Film: Oh Terence, you're such a big tease

He can be tough, tender, even cruel. In his new film, The Limey, he's all three. Which is the real Terence Stamp?

On the fourth floor of Fortnum & Mason, Terence Stamp - that anxiously languid, quintessential East End icon of the Sixties - is ready and waiting. As I unwind my outer layers, he asks what paper I work for. On hearing my reply, he smirks: "that's no longer independent, I gather."

"Yes, it is," I mutter, but by now this squat man - only vaguely blue- of-eye, face bulging with well-chewed, Malcolm McDowell-style bones - is ordering tea. I ask for boiled water. "Are you sure you won't have tea or coffee?" asks the middle-aged waitress meekly. "No, don't!" Stamp barks at her. "She's healthy! Just give her boiled water!"

The waitress backs away and I gaze at him, horrified. "Just give her a bit of lemon on the side," continues Stamp, bullishly, "so she can squeeze it in if she feels gay and adventurous."

You watch someone's movies and you think you know them. In Ken Loach's Poor Cow, Stamp is not only beautiful but adorably boyish and tender. (He and Carol White lie stiff as pokers upon her bed: "You'd better make the first move," she eventually sighs, "or we'll be here all night.") Even in films such as The Collector or Far From the Madding Crowd, where he's sinister or brutal - the repressed perfection-seeker terrified of looking a fool - there's something fragile about him. Remember that lovely skip he performs in The Collector as he leads Samantha Eggar to his butterfly collection? His desire to be approved of is naked. So now I'm all confused. I've been expecting a delicate man-child and got a camp, rough'n'ready bruiser instead. Which role is for real?

Stamp's latest film, The Limey, asks much the same question. A surreal sequel to Poor Cow, it re-introduces us to Dave Wilson, now a violent, fiftysomething ex-con whose 21-year-old daughter, Jenny, has mysteriously died in LA. His nemesis is Valentine (Peter Fonda), a wealthy music impresario with a taste for young girls. Fonda offers a fascinating portrait of corruption, but what makes the film grip is Wilson's transformation. As he realises what a "disappointing" father he has been to Jenny, his preposterously hard Cockney exterior melts. Slowly he's exposed as a child himself - not so much bruiser, just bruised.

Director Steven Soderbergh always had Stamp in mind for this part and I soon understand why. As with Wilson, Stamp's firecracker toughness is skin-deep. I ask how he and Soderbergh got on and his face lights up. "I didn't know he was, like, a stoic," he says, voice dropping to a confidential whisper. "He's like the opposite of Peter Fonda, who's a chatterbox. Steven's a thinker." In order to get the rights for the obscure Poor Cow (Mickey Rourke apparently spent years looking for a movie called "Brown Cow") Soderbergh had to pester Warner Brothers for months. Eventually, he got the head of Warners to agree. "Steven told them that if they didn't give it to us he would never make a movie for them. And I thought Wow!"

Stamp beams at me. I remember reading that as a child, he loved the Rupert Bear books (much to his macho father's chagrin). That's exactly what he sounds like here: a joyful character from the innocent world of Rupert Bear.

He obviously sees Soderbergh as a soulmate. When Stamp gave up on the film business in the Seventies, or it gave up on him, he went travelling in India and became a fan of philosophers such as Georgei Gurdjieff. So he was delighted to discover that Soderbergh shared some of his interests. "Steven's dad was an academic, who taught him all the great university things," he says earnestly, "but his mum was a psychic." Thus encouraged, Stamp decided that Wilson had a psychic connection with Jenny, "through clairsentions". What are clairsentions? As if standing at a lecturn, Stamp clears his throat: "Clairsentions is to feeling what clairvoyance is to seeing. There are a couple of points in the movie with Wilson, when you realise that Jenny is telling him things." He shrugs sweetly. "I'm sure it's not in the movie now", (it's not: presumably too odd even for Soderbergh), "but it meant a lot to me".

That the connection between parent and child should be able to withstand death clearly reassures him. One wouldn't normally ask a 60-year-old man about his parents, but with Stamp, it seems appropriate. Would he like to be "in contact" with his parents (both of whom are now dead)? At first he tries to tough this one out with talk of "self-reliance". He insists that when he left home, unlike most East-End boys "who married and moved in upstairs with the wife", he "actually left the nest". And yet only a few minutes later he confesses that while his parents were alive "there wasn't a day went by when I wasn't thinking `what can I do [for them]?'"

What about now? "My mum and I used to come up here once or twice a week and have tea," he says suddenly, "and she'd talk to Margaret, Margaret from Sligo..." Who's Margaret? He points to our waitress, now approaching with the controversial "tea". "And there would be a model who walked through the restaurants. She'd come up here, all perfect-looking and I'd be talking to my mother and [he mimes his mother going into a daze] I'd know that the model was wearing something wonderful." There's something very poignant about this story. One, it makes you realise how long Stamp's known Margaret (what I took for brusqueness is clearly a sign of intimacy). It also makes you realise how easy it was for him to lose his mother's attention, if something more perfect came along. For him, though, this memory is a "gem-like" moment.

Such vulnerability is hard to resist. So of course you want him to be happy. And when he talks about his problems with women (Stamp has never been married, and since his notoriously painful break-up with Jean Shrimpton has never been seriously linked to anyone else), you worry for him. He says at one point that he understands "why guys who've been bachelors all their life suddenly get married when their mum and dad die. It's not that they can't get dressed and they can't cook..." He throws his shoulders back: "most bachelors can do everything... it's just that there's a part of us that needs to know we can be a child with somebody." It seems useless to point out that a wife could offer something other than mothering. As far as he's concerned, wives are imperfect mothers. Since his own remains such a strong presence, he has no need of another.

And you worry even more when he talks about his feelings for young girls. As an insecure East Ender, Stamp's dreams were of "frustrated" Rodean girls waiting for him at the weekends. That dream doesn't seem to have changed, it's just that these days it's less likely to come true. "When I walk down the street," he explains, "because I'm not Keanu Reeves or Terence-when-young, I'm no longer interesting." It's that mannequin moment all over again; that inability to hold the beloved female's gaze in the face of perfection. He pretend-punches my arm - gives it a squeeze. "Those young girls - they won't go to see my movies. I'm invisible."

In The Limey, Wilson's obsession is with his daughter. Stamp draws my attention to the fact that "because Wilson's been away in prison all that time, he's never witnessed his daughter less than a virgin, or more than a virgin - to him she's like a child-woman". In that sense, he and Valentine share a love of young girls but, unlike Valentine, Wilson doesn't need sexual gratification. There's a brilliant scene when Wilson creeps up on Valentine's girlfriend in the bath. You brace yourself for an encounter that will show Wilson's got balls - it never comes. As I say goodbye to Stamp, I decide The Limey has got him just right - that this is a man who has been forced, for whatever reason, to transcend physical intimacy and in doing so has kept in touch with the most vital, pure part of himself.

On spec, I ring Soderbergh. Poor Terence, I say, so sexless somehow - so wonderful but doomed to love posh, unattainable young girls. "Oh, please! He's being sly," laughs Soderbergh. "I've met his girlfriend - she's young, smart and beautiful. He was teasing you." Soderbergh (who has an eight-year-old son) doesn't think Stamp will ever have children. "I think he'd make a terrific parent but he's always led this peripatetic existence. It's a difficult thing to give up - that freedom."

The freedom to tease. Whether playing outrageous East End toughie, vulnerable urchin, or a dangerous mixture of both, Terence Stamp knows how to keep a person on their toes. Maybe it's his way of keeping us all on the move.

`The Limey' is released on 10 December

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