Stay Faithfull: A revealing audience with Marianne Faithfull

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Cancer... heroin addiction.... tabloid scandal... The Rolling Stones.... even a convent education.... Marianne Faithfull has survived it all. And now she is taking on the toughest role of her professional life: playing a sex worker in an acclaimed new film

At 61, Marianne Faithfull defies that old maxim that if you can remember the Sixties you weren't really there. "I know everybody who wasn't there is jealous – well, tough!" she cackles. "It's not overrated. It was great. I can remember it, and I really was there." In truth, she has no right to this recall. The former girlfriend of Mick Jagger, she's been close to death, destitution and drama for much of her life. But then Faithfull is a survivor, not a casualty. The words she famously uttered after recovering from a drug-induced coma back in '69 – "wild horses couldn't drag me away" (poached by the Rolling Stones' lead singer for the song "Wild Horses") – provide a fitting motto for one who has lived life to extremes.

Her face now creased and smudged by time, Faithfull remains the living embodiment of riding in the fast lane. Just listen to her: while one critic once complained that her voice had been "permanently vulgarised" by a steady diet of whisky and cigarettes, it now fits her like a bespoke suit. When we meet on a chilly afternoon, she sounds a little raspy, due to a slight cold, though she's remarkably proud of her husky tones. "I've got the right voice for me. It gives an edge to everything. It's perfect. I don't have to act out. I don't have to do anything. I just have to open my mouth and there it is."

And right now, her voice is full of defiance. In her own words, she's "had a rough two years". In September 2006, she discovered that she had an early form of breast cancer. In fact, she was getting sick four months previously, when she was in Cannes to promote the anthology film Paris, je t'aime, but didn't then realise how serious it was. "I'm not good at this – recognising signs. I think, 'Oh, the show must go on.' But that's not true – the show must not go on. I must go on! The show will keep." Cancelling her autumn tour, she had an operation immediately and was given the all clear by Christmas. "I was very lucky. I had very good doctors. My partner was wonderful. My friends were really wonderful. My family ... it all kicks in."

You get the impression that illness just doesn't suit her. "I've been Marianne Faithfull now for 42 years – and I love it and I do it very well," she says, hinting at how much she sees her public image as a persona. "But it's like a car, isn't it? I know I can work on six cylinders. And I like working on six cylinders. I don't want to work on two or four." Today, refreshed and revived, she's all about promoting her new film, Irina Palm, which may be why she looks very business-like, in a white blouse, charcoal trousers and patent black high heels. Only a black woollen jacket, with frayed collars and cuffs, wouldn't cut it if she were going for a job interview. Oh, and that swallow tattoo on her wrist might need covering up too.

A bittersweet comedy, Irina Palm, which opens here in June, has given Faithfull the role of her career. It's already won her a Best Actress nomination at last year's European Film Awards – though she lost out to Helen Mirren for The Queen. She plays Maggie, a 50-year-old suburban widow forced into finding a job to pay for her grandson's lifesaving medical treatment. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, she walks into a Soho strip-joint called Sexy World after seeing an advert for a hostess position. To her horror she discovers the job does not entail greeting customers at the door – but providing hand relief through a hole in the wall. Reluctantly taking the job, she discovers a knack for it – it's all in the wrist, you might say – and adopts the pseudonym Irina Palm.

If it sounds seedy, it isn't; in truth, it's a sweet, moving film about the lengths one goes to for family. "It's such a good script and such an interesting part," says Faithfull, moving a strand of her ash-blonde hair from her face. "And, of course, I like the whole idea of doing something, playing a character so not like me. Although there are several things in common with me ... like putting your foot down! What I really like is the journey – when we meet Maggie she's one person and then we watch her change." Could she ever do what Maggie did? "I don't think that I'm capable of going to the lengths that she went to. She's a very brave woman." Does she relate to her character's willingness to do absolutely anything for the sake of a child? "I don't know if I'd be able to do that! I'm lucky that I don't have to!"

While she has acted on and off throughout her career – perhaps most memorably, clad in black leather for 1969's Girl on a Motorcycle – Faithfull has recently found herself working with some major directors, albeit in minor roles. She played a bag lady in Patrice Chéreau's Intimacy, an adaptation of Hanif Kureishi's novella of infidelity. In Sofia Coppola's Marie Antoinette, she was the French Queen's mother, Maria Teresa. And she had a blink-and-you'll-really-miss-it role in Gus Van Sant's short film Le Marais, part of the Paris, je t'aime compendium. Irina Palm, however, is unquestionably her most substantial role to date. "I didn't know whether I could carry a picture," she says. "I did what I always do – which is put one foot in front of the other and do it. It's very simple, really. You know your lines, you don't worry about the next day."

The film took Faithfull back on to the streets of Soho, bringing back painful memories. After she and Jagger split, she became a full-time heroin addict and anorexic for two years in the Seventies, living in squats and on the streets of the area. At her worst, she was existing on 25 shots of heroin a day – after a friend had got her into an NHS drug programme. "I don't know how I survived," she says. "My parents didn't have any money. I didn't sell my body." Keeping away from the sex industry, she says, helped her when crafting the naïve Maggie, who like Faithfull had never set foot in a strip club before. "I'm not interested in that world. I have had friends who were prostitutes, but we never really talked about their work. They didn't really like to."

No doubt such revelations would make her parents shudder. While Faithfull may have been born in Hampstead, north London, her mother, Eva, was a Viennese baroness, a descendant of Leopold Baron von Sacher-Masoch, author of the masochistic classic Venus in Furs. Her father, Glynn Faithfull, was a British spy during the Second World War, whose own father had invented a sexual device called the Frigidity Machine. Ironically, Faithfull revealed in her frank 1994 autobiography Faithfull that her mother did not enjoy sex, only marrying her father to escape post-war Vienna. So it perhaps came as no surprise that when Faithfull was just six, her father abandoned the family.

Packed off to a convent and raised as a Roman Catholic – a world far away from what she later dubbed her "Dionysian life" when she hung out with the Stones – Faithfull actually planned to go to university and drama school. "I was immature and naïve and very insecure, and I would've been the kind of girl that really needed that three years, and that's really what university or college is all about. You might learn something, you might not – but what you do get is three years before you have to go into the world as such. I was the kind of girl who really would've benefited from that and it didn't happen. So I had to do my growing up in public. It was an on-your-feet job. And I made a lot of mistakes."

Most of those, of course, involved Jagger. Introduced to him at London's Indica Gallery – co-owned by her first husband, the artist John Dunbar, whom she married in 1965 – Faithfull began her association with the Stones when she recorded "As Tears Go By". When her marriage to Dunbar collapsed, principally due to his heroin addiction, she moved in with Brian Jones and Anita Pallenberg, whom she befriended, and began a relationship with Jagger. During the infamous drugs bust at Keith Richards' Sussex mansion in February 1967, she was found by police wearing only a fur rug. Worse was to come, as an apocryphal tale involving a Mars Bar spread rapidly. According to the tabloids, Jagger was discovered enjoying a bit of "candy bar cunnilingus", as one wag dubbed it – a story that she's always fervently denied.

A year later she found herself pregnant with Jagger's child – but she miscarried and their relationship burnt out. "They hurt my feelings. All those busts and harassment," she says, recalling her decision a decade later to leave England for good. "I'm not saying I behaved that well, but I didn't really do anything that terrible either. I remember it very well – it was when Mrs Thatcher was in government. I put on my telly, and on one channel was the casualty list of the Falklands War, and on the other channel, the Pope was playing Wembley. So I thought, 'Right! I think it's time I got out of here!'" So has she forgiven us? She lets out another throaty laugh. "I got over it! It's so typical of me – to be resentful towards a whole country for 20 years."

Even after leaving Britain, she still struggled with drug addiction. After a spell in Hazelden, the Minnesota clinic she attended in 1985, Faithfull attended Narcotics Anonymous meetings for five-and-a-half years. In many ways it was music that saved her, gave her focus – beginning in 1979 when she released the critically lauded album Broken English. Since then, her musical career has been eclectic to say the least, whether it was playing the part of Pink's mother in Roger Waters' Berlin performance of The Wall in 1990, appearing in a version of Brecht's The Threepenny Opera or singing back-up vocals for Metallica's 1997 song "The Memory Remains". The new millennium has seen her work with numerous musicians – with the 2002 album Kissin' Time featuring collaborations with Beck, Jarvis Cocker and Dave Stewart. Two years later, Before the Poison saw her work with Damon Albarn, P J Harvey and Nick Cave.

Having completed her delayed touring commitments last year, Faithfull spent December in New York recording the bulk of her new record, Easy Come, Easy Go, which she hopes to release in the autumn. She's reluctant to talk much about it or with whom she's collaborated – "I hope that it will be a wonderful surprise" – but she admits she's currently exploring the possibility of a winter tour to promote it. "I love performing, but I hate touring," she says. "It's so exhausting. I don't know how I continue to do it." Partly she has to, she's realised, in order to create a "financial safety net", something her illness brought home to her. "I've never made a lot of money. It made me realise that I've got to start to save for my old age, actually, for things like this – and take care of myself."

Faithfull now divides her time between her home in County Waterford, Ireland, and Paris. "It's a lovely mix," she says. "Lovely Ireland, bit scruffy, all that. And, of course, Paris is a very nice place to be for a lady of a certain age! The French, they don't wipe you away. You're still somebody. You still exist." She is dating her manager François Ravard, but as soon as I broach the subject, she clams up. "I'm not talking about that," she says, rather haughtily. Even her 2007 book Memories, Dream and Reflections – a follow-up to Faithfull – tellingly contains no pictures of him. Married three times in all – she has one son, Nicholas, from her marriage to Dunbar – Faithfull says she is no longer "the marrying kind".

Neither is she into the rock'n'roll lifestyle any more – though given her health scare that's no surprise. "If you knew the truth!" she cries. "I'm so boring! I work very hard. I don't drink. I hardly smoke." – she points to the nicotine patch on her arm – "And I don't do drugs ... I save my energy for my work. I'm in retreat." It's why she still likes performing, she says. "I don't see very many people, I don't go to parties, I hardly do anything ... I do go to exhibitions, I go for walks, I see my friends, I go to movies, but I don't really do that much. And if I didn't have my work, I would lose something. I need that connection with people. Everybody does."

As for the Faithfull "legend", it has its own life. "I don't have to worry about it. It just does its own thing, really, and I do mine." Nostalgia, meanwhile, Faithfull doesn't do. "I don't have to have nostalgia. I'm in touch with Keith [Richards]. Mick called me in hospital, when I was having my intervention. I see Charlie [Watts]. I see [Charlie's wife] Shirley. I see Anita [Pallenberg]. I'm in touch with Yoko [Ono]. I bump into Yoko in New York. I know [her son] Sean. It's not nostalgia – it's right now, right here. It's never stopped." If nothing else, it's good to see that the protracted legal negotiations over receiving credit for writing "Sister Morphine", a track from the Stones' Sticky Fingers album (her name finally appeared on the 1994 re-release), has not dented their friendship.

Whatever she says, Faithfull is not above getting wistful. She lovingly recalls her last time in Sydney, when she sat with another dear friend, Bob Dylan, on a balcony overlooking the Harbour Bridge, and talked about music. The next night she saw the Stones play the 2,000-seater Enmore Theatre. "François and I went backstage to say 'Hello', and we had a lovely time and saw everybody. It's really odd – like going back into a strange, dysfunctional family. I know the crew, I know all the musicians ... it's really like that. It's just amazing. And I'm treated like a queen! I had the best seat in the house. Literally. The front seat of the first gallery, in the middle."

She avoided being portrayed in Stoned, Stephen Woolley's 2005 film about the death of Brian Jones, and Faithfull says she has no wish to see her story up on screen. It would make a good movie, I suggest. "For you, maybe, but not everybody else. I love my friends. I have a lot of respect for them all. I'm not dead. I am alive. I can control what happens. There's a way of doing it, with archive footage, very respectfully – and not having actors playing you." As for her film career, she's not looking to capitalise on the success of Irina Palm. "I'm not out there actively pursuing roles," she claims. "I've never been very aggressive about acting, although I love it very much. Music is still my full-time job."

Yet it's quite an irony that in her finest role she plays a woman who adopts a persona to disguise her real self. If there's a parallel between Maggie and Marianne, the actress suggests it may have something to do with the way she has come to terms with who she is – or has been – since the days of dating Jagger. "What I've been trying to do, and I think I've done it rather well, is bring the persona – or what was a false persona in the beginning – and me together. So that they become one. When I've really done that, I'll be very happy."

If anything, surviving cancer has made her more determined to enjoy her remaining years. "One of the things I would like is to be a nicer person. I'm never going to become a complete conformist. But I hope I've mellowed."

'Irina Palm' opens in the UK on 14 June

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