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British actor Terence Stamp reflects on London in the swinging '60s

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey, sitting in for Terry Gross.

British actor Terence Stamp, who became an icon in London in the 1960s, is now in the film "Last Night In Soho," a ghost story that takes place in part in 1960s swinging London. Stamp plays the Silver Haired Gentleman who was a patron of the Toucan Bar. Stamp grew up in poverty in London. He first made it to the screen in 1962 in the starring role of "Billy Budd." Later in the '60s, he starred in the movies "Far From The Madding Crowd" and "The Collector." His talent, along with good looks and eye for fashion, made him one of the icons of London in the 1960s.

But at the end of the decade, he dropped out of acting for a while. He made a great comeback in the '90s, playing two very different kinds of characters. In "The Limey," he was an ex-con out for revenge. And in "Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert," he played a transsexual on the road with her lip sync club act. After his return to the screen, Stamp made the "Superman" movies, playing the villainous General Zod. He also was in the films "Wall Street," "The Hit," "Star Wars: Episode I," "Red Planet," "Bowfinger" and several others.

Terry talked with him in 2002, when he was starring in the French film "My Wife Is An Actress." The film is about a young sportswriter who is married to an attractive actress. He's afraid that she will fall for one of her handsome leading men. Stamp is the leading man the husband is worried about. Terry asked Terence Stamp if love scenes often are arousing or if they're just work.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERENCE STAMP: Well, it can be either, you know. It can be absolutely acting, and it can be absolute passion. I think the great Warren Beatty once said that the way to get stars in the movie is to find out who wants to shag who.

TERRY GROSS: (Laughter) Is it ever embarrassing when it really is passion?

STAMP: Well, it's never passion-passion because, you know - because everybody's there. It's like - you'd have to be a real exhibitionist to get real passion - I mean, actual passion. But I think you have a good idea during a love scene. I mean, if you're interested in your co-star, then you have a good idea of whether it's going to lead to real passion because it's so kind of intimate.

GROSS: Do you think you could tell the difference on screen between relationships on screen that are just acting and relationships on screen where there really is some passion beyond the acting?

STAMP: I don't think so. I don't think so. I mean - well, you're talking about good actors, right?

GROSS: Yes, that's right. Exactly, right.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMP: With bad actors, you can't tell anything.

GROSS: Exactly, exactly. I'd like to do, like, a film retrospective with you. So let's go back to your very first movie, "Billy Budd." This was made in 1962. It's based on the Herman Melville story. You play a teenager who's impressed to serve on a British ship during war with France. And you're the epitome of decency and goodness, whereas the master-at-arms is a sadist and very villainous. After he sets you up to take a fall for a crime you're innocent of, you try to defend yourself verbally, but your speech impediment prevents that. You have something of a stammer. You punch him. He dies from a head wound when he hits the ground, and then you're court-martialed. Here you are in "Billy Budd" being interrogated by the ship's officers.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "BILLY BUDD")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Was there malice between you and the master-at-arms?

STAMP: (As Billy Budd) I bore no malice against the master-at-arms. I'm sorry that he is dead. I did not mean to kill him. If I'd have found my tongue, I would not have struck him. But he lied foully to my face, and I had - well, I had to say something. I could only say it with a blow. God help me.

GROSS: That's Terence Stamp in a scene from "Billy Budd."

Terence Stamp, this was your first role in a movie, and it's the leading role in a prestigious film. You must have had to learn a lot on camera.

STAMP: Well, I did, and I didn't. In fact, as two young, out-of-work actors, I was sharing digs with Michael Caine. And although Michael Caine wasn't known - you know, he hadn't been just discovered; he was absolutely unknown - he did know a lot about the technicalities of filming. And so he kind of versed me in those, so I knew the technicalities and felt confident in that. You know, I knew how to hit marks. I knew about sort of camera angles. I knew about lenses. And frankly, when I started the movie, a kind of amazing thing happened because I just discovered that - it was like I knew it. It was as though it was absolutely second nature to me. Everything I saw that was new, I understood almost instantaneously. So it wasn't really - I mean, it was nerve-wracking because I had no way of dealing with the - like, the artistic vision that you have in your head and doing it, you know, when they say action. So that was a kind of a problem and a fear. But for the most part, I just had, like, an instinctive understanding of it, really.

GROSS: How old were you when you made "Billy Budd"?

STAMP: I had my 21st birthday during the movie.

GROSS: Wow. Was acting a far-fetched ambition from someone from your neighborhood?

STAMP: Yes. I saw my first movie, and I just wanted to be that. And I never really spoke about it. In other words, it was a very private sort of fantasy that I had. And when it got to sort of near leaving school, in other words, let's say I was like 15, 16 and we got our first television, I started making remarks about, oh, I could do that; oh, I could do better than that. And my dad, he sort of wore that for a bit. And then one evening, I was carrying on about how good I thought I could be in that part, and he said to me, listen, son. People like us don't do things like that. And I went to sort of protest. And he said son, I just don't want you to talk about it anymore.

And my dad was, you know, something of a stoic, and he didn't say much. So when he said something, it had - you know, it had a kind of - quite a heavy reverberation to it. But in fact, it didn't deter me at all. I wasn't allowed to talk about it. But I was used to not talking about it. I mean, it was - I understood that it would have been ridiculous to everybody else, you know? So all it did was it made a kind of a steam kettle into a pressure cooker.

GROSS: Sounds like a great contrast - you know, the father who doesn't show emotion at all (laughter), doesn't register any, and the son who's learning how to register emotion on stage and on screen.

STAMP: Yeah, I think a lot of it - a lot of it was, you know, wanting a kind of a sort of valid way to show my emotions because it was a very- you know, we lived, you know, you could say we lived in penury, you know what I mean? We lived in a tiny house, and there were lots of us. And so there was really - there was no privacy. And there was very little room for kind of emotional display, you know, because the atmosphere was charged all the time.

BIANCULLI: Actor Terence Stamp talking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with British actor Terence Stamp. He's currently in the new film "Last Night In Soho."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Now, you said that you grew up in a very cockney neighborhood. So did you have a cockney accent when you started to act?

STAMP: Oh, sure. I mean, when I finally realized that I would have to go to drama school, you know, to get my foot in the door, I'd - you know, in those days it wasn't like today, where if you could lift a lot of weights or if you could play football, you become an actor. You know, you weren't - you couldn't get in to see anyone unless you'd been trained. There was no such things as sort of untrained actors. So I had to get into drama school. And you had to do a classical piece. You have to do a piece of Shakespeare and a modern piece. And I chose Romeo's death speech. And I can - now I can imagine how hysterical it must have been - you know? - like, Romeo as a sort of cockney barrel boy, you know?

GROSS: You write a little bit about your accents in one of your memoirs. And you say that you convinced yourself that since you had a natural ear and could pick up accents easily, instead of learning to speak proper English, you would just treat English roles - standard English roles - as a dialect and, you know, just learn it for those roles. Did that strategy work out?

STAMP: It worked out. Yes, it worked out. I mean, it worked out for sort of 20 years. But eventually, you know, I had to sort of - and the thing was, I think looking back, it was something to do with a loss of identity. Like, I didn't - I wanted to retain my own voice. But as well, I thought - I think that it was - there was a lot of sort of fear and trepidation involved in learning, like, to speak in a completely different way, so eventually treating parts - treating all the parts I did as a dialect. I still had the kind of a London - I had a sort of London foggy accent for years.

And it was only sort of - you know, when I was sort of in my 40s that I thought to myself, well, I might as well really just see if I can perfect my voice, see if I can have what they call RP. I think it's called received pronunciation. I'll see if I can have RP voice without losing, you know, the quality that makes my voice my own.

GROSS: So what did you do?

STAMP: Well, I just - I had always been interested in breath. One of the things that I'd learned at drama school was this thing called the full breath and speaking on support, you know, which we all had to learn to do before everybody had throat mikes. And so I had continued that study. I'd taken my study from just, like, learning to breathe theatrically to sort of mystical breathing and breathing exercises - yoga, stuff I'd learned, like, in India. And so I just kind of widened my area of learning, really.

And I just continued to find, you know, really wonderful voice teachers and study with them and pick up things that I could get from them. And so it was a kind of an ongoing thing. I mean, I'm still a bit of a sucker for - like, if I hear there's a great voice teacher in town, I'll go and check them out, you know, because I think there's a great kind of - I think there's a great mystery in the voice. But also, I think that it's something that is almost a lost art. And for - my own personal understanding is that any study, any work that you do on your voice is really capital in the bank. I don't regret any of the money that I've spent, you know, studying voice.

GROSS: I want to play a scene from your movie "The Limey." And this is a pretty recent film. And in this film, you play a working-class guy who's just gotten out of prison in England. And you've come to California to avenge the murder of your daughter. You think she was murdered by a record executive who made his fortune in the 1960s. He's played by Peter Fonda. Anyways, in this scene, you're talking to a Drug Enforcement Agency agent, who you think has some clues about where to find this record executive you're looking for. And you're talking to him in this really thick cockney accent. It's not the way you speak in the rest of the movie. It's just something you're putting on for him in this scene.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE LIMEY")

STAMP: (As Wilson) How you doing, then? All right, are you? Now, look, squire, you're the governor here. I can see that. I'm on your manor now. So there's no need to get your knickers in a twist. Whatever this bollocks is that's going down between you and that slag, Valentine, it's got nothing to do with me. I couldn't care less, all right, mate? Let me explain to you. When I was in prison - second time - no - tell a lie - third stretch - yeah, third - there was this screw what really had it in for me. And that geezer was top of my list. Two years after I got sprung, I sees him in Holland Park. He's sitting on a bench feeding bloody pigeons. There was no one about. I could have gone up behind him and snapped his [expletive] neck - wallop. But I left him. I could have knobbed him, but I didn't - 'cause what I thought I wanted wasn't what I wanted. What I thought I was thinking about was something else. I didn't give a toss. It didn't matter, see? This bloke on the bench wasn't worth my time. It meant sod all in the end 'cause you got to make a choice - when to do something and when to let it go, when it matters and when it don't. Bide your time. That's what prison teaches you, if nothing else. Bide your time, and everything becomes clear. And you can act accordingly.

GROSS: Terence Stamp in a scene from "The Limey." Terence Stamp, did you ever talk that way (laughter)?

STAMP: No, I didn't really. Well, I may have. But when I was working on it - that was really how my dad spoke and how my uncle spoke. And strangely enough, in England, I got a lot of stick for that. You know, people - critics said, oh, nobody talks like that. But the truth is that they haven't been to the local Turkish bath on Saturday morning, you know, where everybody talks like that.

GROSS: Now, were you starting to act in a time when it was becoming more acceptable, more possible, for working-class actors who didn't speak received English to - or received pronunciation, whatever it's called - to get started? You know, was it more acceptable to talk like you did and still be on the stage?

STAMP: I think more than more acceptable. It was actually something that was needed. Because what had happened in England was that they had passed a bill - a politician called Rab Butler had passed a bill - whereby all kids had an opportunity of going to a grammar school. They had this thing called the 11+. And if you passed the 11+, it didn't matter what strata of society you came from. You could get to go to one of these rather good grammar schools. And the end of the '50s, the big sort of mass of working-class kids who previously hadn't had a higher education were being sort of released into the world. And they were giving birth - that was giving birth to the great working-class playwrights. And the working-class playwrights were really writing plays that needed a different kind of actor. They wanted, like, working-class actors. And I think that that was the beginning of that sort of '60s wave of, you know, working-class guys.

GROSS: And were you cast in any of those plays?

STAMP: Yes. Yes, I was cast. The first play I ever did professionally was called "Long And The Short And The Tall," which was a play by Keith Waterhouse and Willis Hall. And it had spawned a host of actors. I mean, the lead part had been written with Albert Finney in mind. Albert had got sick. Peter O'Toole had stepped in, became a big success. Michael Caine was Peter O'Toole's understudy and never got to play the part, so he did the tour, which was where I met him. So that was the first play that I was in that was one of those plays. But of course, there was, like, Osborne, there was Pinter, there was Arnold Wesker. You know, it was a - kind of a whole clutch of working-class playwrights that were writing wonderful things.

GROSS: You started to become very well-known in the '60s. And in fact, you became kind of a symbol of London in the '60s. In Shawn Levy's new book about London in the '60s, he writes that you were among the swingingest of young Londoners - handsome, stylish and always up for some wild scene.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: What was it like to become known in the '60s when everything, from the class system to sexual mores, was loosening up?

STAMP: Well, I think it was the best time and place a boy could be, really. It was like after the pill and before AIDS, you know? So it was an extraordinary release. And I think that we felt it particularly in England because we'd been confined by the - you know, by World War II and the kind of poverty after World War II, which drifted right on, really, through the '50s. So I think that - I think of the '40s and the '50s as being in black and white. And I think that with - you know, with the birth of the decade of the '60s, it suddenly burst into technicolor.

GROSS: Now, it's said that you and Julie Christie, who were a couple for a while, are the Terry and Julie in the Kinks' song "Waterloo Sunset." Is that accurate?

STAMP: Yeah, that's absolutely true. Ray Davis actually told my brother Chris that. My brother Chris discovered The Who and, you know, with his partner, Kit Lambert, made them, I think, into the great group they became. But Ray Davis told my brother Chris that - that when he was writing the lyrics to "Waterloo Sunset," he envisaged Julie and myself for that lyric.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 2002 interview with actor Terence Stamp. He's currently in the new film "Last Night In Soho." We'll hear more after a break, and Justin Chang reviews another new film - "Spencer." I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATERLOO SUNSET")

THE KINKS: (Singing) Dirty old river, must you keep rolling, flowing into the night? People so busy, make me feel dizzy, taxi light shines so bright. But I don't need no friends. As long as I gaze on Waterloo sunset, I am in paradise.

(Singing) Every day I look at the world from my window But chilly, chilly is the evening time. Waterloo sunset's fine. Waterloo sunset's fine.

(Singing) Terry meets Julie Waterloo station Every Friday night But I am so lazy, don't want to wander I stay at home at night.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, in for Terry Gross, back with more of Terry's 2002 interview with British actor Terence Stamp. He can be seen in the new film "Last Night In Soho," which is set in part in the swinging London of the 1960s. It's a period he knows a lot about. He got his start then, starring in the movies "Billy Budd," "Far From The Madding Crowd" and "The Collector." Decades later, he returned to film acting and starred in the movies "The Limey" and "Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: We were talking about your voice and how you used to have a Cockney accent and how you learned to speak differently for four movies and theatre. I want to play a scene from your movie, Priscilla, "Queen of the Desert." This is a 1994 Australian comedy in which you played a transsexual who has an act with two drag queens in which you lip sync and dance to disco hits. And in this scene, you're in the dressing room with the two drag queens. You're all putting on makeup. And this is shortly after you've fallen on your head in shock upon learning that one of the drag queens in your act not only used to be married, but he has a son.

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "THE ADVENTURES OF PRISCILLA, QUEEN OF THE DESERT")

STAMP: (As Bernadette) Why didn't you tell us? Why the hell did you have to shock me like that? Oh, this a lump on my head is getting bigger by the second. I'm about to make my Northern Territory's debut looking like a f****** Warner Brothers cartoon character has hit me over the head with an iron.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I think you look more like a Disney witch myself.

STAMP: (As Bernadette) Oh, shut your face, Felicia (ph). At least I don't look like somebody's tried to open a can of beans with my face.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) I'm sorry, girls. I couldn't stand the thought of you bagging me in the bus for two weeks. Anyway, what difference does it make now?

STAMP: (As Bernadette) Oh, about 2 inches to my head, for one.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Did you get a good look at him? He's got my profile, that's for sure.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #2: (As character) I think I'm going to be sick.

STAMP: (As Bernadette) I hate to be practical here, but does he know who you are? I mean, does he know what you do for a living?

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) Well, he knows he has a father in the show business, cosmetics industry.

STAMP: (As Bernadette) Oh, Lord, I don't understand.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR #1: (As character) No, you don't understand, so stop trying to. It'll be fine.

STAMP: (As Bernadette) Well, it better be.

GROSS: That's Terence Stamp in a scene from "Priscilla, Queen Of The Desert." Now, one of the things I find really interesting about your performance in that movie is that you didn't really change your voice. You changed the kind of language that you use and the way you'd speak, but you don't try to make your voice higher in it, even though you're playing a transsexual. Tell us why you didn't do that.

STAMP: Well, during the, you know, during the time I was sort of researching the role, I was getting introduced to actual transsexuals, you know, guys who had actually been sort of - tried to change themselves physically from being a man to being a woman. And one of the things that I noticed about them vocally was that they either spoke below the break or above the break. So either they were sort of hello, darling, and yes, my name is this - or they were sort of speaking above the break.

And during rehearsal, I really tried both of those vocal sort of approaches. And the director said to me, like, don't worry. You know, just, like, just your voice is fine. You know, don't really worry about affecting a voice, you know. He said, like, a lot of trannies to do that, but it'll be - it'll put too much, like, a strain on the performance, you know, if you confine yourself to just an area of voice. So that's really how the finished product came about.

GROSS: And look at how, say, Lauren Bacall's voice deepened as she got older (laughter).

STAMP: Right, right.

GROSS: What surprised you most by how you looked as a woman with a long blonde wig and makeup and, you know, women's clothes, heels?

STAMP: Well, I was rather, I have to say first out that, you know, when I saw the movie, I was, like, bitterly disappointed.

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMP: And I have understood, I had been led to believe that, you know, the camera man was making me look like Lauren Bacall and Princess Diana and Candy Bergen, you know. And so I'd given - been given the performance believing that I was being made to look like this real babe, you know? And only about five minutes before I saw the film, which was at the Cannes festival, the DP came up to me and said, listen, Terence, don't want you to be upset with me, you know, but, like, I really didn't make you look good, you know. And I was really - I said, what do you mean? He said, well, you know, I didn't do the best for you. I said, why? He said, well, Stephan didn't want me to, you know. I said to him, Steph, you know, I can make him look wonderful, like it's just a lighting thing. And Steph said, no, no, no. I want him looking dodgy, you know. Don't make him look good kind of thing. And then I'm at the premiere, you know, big, big ovation going to the bunker at Cannes. And the film starts, and there I am looking like this old tomcat, you know. So I was like, I was really taken aback. It was a huge, just instant dismantling of my ego.

GROSS: Because you wanted to look like a beautiful woman.

STAMP: Yeah, I was real - that's what I was - exactly. I was choosing - earring, oh, I see Michelle Pfeiffer wear those. I can wear those, you know. I mean, I was like, I was really into it. And I said to Stephan earlier, you know, why did you do that to me? Why did you - I really don't understand, you know. And he said, well, that's the point. You know, what I wanted was a creature who believed that she was beautiful, and the reality was she was an old dog, you know. So in other words, he wanted a kind of - he thought that the character would be more touching if that element was there. He just didn't want me looking, you know, like Lauren Bacall.

GROSS: Did that work for you when you started to see it that way?

STAMP: No, no, I always hated it. I always thought it was a lost opportunity to be a babe.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, Maureen Dowd had a New York Times Magazine article with you after "Priscilla" was released. And in that article, you say that you used to have this fear of looking stupid on screen and that that used to hold you back. But after "Priscilla," you stopped worrying about that. Accurate?

STAMP: Well, I hate to contradict the lovely Maureen Dowd. The way in which I - what I felt about that was that I didn't know that I had this fear of looking stupid. It was a kind of - I was tethered by it, but I didn't know. And during "Priscilla," it came up. And I had to confront it. And I had to confront it because what I was doing was absolutely ridiculous, and there was no way of doing it without risk of looking an absolute idiot. And when I'd gone through it, in other words, when it had happened, then I saw it and then I saw the extent to which I'd been limited by it. So in other words, the movie was a growth experience on that level.

GROSS: I want to say I might - that's basically what she says you said. And if I misrepresented what she said you said, I apologize for that. But I think she represented what you said very accurately. So can you put your finger on what you did differently after that?

STAMP: No, not really. Well, I can explain to you. I can't really give you examples, but after it, after the take, it happened - actually the freeing - the breakthrough happened during the performance of "Shake That Groove Thing," you know. And I'm in this town called Broken Hill and - which is a lot of - like, it's sort of a mining town where most of the guys are out of work, you know? And they'd got all these miners in to be extras. And the way they'd kept them there was by giving them lots of beers and stuff. And I came out of the trailer and I've got these kind of like putty-colored Queenie's tights, which I've put my false nail through so they're laddered. And I've got these soft pink knickers with, like, little stars stuck on them. And I've got a red wig with detachable pigtails. And we're all standing on a bar in our high heels waiting to do this number in front of this very raucous audience of miners.

(LAUGHTER)

STAMP: And in fact, as I was standing there, like, the thoughts that were going through my head were like, what are you doing here, you know? You're the best dressed man in Britain, you know. You're a middle-aged man. You were the great Iago of your drama school. You know, you're a scholar and a philosopher, you know, and then suddenly there was, like, playback (vocalizing) and you do it and you do it. And we did it. And I was - I had done it. I had done the lip sync. I had done the dancing. I had made an absolute ass of myself. And I was kind of in the stratosphere, you know? And I think that after that - so in other words, it was a kind of - it was like an inner dimension, you know? It was something - it was, like, a sort of reservoir of energy that had never been released before. And after "Priscilla," I never had to really consciously draw on that. I mean, I haven't done anything that sort of extended my fear barrier, but there is that kind of understanding within me that I'm fearless, you know. I mean, I would never really turn down another movie from fear. And I was able to look back and see that I had turned wonderful roles because I was...

GROSS: Like what?

STAMP: Because I was frightened. I turned down "Camelot" with the wonderful Josh Logan, you know.

GROSS: You would have had a singing role in that?

STAMP: Yeah, I would have been the king, you know?

GROSS: "If Ever I Would Leave You" (laughter) that would have been Terence Stamp singing that?

STAMP: Yeah. And that was the fear, you know? And it wasn't - I didn't really know it until I had that breakthrough. And I thought, yeah, I turned that down for the wrong reason. You know, I turned it down because I was frightened that my singing voice wouldn't have been good enough, you know? And there were lots of things like that I - roles that I've turned down because, you know, later on in life, I saw, yeah, I could have - of course, I could have done that. You know, I could have gone through that fear barrier earlier.

BIANCULLI: Actor Terence Stamp talking with Terry Gross in 2002. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF SISTER SLEDGE'S "HE'S THE GREATEST DANCER")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's 2002 interview with British actor Terence Stamp. He's currently in the new film "Last Night In Soho."

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Well, you know, you haven't had the most prolific career. You've been making a fair number of movies lately, but there was a period in, I guess, the '70s and part of the '80s when you weren't doing that much and part of what you were doing was international productions. Was that a conscious choice?

STAMP: No, no, no, on the contrary. You know, the '60s ended and I ended with them. I was sort of out of work for 10 years, really. And, you know, that was like a tragedy for me, but it was just one of those things. It wasn't anything that I could - if I had wanted to continue working during the '70s, then I would have had to have done real crap, you know? And I'd already - I'd been spoiled, you know? I'd worked with Ustinov, Wyler, Fellini, Pasolini, Losey. I didn't want to do Cockney lorry drivers, you know, gangsters and stuff. So I just - I was out of work. I was out of work from about '69 to till I got the "Superman" movies.

GROSS: How would you describe the phase of your career you're in now?

STAMP: How would I describe...

GROSS: (Laughter).

STAMP: Oh, I think I'm a golden oldie now, you know. I think I'm an old master with wisdom and vestiges of sex appeal.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: I think one of your greatest performances - and this is my humble opinion - is in "The Limey." I think you're just so wonderful in that film.

STAMP: It's funny with "The Limey" because it was something that - it's to do, I think, with resignation, you know, when you resign yourself to the fact that, you know, you're never going to get another great role, then something happens. And when it happened, it was just so wonderful, I mean, to work with a guy like Soderbergh, you know, who's - I - in my book, you know, he's the greatest American director since Willi Wyler, you know. He's just so extraordinarily talented. But a funny thing happened. They had a cast and crew screening and - at the Directors Guild right here on Sunset Boulevard. And he asked me to come and look at it. And a friend of mine - a great friend of mine called Richard La Plante was actually in California. And I said, come with me, you know? I needed a bit of backup, you know, 'cause none of us really knew what Steven had been doing. Like, we didn't actually know that he was, you know, making a film that was sort of outside the time-space concept, you know? We didn't realize that it was going to be, like, a nonlinear movie.

And anyway, I go along to this. And it was only supposed to be sort of, you know, 40 or 50 people. The place was packed. There were hundreds of people. And it was just extraordinary. It was just an extraordinary event for me. And you could tell from the audience that everybody was locked into it from the first frame, you know, which is the way you can tell a great master director. You know, they pick you up and you're confident that they're going to take you somewhere and put you down, you know.

And everybody in that movie was, like, totally attentive. And on the way home, I said to my friend, like, what do you think of it? He said, my God, I think it's, like, the best thing you've ever done. And I was a bit taken aback, you know, because that seems - I thought, well, I've done lots of terrific things. But when I was going to sleep that night, I thought to myself, you know something? If it had to end here, like if this had to be the last one, really, from "Billy Budd" to "The Limey" was like more than any young actor could hope to do, really.

GROSS: Well, Terence Stamp, a pleasure to talk with you. Thank you so much.

STAMP: Not at all.

BIANCULLI: Terence Stamp speaking with Terry Gross in 2002. He's currently in the new film "Last Night In Soho," playing the Silver Haired Gentleman. Coming up, Justin Chang reviews "Spencer," the new film about the late Princess Diana. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DAVID FATHEAD NEWMAN'S "MANHA DE CARNIVAL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.