TOWNSEND, STUART: QUEEN OF THE DAMNED
For young Irish actor Stuart Townsend, playing the rock n’ roll vampire Lestat in Queen of the Damned was fun, a tongue in cheek (fang in neck?) affair; for something really dark – and profoundly uncomfortable - see his psychopath character in Resurrection Man, he tells Andrew L. Urban.
“This is a bit strange,” quips Townsend with a grin as I walk into the Sydney hotel room for our interview. He isn’t referring to the grand view of Circular Quay and the Opera House, nor to the fact that the hotel room has no bed. (It’s been moved out for the media sessions.) Townsend is referring to the fact that he and I had an on-screen interview of sorts in Queen of the Damned, during a London press conference, where Lestat meets the world’s press as the lead singer in the rock band he is taking to stardom.
It was Australian director Michael Rymer’s idea to cast a real journalist, and I was the one he remembered, from our interview on the set of his first film, Angel Baby back in 1995.
My role in Queen of the Damned consists of firing a couple of questions at him, rather his face, which is projected onto a giant screen. (To avoid the deadly daylight of London, an irony lost on anyone who has not lived there.) It took a full day to shoot that scene, and he became quite familiar with the questions. But this time, I tell him, I have some new questions.
When you play a vampire, it immediately tells us what you do – sort of. But how do you actually create a character for a vampire?
Good question . . .Like any character, you explore the world he’s in and you do your homework around that. With the vampire culture, there are so many references; musically, books and so on. I watched films like Interview with the Vampire of course, and The Hunger, some Bela Lugosi, The Cabinet of Doctor Caligari… And I went through the contemporary vampire stuff and I watched how actors like Christopher Lee interpreted their characters. And then I watched performers like David Bowie and Iggy Pop, just to see their energy. Bowie actually was for me the performer of choice – and of course he stars in The Hunger. And most of all, you read the script a lot. Inevitably the research is only about 10% of what goes in – it just gets you into that frame of mind. And then you put on the make up and there is the physicality of the costume and of course you walk on set and the energy of the set, and the other actors you work, it all goes into the mix.
Was there a moment of doubt – did you ever have any reservations about taking this role?
Yeah, there was actually. When I first read it, I didn’t know if it was going to be a very ridiculous film, the whole premise of a vampire and a rock star I wasn’t sure about. But I loved Lestat; I loved his character and I felt he was very human and yet he was also a brat, a rebel, all those kind of things. He had this duality in him – that’s why I took it.
What about the aspect of exploring your dark side?
That’s a funny one because this film actually isn’t very dark for me. I had a lot of fun making it. But I did a film called Resurrection Man (1998) – and that is a seriously dark film. I play a psychopath and we shot in Manchester in winter and it was the bleakest time in my life. After the film I was in a dark place for about six months. And part of me was wondering whether I was going to go there again with this, but the script dictates essentially where you go – and this script is fun, tongue in cheek. When I did Resurrection I was completely alone. I didn’t talk to anybody and got myself into a real jam by the end of it. But it was probably my favourite bit of work I’ve done. I went to a faraway place from myself – but it takes its toll. It’s not a good place to be. So I enjoyed playing Lestat because he’s not really a monster – so I didn’t go to that dark place. Having said that, I do prefer darker films…comedy is fun for an audience, but as an actor . . . well, unless it’s one of those great comedies they don’t write any more. I just caught Front Page last night on telly, with Jack Lemmon and Walter Mattahau – it’s just great. Dialogue like that just doesn’t exist anymore.
Tell us a bit about working with Aaliyah.
Aaliyah is one of those actors who really loved to work. And there was no fuss, ever. She always maintained a sense of fun which is so joyful to be around. She’s just great, man. She was going to act, she was going to sing, there were no boundaries…. she was going to design her own clothes. There were so many things going on for her. So it was nice to be around that energy. It was very interesting to see how she portrayed her image, because personally she was a very warm, very shy girl, whereas she could portray a very dark, sexy, whatever you want. I loved her, I thought she was a great person – very artistic and chameleon like and very perceptive.
And what about the Australian (director) Michael Rymer?
Michael’s great. He’s very relaxed. There was never this sense of time is money. It was more like an independent film. And Michael likes actors. He’s very approachable and his advice was always very good.
Charlize (Theron) was not your girlfriend at the time of making the film, but she did come to the premiere in Melbourne. Had she seen it before and what was her reaction?
No she hadn’t. Oh she loved it (laughs). It’s easy to be biased you know. But when she came out she seemed genuinely entertained. She loved it. But part of me always goes ‘ well, yeah right’. I’m the same. It was the same when I saw her in The Curse of the Jade Scorpion. I hadn’t seen much of her work before and I loved her in that. And then she was saying ‘Really?’ (laighs) And I said ‘yeah, I swear’. It’s easy not to believe. But I was so nervous at the premiere of Queen of the Damned, I pretended to be cold. But I was shaking with nerves. (laughs)
You met Charlize when filming 24 Hours together…what’s that film about?
24 Hours is your classic thriller genre film. I play a very straight laced, square jawed, affluent doctor. I took the role for probably the wrong reasons. There was a strike coming and I wanted to work and I knew if I didn’t do this job I wouldn’t work for about a year. So I took it and then realised that I didn’t know what I was doing. But I got to meet Charlize, so that was a nice bonus. We play husband and wife, we have a daughter and we all get kidnapped independently by a group of kidnappers. Courtney Love kidnaps me; Kevin Bacon kidnaps Charlize and another guy kidnaps our child, played by Dakota Fanning. So it’s kind of the perfect kidnap and they’ve got us in a stranglehold, and the whole movie is about us trying to get out. It’s quite formulaic. It was a nightmare to shoot but when we saw the finished product, it’s actually great. You’re on the edge of your seat the whole time.
Published April 4, 2002
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Andrew L. Urban goes ONSET