Russell Brand Is Not Your Ordinary Comic
by Paul Fischer
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There is no doubt that Russell Brand, making his Hollywood screen debut in the irreverent romantic comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, is no ordinary comedian. The British comic who resembles a punk rocker with hair piled up on his head, walks in with a rose and leaves our interview kissing this journalist on the cheek. Brazen, audacious, eloquent and with a vocabulary that emphasizes his clear intellect, interviewing Brand is often no easy task. Always one to compare his huge celebrity status in Britain with his more up-and-coming position in Los Angeles, Brand talks openly about fame, the British tabloids and Hollywood, to Paul Fischer.
Paul Fischer: The director said that when you came to audition for this, you were very low key, and then suddenly you broke out into this. How did you react to this script when you read it?
Brandon Russell: I thought it was wonderful. I think that in an audition situation one must acknowledge that there’s a necessity for a certain amount of foreplay before launching into fully blown auditions.
PF: Like in life, really?
BR: Very much, very similar. I think of it as a template for life. You can’t immediately be taught, erect and buoyant, spraying effluvium willy nilly. First of all I must be courteous and gracious and polite.
PF: Some people do that, though.
BR: Well, some people do, but those people usually end up in prison. So it was a very exciting script to read. The prospect of working with Judd Apatow was thrilling and then after the audition I met Nicholas [Stoller], the director and Jason Segal and I was yet more excited.
PF: Do you live here and have you worked here?
BR: No. I live in London. All of my work is in London. My TV show is in London. My radio show. My column. My life. My cat, Morrissey, all in London.
PF: We’re discovering you for the first time in this movie, but you’re huge in England.
BR: Yes, I am. I’m a very successful person. Look at all these things I’ve been able to get. I bought these myself with money. In England, yeah, I’m a successful comedian. It’s really good. I’m able to have this haircut and no one questions this anymore.
PF: Where is your fame compared to, like, a Jude Law or Hugh Grant.
BR: Well, it’s a much more tabloid based fame than that unless, of course, Hugh Grant has been sleeping with prostitutes, then, of course, we’re about even. We’re aware of the Divine Brown fiasco, but what I’m saying is that currently—the fiasco in my view is that he didn’t marry her. It would’ve been a real live Pretty Woman, except it would’ve said ‘An Alright Woman’ or ‘Passable Woman’.
PF: Jason said he was actually thinking of a Hugh Grant type for your character. So you must’ve come in there and blown them away with more of a rock and roll type person. Did you have this guy in mind when you walked in and then convince them that he should be more rock and roll?
BR: Well, I’m sort of like any author and authors can be quite extreme characters like Hemingway, a writer, who was certainly no wall flower or Jean-Genee. So within literature there are people that are quite decadent and hedonistic, aren’t there? Henry Miller. So I thought that I would just play him like he was a Henry Miller kind of sexy author. Then they thought that it would be easier to just cast him as a rock star rather than trying to justify a man who writes books for a living having that amount of eyeliner on.
PF: Did you improvise on this at all?
BR: Almost entirely. We were out there for two weeks, but they taught me how to horse ride and they taught me how to surf. We had two weeks of workshopping and writing up the script and they were incredibly generous and gave me an awful lot of freedom. I must say that it’s great. It’s so nuanced and brilliant. Jason wrote a wonderful story and a wonderful script and still within that they allowed for that ethos and allowed for me to improvise lines. That was brilliant and liberating for me because as a standup comedian I’m happier when I’m sort of writing my own material and stuff. So it was incredibly liberating and fulfilling. I improvised loads and loads.
PF: Was there anything that you improvised that was so over-the-top that they weren’t allowed to use?
BR: No. They were so encouraging. It was like being a spoiled, precocious and indulged child. Everything I said was applauded and celebrated.
PF: Welcome to Hollywood.
BR: Thank you. I hope there’s more. I really do.
PF: What was the most surprising thing about working on an American comedy? What happened that you didn’t expect?
BR: Well, I didn’t expect that people would be so genuine and so sweet and gracious. I was very surprised by that. I thought that it would be challenging. I didn’t think that I would make friends with people as easily as I did and I didn’t think that me personally being a deeply self-involved gentleman would find it so easy to be a part of an ensemble.
PF: How was it working with Jason?
BR: Wonderful. He’s a brilliant and generous actor. He’s very skillful and funny and always looking for the laugh, but also good with subtle stuff. He works out the rhythm of a performer very quickly and gives you space to develop that. He’s a really very skillful actor and a lovely bloke. I loved him.
PF: Had you seen any of Kristen Bell’s work before you did this?
BR: No. I hadn’t seen any of that kind of thing because that’s not the sort of thing that I watch on the television. Those sort of things, they’re for teenagers, aren’t they, her program. But she’s really good. They’re all really talented and good. I’m a standup comic, normally and I do my own TV show and so I’m not really used to interacting with other people and so I work in a quite insular way and so to work with these people and to find these people good was exciting. It was really exciting. I loved it.
PF: If you fame is tabloid-based, what’s your big scandal?
BR: Oh, Christ. Womanizing and floozying about. Do you know that some newspapers in the United Kingdom have the absolute gall to send women to sleep with me after standup comedy shows and then they write about it in the newspapers? Fortunately, the grammar is appalling because the women are ultimately hussies and shouldn’t be allowed to pick up a pen.
PF: Are those the 3AM girls?
BR: [laughs] Oh, I’ve never had the pleasure of a 3AM girl. But of course you know that enduring fame can’t be based on anything other than talent or murder and I don’t have the lust for blood, but certainly I have other lusts. In the United Kingdom there are a lot of red foot tabloids that are fueled by lasciviousness and salaciousness.
PF: Do you try to avoid any of that stuff?
BR: No, actually not because I think if you’re quite nice to people I don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. What can they write? Often they focus on my behavior towards my cat, but one kiss and tell story said, “He’s very unusual. He wore slippers in the house and he talked to his cat. When we got in there was a bowl of cat food on the floor.” That’s where you put the cat food. Where else do you put cat food? I know they’re agile, but you don’t want to make the cat jump up on the table and fucking impose human manners on the feline world. It’s unnecessary. So I don’t think there’s any harm that can be done as long as I treat people well then their kiss and tell stories cannot harm me. My rings are like a shield of steel.
PF: How can I be more like you and have that kind of fame?
BR: The rose is still on the table. We’ll only be rewarding the rose at the end of the interview. I think that most important thing about having success is to acknowledge the beauty in others. If you look into people’s eyes and you see the light and the divine force glowing within them how can you not be compelled to unite with them physically? You see the beauty in other people. Everyone inside themselves has a little self-doubt and if you help to then overcome that by recognizing how beautiful they are it’s almost impossible for them not to have sex with you.
PF: Clearly you exude that kind of light-shining aura.
BR: That’s very kind of you to say. Yes. I just try to see the beauty in things and people as often as I can and I know that’s a challenging way to live your life sometimes, but mostly the world is deep when people are beautiful and I do really like cuddling women. I love women. Hello! You are a woman. You’re perfect. Let get me give you a bottle of beer.
PF: I know you’ve toured the UK and probably Europe, but do you have any plans to tour here?
BR: Yes. I’m doing standup comedy at The Paul Gleason Theater on Hollywood Boulevard on the fifth and sixth of April. Please come.
PF: Where is that?
BR: It’s such a big bloody numbered boulevard. Number 5000? I don’t know. If someone would Google it it’s The Paul Gleason Theater. It’s only about a little hundred seater thing. I’ve got to practice and learn the American rhythm so that I can make the American people laugh.
PF: How different do you think you’ll approach your humor to an American audience, as opposed to Europeans?
BR: I think there’s a crossover. I think American culture is the dominant culture in the world, particularly in entertainment and media and this is something that I’m completely in tune with as a standup comedian. The ones that I admire the most are people like Bill Hicks and Richard Pryor and Larry David, Jerry Seinfeld. So I understand how American comedy works. I know that I’m a different phenomenon and I plan to exploit that being ludicrously English, but I’ll speak slowly.
PF: I heard that Judd Apatow is writing something with you in mind. Has there been any talk of what that’s going to be?
BR: No, because I was with Judd doing an interview for Esquire magazine in the UK and when Judd was asked that question, “What’s it about?” he just said, “Russell Brand and Jonah Hill are doing a film together. It’ll be done soon.” They said, “What’s it about?” He said, “Oh, no. I can’t tell you that.” Mind you, I would’ve told you everything. I would tell you about the costumes, the plot, who I’m going to try and cast as the leading lady, how I plan to manipulate that process, but unfortunately if Judd won’t answer the question I have to respect because he is the alpha male in that situation. If I make a mistake then I might not be asked to be in anymore films and that would dramatically the statistics of my love life going forward.
PF: But do you know about the movie.
BR: Oh, yeah, yeah, that it’s being written currently and that Universal has bought it.
PF: Is it a British character you’d play?
BR: Yeah. I mean, isn’t it true that at first you want to play approximations of yourself? Initially I don’t plan on transforming like Daniel Day Lewis. I’d like to just carry on like this for a while to let them know who I am and then I might consider playing a part where I fit.
PF: What do you like in America?
BR: I think that people are very garrulous and available and I enjoy that. I enjoy the immediacy and the warmth. I’ve met some very beautiful and exciting people. I enjoy it. It seems very geared towards socializing and people are very comfortable. I live of course in and am from a culture where people are deeply, deeply repressed and constantly embarrassed by their own genitals.
PF: Not you, though?
BR: No, no. I celebrate mine. I’m something of an anomaly in England. Earlier on I met a French gentleman who said my sexuality made him want to be sick in his own handbag. I don’t think he meant that offensively. I think he’s just acknowledging that I’m unusual for an Englishman and I’m very comfortable.
PF: How are American women compared to British women?
BR: I think they’re very beautiful. I mean, I love English women. My mother is an English woman, for heaven sake, but yeah, I like American women. I can see what Jimi Hendrix was on about when he said, “American woman.”
PF: What have you done since you’ve been here?
BR: Well, I’ve not really been on a proper holiday because I’m promoting Forgetting Sarah Marshall and doing this Disney film with Adam Sandler. So I’m mostly concentrating on that.
PF: What is that?
BR: It’s called Bedtime Stories and it stars Adam Sandler. I’m his psychic. I play a character called Mickey. A character called Mickey in a Disney film. Isn’t that a wonderful name? I’m so excited about that. I’ve asked to wear those little shorts as much as possible. I think that I’ll be a right little dream boat in them. Steamboat Willy? I should say so!
PF: Where would you go after a breakup? This guy goes to Hawaii.
BR: I can’t ever imagine being so broken-hearted that I would leave my bedroom. I would simply wait for someone else to arrive. We do have a lucky number. It’s like a deli counter at my house. You just take a ticket and wait. I just wait for the next number and I pray that it’s number sixty nine.
PF: You have some really fun scenes with Jonah Hill and Jack McBrayer. Was there anyone who made you laugh a lot on the set?
BR: They all did. They’re all writers. It was challenging to my preconceptions about my talent to meet such talented American young people. Jonah Hill is a fantastic improviser. Jason himself is wonderful—all of them. Jack McBrayer is funny. All of them, I enjoyed it so much because that elevates you doesn’t it. I learned something about that. I learned that I don’t always have to be doing stuff on my own. I like standup and I’m in complete control of it, but when you’re working with people who are properly funny it makes you have to get better to cope with it.
PF: What did you enjoy in Hawaii?
BR: Well, to tell the truth outside of the coconut bras I found it very difficult because in a country where you’re not famous one encounters certain difficulties. I must say that this is a social protocol for which I have little regard and so that was the most difficult thing. And any environment no matter how beautiful becomes after a while restricting. Hawaii seems to me to be a tropical penitentiary.
PF: Women didn’t drop to your feet in Hawaii?
BR: They did nothing of the sort. My feet were unencumbered by draped women.
PF: That’s a tragedy, really.
BR: It was for a little while, but I enjoyed it enormously. I did miss my life. I missed my cat. I missed home. I missed my culture to be honest, but I’m set with here much better. I really like Los Angeles and I’m really surprised by that. I heard that it was a really superficial and vacuous space and astonishingly I fit right in.
PF: How do you get ready for the beach, though?
BR: I don’t go to the beach. My haircut does not mix well with maritime matters. I prefer to stay on the old terra firma, to be honest with you. I do like the bikinis, but the risks to my haircut are too great to take. When I had to do that surfer scene in the film I had to employ every Stanislavski technique I’ve ever learned to stop myself weeping for a hairdresser.
PF: How did you actually do with the surfing?
BR: We were taught to surf by what I can only describe as an all American beefcake hero. His name was Mike. He’d been in the Marines in the elite special forces. He’d been in the American Water Polo Team. He was a man so confident in his masculinity that the sea itself was awash with his testosterone. I surfed on that most of the time. It was challenging because I was already doing something that I was rubbish at, surfing. I was wearing, as it turned out, inappropriate bathing attire. I wore too short of shorts. They were like little hot pants, tiny little knicker things and I was then self-conscious about that. Then Mike was like King Neptune in that sea, holding me there. I fell in love with him a little bit because he sort of seemed so powerful and stuff and would push me out on that surfboard. There was a point where I stood up on the surfboard and got all the way to the shore one occasion.
PF: They said there’s more horse riding on the DVD.
BR: That’s hard. Horse riding, I don’t know if you know, when you’re doing that it’s carried out under adversity, that relationship. That’s antithetic relationship. “Oh, do it like you’re driving a car.” I can’t drive a car. Also, when you’re driving a car the car of it’s own volition wander into a garage and demand pet food and start eating it. They all just wanted some grass sometime and you have to let them have it otherwise the horse gets annoyed. “Kick it.” I don’t want to kick it. Also, they were like, “You’re in charge! You’re in charge!” That’s the first time I’ve ever been horse riding and he’s been doing it all his life. How can I be in the lead in that relationship? Horse riding very difficult.
PF: Can people see your show online?
BR: Yeah, go to youtube.com or as I call it metube and look up Russell Brand.
PF: How would you describe your standup comedy? What’s different about your comedy from when you started out?
BR: It’s different now because I exist in a different context. Being famous in my home country does change the perspective and it changes how people treat you. But what it doesn’t change is the incessant and relentless embarrassment that pursues me everywhere, the capacity to be humiliated by the most truthful of events. My standup is defined by being an honest and confessional examination of what it is to be alive—how embarrassing that can be, how funny that can be and how bloody sexy the whole thing is.
PF: What is your biggest humiliation?
BR: It never ends, my humiliation. I don’t know quite where to begin. I’d have to think of the most recent occasion. Alright, I was in a taxi in London just before I came here and the taxi driver was very aggressive and I misjudged the situation because he was clearly a person—you know how some people are very comfortable fighting? They like it. They prefer to be in a fight rather than a conversation and you can’t reason with people who would rather fight than have a conversation. It’s like a tiger. You can’t say to a tiger, “Don’t bite me. I’ve got a mortgage.” It wouldn’t care. A tiger is a relentless killing machine. I found myself in a conversation with a black man from Jamaica, from where we call The Yard in the UK. He had a big sort of and a scar running the whole length of his face like that. I was in the back of this cab and I’d just come from the gym. I was wearing a track suit and he went past the left term that I wanted him to in Primrose Hills which is not a place where there’s a lot of gangster violence. Primrose Hill. You can tell from the name. We missed the left and I was on the phone and I said, “Left! Left!” I sort of got a bit angry and I tried to claw back time by the way that I said left. “Leeeeefft! Leeffft!” like that. But you cannot claw back time. It’s impossible. He took offense at the way that I’d spoken to him. [Jamaican accent] “Don’t talk to me like that.” He was properly offended and immediately aggressive. At that earliest stage I decided to have an entirely different personality, that of a character that Ray Winstone would play in a film. “Don’t fucking talk to me like that, mate. You don’t know who you’re fucking dealing with.” He don’t know. He actually was the first to say to me, “You don’t know who you’re dealing with. You can’t talk to me like that. You’re don’t know what you’re doing.” I said, “You don’t know who you’re fucking dealing with.” But, of course, he did, because he’d seen me on the television and he was dealing with an effete performer with an androgynous sexuality. This is not threatening. So we got into a very sort of heavy argument where I kept pretending to be harder and harder, but my threats were a bit rubbish. He goes, “Get out of my car. Get out of my car.” I said, “I ain’t getting out of your car, mate. You’re going to have to take me back to your office—” and that’s not something that a gangster would ever say. A gangster would not make a clerically based threat. So that was difficult and then during the argument I got a phone call from my accountant, talking to me about a pension plan that I had to conduct. “Oh, yes, Angelo. I’m very sorry. I think we should, yes.” Like that, and then my mum called during it and then I start to feel guilty that I’d been rude to this man. He agreed to take me back to my house and then I thought, “Oh, no. He’s going to know where I live. What if he kills me?” So I made him drop me off on the next street at a neighbor’s that I’ve never been particularly fond of. I thought if there is a revenge attack, that person will be the victim. So we did manage to find peace by the end of it. I sort of apologized like a gangster. “Sorry ‘bout that, mate. Sorry.” It was a gangster apology, and it frankly ended well encouraging me that we can find unity and peace between different gangs. The Crips and Bloods, I would say.
Paul Fischer is originally from Australia. Now he is an interviewer and film critic living in Hollywood.
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