Interview: SCREEN (1984)

March 01, 1984

The following article by Jim Jerome appeared in the March 1984 issue of Screen magazine...

Sting's the thing! - A nasty smash in 'Dune', the sexy rocker puts Police work on hold to pursue acting and play daddy...

The wind is gusting over 50 miles an hour, slamming torrential rain against the crusty, glistening stone of the medieval castle. The night is lit by a blazing bank of lights - 196 650-watt lamps - mounted in a giant steel frame that dangles from a cherry picker 100 yards from the Chateau des Cordes in Orcival in France's Massif Central. This "Wendy Light" rig, one of only three known to exist, looms over the chateau as director Franc Roddam's 1,100-amp moon. Until now the night had been gorgeously serene and clear, with a shiny sliver of real moon above, tiny in the starry heavens beyond the ferocious manufactured maelstrom. Roddam, in a long slicker and hat, yells "CUT." Then, another take. Cameras roll: A giant propeller in a square steel cage again whips up the "rain," which is shooting from three 20-foot-high tripods near the castle entrance.

The setting is pure Gothic, the pace gruelling. Roddam ('Quadrophenia', 'The Lords of Discipline') is ready for Take 2, Slate 215, of 'The Bride', a loose (and non-scare) retelling of the Frankenstein tale that blends 'Pygmalion', a hip feminist hook and a love story linking the two clones who were literally made for each other. At the dark, menacing core of the story is the complex character of Dr. Charles von Frankenstein, portrayed by rock star Sting, the brilliant bassist, lyricist, composer and tireless frontman of the Police. Sting, 33, is to storm out of the castle in a bulky black cloak, take his horse from a groom leading it from a stable, mount and ride out of frame. One problem: The horse still expects it to be a sweet late summer evening. Instead the animal is yanked into an instant Hollywood hurricane. The deafening roar, the cold rain and wind spook the horse every time. Wild-eyed, the animal balks, turns, stomps, can't imagine what's going on with this weather. The groom (actually an actor) tugs, Sting grabs on, tries to find the swinging stirrup with his black boot. He's got to get it right away or the take fails. Three tries and it isn't quite there. It's 4 am, the temperature and teabag supply are both sinking and everyone is beat. Sting hangs in remarkably well.

Roddam, 38, a former BBC documentarian, exudes baffling cool and low-key authority for a location general charged with maintaining his army's morale and order. He clearly has plenty of confidence in his male lead, whom he discovered and used in a memorable cameo in 'Quadrophenia' five years ago. "Today Orcival," Roddam mumbles. "Tomorrow the world."

He knows the man born as Gordon Matthew Sumner, an ex-convent schoolteacher from Newcastle, England, has been on an extraordinary career roll that should ensure box office intrigue when 'The Bride' opens in June with its estimated $12 million price tag. Before that there was the Police's 'Synchronicity' LP (with the hit 'Every Breath You Take'), a world tour, a home-video concert and Sting's acting breakthrough in a megabuck production, the $42 million sci-fi epic, Dune. In that film Sting plays the sinister Feyd. When Bride wrapped Sting immediately shot 'Plenty' with Meryl Streep; he also will portray Machiavelli for the BBC. Sting has begun writing material for his first solo LP (he will not score 'The Bride' music), while Police work is on hold - the three-man group has no plans to work together again until 1986. Without doubt, Sting's leap into serious filmmaking is the most ambitious ever by a rock idol. With 'Dune' doing smash business and its star getting raves ("a stylish nasty," said Newsweek), there is a whole new world of fans out there.

But it's work, not glory, Sting must concentrate on now. Somehow he manages to control the black stallion, but man and beast are facing the wrong way. CUT. Next time Sting mounts the horse successfully but the animal bucks and the actor slides on the saddle. CUT. Another attempt. Sting's foot finds the stirrup all right and he rides off - except the cloak catches a blast of wind and flops over his head, turning Sting into a headless horseman. CUT. This would seem to be an okay time for even the most seasoned actor to blow his cool. But Sting's got a different Method. He throws back the cloak, slumps forward laughing, water dripping off his nose, hair soaked, white silk shirt pressed damp and transparent against his chest. Sting's a man with an unusual appreciation - no, passion - for the darkly absurd. He smirks, pats the shiny-wet, shivering horse and whispers, "You know, I never wanted to be an actor anyway."

Between takes, Sting repairs half naked and silent to a chateau anteroom, where his shirt is dry-roasted by stage lights, his hair is blown dry and his makeup is reapplied from a Louis Vuitton bag set on a table beneath 17th-century tapestries and next to a marble tomb dating from 1512. The chateau owner, a retired silver-haired Parisian attorney, Philippe Péchaud, looks on with concern: He has stocked the sprawling, musty chateau with a collection of museum-quality artefacts and kept it open to tourists. He allowed the crew to build a fake tower - 85 feet high - that matches the castle's rough stone exterior. But the 100-ton tower was erected several meters off the desired mark. Engineers took 10 days to realign the structure. Though he calls the crew's work "une reproduction formidable," Péchaud says his wife can't sleep with the filming, and he must be wondering if the monastic quiet of the chateau will ever return.

Take 14, Slate 215, about 5 am. A critical decision, as dread daylight approaches: The groom/actor, who knows nothing about grooming horses, is replaced by the location groom, who knows nothing about acting but is able to control the excited horse long enough for Sting to mount and ride off.

"You don't, you can't, give up," says the director. "Pace yourself all night. Got to have the tenacity of a bulldog. Pretty glamorous life, huh? But it's worth it. He is exhausted by the round-the-clock shoot, but exhilarated by this "bit of great old-fashioned Hollywood" - and sure he has pulled a fine Gothic moment from Sting. What will it all be worth in screen time? Roddam grins, realising the absurdity of it all. "Maybe eight seconds."

Later, riding in his chauffeured car to his hotel, Sting is subdued as he talks about the bone-soaking night. "The horse was in a force-10 gale, my cloak weighed about six stone (84 pounds) wet, and getting on the horse was agony for that last shot. I didn't have the strength to get my chin on the horse much less my body. The horse wanted to go home. A horse doesn't understand why he has to be there."

But Sting does know why. Sting (the name comes from a yellow and black soccer sweater he used to wear as a youth that made him look like a bee) isn't looking to duplicate Elvis' Viva Las Vegas, the antic hijinks of the Beatles' 'Help!', or the video vanity of McCartney's 'Give My Regards to Broad Street'. Acting for him is an intellectual Everest - because it's there. It's a cerebral challenge, an intriguing variation, he says, on the public facade he has erected through rock. This career step toward directing is also a well-paid personal exorcism. But forget the money motive. His take - estimated at $500,000 for about six months' work - is a pay cut from, say, another road grind through Japan and Australia.

As chief of Police, he admits, "I make a pile of money, and I have given quite a bit away - and some has been taken away. But we've already done it, it's not that interesting. I don't need vast amounts of money now. There's no point in regurgitating." Besides, as he adds with a typical flourish of cynical, tautly articulated wit, "Money can't immunise me from the problems of the world. I'm sort of an industry, with accountants and lawyers and managers grabbing this bit of money, protecting that bit. Frankly, it all leaves me a bit cold. I quite enjoy having money and buying whatever I want, but if an MX missile explodes over my house, I'm as dead as the man next door."

He considers working with Streep and Sir John Gielgud in Plenty a privilege and an important landmark in my career." His self-effacement in such company has kept him from feeling intimidated. "I've made it perfectly clear to everyone that I'm here to learn a trade, I'm an apprentice. Actors get on well with me, once they see I'm no drug-taking megalomaniac. It's refreshing to work hard, learn. In rock it's easy to just go through the motions of the ritual - and very lucratively."

Director Roddam considered using his one time protégé in a Bride cameo - until testing him after a Police gig in Chicago. "I didn't realise how good an actor he had become," says Roddam. "He can be a romantic lead and is able to play dark, dangerous evil parts. He's not afraid to die in a movie (which he does in Dune, Plenty and Bride)."

Sting's most difficult challenge was playing a straight man, "to have no laughs, no jokes. It's very hard work with no payoffs. I'm not sympathetic, and I find it depressing to see myself die onscreen. My dummy in 'The Bride' gets thrown off the 85-foot tower."

The shooting grind is "a conveyer - out of work into bed, out of bed into work for weeks." Definitely no punching in on rock's nocturnal time clock. "You get up at such an outrageous hour and have to look tremendous. That means discipline."

Interior shooting for Bride at Shepperton studios in London at least meant returning home to actress girl-friend Trudie Styler and their 11-month old daughter, Michael, in swanky Hampstead. (Sting has a son, Joe, 8, and daughter, Kate, 2, from his eight-year marriage to Frances Tomelty, who lives nearby.)

Sting without an entourage is relaxed, open and accessible. He takes his vegetarian meals among crew and cast under a tent, and mills around cradling leisure reading like 'Brave New World'. Having helped create the look and movement for the Police videos, he is genuinely curious about filmmaking. "I like watching the process, I talk to riggers and art department people and stuntmen. Why sit in my caravan picking my toenails? People don't treat me specially on the set because I don't treat myself that way."

Co-star Jennifer Beals, 21, who plays 'Bride's' stunning test-tube temptress Eva, is charmed, describing Sting as "fun, sweet, supportive, and he doesn't isolate himself in any way. Plus - he'd kill me if he heard me say this - he's in amazing shape for an old man. He can run forever and we've exercised together on location. I was expecting anything from the 'troubled genius' to a little kid, and he's both, really. He slides in and out."

Their offscreen exertions may have been cardiovascular but hardly romantic. Says Sting: "Even if there was a location affair, I surely wouldn't let you know. We didn't really say much to each other that wasn't scripted, though Jennifer's read enough to be able to talk about books. She's stimulating." Sting saw her in 'Flashdance'. "She's a very good actress, but I've got no opinion of the film," he says.

Beals, who allegedly had been offered a million dollars for several other films but reportedly accepted half that for 'Bride', had never seen Sting on-stage and had only heard him on LPs belonging to her Yale boyfriend, Bob Simonds. Beals, however, can play rock'n'run critic. "I like to run to 'Footloose' and sometimes I recharge to Cyndi Lauper. I tried running to the Police but it was depressing. I couldn't. Most of their songs are so thick. You have to really think about them."

It doesn't take long to understand why. Sipping a screwdriver at the hotel bar in Clermont-Ferrand before another all-nighter in Orcival, a brooding Sting assembles his thoughts. He speaks intensely; quietly, emphatically. A defiant, mocking smirk betrays rather than hides the darkness within. For a rocker/intellectual like Sting, a role like mad Dr. Frankenstein isn't really going "against type." Indeed, the volatile edge of sanity may not be for him the forbidding place it is for most. It's precisely what rock's bolder road warriors defend as their primal home away from home, an emancipating pied-?°-terreur. Rock has been one route there; now, it's acting, a higher form of sublimation, he says. Therapy. An on-camera catharsis. This is why he seeks complex, enigmatic parts; this is why a kindred searching soul like Beals can't just empty her mind and jog to Sting's art. Who wants to do butt-firming floor routines to a tormented guy singing, "I'll always be the King of Pain" as he does on the 'Synchronicity' album. If Jung or Hegel had played cordless bass; with a piercing wail into the Void to go over the rhythmic bottom, who knows, maybe they'd have moved 40 million pieces of product in their day, too.

In Sting's metaphysical backstage party room, there are no shapely blondes and brunettes, only the light and dark contours of a restless psyche. "You mouth other peoples' words and thoughts and philosophies, you wear funny clothes," he says. "At its worst in acting you are a coat hanger." At its best; though, there is evocation of sympathy, a heightened glimpse of reality. "Dr. Frankenstein makes the wrong decisions in the end, goes mad and is pure evil. He's like us all, a victim of circumstance, but the architect of his own doom. To recognise that is to learn the path to a sane life. We're not here to be happy, we're here to learn. In acting you get to express all those pent-up emotions. You can kill, run over people, shoot, behave like a monster and work them out of your system."

For Sting the path to a sane life led him through marital turbulence at the peak of his success, culminating in a divorce last year. It's a mistake to refer to this as a "falling apart."

"I'm grateful I went through the crisis. I worked hard to survive it. I grew. My best creative work so far (the 'Synchronicity' LP) is a result of trying to work out those problems." 'Every Breath You Take' is a song about a man abandoned. "I've never regretted either my success or my so-called falling apart," says Sting. "I'm also not one to make the same mistakes twice. I've learned what I've done wrong so far and at least I can make different mistakes next time." That's a hard-won concession of optimism from an artful master of melancholy.

© Screen magazine


Feb 1, 1984

The Police cop an attitude: A little over five years ago, the last week in 1978 to be precise, I received a phone call from the editor of a local newspaper for which I was writing. "Go and interview the Police," he said. "Which precinct," I asked, having no idea what he was babbling about. "No, dummy," he continued. "The Police. They're a new British band. And they're not at any police station, they're at CBGB's..."

Jan 1, 1984

In 1977, Sting (aka Gordon Sumner), tenor sax-like jazz vocalist and bassist with a faltering British band called Last Exit, quit that gig to become part of a London-based rock quartet called the Police. The group had recently been founded by drummer Stewart Copeland, third son of an ex-CIA agent. Soon afterward, Corsican rhythm guitarist Henry Padovani was fired and the Police became a threesome, with classically trained Andy Summers, late of Eric Burden's Animals and the Soft Machine, on lead guitar. With a loan of 800 pounds they recorded and pressed their own record, a single called 'Fall Out'. It would eventually sell 70,000 copies...