Born in London’s East End, Terence Stamp grew up watching Gary Cooper films and eating such delicacies as ‘bacon bones’. In short, Hollywood was in a different galaxy. But, by the time he was 25, he had won an Oscar nomination and shared a flat with Michael Caine. ShortList spoke to the 74-year-old actor about the highs and lows of his career, dating Brigitte Bardot and why filming Star Wars was “boring”...
You’re a difficult man to track down – you don’t have a phone or a computer.
True. I just want to live the life I’ve always lived. Buying a cellphone would be like putting a ring through my nose.
You’re best known for playing Superman villain General Zod – do people still kneel before you?
Rarely a day passes when I don’t have somebody looking at me strangely – to which I say, “Kneel before Zod, you bastard.” It generally gets a big laugh. I haven’t been smacked recently, anyway.
Have you chatted to Michael Shannon about playing Zod in the new film?
I’ve never met the guy. But I was in California recently and somebody told me he had come home to find his girlfriend watching the DVD. She said, “Oh you’ve got to see this guy Stamp playing General Zod.” He covered his face and said, “No, I can’t see Stamp playing Zod!”
Were you asked to participate in the new film?
I didn’t know about it. And to be frank, the first two were the ones. Not just in terms of Superman, but all comic-book films. Frankly, I haven’t seen anything that measures up.
It says on your Wikipedia page that you spent nine years in an Indian ashram during the Seventies.
Absolutely not. There’s a romantic notion that I gave up this wonderful career and went to live in an ashram. It wasn’t like that. The Sixties ended, and I ended with the Sixties. I decided to travel rather than face a silent phone. But it is true that I was in an ashram when I got a telegram asking me to do Superman.
Is it true that you once went on a date with Brigitte Bardot?
Yes, a blind date. I went to Paris to meet her and I was unusually nervous. Nothing much was said until the restaurant. I was a vegetarian and I remember she put her fork in her starter – steak tartare – and said, “I am a cannibal!” I thought, “I bet you are.”
And for dessert?
Fade to black.
It must have been a far cry from your early career in advertising…
I got lucky, because at school I was considered dumb. I left with no GCEs, but advertising suited my street smarts.
Did you come up with any memorable slogans?
“Knit faster with Knitmaster!” I also worked on a campaign for Vedonis women’s underwear. They used these very horny models, and the slogan was “Next to myself, I like Vedonis.”
What was it like sharing a flat with Michael Caine?
One thing I had in common with Mike – and we didn’t have a lot in common – was that we both thought a good address was money in the bank. The problem was when ladies stayed over. But I have to give Mike credit: when he brought a girl back and the time was right, he would go into the bedroom and throw my mattress down behind the sofa. That was my cue.
Why do you think people still fetishise Sixties culture?
It’s just become crap since. When the Sixties happened, London burst into technicolour. The Beatles, The Who and The Stones – you could hear the change in the music.
It’s fair to say you pretty much owned the Sixties…
I used to hang out with my brother who managed The Who. I was in the helicopter when The Who were going to the Isle Of Man, flying over hundreds of thousands of people. I was there the first time Hendrix appeared in London. Momentous.
Describe the atmosphere in that chopper…
With Keith Moon, you were always close to death. There was this plywood cross to indicate where the pilot should land. As we came down, it started getting sucked up towards the rotors. Keith sensed a fraction of indecision and just ripped the headphones off [the pilot’s] ears. The pilot dropped the chopper like a stone. Keith was a lunatic. He wasn’t doing it for effect.
Do you regret turning down the film adaptation of Alfie?
I took the play to the US and we had a successful tour. Then we took it to Broadway and it was a total failure. I got good reviews, but nobody came to see it; I was doing eight shows a week to empty houses. I was so p*ssed off with everything Alfie… [the film] was the last thing in the world that I wanted to do. So I passed.
Why did you find filming Star Wars “boring”?
It was just tedious. I’d just arrived in Australia when I got a call to come back and film Episode I: The Phantom Menace. My agent was enamoured with the big bucks. I flew all the way back, because I was inspired by the idea of doing scenes with Natalie Portman – I could see she was extraordinary. She just had it. But when I got there Lucas said, “Oh, I’ve given her the day off.”
So you ended up talking to a tennis ball?
It was just a bit of paper stuck on a post. So on the first day – I play the president of the universe – I go up to [Lucas] and say, “Got any ideas? How is this guy?” And he thinks and he says, “Beleaguered.” I thought, “Yeah, thanks George.” I guess he’s a visionary, but a visionary about toys and effects. That doesn’t interest me. I’m interested in the feelings between ‘action’ and ‘cut’.
BFI Southbank’s Terence Stamp season runs to 27 May; bfi.org.uk