Russell Brand: a new lease of life

Playing the sozzled lead in the remake of Arthur may seem a little close to home for Russell Brand. But this time the hedonism is just an act, he tells Gill Pringle
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The Independent Culture

Russell Brand loves to talk fast. Irreverent anecdotes and incoherent streams of thought spontaneously spill from his lips in strings of long words and clever repartee.

A gifted stand-up comedian, he's delightfully amusing – but also a complex interview subject, given that he prefers to entertain rather than reveal any real truths about himself.

Spend any length of time with him, and you learn that many of his utterances contain both a morsel of truth and a joke, a bit like the insert in a cracker where one side contains a fact and the other a riddle or joke. A perfect example of this paradox is when he muses upon what he'd do if he personally had the unlimited wealth of his trust-fund playboy alter-ego, Arthur, in his latest role.

"I think that once you're not poor anymore – and I'm not poor anymore – your ambitions don't centre so much around wealth and lavish experience. They become more about domesticity and privacy. I'm no longer spellbound by excess or excited by 'I'd like to hire out the grand canyon with lap-dancers'. I don't do things like that anymore. Besides, it seems like a waste of a canyon," he surmises.

Suffice to say, he is financially settled, by merit of both his own lucrative earnings – from, among other things, two bestselling books and a blossoming film career – and also by his marriage to "Teenage Dream" pop cutie Katy Perry last year. Grammy-watchers were recently treated to video footage of their Indian nuptials as Perry performed.

Already a legend at home where he's known for both his raucous stand-up act and busy sex life, American film-goers were first formally introduced to him three years ago as Aldous Snow, a dissolute rocker in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, a role he reprised in Get Him to the Greek. He's also starred in the Adam Sandler comedy Bedtime Stories, and voiced characters in the animated movies Despicable Me and Hop.

However, the Americans still don't quite know what to make of him. Both impressed and mystified by his rapid-fire wit and mesmerising vocabulary, not to mention his sexy wife, they're eager to hail him as a genius from the same lineage of equally perplexing Brit comic creations such as Monty Python, Fawlty Towers and Blackadder. And in the run-up to the second coming of Arthur, a remake of the iconic 1981 film starring Dudley Moore, he's practically walking on water.

An avowed fan of the late Moore, Brand says, "I loved him. He was from Dagenham and my dad is also from there and I was born in Grays, nearby. He's always been a comedic hero of mine. As a film actor, he effortlessly brought a warmth and grace to the screen – although his personal comedic bent was quite filthy. I was a kid when Arthur first came out and I really enjoyed it although, think about it now, I did go on to become a terrible alcoholic," says Brand. He stars alongside Helen Mirren, who plays nanny Hobson, a gender twist on the butler originally portrayed by John Gielgud, a role which earned him an Oscar.

"Dudley's performance really stands out because it wasn't like it was a chilling portrayal of the horrors of alcoholism. It was really a device for clowning and facilitating physical comedy. But nowadays you have to address the fact that alcohol is a problem. Aldous Snow, the previous lunatic drunk I've played, was a dark, bleak character, whereas Arthur is far more merry and twinkly. But I think that anyone who drinks that much is an alcoholic," he says, suddenly serious. "Alcohol now is recognised as a disease and a social problem, not something we can be all giggly and frivolous about. So my own Arthur, whilst he's still a raving alcoholic, he doesn't get away with it in the way that Dudley did. In those days, clearly, it wasn't a problem for people to be alcoholics. People were dying of alcoholism and it was considered fun."

If playing a drunk may seem like insanity for a recovering addict, it's not like Brand hasn't been here before, with Aldous Snow. He's so confident today of his eight-year sobriety that he even "sniffs" alcohol prior to any scenes that involve him playing drunk. "I actually quite enjoy revisiting the hedonism without the terrible consequences for an addict," says Brand, 35, who detailed his former predeliction for cannabis, amphetamines, LSD, ecstasy, cocaine, crack, heroin, alcohol and sex in his 2007 bestseller My Booky Wook.

"It's easy territory for me to occupy comedically, because I'm allowed to use a lot of my personal history and the things that I experienced in my own life; so I'm quite happy to do it. But this film is set in a very different time and people's attitudes to subjects like alcohol and enormous wealth have changed. This isn't 1981 where being ridiculously wealthy is consequence-free – this is a time where greed has toppled the world.

"But that's not all. I was astonished by the amount of stunts required in this film. I've had to tumble about and roll around in a marble bath-tub; I've had Nick Nolte grabbing my nuts; I've been hoisted onto horseback; pushed down church stairs... For a comic actor it's extraordinary what's required," he grins.

"I think what remains in our version of Arthur is the central relationship between Arthur and Hobson, and the charm of that; we have a need to form families and when denied traditional familial relationships, we formulate them elsewhere," says Brand, no stranger to dysfunctional families, having been raised by his adoring mum, Babs, after his father, Ronald, walked out when he was six months old, although they occasionally reunited during his teens, when his dad prematurely introduced him to pornography.

Asked if he plans on starting a family with Perry, he says: "Yes, I hope so, I would like that, although sometimes I worry that if you have children, you are compromised in that you might lose your social ethics, because you've become genetically predisposed to protect that child. So sometimes I think that if you don't have children it makes you more powerful in terms of the fact that no-one can kill your children," suggests the actor, whose prolific sex life earned him the dubious title of The Sun's "Shagger of the Year" in 2006.

Although based in Los Angeles with his wife, he regularly returns to London where he remains close to his mum and his beloved West Ham United. "When I go back to England, I like that I can talk quickly and swear in the way that we swear and say the word 'toilet'. I like the briskness and sort of eye-rolling acceptance. I'm here because of work and my personal life, but I think I will continue to live in England really, or else bring England with me," says Brand, who is surrounded by a small entourage of childhood friends who are today on his payroll as drivers and bodyguards.

While filming Arthur in New York last year, he was shaken up after a truck ploughed into his rented Lamborghini in which he was a passenger. At the time – despite numerous scenes involving his character driving luxury cars – he had yet to pass his driving test, saying then, "I've been to driving lessons in England, but I never felt compelled to take the test. As a teenager I was a drug addict, so it seemed inappropriate. I used to take drugs for the driving lessons, thinking that if I ever passed the test or took it, I would be on drugs – so I took drugs for the lessons so there would be an even keel; there wouldn't suddenly be a surprise. But, as a consequence, the lessons didn't go very well."

So today, its with huge pride that he announces how he recently passed his test, something of a prerequisite to Los Angeles living.

"I passed it a few months ago and I've been driving ever since. I go on the freeways and everything," he says boasting of his prowess at three-point turns in his new Range Rover.

The smile evaporates when you suggest it's not the greenest of cars. "Isn't it? Oh fucking hell. Now I've got to learn more stuff. I stopped drinking bottled water. What can I do? I'm a vegetarian. What does everyone want?!"

It's a good question. What does everyone want from him? Living in Los Feliz in a mansion boasting a two-tier swimming pool and panoramic views across downtown Los Angeles, he seems like a beautiful gilded bird, contained in a shiny cage. As a recovering addict, he can't let off steam in Hollywood's nightclubs and his wife has famously been on a world tour practically for half their marriage, none too thrilled at his frequent debates in the media at taking marriage and monogamy "one day at a time", not to mention tweeting pictures of his wife asleep in bed with no make-up.

Helen Mirren, at least, remains captivated by Brand, the odd couple having forged a bond on the set of Arthur. "He is a kind of a genius. I've never worked with anyone quite like him," says Mirren, who first worked with him on Julie Taymor's The Tempest. "His imagination is quite extraordinary. He's got that real comedian's ability just to pluck ideas out of nowhere. When he goes off you just have to stand back and watch it go and enjoy it."

If the late John Belushi famously rejected the role of Arthur before it was offered to Moore, worried that his own problems were synonymous with the character, then Brand is less precious. "It was certainly something I considered. But when you consider problems such as the ecological destruction of our planet or racism and war – being typecast doesn't seem like such a big issue. Typecast!" he says in a booming, theatrical voice. "Of course its typecasting. But I've got a while. I'm not planning to die too soon, so I've got other options."

'Arthur' opens on Friday