Friday night at the San Francisco International Film Festival, actor Terence Stamp (“The Adjustment Bureau,” “Valkyrie”) was presented with the Peter J. Owens award for excellence in acting. To celebrate the award, Stamp appeared on stage with film critic Elvis Mitchell to tell stories of a decades-long career that saw him rise to the level of leading man, then experience a period as a bit part player, and then journey back into the spotlight. Following the conversation was a screening of the rarely shown “Toby Dammit,” the Stamp-starring and Federico Fellini-directed segment of the 1968 Edgar Allen Poe adaptation collection called “Spirits of the Dead.”
While reflecting on all the random events that have opened and closed doors throughout his life, Stamp thought aloud, “It’s funny, the workings of the Universe are very strange.” The first instance he can recall of all the pieces falling into place in a way he couldn’t have possibly predicted came in the form of his being cast and then dropped as the star of Michelangelo Antonioni’s “Blow Up” which indirectly led him to taking Peter O’Toole’s role in “Toby Dammit.” Stamp still feels the sting of losing the “Blow Up” role. When questioned about what caused Antonioni to change his mind, Stamp explained, “He fired me basically. And I never knew why; I never heard from him again. It was an incredible blow to my ego, because up until that point I’d only had success really.”
Meanwhile, director Federico Fellini was in the process of preparing to shoot “Toby Dammit” with Peter O’Toole cast in the titular role. When O’Toole dropped out of the project just a few weeks before production began, the director had to act fast to replace him. It wasn’t long before Stamp’s name became a part of the casting conversation thanks to a very specific request from the director. “Fellini apparently called a famous English casting director named Dyson Lovell and reputedly, I didn’t hear this from Fellini, but reputedly he said to Dyson Lovell, ‘I’m in a bit of a spot. Send me your most decadent actors.”
After beating out his fellow decadents, Stamp was awarded the role that he says changed his life. He revealed to the crowd, “I do think of my career as before and after Fellini.” While he had already starred in a few large films (“Blue” and “Billy Budd”) at that point in his career, Stamp admitted that he didn’t yet feel certain about in his abilities. All that changed once he stepped onto Fellini’s set. He remembered, “What happened during the shoot was I used to wake up laughing. And I suddenly realized to myself that this guy, who is one of the greatest living directors, really likes me… He doesn’t only like what I do, he likes what I am. And this gave me a kind of amazing confidence.”
Stamp’s first day on the “Toby Dammit” shoot was on location at Fiumicino Airport in Rome, Italy. After being rushed to the set from his trailer, he found himself in need of a stronger connection to the material, something the short time period between his casting and the beginning of production had not afforded him.
“I suddenly realize that they’re going to go. So I catch Fellini’s eye and he looked at me like I was a puppet come to life… And I say, ‘Look. I’m an English actor, I’ve never been to Rome before, I’m working with the great maestro Fellini, this is my first day, this is my first take, we have never spoken about this, I want some direction.’ I swear to God, he didn’t pause, he said, “Last night you was in final performance of Macbeth… And then you go to party, but not really a party, orgy. It’s really orgy. You drinking whiskey, you smoking hasheeh, lots of fucking. You fucking some big blonde girl, some big black guy fucking you all night. In the morning, somebody drive you to the airport. Before they put you on the plane, they give you LSD. Now you here.’ I never asked him for any more direction.”
Years later, Stamp found himself in one of his better known roles as the transsexual Bernadette in, “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.” For someone often seen playing such rough and serious roles, “Priscilla” was quite a departure for the actor. Stamp explained the anomaly and how his friend, actress Caroline Bliss, helped convince him to use the film to get out of the funk he’d fallen into. Stamp admitted to stubbornly refusing most jobs and says he explained to Bliss, “I love to work, I just don’t like to do shit.” But Bliss’s insistence made an impression on Stamp and soon after he decided to at least dip his toe into the idea of doing a comedy.
“I went to talk to the agent and they buzzed me in. I get to the first floor landing and the door opens and another agent, Stephanie Randolph, is holding a script. ‘Darling! This has just come in; it seems rather funny. It’s about three drag queens on a bus going across… Do you want to read it or should I read it?’ And I thought, ‘I haven’t told anybody I want to do comedy yet. It’s the Universe. So I said, ‘No I’ll read it.’
“So the next Wednesday Caroline Bliss comes around for tea… The phone rings and it’s Stephanie Randolph, ‘Hello darling, did you ever get a chance to read that script?’ And I said, ‘Yeah,’ which I hadn’t. ‘Oh, what’d you think of it?’ and I said, ‘Well it’s a bit of a one joke thing isn’t it really? Cocks in frocks.’ Caroline says, “Say yes and hang up!”
After making a minor commitment to move forward with the role, he turned back to Caroline to clarify what exactly just happened. Stamp remembers her saying, “Listen; your fear is out of all proportion to the fact. It’s very easy: you just keep saying yes. Maybe it’ll go away. If it doesn’t, there’s something there for you to address. This is not a career move, this is a growth move.”
Since its 1994 release, ‘Priscilla’ has gained a strong cult following. Stamp related the story of meeting one surprising duo of fans at the World Economic Forum in Jordan. While attending the charity event, the actor noticed former President Bill Clinton and Secretary of State Colin Powell sitting at a nearby table. His initial attempts to say hello failed, but it turned out Clinton was just as interested in meeting him.
“I saw Clinton stand up and start walking towards the table I was at. So I jumped up and managed to meet him halfway. And he said, ‘It’s a great pleasure to meet you’ and I said, ‘It’s a big honor for me to meet you President Clinton.’ And he said, ‘Listen, I’m such a fan of ‘Priscilla.’ You see that guy I’m sitting next to? It’s Colin Powell. When you were up on stage, I said, ‘God! I love that guy, I’ve seen that movie ‘Priscilla’ so many times.’ And Colin Powell said, ‘You haven’t seen it more than I have seen it. As a matter of fact Bill, what we should do is, we should go up on stage, we’ll push that girl off and you and I and Terence will sing ‘I Will Survive.’”
Another of Stamp’s most beloved starring roles is that of Wilson in the Steven Soderbergh-directed “The Limey.” Stamp plays a violent ex-con trying to see through the mystery of his daughter’s death. At the time, however, Stamp recalled being surprised that Soderbergh took an interest in him, and described himself as, “a bit part actor really.”
“I got this message to call him. I was in Kauai, I was on holiday, I was broke staying in a hotel without telephones… So I get through to him and he says, ‘I’ve got this script, it’s about a burglar, a jewel thief… What do you think?’ I was literally speechless, so I don’t say anything. And he says, “Are you still there? What do you think?” I said, “Yes!” He said, ‘Oh great.” Noting a hint of surprise in Soderbergh’s response, Stamp asked, “Well, what did you think?’ He said, ‘Well I can’t imagine any other leading men wanting to be up there by themselves like thirty years ago.’ And I said, ‘Not me mate. I’m really happy to be up there by myself.”
Twelve years later, Stamp still seems ready to jump into the action and take the lead at a moment’s notice. The energy and wit that he captured the crowd with for ninety minutes on stage Friday night suggest that we still have a lot to look forward to from the actor.
The San Francisco International Film Festival continues through May 5th.
Photo Credits: Head Shot Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society, Peter J. Owens Award Photos by Tommy Lau, Courtesy of San Francisco Film Society.