that he feels for her is only reflected by her. And the love that he feels for her is inside him, so in fact when she’s not there; the object of his affection is not there. The love, which is in him, should still be there. It’s not tied to her and it should be there. For me the scene with Gemma, who’s seriously adorable, it’s the first time in the arc of the performance in the arc of Arthur that he experiences a feeling for someone other than Marion that’s not animosity. And this comes from him because she just knocks up on his door and she’s distressed. She’s kind of in need. And so in spite of himself he finds tender feelings within himself that he can give to her. So it was a very key scene in how he aligns at the end, because that’s the beginning of him understanding that he hasn’t lost independence of his wife. When the director originally did it, he—I’m not one of those actors that tells the director what to do, but I was concerned if it would take a measure away from our Arthur. So when Harvey—Mr. Weinstein was shown a six minute clip of the movie, he bought it without seeing it and he flew to London and he saw the movie and he said, “Where is the script?” Because he realized that there was something missing. I understand that he’s got a crush on Gemma. So he put that in.
Durling: The director cut it because he was afraid of it going into this understanding—
Stamp: He was nervous. He thought it might be like an old guy lurching off of some young girl. Fade to black there.
Durling: It’s one of those heart-wrenching moments, the last scene with you on stage. Was that fun working and rehearsing to sing in front of an audience?
Stamp: I don’t know if it was fun, but what was fortunate was that by the time they had gotten the last moment of the film, because he goes to Croatia, I only actually had time for two lessons with a singing teacher and she taught me about the phrasing and the briefing but you know two hours is not a lot. And then when we started the movie, which was three days later after my lessons, we didn’t have any time for anything. But, the movie went incredibly well, it just went well, it just felt wonderful. And so on the last night of shooting, we made the move and went into this old theater that was filled with extras. And it was the evening of the last day of shooting, so we really only had time for one take. So I didn’t have any time to pee in my pants. They said, “We’re ready Terence!” And that was one take. I’ve heard the cast of Les Mis boasts that it was all live sound but was it take one?
Durling: That’s a good point. I have one more question. One of my favorite moments, and there are several from your performance, is when Marion has died and there’s a closed door and you hear this horrible pain and scream. Was that always meant to be closed doors or you perform it in front of the camera?
Stamp: Oh yeah, it was always meant to behind a door. It was only ever meant to be…When there is an emotion that is coming to a climax either he will pull away or fade into another scene so he’s got a very delicate touch, this director. And I think that the fact that it was not on camera allowed me to not worry about overdoing it. So really that scream, for me…when I lost my mother, my dad…you know they say behind every successful man is a fantastic woman and that was my mum. And my mum actually died when I was shooting Legal Eagles in New York with Robert Redford and Debra Winger. And I couldn’t get home for the funeral. We waited a long time on set for Debra and Rob—it’s hard to get them both on set at the same time. So that scream—that was the scream that I felt during the shoot in Legal Eagles that I never had. I couldn’t give that to my grief. It was like probably the biggest grief I’ve ever expressed in my life so when they asked me to do that, you know, that was the kind of sense that I came up with.