From Withnail & I via Star Wars to playing an aged punk, is there no role to faze Ralph Brown Kevin Maher
September the eleventh. What a lovely f***ing day that was... Three thousand fat c***s are dead! Hahaha. Hip hip hooray. Three thousand fat c***s. Have a nice day!” These are the words of Ralph Brown playing the superannuated punk rocker Billy Abortion. Billy’s fulminating rants, on view in the play The Dysfunckshonalz!, will also be directed at everything from reality TV to Johnny Rotten to corporate greed, and will include the immortal lines: “F*** America. F*** the American Empire!... Three cheers for Bin Laden!”
“It’s actually incredibly funny!” says Brown today, half-grinning and hunched over a bowl of watercress soup in a South London restaurant, on a break from rehearsals. The Brighton-based actor, who is perhaps still best remembered for his scene-stealing turn as Danny the dealer from the cult film Withnail & I, says that the play will have the feel of a real punk gig, that it includes three live performances from the titular band, and that it’s a satirical portrait of today’s omnivorous celebrity culture. Mostly, however, he adds, it’s just funny. “It is a comedy, there is no question about that,” he says, nursing numb fingertips from serious guitar practice (he is a pianist and saxophonist, but has learnt guitar just for the role). “When I read it I thought, ‘Yeah, I used to be a punk, so I’ll do it!’ But when you put it on its feet it suddenly turns out to be very funny indeed.”
The play is also important, Brown confesses, because it represents another milestone in his career. “I haven’t been on stage since 1989, when I had a bad experience doing Macbeth at the Liverpool Everyman,” he says. “The director hated me and just wanted me to play a psychopath. I did it for four weeks and then left, shattered, never to return for 18 years.”
This, you sense, is a classic Brown anecdote. He is someone for whom acting has never been an easy progression, or a straightforward advance. Instead, divided by his talents, he has been pulled by music, by writing, by acting and, even at one stage, by a nascent law career. Thus he is an award-winning playwright who snagged a Samuel Beckett Award for his 1987 debut Sanctuary, and is also an accomplished musician and founding member of the 15-piece tribute band the Brighton Beach Boys. Plus he is turned up in some of the biggest blockbusting franchises in cinema, such as Alien 3, Wayne’s World 2 and Star Wars: The Phantom Menace. This eclecticism, he says, has in some ways taken its toll on his acting career, and occasionally forced him into playing “coppers and criminals” in Blist parts. But, thanks to The Dysfunckshonalz!, Brown says that he’s finally returning to form, and remembering what originally drove him.
“I turned 50 this summer,” he says. “It’s been a moment of reflection and, with this, then going right back to my youth, both as a punk and as a stage actor. And it’s been lovely to throw myself into it, and to have passion again.”
Brown’s passion emerged in the summer of 1977 after his first year at the London School of Economics. The eldest of four children who grew up inLewes, East Sussex, and the son of teacher, Brown was a “fashion punk” studying law when he auditioned, on a whim, for a play that was going to the Edinburgh Festival. “I was telling all these actors that I was going to be a barrister, and they were saying, ‘Oh, we’re going to be actors.’ And suddenly, ping, the penny dropped. I could be an actor too!”
He graduated nonetheless, joined a new wave band called the Birds of Tin, lived in a squat and generally “bummed around doing not so salubrious things”. Such as? “At the time I was working in the Scala cinema, at the allnighter. I used to sell coffee and, well, ‘other things that kept you awake all night’.” It was there that he befriended the Scala impresario Stephen Woolley, who would later, as a movie producer, cast him in as the memorably psychotic boyfriend of the transvestite Dil in The Crying Game.
Brown abandoned the Birds of Tin, segued into full-time acting, and soon landed the career-defining role of Camber-well carrot-toking Danny in Withnail & I. “I knew it was a scene-stealing part when I read the script,” he says, before adding that the impact of Dannyhas intensified with time, and that he’s still regularly approached on the street by enamoured fans. Do they quote Danny’s lines back to you? “They’d have to be quite brave to do that,” he says. “They think they’re going to, but as soon as they see me, they just say, ‘You must be so bored of hearing this, but I love that guy.’ And, no, I’m not bored of people giving me love. That would make me a real c***.”
The legacy of Danny has been twofold. On the one hand it has cemented Brown’s reputation as a quirky character actor, and possibly denied him leading-man status. Yet elsewhere its notoriety has driven him into the arms of heavy-hitting directors such as David Fincher ( Alien 3) and George Lucas ( Star Wars: The Phantom Menace). Of the latter experience, as starship pilot Ric Olie, Brown comments that although the Star Wars shoot itself was relatively smooth (“How could you not enjoy saying, ‘Our deflector shields are down!’?”), the postproduction reality was cruel – namely, he was boxed out of everything from the London premiere to the merchandising bonanza. “I go to America andsee my face everywhere and I don’t get a single cent?”
Nevertheless, Brown, who is married to fellow actress Jenny Jules, and is planning to write another stageplay early next year, says that he is comfortable as a character actor. “I get a lot of kicks out of being a bit more below the radar than someone like Hugh Grant, who has an image and has to stick with that.”
And besides, he says, there’s no point in bemoaning his lot, especially from within the nation’s fragile film industry. “It’s strange, because it’s so hard to have a film career in this country, so instead of saying, ‘Why hasn’t it ever happened big for me?’ I should be saying, ‘I’m a lucky bastard.’ But then you never feel lucky, until you’re on your death bed. Maybe then I’ll think back and go, ‘I was doing alright. Why didn’t I enjoy it more?’ ”
The Dysfunckshonalz!, Bush Theatre, London W12 (www.thedysfunckshonalz.com 020-7610 4224), until Dec 22
Ozzy Osbourne's hosting the Brits tomorrow night, alongside members of his family who have variously been rejected by Joss Stone and almost died in a house fire. It sounds like a should be a total shambles, but let's not forget that Ozzy Osbourne is a respectable older gentleman now, and he'll have been primped and prepared to within an inch of his life to ensure that nothing goes wrong…
What's that? Ozzy Osbourne is going to call the Brits short and launch a violent attack on Heather Mills if she manages to turn up to the Brits and present an award tomorrow? Fair enough. Female First reports:
Speaking about the rumours Heather is planning to attend the prestigious bash, Sharon said: "I would boot her off. I think she's a miserable old cow." Ozzy - who will present Paul with the BRITs Lifetime Achievement Award - added: "I'm looking forward to seeing Paul McCartney - he's my hero. The body of work he's got is just unbelievable. But I really don't want to be there if Heather shows up. Never mind McCartney having a go - I think the audience will string her up. Sharon and I have met them both her on a few occasions but if Paul doesn't know her, I'm f**ked if I do. She's f**king nuts."
mike oldfield can be in the twat of the century field:
"He does not want to answer any "why", "What is the reason" or "What is the meaning" questions. I know this is a little strange and I know it is hard to control what the journalists ask but it would be better for everyone involved if they are aware of this upfront. Can you also please ask your journalists not to ask Mike for an autograph".