Death Isn't The End In 'Unfinished Song'

In the film Unfinished Song, Arthur is a curmudgeon of a man with a heart of crust who is married to Marion, a luminous woman who is gracefully confronting the end of her life. Actor Terrence Stamp joins Weekend Edition Saturday host Scott Simon to talk about the new movie and working with actor Vanessa Redgrave.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Arthur is an unshaven, unpolished curmudgeon of a man with a heart of crust, who is married to Marion, a luminous woman still with her head shorn from chemotherapy, who's gracefully confronting the end of her life.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "UNFINISHED SONG")

TERENCE STAMP: (as Arthur) OK. Now, get some rest otherwise you'll be a nightmare tomorrow, OK?

VANESSA REDGRAVE: (as Marion) Perhaps can you give me a kiss if I don't wake up tomorrow?

SIMON: It's a little startling to recognize that these two famed actors have been iconic images of swinging London and British cinema around the world for decades: Vanessa Redgrave and TerenceStamp. The film is "Unfinished Song". It's directed by Paul Andrew Williams. It also stars Gemma Arterton as the young woman who opens their lives with song. Terence Stamp, who has a 50-year film career in which he's won acclaim for playing young Billy Budd; Superman's arch-villainous adversary General Zod; signature roles in "The Hit" and The Limey" and "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" joins us from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

STAMP: My pleasure, mate.

SIMON: Why did you want to play Arthur?

STAMP: Oh, I just thought it was a wonderful script really. And then as soon as they got Vanessa onboard, I felt that'd be fun.

SIMON: Does it take, as a great actor, a lot of energy to portray people who are hurt and ailing and sometimes feeble?

STAMP: I think it depends, really, depends how you approach it. I mean, it turned out to be quite easy for me because I was looking for an example of a sort of an aging, twin soul relationship that was ordinary. And I just had the thought that they could be my own mum and dad really because they were together their whole adult lives. She was incredibly like Marion. She was gregarious and full of life, and he was exactly like the way I played Arthur. You know, he was damaged by World War II; been shipwrecked three times. And so by the time I got to know him at all, by the time he came back home, the grace had been sort of eroded from his character, really. And this was a very easy role model. I thought if I get into trouble, I'll just think about Tom, you know.

SIMON: There's another startling moment in the film when Marion, played by Vanessa Redgrave, tells Arthur, your character, she's got a couple of months to live. And they just curl up together at night and she just says I'm a little scared - wonderfully phrased.

STAMP: Yeah, yeah.

SIMON: Does playing this kind of role make you run down your own thoughts through your mind about mortality and the afterlife?

STAMP: Oh, I mean, I think about it all the time. It's not just something that's with my increasing age. I've always thought about it. But, to be frank, I just regard it as death is the price of having been an individual, really.

SIMON: Do you have any clear thoughts about what happens?

STAMP: You know, I think that when it is essentially that part of us where emotions and thought start, I think of it as a kind of the bare awareness, as it were. It doesn't it really have any sort of characteristics. But it knows thought, it knows feelings but thought and feelings don't know it. But as far as I can work out, those times where I've been thrown back against it. And I can remember, I can remember being little, I can remember seeing snow for the first time, I could remember walking outside and being covered in a London fog, you know. And I remember those times. I was so thrown back on myself. And I can't really sense any change in that within myself. So, those moments where I'm in front of the camera and I'm sort of present in the present, as it were, it's that same spacious silence. And it's the same subject to time and space really. So, I'm just assuming that when the breath leaves the body and the body dies, there's just more of an abstraction, you know. I think one is - one is back in the state that one was before one got a body.

SIMON: What's it like to work with Vanessa Redgrave?

STAMP: I haven't seen her. I hadn't seen her for, like, 20 years, you know. But when I came onto the set of the movie, I knew that she had lost her daughter, her sister and her brother in the 12 months prior to the movie. And so I saw a woman who was kind of very familiar with change of cosmic address. And I thought to myself I want to be here for her. She just seemed incredibly frail and tender. But in fact, like the great actress that she is, I'm sure it all went into the character.

SIMON: You were roomies with Michael Caine.

STAMP: I was, from (unintelligible) many years ago.

SIMON: So, may I ask, at night, when the two of you together, did you play card games and stuff?

STAMP: No. Too excited by the opposite sex, I'm afraid. Didn't have any time for other games. We were into the big game, you know.

SIMON: Yeah. Well, these were famous times in your adventures...

STAMP: Yes, yes.

SIMON: ...were splashed all around the world.

STAMP: They were after the pill and before AIDS. You know, a good time to be a young lad.

SIMON: I'm sorry, I've got to take a breath after that phrase. May I ask - totally personal business - but did you remain friends with Julie Christie, Brigitte Bardot, Jean Shrimpton - the people you were famously...

STAMP: I'm sure you've heard the adage that it's much harder to make a friend of a lover than a lover of a friend. And being absolutely honest, the only woman I've managed that with is the great Christie. I think one said of her, she doesn't have any guile, you know, she just - if she thinks of something, if something occurs to her, she just kind of blurts it out. You wouldn't call her the most diplomatic chick in the world but she's very beguiling because she's natural, because she's herself. And she suddenly says to me - after about nothing - she said, you know, Stamp, you think that like you are just great actor, don't you? And I said, well, I wouldn't go that far. I should know but you think that's your big talent, don't you? And I said, well, it's my only talent really. And she said that's not true. She said I think your big talent is a storyteller. You're in the ancient Irish tradition, she said. You're a teller of stories. So, yeah, she's been a long-time chum. I'm afraid, the others got no time for the older Terrance.

SIMON: There's a revelation towards the end of this film: you can sing.

STAMP: Ah. It's true. It's true.

SIMON: You really can. I mean, you spend the entire film thinking, of course, Arthur's not singing because he sings like this.

STAMP: That's right.

(LAUGHTER)

SIMON: But, in fact, Arthur is not singing for maybe a host of other reasons. But Arthur can sing.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "UNFINISHED SONG")

STAMP: (as Arthur) (Singing) Good night, my angel, time to close your eyes, and save these questions for another day...

Yes, Arthur can sing. And I guess I was freed from the normal nervousness accompanying warbling because he doesn't necessarily doesn't have to be a good singer. You know, he's a man who is trying to sing. And it's the first time that he's sung in public. And it's really, I guess, in a way, it's kind of aptly symbolic of him finding his true voice, you know.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "UNFINISHED SONG")

STAMP: (as Arthur) (Singing) Wherever you may go, no matter where you are, I never will be far...

SIMON: TerenceStamp. He stars with Vanessa Redgrave and Gemma Arterton in a new film, "Unfinished Song". Mr. Stamp, thanks so much for being with us.

STAMP: My pleasure.

(SOUNDBITE OF MOVIE, "UNFINISHED SONG")

STAMP: (as Arthur) (Singing) Now it's time...

SIMON: This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

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