Renowned British actor Terence Stamp was initially hesitant to take on the role of a curmudgeonly pensioner in the touching new film, "Unfinished Song," opening this week at the Playhouse 7 in Pasadena.
"I don't know if I play ordinary that well," laughs the 74-year-old actor, who is probably best known for showcasing larger-than-life personas such as General Zod in Superman I and II, outrageous transsexual Bernadette in the Australian road-trip musical, "Priscilla Queen of the Desert," or as the knife-edge ex-felon in Steven Soderbergh's gritty noir thriller, "The Limey."
In "Unfinished Song," Stamp plays Arthur, a stiff-upper-lip aging Brit who can't understand his wife Marion's (played by Vanessa Redgrave) passion for singing in the unconventional local pensioner's choir. He sees it as an embarrassment, but young choir master Elizabeth (Gemma Arterton) eventually coaxes out him out of his shell and he finds the voice and emotion he could never formerly express.
"It wasn't that I didn't feel I could do it. It just felt like it was a big reach. Arthur is not really older than me, but I visualize him as older. I'm not like Arthur. I'm very active and fit, so on a vanity level it was a kind of unnerving commitment, but I thought there was an extra beauty in the screenplay. It was a great love story but they were no Romeo and Juliet. They were an average couple and that's what appealed to me," says Stamp, speaking by phone from Ojai, where he is staying while working on an upcoming Tim Burton film, "Big Eyes."
For Stamp, the key to connecting to the character was stepping back into his own London childhood.
"Arthur and Marion were really my mom and dad," he says. "Like Arthur, my father was a very emotionally closed-down man and my mom was fun and open, but despite their differences, they were totally devoted to each other."
The other challenge for Stamp was that the role required him to sing. "I was always nervous about my singing," says Stamp.
Back in 1967 when Stamp was one of the dashing swinging-'60s Brit lead actors, he turned down the role of King Arthur in the big-screen version of the musical, "Camelot." The role went to Richard Harris instead.
"It was a decision I regretted for the rest of my life," he says. "The fact that Vanessa Redgrave, who had played Guinevere, was in this movie and I play Arthur, who has to sing, made me think the universe was giving me a second chance."
And it's hard to imagine a dry eye when Stamp as Arthur finally steps on stage to pay tribute to his wife with a heartfelt version of Billy Joel's "Lullabye (Goodnight, My Angel)".
"We only had time for one take on the last day of the movie. I just let the music take me and I just went with it. It was great to have a live audience there, it helps you connect with them," he says.
While in some ways the movie may seem like a "Glee" for the senior set, especially when the choir boogies to "Let's Talk About Sex," Stamp says new British director Paul Andrew Williams wrote a brilliant script that elevates it beyond the cliche. "I think what Vanessa (Redgrave) and I were attracted to was this exquisite story that was written so well. It was a very personal story for him and I think that is what shines through," says Stamp.
With a long film career, the polite and quietly spoken Stamp is still amazed that he is most recognized for his role as Kryptonian super-villain General Zod in 1978's Superman and 1980's Superman II movies that starred Christopher Reeve. "At the time, I was worried about playing such a hideous villain but people love him. There is rarely a day that passes that someone doesn't stop me and ask about him," he says. "They love it when I step into character and yell at them, "Kneel, you bastards." It's a lot of fun."
KATHERINE TULICH writes about film and culture for Marquee.