When director Stephan Elliot, who likes to cast against expectation, was looking for a romantic male to star as a gaudy transsexual drag performer who treks across the Australian outback in "The Adventures of Priscilla: Queen of the Desert," he thought first of "Some Like It Hot" and Tony Curtis.
"He made his career in a dress and he could end it in a dress," Elliot reasoned with engaging bravado, and then reconsidered: "If we got him out to the desert, it'd probably kill him by the last week."
Then, trying to come up with "the most known older heterosexual icon," Elliot thought of Terence Stamp. "I sent his agency a script, but I thought he'd never do it."
Surprising himself as well as the director, Stamp took on the part, and gives such a graceful, elegant and convincing performance as the acerbic Bernadette, a woman no longer trapped in a man's body, that the actor laughs and says, "the only thing left is to have the cover of Vogue in drag. If I could get away with that, then I'd have made some kind of transformation."
The good-humored "Priscilla," which is the name of the lavender bus taking Bernadette and two more conventional (if that is the right word) drag queens out to perform at a resort hotel in the middle of Australian nowhere, has added some needed life to the Cannes Film Festival scene. Called "Florence d' Arabie" by bemused French critics, and featuring posters that announce "Drag Is the Drug," it debuted Saturday at a raucous midnight screening and is set to open in the U.S. on Aug. 12.
When it does, attention will inevitably focus on Stamp, a major international star since his Oscar-nominated lead role in "Billy Budd" over 30 years ago. The 54-year-old actor had been feeling that he needed a change, that he should be "having fun at this point in my career," but still the idea of playing a woman who had been a man filled him with "tremendous misgivings and fears."
"I started getting fatigued just reading the script, I was afraid I'd make a laughingstock of myself, that I'd be unemployable for the rest of my life, that my father might turn over in his grave," he says. "But an actress friend who's much smarter than I am said, 'If you don't start doing parts like this, all you can look forward to is playing villains in Hollywood movies for the rest of your life.' And that struck fear and loathing into my heart."
A charming and relaxed man whose celebrated pale eyes mesmerize under the jaunty Eton boating cap he's wearing, Stamp's easy manner masks an intense dedication to the psychological underpinnings of his craft. Though he initially did simple things like trying on women's shoes and getting a full body wax, of much more concern was preparing himself emotionally.
"For myself, if I'm secure internally, I don't worry much about the externals of a performance," the actor explains. He got insights from books by transsexuals, especially Jan Morris' "Conundrum," and when he got to the part about the operation in April Ashley's autobiography, "I felt myself going to pass out and had to put the book down."
Stamp decided that the key to empathizing with Bernadette was "not allowing myself to respond logically, which is what I usually do, but keeping myself open to the emotional response. Normally, when you're acting, there's a kind of personal center you hold onto. With this part, I allowed myself to be so open, so vulnerable, I felt I was in free fall. The muse demands a price."
In addition to all of this, Stamp's role in "Priscilla" daunted the actor because it demanded that he be able to simultaneously lip-sync to the music and dance in unison with the other two performers, "much more than you'd normally be asking anybody to do and extremely worrying."
The film's first musical number was shot in a rough outback town called Broken Hill. "There I was," Stamp remembers ruefully, "in my high heels, tangerine fishnet stockings and satin leotard standing on a bar in Broken Hill before a crowd of miners who were serving as extras. When the music for 'Shake That Groove Thing' went on, I went through a fear barrier so dense that when I came out the other side I was in the stratosphere."
Though his role in "Priscilla" may unsettle those who know the actor best for his villainous roles in "Superman," "Superman II," "Wall Street" and "Young Guns," Stamp's resume is in fact an extraordinarily varied one, including work for directors as dissimilar as Ken Loach ("Poor Cow"), Michael Cimino ("The Sicilian"), Stephen Frears ("The Hit") and Pier Paolo Pasolini ("Teorema").
Stamp was an unknown theater actor not yet 21 when his agent told him that director Peter Ustinov wanted him to audition for a movie version of Herman Melville's "Billy Budd," a role the actor was familiar with because he knew the modern opera. "I felt it was stupid, Billy Budd is like an angel, and I was like a teddy boy, with black hair and an East End accent."
Stamp went anyway, but found talking difficult. "And the more speechless I became, the more I endeared myself to Ustinov, who was looking for an actor who could convey a sense of lost speech." That good feeling turned out to be mutual.
"I was like unexposed film, I had never been exposed to real intelligence, so everything Ustinov said to me had tremendous impact. When the filming ended, he told me, 'We've done something very special here, and I don't think you should rush into anything. If you do good things, good things will come to you.' "
Following that advice led Stamp to William Wyler and "The Collector," a film that won him the best actor award at Cannes in 1965, a prize whose tangible symbol, a pair of gold cuff links, had to be mailed to him because no one had thought to fly him in until it was too late to get a seat on a plane.
"When I looked at Wyler's career, I saw that he never repeated himself. So I thought, 'Maybe that's the way to make life interesting, to try and always do different things.' That's why my career looks so eccentric. You can't really assess it from its outer trajectory."