Film: 'I was less stunning than I'd hoped': Once Terence Stamp built a career on being the perfect male beauty. Now he's a slightly imperfect woman. By Sheila Johnston

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I first met Terence Stamp in 1984, when his career was struggling out of a sticky patch. He had landed a role, as the villain in Superman I and II, and was gamely managing to enthuse about the project: there was, he reckoned, a mystical connection between the discovery of a new planet, Chiron, in 1977 and Krypton, the superhero's birthplace. Stamp had become an icon for his times, and the fate of most icons, when those times have passed, is to gather dust quietly in the attic. The great gift of this one is his ability to reinvent himself.

Today, his speech is still faintly veined with flat East End vowels, still sprinkled with period patois. He speaks thoughtfully, with long, long pauses: after years on the promo-trail, fielding the same old questions - the Sixties, sex-appeal, and that long countercultural trail to spiritual enlightenment - he has retained a brilliant knack of making his answers seem freshly-minted.

Vain? Certainly, but (still) with fair reason. Self-absorbed? Of course, but it comes across not as a star's shallow narcissism, but as a kind of no-bull introspection. And it's this, more than the bright blue eyes, more than the constant, casual way he makes body contact with little touches of foot or hand, more than the flirty manner ('He likes being interviewed by women,' the publicist says), that makes him so engaging: this sense of someone open to new ideas. 'I believe the world is the individual, in a collective sense,' he is saying now, earnestly. 'If we wanted to change the world this afternoon, the only way we could do it, you and I, would be to bring about some fundamental change within ourselves.'

Which is why Stamp, who could have spent his twilight years in a graceful diminuendo of lucrative cameo villainy (he was the bad guy again in Legal Eagles, Wall Street, The Real McCoy), now finds himself in a blonde wig and false fingernails, playing a faded transsexual called Bernadette. And why he finds himself in tangerine fishnet tights and a purple wig with detachable pigtails, shimmying and lipsynching to Shake Your Groove Thing. The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert, a low-budget Australian film about three drag artists, is his first foray into comedy. And, he says, in countries where it has already opened, it is making a truckload of bread.

Nothing, not all the excesses of the Sixties - which Stamp had drained to the bottom of the glass - had prepared him for the full flamboyant camp of Australia's gay scene. 'I did know April Ashley, but she was really the exception. So when I got this part I went to Madame Jo-Jo's in Soho. But it was sort of Danny La Rue stuff and the public was mostly straight: you know, couples from Dagenham. Sydney is the biggest gay community in the world. There's a club called Don't Cry Mama, where 50, 60 per cent of the people are guys in drag. That's where I went in drag while we were rehearsing. And I passed OK, I was getting hit on by men and by women. Nobody thought it was strange to see some great big blonde sort standing at the bar.

'Hours of expertise went into my transformation and when I saw the result I was disappointed, frankly. I was incredibly less stunning than I'd hoped for. So I didn't go to rushes and I just convinced myself that the magic of cinema would make me look like Rita Hayworth. While I was performing I was confident that I was somehow making a big impression. Then I saw the film in Cannes and I looked like this . . . old dog. As a woman, I look much older than I look as a man. That's the thing that struck me.'

At 55 - as a man - he can still cut the mustard. The flesh has melted away, which can make him look wrinkled, haggard even, but which also brings out the fineness of feature, those cheekbones to die for; that's why he can pass for a fairly credible woman without recourse to Doubtfire-style prosthetics or winding up like a pantomime dame.

It has become traditional for cross- dressing actors to gush on about how the role helped them discover their caring, feminine side. Hugo Weaving, one of Stamp's co-stars, said he found drag a 'liberating, therapeutic experience'. 'He only had to do it for five minutes a day,' snorts Stamp, who appears as a woman throughout the movie, while Weaving's character was a gay man who occasionally wore a frock. 'So of course it was liberating for him.

'But what I did recognise was that, in holding on to an image of yourself, you're working against your best interests a lot of the time. I've had a tremendous fun time on this movie, but the idea that I had of myself at the beginning could very well have stopped me doing it. I learned that I don't have to take myself too seriously. The idea I have of myself is just an illusion.'

Stamp weathered the lean years by becoming a writer, with three, well-reviewed volumes of autobiography. 'My mum's death did the first one. But that wasn't writing a book; that was trying to . . . escape the grief.' Without the sparkle, he suddenly looks old. 'I had a strong urge to write down all the memories tormenting me. If someone had given me a big advance, I probably wouldn't have been able to do it. But the fact was, it was just about me and my mum. It was like an hommage.' (He pronounces it in the French manner, and manages not to sound precious.) 'It was like somewhere, in some other dimension, my mother would be able to appreciate what I felt about her.'

Then there was a novel, The Night, also respectfully received, which he wrote after a film he had hoped to direct - A Stranger in the House - folded under him. 'It collapsed after I'd been shooting for two weeks. It's how I imagine having a miscarriage, a bit like that.' And, way back when, there was a film script, bashed out when he used to share a bachelor pad with Michael Caine. 'It was something we did to keep ourselves sane, because we were out of work for years. It was our story, two working-class kids who've come to live in the West End meeting middle-class girls. I met someone recently who told me he had a copy, and sent it to me. And I looked at the first couple of pages and thought . . . I'm not ready to read this at the moment. God knows what it's like.'

And his multiple food allergies (a legacy, he reckons, of all that self-abuse) led him to develop a range of healthy crisps. 'When it was suggested to me, I thought it was a joke. I realised that I was resisting the idea, and then I wondered why I was resisting it. But now I'm rather proud of it. We're in Boots. We're in Sainsbury's. We're in Europa. We're in Tesco. We wanted it to be middle-of-the- road; I'm not a zealot.'

He is unlikely to write himself a new vehicle - 'Man, I'd love to. But it's not, like, what I do' - and awaits someone else to send him the opportunity for another relaunch. 'Most things I'm being offered are pre-Priscilla - villains. A couple of comedies have come in, which is really nice. But no more drag. I mean, they're talking about Bernadette in the White House and Bernadette goes to Bosnia, but I'm not taking them seriously.'

'The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert' opens next Friday

(Photograph omitted)