Having retreated to Paris to escape the press, Pete Doherty is finding new ways to stay focused, including a central role as a libertine in a film released this week. By Stephen Applebaum.
PETE Doherty didn’t choose the easiest way to make his film acting debut. As the lead in Sylvie Verheyde’s English-language adaptation of Alfred de Musset’s novel, Confession of a Child of the Century, he appears in every one of the two-hour movie’s scenes. Which is quite a feat given Doherty’s own confession about how he was living when he did the work. But more about that later.
When the 19th-century romantic drama premiered at the Cannes Film Festival, critics pounced on the troubled musician’s languid performance as Octave – a jaded French roué hailed, seemingly without irony, as the greatest libertine in Paris – with claws bared. I was among those who were unconvinced. On a second viewing, however, his performance seems less shambolic than it at first appeared, and more of a piece with the film’s prevailing mood of enervation.
Doherty, who shot to fame as the frontman of North London rockers The Libertines in the early noughties – before spiralling into a tabloid hell of drugs, court appearances, prison stretches, and a tempestuous relationship with Kate Moss – either hasn’t read the reviews or doesn’t care when we meet in a hotel behind the Croisette. Dressed in a tuxedo and surprisingly healthy looking, he has just seen the finished film for the first time and is in a positive frame of mind.
“I can’t lie, it’s kind of exciting,” he says of watching himself. “I think it’s why you do it. So many actors say, ‘Oh, I can’t bear to see myself on screen,’ but it’s not true. Everyone loves to see themselves from a good angle.”
He was keen to act and says that there were “too many weird coincidences happening, and too many things saying, ‘You have to do this,’” for him to turn Verheyde down. These signs included, bizarrely, a book falling out of a window and hitting him on the head. “I opened it up and it was Voltaire describing how he saw Musset falling drunk out of a cafe, and I was sort of falling out of this cafe completely f***ed.” Drink was the least of Doherty’s problems, though: he was a heroin addict, and while the supportive Verheyde wanted him specifically, his involvement scared off backers.
“There were, if you like, rumblings in the lower embankment areas of Paris, in the Marais, about Peter Doherty’s reliability,” says Doherty, sighing. “In the end they said, ‘No, it’s not possible. We cannot put money into this. Look at the state of his apartment!’”
It was only when Charlotte Gainsbourg agreed to play Octave’s lover, Brigitte, that attitudes changed. “Then they were like, ‘Actually, you know what?’ Doosh! Wallop!”
Doherty dutifully learned his lines but wasn’t expected to take acting or vocal lessons; Verheyde wanted him to be himself. Even she worried, though, about how he would deal with the intense seven-week shoot. “Sylvie sat me down and said, ‘What are you going to do? Would you like to go away somewhere before we start filming and deal with the problem? Or would you like to get a subscription of methadone?’” Doherty told her he would clean up, but says he got so absorbed in the work that he didn’t have time. “It was just a question of how quickly I could find a vein, and then let’s get on with it.”
Although “extremely disorganised and dysfunctional as a person”, Doherty never missed a day’s shooting. The son of army parents, he says the filmmakers “brought out the military child in me. It was complete discipline: this is what you have to wear; this is what you have to say; this is how you have to stand. Fortunately, with the way I stand, the way I speak, I couldn’t put a foot wrong.”
Ironically, the world of his childhood was precisely what he wanted to escape from in his late teens. Constantly on the move from base to base, school to school, country to country, Doherty has said he felt increasingly lonely, isolated and alienated growing up. He wrote from an early age but, despite winning an Arts Council poetry competition when he was 16, his creativity was not nurtured at home. “My dad was a bit like, ‘You’re not going to do this for a living. You got to get your hair cut and go get a job.’”
His parents were grafters but Doherty knew he wanted a different kind of life somewhere else. “I sort of fell out of the cycle of work,” he says. “Money wasn’t important to me. Once I discovered music, I was quite happy to live as a bum. As long as I had my music and my band, I was happy.”
The aspiring musician’s early days in London, playing the guitar, “dropping acid, living in disused factories in Stoke Newington, on Albion Road, and starting this band called The Libertines and f****ing cracking it,” were fun and free. He’d been taught that drugs were evil, but for him they were liberating. At least at first.
“They’re like a little shield for me. For so many years I didn’t understand where I was, where I was from, or why I had to be in this environment. They [drugs] were like, ‘Look, we’re going to save you. Give your life to us!’ It’s a bit sad in a way, really, but it’s how it happened.” When he was 23 and The Libertines took off, “everything that had been a treat, that had been a luxury, all of a sudden you could do it all day long. That’s kind of where I veered off, like just went off the scale.”
Now he’s become a prisoner to what he thought was setting him free, he says. “But that’s like love, isn’t it? You become trapped in this abusive relationship.”
Here he could almost be talking about his relationship with Amy Winehouse, who died last year. I wasn’t surprised by his recent revelation that they weren’t simply friends but lovers. When I ask him about Winehouse in Cannes, he becomes morose and appears to be on the verge of tears. “I was always in love with Amy, in that I loved her, I adored her,” he says, full of emotion. He praises her guitar playing and musicianship, things he felt were often overlooked. Then, as if unable to let her go, he slips into the present tense: “And she’s got the most amazing taste in music and she makes a good drink.” A pause. “I’ve gone all cold now,” he says, shivering. “I can’t believe she is dead.”
Doherty will include a song to the tragic star, Flags From The Old Regime, on his forthcoming solo album, which he is currently recording. He also has plans to act again, in a thriller that he promises will have “more guns, more sex, more drugs” than Confession of a Child of a Century, set in his adoptive home of Paris.
He fled to the city two years ago, ostensibly to escape the British tabloids, who made him feel like “a little rabbit being chased by rabid dogs”, but also for other reasons.
“It’s so f***ed up for me in London,” he says gloomily. “I have too many debts with the wrong people. I’m always looking over my shoulder. On the other hand, when I get off the Eurostar now, or when I get the boat, and I see London, I get sucked back in. I will go to London for a day, just to sort out a bit of money and pay someone off, and I will be there for two weeks and then end up crawling back to Paris.”
• Confession of a Child of the Century is in cinemas from tomorrow.