With General Zod currently battling it out against Superman on the big screen in Zack Snyder’s massively successful “Man of Steel,” the first actor to play the baddie onscreen — ‘60s icon Terence Stamp, who played the villain in “Superman” and “Superman II” — returns to cinemas with “Unfinished Song,” a film that couldn’t be further removed from that summer behemoth.
In the feel-good weepie, out in select theaters today, Stamp plays Arthur, a perpetually grumpy English pensioner who is reluctantly inspired by his ailing wife Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) to join a highly unconventional senior’s choir led by the young and spunky Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton). For Stamp, best known as a character actor thanks to scene-stealing performances in films as diverse as “Valkyrie,” “Get Smart” and “Wanted,” it marks his first lead role since 1999’s “The Limey,” and his first “romantic lead” (his words, not mine) since 1967’s “Far from the Madding Crowd.”
I sat down with Stamp at a lunch hosted by The Peggy Siegal Company and The Weinstein Company in honor of “Unfinished Song” to discuss working opposite Redgrave, the thrill of leading a movie once more, and what he makes of the new Superman.
It was so great to see you back in lead form. It’s been too long.
Well, it’s not so much a lead — it’s a romantic lead. You could say “Priscilla” was a lead, but I don’t know if you’d call it a romantic lead. And “The Limey” was a lead, but there very little romance about that. So I guess is the first romantic lead since “Far From the Madding Crowd,” which was 1967, which is a few years back now (laughs).
Did the experience of once again anchoring a film romantically take you back?
I did feel very much at home going to work every day, which I had just assumed was a thing of the past, frankly. I’ve just grown used to doing roles that are tough guys, and it hasn’t really made any difference to my life. I’m going to do three or four days in a Tim Burton movie in Vancouver next month, and I will be working with the wonderful Amy Adams and Christoph Waltz, but it’s a tiny part. I guess in the big trajectory of things, I was out of work for most of the ‘70s and I just traveled. I got to the point where I just thought I was never going to get the call. But I did. I got recalled to do the first two “Superman” movies, that I think are the very best of all those comic book movies. But during that leave of absence, I guess I changed, like emotionally, I was changed from a leading man to a character actor. In a way it was very painful at the time, but it’s proven to be a blessing in disguise. The reason that I’ve had such a long career is because I’m up for anything. I’m sort of fearless at this point in my life. So even when I did General Zod, can you really imagine Robert Redford or Warren Beatty playing General Zod? I was of a similar ilk.
Initially I never really understood why I couldn’t get a lead part after ’69. My own understanding of it was that I was so identified with the ‘60s period, that when it ended, the word on the street was, “Well, we’re looking for a young Terence Stamp,” and I was in my 30s. The fundamental change was in Terence. So by the time Zod came up, I was really hungry to work. I guess that’s why it became such a landmark role for me. There was nearly eight years of storing up energy being ready to let loose on the set of the “Superman” movies.
You were saying earlier that you play the romantic lead in “Unfinished Song,” but he’s a reluctant romantic in many ways.
He’s very cantankerous, he’s emotionally closed down. But the character is attached to this kind of unshakeable love for his wife and her adoration of him. So what it makes it for me was that they’re very ordinary. They’re not Romeo and Juliet, they’re Arthur and Marion. But they are uplifted by the mutual feeling they have for each other, which is what initially appealed to me about the subject. And it wasn’t necessary for me as an actor to pretend I was really nice underneath. Because the love that Marion feels for him was so real and so unquestionable. So the audience knew that, yeah, he’s a really nasty bastard, but she loves him. So it was much easier to me to hold my line because it made the second part of the movie real.
How did you and Vanessa work on portraying that connection?
We never spoke about it. Well, you don’t have to speak about things with Vanessa. And most of the time, between action and cut, after the first few days, I guess we were both so present that it was actually fought to know where I finished and where she started. We both seem to be following the energy of presence within the spontaneity of the moment.
Back to General Zod — have you seen the new “Man of Steel”?
No, I haven’t, and I don’t know whether I’m curious or not. It was so emotional for me to work with Richard Donner and Chris Reeve — and Brando! I got to work with Marlon. See the director’s cut of “Superman II,” because all of the Brando footage is back in, and he’s so funny, he’s so charming. I’m sure this modern one is really good and I’m sure it’s made for teenagers of the day, but I’d be surprised if it has the kind of humor and the lightness of touch that Marlon and Chris brought to it.