Terence Stamp Thinks About Hindi, Cary Grant and a Good Steam at the New York Athletic Club

Terence Stamp does not own a house. He told me this as we sat in the deserted Park Avenue Plaza atrium on 53rd Street between Park and Madison avenues. “My home is my head, really,” Mr. Stamp said with a shy smile. What a dwelling. Time has kindly turned his once boyishly pretty face into a lined visage of patriarchal handsomeness. His silken hair is silver, in a spiky cut to mask its thinness. But his cheekbones still jut and the jawline is firm. At 61, his blue eyes still exert a preternatural gravitational pull.

Mr. Stamp’s last permanent address had been East Hampton, N.Y., but he sold his house in 1997. “It was only after I’d been there for a couple of years that I realized that it just didn’t suit me. It wasn’t really what I was lookin’ for,” he added, his Cockney surfacing for a moment. “So I sold that when the market was good. And since then, I’ve been untethered, really.”

Mr. Stamp glanced at the waterfall. His hand rested on a Starbucks paper cup that contained tea and soy milk. He was dressed casually in a Hawaiian shirt with an olive and brown print, slacks and worn Docksiders. For the next few weeks, he would judge for the Louis Vuitton Classic, the annual classic cars competition at Rockefeller Center.

“I would imagine that”–here he paused–”that I’ve been brought in for my discerning eye.” Mr. Stamp batted his blues and unsheathed a grin that said, Who better to judge the sensual lines of rare and racy automobiles than a man who’d romanced both Jean Shrimpton and Julie Christie, the latter relationship inspiring the Kinks song “Julie and Terry Cross Over the River”?

And Mr. Stamp is something of a vintage chassis himself. But he is no antique. When the stone was finally rolled against the tomb of the 60′s, Mr. Stamp was one of the lucky few who escaped interment. He had slipped out on a jet plane to the Far East, where for much of the 70′s he tuned in, turned on and dropped out, choosing to feed his head rather than the beast that a heat-seeking actor’s ego inevitably becomes. When he returned from self-imposed exile, he was as an actor, not a star. And as much as Mr. Stamp is identified with the 60′s, the mildewy smell of nostalgia has never clung to him. Certainly he has not gotten his due–but his willingness to put himself out there has steeped Mr. Stamp in a kind of ageless cool.

He has been coming to New York since the U.S. premiere of his 1962 film debut, Billy Budd . Not long after, he starred on Broadway in Alfie –the movie of which would be made by his onetime flatmate, Michael Caine. Mr. Stamp’s mental map of the city includes the New York Athletic Club, where he usually stays and, as a clean freak, makes frequent use of the steam room; the B&H Dairy, which makes his favorite barley soup; Blanche’s Organic Cafe, in tune with his decades-old wheat-and-dairy-free diet; the Oyster Bar, where he and his New York-based brother, Chris Stamp–both former members of swinging-60′s London’s Rock ‘n’ Roll Raj–like to hash over the old days like, Mr. Stamp said, “a couple of aging sea captains.”

Which may be why Mr. Stamp likes it in New York, where the past plays an inextricable role in the present, where life is a kind of ongoing memory play. And Terence Stamp is an actor in whom, more and more, directors find that the past and present intertwine. In The Limey , Steven Soderbergh edited in clips from Poor Cow , the 1967 Ken Loach-directed movie in which Mr. Stamp appeared as a criminal named Dave. And his role, Dave Wilson–nearing the end of his career of crime–had a past in the sexy, swinging London of the 60′s.

His gaze conveys a depth of character that, modulated and attuned to the role he is playing–the stool pigeon Willie Parker in The Hit , the witty, melancholy drag queen Bernadette in The Adventures of Priscilla Queen of the Desert or even his handful of scenes as Chancellor Valorum, the man who presides over the bureaucracy-hobbled universe in Star Wars: Episode 1, The Phantom Menace –makes them stand out, in Imax-like relief, on the big screen.

And then Mr. Stamp can just as easily scroll backward to the unguarded, toothy smile of “Tugboat Terry,” a Cockney scrubber from Bow, who still can’t quite believe he’s living the actor’s life.

But as he sat sipping tea in the atrium, Mr. Stamp did not look like a man on whom the curtain was about to fall. “I feel that if I were a politician, I’d be running the country,” he said. “I’m a guy in prime time,” he said, putting his hands on the table. “I haven’t reached my sell-by date, even if I’ve reached my sell-by date with Kate Moss and Claudia Schiffer, you know?” He chuckled, but it was somehow possible to imagine Mr. Stamp and Ms. Moss as a couple, a merging of the swinging Londons of then and now.

For more than 25 years now, he has maintained a wheat-and-dairy-free diet, and in 1997, he and his partner Elizabeth Buxton published The Stamp Collection Cookbook of wheat-and-dairy-free recipes and introduced an organic food line of the same name. A regimen of Pilates also keeps him fit, although it changed the shape of his feet so much that he had to part with most of his beloved pairs of handmade George Cleverley shoes.

But as Mr. Stamp and I sat with the birds–not the London kind–and a lone security guard in this atrium, one thought gnawed at me. Having watched a good deal of his film work, having tracked down all three volumes of his snazzily written but sadly out-of-print memoirs ( Stamp Album , The Night and Double Feature ), and having encountered him in person, it occurred to me that Terence Stamp was judging a car show. Those brainiacs in Hollywood should be working his ass off right now, doing with him what they did with Sean Connery since the 1990′s: pairing him with the latest young actress–Gwyneth Paltrow or Catherine Zeta-Jones-Douglas–in big-budget, May-December productions.

I delivered this armchair-agent’s opinion to Mr. Stamp. He put down his paper tea cup and gave me a look that said I was kind but naïve. “I’m always feeling, after the hit, I’ll get loads of jobs,” he said, but “I’m just out of work for years. I was out of work for years after The Hit ; I was out of work for two years after Priscilla .

“I don’t mean I don’t get offered stuff. It’s just that, as my life is passing … I think, once I got to 50, I didn’t even want to think about stuff I didn’t want to do. It’s my life. If I agree to do a movie, I’d get into it for three months’ preparation. And three months’ work. That’s half a year. So I want to do good stuff, for me. Just for me. And, um, that’s hard unless you are a bankable guy. Unless you bring in $20 million on opening weekend, you know?”

Mr. Stamp will next be seen playing an astronaut in Red Planet , the second of the big-budget Mars flicks, slated to open in November.

“The thing about modern-day filmmaking is there’s this incredible confusion between acting and being a star,” said Chris Stamp, a former rock ‘n’ roll impresario who now works as a “psychodrama therapist.” His brother, he said, “hasn’t had to face that sort of question … And I guess in a sense that perhaps because it didn’t just fall on his plate, he still has to put himself out there and stay closer to the edge than if he’d had this easy ride.”

Terence Stamp celebrated his 21st birthday on the set of Peter Ustinov’s adaptation of Billy Budd , in which he played the title role. Three years later, William Wyler directed him in The Collector . Then came the excessively madcap Modesty Blaise and John Schlesinger’s adaptation of Thomas Hardy’s Far from the Madding Crowd , the movie that should have positioned Mr. Stamp (who played the sword-brandishing rake, Sergeant Troy) for leading-man status. But it was to prove a letdown.

“I didn’t have a good time with Schlesinger,” he said. “He was the first director that I worked with that didn’t think I was the greatest thing since sliced loaf. I think that he genuinely saw the character differently and I think that the producer … had sort of foisted me on the director, so I can’t really lay the blame at Schlesinger’s feet. I’d just had this love from Ustinov and Wyler. But [Schlesinger] wouldn’t have known also how tender I was. I was like Jack the Lad, you know, at this great critical moment in my life.”

The movie is a splendid piece of work, but it bombed. “The critics pissed on us,” Mr. Stamp said. “I remember the chilling opening party here.” He made a whooshing noise, like the sound of air being sucked out of a room. “You could have run a shy horse through that Far from the Madding Crowd first-night party, you know. There was Julie Christie and me and a few people there for the beer. And so after that, you know, I never played a traditional male romantic lead. I mean, I did other wonderful things. Not everyone gets to make love to Silvana Mangano and her husband and her son and her daughter and her maid,” Mr. Stamp said of Pier Paolo Pasolini’s rather wacky Teorema , a movie that features lots of shots of Mr. Stamp’s crotch.

And not everyone gets to make love, in real life, to model Jean Shrimpton, who made headlines when she left photographer David Bailey for Mr. Stamp. Separately, Ms. Shrimpton and Mr. Stamp embodied the sinewy, sexy London of the 60′s, but together ? Well, it was almost too much to consider. Certainly it was too good to last. And around the time that Mr. Stamp was filming Blue , their relationship began to disintegrate.

“I don’t think he thinks about it that much now,” said Chris Stamp, “but [the breakup] was something that was so gigantic in his life. At that time, we were very much living in the mythic proportions of our own existence. Jean was another mythic figure. A lot of models are skinny with nice eyes. Jean’s was this extraordinary beauty. And when that relationship ended, he said it broke all the illusions and all the icons that we ran after in our youth. That splintered and it didn’t reform.” When I recounted his brother’s comments, Terence Stamp replied: “I think that’s absolutely true. It took the failure of that love affair,” he paused. “That’s what turned me inward.”

In Double Feature , Mr. Stamp wrote of a half-hearted suicide attempt.

As he sat by the waterfall, he recounted the breakup in present tense. “I have lost her, and I am desperately unhappy,” Mr. Stamp said. “There wasn’t any kind of flaw that I could have thought, ‘Oh, if I could find a girl who just had better legs or just had more beautiful eyes.’ There wasn’t anywhere to go. If I’d just been a little bit more dumb, I would have chased after the next supermodel and then I might have still been riding that tiger.” He laughed loudly, and smiled slyly.

Mr. Stamp has long enjoyed a reputation as a Bengal lancer, so to speak, but for the last three years he has been dating Elizabeth O’Rourke, an Australian pharmacist. At the time, though, his epiphany was pretty shattering. “Once I twigged that, you know, that’s when I realized I [had gone] from being at the top of a mountain to the foot of the Himalayas.”

But Mr. Stamp encountered an unlikely Sherpa guide in the form of the Italian director Federico Fellini. When Peter O’Toole bowed out of the starring role in Fellini’s installment of a 1968 trilogy of shorts inspired by Edgar Allan Poe stories, Spirits of The Dead , the director sent for the most decadent actor in London to play the washed-up actor Toby Dammit, who literally loses his head at the end of the film.

Mr. Stamp said he divides his career into two parts: before Fellini and after Fellini. Fellini “embodied the transcendent,” Mr. Stamp said. “He was more than a great director, he was like the guru.” Mr. Stamp said when he was chosen for Spirits of the Dead , “it was almost as simple as, ‘If Fellini’s chosen me, I must be okay.’ So that sort of loosed a lot of bonds.”

On the first day of filming, Mr. Stamp asked for some direction. As he recounted in Double Feature , Fellini leaned in and told him: “This night, last night, you was at a party. Big party, but really an orgy … You drunk. You drink more, anything, but much whisky, lotta whisky. Also smoke hashish, marijuana, sniff cocaine and fuck, much fucking all night. Big woman with big breasts, you fucking her, somebody come fuck you. All night like this. This morning a macchina come take you to the airport, put you on a plane to Rome. But before you get on an airplane your chauffeur drop a big tab of LSD into your mouth. Now you here.”

Fellini served as the catalyst for the actor’s spiritual journey, and the actor said that the director embodied a Sanskrit word, satsang , which applies to people who empower you. “You take of their energy on some kind of cosmic ephemeral level.”

In 1969 he bought a round-the-world ticket and took off, without any date to come back. As he sat in the cab that took him to the airport, he could hear the Beatles playing their final concert together on the roof of 3 Savile Row. His travels took him to India, Afghanistan and Egypt, and on several trips that did not involve actual travel. While he was gone, he said, the tabloids carried reports “that I was brain-damaged [from] acid, that I was recovering in a Swiss clinic.” Mr. Stamp looked genuinely proud of this one.

He did a few movies, including the underrated The Mind of Mr. Soames in 1970, but he didn’t really resurface until 1978, when he played General Zod in Superman II . The 80′s were hit-and-miss, with a few films that he’d genuinely like to forget, such as Monster Island . But because Mr. Stamp went away to cultivate the life of his mind, he did not become Austin Powers. He came back a different person, with a different perspective.

“It slowly came to me that I had always wanted a long career,” he said. “And I knew that even my idol, Cary Grant, had these long valleys. That was part of having a long career.”

Mr. Stamp spent the last half of the 90′s way above sea level. And “if today I’ve got money for a year,” he said, “I don’t worry. I just don’t worry.”

Recently he finished the first draft of the latest installment of his memoirs, on his 10 or so years in the wilderness. “That’s the big middle,” he said. “And that’s what made it so complex.” He cleared his throat. “Because with the other memoirs, I always had landmarks. I always knew exactly where I was.” But in the 70′s, “my voyage … it was all to do with a kind of internal search.

“It’s called Seduced by Glamour ,” he said. “And you know the old Anglo-Saxon meaning of glamour is the glittery net that people threw over their opponents.” He looked triumphant. “And in Hindi, glamour is the insubstantial stuff. The world of objects. So, in other words, the glamour is considered the illusion.”

This reminded me of the last lines of Double Feature , where a holy man asks Mr. Stamp: “Have you seen the light in your heart?”

“Not exactly,” was his reply. I asked him if his answer would be any different today.

Mr. Stamp gave me a long look. “Do you remember the first part of that question?” he asked. “It was, ‘Has your heart sung to you?’ I have experienced that.”

“When?” I asked him, as two birds dove toward the waterfall, then banked abruptly away and up toward the rafters.

“It happens when I’m working,” Terence Stamp said.