Terence Stamp takes the lead at last

June 20, 2013

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It’s post-lunch hour and the lounge at the Gordon Ramsay at the London in midtown Manhattan is nearly empty as Terence Stamp settles himself into a banquette.

At 74, his eyes are still exceptionally blue and a little bit mischievous. He sits calmly, listens to a question about how often he is offered roles like the one he plays in “Unfinished Song,” and smiles.

“Rarely,” he says. “I’m always out there. But this is the first romantic lead I’ve been offered since ‘Far From the Madding Crowd.’ And that was 1966.”

In “Unfinished Song,” Stamp plays Arthur, a grumpy pensioner in London whose wife, Marion (played by Vanessa Redgrave), is a member of a senior-citizen chorus that performs contemporary hits. Arthur disapproves for a couple of reasons: For starters, he worries she’ll make a fool of herself. He’s also concerned that Marion, who has cancer, is wasting what little strength she has. But when she dies, he winds up taking her place in the chorus, though Arthur’s musical tastes tend toward Frank Sinatra and Dean Martin, Stamp notes.

“One’s musical choices are made early on,” he says. “It’s the music you were exposed to as a teen-ager.”

Stamp had worked with Redgrave once before, doing Ibsen onstage: “She was just a dream to work with,” he says. “She’s as brave a theater actress as there is. I’m not – and that’s nothing I pride myself on.”

When he burst on to the scene more than 50 years ago, Stamp seemed destined for stardom. His film debut, playing the title role in Peter Ustinov’s adaptation of Herman Melville’s “Billy Budd,” earned him an Oscar nomination. He was chosen for the title role in William Wyler’s film of the best-selling novel, “The Collector,” and was hailed as the most beautiful man in film, a description Stamp says he can’t relate to when he looks at himself in his early films.

“I see a creature who was not that good-looking,” he says. “What they’re seeing is the work of the lighting cameraman. I was lit by the Turners and Monets of cinema, people like Robert Surtees and Nicolas Roeg. I’m realistic enough to know I never looked that good in real life.”

He developed his interest in acting from being taken to films by his mother. The first film he remembers seeing is “Beau Geste” with Gary Cooper: “I just wanted to be Coop,” he says. “It took me a while to realize he was just an actor. Then, as a teen, I saw Marlon Brando and Montgomery Clift and James Dean and they touched something so special in me. I thought, ‘I feel like that.’ That’s when I began thinking about acting as a possibility. But I never spoke about it to anyone.”

When he did speak up, he was shut down by his father, he recalls, remembering when his family got its first television when he was 17. He was watching with his parents and made the mistake of saying out loud, “I could do that.”

To which his father replied, “Son, people like us don’t do that. I don’t want you to talk about it again.”

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So he didn’t – until he won a scholarship to an acting school: “That was the sea change. Once I made the decision to be an actor, I felt like I was swimming with the tide, instead of against it.”

He wanted to work on stage, to play all the great Shakespearean leads. Then he played his first role in a movie and that all changed.

“After my first film, I knew the camera was my girl,” he says. “And I stopped thinking about doing ‘Hamlet’ on the boards. I thought it was just vanity to strive for something I wasn’t cut out for. Or, rather, that I was really cut out for cinema.”

He became a star just as the phenomenon known as Swinging London – spurred by the emergence of the Beatles and other rock groups – hit with full force. Stamp was in the center of it, linked romantically with everyone from Julie Christie to early supermodel Jean Shrimpton. His younger brother, Chris, discovered The Who and Jimi Hendrix.

But his career choices ultimately tripped him up. At one point, Stamp turned down the title role in “Alfie,” telling producers they’d be better off casting his roommate, Michael Caine, in the role that made Caine a star. At another point, Stamp was considered as the replacement for his friend Sean Connery as James Bond – but his suggestions about how to ease him into the role apparently left producer Harry Saltzman cold “because I never heard from him again.”

He’s sanguine about a career that seemed to come to a screeching halt in 1969, having worked with Federico Fellini and Pier Paolo Pasolini. Though there is the perception that Stamp walked away from a thriving career, Stamp insists that the opposite was true.

“Work dried up in 1969,” he says. “I was rejected completely by the business; I never rejected the business. It was a very harsh end of a career that came early. I always imagined I’d be recalled – but weeks turned into months turned into years and the ’70s slipped by. So I began to doubt it. When the recall did come, for Richard Donner’s ‘Superman,’ it was 1977. I took the role of General Zod because I was hungry.

“But the tragedy was a blessing in disguise. Psychologically, I had given up hope of being a leading man. Mentally I’d become a character actor. And that was a great blessing after a long time in the desert. It gave me the longevity I wanted. What I wanted was a long career.”

He considers the roles he’s played (“My line is that I don’t do crap, unless I haven’t got the rent and then I make the best of what comes along”) and says he’s always looking for a certain intangible quality in roles.

“I’m always looking for a part that will bring out this thing that sometimes happens when I’m working, that I can’t control,” he says. “It’s this sensation, in front of the camera – and it happens with enough regularity for me to know that’s where I’d like to be, a space I’d like to be in more often.

“I’m looking for roles where there’s a possibility of doing something I haven’t done before. Occasionally, there’ll be one from left field, like ‘Priscilla, Queen of the Desert.’ You go through the fear barrier and emerge on the other side.”

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