Head in the Clouds
By Tom O'Neill, Contributor
October / November 2004
Tom O’Neill talks to Hollywood heartthrob Stuart Townsend about his newfound stardom and his latest movie with Charlize Theron.
The common perception might be that when you have a very hot, Academy Award-winning actress like, say, Charlize Theron, and she does a follow-up picture to the film that won her an Oscar (Monster) and it just so happens to co-star her, well, less familiar – but extremely good-looking – actor boyfriend: say, Dublin’s own Stuart Townsend, that, well, the newly empowered star might have thrown her weight around a little to get the up-and-comer his role. Not so when it comes to Townsend, a scrappy, theater-trained son of a Howth golf pro, who earned his ticket out of Ireland with an award-winning performance in a play he co-wrote for the Gaiety Theatre.
Monster was already in the can and being readied for release last September when the script Townsend committed to a year earlier landed on his girlfriend’s – and his – doorstep. Granted, it was her John Hancock that finally put the project in turnaround, but it was his picture first, and at his urging that she agreed to do it. Theron, who had already appeared with the 31-year-old actor four years earlier in Trapped (where they met and fell in love), liked the idea of playing opposite her beau again, and lost the 30 pounds she’d packed on for Monster to become “Gilda,” the hedonistic American heiress who falls for “Guy,” an Irish-born idealist in the World War II drama Head in the Clouds.
Scheduled for a September 17 release, Clouds also stars Spanish actress Penelope Cruz as the third wheel in a complicated – and very sexy – triangular relationship. It’s an interesting choice for the real-life lovers, especially considering the fate of another well-known Hollywood couple’s disastrous back-to-back flops earlier this year. Acknowledging the risk of working with his high-profile girlfriend so soon after their original pairing in 2002’s Trapped, a kidnapping drama, the amiable Townsend chuckles and says, “We’d wanted to work together again, but you want to do the right stuff. You don’t want to end up doing Gigli II.”
While Theron is definitely in the same ball park – at least cinematically – as J-Lo, Townsend still needs to hit a few homers to join Ben Affleck’s ranks. But he’s certainly stepping up to the plate. After establishing himself as a sultry, moody presence in a string of U.K. independents like Trojan Eddie (1996), Shooting Fish (1997), and Wonderland (1999), Townsend broke out in America in the critically underwhelming, but big cult hit, Anne Rice’s Queen of the Damned (2002). Displaying the gutsy nerve of his rugged Irish upbringing (he was an amateur boxer before he turned to acting), Townsend leapt into the role of the sexy Vampire Lestat that was created by Tom Cruise in the film’s prequel, 1994’s Interview With the Vampire. While the film was better known for the tragedy that befell Townsend’s leading lady, Aaliyah (killed in a plane crash shortly before the film’s release), it established him as a figure to be reckoned with in Hollywood as well as the U.K.
That same year he had other leading lady problems – and rewards – when he arrived in Vancouver to make Trapped. While he politely declines to discuss the actress he had to share most of his scenes with – the formidable Courtney Love – his grimace at the mere mention of her name sufficiently renders true the rumors of Love’s disruptive behavior on the set. Ask him about his other leading lady on the film though, and he positively beams. The two became lovers during the three-month shoot of Trapped, and, at its conclusion, Townsend sent for his things in London and never looked back.
Townsend’s seemingly charmed life has had only one notable setback, but it’s a doozy. In October 1999, he arrived in New Zealand to play the role of the leader of a band of elves, dwarves, and hobbits seeking to reclaim the lost kingdom of Middle Earth. One week after the cameras rolled, however, he was fired from Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring (for “creative differences”) and replaced by Viggo Mortensen, who entered the pantheon of celluloid heroes as Aragorn, heir to the throne of Gondor, in the enormously successful trilogy. It’s another subject Townsend shies away from, but he does reveal for the first time that reluctant star Mortensen (who famously shuns publicity and other trappings of Hollywood) wrote him an “amazing letter” afterward that eased the pain a little. But in the same way his countenance gave him away at the mention of a former not-so pleasant leading lady, his body language changes noticeably when asked what it was like to sit in the front row at the Oscars and watch the movie win nearly every award – including Best Picture and Director.
Townsend, wearing blue jeans, a faded t-shirt, and a quick-and-ready grin, is utterly anonymous this afternoon at Patrick’s Roadhouse, a honky-tonk food and music joint on the Pacific Coast Highway, just a few miles south of Malibu, where he and Theron share one of their two Los Angeles homes. Arriving between lunch and dinner servings, he has to charm the manager to open up the outdoor patio (so he can smoke) and, when he encounters some resistance, doesn’t attempt any movie-star maneuvers to seal the deal. Did the manager recognize him, I ask as we sit down to a late breakfast of French toast, coffee and cigarettes. “No way!” he says, with a laugh, and then a quick glance up to see if his interrogator is taking the piss out of him.
Had the interview occurred last winter, around the time the girlfriend was carting him around from award show to award show to help her carry home the endless supply of trophies, he almost certainly would’ve been recognized, particularly after the Oscar broadcast when he nearly stole the show in his defiantly white tuxedo – the talk of the fashionistas in the post-show wrap-ups. Ask Townsend about his bold sartorial move and he blushes, for the first of what will be many times.
TO: Okay, whose idea was the ice cream suit? Yours?
TO: The girlfriend’s?
ST: No! I think it was the stylist. I said, “Oh, all right, I’ll go for it.” [Laughs] The white suit!
TO: Stains at the end of the night?
ST: Oh, probably, yeah.
TO: Besides hearing Charlize’s name read as Best Actress, what was your favorite moment of the night?
ST: There was one really nice moment, before we left for the show. We had about 40 people at the house, and I had a couple of people from Ireland, we were all just getting ready. Everyone was taking photos, and drinking champagne. That was quite a moment.
TO: I know you don’t like to talk about Lord of the Rings, but it must have been tough to be in the front row when the entire cast of the movie bounded on stage to collect the Oscar for Best Picture.
ST: It was weird. It was an odd situation, to be there right in front of them, but I have no hard feelings. I clapped. I thought, “I’ll clap for these people. They did make good movies, and now it’s done.” It was closure for me in a way.
TO: Was it doubly weird because you’d just watched your girlfriend get the Best Actress Oscar?
ST: It was funny because it was a night that could have been really hard, but I had the best night ever. That’s what was really nice about it. Celebrating my girlfriend winning an Oscar.
TO: Has the girlfriend’s sudden rise in fame caused any changes in your relationship?
ST: It doesn’t change our relationship. A lot of people have this idea that you can’t go anywhere and the fact is we go everywhere. The only thing is, when you’re living in L.A., there’s a tendency to have a lot of paparazzi around – and there has been a bit of paparazzi recently, but it doesn’t affect us. We’re not going to stay indoors and hide from it. Pretty much what we do hasn’t changed. Occasionally we get bothered by paparazzi, and we just deal with it.
TO: Who’s harder on you guys, the Irish, British or American tabloids?
ST: Ireland is grand. The British are just like rabid, foaming dogs. Some of the Europeans and Italians are bad. When we were in France it was pretty intense, but the funny thing is if you go there to promote a movie, say, spend three days in France or Italy, then the press are going to be on you. But if we go there for a holiday, no one knows we’re there. So no one bothers you. It’s okay if you’re doing a few days press, it’s fine. You’re just working anyway.
TO: Do you ever have to call your family in Ireland to tell them something in the tabloids isn’t true?
ST: Not really. The biggest rumor that goes around about us is that we’re getting married and that is a very good rumor to have because it could be a lot worse. I’m sure there’s going to be times when it’s going to be, like, I was seen with so-and-so, or she was seen with so-and-so, and there’s nothing you can do. We’ve been together three-and-a-half years and everyone knows we’re madly in love. It’s never nice, but we’ve been really lucky. Touch wood.
TO: In your new film, Head in the Clouds, your character is asked his nationality and he answers, `On paper, I’m British, but I don’t believe in countries much.’ Is that how you feel about your Ireland?
ST: It is, yeah. I don’t believe in nationalities.
TO: Do you feel dislocated from Ireland?
ST: No, not dislocated. In a funny way my relationship with Ireland has changed. When I was 12, my bags were hypothetically packed. I wanted to get out. I grew up in a small village and I disliked the begrudgery, the narrow-mindedness, the gossip. I just wanted to get to a big city. I left when I was 23. At that stage I really hated Ireland. I wanted to never go back and I burnt down my bridges. Then, when I was 26 — and I still hated Ireland — I went back to do a film, spent three months there and completely reconnected with my old friends. I met a lot of new people in that time, too. So weirdly enough, in the five years since, I’ve grown to have a great relationship with Ireland. I love going back. Love seeing the people there. I don’t ever really want to live there again, but I love going back.
TO: Is there an Irish expat community in Los Angeles that you’re a part of?
ST: I never really hung out with Irish people. Like, if I went to New York, I never went to Irish bars. I never did that thing, but I know a few Irish people here. What’s amazing is that the people I met here, my closest friends, were all introduced to me through Irish connections. That’s why I love L.A., because I’ve got some really great people here. I don’t think any of them are in the film business. They’re all very different types of people and they were all introduced to me through Irish friends who knew them. I came here and they were like, “You got to hook up with so-and-so.” That’s great because a lot of people I know here also know all my friends in Ireland.
TO: Before coming to L.A. you lived in London for five years, how was that?
ST: London’s a very funny place. When I arrived in London, racism against Irish people was sort of dying out, but, if I had gone to London 10 or 15 years before, I would have been a paddy or a mick. I found it very lonely because English people have this rigid class system and if they can’t define you within that class system, they don’t know what to make of you. A lot of people didn’t know what box to put me in because I’m Irish and I didn’t go to public or private school. I didn’t fit into their boxes. London is a very lonely place. It’s hard to meet people. I met some great people, but it took me a long time.
TO: Are both your parents Irish?
ST: No, my Mum’s Irish and my Dad’s English, so I have that whole other thing going on as well. It’s weird, because if you’ve got an Irish mother and an English father, it means you never feel really comfortable in Ireland, and you never feel really comfortable in England either. But I grew up in Ireland and I think where you grow up leaves the imprint.
TO: Did your folks have any inkling you’d become an actor?
ST: They had no idea! I was lucky in one way. My mum was a really fantastic artist and she got into Dublin’s best art school [but] her parents wouldn’t let her go. They were staunch Catholics and art school was full of drugs and boys. There was just no way. So she vowed that whatever I, or any of her children, wanted to do, they could do. Which was weird because when I said I wanted to be an actor they both went, “Oh, no!” But they’d made that promise. My dad was like, “It’s just a phase,” but my mum was like, “Oh, God!” She was kind of in an art scene and she knew actors and she was worried. I went to drama school and I remember she went and asked the teachers one day, “Is he any good?” She was always worried about it.
TO: What did they tell her?
ST: [Bursts out laughing] I don’t know! I have no idea, but it wasn’t that bad because she didn’t say, “Stop right now!” I did three plays after coming out of drama school. The first two were a bit of a disaster, but the third was a really great play called True Lies. We [the cast] actually wrote it and it took on this huge life. It became the biggest hit in the Dublin theater. We had people like Bono and Seamus Heaney coming every night, so it was really exciting. It ended up going to the Bush Theater in London and it won the Stuart Parker Award for best play, so it was a really big thing. When she saw that it was great…[voice trails off]. She saw the play and afterward she came up and said “I’m not worried anymore.” That was great. She died shortly after, so it was kind of the last thing she saw me do. It was great because at least she got to that place in her head, “Oh, he’s all right.” She knew I was serious about it at that stage.
TO: Does your dad come to L.A. and hang out at the house in the Hollywood hills with you and Charlize?
ST: He does and every year we go away on holidays for Christmas, like literally 25 or 30 of us.
TO: And does Charlize go along?
ST: Oh, yeah and her family. This year we’re trying to do 50 of us.
TO: Where you going?
ST: [Smiles] Can’t tell.
TO: A warm climate?
ST: Yeah, we always try and go somewhere beachy. Somewhere the Europeans can go and have a sit on the beach. We’ve done the Bahamas, Mexico, Hawaii, it’s a big thing, because you get to see everybody.
TO: Who organizes it?
ST: It’s pretty much always us – me and Charlize.
TO: Sounds like it could be a bigger production than making a movie, just coordinating everyone’s schedules, booking flights, getting the rooms.
ST: It’s tricky, pretty tricky.
TO: I wasn’t going to ask the marriage question, but if you’re traveling with her family and enjoying it and she’s doing the same with your family, you’ve surmounted the biggest obstacle to marriage: liking each others’ families.
ST: Yeah, right! Getting over the whole mother-in-law hump. Marriage is such a funny thing because everyone automatically assumes, “Oh, you’ll get married.” It’s interesting, I mean, I don’t discount marriage, but it’s not something I’m rushing to do. I think a lot of people get married for something to do, and I never want to do that. It’s not a priority in my life at the moment. Maybe one day, but later. If we love each other, that’s the most important thing, not if you’re married. If you trust each other. Trust is more important than marriage to me.
TO: And kids?
ST: Kids? I don’t know. It’s the same kind of thing. If it happened tomorrow, I’d be delighted and if it doesn’t happen tomorrow, I’m fine with that.
TO: And she feels the same way?
ST: Yeah. We don’t have those pressures of like [gruff man’s voice], “Hey babe, come on, we got to get married!” or [whiney woman’s voice] “Oh, honey, I really want a kid.” We’re young and we’re just enjoying ourselves. Whatever happens, happens.
TO: Do you remember your first impression of Charlize when you met on Trapped?
ST: It’s funny, actually. The first time I met her was in a read-through with the cast and I was a little overwhelmed because we were in the room with tons of people. We sat beside each other and I honestly really didn’t take that much notice, maybe because we were working. Kevin Bacon was there, Courtney Love, the director, producers, assistants. There were so many people. All I remember is Charlize had a dog with her and I remember thinking, “Oh, there’s the mad lady with the dog!” But then that night we went out to dinner with the director and I arrived a little early, and she arrived a little early, and she just looked like a million dollars. I went, “Whoa! Who is this girl?” It was funny because I guess there had been so much going on at the reading I hadn’t really taken stock of her and then suddenly the pressure was off, we were going to dinner, and I looked at her and went, “Wow!” This was the first time I had really seen her in a way.
TO: Remember what she was wearing?
ST: It was like a black dress. She just looked really…[sighs]. When she glams up it’s ridiculous. She can look so hot. She’s a goddess, man, a total goddess. That night we had so much fun. I was just smitten after that.
TO: Did she bring the dog to the dinner?
ST: [Laughs] No!
TO: Was it one of those little ones?
ST: Yeah, one of those little ones.
TO: Like a white poodle with pink ribbons?
ST: No, it wasn’t a poodle, thank God! A poodle might have been a deal breaker.
TO: You’ve played Irish characters in both films opposite Charlize, in fact in almost every film you’ve done so far. Do you have a favorite Irish actor?
ST: Richard Harris. I did my first film with him and I’ve never really been star struck, but I was star struck meeting him. He really was larger than life. A giant of a man. I’ve never met someone who had so much power and danger in him — and charisma. And great stories, man.
TO: Did you get to spend a lot of time with him?
ST: No, but the time I did was just fantastic. We went out one night and had a few Guinness and it was just – it was my first film and I was sitting there, like, wow, that was my big moment. I also liked Gabriel Byrne and I got to work with him as well. That was another big honor. He came to our acting school 12 years ago and I was out that day and I’ll never forget coming in the next day and everyone’s like, “Gabriel Byrne came in!!” And all the girls are like [in high-pitched squeal], “Oh, he’s gorgeous!” And I remember going, “God, I missed that! Shit! I’d loved to have met him.” So it was great, years later, to actually do a movie with him.
TO: You also worked with Sean Connery in The League of Extraordinary Gentleman. Were you there the day he got in the fight with the director?
ST: [Laughs] Which one?
TO: The one that came to blows.
ST: You know, what’s weird is I never saw any of that. The director supposedly blew up almost every day and I never, ever saw it. I’d always hear these rumors about this, that and the other, and I never saw it. I wasn’t on set when they had a big fight, but I remember Sean Connery coming back after, and he seemed a little bit flustered. There was always that stuff going on, but I never saw any of it.
TO: Is Sir Sean tough?
ST: He was 74, but he’s still a big fella and he’s Sean Connery! I wouldn’t fight with him because he’s Sean Connery! [Laughs] Bit of respect. The guy’s been around, he’s a legend.
TO: Well, you’ve been around a few of these guys. Who’d win in a fight, Sir Sean or Sir Anthony Hopkins?
ST: Wow, I think Sir Sean would win. Although the first rule is never mess with the little guy. If you’re in a fight, and there’s a little guy and a big guy, always go for the big guy.
TO: How about a fight between Sir Sean and Sir Ben Kingsley?
ST: Yeah, see what I mean? There’s the rule.
TO: Then how about Sir Ben and Sir Elton John?
ST: Oh, I think Elton would lose. I think Sir Ben would bounce him around like a beach ball. But I tell you, I’d pay some money to see that fight.
TO: Charlize or Courtney Love?
ST: Oh, God! I think Charlize, she’s tough, man! She’s a farm girl. The mother and her have wrestling contests.
ST: Oh, yeah! And she still can’t beat the mum. I tell you, I wouldn’t mess with the mum. She’s, like, full on.
TO: Do they get down on all fours?
ST: Oh, full on. They’re all over the place! I have some glorious photos of the two of them.
TO: You’re joking! How about videos?
ST: No, but brilliant photos. Once, in Paris, there was, like, Charlize, her mum, the assistant and the stylist all wrestling! I was taking photographs!
TO: Four women? In Paris?
ST: Yeah, and her mother was on top of all of them! They’re great fun, they’re just full of life, man. Charlize says, `The day I can beat my Mom is the day I’m my own person.’ But it’s never going to happen. South Africans are tough. They’re very similar to Irish people. When I first brought Charlize over to Ireland we went to this pub, Mulligan’s, it’s where I bring everyone. There’s great Guinness there. And we’re sitting in the pub, and all the girls were like [mimics loud, boisterous women] `Yaaaay! Yap, yap, yap!’ Really loud, and I’ll never forget it, she was just amazed. She said, “Wow, this reminds me of South Africa where the women are so loud.” Over here everyone’s so self-conscious. Everyone’s looking at everyone. No one can step out of line. Whereas in Ireland it’s much more raucous and boisterous. And it’s like that in South Africa and she loved that. People are just themselves, shouting and screaming and doing everything at once, you know? ♦