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.
With Wilson, you essentially had a built-in backstory— 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.
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 truly decadent. 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 new world 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 Budd thought of me as this embodiment of goodness, people who saw The Collector thought of me as a manifestation of evil— when I see The Collector now, I think, how did I do that? 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.