TERENCE Stamp is back in Edinburgh, a city he favoured in the swinging 60s but one he has been a long time returning to, which has set him thinking. Thinking about his introduction to the Capital in 1959, a visit that would cement a friendship with another of the UK’s best-loved actors, Michael Caine.
“I performed in the King’s, Theatre. I had just joined the tour of The Long, The Short and The Tall,” he recalls. “Michael Caine had understudied Peter O’Toole in the West End and never got to go on. When the tour came up he was offered the part and he took it. They ran out of dates, then they got more dates, but half the cast had left. I had played the Radio Operator in the play at the Theatre On The Green, Richmond, so I knew the words, so I got the job. It was my second job out of drama school.
“I remember everything about it. I opened in Nottingham, then we came to Edinburgh. By that time Mike Caine had realised that I wasn’t a poof and had taken me under his wing. So I learned everything here. I learned about digs, about touring . . .”
Smiling, he pauses as he recalls, “God, we used to stroll up and down Princes Street. It’s not that different now. The whole of Edinburgh is a national monument after all, it’s just the shops that are different, but that’s just about fashion and jewellery.”
Now 74, Stamp could still pass for a good ten years younger. Relaxed in a casual suit and tartan scarf, with bare feet in Jesus sandals, he’s thoughtful, but a mischievous twinkle is never far from his eyes.
We are in the Caledonian Hotel. His breakfast, two bowls of prunes, sit on the table beside him. He won’t have time to finish them before leaving, so his PR man is dispatched to find a plastic container to allow him to take them with him on his train journey home.
Down-to-earth and easy to chat to, it soon becomes clear Stamp’s introduction to the Capital all those years ago left its mark.
The night before our meeting, the actor had appeared at The Cameo to promote his latest film, Song For Marion. It turned into an event that would see his return to the Capital take on a whole new significance, especially when he realised he was addressing an audience in the very cinema Caine had brought him to more than five decades before.
“It was like a dream come true. When you start out as a performer you have these idols who are so far removed from you,” he says. “I can’t imagine a more exquisite man than Coop [Gary Cooper], and I can’t imagine a more exquisite actor that Marlon [Brando].”
For a moment he is still, starstruck by the very thought of them.
“They were my idols. They were the guys who I wanted to be like. I wanted to move people in the way that I was moved by them,” he says.
“After the screening last night, when I was interacting with the audience, a woman came up to me and said, ‘You know, you have got more presence in real life than on the screen.’
“I just thought, ‘Wow! I’ve become what I always wanted to become - I could never have imagined somebody saying that to me, whereas it’s the sort of thing I would have said to Marlon.”
That ‘presence’ is the result of an impressive career, during which Stamp has played roles as eclectic as they are iconic.
He made his movie debut in the title role of Peter Ustinov’s 1962 nautical epic Billy Budd, for which he received an Oscar nomination.
Three years later he left his mark as butterfly collector Freddie Clegg in the American psychological thriller The Collector. For many he will be best remembered as Sergeant Troy opposite Julie Christie in Far From The Madding Crowd; arch-villain General Zod in the Superman films; Wilson in Steven Soderbergh’s revenge drama The Limey; or maybe even Supreme Chancellor Valorum in Star Wars Episode I.
Stamp’s most famous modern role, however, stands head and shoulders above the others, literally. As outrageous transsexual Bernadette, in the 1994 box office hit The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, Stamp scored a Golden Globe, a Cannes Film Festival Award, a Seattle International Film Festival Award and a Silver Bear, among others.
It’s a role that, initially, struck fear into his heart, and one he had no intention of accepting. Now he now regards it as perhaps his proudest achievement.
“Every time I attempted to read the Priscilla screenplay I felt very tired, I never got around to reading it,” he admits.
“One time, as I was entertaining a wonderful young actress friend called Caroline Bliss - she used to have tea on her way to the theatre - my agent called.
“Now, Caroline must have looked at this script while I was making tea.
“During the call, in which I was lying to my agent, giving her the impression I’d read the script by being very negative about it - ‘Oh, it’s one joke isn’t it... cock in a frock’ - Caroline was gesticulating frantically to me, saying, ‘Just say yes and hang up.’
So I said to my agent, ‘Why don’t we just progress it.’ I hung up and asked Caroline, ‘What are you talking about?’
“She said, ‘Your fear of this is out of all proportion to the possible consequences. So I suggest you just keep saying yes. If it goes away, good. If it doesn’t then you have to address your fear. And bear in mind, this isn’t a career move, this is a growth move.’
“Now, this was a very wise chick, and because it was her, I’d said yes... suddenly, I’m on a bar in a place called Broken Hill, surrounded by miners who have been given loads of whisky to persuade them to stay as extras, and I am having to do a dance sequence in fishnets, high heels and a wig, while lip-synching.
“I’m thinking, ‘My God! I’m the best dressed man in Britain. I’m a serious actor. I’m over 50. What am I doing here?’ Suddenly it was ‘Action!’ and before I knew it I’d done Shake Your Groove Thing... and I was in the stratosphere. From that moment, it became the funest experience in my life.”
Fear has played a big part in Stamp’s career, he confesses, causing him to turn down many a big role. It’s also something he experienced when offered Song For Marion, in which he plays cantankerous but doting husband Arthur, who fails to share his wife’s passion for singing in the local choir until heartbreak strikes, and forces him to re-think his outlook on life.
“I felt the real beauty of the script would be lessened if my character wasn’t ordinary,” he says. “The twin-soul relationship is always depicted as an idealised young couple, like Romeo and Juliet, and I thought, that’s what this film is really about, a great young love as evidenced by ordinary old people. That’s what made the story unusual for me, but I wasn’t really confident I could be convincingly ordinary.
“So I spoke to my oldest friend in London, Herbert Kertzmer. I told him about it and he said, ‘Well Terence, you will be opening a door you won’t be able to close, my dear.’ I asked, ‘What’s that?’ Jokingly he replied, ‘People will finally know how old you actually are.”
Stamp’s eyes twinkle again and he laughs, but then age has never dictated his actions.
• Song For Marion goes on general release tomorrow.