One of the most whimsical and enjoyable interviews of our time at the Marrakech International Film Festival came courtesy of iconic British actor Sir Terence Stamp (“Superman II,” “Far from the Madding Crowd,” “The Limey,” among many others), who was in town to present his latest film “Song for Marion” (our review from TIFF is here), in which he stars with Marrakech jury member Gemma Arterton and Vanessa Redgrave. Stamp’s career stretches back to the early ‘60s, when his otherworldly handsomeness saw him teamed, professionally and romantically, with some of the most beautiful women of the age. And in recent times, he's become a reliable presence in Hollywood, in supporting roles ranging from “Yes Man” and “Get Smart” to “Wanted” and “The Adjustment Bureau."
“Julie Christie once said to me — she’s an Aries, so she’s very forthright — she said ‘You think you’re a great actor, but you’re a better storyteller,' ” Stamp said at one point, and we certainly agree he’s got the raconteur thing down. Below are the highlights of our talk, during which Stamp not once but twice removed his shoe (made by the shoemaker to the Royal family in Fez forty years ago) and banged it on the table to make a point, and promised to mail the photograph he refers to below to our postal address. (I gave him my mother’s address. If it happens, she will faint).
I read that you turning down King Arthur in the musical “Camelot,” because you were afraid to sing, was one of your greatest regrets. Was “Song For Marion,” in which you do now sing, an exorcism of that regret?
It was more than that. I so admired [“Camelot” director] Josh Logan, and Josh Logan so wanted me for “Camelot” that he went down on his knees in a restaurant called the Trattoria Terrazza, begging me. And I was just so frightened, I believed I could never sing it. I was young and I thought if I do this and I’m revoiced, my career’s over — probably not true, but still. I should have known it was my destiny, but I was frightened and I turned him down and finally he took Richard Harris and he cast Vanessa [Redgrave].
And then the film came out and I thought “Well, I could have done that” — it wasn’t like Mario Lanza. Now in a long career, I’m not sure how other actors are, but certain things that I passed on or lost or gave up for the wrong reason, come back to me. And “Camelot” comes back to me more than all the others. I still think about it.
When this movie [“Song For Marion"] came up, I didn’t want to do it. I thought it was a wonderful script, but I thought it would be more beautiful if the character had been very ordinary. And I don’t want to sound vain but, well, I can do ordinary, but it’s not my best thing.
Anyway I had reservations, but I met the director, and he was very rough, all tattooed, but he said to me, “Are you worried about your looks?” And I couldn’t believe he saw right through me. Because that was my major worry. I thought, “I’m going to look silly playing this role.” I don’t think of myself as the age I am, and it meant I was going to be opening a door I couldn’t close. Everyone’s gonna know how old I am — I can’t go back to being a romantic lead after I’ve done the OAP [Old Age Pensioner]!
But he said, "Don’t worry it’s based on my grandfather who was a lovely looking man." And then, the big thing, he cast Vanessa [Redgrave]…the universe is giving me this, am I going to turn this down and regret it for the next ten years? So I just jumped into the void.
Another cycle that’s happening right now is the “Superman” reboot "Man of Steel." Are you curious as to how someone else will interpret General Zod?
[Long pause] Not really. I mean, I will see it… But for me, it was my comeback movie. I’d been out of work for eight years and living in India. I was a swami in an ashram, with long hair and a beard, and I was in orange. When the work had stopped I kept thinking next week will be a job, next month will be a job. And then I was traveling and learning all these metaphysical techniques and breathing and tantra and finally I got to an ashram in Pune and it seemed like the most beautiful women from every country in the world were there, and they were all totally empowered [twinkle which allows us to know precisely what he means by “empowered”]. So then I let go, I thought no, I won’t go back to showbiz, this is my life now.
And then I went back to this hotel for a weekend, and I must have sent my agent a postcard from there a year before, and as I come in the concierge hands me a telegram, and it’s addressed to “Clarence Stamp” and it’s dogeared and I don’t know how old it was. And he puts it in my hand and the psychic weight of this telegram! I knew my life was about to change. It was from my long-suffering agent: “Would you consider coming to London to meet with Richard Donner about 'Superman I and II,' you’ll have scenes with Marlon Brando. And on the way would you stop in Paris and meet with Peter Brook about a film of Gurdjieff’s book 'Meetings with Remarkable Men'?" And it was like the universe was saying “You’re back in the market, son.”
So I went two days later and I was totally confident because I just didn’t care. I had let go of all of it. On the Monday I was General Zod and on the Tuesday I was Prince Lubodevsky — it was in the same studio!
We read that, what little Michael Shannon has seen of “Superman II,” he was intimidated by how you “nailed” the role. Have you any advice for him?
[Flattered] Oh wow. Well, I’m sure he’s going to be fantastic because it’s a fantastic role. All I can say is he needs to be very present. When I walked onto that set I’d been in an ashram for a year, learning to separate orgasm from ejaculation. I was rechanneling the lifeforce and I hadn’t been working, and when I walked on the set, it seemed like everyone was asleep, but I was so, so ready. The only guy who was really up for it was Brando — he totally understood where I was coming from.
It’s unusual for a male actor to be so forthright about being concerned over your appearance, over aging, clothing, dieting. Where do you think this preoccupation stems from?
[Growing up] we were very poor. And when I was about 3 1/2 my mother took me to see a movie called “Beau Geste” with Gary Cooper, and I just wanted to be him. My whole life I just wanted to be like Coop. And he was a dresser; he was magnificent… Later I found a shoemaker who had made Rudolph Valentino’s boots in “Blood and Sand,” and he was Coop’s shoemaker, and I said, “You shod Coop? Measure me up!”
And so I guess I was always preoccupied with outward appearance, because where we lived, my mother was ashamed of the inside the house, we had a no kitchen, no bathroom, an outside toilet – it was penury. But I was this prince, who’d been brought up by my mother and a load of aunts and my Irish granny Stamp. There’s a Christmas card which is a photograph of me, aged two, holding my grandmother’s hand, and I’m fucking elegant. I’ve got a velvet cap on, and a suit with a velvet collar.
There’s a book [about male elegance and style] called “The Perfect Gentleman,” and you have Byron, The Duke of Windsor, Fred Astaire with all his shoes, and then [proudly] Terence. In a green linen suit and white buckskin shoes which took me ten years to find the skins and a straw fedora. My future ex-wife as she was at the time, had the rather annoying habit of saying about me, “He knows more about clothes than he knows about acting.”
But I’ve become less obsessive. On “Song for Marion,” I just wore what they gave me, and yet men still say “Oh man, that raincoat you wore in ‘Song for Marion’…" And it’s nothing to do with me! So I say, "It’s not the coat, it’s the Stamp shoulders…"