'Unfinished Song' Star Terence Stamp on Becoming 'the Kind of Performer I Wanted to Be' (Video)

It has been 50 years since Terence Stamp, the strikingly handsome British actor, earned a best supporting actor Oscar nomination for his big screen debut, at the age of 24, in Peter Ustinov's Billy Budd. In the years since, he has morphed from an icon of the sixties to a has-been of the seventies to one of the premier character actors of the eighties and ever since. Today, Paul Andrew Williams' Unfinished Song (aka A Song for Marion), in which Stamp stars opposite Oscar winner and fellow septuagenarian Vanessa Redgrave, opens in New York and Los Angeles. Last week, I sat down with the actor at the Four Seasons in Los Angeles to discuss the long and winding road that led up to this latest project. (You can watch highlights at the top of this post.)

Stamp was born to working-class parents in East London, and was discouraged from pursuing acting by his father, so, while still a teenager, he left home and set out on his own. He won a scholarship to a prestigious drama school in the area, and, before long, was a working actor in the theater, and then the enigmatic star of Billy Budd. After that film was released to widespread acclaim, he began a run of parts in important films: Peter Glenville's Term of Trial (1962) opposite Laurence Olivier, who offered him invaluable acting advice; William Wyler's The Collector (1965), his first American film, opposite Samantha Eggar (who received an Oscar nomination for her performance); Joseph Losey's Modesty Blaise (1966), which paired him with Monica Vitti; John Schlesinger's Far from the Madding Crowd (1967), with Julie Christie, who would become one of his many girlfriends; and Spirits of the Dead (1968), in the section of the film directed by the legendary Federico Fellini. Once he and supermodel Jean Shrimpton began dating, they became something of the Brad and Angelina of their era.

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But just as suddenly as success came to Stamp, it went away. "When the sixties ended, I ended with it," he says today. His opportunities as a leading man dried up; his relationship with Shrimpton came to an end; and he decided he had to get away from it all. He bought a first-class, one-way plane ticket around the world, and wound up spending the better part of the next nine years living as a swami at an ashram in India, donning long hair, a beard and an orange robe, and seeking and, to a great extent, finding spiritual enlightenment. He returned to the Western world to make films only sporadically -- that is, until he received a telegram from his agent notifying him that Richard Donner wanted him to star opposite Marlon Brando in Superman 1 and 2, as the villainous General Zod (the part played by Michael Shannon in the reboot that's now in theaters), and he knew that it was time to return for good. "My lull -- the thing that was preparing me for a long career -- were those years in exile. That was the root of my acting from then on."

Now a character actor, as opposed to a leading man, Stamp began to make a mark of a different kind, as a terrific scene-stealer. He was the corporate raider competing with Michael Douglas' Gordon Gekko in Wall Street (1987); the cattle rancher whose murder is avenged by Emilio Estevez's Billy the Kid in Young Guns (1988); a grieving father seeking vengeance in Steven Soderbergh's The Limey (1999); and a comic force or foil in films such as Bowfinger (1999), Get Smart (2008) and Yes Man (2008).

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And now, Stamp says, Unfinished Song -- the story of a hardened man losing his beloved wife and then finding his voice and humanity through the choir that she so loved -- represents his life and career coming "full-circle." He based his performance on his father, and in so doing came to better understand a man who had long confounded him; he sings on screen, overcoming a fear that caused him to turn down the part he now most regrets not doing, the one played by Richard Harris in Joshua Logan's Camelot (1967); and he accessed emotions in a way that he always longed to but rarely could. In short, he tells me, just a month shy of his 75th birthday, "I've become the kind of performer I wanted to be."