Crime pays for Phil Collins. He has just pulled off the Great Train Robbery, gets paid handsomely for it, and knows he won't be slung in jail for 30 years even if he does get caught.
In a modest trailer parked in a side street in an anonymous South London suburb, you could find the millionaire rock star they call Mr. Ordinary--but who commands an enormous global following--mulling over his lines for a critical scene in his first-ever major movie role, "Buster."
"I have to tell you," he says, "I couldn't pull off a stunt like that. I wouldn't have the bottle (nerve). I don't even feel easy parking on a yellow line in case I get a ticket!"
In an unusual casting move, producer Norman Heyman and director David Green persuaded Collins to take on the starring role of Ronald (Buster) Edwards in their $6-million movie about the legendary Great Train Robber. Buster was the Cockney villain who played a key role in the notorious "Crime of the Century" in August, 1963, when two South London "firms" got together to hijack a mail train--and found themselves with a massive (and totally unexpected) haul of $3.5 million, equivalent to $20 million in today's terms.
Buster holed up in Britain for six months, managed to smuggle himself out of the country, and made it to Mexico with his wife June. Eventually, broke and homesick, he came back to face the music, paid his dues with a hefty jail sentence, and now sells flowers for a living outside Waterloo Station--as much a landmark for the tourists as the station itself.
Collins, 36, knows it's his acting chance of a lifetime. His own homely features wouldn't look out of place behind a stocking mask, but he claims that if something valuable fell off a truck at his feet, he'd turn around and walk the other way.
"Ironic, isn't it?" He prodded a stubby forefinger at the script. "Here I am, carving out an image for myself as a screen villain--and I never even cheated at exams at school.
"And I can't say I know too many villains, either, though show business is supposed to be a natural haunt for them. Mind you, every time I do a gig in New York or Chicago, I suspect most of the takings goes to the Mafia! I don't know. I just get out there and do my act."
"Buster" is the first movie role for the rock star whose world tour last summer with his group Genesis (15 countries, 5 million people) supposedly brought them a paycheck of $15 million . . . each.
But acting is in his blood: His mother ran a London drama school (as a kid, he was the original Artful Dodger in the stage musical "Oliver!"). He grew up in West London, and left Chiswick County Grammar to try his hand at acting. By then, an indulgent uncle had given him his first drum kit, and he started writing his own songs while still in his teens.
Voice-overs on TV commercials and small parts in films like "A Hard Day's Night," when he got to know the Beatles, and "Chitty Chitty Bang Bang" became instant history when he applied for an advertisement to join a rock group as a drummer--and found himself in the fledgling Genesis band.
When he later took over as lead singer--also composer and producer--it catapulted him into that select inner circle of real money spinners: In 1985 alone, he was reported to have earned $30 million. He has been with Genesis for 18 years, with a parallel solo career for the past seven. "They've been pretty potent years," he says now, thinking about the pace and the pressures. "But that's OK. I'm a workaholic, and I can take it."
It was a cameo appearance as an East London gangster called Phil the Shil in an episode of "Miami Vice" last year that led director David Green to sign him up opposite Julie Walters, who plays Buster's sparky wife June.
"Phil's a natural. He's got a raw talent, and he's brimming of confidence. He's Jack the Lad, and that's what we wanted," says Green, 35, bearded and enthusiastic.
"I'd looked everywhere to find the Buster I wanted, and I was getting desperate. I interviewed dozens of possibles, but frankly there was no one who was right for it. Then I saw 'Miami Vice' (Collins played a drug dealer in an episode) and said, 'That's him!'
"The fact that Phil is an international rock star could have caused problems. But no. The hardest thing in fact for me has been to channel all his energy into the role, and not let him dissipate it. He's given us everything. Just you wait and see."
Julie Walters, his no-nonsense co-star (last seen as a high-class brothel madam in "Personal Services") is swift to agree. "Phil's not a big-headed rock idol, thank God. Or worse, a poseur," she said, as they prepared for a crucial scene--where Buster finally blows his lid after being cooped up for weeks while the huge manhunt goes on across Britain.
"He knows that poseurs don't make good actors, and he's certainly not an enthusiastic amateur. He's just lovely. People ask me if he's frightened of me, because I've had more experience. Well, if he is, I've never known it."
Back to Collins for confirmation: "I must admit that the romantic scenes with Julie were a little out of my depth." The face with its 5 o'clock shadow around the jawline splits into a grin. "In terms of being in front of the cameras, that is.
"I wasn't as nervous as I thought I'd be, but it's a bit much jumping into bed with a strange bird with all those people looking on. I'd never been in a situation like that before.
"We were both wearing something--but actually, very little. I was in a pair of underpants, but they decided I had to put a pair of flesh-colored women's tights over them so it would look as if I was naked! That deflated any kind of passion that might have been in the air, I promise you."
Director Green calls "Buster" a "love on the run" movie. The film opens with a suspenseful half hour of the robbery itself, then explores the human value of the growing tension between Buster and June as their lives change totally overnight, and they find themselves with a fortune in cash stashed away under the bed--and no way of spending it.
The rest charts the uneasy course that a robber on the run has to take: a new face with plastic surgery, a tense escape from the country, and a hurried one-way ticket to Mexico.
"I see Buster as a family man with a heart of gold. You get a feeling he was a street thief, and this job just came up. He had the same attitude that I've got over making the film: 'Let's see if I can do it.' "
Edwards himself, now a flamboyant 55 with a conspicuous head of white hair, is "technical adviser" on the film. "I've met him several times, and though I'm not like him, I can understand him," says Collins.
"One of the first things he told me was: 'If I hadn't got nicked for this, I'd have got nicked doing something else.' The way I play him, he's impulsive, impetuous, very romantic--in an awkward way. If he calls his wife an old bag, that's an endearment!"
Back in his trailer after some shooting, Collins grins, sits back, takes a long drink from a bottle of mineral water. "I'm loving it," he says. "There are a lot of funny moments, as well as drama. Buster was the joker in the pack.
"I saw the script, and liked it at once. I thought, 'Yes, I can do it.' OK, I didn't think it would be easy, but I could see myself in the part . . . whether it was going to be my first film, or my last!
"It's not that I'm bored with music. On the contrary, I'll still keep on with the albums and the concerts. But for the moment I want a change--and a challenge. This way I get both.
"I know I'm in with some terrific professionals, but I'm an actor by nature and I haven't had any sleepless nights worrying about it."