In his heydey in the swinging sixties in London, Terence Stamp was a man of bespoke suits and shirts, and hand-made leather shoes. He dated the world’s most beautiful women: model Jean Shrimpton, Celia Hammond and Brigitte Bardot.
His ascendancy had been stunning. The eldest of five children, he had grown up in a working-class family in East London. His father was a tugboat captain. Their house had no bathroom. The children bathed in a tub in the backyard. But with his film debut in Peter Ustinov’s Billy Budd in 1962, he earned an Oscar nomination, and quickly thereafter, the moniker as the world’s most handsome man. Everything was possible. All the best directors wanted to work with him: William Wyler, Federico Fellini. He had the talent. And the looks: the dark hair, the tall stature, those very blue eyes.
But then in 1969, after successes such as The Collector in 1965 and Far From the Madding Crowd in 1967 with Julie Christie (whom he also dated), he disappeared. He went off to India – some say because of a broken heart after Shrimpton, dumped him. When he made his return to acting, he never quite regained the brightly lit spotlight he was in when he left.
It was the experience of those eight lost years in India that he immediately launched into during a brief interview with a handful of journalists during the Toronto International Film Festival 2012, where his film, Song For Marion, closed the festival. (The film, renamed Unfinished Song, opened in theatres last week.) Dressed in sweatpants, a ratty LiveStrong t-shirt and Birkenstock flip-flops, he was strangely magnetic, seated at the end of a dining room table in a hotel suite with the presence of a long-forgotten prince, back from adventures in another land, where he learned Truth and Beauty. It was late afternoon, and the light was dim inside. But those cerulean blue eyes did all the work. He looked out the window at times, and around the table, pausing here and there for emphasis.
He was an aristocratic hippie, the Actor Whisperer, speaking in hushed, reverent voice about how he identified the secret of his gift.
In the film, which he describes as “Romeo and Juliet on the dole,” he plays Arthur, an elderly pensioner of few words, whose long-time wife, Marion (Vanessa Redgrave) is sick with cancer. She finds joy being a member of a choir in a local seniors’ community centre, but he remains angry, a curmudgeon only his wife is able to love and understand. As he struggles with her illness, he makes a shift, eventually achieving some form of transcendence through the act of singing. Stamp is lovely in the film, even though he says he hesitated about taking the role because he didn’t think he was good at being “ordinary.”
He was convinced to take it on after considering the redemption his character had to achieve. He liked the opportunity to use his voice, he explained, delving into a recollection of his spiritual awakening in India where he learned that “the human being is the breath. … The breath is the condition under which we are here, so if we are the breath, what’s the first manifestation of the breath?” A brief silence ensued. “The voice,” he explained. “Redemption through the voice can happen to anyone at any time. It’s just that people die without any knowledge of their voice, without any recognition of the voice. They die without thinking where does the voice come from? What is there before thought? What is there when thought isn’t? It’s awareness,” he answered himself. “The voice comes out of the awareness.”
He often asks “Do you understand?” as a rhetorical question at the end of some pronouncement about the joy of having awareness and a daily practice of yoga, meditation and breathing exercises. Recently divorced from his wife, Elizabeth O’Rourke, who is 35 years his junior, the 75-year-old doesn’t drink alcohol or eat wheat and dairy, and lives in Ojai, Calif.
He is content to describe the moment of being he had with Redgrave on the set of the film. “Because we are both kind of mature, maybe there was a kind of non-separation of the spontaneity, of the intuition. It just seemed outside of thought,” he muses. “I actually experienced the interconnectedness of the best of us. I just didn’t feel separate from her … I gave everything. I left everything on that set.”