Here’s the majority of the cutting-room-floor material from my interview with Stephen Fry
. When I was initially editing the piece for publication, I accidentally saved an edited file over the raw file, losing another 2,000 words or so in the process, so there may be another cutting-room collection at some point if I find time to go back to the original, untouched raw file, but that material is hugely unpolished and I’m not going to be able to get to it for a while. Still, this collection of cut question-and-response sets is almost as long as the interview we actually ran, so perhaps it'll do for now.O: As an actor, what defines a good director for you?
It’s so interesting. The major thing is trust. The biggest thing I ever did as an actor, I suppose, was in Wilde
, where I played Oscar Wilde. He’s a great nuanced character, and it would have been terrible to have screwed it up abominably and not done service to his remarkable personality and story. About a week in, there was a scene I was doing, and the director [Brian Gilbert] said, “Great, fine, cut, print, check the gate,” all that stuff. I said “Are you sure? Is it all right?” He said “When you see the first cut of this film, if you don’t like yourself, if you think you’re bad in that particular take, you have my permission to come up to me and punch me very hard in the face.” [Laughs.] He taught me a very good lesson. In the end, as an actor, you have to trust that the director is watching you.
Sometimes when you do something as an actor in a film, you do four or five takes, and you subtly change something in the performance. What really heartens you is when you’ve done it the same way three times and you think, “I’ll just change something,” like running your fingers through your hair, or pulling your earlobe like Marlon Brando. And the director comes up and says, “That thing you did with your eyebrow, don’t do that again.” And you think, “Oh, that’s great, if he then says the shot is good, I trust him, because he does see things.” Sometimes you worry that directors are looking at everything: the way the camera is moving, the background, the color values, the shadows, the other actors, all the things that make up a particular shot. You sometimes worry they are leaving you to sink or swim. So as an actor, all you really require is to believe that the director knows what he wants. I mean, not so absolutely that you can’t, as an actor, give him something he hadn’t expected, but that you essentially know what he wants.O: Is there anyone from post-1950 or so that you would consider an influence?
Only in terms of my other life as a comic performer. I was masterfully influenced by John Cleese and Peter Cook, two great English comic performers. But, I don’t do so much of that anymore. I think their sensibility is still something that—I love Peter Cook’s satirical take on the world. Let me give an example. It’s a personal one. I feel very privileged to have been in the room with anyone who knew Peter Cook, always did, because he was the funniest man who ever drew breath. We were on holiday, not just me and him, but a group of us, and we hadn’t had an English newspaper in some time and Cook absolutely obsessed with the news. Eventually when we’d been put up in the Luxor, we were on the Nile, we found some shop where there were some English newspapers. So we got a whole load of English newspapers, sat in a café, and started reading them. And there was one those stories that occasionally pops up about Elizabeth Taylor’s weight. She’d blown up again, and a spokesman had attributed it to her glands. And Peter Cook said, “Yes, poor woman. It is something for which we should be extremely sympathetic, because she is sitting there in her hotel, and she’s calmly knitting or watching television, and her glands get up, pick up the telephone, and order a tray of éclairs and a bottle of Courvoisier. ‘No!’ screams Miss Taylor. But it’s too late. The order’s gone through. Five minutes later, there’s a ring on the door. She puts her back against it, but the glands wrench her aside, open the door, sign the bill…”
I was on the floor howling with laughter. It struck me as being a perfect exemplar of what is important about great satire and comedy. That it does perfectly test the sometimes absurd grandiloquence of life. People talk about, “Let freedom reign!” or something like that. So what is freedom? You have to put on Peter Cook’s voice and go, “Hallo. What is freedom? Hallo? Is freedom reigning here?” and “Oh look! Freedom is reigning over there!”
A little-known early-20th-century philosopher talked about the capital-letter moralists. In other words, people who use words like “justice” and “mercy” with capital letters, as if they were somehow great coins that could be exchanged and everyone knew. But what a Frenchman means by “freedom” and an American means by “freedom” are utterly different things. They’re not interchangeable. And indeed, they’re not words that make much use. It’s always politicians who use words like “freedom” and say things like that, “Let freedom reign.” To put some sort of symmetry to our conversation, that’s partly what I mean by the importance of art. It makes things human-shaped, rather than idea-shaped.O: Do you actually have a favorite medium or a favorite work mode?
Well, my glib answer is, I like the one I’m not doing. When I’m writing, I like the idea of being an actor because it seems so luxurious compared to writing. And when I’m showing up at six in the morning on a film set, I wish I were a writer. I picture myself in my dressing gown sitting down in front of a computer with a cup of coffee mulling over a few gentle ideas and I think, “Oh, that’s a much better life than being an actor.” But, the fact is, it’s very hard to imagine giving up one. I suppose if it absolutely came to some deluded person who had nothing better to do than to put a gun to my head and say I had to choose, I’d probably say writing is the thing that is the greater need in me, in a sense. The thing that I would always do, whatever the circumstances. Because of course, you can. All you need is a pencil and a piece of paper. Whereas to be a performer you need an audience and you need a budget of some kind. But it’s not just a need, it’s the thing I first did. From one’s first story at school to the present day, writing is just something deep within one, I think.O: What would your ideal role be like?
Ah, this is to question my utopia, my ideal world. There’s a great, great moment in which someone says to Homer Simpson, “Which would you prefer? An endless supply of beer, or a world of complete pleasure and no suffering ever?” And he pauses and goes, “What kind of beer?” Which is a very, very great philosophical response. And very Homer I don’t know. It’s an interesting ethical question. If you could press that button would you get rid of suffering, would you? Do you have to have the Gestapo in order to have Mozart? That kind of idea. I don’t know.
In my ideal world, there would certainly be no revealed religion. That is to say, people would be perfectly happy to be religious if they want, but they can’t claim that truth is revealed. Truth can only be discovered. What do I mean by that distinction? It’s not one that’s used these days, revealed and discovered truth. But, it’s essentially the difference between sanity and insanity. I don’t mind anybody saying, “Look, I have to think about things. I think we should treat each other better. And I think this and I think that. And I discovered that.” But, if they say “God said to me, God spoke to me and told me this is the case, you have to cover up your testicles or you have to have seven wives or you have to…” Oh, bugger off. God said that to you? Show me your work. Tell me it’s a good idea. Tell me all kinds of things, but don’t tell me God said it to you. It’s just not good enough. And that’s what we mean by the revealed truth. Somehow God spoke on a mountaintop, or God dictated some sacred text. I think that’s what causes the misery in the world. It’s one thing for people to say “I think I’m right.” It’s another thing to say “I know I’m right.” That little shift would take us from hell to heaven. We would get rid of all terrorism. People who would know they’re right, so they have to blow themselves up. As Oscar Wilde said, “Be prepared to die for a cause, but make it a correct cause.”
Bertrand Russell, the great philosopher and mathematician, got into terrible trouble by writing quite fearsome articles against the first World War when it began. He got all these letters from people who said, “My child is prepared to lay down their life for their country. Don’t you think that sacrifice demands some respect?” He wrote this extraordinary essay in which he said, “Don’t you understand? The sacrifice we’re asking of our young is not that they die for their country, but that they kill for their country.” That’s the sacrifice. To ask a child to kill someone else, whom you’ve never met. That’s a moral choice, pulling a trigger. Having a bullet hit you is not a moral choice. You don’t decide to be killed. It’s a terrible thing that happens to you. But killing something is something you do and that’s a desperate sacrifice. And we’re seeing that in the Iraq war. That’s what this poor Lynndie England did, this tragic soldier who was shot smugly smiling next to naked Arab prisoners. That’s the chickens coming home to roost. It’s not Americans being asked to die by President Bush. It’s Americans being asked to kill and to torture. Not necessarily by name. He doesn’t say, “I want you to kill this or that one.” Of course, politics isn’t that simple. Essentially that is what society does. It asks its young to kill, and that’s what we all have to live with. That’s why people who survive wars don’t like talking about them. It’s not because they’re modest or anything. I’m sure many of them are. It’s because they live with images of squeezing triggers and seeing young men a hundred yards away being torn to pieces. Those are the awful things. Actually I thought that of Fahrenheit 9/11. I thought the most powerful part of it was simply the documentary footage of dead flesh. That’s the thing that still shocks you, that you have to be reminded of. That’s what art can do. It’s the same thing. It’s the particular against the abstract.O: Is it true that you don’t take on other jobs when you are working on a novel, that you can’t write unless you’re writing exclusively?
Absolutely. Yes. I don’t take another job. I don’t do anything. I go up to my house in the country and pull out all the plugs, virtually. I just do it nonstop until I’m finished. I envy writers who can write on planes and take a break for a week and then get back to it. I have to get into a sort of zone. O: Is that true for other kinds of projects as well? Do you prefer to just do one thing at a time?
Not so much with the acting and things. In the past when I did more theater, sometimes I would do filming in the day and theater in the evening. I found that to be okay, I don’t mind dividing my attention in that sense. With writing, I don’t know what it is. I just have to get into a complete world. It has something to do with an inability to concentrate, which is the absolute bottom line of writing. That thing that drives all writers mad is just staring at what used to be a piece of paper, and is now a screen with a blinking cursor, and forcing something out of yourself. I just need to be absolutely there to be able to do it. I can do articles for newspapers and things. I do reviews occasionally. I used to do a regular column for two years for The Daily Telegraph
in Britain. That was fine. I could do that in an afternoon and not have to lock myself away in the country to do it. But a novel or something, for me, is complete concentration. O: How did you get involved with Harry Potter audiobooks and videogames?
Some years ago now, there was this book. It was the only book of its kind, called Harry Potter And The Philosopher’s Stone
, as it’s called in England, or The Sorcerer’s Stone
in America. I suppose because somebody had this idea that the word “philosopher” would turn the American public off, which seems very sad. Anyway, it was just a book, and no one had heard of it. I hadn’t heard of it. My agent said, “Would you do a children’s audiobook?” I thought, “That’s usually only half a day or a day. Children’s book are usually very short.” She said, “No, it’s full novel length. It’s 90,000 words.” I thought, “Blimey!” I said, “I don’t know.” My agent said, “A friend of mine has a child who’s in love with the book and says it’s really wonderful. So I’ll send you a copy, and if you like it, consider it.”
So she sent it to me and I started reading and I thought, “I have to say, this is really good fun.” So I spent three days in the studio. I had lunch with Jo Rowling, the author, on the second day of reading, and she said she’d just finished the second one and she was going to write a few more. I said, “Oh golly, we’re going to have to do all those audiobooks as well.” She said, “Yes, you are.” I said, “Jolly good, I hope they turn out to be successful,” in a mildly patronizing way. [Laughs.] So I just got swept along in the ride, really, and it was fascinating to watch. It’s been great fun. I occasionally get parents coming up to me and saying, “Can I hug you? It used to be every summer we would drive to Cornwall from London, which is a six-hour drive, and it was the most miserable experience of our lives. But now we actually have to wrench the children out of the car because they want to listen to the end of the last tape.” People come up and say the oddest things. “My children go to bed with you every night.” I say, “I beg your pardon.” Well, you know what I mean. It’s been great. It’s been fabulous. To have a, sort of, ringside seat to this extraordinary industry phenomenon.O: Has there been any talk about putting you in one of the films?
I know David Heyman, the producer of the films, who showed me around the set. I said, “I hope you’re not doing this out of guilt because you haven’t cast me in the film. I don’t expect to be cast in it. I had the pleasure of playing all
the characters by doing the audiobooks.” Also I said, “I don’t know if I’d cast myself in any particular part at the moment. I can’t think of one that you haven’t cast perfectly. So don’t feel bad about it.” That’s absolutely how I feel, really. If there is a part that they decide to toss me, I’ll certainly look at it and find it fun, but I’m quite happy playing all the parts.
I'm-a feelin': industrious