STAMP, TERENCE – THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
TERENCE STAMP: A DIFFERENT PERSPECTIVE
“American stars don't want to kill the baby. I'll kill the baby. I'll kill any baby for a good part,” he says in this extensive, searching interview/profile recently unearthed from the archives of our Editor, Andrew L. Urban. It was recorded soon after Terence Stamp finished shooting Steph Elliott’s now legendary movie, The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, in which he plays Bernadette, the transsexual elder of the troupe heading to Alice Springs. We think it’s worth sharing with our readers.
A polite knock on the door of his hotel suite, and Terence Stamp opens it with a slight smile, ushering me in to a sunlit sitting room in gentle disarray. The first impression is of an elegant, trim man with a sense of style.
Wearing a faun silk shirt, matching linen trousers and a pair of fine looking brown leather mocassins, he looks fit. His blue eyes clean, direct, intelligent. The voice, at a measured pace, is distinct, exactly as it sounds on screen; strong, resonant, English but with an almost neutral accent, except for the faintest occasional remains of the East End, forever reminding him of being the last of a poor, working class dynasty.
Although instantly likeable, there is a certain reserve about Stamp - an emotional reserve, not an intellectual one. Or is it the iceberg tip of some deep sadness?
As I settle on the settee, Stamp fusses with some minor domestic ritual, and sitting down, rests his hands on his knees - I notice his long, long fingernails. I wonder casually whether he has acquired this new idiosynchrasy after playing the transsexual in the Australian outback.
"No, no, no. It's just that I gave my word to the girl who put them on that I'd go back and let her take them off, and now she can only see me tomorrow."
The nails, like his transsexuality, are false. They were part of his transformation into Bernadette, a central character in Stephan Elliott's latest feature film, The Adventures of Priscilla - Queen of the Desert. Set in the central deserts around Alice Springs, the seven week shoot was virtually a closed set, but now after filming had finished, Stamp was back in Sydney for our interview.
"You never really get used to them, you know. I can't wipe my ears, you need the awareness of a Zen monk to tie shoelaces, picking up change, funny things are difficult. But it was a big help in the beginning. I suppose the main thing is seeing yourself, and you can't see yourself as a transsexual. And then when I had the nails put on, there was a kind of a transformation that was continually there, sort of in my hands. I was having to use them in a different way. Gave me a kind of different perspective ... a hat to hold like this. (He demonstrates, fingers held out, just like a woman.) It was a kind of an important sort of reminder and factor. It was a physical trigger."
The film, Elliott's second after Frauds, tells the story of a busload of drag queens on their way to a gig in the outback, encountering all sorts of adventures and mishaps.
Imagining him as a transsexual may be difficult for the many baby boomers who will always think of Terence Stamp first as the gently weird protagonist in The Collector, who kept that beautiful girl (Samantha Eggar) locked away from the world out of adoration for her, alongside his butterfly collection.
"The first thing I did was to mentally open myself to the possibility on an emotional level and I did that by doing some kind of seminars in London that were about becoming aware of one's limiting characteristics. In fact I saw it as identical to, say, Jung's The Feminine Element, releasing the feminine element. That's the way I work - you know, inside out.
"And then I met actual transsexuals in London, started studying the physical manifestations and actually talking to them about how they did it because in truth, women don't move any differently from men, except when they're trying to interest men, and then they move in an exaggerated way to catch their eye. So you can't really observe women. It's like observing yourself. There's not enough purpose to grip onto. When I started meeting the transsexuals themselves, because they were men who felt they were women born into the wrong body and their life has been spent correcting this mistake - so their movement patterns are learned, like mine. So it's easier for me to work, study transsexuals rather than women."
Bernadette, he says, is not one of those intellectually brilliant transsexuals like Jan Morris. "Bernadette is NOT a drag queen. She's like a showgirl...and at the time we meet her, she's at that point in her life where if she were a woman, she would be approaching menopause. So suddenly everything is kind of speeding up and she is feeling the claws of mortality as an attractive woman, and that's the spiritual level she's at."
Room service arrives with coffee for me - but it is hot water for Stamp, who makes a herbal tea for himself, from an assortment of jars that lie scattered all over the small side table. For a moment, the English ritual of tea interrupts Bernadette's story.
"Herbal tea. Yeah. I was more addicted to tea than to anything else in my life. And when I had to give it up, herbal tea just tasted like nothing. Then I eventually found tea - I mean this is not THE tea, it's mainly ginger. This is just one I'm trying right now since yesterday."
He explains why he had to give up tea; "because it was making me too ill. I have a very delicate digestive system. In fact, I had my first ulcer when I was 26. And just the pain of an ulcer every twenty minutes night and day...desperate, desperate. And it has forced me to adopt a kind of a lifestyle - in normal terms it's austere. Lots of fruit. I can't eat wheat, I can't eat sugar, I can't drink tea or coffee. I can't drink alcohol. But I am in fairly, well very good health really. So that's why.. and I think it's aesthetic. But my friends all think it's ascetic." He laughs.
Back to Bernadette, who is neither - she is acerbic. "She's this guy and he's had to go through this horrifying operation and has to take hormones every day, has to pull her beard out. So she's kind of sour. There's an angst inside her. And that is how Stephan has drawn the comedy in. She says the most awful things. She's just fearless. You know someone who's had their genitals removed has to be fearless, or what? You'd be hard put to imagine any more fearful event than that. So she's fearless. She doesn't care about anybody."
"My approach to comedy is always VERY serious. I figure that's the only way I can do it. And so obviously she's ridiculous, but SHE doesn't view herself as ridiculous. She's just like any of us. She's doing the best she can."
What was it that enticed Terence Stamp to cross the globe to a country he was not much attracted to, for a role as a ridiculous transsexual?
"Well. I could really say there are two reasons, but there's actually not. There's only the one. And unfortunately, it's rather a lengthy explanation. It had been brought to my attention by a very great woman friend of mine, who is considerably more evolved than I am," he says hinting at his Buddhism.
"And she pointed out to me that I was in danger of cutting myself off from a big area in my life, because I didn't really work enough. She saw that it was only when I was working .... that my social life came out of my work. And as the years went by and I worked less and less, I was becoming more and more reclusive and spending more and more time on my own. "
She told him he needed to have fun - to take on fun projects, and to be fearless. "And because I hold her in such high regard, I made an appointment to announce this to my agent … ‘cause I thought it's not something I can just do on the phone.
"So I phoned her - Pippa Markham - she's a big, intelligent, strong woman. And on my way up to her office, which is at the top of the building in Soho, Stephanie, her partner, hears my voice on the intercom. The door opens and by the time I get to the first landing, Stephanie is holding a script, and she says: "Hey this has just come in. It's about three drag queens in a van going across the Australian outback and it sounds fun!" I thought. "Christ, I hadn't even phoned her! But the universe is listening!"
Stamp gets the script back to his apartment and starts reading; he thinks it is a really fun script, but his nerve starts failing. "I can't," he thinks. He starts backing off. The agency prods him; his actress friend prods him. "Tell them yes," she says.
"So I'm like...(he shakes with indecision)... I said "Well," she said "Don't say 'Well,' just say 'yes, go ahead!': So I said "Well, why don't you check on progress...?? Why don't you see what the deal is?"
"And it just gets worse by the moment." His hands, with the long fingernails, describe arcs in the air. "You know, there's no money... and it's Australia... you know I hate Australia ... I had this awful experience at the Melbourne Cup (the appalling bruhaha over his then girlfriend, Jean Shrimpton, for wearing a miniskirt) and I never wanted to come back. I've turned down great movies because I never wanted to come back to Australia. So all these kind of problems are coming up in my mind. And this friend of mine is saying - Yeah, you tell them to go ahead. So I said "Why don't you go head."
His actress friend is encouraging: "what we're talking about here is growth. We're talking about you being aware of your own resistance to things for whatever reason. So just keep saying yes and see what happens."
Stamp went with the flow, and met with Stephan Elliott. It was something of a surprise to both men to be at that meeting. Elliott had doubted that Stamp would accept the role. It had been a bit of a dream. The reality turned out to be a happy experience for both.
As an actor, Stamp has always brought complexity to his screen characters, hidden whirlpools of personality, strange motivations, eccentricities that ensured fascination; perhaps it comes naturally, automatically?
"Well, it's not automatic and never becomes a habit. But the more I work, I acquire a kind of certain kind of muscle, and the muscle is to do with trying to be fearless about roles, and the way that I have been approaching roles in the last sort of, well since the late 70s when I made my comeback. I don't sit in judgment on the character I'm being asked to play.
"I get lots of roles the American stars don't want to do. American stars don't want to kill the baby. I'll kill the baby. I'll kill any baby for a good part. So I don't sit in judgment on the character and the philosophy I bring to the character is that I don't think that anybody, ANYBODY does wrong. They do right as they see it, which of course to the objective world, is horrifying if somebody's raping a teenager or something. But to the person who's doing it, he's just doing the right thing as he sees it. You know he has these impulses. It's right that they be manifested. He didn't ask for these impulses."
But in the beginning, there was no time for philosophy: he simply gave rein to his natural talent. He looks back on his early years with nostalgia: "I was kind of spoilt in the 60s, really, working for all those great directors ..." Ustinov, Wyler, Fellini, Schlesinger, Pasolini...
But his comeback years have been no less impressive, if we are talking about directors: Peter Brook, Oliver Stone, Stephen Frears, Pilar Miro - and Richard Lester, for whom he played a Kryptonian villain in Superman II.
"While I was shooting Superman, I had a month off to shoot Meetings with Remarkable Men with Peter Brooks, and I member at the time really savouring the diversity of that. 'Cause I felt - here I am making probably the most commercial movie the world has ever known and making the most artistic, highbrow movie the world has ever known. And making them at the same studio.
"One day I was going in as General Zod, in my luminous black velcrose outfit, and the next day I was going to the canteen as Prince Lubovetsky and the people in the canteen wouldn't know it was the same actor. And I admire people like William Wyler who never ever make even a similar event in a similar movie. And Alan Parker who's cut from the same cloth. He doesn't repeat himself. It diminishes talent."
Stamp, who says he likes to work half the time, never really achieved that. "Because I turn down a lot of stuff. I turn down a lot of stuff because it's crap. But I also realise that I've turned down a lot of stuff for the wrong reasons."
His decade of retirement from the end of the 60s until the late 70s, however, had nothing to do with the scripts: it had everything to do with Jean Shrimpton.
"I had a very great love affair," he says with emphasis softened by philosophical reflection. "Probably the only great love affair in my life, and it ended badly for me. And that made me kind of look at my life, because as a young man, I had imagined because I was poor, unattractive, untalented.... and I had this dream of becoming an actor, which I wasn't even allowed to talk about because it was so outrageous, from anyone from the kind of social level I was born into.
With Jean Shrimpton
"My father was a stoker: his official title was "Donkey Man". In other words, he was a merchant seaman, one up from a galley slave, and we lived in a house that would have almost fitted into this room with no bathroom - an outside lavatory - we were really poor. In the East End of London ..
"My father had grown up without shoes. So when I started talking about being an actor, my dad said "Look son, I don't want you to talk about it. People like us don't do things like that." That didn't deter me at all, it just meant I couldn't talk about it, so I became like a pressure cooker. I built up this head of steam.
"So when it all happened to me, the three things that I had imagined would give some kind of inner completion, were to be attractive, to have a perfect partner, and to be a successful actor. And for 10 years, there wasn't a moment of introspection. I just sort of swallowed it whole. And when this romance ended in the 60s, it was such a shock to me and I was in such emotional turmoil, that I was compelled to look at myself and my life.
"Simultaneously, the year it (love affair) was ending, because I had been so heavily identified with the era, it was like I was last year's flavour. So the scripts that started to come in were just third division, and I'd become spoilt, I'd become accustomed to working with Wyler and Fellini... Suddenly I was playing state games and then I just thought I'd go around the world. I'd look. I'll view things differently.
"I didn't think at the time, 'I'm retiring', I just thought I'd do something. Had I known it was going to last 10 years, I probably wouldn't have gone, and I didn't exactly completely retire. When I ran out of money, which I did frequently, I would phone my long suffering agent, and say what's on your desk, and I'd do ANYTHING. So I've always had these two standards. There's things I'd do when I've got rent and there's things I'd do when I don't have the rent. But I never did anything of any note. Just jobs. Pick up a few grand. Then I'd travel back to Bali or Kioto or wherever."
The East continues to hold a strong fascination for Stamp, once an avid collector - a real one. His apartment in London bears testimony to his Oriental travels. On the top floor, he has a Tatami room and a Japanese bathroom. A huge gong from Bali on one wall, a Japanese artefact on another.
Downstairs, the period is Georgian, with Georgian furniture and corresponding Louis XV amd Louis XIV pieces - and some 17th century Chinese furniture.
"And there's the paintings...I did collect quite good paintings in the 60s. When I was out of work for years, I've had to sell them. They're mostly gone, but I've got a few left."
Fewer, in fact, than friends, of whom Stamp boasts many. "But no-one's taken the place of the first love. When it happened, I was 27, and at the time I was thinking, well it's just the beginning of my life. I knew it was a very profound experience, but I thought I've got the rest of my life. And then when I was writing the final volume of my memoirs, which dealt with the 60s era, I was trying to chronicle the 60s through my own experiences, and I had to address the fact that was probably IT. Cause I'd reached 50 and I hadn't experienced it again. So it was a tough book to write, but it was therapeutic, cathartic, 'cause I'd buried it alive. And when I unravelled it, it was still there, screaming."
This interview first published in The Australian, July 1994
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THE MAKING OF THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT
... as Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla...
With Jean Shrimpton - "I had a very great love affair"