Stephen Frears can come across as being like a British bulldog. The director gives blunt, direct responses to questions, which can scare off interviewers more used to flowery anecdotes; but get past the bark and there is no bite. Instead, he seems to want to be adored and have his belly tickled.
Almost inevitably, the conversation will have a staccato rhythm, so the best way to approach the 74-year-old is to be prepared to ask questions in the manner of a woodpecker, chipping away at the bark.
Frears is also busier than ever. His new film, Florence Foster Jenkins, a big-hearted, light comedy about the infamous American socialite and amateur singer, comes hot on the wheels of The Program, his Lance Armstrong procedural. It was nice to change gears so quickly, Frears says: “I wouldn’t want to make the same film every time. I get easily bored.”
Meryl Streep plays Jenkins: superstar casting that would have most directors waxing lyrical about how they’ve always wanted to work with the multiple Oscar-winner. But not Frears: “It wasn’t actually my idea, but somebody said her name and I said, ‘oh that’s great’.” He continues, “I thought she would be good. I thought it would be something fresh for her. I thought she would like to do it.”
He’s more loquacious when talking about Hugh Grant, who gives his best turn in years playing Jenkins’s confidant, partner and manager St Clair Bayfield, the sometime stage actor who helped Jenkins put on a show at Carnegie Hall in 1944. “I always thought Hugh was a brilliant actor, so I’m pleased with what’s happened,” Frears says, referring to the positive early notices – although the director admits that, apart from Four Weddings and a Funeral and About A Boy, he has not seen too much of Grant’s work. “I’ve always thought that he was clever. I don’t know why he makes the films that he makes – not that I’ve seen them.”
He decided to make Florence Foster Jenkins on the strength of Nicholas Martin’s script. Frears did not have much knowledge of the singer. “I knew that Maureen Lipman played her,” he says, referring to the play Glorious, performed at the Duchess Theatre in London in 2005. So he set about doing his homework, watching and marvelling at clips of Jenkins on YouTube. “I thought she was fantastic,” he says.
Hammersmith Apollo in London was used as a double for Carnegie Hall. Frears has never been to watch a concert at the New York venue, but had a look around as part of his research. “Somehow it’s in the contract that you have to go and recreate this world. It’s just part of the job, really. I mean, I’m quite old, so it’s not that unfamiliar to me.” One of the attractions of the film was that it enabled him to make a good old-fashioned film, “Films used to be like this, about rich society and people," he says.
Several times in the conversation, Frears talks about being old – yet, like a fine vintage, he seems to be viewed with more deference with each passing year. Frears is part of the great triumvirate of British directors, alongside Ken Loach and Mike Leigh, often feted by Cannes and given the auteur treatment.
The Cambridge graduate spent his early years learning his trade at the BBC. He had to wait until his third film, the 1985 interracial drama My Beautiful Laundrette, to make his mark. Based on a Hanif Kureishi story, the film starred Daniel Day-Lewis. “Dan was like Marlene Dietrich,” Frears remembers. “One day I came to set and he was standing under a lamppost. I thought, you look like Marlene Dietrich, so I’ll photograph you like that.”
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In amongst the stellar list of films that he’s made, there have been a number with diverse casts: in addition to 1987’s Sammy and Rosie Get Laid, he gave Chiwetel Ejiofor the role that brought the actor to Hollywood’s attention in Dirty Pretty Things and in 2013, he made a documentary, Muhammad Ali’s Greatest Fight, about the boxer’s refusal to fight in Vietnam. Yet Frears only offers a quip when asked about the Oscar diversity debate: “Diversity? Well I like Idris [Elba] very much. I wanted him to be nominated, because he’s such a nice fellow.”
The conversation is more serious when it turns political – specifically to the subject of the EU referendum. “On the whole, I’m in favour of staying [in the EU]," he says. "It’s such a ridiculous argument going on: someone says something and someone else says, ‘no it’s the opposite of that’. It’s almost impossible to make any kind of empirical judgment. I like European things. I like France. I have quite a critical view of England. I’m a bit like Emma Thompson.”
One of his criticisms is of the divide between the north and the south. “I’m from the Midlands. I lived in London for 50 years, but I’m not sure that I think of myself as a Londoner. I can see that we’re all metropolitan, whether we are Londoners or not. We all live in the prosperous South and I’m not surprised that the rest of the country hates us.”
He’s been listening a lot to the late, great Victoria Wood. “You just remember how wonderful the North is, was, I don’t know what it’s like now. I love the North, or I used to love the North – now I don’t go there very much.”
Recently, there has been a call for Muhammad Ali to get knighted, but it’s not one that Frears backs. “I don’t generally believe in people being knighted," he says. "But he’s a fantastic man. He was incredible in his time, but on the whole I would prefer it if people were not knighted.” The only time Frears stumbles is when I ask if he’s refused honours: “Er, that’s not relevant. I’m a Republican, but I like the Queen. Like everyone else, I’m sentimental about the Queen.”
Sentimental enough to make the 2006 film The Queen, for which star Helen Mirren won an Oscar. Now Netflix is making a series inspired by Peter Morgan’s script, The Crown, which will cover all of Her Majesty’s reign. Is Frears looking forward to seeing it? “Well all my friends are making it – I’ve been twice sacked from the programme.” When asked to explain when and how, he plays a straight bat, “I can’t remember. But it’s rather funny. Just as long as I don’t have to make it. I’ve done my bit.”
‘Florence Foster Jenkins’ is released on 5 May
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