Russell Brand's Observer Magazine Interview
Russell Brand is no stranger to controversy. But nothing prepared him for 'Sachsgate'. He reveals all to Miranda Sawyer
Three weeks ago, I interviewed Russell Brand. Afterwards I trotted home thinking, 'That was good fun: entertaining, a bit bizarre, a stimulating way to spend an hour.' A few days later, the row about Andrew Sachs blew up. Within a week, Russell had resigned from Radio 2, as had the station's head, Lesley Douglas, Jonathan Ross had been suspended, and the BBC was dissolving - yet again - into hopeless self-flagellation. And my cosy chat with Russell about his new book and DVD seemed as relevant as rabies.
Now Russell has fled to LA; over there for a couple of film roles and to record a stand-up show. He isn't giving interviews, but he calls me from his hotel to explain himself, sounding understandably quieter than when we first talked. 'I don't want to appear in any way cavalier,' he says, which is funny coming from someone with his hairdo.
So, what happened?
'Well, it wasn't that we went: "Let's ring Andrew Sachs and boast about having sex with his granddaughter",' he says. 'It was: "Oh, he's not there, let's just leave a message" and then: "Oh, look what we've done now." There was no malicious intent - it was like an evolving, rolling thing. If you listen, I say sorry more than I say anything offensive - the message is mostly an apology. In fact, it's the acknowledgment of how wrong it was that is the source of the comedy. What's difficult is that it was completely devoid of malice, and there's been a retrospective application of cruelty and intention to cause offence.'
Russell spoke about the sequence of events that led to the prerecorded show being edited but still being broadcast, saying it was his responsibility. 'I don't think this is a situation where I'd go: "Oh my god, why didn't you protect me from myself, Nic Philps [his producer]?"' He acknowledged that big egos like his and Ross's can be hard to keep under control and that part of the fuss was because Ross earns so much money. He expressed regret over Douglas and Sachs (though he said nothing about Georgina Baillie, Sachs's granddaughter). What he wouldn't take responsibility for was the furore.
'I think what I do appeals to lots of people, younger and older, and certainly what it is, is unrestrained, unbridled and authentic. And on this occasion it offended Andrew Sachs and I feel bad about that and he's accepted my apology. But how that has been subsequently conveyed, which is as a vindictive act, then I didn't do the vindictive act. I did the daft thing, and that I take responsibility for. How it's been repackaged ... I'm not at all responsible for that.'
Will you change because of this?
'I can't let it change what I do. If you're asking me to inhibit what is spontaneous and good about my performance, then I can't do that. I don't think anyone who loves what I do, who will have listened to the actual thing and not complained ... I don't think they'll be affected by it. And then the people who don't like me will just think: "Well, this is what we expected." So despite how huge the fuss is, essentially it's meaningless.'
I wonder. Meaningless, probably, for Russell. He has plenty of other projects on the go: including movies (with Judd Apatow and Oliver Stone), his Guardian football columns, now collected into a book, and his Channel 4 Ponderland show. In February, Comedy Central will screen an hour of his stand-up, to coincide with the US launch of his autobiography. Russell's immediate plan is to conquer America - and not having a BBC radio programme won't hinder that.
But Ross's reputation has definitely suffered - he was so pathetically excited about Russell's sex life - and Douglas has lost her job, leaving Radio 2 to retreat back into golf-club-and-cardigan-land. The BBC will have to do something about how much it pays its big stars. And if Sachs held any wafty illusions about his granddaughter (and most grandparents do), then they've been well and truly shattered.
Still. Now that the fuss has begun to die down, perhaps us Russell Brand fans will be allowed to speak up. My name is Miranda Sawyer and I think Russell Brand is funny. I loved his spontaneous, anarchic radio show. I enjoy his filthy, off-the-hook stand-up. His autobiography, My Booky Wook, was impossible to read without laughing out loud. Naturally, I don't think he should spend his time leaving rude messages on people's answer machines, but that is not all he does.
For a start, he enlivens the world with his ludicrous dress sense. For our original, pre-Sachsgate interview, he arrived dressed entirely in black - jacket, leggings, bovver boots and, yes, skirt - accessorised with diamanté belts, clunking chains and enormo shades. Much taller, hairier and better-looking than I expected: a young George Best let loose in the Addams Family dressing-up box.
'Do you like my leggings?' he asks archly, turning an ankle. 'I think the ruching, strangely, stops them from being too feminine. It's not often you can say that about ruching. Yes, they are ladies' trousers.'
We are in a large, tastefully furnished room next to the photo studio. Russell is appreciative. 'Now that I know this room is a possibility, then next time I have an interview it will have to be somewhere at least as good. It'll have to be in a ballroom with a Jacuzzi. And a hand maiden! Don't give me anything worse! The privilege has become the standard!'
Though he seemed slightly shy when he first arrived, it doesn't take much for Russell to get boisterous. Show him the smallest twig of a joke and he snatches it like a mad dog, running away with it as far as he can. It's hard to stop him, because what do you say? Russell's confidence comes from knowing himself inside out. There's no point in taking the mickey out of him for being an attention-seeking sex maniac, nor in pointing out he's an ex-junkie, a drama-school flunk, a perfumed ponce from Essex who fancies himself despite his ludicrous hair. He knows all this. He makes jokes about it. Plus, he's been in NA since December 2002 and so does that tedious 12 Steps thing of spending hours analysing himself and his actions.
'I have a propensity for self-involvement. I can be very vain and I can be selfish and I'm totally aware of that,' he says, settling himself into the leather sofa. 'And I work on it literally on a daily basis, as part of my recovery from drugs and alcohol. I'm like: "Oh no, that was a selfish thing to say. Oh no, I apologise, let me make amends." So that is part of my life.'
All of which takes on a different weight after he's spent a week saying sorry to one and all. Anyhow, this navel gazing means interviewing Russell is peculiar. Every question you ask him about himself, he's already considered. More, he's deconstructed it, put it back together, located an appropriate intellectual quote and tried to solve whichever trait of his personality made him act like that in the first place. He's very clever and uses language with panache, but his mind is less a steel trap, more a pin-ball machine when all the bonus balls are released at once. Exhilarating, but exhausting.
When I talk to him about his recent hosting of the VMAs (MTV Video Music Awards), for instance, where he drew flak for teasing the Jonas Brothers about their virginity and describing George Bush as that 'retarded cowboy feller', Russell launches into a reply which, when I transcribe it, is more than 1,500 words long. To summarise: at the actual awards, he went down better than he'd expected, no matter what happened afterwards. He realises the office of president is talismanic to Americans, even to liberal ones; he loves America, and understands it's going through a necessary crisis vis-à-vis race; and he thinks it's cynical to market a teenage boy band as virgins. 'There's that Michel Foucault idea of sublimating sexuality, so promoting virginity is another way of putting sexuality at the forefront of popular culture. Like, "They don't have sex." "What? They don't have sex?" It's hokey balderdash.' See? Clever.
However, what's more interesting is how he starts his answer, which is with this funny/serious little speech. 'I'm a very sensitive person,' he says, 'so I don't like to read or hear anything negative about myself, under any circumstances at all. To the point where I'm a difficult actor to direct, because if the director says anything other than, "That was brilliant, amazing - how do you think of these ideas? Why, you're so clever and you're handsome ..." I'm like: "Oh fine, fuck you!" I'd feel hurt, but I'd also think, "Leave me alone, I'm trying my hardest!"'
The problem for him, he says, is he only ever Googles his own name, so, as he's always getting into trouble, he reads a lot about how horrible everyone thinks he is, and gets upset. Not that it stops him. His career trajectory is, all too often, get hired, get cocky, get sacked. Which is pretty much what happened last week, as well as at XFM (for reading out porn), during a Steve Coogan film (for using prostitutes) and at MTV (for turning up the day after 9/11 dressed as Osama Bin Laden and introducing his heroin dealer to Kylie Minogue).
Still, he's on a real work mission at the moment. After his acting success in last year's Forgetting Sarah Marshall and hosting the VMAs, America is very interested. 'People ask me: "Do you want to be a niche, avant-garde, Bill Hicks kind of comedian, or do you want to make $100m movies?" And I want to be able to do what I want artistically, in stand-up, writing and films, and for that you have to be able to access a huge number of people. You have to be huge. By 2011, Miranda, I want to be able to host not only the VMA awards, but an awards ceremony of my own devising.'
So you're going for world domination?
'Yes. That is what I will do,' says Russell. 'In an Edmund Hillary way, because it's there. What am I gonna stop for? What would stop me? I'll just carry on until there's nothing left.'
The truly weird aspect to Russell's desire for fame, however, is why he wants it. I assumed he was just a narcissist who'd like the extra attention, but there's something else behind his ambition. What Russell wants, he tells me, quite seriously, 'is to restructure, re-evaluate and change every single facet of our society to maximise the common good for as many people as possible'.
What, like Stalin, I ask. He launches into another rattle.
'The thing is, Miranda, that through circumstance or design, I have aligned my success with some quite powerful feelings. And that is now the focus of my life. The material world is a transitory illusion, and if it is, why organise your life around the systems that it imposes? Particularly if those systems have negative consequences for huge numbers of people, and the planet itself. I wonder if there are ways that that can change; I wonder if there are elements in the way that the world is organised that are arbitrary and not absolute and could be altered? And I don't mean normal things like, let's wear a ribbon - I mean the entire economic structure of the planet or the way we look at religion.
'And I'm more than aware that the chap off of Big Brother's Big Mouth is unlikely to single-handedly augment an entirely new global culture. I am quite aware that this is not something I can legislate while I am appearing in the wonderful comedies of Judd Apatow. But when you say: "What do you want?", that is what I want.'
I feel, oddly, like cheering. Instead, I mention David Icke, and we have a bit of a laugh: Russell thinks David Icke is great - 'though he loses me when it comes to the lizards'. Anyhow, it turns out Russell's beliefs stem from Hare Krishna. He had an encounter with a swami in Soho Square and it spun his head around. Russell looked into the swami's eye and the world dissolved, and he became aware that everything is connected, atomically, and it's ludicrous to imagine we are separate from anything, when we are all just vibrations. 'I felt the absolute certainty that consciousness is in tune with enlightenment, and I could access it. In the same way I feel desire for a human, I felt desire for that; it was something that I wanted, and it kind of made me blush.'
Russell then spoils all of this floaty high-mindedness by announcing: 'I love fucking.' You're scared of being serious, I say, and he says, no, he is serious: 'I really do love fucking. And also I am stimulated hugely by attention and status, and that's not in keeping with what I just said, because those things are transitory, illusory and meaningless.'
And fun. 'Yes, but there's no point in swigging down anaesthetic. Miranda, I'm not talking to you from a monastery. After this, I'm going back to my house in Hampstead, which has a hot tub for damn good reasons and none of them spiritual! One time I was motivated by lust towards these women; now I'm motivated by love. I love them! I think I can make them feel better and I truly love them and it's not, like, aggressive - it's simplistic and pure and not, like, woooohaurgh.'
Did you mention this to the swami, I ask.
'Yes I did, and he said, "Do you take anything from these women?" And I was, like: "Yes."'
Their self-respect? Their money?
'Their jewels! Sometimes I take a nipple as a trophy! What else am I to make my nipple charm necklace of, hmm? Scotch mist? Would you recommend Scotch mist as an alternative, because I put it to you it's not good enough! And then I left.'
How to interview Russell without his mad flamboyance stealing the show? Let's take time out for a recap of his life. Born on 4 June 1975, in Grays, Essex, he was an awkward, unhappy child, obsessed with his mum, Barbara, to the extent of thinking they should get married. They had an intense, loving relationship, though a stressful one. They were skint, Barbara suffered cancer three times during her son's formative years, and when Russell was seven she hooked up with stepdad Colin, whom Russell hated. Russell's dad, Ron, had left when he was six months old. As a little boy, when Russell went round to visit, Ron let him watch Elvis films and porn while he 'diddled birds in the room next door'.
All this is in My Booky Wook, which also details Russell's teenage bulimia; the tutor who fiddled with him; his addictions to drugs and sex; the rehab he went through for both. And how, when he was 16, his dad took him to Thailand and immediately hired three prostitutes: two for Ron, one for Russell.
Russell partly attributes his crazy ambition to his dad, who played motivational tapes in the car. Ron also ignored Russell for much of the time, which must have something to do with his son's world-beating attention seeking. Their shared hobbies were sex and football, and they have recently been on good terms, as Ron appears on Russell's Ponderland DVD - Russell phones him up and gets him to colour-code his penis. However, when I mention his dad, Russell tells me they're not speaking at the moment. 'Of course I love him, but there's something I'm not at ease with in my relationship with him. I feel a lot of difficult things, but I recognise he's just a person trying his hardest.'
To me, these father-son problems, coupled with his claustrophobic devotion to his mum, must partly explain Russell's strange approach to masculinity and femininity. Despite foppish appearances, Russell works hard to be a stereotypical bloke. He's obsessed with women and football and, he says, 'through my sexuality and through performance, I've claimed an alpha masculinity that would have otherwise been inaccessible to me'.
He's proud of his Guardian football columns, partly because they've taught him the discipline of writing. He started off by ranting and getting someone else to write it down, but now he sits at a computer and bashes out 800 words like a proper hack. But he's also pleased that the column has 'fortified my relationship with football. My dad was good at football and I wasn't. For me it's riddled with ideas about spirituality, masculinity, fatherhood ...' His dad used to take him to West Ham matches and Russell found the atmosphere exciting but intimidating. Anyway, because of his column, Russell is now no longer nervous at Upton Park. He's accepted, as a famous fan. 'I like it - I feel I've been contextualised correctly.' Maybe now he's acknowledged as a football geezer, a true man, he can give up on all the porny sex and find a girlfriend. I advance my theory to Russell, which is that he's frightened of having a serious relationship with a woman because it will mean he doesn't love his mum best.
Russell thinks and says: 'I lived with just my mum until I was seven. And I think my formative idea of love was uniquely focused on her, so that necessarily I had to exclude from that notion the sexual act. So that now when it comes to reincorporating that, I struggle. I really want a partner, but I don't think I put out the right signals. My friends say I don't spend enough time with women who are challenging intellectually. And because I'm gadding about and wanting things immediately and chewing up flesh, I think some women recoil! Still,' he adds cheerily, 'in the absence of a relationship, perhaps I'll be more devoted to my madcap revolution!'
Aside from his madcap revolution - which may take some time - what does the future hold for Russell Brand? He might be off conquering America for the next few months, but he's scheduled to do a British stand-up tour early in 2009, and Ponderland is still running on Channel 4. Underneath all the recent fuss, the media was actually gunning for the BBC rather than Russell, but does that let him off the hook? His Radio 2 colleagues are very upset about Douglas having to leave. Maybe he'll settle in LA and become a guru. He's got the look, the desire for fame and sex. I just don't know if the USA can cope with all that love - the love Russell wants to give out, but also the vast, unrestrained universe of love that he requires just to exist.
There's an incident in his autobiography where an elderly neighbour, clearly trying to look after this strange little boy, spends time with Russell in his garden before nipping into his house. 'Don't stamp on the flowers,' he says before he goes in. Russell stamps on the flowers and the neighbour never talks to him again. I bring this up.
'Yes, if love comes with some kind of cost, I'll take loneliness!' he laughs. 'I wonder why I would do a thing like that, and I imagine it must have been because I didn't really feel stable or happy or have any trust in the adult world. I really try and be nice now. And I still do things where I'm rude and aggressive and use intelligence to belittle people and all sorts of things. But I'm always trying to monitor it, and I honestly think that I spend more time now laughing about my vanity and obsessions than imposing the consequences on others. And there are loads of things that I question, there are loads of things that I doubt. But I know I'm a good man, I know I'm in alignment with things that are beautiful, and this gives me a great deal of strength.'
Russell Brand's intentions are undoubtedly good. He wants to spread the love, to bring joy, to show people that they shouldn't be fettered by stupid rules if it doesn't make them happy. But good intentions aren't always enough. Nasty results can outweigh whatever niceness was meant. It's like the traditional 'Did you spill my pint?' argument. You may not have meant to, you might even have been leaning over to give me a hug and tell me I'm great. But the fact is that I'm left standing here, dripping, covered in beer.
• Russell Brand's Ponderland: Series One is released on DVD tomorrow
'Sachsgate': The story according to Russell Brand
So, what actually happened?
It wasn't that we went: 'Let's ring Andrew Sachs now and boast about having sex with his granddaughter.' It was: 'Oh, he's not there, let's just leave a message', and then: 'Oh, look what we've done now.' There was no malicious intent - it was like an evolving, rolling thing. If you listen, I say sorry more than I say anything offensive - the message is mostly an apology. In fact, it's the acknowledgment of how wrong it was that is the source of the comedy. What's difficult about the whole thing is that it was completely devoid of malice, and there's been a retrospective application of cruelty and intention to cause offence.
This was a prerecorded show. Why did it go out?
The thing was, we were told that Andrew Sachs had okayed it. The grey area is that our brilliant young producer Nic Philps called Andrew Sachs afterwards and said: 'Is it OK, can we use it, do you mind?' And he said, 'Oh yeah, but can you tone it down a bit?' So we did. We took out the more personal stuff. And I don't think it would have happened on a live show, but because it was a prerecord situation it was a little bit more loose. But that doesn't take away from the fact that it was left on his answerphone. The thing that I think was bad is that Andrew is a lovely man; like at the time you don't think: 'Oh, he's 78 years old, this will upset him'. You just think: 'Oh, it's a bit daft.'
Are big egos like you and Jonathan Ross hard for producers to keep under control?
Yeah, I think so. I think that's relatively fair: myself and Jonathan are quite experienced broadcasters. I take complete responsibility. I don't think this is a situation where I'd go, 'Oh my god, why didn't you protect me from myself, Nic Philps?' I completely and utterly take responsibility. I've apologised unequivocally, I've resigned from the BBC, and I'm sorry that this all means that Lesley Douglas, who I think is a particularly brilliant woman and very good for Radio 2, who had a great vision for the station - I feel sad that it's given people an opportunity to take potshots at her.
Is it true that you sacked loads of producers in your time on Radio 2?
No. We were at BBC 6Music and we had various producers there. Nic Philps has been with us for quite a while; he was recommended to us. I suppose it was always a surprise to be on Radio 2, but I loved being there because I think it's a great radio station
Have you exposed a generation gap?
I don't particularly target younger people with what I do - I'm just authentic and honest. And just because this incident has become the focus of such phenomenal analysis, it doesn't make it any more defining of what I do as a performer. That was one moment. I think that what I do appeals to lots of people, younger and older, and certainly what it is, is kind of unrestrained, unbridled and authentic. And on this occasion it offended Andrew Sachs and I feel bad about that. But he's accepted my apology. The subsequent stuff I can't really take responsibility for. If you take the objective incident and how that has been subsequently conveyed, which is as a vindictive act, then I didn't do the vindictive act. I did the daft thing, and that I take responsibility for. How it's been repackaged ... I'm not at all responsible for that.
Do you think the furore is fuelled by how much Jonathan earns?
Yes. I've still not been in this job long enough to view Jonathan objectively. I think: what? Jonathan Ross's show isn't going to be on the telly? That's mad! He's absolutely brilliant and lovely, and I think it's really unfortunate that they can lacquer all of his achievements and everything that he's done with this one incident.
When we talked before, you spoke a lot about your general love for people. Do you think your general love disappears when it comes to individuals?
No, I don't think that's true. You can't have a high-minded ideal and treat the people who work for you badly. You can't negate personal responsibility. They're more significant. Your behaviour towards other people is more important than your ideals.
Will you change because of what's happened?
I can't let it change what I do, other than when I make a programme have an editor look at all aspects of it to see if it will offend on a personal level. If you're asking me to inhibit what is spontaneous and good about my performance, then I can't do that.
You told me you hate negative comments. You've had a lot of them this week. How have you been affected?
In a way I feel it doesn't change anything. I don't think anyone who loves what I do, who will have listened to the thing and not complained - I don't think they'll be affected by it. And then the people who don't like me will just think: 'Well, this is what we expected.' So despite how huge the fuss is, essentially it's meaningless.
first published in The Observer, Sunday 9th November 2008