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This was when you were working with Fellini and Pasolini? It was the Fellini film [Toby Dammitt] that took me to Rome. Peter O'Toole dropped out of the project, so Fellini cabled a casting director in London and said, "Send me your most decadent actors." They sent me and James Fox, who was trulydecadent. I never imagined that I was as decadent as him. So James Fox and I go, and Fellini and I fall in love. Fellini wouldn't let me leave, he just kept me in Rome.
You virtually stopped working in the '70s did the roles stop coming? The roles didn't completely stop but I had been spoiled I'd worked with Wyler, Losey, Fellini, Pasolini, I was in negotiations with Orson Welles, I'd got accustomed to superleague. When the '60s came to a close, it went from working with the best guys to making rubbish. I had put so much store in fame, and in being a successful actor, and having the perfect female partner, and when it all ended, I was mature enough to acknowledge that all those things had not kept their promise. They hadn't embellished me with any kind of inner dimension or peace of mind that allowed me to not miss them. So I'd become accustomed to them without really arriving at any solution of how to live without them, and I had to acknowledge that.
Once I had, I decided to travel. I bought a round-the-world ticket, thinking some great director would want me sometime, and until then I'll just see the world. I went everywhere. And nobody called. Ten years went by. They weren't boring because this whole newworld was revealed to me. I was into everything mysticism, Sufism, I learned to whirl like a dervish, I was studying Zen philosphy, I was living in monasteries.
Did you consider giving up acting? Never. In fact, all the esoteric things I was studying, I thought was going to make me a better actor. I was inspired by Muhammad Ali when the American government stopped him fighting, he just got more fit so his attitude was, anytime the telephone rings, I can get in a ring and fight. And that's what I did although I didn't physically work, I stayed ring-fit. When the recall came with Superman, I was in an ashram, like a swami, all in orange, I hadn't cut my hair in seven years. I got on a plane and went straight to Pinewood Studios.
In your robes? Yup, they cut my hair and turned me into General Zod.
You play the president of the universe in The Phantom Menace have you seen it yet? No, I haven't.
Do you intend to? Not really. It was such a minimal part and [George Lucas] plays everything so close to his chest, you don't have a real filmmaking experience. When you're talking to a post, it's difficult to get emotionally involved.
I hear you weren't too thrilled when you started seeing yourself on soda cans. It was only after the film came out that we found we were all advertising Pizza Hut and 7-Up. It presented a little difficulty for me because in Britain, I have my own food line, which is totally organic.
Do you ever regret not having taken a more conventional career path? Even your earliest roles were so radically different you went right from Billy Budd to The Collector. People who saw Billy Buddthought of me as this embodiment of goodness, people who saw The Collectorthought of me as a manifestation of evil when Isee The Collector now, I think, how did I dothat? I was such a baby, how was I so freaky? I was obviously like a young leading man then, but intellectually, I was more of a character actor. It wasn't really interesting for me just to play normal . . . it was not possible for me to go the route of Robert Redford or Warren Beatty, you know? There was a part of me that would've loved to have been a traditional leading man when I was young, I wanted to be like Cary Grant. But it didn't turn out that way, and with hindsight, it's made my life very interesting. I've never really had to repeat myself.
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