The following article by Brian Case appeared in a 1988 issue of Time Out
Having perfected his role as a pop star called Sting, Gordon Sumner has been serving his acting apprenticeship as Frankenstein, satanic seducer, sperm donor, and dune demon. Now 'Stormy Monday' takes him back to Newcastle, back to his jazz roots, and back to being a Geordie.
It must have be the siren song of Sinatra, Streisand and Cher that encourages celebrities in one field or another to move horizontally across the board. They are a dangerous example. Most pop stars who try the big screen fail. Madonna looked like a natural in 'Desperately Seeking Susan' but fortunes have been squandered in pursuit of that first fine careless rapture. Who can forget Fabian in 'Hound Dog Man', sitting like a bottle of pee in a surrey, or Tony Bennett as Hymie Kelly in 'The Oscar' emphasising the conjunctions in his speeches? Imagine how many takes it took for Neil Sedaka, caught two-timing with a chick and some Ambre Solair in 'Playgirl Killer' to deliver the line 'l didn't mean to leave you half-oiled, Arlene.'
Sting, however, is still banging away at it, without a great deal of critical encouragement. Perhaps he has taken heart from those pods that aliens leave in the kitchen which eventually take on warmth, human features and even fingerprints. The inveterate enquiring layman, he wants, he says, to find out how it is done. There are signs in Mike Figgis's 'Stormy Monday' that he has found out, if not the secret, then some of the moves. As jazz club owner Mr Finney, Sting looks as if he inhabits this world, worrying about receipts, organising bouncers, sneaking a go on the stand-up bass in the afternoons.
He counters the takeover tactics of the American Mr Cosmo's heavies without turning a hair - 'I threw a lot of the words out, pages of revenge dialogue. I knew I could tell this story with my eyes and my hands.' And later, high on an iron bridge over the Tyne, he faces the unscrupulous tycoon in person. 'I've done my homework, Mr Cosmo. You haven't done your homework. You've made too many assumptions about the people in this town.' It's a cool performance, not too much, not too little, which reunites him with his Newcastle jazz origins, and hooks into the temperature of the man himself.
Sting, in tracksuit bottoms and sloppy-joe, boisterous spaniels leaning against his legs like scrum-halves in the library of his home, is in the register pleasant. 'It was certainly a part I felt very comfortable with. In many ways I had to act less. I knew who I was creating. I've spent a lot of my life in jazz clubs in Newcastle. I created a kind of composite of people I knew. There's that shady side to him but I think that a benign influence comes through for anybody who deals in music. Music saves them a bit. Finney was the only character in the movie who actually had a home. The whole basis of his life was the club. Everybody else was rootless.'
Sting's comments about his hometown and family have been less than kind over the years: an insular world of losers, he told the press. At the age of seven, he tore up every photo of himself. He reinvested himself. Gordon Sumner became "Sting ". Ironically, the script for 'Stormy Monday' was sent to him in Malibu by his Hollywood agent with the query, had he heard of Newcastle? 'I'm from Neweastle you dick!' he cried, and was delighted to find himself being offered a character part instead of the usual young villain. And it turned out that he'd known writer-director Mike Figgis back in Newcastle when Figgis played trumpet in Bryan Ferry's band, The Gas Board. 'I hadn't been back for any length of time for years. From the point of view of putting perspective on my life, it was a great leveller. I came from this environment, from the jazz netherworld, became a pop star, an actor. I'm not sure what conclusions I came to, but I had just had to reassess my life. My mother had just died and my father was dying and I made a pilgrimage to anywhere I had spent some time some time. Between takes, I'd go off and visit my old school. Luckily it was a holiday - I didn't want the headmaster telling me off. I really got back into being a Geordie. There's a fierce regional identity, a certain pride, a certain kudos. It's not like coming from somewhere anonymous like the suburbs of London. I always remember being at a party in Belfast one night as a teenager, three Geordies from Newcastle, and we were elected the bouncers just because we came from there. There's a toughness attached to it. Newcastle is a very ambiguous place. Because of Thatcher's economy there's an enclave of capitalist prosperity surrounded by mining villages that are dying and shipbuilding communities that are just gone. You can get five miles from the centre - the most thriving shopping centre in Europe - and there's one shop with one banana behind iron bars. It's like Berlin.'
Michael Apted, who directed 'Bring on the Night', a full-length documentary on Sting and his jazz band, expressed the usual admiration for the rock star's intelligence and professionalism when I interviewed him, and had trenchant things to say about Sting's problems on the big screen. 'It's difficult, almost ridiculous, making a documentary about someone who is so self-composed and self-aware. But it isn't an act - it's the way he is. It's tough to get under those people's skin. Now and again I did, now and again I didn't. He was making a conscious effort to make himself more accessible, to change himself, to use the impetus that these warm spontaneous black musicians gave him. Perhaps he'd grown tired of his Prince of Darkness image with The Police. I think one of the problems with him is that he's trying to seek his own identity. Sting is very considered in what he says and in what he's prepared to reveal. He isn't Mick Jagger, he isn't Jack Nicholson - he doesn't have the ability to be serious about work without being serious. It's a great gift that world entertainers develop, to be casual, and he hasn't got that. It's a difficulty he has. He comes over as very, very serious about himself.'
'I think that's fair,' said Sting after I'd read him the quote- I'm pretty serious. I think all of us are struggling for identity, struggling to find out why we're here.' Given Sting's cast of mind, it was no surprise to find Paul Auster's 'New York Trilogy' on the reading table - 'Some people are more relaxed and spontaneous about the process of being on camera. I'm not. I like to work things out. I like to be in control. I like to be well prepared, and so the documentary film is not a particularly good medium for me. I was willing to put myself through it because I'd learn something - and I did. I learned a lot. The way I view acting is as a craft to learn, or something you are born with. Being married to actresses, most of the people in the profession that I met came through the tradition of drama school and rep. That is what I want to do. I never went to drama school, so I'm learning as I go. I'll get better. I'm not really interested in exploding on the screen. I do that somewhere else.'
He wasn't too keen on American actors. Most of them come off the street - they're waitresses, taxi drivers, and they explode on screen. That's not my way. Turn the camera on Tommy Lee Jones and Melanie Griffith and they explode. The trouble is when they turn off the camera they don't relax. They'll be like that all day. I find that hard to deal with. British actors will laugh and joke. I did hang out with Tommy but it was always role-play. He played his monstrous self, the Tommy Lee Jones character, and I'd have liked some give-and-take, some push-and-pull. The best actors give, give you something. The worst give you zero, play their part and they're stuck there. They can't play. I don't want to become a movie star. Too stiff, too rigid, you play one part for the rest of your life.'
Starting out cross-legged on the sofa, Sting was by now lying with one leg over the back, still holding his coffee cup in the palm of his hand. Meryl? She's an actress first who happens to be a film star as well. She was very accommodating to me on "Plenty". Again, it's this play thing. It's a serious game. Costs money. I'd do something and she'd respond to it and I'd respond back. It wasn't as if she'd decided what her role was and that was it. She was pliable. Bit like jazz really. You know the form you know there's a bridge of 32 bars and you get there but there are many ways of getting there. Good actors know that and a good director will let you do it.'
Richard Loncraine directed him as the satanic Martin who inveigles his way into a suburban household and seduces the paralysed daughter in Dennis Potter's Brimstone and Treacle which had been a banned TV play. 'He was bloody good actually,' Loncraine enthused. 'Always knew his lines. Many rock 'n' roll stars of his success who were financing the picture - well it wasn't his money, but the film wouldn't have got made without his input at the beginning would have said they wanted the biggest dressing room. At Shepperton there weren't three dressing rooms of equal size, so he said to give Joan Plowright and Denholrn Elliott the best rooms and he'd have the third one down the line. He's not a fool. He knew that was correct. He knew Denholm Elliott and Joan Plowright had earned their wings as actors. He hasn't. And they could've eaten him for breakfast. Arch upstagers both of them if they want to be.' Yes, one can imagine Denholm Elliott's expression if he took against the lead - with the crown of thorns that I wear who needs a prick like you? The film didn't do particularly well, but Sting's version of the vintage Al Bowlly-type soundtrack number, 'Spread a Little Happiness', came out of the gate like someone had fired a blowtorch up its arse, and the poster sticks m the mind, Sting's praying hands forming a steeple, one sly eye sighting malevolently to the side. In post- production interviews, Sting took a great fancy to moral ambiguity. I may be the most ambiguous person I know,' he suggested.
'I've never taken advantage of being a rock star into films with me. I've always made it very clear to actors that I was an apprentice and wanted to learn from them. It paid off with Denholm and Joan bemuse they were incredibly kind to me. In fact David Bowe had originally been down to play that part and Sting to play Pontius Pilate in Scorsese's 'The Last Temptation of Christ' but his Brazilian tour intervened. 'David and I have similar aspirations. He has much the same attitude that I have towards acting as a craft - I think the film business sees us as interchangeable - "If you want a rock star in a movie, Sting'll do it David'll do it." The problem is that people don't want us to succeed in movies because we're successful somewhere else. It seems unfair that we can do more than one thing. You also carry this baggage with you: you walk on screen, and they say, "How did he get this part?" All of that. You have to work harder than an ordinary actor does.'
Franc 'Quadrophenia' Roddam's 'The Bride' which followed, may have been harder to take pride in. Sting played a melancholy Frankenstein to Jennifer Beals's manufactured bride - he'd solved the bolt problem - and their conversations were sharp as a bolster. 'You don't own me! You didn't create me!' squeaked the feminist beauty. 'As a matter of fact I did,' replied the Baron. Easy over on the alembics, the script strove for significance at all times. Sting, stand-up collar a pale splash of arrogance against his sombre frock coat hung about lifelessly like a lemon. 'Not a great movie,' he half agreed, 'but I thought I was quite good. I had to act a lot. A lot of things went wrong with that film. It was camp because it took itself too seriously. The problem was I was the most experienced actor in the cast and normally I work with experienced actors who bolster you up with their buoyancy. It was hard.' Working on David Lynch's 'Dune' hadn't been easy either. Mexico is a mile high - no oxygen, filthy place, pollution and I was in this rubber suit running up and down stairs all day with my whole body dyed red. And David Lynch has got this very strange personality. On the surface he's like a geek from the mid-West but underneath he's a monster.'
And his very small part in Terry Gilliam's 'Baron Munchhausen'? 'The smallest part in that." he laughed. 'Terry just lives across the road. I knew all about the dramas going on behind the scenes. What a nightmare! He phoned me up and said 'Look, we've run out of money, and there's a scene but I can't afford to pay an actor." I said, Terry - as you're my neighbour, I'll do it. I went to Rome for the day, did 10 minutes, and came home. Forty seven or 50 million dollars is a lot of money, and 1 was a bit resentful about how much his movie cost. I was thinking, God - how can you justify that amount of money? Then I saw it and I didn't want it to end. I felt like a 12 year-old. It's full of Terry's signatures. I'm glad I was in it.'
He has been restoring the tissues after the Amnesty International tour. 'They took 100 musicians around the world - and it worked. We took the message to three million people! I believe in Amnesty and every time they ask me to support them I do. It was great to work with my peers because we rarely meet. You don't play the same city as Peter Gabriel or Bruce Springsteen in the same week, so to actually share the stage, share the airplane, share hotels, share space, share attention, is great for all of us! I felt a lot less lonely and isolated. We had a lot in common, and the chemistry was perfect. No in-fighting - although the press was so desirous of a fight between me and Bruce Springsteen they invented one.'
He has finally relinquished the rights to Mervyn Peake's 'Gormenghast' trilogy after auditioning Coppola and Scorsese as possible directors - 'I'm too old to play Steerpike. Once I'd written the script and we'd done it as a radio play for the BBC, I'd got it out of my system' - and moved on to other challenges. He will be playing Hamlet in Tom Stoppard's fihn of 'Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead', and Mack the Knife on Broadway in 'The Threepenny Opera' for John Dexter. 'It's a great way of joining my two worlds together. I always felt that if I wanted to act I had to choose vehicles that were left-field. Nothing to do with music. I've been offered a lot of musicals, but just look back into history - Billy Fury, Tommy Steele, all those dreadful movies with Elvis and Cliff. And my introduction to the theatre was in the pit band at University Theatre, Newcastle. Actors who think they can sing, think they can sing in key, think they can keep time. It's always the musicians' fault - the musicians were dragging or changing key miraculously. All that camp stuff. Now I want to see if I can do it. Mack is a very interesting character because he can defend his amorality in terms of Marxist ideology. You can't be moral till your belly's full. It does have a point to make.
© Time Out magazine