Tell us about your character in The Limey – a stranger in a strange land.
The main thing that made the character unique for me was the fact that it was based on a
character that I played 35 years ago. So, in a way I’d done the research and I had to
revisit that character to imagine how a guy who’d spent most of his life incarcerated
– how that incarceration would have affected his movement, how being a chian smoker
would have affected his voice and stuff like that.
And then of course, how to really illustrate the intrinsic difference between somebody
like the Limey going to somewhere like Los Angeles. My line of thinking was that obviously
the guy’s in prison which either makes you or breaks you; and it obviously
hasn’t broken Wilson, so how has it made him?
How has Wilson, who is basically like a greyhound – but deprived of his main
asset, in other words his banged up in this little cell - how has Wilson mastered prison?
And I figured he’s just become aware, like a Zen monk or like a Samurai. Very
focused. So when he arrives in Los Angeles - which can be seen like a land of lotus
eaters, where people are all sort of dreaming… it draws to itself people of wild
ambition, so those people are always becoming, they’re never as in the
moment as Wilson is. Wilson is just there.
It must be a fascinating experience for an actor to revisit a character many years
later. We’re talking about your character in Poor Cow; how did the idea come up and
how did Steve Soderbergh put it to you?
Well I was actually on holiday on a little island in Hawaii called Kawai, and I got a
message to call him. I imagined it was going to be some little part playing some sort of
British eccentric in a Soderbergh film. But when I called, he started pitching this idea.
I was so astonished by the very idea of using old footage from the film. I am a real snob
and I love the idea of anything unique, of being the first. I love to be the first
transsexual on film, I love to be the first serial killer… this was a first, so I was
thrilled. Then later when I got to meet [writer] Lem Dobbs he told me how it had come to
Apparently they’d been attempting to write this script for a long time and
hadn’t been able to crack it. Finally, Lem said to Steven, ‘If you give me some
idea of who you want for Wilson, it might help me envisage the character if I had a face
to work with.’ And Steven said, ‘Well, I guess the best of those English guys
for this part would be Stamp.’ And Lem said ‘Can we get him?’ Steven
replied ‘I don’t know, he’s a lunatic. There is no rhyme or reason behind
his choices.’ And then he said this wonderful thing; ‘You know he’s got
this huge body of work and I wonder if we could find something that we could use, so when
he’s remembering his youth we could see it.’ The very next morning Steven woke
up and there was this envelope under his door, from Lem. And it just said, ‘Holy Cow!
Poor Cow … check it out.’ And from that moment that he saw Poor Cow Soderbergh
said ‘that’s it. That’s the character, grown older.’
For you that meant building a bridge for that character from the past. Were you able to
actually recapture the notions that built that character?
Yeah it’s a funny thing about being an actor. I consider myself a movie actor not a
theatre actor and what I’m aware of is the fact that between action and cut is a kind
of intensification of energy. And it’s to do with these great artists and technicians
who come and build a space for you. They build a set, they bring props, they give you a
costume . . . but the abstraction of it is there is energy being amassed and contained and
I think film actors feel that, I certainly do.
And one of the spin offs of that is that the experience is kind of unaffected by the
passage of time. So when I was watching Poor Cow I could actually get memory flashes of
how I was at that time, and it was a very wonderful moment for me [at that time]. I was
having this big love affair, I’d just finished Far from the Madding Crowd, I’d
been out of work for a couple of days and I got this other really good job - the whole of
Poor Cow was improvised … so a lot of those memories were very strong. I was able to
recall them and I was able to bury them. What’s happened in Wilson’s odyssey is
that he’s suppressed his conscience in order to carry on with his life of crime, in
order to exercise his great skill, which is being a thief. So he’s had to not be too
worried about his relationships with his loved ones.
What about Steve Soderbergh? He’s always fascinated me as a filmmaker who could
make important issues very accessible?
He’s just a great moviemaker really. I mean I would put him up there with Fellini,
and Wyler, but he’s different in that he’s of his age. He understands that
we’re near the end of the world – you know. He’s a wonderful combination of
fierce intellect and extra sensory perception. He’s a wonderful filmmaker and a
He obviously works well with actors – he gets great performances . . .
He loves actors. You get a lot of film directors who don’t understand actors and
consequently they are frightened of them. So their energy is put into talking about
‘we’ll use this lens, we’ll use this light and we’ll use this angle
and we’ll zoom here…’ Consequently the emphasis is on the technicalities.
Now, Steven’s got all that; he knows more than anybody on the set, you can’t kid
him. And he does most of the things . . . he can do his own camera, he lit Traffic! So
he’s a kind of genius - and he loves actors. And because he’s operating [the
camera] good film actors only work for the camera and we suffer with these new directors
who are preoccupied with the video split and the framing. We suffer because they
don’t feel it. So The Limey is a film of one takes, because he’s got it.
Do you find that refreshing to be able to do that?
I find it a great blessing, because I’ve always been like that. My first take is
always, invariably, my best. Look, it’s no accident that Julia Roberts is better [in
her Oscar winning role in Erin Brokovich, directed by Soderbergh] than she’s ever
been … it’s no accident!
Now how come you’re in Bondi?
It’s just the most wonderful place for an Englishman, or an Anglo-Saxon like myself.
It’s the best place in the world at this time of the year [April 2001] to be. I was
waiting for a job and I’d thought I’d rather stand by at Bondi than somewhere
else. In fact, I got my marching orders the other day, so I’m leaving for Vancover
tomorrow. I’m doing a thing called The Guest, a really broad comedy directed by David
Zucker [producer Naked Gun, Airplane!] – although I don’t know if I’ll have
to do a lot of comedy. The movie is quite ridiculous.
But you like that sort of extreme change don’t you? You’ve played an
extraordinary variety of roles.
Well, it’s the only way to have a long career. If I hadn’t been dumped in the
70s, if I hadn’t had my 10 years in the wilderness, if I’d just gone on being
Sergeant Troy…[Far from the Madding Crowd, 1967] then probably I’d have been a
kind of cartoon of myself. I’d have been wearing a big black wig, having
surgery… but with ten years out of the business I understood that the way to
perpetuate a long career was by just digging deeper. And the way that I dig deeper is by
taking on things that I haven’t done, by addressing things that mean I have to breach
the fear barrier.
Published May 3, 2001