Terence Stamp is Vanessa Redgrave’s grumpy husband in new drama, Song For Marion. he tells Kate Whiting about his personal inspiration.
His hair may be white now and his face heavily wrinkled, but Terence Stamp has not lost the looks, or charm, that made him an instant film star half a century ago.
Back in that halcyon year of 1962, when the Beatles were releasing their first single Love Me Do and James Bond was about to appear on the big screen for the first time in Dr No, the unknown Stamp was cast as the lead in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd, propelling him to global fame.
His relationship with Julie Christie was immortalised in The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset (“Terry meets Julie...”) and he shared a flat with Michael Caine.
Now aged 74, and still strikingly handsome, Stamp has played what he calls his first “OAP role” in British comedy drama Song For Marion.
He plays Arthur, the cantankerous but doting husband of Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who struggles to cope when she is diagnosed with terminal cancer.
Estranged from his son James (Christopher Eccleston), Arthur finds an unlikely friendship in Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton), the young director of Marion’s community choir.
“It’s always a luxury to get sent a really wonderful script, you know, which this was,” says Stamp, smart in a gunmetal grey suit, his voice a soft growl.
“Then, when I got over my reticence about finally owning up to how old I really was and playing my first OAP, I just thought it was a very unusual love story, the kind of love story they don’t make films about these days.
“It was a way of portraying a love that’s outside the passage of time. I imagined that every day that went past, Arthur and Marion grew fonder of each other.
“And then again,” he says, pausing before he adds: “It was contemplating the end of life. To me it’s something that nobody really talks about but it’s the only really certain thing that’s going to happen isn’t it? We’re going to die.
“I thought it was an unusual, but moving and humorous way of looking at that. And I was rather hoping that everybody that saw the film would be able to empathise with it in some way because it’s a condition that’s common to everyone.”
While Stamp is a self-confessed nomad with no children, no wife and no home – he stays with friends or in hotel rooms – Arthur is a dedicated husband, but finds it hard to express his emotions.
To get into the role, the actor channelled his father, Thomas, a tugboat captain who spent his life on the Thames.
“As soon as I really contemplated playing Arthur, I realised that there were an incredible lot of similarities between my own mother and father. My own dad was more handsome than any of his sons, and he was completely devoted to her.
“But he was very undemonstrative with all his boys, so we never really knew what he felt about us. If I was ever in doubt about the feelings of a scene, I would think about a similar situation with my own dad.”
Arthur grudgingly turns up to watch his wife’s choir perform a small concert, in which a shaven-headed Vanessa Redgrave poignantly sings a solo version of Cyndi Lauper’s True Colours after a rousing rendition of Salt ‘n’ Pepper’s Let’s Talk About Sex.
And as Marion’s illness progresses, Arthur reluctantly joins the choir and eventually sings a heartbreakingly moving solo for her during a competition.
Stamp says he didn’t allow himself to get nervous about his solo performance. “I only had two lessons with my teacher to learn the song, but I have studied my voice for my whole career so there’s nothing I don’t know about singing, it’s just that I’ve never done it publicly, in front of the camera, except as a joke.
“So because the movie was going so well, I thought, ‘I’m not going to worry about it, I’ll just see what happens on the day’,” he recalls with a chuckle.
Stamp knew he wanted to act from the age of four, when his mother took him to see Beau Geste, starring Gary Cooper, at their local cinema. But he didn’t think acting would be an option for a working-class lad.
“It was this secret dream,” he said in a recent interview. “Whenever I could, I went to the movies as a kid; they were really the only light in this otherwise very bleak existence.”
In his teens, he joined amateur groups and won a scholarship to Webber Douglas drama school. When he left, he was chosen by Ustinov to appear in Billy Budd.
Success followed and the Sixties saw Stamp lauded as one of the new breed of working-class actor, alongside Peter O’Toole and Albert Finney. But in the Seventies, a couple of flops meant work dried up and he went to live in an ashram in India.
“In the back of my head I never completely gave up on acting, but I was really very happy,” he says.
Then one day a telegram arrived offering him the role of General Zod in Superman, alongside Christopher Reeve, Marlon Brando and Gene Hackman – and his life changed again.
Since then he’s carved a career from playing character parts, and he works to keep a little money coming in.
“There was a time in the Nineties when I didn’t have the money for a bus fare,” he said recently. “But fortunately I’d bought all this wine in the Sixties. I hadn’t drunk much of it, so whenever things got tight, I could sell a case and that would tide me over.”
Song for Marion goes on general release on February 22