I don’t know how famous Russell Brand is in America. He’s very famous in the UK, and that fame comes with a double edged price – some people may really like him, but many also passionately hate him. Last time I was in London a local gave me a rundown on why people hate Brand so much, and I have to say that it all sounds reasonable.
But having interviewed him a couple of times now it’s hard for me to be on that wavelength. I guess that this guy could be overwhelming if he had a prominent place in local pop culture, but as it stands now Brand is a funny and smart occasional visitor to US multiplexes and TV screens. All of that could change, though, if Get Him to the Greek ends up being a hit this weekend.
The film has Brand playing the same rock star character he played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, also from director Nicholas Stoller; except this time the character has fallen off the wagon. Jonah Hill plays a different character than in Sarah Marshall, and this time he’s a junior record company exec tasked with picking up the dissolute rock star in London and getting him to LA within three days for a gig at the famous Greek Theater. Everything, of course, goes wrong.
Last week I went to the Greek Theater for the film’s junket. One of the most intriguing interviews was with Brand, who was very funny and very open about his own drug addict past, which heavily influenced the movie. It’ll be interesting to see what lessons, if any, Brand learned in the UK as he attempts to make his mark in the States.
Are you enjoying this publicity campaign that you’re on?
It’s quite nice. It’s like a dinner party where I get too much attention.
You don’t be the type to shy away from attention.
You say that, but, actually, if this was a dinner party I’d be like this: “Oh, I don’t want to go. I don’t want to go. Sign me off. Say I’m not well.” Because my job is showing off, socializing I just consider to be more work, you know? It’s just some work. It’s that thing where I have to talk, isn’t it? Yes, it is. And you kind of listen as well. I like that also: I do like listening.
When you do something like a Letterman or Leno or Conan, how much do you prep for your segment? Do you sort of improv it the whole time you’re going?
Well these shows impose some preparation on you as part of their own preparation because they need to be secure that there will be content. But myself, I do not do any preparation. They go, “What do you want to talk about?” I go, “I don’t know. Anything.” And then they go, “All right, what about this?” I go, “Yeah, that’ll be alright.” But… I get very adrenalized and scared before a performance, and I think that energy, that fight or flight energy, is translated into neurological activity that I can then translate into anecdotes.
There are so many elements in this movie that obviously mirror your own life, right?
There are loads of elements.
So was it challenging for you doing this in a sense that you’ve got the drugs and everything, and the idea that you might relapse.
No, I didn’t think I would relapse. It was interesting, actually. The props person who gave me pretend cocaine to take in one scene – which I don’t think was in the movie – was himself twenty-one years clean. I go, “What is this?” It looked like cocaine, and I had to snort it right up me hooter. And he goes, “This is organic matter.” That’s something that you read on a Nestle label. What is organic matter? “Oh nothing. It just killed some kids.” “What!?!?” So to answer your question… I’m in a daily program of recovery and everything, so one day at a time I’m alright. But doing them things, it’s more the emotional stuff when you get all angry or shout at people. If your body don’t know that you’re not serious, apparently you can tell your brain any old information, and it would just respond to it. That’s why that power of positive thinking – which some people say is mumbo-jumbo and perhaps they’re correct – but, apparently, if you just fill your head with positiva, it’ll all be alright.
Doesn’t the amount of candor that you’re able to have about your past give you some control over it? Or does the extent that people may feel comfortable asking you about even more intimate details [tempt you to reveal too much]?
It means I have to take responsibility for where I want to draw boundaries around what I actually consider to be private, but I’m kind of comfortable doing that. I think initially when I first became famous in the United Kingdom, it was helpful because it meant there wasn’t a spate of “This bloke’s a drug addict!” or “This bloke fucks all these women!” I was just making jokes about all those things already, so it made me some kind of incorruptible, indefatigable, indestructible force. So it was a good idea. Also, I think it transposes those things from being stuff that make you sad to stuff that makes you laugh. There’s some stories I tell on stage, and they’re funny. But they’re things that, in the words of Morrissey, I can smile about it now, but at the time it was terrible.
In the commercials they’ve been showing on TV, there are a few sequences that aren’t actually in the movie. Nick [Stoller] has said there’s a bunch of stuff that didn’t make the final cut. We heard there’s a really funny video that didn’t make it.
Oh, yeah. “I Am Jesus.” “Welcome to the Church of Me.”
Besides the video, were there other sequences you were sad to see cut out?
In a sense. When I was younger, if I had to make some telly [audition] myself or something to send to TV stations, I would always make them too long. Because I was vain, I’d go “All of it is brilliant!” Now, I think like it’s good to be succinct.
I’m actually genuinely pleased with the film. I think it’s good. I think they’ve done a good job. I would have done it really different. I would’ve made me much more funny. They made me dead sad in loads of it. But they seem to know what they’re doing better than I do, I hope. We’ll see if the film’s a hit. Otherwise, I’m going back into the edit and doing the Russell Brand version, which is just different shots of me looking out like this. [mugs] There is stuff that I think is really, really funny, but I can’t question the job they’ve done because I rate them people. I think Nick’s a talented man.
It’s interesting because you have this stand-up background, so you sort of have your own thing.
And then coming to a movie… it’s very collaborative, but beyond that, you’re giving a performance and then Nick takes it and does what he wants with it.
Brand: It’s difficult.
Is that hard for you? Is it hard to let go?
It is. Because, as you say, as a stand-up comedian you have this sort of absolute authority once you’re up on stage; you can just go nuts. I have done that lots of time, and sometimes I get in trouble with the police. When I was a drug addict, I got really badly beaten up on several occasions because I would just think, “Oh, let’s say this now.” It’s what I believed – and sometimes I knew I was right about what I was saying. I was definitely, definitely right about the nature of consciousness and the nature of culpability; that the way we’re all socially culpable for each other, and you can’t demonize certain individuals – even the most extreme criminals, you have to take social responsibility. People don’t want them kind of ideas in a comedy club. They just beat you up. I was saying we have to take responsibility for the notion of pedophilia, but I was unable to articulate in a way that people thought was acceptable. Their response was to do this to my leg. [Pulls a Quint and shows off a nasty scar on his leg] That. I got really badly beaten up and thrown through a door.
Luckily, I was on quite a lot of heroin that day. Didn’t hurt. What was interesting was watching the blood go [spurting out] to the beat of your heart pulsing.
Then I went to the Edinburgh Royal Infirmary. Edinburgh is a good place to get heroin in Scotland. And I go to these kids, “Go get me some heroin lads.” I give the 40 quid upfront. Never pay upfront. Anywhere. There are very few places you can make advance heroin payments. “Oh, we’ll be delivering the heroin!” Always no money down for heroin. Installments possibly, yeah. HP. High purchase.
I was reading about some incident that happened regarding prank phone calls in England.
It seems to me that wouldn’t be a big deal [here]. I was just wondering… what’s the different between doing the kind of stuff you do in England and here in the States?
This is difficult for me to answer. Actually, it’s not difficult; it’s just complicated.
Here it is. That prank phone call… it was not the nature of the phone call itself; it was the nature of socialist construction of the country I’m from. We have a thing called the BBC. The BBC is publicly funded. The privately owned media want to destroy the BBC because it’s brilliant. And the privately owned media – mostly Rupert Murdoch, who I’m sure some of you work for; in fact I work for him, so I’ve got to be careful – they don’t like me or Jonathan Ross. The Daily Mail, a powerful newspaper in the United Kingdom, they don’t like us because we’re both from working class backgrounds. I’m a former drug addict, and instead of dying, I’ve gone on and fucked everyone, and made loads of money. That’s not the story they want. “Drug Addict Found Dead in Gutter” – that’s drug addicts for the Daily Mail. It’s confusing for their message. Plus, I’m innately anti-establishment in my behavior and stance. So they want to destroy me.
Now, the thing we did that was wrong was we left a rude answering message on an elderly man’s phone. But in my head, he was still the character he played on this sitcom thirty years ago. I didn’t think of the reality. He played the character Manuel on Fawlty Towers, which I loved. And I just saw this man in a white waiter’s jacket holding one of them silver [trays]. And that’s who I was leaving an answering machine message for.
So the thing is, I had sex with this dance troupe, and one of that dance troupe was the grand-daughter of this man. I was explaining that on the radio, actually in quite a funny way. So we phoned up Andrew Sachs, and ended up leaving this message. It was very silly and juvenile, but actually funny. So the newspapers – as you know; you’re a journalist – are dying. People don’t need these papers no more; people get news from other sources. So newspapers need to campaign to remain relevant; they have to have opinion. So they manage to push these opinions, and there was this perfect storm. Jonathan Ross, they don’t like him earning so much money; me, they don’t like what I represent; and they don’t like that he was an old-style comedian attacked by sort of younger folk. So it becomes this conglomerate of lunacy. But to be honest, I found it amazing. It was like a sociological experiment. I like it if the news begins, “The main news again is Russell Brand…” I think, “Good! Yeah! That is the main news. About time!”
That’s the vanity in you?
Yeah, I’m narcissistic. I’m working on it because I recognize that the self is a sort of construct, and it’s all going to dissipate into nothing, isn’t it? If you take it too seriously, you’re fucked.
But isn’t that the nature of comedy? You’re challenging these social structures, and… I would think you actually feel like you’ve succeeded.
I think I am. Because, as I remember, I used to be a penniless junkie. And now I’m not. Something’s going right. I’m happy with it.
That’s good. It seems like you’re getting some enjoyment out of–
I’m getting some good enjoyment, and I feel like I’m expressing myself. There are compromises. It’s not like when you do stand up and just do what you want. You have to sort of trust other people. I don’t generally like doing that. But, you know, there you go. Basically things are alright.
With the success you’re having right now is there a lot of debate as to what your next project will be, because your next choice might impact the success you’re having? Or are you like, “I’m going to stick with my gut because it’s been working?”
Yes, I do the latter. I know what I’m doing next. I’m starting Arthur in July. The Dudley Moore movie, you know? That billionaire guy get-married-for-money-or-choose-love fairy tale. I’m playing Arthur. I’m up for that. That ‘s starts in July. I’m doing it with Helen Mirren. She’s got an Oscar already, so she must be brilliant. That’s the way I see it. That’ll be good I think.
And I’ve written another book. It’s 85,000 words. It’s boring writing on your own, [but I] finished it, and that’s coming out soon as well. And I’ve got loads of things I’ve already shot. This thing where I’m the Easter Bunny called Hop. That comes out next year. I’ve got another thing called Despicable Me or Evil Me or something. I’m in that, and that’s coming out. The Tempest, which I’ve done with Helen Mirren, that’s already been shot and coming out. Then I’m making a film that Adam Sandler’s producing, where I play a con-man posing as a priest, called Bad Father. It’s set in the south here in the States; I’ve got to make next year. So I’ve got all sorts of different things. I kind of what to do stand up, though, because of the autonomy and the control and the authenticity it affords you. So things are all right as long as nothing goes wrong. I hope I haven’t jinxed it.
Do you feel compelled to test your own boundaries in terms of doing things that are more dramatic or at least dramatically different from what you’ve already been doing?
I do not yet because, to be honest with you, say you’re the best comic actors ever, right? Charlie Chaplin, Woody Allen, Steve Martin, Richard Pryor, Jim Carrey, Robin Williams… they were like the biggest proper movie stars. It’s not that they go, “Oh, and this week he’s a French hunchback.” You want them to be doing stuff where you recognize them – at first, at least. And this is my first significant part in a movie, my first lead role. So let’s see if this works. And then like Arthur… I think I’ll stay within that palette. I can act, you know. I went to drama school. I can pretend to have a different voice and a different height and a different head. All of these things are possible. It’s just that this is the best thing to do at the moment.
Going back to Arthur for a moment, how much are you taking from the original movie? Or are you going down your own path?
Very much our own path – as demonstrated by the decision to have the butler as a female nanny played by Helen Mirren. That’s already a distinction. We’ve taken some of the best lines from the script, but even then I’ll go, “Hm, it’s dodgy doing that.” But there’s some just such amazing lines in [the original]. “How did you end up being a prostitute?” “My mom died when I was six, and my father shot himself when I was twelve.” “So you had six relatively good years.” I wanted to keep that. What can I say? But the spirit of it… Dudley Moore. He’s sort of innocent isn’t he? So you’ve got to have that innocent vulnerability. That’s got to be maintained. And the sort of sadness of somebody that’s a drunk or whatever. And the optimism, the affability, and all that: keep all those things. But it’s sort of different because it’s a different time, and look what’s happening economically and all these things. A billionaire, wish-fulfillment, and he can do anything. He’s got so much money. I like that sort of stuff.
It’s funny, though, because Arthur came out at right at the end of that time when you could be a cute, funny drunk.
You can’t be a cute, funny drunk now. Everybody has to change now. You have to learn at the end of the movie. So are you going to have to do that, or are you still going to be able to be a cute, funny drunk.
You can’t be… as you have correctly observed, attitudes towards alcohol have changed now. Now being a drunk is, “Hey, he’s a lovable party guy.” “I think he’s dead!” So there has to be a more sophisticated approach to the problems of alcoholism, to which I’m obviously sensitive as a person in recovery. But I don’t want to lose the fun. I like it also in Arthur when it’s like, “You’re the guy with all the money, right?” “Yeah.” “What’s it like?” “It’s brilliant.” I don’t want to lose that. But you have to be a little more responsible – particularly because studios are big conglomerates, and you can’t have people rampaging around spreading the wrong message. Everyone’s got to remain conditioned citizens at all cost. For god’s sake don’t think!
I imagine there’s going to be a really different feel to the movie now that you have a really attractive older woman as your nanny. That’s probably a different–
It’s a very different dynamic isn’t it? That’s the thing about Helen Mirren: she’s a powerfully sexual animal, even in a part where that would not be typical. What I’d like is for her to give me a bath, and I’m planning for that to be in the script. You know when you find some women… I don’t know how it works with homosexuality, but with me, what it is is I want older women to sort of look after me a bit – but then it goes a bit sexual. First it’s “Come on, I’m really hungry.” Then it’s “Get in the bath. Oh, you silly boy. Just wash it properly.” And then it gets all sexy. That’s what I want.
That sounds artistically valid.
I think that should be in the movie.
I think the studio will really like that.
Oedipus! They will love this pitch. This we’ll go in there as a gag. “Look, we worked on this. It made sense then, and it will make sense in the movie.”
And then he’ll put his eyes out.
Yeah, they’re going to struggle with that.
What was the hardest part of Greek to shoot?
I have to shout at Jonah at one bit, and that made me feel a bit bad. The bit where I go, “Give me the fucking drug!”
That was a good scene, though. I think it was one of the best scenes in the film.
Yeah. It showed how drug addicts actually are when they’re not getting the drug. It’s how they would react to somebody. The drug comes first.
The drug comes first, and fuck everything else. Yeah. For me it was tricky to revisit that. Obviously, the reason I was able to hopefully bring authenticity to that is because I’ve been in that situation loads of times. When you’re a drug addict, people are always tipping your drugs down the toilet. Like that’s going to help. You’re just going to get more. It’s inconvenient, people tipping stuff, emptying envelopes, dropping little bags… it’s a nuisance! You’re not going to have, like, an Archimedes moment of “Oh, yeah! Eureka! Thank god you tipped them drugs down the toilet! Also, I noticed the water level rose – which is interesting as a side note.”
I’ve had that stuff happen loads of times, so I remembered it and it made me angry. But I don’t like to get into that part of my character too much as a human being anymore because it makes me feel sick. I don’t know if anyone’s in recovery from drugs or alcohol, but when you shout at someone, like you’re trying to get your phone to work – and it’s even worse in your fucking country. I’m trying to get the phone to work, and… you go to the person, and they go, “I’ll put you through to my supervisor.” “No, I want it done!” If I do that now, I feel really bad. I feel, like, in my stomach awful. I think I’m now crippled by some sort of cosmic empathy. Now I can’t be mean. Even when I pretend to do it, I feel a bit bad.
So you’re a really nice guy?
I’m pretty nice now. Pretty nice. Out of selfishness.
Do you feel a greater sense of sympathy for the folks who are corralling you and trying to get you to things like Jonah’s character? Or are you just kind of like, “I’ll get there when I get there”?
I sort of became aware of the irony while making this film that there are people who have to fulfill that function in my own life. “Please, Russell, can you please…?” “No, I’m just not getting up. I can’t be bothered. No, I won’t.” There are people that have to do that job. Not “sympathy”. “Awareness.” I sort of mused on it. Whimsically.
You didn’t change your behavior.
Brand: Certainly not. Like I was in smoking jacket. “Oh, the irony!” Like something Dorothy Parker might have thought about, and just flicked some cigarette ash on the floor. “Pick that up.”
Behind every great book adaptation is a forgettable first try. — By Ryan Covey