Face Value

Terence Stamp Returns in a Custom-Made Star Vehicle

More than any of his peers, Terence Stamp defined— and remains haunted by— the '60s, a decade that saw him transform from the angelic Billy Budd to a sociopathic Collector of young girls to a polymorphous predator in Teorema and, through it all, stay Swinging London's chief swinger. Forget Austin Powers— this was, to quote no less an authority than Ray Davies, the "Terry" who met Julie (that would be Ms. Christie) at "Waterloo Station every Friday night." The subsequent 30 years of Stamp's career have been marked by awkward silences and sporadic comebacks (most memorably a brave, dignified comic performance in Priscilla, Queen of the Desert). Now 60, Stamp has a role worthy of his past in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey, a crime thriller in the form of an abstract memory piece that functions, most of all, as a glorious, custom-made star vehicle. Reprising a character from Ken Loach's 1967 Poor Cow (Soderbergh goes as far as to intersperse footage from the Loach film), Stamp plays Wilson, a cockney ex-con fresh out of jail, newly arrived in L.A. to avenge the death of his estranged daughter. Possessed and driven, Wilson proceeds as if in a trance, his imperious presence shaped by a profound sense of absence. On its most visceral level, The Limey is a valentine to one of the greatest faces in movies. As Soderbergh puts it, "The film is so much about that character's face in repose— and Terence is one of those people who are compelling when you're just staring at them."

Were you aware you were cast partly for the baggage you would bring to the role? I didn't even think about that. I was so overwhelmed it had been written for me. I think of myself as a cineaste, so I was also overwhelmed at the implications of using the old footage. Obviously [Peter] Fonda and I don't think of ourselves as icons. People say, "It was Captain America and the Collector— how did you feel about that?" Well, I didn't feel anything at the time really. But I began to see that by using us, Steven had given a whole different color to the movie. There's this undertone of memory that people have, whether experiential or not— even if it's from The Spy Who Shagged Me, the '60s is in the collective consciousness.

How did you go about resurrecting a character you'd played over 30 years ago? It was a very interesting modus operandi for me to go back and see how I had played that part, how that character was in embryo, and to imagine how a life of incarceration would have affected him. I had chums I grew up with who've served prison sentences, and I had conversations with them when I was playing Poor Cow about what it was like— realizing this is the next 15 years of your life. You see the young Wilson in prison but he's only been there a few months— and I knew I'd got that right because I had ex-convicts compliment me on that part of the performance.

"It was not possible for me to go the route of Robert Redford or Warren Beatty."
photo: Robin Holland
"It was not possible for me to go the route of Robert Redford or Warren Beatty."

With Wilson, you essentially had a built-in back story— how much did you flesh it out in your mind? Men who go into prison— it either breaks them or they surmount it. Wilson hadn't been broken, and I had to ask myself, how did he get out of prison empowered? So I made him into a kind of samurai— Wilson isn't the sort of guy you could attack when he was asleep, because when he was asleep, he was not unaware. That was the basis for the character. I thought one of the skills that Wilson had developed, being like this monk in prison, was that when his mind wandered, when it went into the past or into the future, he just enlarged his field of awareness to incorporate that thought pattern.

Steven says the key to getting good performances is to cast correctly and not mess with the performers. Did he give you much direction? There were two bits of direction he gave me that I cross-referenced. The first thing he said was, this is a man in whom— in his moment, in his present— is also contained the past and the future. And he also said to me, with most people, when you're listening or talking to them, you're aware that there are cogs turning. Wilson is like that but there's also this very big wheel that is moving very slowly. Steven never directed me much on set. He's a stoic guy, not a natural rapper, you know, so when he says something, it has a very deep impact on you, because it's coming from that big wheel that he talks about.

How well did you know Peter Fonda before you worked together on this film? I'd met Peter in Taormina in 1968. We had a wonderful, riotous night together, and then our ways parted. But we were these two flower children, you know, citizens of the global village; we didn't acknowledge patriotism or prejudice, we bought that whole '60s philosophy. And what's great is that we still do— we're still holding on to those corny '60s philosophies, still roaming the global village.

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