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Saturday, March 4, 2000

New film gets Stamp and approval

It started out like the opening sequence to a gangster movie. A remote village on a Hawaiian island, Terence Stamp in espadrilles. A cryptic telegram informing Stamp to call director Steven Soderbergh. Stamp strides over to the only phone booth on the island and makes the call. Presently, the voice of Soderbergh comes on the line. "Terence Stamp? I have a job for you."

During their conversation in that stifling phone booth, Stamp learned that he was to play the title role in Soderbergh's latest, "The Limey," and that the director was planning to incorporate some footage from a Ken Loach film he had starred in, back in 1968. The more Soderbergh talked, the more Stamp grew excited.

What especially pleased him was the idea that "The Limey" would draw a younger version of himself, side by side with the man he was now. Says Stamp: "The one thing that worried me was that someone else had done this before. But no, Steven was the only one and my response was, let's go ahead and do it before everyone else has the same idea!"

"The Limey" is the tale of an Englishman in L.A. Stamp plays Wilson, a career criminal just out of a London prison. He has come to the City of Angels because his daughter Jenny had recently died there in a road accident. Convinced that it's foul play, Wilson first harasses and then terrorizes Jenny's ex, a wealthy music producer played by Peter Fonda, into confessing what really happened.

"The Limey" is in so many ways Soderbergh's homage to the '60s, but Stamp says it's much, much more. "A beautiful film, a film that appeals just as equally to the mind as to the eye, as intricate and complicated as a 17th-century painting." On another level, the fact that he and Fonda come together, each bringing separate (but equally euphoric) versions of the '60s, was so moving that "I was tempted to declare that this is my last work, that no other offer will ever be good enough."

For Stamp, the '60s were a miraculous decade, a glorious ride that screeched to a halt one fine day in '69 when Stamp landed in L.A. (life preceding fiction) and witnessed some cops beating up a hippie.

"I knew then that it was over. The '60s and everything they stood for was gone." Only then did he realize what an amazing time he had lived through. "I thought all these wonderful things were happening only to me, but then I looked around and saw that it had swept over everyone. Like the guy who cut my hair had suddenly become an aristocrat."

Stamp himself had become a king, whose name drew bigger audiences with every film, living in stardom splendor with a supermodel girlfriend. Coming from an impoverished West End childhood ("My father shoveled coal into the engine of a ship, which was one small step above galley slave") shared with a teeming family in a house half the size of his Tokyo hotel room, this predicament both amazed and spoiled him. "I had become used to working with the best directors, to lots of money and romance all the year round."

But as the decade drew to a close, so did the dance music. Great offers petered out, the supermodel left. "With no work to distract me from my broken heart and no romance to distract me from the fact that I had no work, well the only thing left was travel."

So he packed everything into a small Gucci suitcase, bought a round-the-world ticket with no restrictions and left England. "Since then, I've always thought of myself as a citizen of the global village."

In 1974 Stamp even came to Japan, where he lived with a Kyoto geisha for two months. "At the end of that idyllic time, I got a bill. At first I thought it must be a poem -- it was so beautifully brush-written on parchment and smelling like cherry blossoms. Then I saw the total at the bottom, in American dollars. An amount bigger than a stay for the same length in the suite of the Paris Ritz Hotel."

Stamp paid but was completely wiped out. "I called my agent and told him to get me work, anything on his desk."

The Kyoto affair set up a routine of sorts: Stamp would travel until his money ran out and then "do" a movie, get his paycheck and board another plane. The '70s went on in this vein until the offer came for "Superman" in '78, the picture that put his name back on the map. More recently there was "The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert" ('94) in which Stamp plays a transvestite, by turns bitchy and truly elegant.

But "The Limey," as he sees it, is his crowning achievement. "When it opened in London, people stopped me in the street, cab drivers drove up to the curb. . . . They all wanted to congratulate me. This just never happens in the U.K., and certainly not to me." Which is one of the reasons, he thinks, that England and limeys will always be precious to him.

"I have a sort of shorthand relationship with the place that needs no translating," he says. "And what I love about the English is the same thing that I love and look for in anyone -- they are, at heart, the fiercest of individuals."

"The Limey" will open in early summer.

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