Spiritual quest led Terence Stamp to 'Unfinished Song'
05:00 AM, Jan 15, 2013
Terence Stamp is one of cinema’s most recognizable villains, having played General Zod in Superman, Siegfried in Get Smart and the supernatural Thompson in The Adjustment Bureau.
But his acting journey has been intertwined with a spiritual peregrination that has taken him from London to Hollywood, and Joshua Tree National Park to India.
It came full circle Sunday with his appearance at a screening of the Palm Springs International Film Festival’s closing night film, Unfinished Song, which Stamp calls “probably the best experience of my career.”
Stamp, 74, was inspired to pursue acting by seeing Method actors Marlon Brando, James Dean and Montgomery Clift in the ’50s. But there were no Method acting classes when Stamp was growing up in London, and he received a scholarship to the Webber Douglas Academy of Dramatic Arts. So Stamp developed as a classically trained stage actor.
Actor-director Peter Ustinov gave him his film break in 1962’s Billy Budd. His second movie was Term of Trial with Laurence Olivier, who gave him master classes in acting.
“He was very happy to give me hints about acting,” Stamp said in a telephone interview. “Larry said you can always learn something about voice. So, I have always studied, even to this day. If I hear about a great voice teacher, I check in.”
Stamp’s first important Hollywood movie was 1965’s The Collector. Its Oscar-winning director, William Wyler, introduced him to some of the hip young actors in Hollywood, including Harry Cohn Jr., who introduced him to Ted Markland. Together, they’d go to Joshua Tree National Monument, where Stamp had his mind opened with spiritual experiments with peyote.
When Stamp’s career stalled in 1970, after starring as the poet Arthur Rimbaud in the Italian film, Una Staglione all’Inferno, the actor moved to India to learn more about what those spiritual seekers had tried to help him understand.
“During my peyote trips, I did realize there was another dimension that was always present, but that I hadn’t previously been aware of,” Stamp said. “I knew I couldn’t become reliant on anything from that experience, so I was looking to make it my own in a natural way.
“But also, when I met Krishnamurti (the East Indian philosopher who established a school in Ojai, Calif.), I was about 27 and really just an Eastern spirit. I made a big mark in cinema, but I hadn’t really grown as a person. So, it was almost impossible for me to understand what Krishnamurti was talking about. When I went to India I thought, ‘Well, if I start lower down the ladder, maybe I can come to understand what he was talking about.’ “
Stamp didn’t make another film for five years and, when he did, the money he made was barely enough to pay the rent. He spent much of his time in an ashram in India becoming what he called a long-haired “swami.” But he continued to think he’d get another call to work, so he continued doing yogic breathing exercises similar to the exercises he had learned as an acting student.
In 1978, when he began to think he might not get a chance at a comeback, he happened to walk into a Blue Diamond Hotel in Pune, India, and a concierge happened to recognize him from some earlier visits. He gave Stamp a cable addressed to a “Clarence” Stamp at the “Rough” Diamond Hotel.
“The minute I saw that, the psychic weight of this cable was like a peel of an apple,” Stamp said. “It was a minor miracle that I was reading it. So I opened it and it was from my long-suffering agent. He said, ‘Would you be prepared to come back to England to meet with Richard Donner for Superman 1 and 2. I thought, ‘My God, the call from the universe.’ It seemed unbelievable. Eight years I had been out of work.”
Superman not only gave Stamp a chance to work with Brando the Method counterpart to Olivier it also established him as one of cinema’s great villains. He’s worked regularly ever since.
Looking back, he said his one career regret was turning down the opportunity to work for director Josh Logan in the 1967 film musical, Camelot, co-starring Vanessa Redgrave as Guinevere.
“I’ve always regretted it because, a) I thought the world of him and, b) I turned it down for fear,” Stamp said. “I just didn’t believe I could sing that beautiful score. I was frightened I would be re-voiced, which would be the end of me as a young actor. So I turned it down.
“Then, as I was reading this script (for Unfinished Song), I thought, ‘Wow, they’ve cast Vanessa in the Guinevere part. And my character is called Arthur. And I have to sing.’ I thought maybe this was the universe giving me another pass playing Arthur and getting to sing. So, from that point, I felt completely at ease.
Unfinished Song has been purchased by the Weinstein Company. It debuts in Europe in February. Stamp said it will probably open in North America this summer.