How we met: Bill Hunter and Terence Stamp

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Bill Hunter, 54, the Australian who co-stars with Terence Stamp in the transvestite comedy The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, has won many awards for his work in television and in films such as Strictly Ballroom and Muriel's Wedding. He is married and lives in Sydney

Terence Stamp, 55, made his screen debut as Billy Budd in 1961. His subsequent films include The Collector, Far From The Madding Crowd, Superman, The Hit, Wall Street and The Sicilian. The author of three volumes of autobiography and a novel, he is single and lives in London.

BILL HUNTER: It was in 1984 on the set of The Hit. I had seen all Stamp's films and thought he was a hell of an actor. It can be a bit daunting, being pulled all the way from Australia to work with someone like that. He was dressed all in white, looking the way he does, the bastard. He put out his hand, said, 'Pleased to be working with you' and put me completely at ease.

We have a great affection for each other. If he was in trouble I'd be there, and I expect vice-versa. It's one of those unlikely alliances. I have a reputation for being pretty much of a wild man. I like to drink, and I'm a gregarious sort of a bloke. In the Sixties when I saw Terence in bars he was certainly gregarious, but he's gone in another direction while I'm persevering with the only kind of life-style I know.

Thirty years ago Australia had no film industry. I did a number of jobs before taking work as a stuntman in On The Beach. After watching Fred Astaire doing 22 takes on a two-minute scene I thought, I can do that, and I decided to act. I went to England and got work wherever I could. Terence got Billy Budd very early and was instantly a star. But he respects the craft as much as I do, and although we've arrived at the point of working together from completely different directions, we appreciate and enjoy each other.

We are both sports fanatics, and so we have a great deal to talk about. We admire performers, be they actors, dancers, musicians or sportsmen. We have that in common, and I think it has a lot to do with people attaining or achieving - knowing what it takes and applauding.

I accepted Priscilla without seeing the script, and with great alacrity.

Apparently Stamp said he'd do it if I did. The producer rang me and said, 'Bill, if you won't do this film, I can't' So it was a fait accompli. Anything that's got Stephan Elliott directing it is going to be interesting, to say the least. The atmosphere was manic - Stephan goes a million miles an hour, 24 hours a day. He plays hard, works hard, loves to party, and as a consequence everything is a huge giggle.

We had a great time, all the way across Australia. Mind you, for the three sensitive artistes going rock-climbing in their frocks, it must have been arduous. I tried to warn Terence about the sort of towns we were going to, and he looked at me with that wonderful look he has of utter disdain and said: 'Hunter, I've worked all over the world, nothing will surprise me.' But when he got to places like Coober Pedy he got a rude shock. It's an opal-mining town peopled by very rough gentlemen. He handled it very well.

His performance in Priscilla is bloody amazing. I admire his courage tremendously for tackling it in the first place and the way he brought it off was extraordinary. I used to stand back and watch him, he's an actor to his bootstraps, a consummate film actor. To see him arrive on the set, go to wardrobe and make-up and then emerge as Bernadette was really remarkable.

He has this wonderful stillness and silence and he doesn't suffer fools. When Terence meets someone he'll look at them for however long it takes to make up his mind and he either embraces them or moves on. When he embraces them, it's extraordinary. I invited him home for Sunday lunch and my wife Rhoda was very nervous about meeting him. She was cooking when I arrived with Stamp and she muttered to me, 'What am I going to say to him?' He was right behind her and said, 'Just turn around and give me a kiss you beautiful thing,' and of course she just melted.

Terence has a lot of guts; remember, he took ten years off. I don't know any other actor alive that would think he could do that, given the insecurity this job breeds, but Terence did, and hats off to him. Now, I think he's got a whole new career ahead of him. Priscilla will give people an idea of just how good he is. I wasn't really happy with the stuff he's been doing in America in recent years, he's been treated as a third-in-line support actor. I think he'll only play leads from now on, and rightly so. I'd say 99 per cent of time if I was offered a movie, and Stamp was in it, I'd take it. That's huge compliment. Stamp, being what he is, and what he brings to the screen - I'd jump at it.

TERENCE STAMP: We met on the set of The Hit in Madrid in 1984.

Bill's tall, he has a sort of lugubrious face and the kind of rolling gait you associate with athletes. I'd seen him in a movie called Mad Dog Morgan. He played a heavy, and I remember thinking how good he was. One of the things that made me like him initially was that one night he and John Hurt and I found ourselves in the bar of the hotel where we were staying; now Bill enjoys a drink, but Hurt wasn't drinking at that time and I don't drink at all, and so there Bill was with two stone-cold sober guys. A lot of drinkers feel threatened in the company of those who don't, but he wasn't concerned, we were still like drinking companions.

What really made me take to him was his performance on set. There was a big scene with the whole cast - a lot of firepower - and I thought he was just brilliant. He's the perfect actor, he has such a huge range, but his performance is always seamless.

If Bill had been born over here he'd now be one of our great classical actors.

When they were wooing me to do Priscilla, I was uncertain, I was still feeling insecure about taking the role. I wasn't really concerned about the other actors - I knew the director, Stephan Elliott, would have the best he could afford - but what was crucial was that I needed somebody in the role of Bob who I could rely on totally. I knew it would be very bizarre, and I wanted someone who would be absolutely believable. I told Stephan that I felt that with Bill in the role, I knew we'd have a chance of bringing it off. And because of the relationship in the movie, I became party to the real significance of the man. It's a certain kind of level in acting that's to do with commitment in front of the camera.

Before we began shooting, Stephan insisted that the three of us playing drag queens had a night on the town in full drag. Bill found out where we were going and he joined us with a very tough character and they stayed with us half-way through the night on a club crawl of Sydney's rough bars and gay clubs. That was really touching, and typical of the guy. He doesn't make a big deal of it, he's just there for you, watching your back.

He'd warned me how tough the mining towns would be, and they were as bad as he'd said. It was reassuring that he was on board, he's such an icon, a real man of the people and so loved. One day we'd been driving for nine hours when we arrived at Woomera, absolutely in the middle of nowhere. It's the town where they did the rocket tests. There was nothing but a garage and a pub with half a dozen really rough characters and a woman, an Aboriginal, behind the bar. 'Billy Hunter]' she shrieked, 'Billy Hunter]' I can't tell you how far away from civilisation we were. Just being with him gave me a status, in drag or out. In England there are famous people, but I can't think of anyone who's as much loved as he is in Australia. He's a living national treasure. Now Rupert Murdoch and Robert Stigwood are famous Australians, but they can't say that.

The first time we met socially on Priscilla we didn't discuss the movie at all, and that made me feel confident. He invited me home to meet his wife Rhoda, she's a wonderfully beautiful Aboriginal actress, a ravishing young woman. I was really impressed and it was interesting to see this whole other side of him. I felt very privileged.

It's not much known, but as a young man Bill was set to swim for Australia in the Olympics, and then, just before, he had an illness and had to back down. Now to be in the Australian Olympic squad you have to be a great athlete, as he obviously was. I am by no means a great athlete. He's the real thing, I'm the wannabe. We're both fundamentally drawn to sport: that's something we have in common. Before I actually knew he was a great swimmer something in the nature of the man made me relate to that element.

I don't have many friends who are actors. Those that are all have one thing in common, the friendship is not subject to time. That's something I treasure about Bill. If we didn't meet for a year and I met him on Bondi Beach we could just take up where we left off. That's how I'd sum up our friendship.

(Photograph omitted)

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