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Don’t expect Sting to be next in line for a big-screen biopic. “Absolutely not,” the 68-year-old rock legend says of getting the Rocketman treatment. “I’m telling my story in an artistic way.”
That way is with the musical The Last Ship, which runs at the Ahmanson Theatre until Feb. 16. (It’s a different version from the Tony-nominated one that ran on Broadway for four months in 2014.) Sting wrote the music and lyrics and plays the foreman of a Newcastle shipyard in the show, which draws from his early years growing up in a grim, ship-building town in Northern England.
The Hollywood Reporter caught up with Sting in his dressing room ahead of a recent performance for a wide-ranging conversation that covers his foray into musical theater, his memorable outings in cult films like Quadrophenia and Dune and what actually led The Police to call it quits after their smash-hit 1983 record Synchronicity.
Hi Sting. Do you spend more time in the U.K. or the U.S. now?
I spend more time in New York than anywhere else. But I live in London and New York. And I live in Italy. And now I’m here.
Do you have positive associations with L.A.?
Well, I’ve had a home here since the ’80s. I always enjoyed playing here. I’ve played everywhere from Madame Wong’s Restaurant in downtown to the Forum and Dodger Stadium, so yeah, I have a pretty good idea about L.A.
Tell me about The Last Ship and how it stems from your childhood.
It’s really the story of my town. I come from a little town in the Northeast of England. It was a famous shipyard town. We built the biggest vessels ever constructed on the planet, right at the end of my street. So it was a kind of epic, surreal industrial environment, which I didn’t appreciate as a kid. It was a very frightening idea that I would end up in the shipyard as my ancestors had done. I’d pass thousands of men every morning, thinking, “I don’t want this.”
Did your family work there?
My father and grandfather did. Everyone worked in the ships, either as sailors or ship building. And so I studied hard at school and I figured there was some way I would escape, and I did. But then in later life I realized I’d been given a gift. One, the gift was the community I was brought up in that gave me a sense of who I am. But it also was the engine of my ambition to escape. And their story hadn’t been told. So it’s an elegy for what has passed.
But it also has a contemporary resonance. What happened to my town has happened all over the West. It happened in the Rust Belt in America — where a town built upon one industry is suddenly robbed of that industry. What then happens to the community? There’s an anxiety in the world at the moment that everyone shares and how do we as a community deal with that anxiety? Something’s not working. People are homeless. People have no hope.
You stepped in as a performer in the Broadway version.
I did. It’s a difficult subject. It’s not your standard Broadway [fare] — you know, they usually do fairy tales or Disney [adaptations]. This is the most difficult thing to do — an original musical about a serious subject. So we had trouble selling tickets and then the producers said, “You have to go in the play.” I had no intention of going in the play. But I agreed, and when I did I was very happy that I’d done it because I felt, well, one, I could do it. And two, it was so much fun. Even though the subject is a serious matter, it’s actually really fun.
Does acting feel comfortable to you?
I acted almost by accident, but I’ve made lots of movies. The last time I was in a play was on Broadway in the ’80s. I played Mack the Knife in Threepenny Opera. I’ve learned a lot on the job. I’ve also acted with some amazing actors. When you work with the best, you get a lot of gifts.
How do the vocal requirements compare between a Sting rock show and a musical like The Last Ship?
Well, I wrote this character for a baritone. I didn’t write it for me.
What are you?
I’m a tenor. So I’m exploring the lower registers of my voice, which aren’t normally explored in my rock show. But I actually find it a little less athletic. I can sing more in this range.
Do you mind if I throw out a few of your movies and see what memories they bring up?
Quadrophenia was the first movie I did. I was in it long enough to make an impression, but not long enough to blow it.
How did you get cast in that?
Just by going along to an audition and having the right look.
Were you the character you played in it — a mod “It” boy?
I was slightly too young to be a mod. But I remember the era. I was 12 when the mods were happening. But I had the right look.
And were you in a band at that point?
Yeah, I was in The Police. But we hadn’t broken yet. And then our first hit coincided with the opening of Quadrophenia in London — so it was a perfect storm. It vaulted me into super fame very quickly. Luckily I was 26 or 27 at the time, so it wasn’t like I was a teenage sensation. I was a school teacher, so I had my feet on the ground, as it were. Otherwise I think I would’ve gone crazy.
How did you adjust to rock stardom?
My intention was always to be a musician. That’s what’s written on my passport. That’s what I am. I doesn’t say “star,” it doesn’t say “celebrity.” I’m actually a musician. I take my profession very seriously. So fame and the blandishments of fame are secondary to my main purpose. I don’t take it that seriously. I enjoy the attention most of the time and I can cope with it. I exercise my citizens’ rights. I walk everywhere, wherever I am, alone. I don’t have an entourage. People are very respectful. I don’t invite hysteria. I’m also able to look after myself if they don’t.
Next movie: Dune.
I got the wonderful opportunity to work with David Lynch quite early in his career. I think it was only his third movie, after Eraserhead and The Elephant Man. So I was a fan. And David was casting a look more than my Shakespearian acting quality. So he created this character called Feyd. I had to wear these outrageous costumes. It was fun. We were in Mexico City for what seemed like forever in 100-degree heat wearing rubber suits. It was a bonding experience.
Did you work out insanely for that part? Because your physique was unbelievable.
No, no. I mean, I was an athlete as a kid and I always kept fit. Also I lost a lot of weight in a rubber suit in the desert, as you can imagine.
So that was just your natural build at the time.
Well it wasn’t computer graphics. That was me.
I’m wondering if you’ve seen Bohemian Rhapsody and Rocketman and if you would you ever consider submitting to that kind of biopic?
Absolutely not. I just don’t think I want to. I’m telling my story in an artistic way. [The Last Ship] is a metaphor. This is a story about me. I’m in this play in many ways — probably more than I intended to. But the character I’m playing is built on composites of people like my father, uncles, people I was brought up with. That’s the way I want to do it, rather than somebody going, “What’s the arc of Sting’s life?” I haven’t finished it yet.
Could The Last Ship become a movie? And would you return to the big screen?
I always make movies by accident. I just made one in France, speaking French. It’s a comedy, of course. I enjoy making films, so yes I’d do more of them. And could this be a movie? Absolutely. It has an epic quality about it. You know, the size of the ships and the shipyards and thousands of men and women working on these things. It does have a filmic quality about it. So I’m hoping we’re in Hollywood, someone will come to the show and go, “Ah, this will make a good film.”
What did ever happen to The Police? Was there an official breakup or did you drift apart?
Everything we set out to do as a band we achieved 100 fold. After you’ve done that it becomes diminishing returns in terms of satisfaction. I think a band is like a gang. It’s like a street gang, teenage gang. You can’t really evolve as a human being in a band. I think you’re constantly being pulled back into being in the game. So there’s no freedom there.
Did you guys get along?
Yeah, absolutely. [Police members] Andy [Summers] and Stewart [Copeland] are coming next week to the premiere. I mean, we fought before like cats and dogs when we were a band, because it was like a brotherly thing. But I enjoy the freedom I have now to do exactly what I choose to do. I follow my curiosity, I follow my instinct. I don’t have to follow a band ethos. [I don’t have to] look like the rest of the band, think the way they do.
I love all your music, but I particularly love your first few solo albums. The Dream of the Blue Turtles is one of my all-time favorite records.
It’s very nourishing to hear that. I appreciate it.
Is the story true that you wrote “If You Love Somebody Set Them Free” as a kind of direct rejection of “Every Breath You Take?”
Yeah. “Every Breath You Take” is a very ambivalent song. Some people think it’s romantic, other people think it’s sinister. I never can predict either view. I think it’s both. I think that’s what its power is — it has an ambiguous, strange quality about it. So I needed to write the antidote, if you like. “If you love somebody, set them free” is the opposite of that. But they’re also biographical to a certain extent.
And what about “Fortress Around Your Heart?” What’s that about?
It’s a personal story. You know, a songwriter will use your personal experience, your heartbreak, your elation, your joy. You put it in songs in a veiled sort of way. But it’s very clear to me what the songs are about.
Do they come to you with words first or melodies first?
Both. There’s no hard and fast rule about it. Sometimes an idea for a song, a theme will come to you — a title of a song, an intriguing title. You work backwards from titles normally. You say, “OK, what’s that title about? Where does that lead me?” And your unconscious tells you a story or the music will tell you a story. If you construct music in a coherent way, it’s already got a kind of abstract narrative. It has a beginning and middle and an end. So, OK, what is the music telling you? What’s the mood? Is there a line that comes to you? It’s a very mysterious process. I don’t really understand it, but I’m grateful when it does happen. But it’s not guaranteed.
I read something on your Wikipedia page about a childhood memory of the Queen Mother waving to you. Is that a true story?
Absolutely. God’s gospel truth. When they launched a big ship at the end of my street, they’d invite dignitaries up from London — the Duke of Edinburgh, the Queen. It must’ve been 1960, so I’ll be 8 or 9 years old. And the Queen Mother came down the street and we all were waving our little flags and I caught her eye for some reason. She did that little wave they do. And she just kept looking at me for what seemed like forever. I thought I’d been noticed by someone from another planet. Me! Little me! And it made me think, well, I should be in that car. I have a right to a bigger life than this. And so in many ways it was galvanizing.
With that in mind, I have to ask what you think about Prince Harry and Meghan Markle wanting to quit the royal family.
I think the press are making more of it than even the royal family are. I mean, he has every right to make his own life. He’s only sixth in line at the throne. Have your own life, you know? It’s ridiculous what they’re making of it. Poor lad.
The Last Ship runs at the Ahmanson Jan 14 – 20 and then continues on to San Francisco, Washington, D.C., St. Paul and Detroit. Information and tickets here.
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