In Unfinished Song, Terence Stamp stars as Arthur, the curmudgeonly husband of a terminally ill woman, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave), who spends her free time singing in a senior’s choir. Arthur, however, prefers to hang outside and smoke. It’s no surprise to say that, after the choir auditions to perform in a competition, Marion passes away, and that Arthur takes up singing as a tribute to his late wife, albeit reluctantly. Maudlin, yes, but Paul Andrew Williams’s crowd-pleaser is elevated by Stamp’s magnetic performance as an ordinary bloke. From his closed body language to his lovely rendition of Billy Joel’s “Lullabye (Goodnight My Angel),” Stamp makes Arthur sincere even during the film’s most manipulative moments. We had the chance to chat with the actor about the making of Unfinished Song, as well as his other notable roles from Bernadette in Priscilla Queen of the Desert to General Zod in Superman II.
Have you ever known anyone like Arthur?
Honestly, I based Arthur on my dad, who was exactly like Arthur, but drank more. He was very, very funny. He was physically tougher than Arthur, and unusually handsome. None of us sons were as good-looking as him. I had my doubts about playing Arthur, but they were like twin souls. What made it touching was that they were ordinary men. I thought other actors could do it better, but the director convinced me. In many ways the father and son in the film were like me and my dad. There was a realism about playing that character. I didn’t think my dad would be proud of it if he saw it, but my brother Chris saw it in Toronto and he was in tears the whole time.
You are known for playing villains. How did you make Arthur lovable? I really felt the love he and Marion shared, even if he was curmudgeonly toward others.
In the year prior to Vanessa making the film, she lost her daughter, sister, and brother, all of whom she desperately loved. So she was incredibly frail emotionally. With the kind of closeness she felt to mortality, she couldn’t help bring it to the character. Once I saw her sing that song [“True Colors”], I knew I could be as unlovable as I liked, because the audience would see her emotion [for Arthur] in her performance.
You did a beautiful job singing the Billy Joel song “Lullaby,” but that’s not quite what I think is in your iPod. What music do you listen to?
In the ’60s, my brother Chris, who recently passed away, signed the Who, and was the first guy to record Jimi Hendrix. He introduced me to that music. I met everyone. The Beatles. Up until recently, I’ve listened to the most beautiful voices from my era, but the last 10 to 15 years, I’ve been drifting toward educating myself through classics, like [Edward] Elgar. When this movie came up, as part of my preparation, I started rediscovering Nat King Cole, Sinatra, Dean Martin, etc. I only had a few hours with a singing teacher to get the phrasing [of the Joel song], but the filming went so well. I stopped worrying about it. On the last evening, on the last day of shooting, we only had one time for one take. It was like a live performance.
How different was this kind of performance from Bernadette in Priscilla?
I often think, when the movies that are the most foreboding and frightening, that if I can get through the fear barrier, I could find new opportunities. I don’t think I could ever have been so frightened [as playing Bernadette]. I compelled myself to keep saying, “Yes.” I kept hoping it would go away. I was in a bar with a broken heel, and in tights, and a wig; it’s not for a wimp for playing a woman. I’m a middle-aged man who met Krishnamurti, and here I am dancing and lip-synching with [Hugo Weaving and Guy Pearce] doing “Shake Your Groove Thing”! But at the end of that take, I was floating on the ceiling.
Someone says that Arthur doesn’t “enjoy things.” What do you enjoy doing? Despite your singing skills, I’m not picturing karaoke.
I write. I read. I write if I feel the urge. I’m great letter writer, and I have published books. I’m currently doing an “ear movie” called Hog Fever with Godley of Godley & Creme. In it, I’m singing Cole Porter’s “Night and Day” and Jerome Kern’s “The Way You Look Tonight.” I’m keeping that octave open, but not taking it too serious. I play a character based on R.D. Laing. I never had therapy from him, but I’ve met him.
What do you think Unfinished Song says about eldercare and what’s being called “the longevity dividend” where folks live longer?
I wasn’t really aware of it. Personally, I started taking care of myself earlier, and I have all my physical faculties. I do breathing, and yoga, and this brings me together with others who exercise like me. The slight mistake in the film is that Gemma Arterton’s character started this choir because the Old Age Pensioners have nothing to do, but my reality is that they all have plenty to do. I have an aunt, Maude, who is 86, and she has nothing to do because her daughter moved to France.
You’ve had some amazing roles over your career, from the title character of Billy Budd and Toby Dammit in Spirits of the Dead to Teorema and The Limey as well as the aforementioned Priscilla. What are your criteria for a choosing a role?
Have you seen The Collector? William Wyler…put him up right there with Fellini and Soderbergh. I have no psychological ambitions. When I get a script, it’s purely intuitive. If I have a sense of well being reading something. I was out of work in the 1970s, and people think it was my choice, but it wasn’t. I couldn’t get arrested. Out of work, I was transmuted to think of myself as a character actor. I don’t think of myself as a leading man and that made me fearless. And there’s so much choice open to me makes it so much fun.
Speaking of past roles, you were in Superman II, and involved with the TV show Smallville. Any comments on the reboot?
I haven’t seen it, and I won’t see it for a while. I have such tender feelings about working with Richard Donner and Margot Kidder and Christopher Reeve. I was sad that they are doing it again and using a lot of the same characters. It impinged on my memory. There’s something else in the consciousness of the Superman fan. Donner took 15 years finding all the old footage and they gave him a director’s cut. The BFI recently gave me a retrospective, and I insisted they get the director’s cut. It got a standing ovation, and I just knelt before everyone. There’s such an affection for it. There was rarely a day in the last 10 years when I don’t see someone eyeing me, and they ask, “Were you in Superman II?,” and I say, “Kneel before Zod, you bastard!”