Malcolm McLaren

This is Malcolm McLaren as he likes to see himself: the Left Bank bohemian, the unappreciated maverick, the exile nursing a glass of chilled pinot noir as he sits in his favourite bistro on the Boulevard St Germain, not far from his appartement. He even, towards the end of this paragraph, compares himself to Oscar Wilde. ‘I first came to Paris to lick my wounds at the end of the Seventies,’ he says, over-enunciating his vowels in a fluty voice that is part estuary geezer, part high duchess. ‘It was after I’d been taken to court by the Sex Pistols because they claimed I had mismanaged them. I had mismanaged them, of course. I was in the business of mismanagement. But I soon realised that Parisians love anyone the English hate. I felt like Oscar Wilde must have felt when he became an exile here. The main difference being that I had zillions of girlfriends.’

The main difference? Clearly we are in the presence of a healthy ego here. The walls of the bistro, incidentally, are hung with giant mirrors that angle away from the wall at the top, so that diners can contemplate themselves. And above the cash register there is a small black and white photograph of Picasso, who was also a regular here. Wilde, Picasso, McLaren. It soon becomes apparent that my dining companion would have no hesitation in mentioning those three names in the same breath.

‘We’re just in the process of moving at the moment,’ he adds. ‘From the 9th to 8th arrondissement. We had a bit of a clear-out. My big Knoll desk was bought at auction by Nicolas Sarkozy. We had to move because we needed a better concierge, one who would deal with packages and be discreet.’ The ‘we’ refers to Young Kim, his 34-year-old Korean-American partner (a graduate of Yale University who is now a fashion historian). ‘This will be my fifth appartement because although Parisians in general love me, I always seem to have trouble with my immediate neighbours. Any bit of noise or rowdiness and they want to complain to the police and put a petition in the town hall. Before you know it you are being taken to court by the landlord of the building. I’ve had that twice. And if you put up the black flag and say ”f— you” then they make your life even more miserable.’

At 61, McLaren’s hair is no longer auburn and wiry, but neatly cropped and frosting at the temples. He is wearing a sensible blue shirt – although it does have a gravy stain on the front – and as he talks he rolls up one sleeve only, the other remaining stubbornly buttoned down. It is as if he only half means business today. He has, he confides, got a stinking hangover. To combat it he orders, in passable French, a beetroot salad, one which leaves his tongue red. ‘I sooo needed to eat something,’ he says, with a roll of his eyes. He holds his knife like a pen and, as he talks, which he does for three hours without flagging – talk, talk, talk – he holds his fork limply, his wrist loose, conducting with it. Perhaps it is all part of the aesthete look he seems to be cultivating: Brian Sewell meets Dame Edith Evans. He is the consummate chameleon, after all.

After his heady days managing the Sex Pistols (and later Bow Wow Wow), McLaren reinvented himself as a pioneer of scratch and hip-hop, having hit singles with Buffalo Gals and a techno version of Madam Butterfly. But after that, nothing. Well, nothing much. With the composer Yanni he arranged The Flower Duet to accompany the BA commercials. He ran unsuccessfully for Mayor of London in 1999. He produced a film, Fast Food Nation, that did quite well at the box office last year. Oh, and he has appeared in a reality show set in a remote village in Scotland. It was due to air this autumn but may now be shelved because another of the contestants, Mike Reid, has since died.

The plot was this: three ‘celebrities’ competed to win the title Baron of Gardenstown, which the TV company had bought. McLaren was the obligatory awkward cuss, something of a tradition on reality shows since John Lydon (Johnny Rotten as was) appeared in I’m a Celebrity?… Get me Out of Here! It ended, fairly inevitably, with McLaren being hounded out of the village by the angry locals he had insulted. ‘You never saw such deformed, awful looking creatures,’ he says now. ‘It was an absolutely sorrowful place. Never, ever go to Scotland if you can help it.’

Not one to brood on past failures, McLaren is now planning to put on a Broadway musical. He also fancies himself as an artist. He has, indeed, persuaded a gallery in New York to put on an exhibition of his work later this month. But McLaren being McLaren, he has, at the time of writing, yet to come up with any exhibits. ‘In the art world I am a sought-after creature,’ he says haughtily. ‘To participate in whatever, to endorse whatever.’ It turns out he is also a consultant on the board of Phillips, the contemporary art auctioneers.

But try as he might to branch out into other art forms, it is the Sex Pistols for which he will be remembered. The band just won’t go away. They have, indeed, just announced a concert to mark the 30th anniversary of the release of Never Mind the Bollocks, one of the most influential albums in rock history. Original members John Lydon, Steve Jones, Paul Cook and Glen Matlock will play at the Brixton Academy in London on 8 November.

When I ask McLaren what words he thinks will appear in the opening paragraphs of his obituaries, he doesn’t say ‘manager’ and ‘Sex Pistols’, although this is clearly what he has in mind. ‘I would have thought “skulduggery”, “charlatan”, “svengali”. Or maybe: “The man responsible for turning British culture into a cheap marketing gimmick.” ‘ And a man obsessed by his own self-image, I suggest.

‘Completely. I have always loved the idea of being someone who can disappear, of never having an identity. It was probably due to my dysfunctional childhood.’ He delights in recounting the picaresque details of his upbringing in Stoke Newington, north London. His father left when he was two, so he was raised by his grandmother, Rose Corre Isaacs, who promptly turned him against his parents and his siblings. She was the eccentric daughter of wealthy Portuguese Sephardic Jews (they were diamond dealers). McLaren was still sharing his grandmother’s bed – at her insistence – when he was 14. ‘She lived for chaos and discomfort,’ McLaren says. ‘She was very possessive and wouldn’t let me have anything to do with girls. But if I was causing mayhem at school, that was OK.’ Sorry to trade in stereotypes, but given how domineering his mother figure was, does he wonder how he managed to turn out straight? ‘Sometimes. I don’t know. Most people think I’m gay.’

He talks at length about the art schools that played such a significant role in the counterculture of the 1960s. He attended several and fell under the spell of the French Situationists,who promoted absurdist and provocative actions as a way of enacting social change. ‘I went from one art school to another, being chucked out, changing my name, getting another grant. They were all geared towards thinking that it was better to be a noble failure than a vulgar success. It meant you were not afraid to break rules. You wanted an adventure not a career. We saw ourselves as romantics in the tradition of Byron, Keats and Blake.’

After running out of art schools in 1971, McLaren moved into a London house that was pretty much a commune. It was there he met Vivienne Westwood. ‘She was a complete autodidact going on and on about…’ He adopts a northern accent ‘…”culture”. I always found her very annoying.’

Not that annoying – they had a child together. ‘Yes, well sometimes when you are annoyed by people it becomes attractive and stimulating. The house was full of American draft-dodgers and she would walk around it completely naked. Naturally, being young – I was only 17 – my testosterone meant I couldn’t help but be attracted to her body. I found myself in bed with her one night and lost my virginity to her and suddenly she handed me the bill. She was pregnant, and what was I going to do about it? I went to my rich grandmother who gave me the money for Vivienne to have an abortion. Vivienne took the money and spent it on a cashmere twinset instead.’

Did he have no moral qualms at all about an abortion? ‘Not really.’

Does it not make him shudder to know that that foetus turned into a sentient being, a grown man who has gone on to have children of his own? ‘I know, I know, it probably should make me shudder but it doesn’t. It makes me confused. At the time there was nothing about me that suggested I could take on the mantle of fatherhood. I had come from a strange non-parental background, the idea of children was… Well, I was barely 18.’

Their son, Joe Corre (named after McLaren’s grandmother), is now a successful entrepreneur, co-founder of the lingerie chain Agent Provocateur. Father and son are not close. Does he ever wonder what Joe must think when he reads about how his father wanted him aborted? ‘I don’t think he had to read about it. That well has already been truly poisoned. Hell hath no fury like a woman scored. Dear Vivienne.’

But it must mess with his head. ‘Oh, I was upset for a while but…’

No, not his head – Joe’s. ‘Unquestionably it turned him into a raving psychotic. Unquestionably.’

McLaren remembers turning up at the hospital in the snow a few days after Joe was born. ‘The nurse was extremely rude. She said: “What took you so long? Are you a long distance lorry driver?” I thought, f— you.’

Did he feel any fatherly instincts at all? ‘Not really. I was lost in that terrain. I’d been brought up to destroy families.’

But he and Vivienne did have a stab at being normal parents, for a while. ‘We never really had sex again after Joe was born, but we did live together. We became this odd couple. Most of my art student friends didn’t like Vivienne, I think maybe because they were jealous of her. They didn’t want to share me. I was this strange creature who didn’t show any sexuality, one way or the other, so they felt possessive of me. I went into depression for a while, then decided to make myself a blue lamé suit, copying Elvis, and I got Vivienne to help me. That was the big change. I realised she was a gifted seamstress.’

Joe was dispatched to a series of boarding schools, freeing his parents to pursue their unconventional business. Together Malcolm and Vivienne opened a clothes shop on the King’s Road which eventually became Sex, the store that pioneered the punk look of bondage trousers, ripped T-shirts and spiked dog collars. ‘We decided we needed mannequins to model our clothes and that was when we invented the Sex Pistols, with Johnny doing his audition there in the shop.’

Although McLaren protests that he was a mismanager, actually he proved to be inspired. The band had played only a few small gigs before being signed (with a large advance) by EMI in 1976. After a notorious appearance on Bill Grundy’s early evening television show – in which they swore live on air – the Pistols were fired by EMI and then signed to A&M Records for another large advance. That contract lasted a week – the record company got cold feet after the band went on a drunken rampage, smashing up the A&M headquarters. It was then that the young (and brave) Richard Branson signed them up to Virgin, for another huge advance. To celebrate, McLaren organised a boat trip down the Thames so that the Pistols could perform ‘God Save The Queen’ outside the Houses of Parliament (‘the fascist regime’), on the day The Queen (‘she ain’t no human being’) was celebrating her silver jubilee. The boat was raided by police and McLaren was arrested – in another blaze of publicity. When the band split up the following year, amid the inevitable stories of heroin abuse, murder and destruction, McLaren kept the rights to Never Mind the Bollocks. John Lydon took him to court in 1987 and won the rights back. McLaren and Lydon have refused to speak to each other since. It is safe to assume that McLaren’s name won’t be on the VIP list for the anniversary concert.

‘I thought the fashion was much more important than the music,’ McLaren says of the Sex Pistols now. ‘Punk was the sound of that fashion.’ It seems a contrary thing to say, but then he is a contrarian, and the band was his baby – so I ask about the fashion, specifically the swastika T-shirt that Sid Vicious always wore, at McLaren’s behest. In retrospect does he consider it to have been a gratuitous and sick provocation? ‘Not at all.’ Does he think he could get away with it today? ‘Probably not, but back then we were still on the tip of Sixties libertarianism.’

I suppose what I am getting at is that, well, he was Jewish. Didn’t he find the swastika repulsive? ‘Not at all. I didn’t give a damn about all that. I thought it was just great.’ He didn’t give a damn about the Holocaust? ‘Look, sometimes a younger generation doesn’t want to inherit the history of an older generation, so we wanted to appropriate the swastika for ourselves. We wanted to have a clean slate. We decided that we liked certain icons from the past and wanted to reinvent them. We were trying to mix pop culture with politics and art.’

On the subject of politics, I say, the thing I always found confusing about punk as a movement was that you had bands such as the Clash wearing Rock Against Racism badges at the same time as the Sex Pistols were wearing swastikas. ‘Well, the Rock Against Racism I was never interested in. I thought that was too naff. It didn’t annoy people enough. I wanted to be childish; I wanted to be everything society might hate. The idea of sounding sensible or serious was abhorrent to me. I was the ultimate mismanager because I was looking for ways to create chaos. The Sex Pistols were young and ignorant. They didn’t have the political references, they have to be forgiven for that. But what they did have was raw energy. All the energy of Never Mind the Bollocks was about desire for change. We wanted to create an artistic movement that would be like a political revolution. We wanted anarchy. It’s easy to forget how grim things were in the 1970s: the oil crisis, the three-day week, hyper-inflation, unemployment, no wonder there was disaffection.’

Now look at them. John Lydon said recently he quite likes The Queen, after all. Richard Branson is a knight of the realm. Vivienne Westwood has not only had her own retrospective at the Victoria and Albert Museum, she is also a Dame of the British Empire. Even McLaren’s son has been offered a knighthood (he turned it down in protest about the war in Iraq – having learned a thing or two from his father and mother about self-publicity). Would McLaren turn down a knighthood, if one were offered? Tellingly, he doesn’t say no. What he does say is: ‘The thought of the English Establishment ever coming to terms with its culture of deception…’ He trails off. ‘England deceives itself. It is a nation of liars.’

So, yes or no? ‘I can see why Vivienne accepted hers. She is a true capitalist. She would have loved to design for The Queen. She takes herself very seriously and is very stubborn. You are either with her or against her, in her view. She hates being laughed at. She can come across as radical, but she is extremely reactionary.’ McLaren rarely sees Westwood these days, although her name is the one he mentions when asked if he’s ever really loved a woman, apart from his eccentric grandmother.

When I suggest that he could always make a donation to the Labour Party, he laughs and says he prefers David Cameron to Gordon Brown because ‘I’ve had my fill of Scotsmen.’ I suggest to him that, deep down, he has the exile’s craving to be accepted by the country that he thinks rejected him. ‘Actually I don’t, but the English will have to accept one day that punk is their most valuable contribution to 20th-century art and culture. They will see it is as being as fundamental as the invention of the motor car, as impactful as any painting by Picasso. They will have to accept that punk was sexier than sex itself – and that it changed lives. Everyone from the bank manager, to Ken Livingstone or Damien Hirst has to acknowledge that punk is the ultimate measurement of cool and is the only way to sell things.’

Bank mangers? ‘Banks use the Never Mind the Bollocks cut-up ransom-letter typography in their advertisements.’

True. So he sees punk as his legacy to the world? ‘People are beginning to learn the truth about punk, and how instrumental I was in the development of it. That will change the way people will think of me. That will be in the obituaries. As barbaric a culture as it is, the English Establishment is coming to terms with the fact that punk was the best thing that ever happened to it. It wouldn’t be the country it is today without punk.’

Hmm. It sounds as if he is taking politics seriously, after all. But what, I ask, was the lasting political message of punk. Cash from Chaos? If so, isn’t that rather shallow? ‘I think it is very hard for artists to have political convictions. That is why I use art as my raison d’etre, not politics. It is the only way I can get on with myself.’

He’ll be telling me he has some moral fibre next. He laughs. ‘No, I have no moral fibre, at all. Codes of behaviour simply trap you.’

He must have some, I suggest. I mean, he wouldn’t, say, murder someone, would he? ‘No, I suppose not, not even Vivienne Westwood when she was annoying me. I’ve come close, but no. I wouldn’t think myself worthy enough to kill someone. Even if they needed to be killed. I wouldn’t have been the best man to do it.’

Not worthy enough. This doesn’t sound like the Malcolm McLaren we know and hate – the braggart whom John Lydon once called the most evil man in the world. It seems he is more complex and self-aware than he is given credit for being. Indeed, when his girlfriend – slightly built and stylish and in black clothes – arrives to meet him, he more or less admits that he is too selfish to entertain the idea of more children. ‘I am enough for Young to look after. The older I get the more brat-ish I become.’

They divide their time between France and America. ‘I’ve lived a restless life,’ he reflects. ‘I can never settle anywhere.’

Strangely, after three hours in his company, I find it hard to decide whether McLaren is likeable or not. Certainly he is entertaining. There is something pantomimic about the man. He is an engaging raconteur with a range of comedy voices – impersonations of Italians, plodding northerners and a sneery whine for Johnny Rotten. And he is endearingly childlike and buoyant in his enthusiasm for new ideas, constantly trying to understand a world in which he has always feels himself a misfit. But he can also be a bore, not knowing when to stop, or not bothering to stop. He likes to stick to the past; is less sure of the present. I suspect he knows all this, but, in punk tradition, he don’t care.

On one level he is the eternal hustler, still wanting to big himself up after all these years. But there is pathos here, too. He cynically claims all he was ever interested in was ripping people off and making money. But when I ask whether all his various business dealings have left him a wealthy man he looks uncomfortable and, for the first time, unsure of himself. ‘I don’t know what you mean by wealth. If by wealth you mean being able to do exactly what you want then yes, I am wealthy. I pretty much do what I like.’

I take that as a no. So, on his own terms, does he feel he has been a failure? He falls silent for the first time in three, long-winded hours as he considers this. ‘A magnificent failure,’ he says, eventually. ‘I am the walking, talking magnificent failure.’ He shrugs. ‘The ultimate poseur. So maybe I don’t need to do anything else in life. Maybe that is enough. What do you think?’ There is a smile in his voice as he asks.


Helen McCrory

For the third time in five minutes, as we sit drinking coffee under an awning in Brick Lane, London, Helen McCrory and I are interrupted by the same man. That he is the owner of the café doesn’t make him less distracting. This time he wants to show us his new mobile phone. He disappears again only to reappear with two mugs of mint tea we haven’t ordered. He wants us to try them. See what we think. He disappears again and re-emerges to tell us that, though we can continue sitting outside, he is going to have to close the café down for ten minutes because there are ‘some nutters around’. The actress and I give each other the sideways glance. When he returns it is with a family photograph he wants to show us. The photograph shown, he potters back inside the café and, out of the corner of her mouth, McCrory says: ‘Quite high-maintenance, isn’t he?’
Her sense of humour is pleasingly dry. When she found out she was pregnant two years ago she delayed her wedding to the father, the tall and brooding actor Damian Lewis, because she said she would rather walk down the aisle ‘skinny and drunk than fat and sober’. But she didn’t get round to it then, and is now fat and sober again. Well, not fat exactly, but she does have a noticeable bump. This time, this pregnancy, she decided not to wait. In fact, when I meet her, barely two weeks have passed since she got married. Shouldn’t she still be on her honeymoon? ‘I did have a honeymoon. It lasted an evening. It was very short, but very lovely. We got married in the Kensington and Chelsea registry office, then walked down the King’s Road and had lunch in a nice restaurant around the corner with 11 people. A very romantic day.’
The couple had met when playing lovers in a 2004 production of Five Gold Rings at the Almeida. The play suffered vicious reviews but, as ever, McCrory was singled out for her ‘electrifying’ performance. Her career is littered with award wins and spans an extraordinary dramatic range (she has played everything from Margaret Peel in the comedy Lucky Jim to Anna Karenina). But, though she is lauded as one of the best Chekhovian actresses of her generation, and is a fine interpreter of Ibsen and Shakespeare — her Lady Macbeth made one critic write, ‘I wish Shakespeare had written her more scenes’– she is probably best known for playing opposite Sienna Miller in As You Like It at the height of the Jude Law nanny scandal, and for Cherie Blair in The Queen (2006), the film for which Helen Mirren won an Oscar. She captured not only the slightly scurrying walk and the adoring gazes up at her husband but also the feistiness. The way she backed out of her audience with the Queen was a masterclass in repressed sarcasm. ‘Cherie cricks her neck because she feels defensive and vulnerable,’ McCrory says. ‘It’s also because she feels she has to smile constantly, an odd mix of awkwardness and confidence.’ McCrory demonstrates the contracted neck and the letterbox smile. ‘When she cricks her neck like this you realise that she is trying to keep things in. She often has tension down her arms because she wants to react physically to what is going on. It’s all about repression. I found some footage of Cherie before Tony Blair became an MP and she was a different person: so direct, the opposite of simpering. It was clear she was the more politically committed and driven of the two, so I tried to capture some of that as well.’
Has she bumped into Mrs Blair since making The Queen? ‘No, she must have seen it. I hope she wasn’t offended. When I first read the script [by Peter Morgan] I thought we were in a broad comedy, and I was horrified when I saw the rest of the cast being subtle in their interpretations. Stephen [Frears, the director] kept shouting ‘Less, Helen, less!’ All my Norman Wisdom moments were taken out. I tell you, I was robbed.’
Presumably, being actors, she and Lewis didn’t get nervous about the exchange of vows and the speeches at their wedding? She rolls her eyes in mock incredulity. ‘That’s right, actors and actresses have sensitivity bludgeoned out of them at birth. We are that rare combination of vanity and self-obsession.’ She gives a short laugh and dunks and re-dunks her bag of herbal tea in her cup. Actually — at least today — vanity is not something she can be accused of. She is not wearing make-up and, in defiance of the hot weather, is wearing a heavy, shocking-pink coat-cum-jacket. As she is also wearing flip-flops, I’m guessing the coat was the nearest thing to hand as she was leaving the house in a hurry. While McCrory is not tall — only 5ft 3in — she does have considerable presence: dark hair and equally dark and expressive eyes. She also has a disarming way of pronouncing the letter R as W, ever so slightly, a trait I have never noticed in her performances.
‘Actually, I don’t know about Damian,’ she continues, ‘but I do get nervous, especially when speaking in public without a script. I had to present the prizes for an under-12s poetry-reading once. I was performing in three plays at the Olivier Theatre, back to back, 17 hours with no nerves whatsoever, but I stood up to say a few words and my voice wavered and I became self-conscious.’
How curious. Why does she suppose that is? ‘Well, my trouble is I make no connection between myself and what I do on stage or in front of a camera, so when I am being myself I get very, very nervous and take tranquillisers.’ As she says this it occurs to me that her relentless jokiness today may be to do with nerves, too. So did she fluff any lines at her wedding? ‘No, but it did make me nervous, even though there were only a handful of people there, because Damian and I are very private people. I think I would have found it hard to do it in front of a lot of other people.’
They had a ban on children at their wedding, a ban that included their own daughter. ‘She came for the meal instead. It was more a matter of not wanting babies there. You see, the way I figured it, it always looks bad if you start staring daggers at a screaming baby. It gives the wrong signal to your future in-laws. Besides, I wouldn’t want to be distracted, because they were the most serious vows I had ever exchanged.’
A church wedding was ruled out because it would have felt hypocritical. ‘When we told people we were getting married in a registry some said, ‘Why not a church?’ and we thought, ‘Hello? When have you ever seen us in a church?’ I would have felt hypocritical saying I meant the bit about staying together but not the bit about the Holy Spirit.’ She sounds unusually earnest for a moment, but her droll side cannot be suppressed for long. ‘That said, an atheist who gets married in a church does have a get-out clause. You are practically not married. You can say, ‘Ah yes, because I meant that bit, but obviously didn’t mean that bit, that means the whole contract is invalidated.’’
Does being married to someone who does the same job make for rivalry? ‘It gives you a shorthand about your job — makes it easier to relate. Also, you know the realities. Some people think acting is all about laughing as you sip champagne from a slipper at a premiere. But actually most of it is unglamorous.’
Unusually, McCrory is an actress — she doesn’t use the PC term actor — who manages to avoid sounding pretentious when talking about her trade. Perhaps it is to do with being pregnant, but she talks about her latest role — as Victoria in Frankenstein — in a frivolous way. In this gritty two-hour ITV drama she plays a scientist who is conducting controversial work in the field of stem-cell research and biotechnology in an attempt to cure her dying son. ‘I play a stem-cell researcher who is obviously meant to be a female Dr Frankenstein.’ Again McCrory says, ‘I thought it would work best if I played it as a broad farce. I see it as a look at the funny side of electricity and stem-cell research. It wasn’t easy but we managed to find the humour.’
Actually, there isn’t a laugh in it. They filmed on location near Dungeness nuclear power station — all grey seas and pebble beaches — while she was in the early stages of her pregnancy. ‘Do you think that was wise?’ she asks rhetorically. She imagines the news stories: ‘And eight months later her own Frankenstein’s monster arrived. …’
Despite the repeated dunking of her herbal tea bag, she seems far from being your stereotypical neurotic actress. She blames her parents. ‘They were always very encouraging. I never felt unloved. They gave me great stability. I think that is why I am so relaxed as a parent myself; they gave me a great blueprint. Besides, parenthood is only a seven-day-a-week job and apparently in 18 years you can stop worrying so much. I’ll have a nice nap and a shandy then.’
Her father, a Scotsman, was a Foreign Office diplomat, which meant that McCrory had a peripatetic childhood, moving between postings in Cameroon, Tanzania, Norway and France. She has described her younger self as ‘a Mowgli’ and still bears a scar from the day she was chased by a rhino and split her chin on a tree. To give her stability she was sent to board at an English school, and later turned down a place at Oxford to go to drama college in London. ‘Coming here to board taught me a lot,’ she says. ‘I learnt that in England as soon as you open your mouth you are judged. In Italy it is all about your shoes.’
She also remembers learning the meaning of patriotism from her father. ‘When I was in my teens I was dragged along to some function with him in Brussels and when the national anthem struck up I rolled my eyes and sat down. He took me to one side and said, ‘Never do that again. The man standing next to us is the head of the SAS. His friends die for Queen and country, so show some respect.’ It’s a lesson I’ve never forgotten.’ To this day, she reckons, her perspective on the world comes from her parents, who are still alive. ‘Because we moved around a lot when I was a child, my sense of home and belonging was with people rather than places. My whole identity was grounded in my parents and brother and sister. I don’t think having a daughter altered me enormously in that respect.’
She and Damian Lewis live with their daughter, Manon, who is now nearly two, in Tufnell Park, north London, near to their friend Sienna Miller — or rather they will when they return from Los Angeles in the New Year. Lewis is working on a film there. ‘So we’re going to have the baby out there in November,’ she says. ‘Should be interesting. LA is a city that makes you wash your hands before you go to the supermarket; just imagine how clean the hospitals will be. I’ll have to find out how soon I can bring the baby back on a plane. Is there a minimum age? I don’t want its ears to explode.’
As well as the ITV drama, McCrory was also working on Flashbacks Of A Fool, a film in which she co-stars with Daniel Craig, six months into her pregnancy. But she is planning to take five months’ maternity leave after giving birth. ‘Then I’m going to be doing another Ibsen at the Almeida in April. They delayed it for me.’ Sadly for her they didn’t also delay the filming of Harry Potter V. ‘I was supposed to appear in that but they couldn’t get the insurance because I was pregnant.’ The part went to Helena Bonham Carter instead. ‘They said I can be in the next one, though,’ she adds. Dare I ask which role? Pause. Grin. ‘I play the old Harry, who is 72 and on steroids.’


Jim Broadbent

Like a patient in a dentist’s waiting room, a patient regretting the neglect of his gums, Jim Broadbent sits on the sofa and stares at his shoes. I have been warned by his publicist that he is ‘painfully shy but friendly when he warms up’, and that’s about right. On the rare occasions he makes eye contact, it is with a rictus smile, as if friendliness for him requires physical rather than mental effort, as if he has to remind his knobbly face that smiling is the way to signal warmth. It is the awkward manner of his speech that most clearly betrays his introversion, though. He stutters slightly and punctuates his sentences with a soft, nervy chuckle that makes his words melt away like butter on crumpets. They are desultory, these sentences, and full of old-fashioned turns of phrase. Many remain unfinished.

It does occur to me that he could be acting all this. He is a great actor, after all, an Oscar-winning actor indeed. He often plays sweet, gentle, lugubrious types, such as Bridget Jones’s father, or John Bayley, the academic who looked on in helpless anguish as his wife, Iris Murdoch, succumbed to Alzheimer’s, or Lord Longford – he may have been given a bald pate and prosthetic nose to play that role, but the sympathy for Myra Hindley seemed to be all his. People who know Broadbent privately say that this is what he is like away from the cameras. Yet in front of them he will as often play loud extroverts, such as the bombastic ringmaster in Moulin Rouge! (a role for which he won a Bafta) or the bumptious nightclub owner in Little Voice, or the corrupt police officer in Hot Fuzz. Some might call it versatility, but Broadbent has another theory as to why he is capable of such extremes, and we shall come to this.

Curiously, in his latest film, an adaptation of Blake Morrison’s best-selling memoir And When Did You Last See Your Father?, he somehow combines the two. The character he plays, Blake’s father, is a GP in the Yorkshire Dales. He is embarrassing, overbearing and boorish, but also capable of great tenderness and pathos. Already this is being talked of as an Oscar-winning performance. The scenes in which he lies in bed dying from cancer and tries to communicate with his angry son, played by Colin Firth, could not be more emotionally charged and affecting.

When I ask him what his relationship with his own father was like – Roy Broadbent was a furniture maker who died of cancer when Jim was 23 – he crunches slowly on a shortbread biscuit before answering. ‘M-m-my father was a Yorkshireman who moved to Lincolnshire in the war. He was like Blake’s father in some ways. Almost an exact contemporary. He would come down to see me in London and fix things around the house. He was always the black sheep of his family, a conscientious objector.’ (During the war the family had gone to live in a bohemian, anti-war commune in rural Lincolnshire. His mother, Dee, became a sculptor.)

Broadbent felt some sympathy with Blake’s father, then, even though he was an unsympathetic character. ‘I think some people felt I was too sympathetic to play Arthur. I disagree, obviously. I think I can be unpleasant.’

There is still the trace of Lincolnshire in his vowels, which is surprising given that he has lived in London for most of his adult life. He also dresses like a countryman, in anonymous greens and browns, as if trying to camouflage himself, deflect attention, fade into the background.

The death scenes in his new film, I note, really bring home the dribbling, incontinent ugliness of dying. ‘It helped that when we filmed those scenes it was with a small crew in a real house.’ He frowns. ‘Was it? Just trying to think if there was a studio involved But it was certainly a small set. Quite claustrophobic.’

Did those scenes require a sacrifice of vanity on his part? ‘Well that is always the first to go, vanity. Can’t hang on to vanity as an actor. It’s one of the paradoxes, really, that to be an actor you have to have a big enough ego to want people to look at you, but ultimately you can’t be vain. I reckon I did remember when my father died at home after a year-long illness when he was about the age I am now 58 I was touring around the North in my first job and was able to get home at weekends and was at home when he actually died I remember watching him and’

And? ‘And so I brought some of that to the role.’

Did he find it painful, reliving those moments with his dying father? He blinks. Tears are welling up in his eyes, tears that catch the light, eyes that still stare at shoes. ‘I found it upsetting to read the book, and the script, that was when it all came back to me. But not as much not so much when I was doing it. You just try and remember how it was.’

Did he have any unfinished business with his own father, things that needed to be said, as Blake does in the book? ‘I was quite young, 23, I think, so there was an awful lot I hadn’t worked out. Ten years later there would have been a lot I wanted to ask him talk about.’

I ask if his father had worried about him becoming an actor – it’s not the most secure profession in the world, after all. ‘No, he was encouraging. He had huge confidence. In fact, it had been him who had suggested I go to drama school in the first.’

Broadbent had attended Leighton Park, a Quaker school in Reading, before taking a place at art school. He left that to transfer to the London Academy of Music and Dramatic Art. A tutor at his college described him as strange-looking and predicted that he wouldn’t find work until he was in his forties. Following his graduation in 1972, he worked as an assistant stage manager at the Open Air Theatre, Regent’s Park, and while he was waiting for acting work to come, he joined the Ugly modelling agency (although he never landed a job because, as he puts it, ‘Perhaps I wasn’t ugly enough’). After that he co-founded the brilliant and eccentric National Theatre of Brent, a two-man troupe. Then came work with the (real) National Theatre and, finally, film stardom in Neil Jordan’s The Crying Game and Mike Leigh’s Life is Sweet.

Does it make him sad to think that his father never knew how successful his son went on to become? ‘I think he was quite the doting father. Unlike Blake’s father, mine would praise me constantly, unwarrantedly. He did say as he was dying that he regretted not knowing how it would end for us, what was going to happen to us all.’ His eyes well up with tears again and he blinks them away. ‘It was an unfinished narrative. He didn’t mind his own story ending But’

I ask whether tears come easily to him when he is acting. ‘Actually no. I’m always impressed when women can summon up real tears. I can never do that. I have to use that fake stuff.’

Away from acting, does he find it easy to cry? ‘I don’t know when I last cried but I do choke up easily. Usually documentaries about bravery get to me. I can be choked up on a cheesy documentary, not even a good one, one where my emotions are being deliberately manipulated.’

His mother died of Alzheimer’s in 1995. ‘Mmm, mmm, much later than my father. I was around for that, too. A few hours before and a few hours after. It was 18 months of deterioration. A year in a nursing home. She was older, so it wasn’t as heartbreaking as it might have been. Some people die of Alzheimer’s quite young.’

It was this experience that coloured his Oscar-winning performance in Iris. He relived his mother’s death for that; now he is reliving his father’s in his latest film: why does he suppose he is drawn to roles that evoke painful memories? ‘I’m not sure I suppose with Iris it was partly about wanting to draw public attention to this little-understood disease. The film was appreciated by the Alzheimer’s charities. When my mother died there was much less information about it. I remember when my mother got it we were searching for information and help and couldn’t find any really.’

Do his parents still cast a shadow on his life? ‘I had exactly twice as much time with my mother as my father, so it was spread out? so I didn’t have a feeling of being orphaned It is not like when both your parents go together and you are suddenly on your own. With Alzheimer’s, as well, the person becomes a stranger before they die: that separation happens earlier. The person you know goes quite early on in the course of the disease. You lose the shared memories and the conversations you normally have in a relationship.’

Some men find it almost liberating when their father, the moral arbiter of their formative years, dies. Was that the case with him? Did he, say, get an urge to appear in Hair fully naked? He gives the gentle chuckle. ‘No, he would have been up for all that. I’d never felt constrained by him. My father was “small l” liberal.’

Are they temperamentally similar, father and son? ‘Not really, personality wise I do think about him a lot, probably as you get older and get closer to the age it all becomes a bit more relevant than it was when I was 23. I sometimes catch his reflection in the mirror, especially when the hair goes. The driving mirror. The corner of the face. The glasses. A little bit of that. Some of his qualities I wish I had. Others I’m pleased I didn’t have.’

Silence again, followed by a chuckle. Qualities such as? ‘Wouldn’t know really. Quite contradictory. Someone once told me I was waif-like. Can’t see it myself. Perhaps when I was younger. I don’t think about myself too much. Not that interested. I think I’m quite boring.’

Surely when he was younger he must have been curious about himself? ‘A little bit, I would ask: What am I about? What am I going to be? But I’m not so bothered now. It’s set. No need to fret about it.’

Given his obvious shyness, for him to have chosen a profession where he would get on stage and draw attention to himself does seem a little perverse. ‘Yes, I don’t understand it. There is a split in my personality because sometimes I can be loud in person as well as on stage.’

He believes he may have taken on the personality of his twin sister, who died at birth. Her personality sits alongside his own, he reckons, giving him a split one. And this explains why he can be anxious one day and a risk-taker the next. It also explains how he can be an extrovert as an actor – veering between caricature and naturalism, between strength and vulnerability – and yet still be an introvert in his private life.

I wonder whether this split might also have helped him cope with rejection early on in his career. ‘I gave myself a 10-year plan. I thought that after drama school, if it didn’t seem to be going anywhere after 10 years, I would rethink it. It does make you insecure, acting. There were some really talented people with wit and style at drama school who couldn’t hack the insecurity from the word go. But if you stay with it for a few years you learn to handle the insecurity and the rejection. You can’t be too fragile. You have to be a bit tough about it

‘When people ask my advice and say, “My son or daughter is thinking about going into acting but can’t make up his or her mind”, I say, “If you have any doubts don’t do it.” You have to be completely driven and have no option. It is a form of madness, actually.’

For all his seriousness as an actor now – and the demand for him in Hollywood; he will be appearing in the latest Indiana Jones movie next – he started out as a comic actor. ‘I think what I was trying to do was spread the net wide. Different directors see me in different ways. Anyway, a lot of that stuff in theatre, the National Theatre of Brent stuff, mostly went unnoticed because not many people go to the theatre compared with television.’

I ask whether, when he was at drama school, he ever saw himself as the handsome lead in Hollywood films. ‘Every actor would think that at some stage. It’s part of the wanting to do the job. I wasn’t one of dozens of handsome young men after the one role for the handsome young man, though. I was never up for that. I was always part of an odder group of character actors. I wasn’t impatient.’

He never considered himself good-looking. ‘Not really, no probably quite a poor self-image actually, until I got used to myself Yeah,? wouldn’t have thought?#x0027;

He says that he doesn’t see the films he appears in more than he has to. ‘If I haven’t seen a film for a long time, though, and it’s a comedy, and I’m being funny, I do laugh at what I’m doing, as if it’s another person up there’

He has written his own screenplays, most notably the black comedy A Sense of History, directed by Mike Leigh. What about an autobiography? Is he planning one? ‘I’ve got my title for it, but I’ll never write it.’

And that title is? ‘My Grandmother was a Snowball.’

Er, right. Yep. Good title. ‘That was her maiden name.’

Has he kept a diary? ‘No, but er’ The wheezy laugh. ‘I get so bored. What I did I’m too self-conscious. I would always assume I wouldthat people would read it one day and I couldn’t bear that because I would think it was so badly written.’

So he does have a certain vanity, after all, I say. Intellectual vanity. He glances up from his shoes and gives a grin that is shy, lopsided, apologetic. ‘I’m a contradiction.’

‘I suppose I am very aware that I am not academic at all, that university was never an option. I suppose I’ve got a what’s the word thing.’

Complex? ‘Complex about not being intellectual.’

So how did he overcome that complex to play an intellectual in Iris? ‘I think I might be intelligent but not clever. I didn’t have the A-levels.’

He was expelled for drinking, he adds in his monotonal way. ‘But only after A-levels. I was told I had to leave immediately after sitting my A-levels, which wasn’t a great hardship. Except I didn’t get to do the leavers’ play.’

I’m sure that he has been asked back to his school as the conquering hero many times since. ‘No, I haven’t actually. I must be down on the list: Expelled.’

On the wall of shame, I suggest, with a skull and crossbones by his name. The foggy chuckle again. I ask what the Quaker element of his school meant to him.

‘It was semi-progressive. No corporal punishment or cadet corps, because it was pacifist. Very little uniform. There was a blazer if you wanted one. There was no dogma or hierarchy. ?And we had Quaker meetings in the school hall where you sat in silence.’

It occurs to me that the silences he drifts into to this day may have taken root at school and that he carries them around with him like a comfort blanket. Could that be it? ‘I don’t mind silence And they were very nice people, the Quakers. If I was ever to go back to religion I would likely go to the Quakers first. I never did have it, really, though. I was at that school because my parents were pacifists, not Quakers.’

So what does he think happens to you when you die?

‘Absolutely nothing. I’m with Arthur Morrison on that one.’

Does the prospect of his own inevitable death frighten him? ‘I don’t think it does. I don’t fret about it. I think it was partly to do with seeing my father go. It didn’t frighten him. Upset him a bit but not I think if you are an atheist, what’s there to be frightened of? But I don’t want to die yet.’

What about his own death-bed scene (many years from now, I hope)? Will he want his two stepsons there? ‘Yes, I think so. I am as a father to them. Twenty-five years now.’

In 1983 he met Anastasia Lewis, a theatre designer and textile artist who was mother to two sons. The couple married five years later. Did he ever wonder what it would be like having his own biological children? ‘My wife didn’t want to go down that route and for various reasons that was fine by me. I wasn’t going to say, all right, I’m off, I’ll find someone else. It was obviously never of driving importance to me because on some level I would seek out someone who would provide that but I’m terribly close to my stepsons and their young ones.’

Another legacy of his having to sit in silence at school may be his patience on set. With his mild manner, the opposite of temperamental, he has a reputation for being easy to work with. The tedium of film sets, meanwhile, the sitting around for hours waiting for your next scene, never bothers him. He retreats into himself. He whittles gargoyles from wood; his hobby.

He likes working with directors such as Mike Leigh and Woody Allen (he starred in Bullets over Broadway) who don’t go in for much shouting. ‘Good directors like actors and enjoy what actors bring in terms of improvisation,’ he says. ‘Woody and Mike are different in that with Mike you do all the improvisation in the rehearsal before the script is finalised, whereas with Woody he asks you to improvise away from the finished script. Make it sound natural and real. But there are more similarities than not between them.’

Both directors are known for their melancholy; is that something he can identify with? ‘Melancholic is as far as it goes. I don’t get depressed. Enjoyable melancholy. I don’t know what real depression is.’

In terms of his career, Broadbent doesn’t have much to be depressed about. He is one of Britain’s most recognisable actors and has won more awards and critical acclaim than seems decent. He was offered an OBE a few years ago but turned it down. Such is his diffidence. (Although that was also partly on the grounds that he didn’t think the militarism of the British Empire was something that should be celebrated – his father’s pacifism coming out.)

Given all these achievements, all these laurels to rest on, what motivates him to keep going? ‘I live in London but I’ve had a cottage in Lincolnshire for 17 years and we’ve just got a slightly bigger place there. So it would be nice to get that right. And I can imagine taking a sabbatical for a year and then just extending it.

‘I don’t like to do work that doesn’t appeal to me. I’m often cast as people older than myself so I’m sure there will always be work. But in not wanting to repeat myself I find there are more and more jobs I don’t want to do.’

He takes another bite of his shortbread biscuit and crunches on it slowly. ‘And that’s about it really.’


Fifty Cent

Like a formation of geese ahead of an approaching cold front, an entourage arrives. It includes several hefty bodyguards with wires coiling from their ears and sunglasses shielding their eyes. Minutes later there is indeed a change in the atmosphere; a crackle of static. Perhaps this time 50 Cent really has entered the building.

But I have been here before. It began several months ago when I was asked if I would like to interview Curtis Jackson III, better known as the gangsta rapper 50 Cent. Which interviewer wouldn’t? He has texture, as they say. His (single) mother, a crack dealer from the New York ghetto of Queens, was murdered when he was eight. His grandparents did their best to raise him, along with eight other children, but at 12 he became a crack dealer himself, and was so good at it he was soon making $3000 a day. In 1994, at the age of 19, he was caught and sentenced to nine years in prison. He served three and, upon being released, did a demo of the rap songs he had been writing on the walls of his cell. He sent them to Jam Master Jay (the man behind Run DMC) who liked them, became his mentor and taught him how to count bars, write choruses and structure songs. 50 Cent had just signed a deal with Columbia in 2000 when he was shot nine times by a rival gang and left for dead. He survived, but when his assailant was found dead soon after, and Jam Master Jay was shot dead as part of the same feud, Columbia took fright and dropped him. The rapper Eminem was not so faint hearted. He signed him up and, in 2003, 50 Cent brought out Get Rich or Die Tryin’, a hip-hop album that became the biggest seller in the America charts that year. By the time his follow up album was released, he had become the first artist since The Beatles to have four songs in the top 10 of Billboard’s singles chart— he had, moreover, joined his friend Madonna as one of the highest earners in music. His new album, Curtis, is also expected to break records when it is released next month. But nowadays he earns more than $50 million a year without even bringing out a record, thanks to the cross-branding business empire he has built up: as well as a 50 Cent record label, there is a 50 Cent clothing line, a 50 Cent publishing arm, a 50 Cent film company, a 50 Cent condom range, a 50 Cent sports watch line (diamond-encrusted, of course), a 50 Cent PlayStation game, and a bottled vitamin water line (Formula 50). Forbes magazine has described him as a “masterful brand-builder and a shrewd businessman.”

Anyway, I was to meet him in Berlin at the weekend. At the eleventh hour, the venue and time changed: it would be the following week, at his 52-room mansion in Connecticut. There I was to have some ‘hang time’ with him, whatever that is. That trip was postponed, too. It would now be in LA the following Wednesday. The night before I was due to fly, it was postponed again, for a week. This routine happened twice more. It became almost amusing, a weekly game, an exercise in morbid fascination. As his people were paying for the flights — not normal practise, but the situation had become too weird to say no — there seemed no harm in playing along, and, the week after that, I actually reached the airport without the usual postponement call. The plane took off. Still no call. I checked my messages when I touched down. Confidence was high: 50 Cent had arrived in LA that day for a concert that would be broadcast on the web. I waited backstage to meet him. His heavies began to appear. There was a change in the temperature. The crackle of static. Then mobile phones started ringing and faces started dropping. There was a rumour that 50 Cent had cancelled. It turned out to be true. An executive from his record label took me out to dinner that night and assured me that Fifty, as everyone calls him, was normally very professional about these things. No one knew why he had cancelled the concert. There were hints that he might have been taken ill. As I had another story to do, I stayed in town — but still he didn’t show.

I’m reflecting on this runaround as I sit waiting in a London studio a month later. Then Fifty nonchalantly ambles in wearing his own brand of baseball cap and a large diamond encrusted cross around his neck. He slumps on the sofa in front of me and gives a toothy grin. ‘Wass up?’ he says.

I was going to ask him the same thing. What was up, in LA? What happened? ‘Right, LA. How was your trip out there?’

I’ve had better. ‘Right, right. It was the new album. It was due for release then but it wasn’t how I wanted it. I had to go back and work on it. I’m very hands on. I’m fine with failing but only if it’s my fault. I don’t like putting my life into other people’s hands.’
Hmm. Q Magazine has dubbed him Dead Man Walking because of the various death threats that are regularly made against him — he made a lot of enemies in his drug dealing days and still does with his ‘diss wars’. Much of his notoriety in the music business concerned the fights he picked with his fellow rappers, deliberately starting feuds by insulting them in his songs. The list is long but his biggest feuds have been with Ja Rule, The Game, and the wealthiest rapper cum entrepreneur of them all, P Diddy. It’s a dangerous game — his mentor Jam Master Jay was shot dead as part of a rap feud — and the bulletproof vest Fifty wears and the bulletproof car he drives (a Humvee, naturally) are not just for show. How safe does he feel today? ‘Pretty safe. As safe as I’ll ever be. Do you feel safe? You’ve got terrorist attacks going on here in London.’
And on that subject I ask him how his flight was, bearing in mind that a couple of years ago he and his 18-strong entourage were held up for five hours by security coming into Heathrow. ‘It wasn’t difficult for me this time because I flew private.’
That must help. ‘Yeah, early on I had real hassle at the airport. But after several trip to London they more relaxed about it. My bodyguards don’t carry guns in the UK, only in the US. Trouble is, the security men go on perception. Because of the content of the lyrics they felt I would cause trouble, so they had that worked out even before I touched down.’
Ah yes, the lyrics. Some are witty, some quite poetic others are, well, nigga this, mothafucka that, ‘let loose wit dis uzi’ the other. So, I ask, would it be fair to say that Fifty glamorises gun violence? He speaks heavily and chewily, in a slightly lisping and slurring voice that is still rooted in the ghetto. I’ll not attempt a phonetic version of it here, but suffice to say he drops letters, swallows words and his vocabulary is unwieldy — ‘finances’ for money, ‘terminology’ for words, ‘altercation’ for fight, a bit like a policeman taking the stand in court. ‘There is a difference between glamorising violence and creating a work of art that entertains on some level,’ he says. ‘Hip-hop is a mirror. What I write is a reflection of the environment I grew up in.  What I do is reporting. I think it is clear to everyone that I am no longer living that life I describe, but I use terminology that they would actually use in that environment, so that people there can relate to it. People say I should take out the cursing and I say “sure, I’ll change my standards if society changes its standards”.’
A change of tack. Does it worry him that the young people who buy his albums might feel inspired to go around shooting people afterwards? ‘Anyone who could be influenced by music would have to be so distorted they could be influenced by pretty much anything,’ he says, adjusting his baseball cap as he catches his reflection in a mirror behind my head. ‘The kid that become violent because he listen to music is already crazy. People who can’t separate entertainment and reality are not mentally normal.’
So people who act violently after listening to his lyrics were going to act violently anyway? ‘Exactly.’
But that can’t be true, can it? These things must have an influence. If someone listens to one of his records again and again they will get pumped up by it, feel aggressive. ‘That would also relate to film.’
People don’t watch films over and over again though. ‘Yeah but sound and picture has to be more impressionable that sound on its own, doesn’t it? If you have a rapper come on and tell you he is going shoot someone that seems to upset people more than if a film-maker comes on and actually shows you someone being shot. It’s double standards. It’s simple math.’

Why does he suppose people are drawn to that which frightens them? ‘I think death in itself is entertaining to humans. I believe that because it is everyone fate. I’m going to die, you going to die, everyone is going to die. You see someone in a life-threatening situation and it is entertaining.’

Entertaining? Unlike most of us, Fifty has stared death in the face. He says he knew for certain he was about to die. What did that last moment feel like? ‘I think you can remember pain a lot better than you can remember joy. I think pain leaves a bigger impression. We can smile watching a sitcom but the painful points in our life stand out like scars. I physically actually have scars from that altercation.’ He holds a finger to his cheek. ‘See this little dimple. It’s cute. I believe God meant to give me it as a baby but gave it to me a few years late.’

When he was shot, Fifty suffered wounds to his legs, chest and calf. His hip was also shattered. The skin on his right hand is still puckered by the impact of another bullet. The bullet that smashed through his jaw and lodged in his tongue left him with a curved scar, still visible near his mouth. It makes it look as if he’s smiling to himself. Did he know anything about it at the time? ‘It happened so fast that I didn’t even get a chance to shoot back… I thought shit, somebody shot me in the face. It burns. I was awake on the way to the hospital and then I went under anaesthetic. Only when I woke up did the pain really start. At the time I didn’t think about the number of times I’d been shot I just thought physically I survived.’

What about mentally; does he have nightmares about it? ‘Not nightmares. A little bit of paranoia. After I was shot I would be more aware of what was going on around me. More alert.’

Has he ever had therapy? ‘No, it would have been traumatic if I wasn’t from the background I’m from. It happened all the time there. It feels like the norm. On some level, and this crazy, it pretty much happens all the time where I’m from. Not being shot nine times necessarily, but being shot. If it isn’t a friend of yours or someone you know you tend not to notice or think about it much. You can’t feel that physical pain for them anyway.’

Does that make him emotionally frozen? ‘I am insensitive on some levels. I can be selfish. At some point I will make choices based on what I want rather than what is right for everyone else.’

Tell me about it. His mouth broadens, flashing a set of bright pearly teeth, gritted tightly together. ‘I guess that is what allowed me to continue believing I would be a success when others couldn’t see why. I run on my own energy. When you orphaned you have no choice but to do that.  Me, I’m like one in a billion. There’s not going to be another 50 Cent. They’ll get to half of the movie, they just won’t get to this part.’

He refers to the movie that was made about his life and in which he starred. It was directed by Jim Sheridan, the director of the Oscar winning My Left Foot. It offers chilling insights into the world of the crack dealer. Does he feel any guilt about his previous life? ‘No.’

Why not? ‘If I was conscious of having any other options at that stage in my life I would have chosen those options. I just thought of my mom buying nice things for me with the money she made from crack and I thought I could do the same. That was my reference. Her friends had nice cars, nice jewellery, things that said luxury and success, and they acquired them in short periods of time.’

His boastfulness and selfishness is almost understandable in this cold and unforgiving context. I ask if material rewards still matter to him? ‘There’s a point where you exceed your own expectation. But ambition is part of my character. I don’t believe I’m at where I’m at by accident. It’s not for money but for what it feels like to be successful. You know what money is? It’s freedom. It’s freedom to say I’m going to get on a plane tonight instead of tomorrow because I’ve got one waiting.’He recently expressed an interest in buying the imposing Debenham House in London as part of his property portfolio. According to some accounts the agents were a little patronising at first, pointing out that it was on the market for £40 million. His business manager pointed out in turn that that wouldn’t make too much of a dent in his budget. Does he know how much he is worth? ‘I’ll be the first hip-hop artist worth a billion dollars. I know how much money I have in different places. I understand about branding and synergy.’

The comment reminds me that the phrase Get Rich or Die Tryin’ is nothing if not a bling version of the American dream. Perhaps we should not be surprised that Fifty’s sympathies, unlike those of nearly everyone else in the music industry, are Republican. If his felony convictions did not prevent him from voting, he claims that he would vote for Bush. He has performed for the troops in Iraq and has called the President: ‘Incredible . . . a gangsta. I want to meet George Bush, just shake his hand and tell him how much of me I see in him.’

It would be a memorable encounter. And Fifty does know how to dress for the occasion. He wore an Armani suits and tie recently for a photo op in which he held hands with the Duchess of York. ‘She’s a sweetheart,’ he tells me. ‘She came back to my dressing room afterwards and we talked for a while. It was for a good cause.’ But he normally wears what he is wearing today: baggy T-shirt and jeans, trainers with the laces undone, a baseball cap which he keeps adjusting constantly to get the right angle. Certainly there is vanity there, and egomania. Like Caesar he refers to himself in the third person. But he can seem two-dimensional. His worldview was shaped by money and machismo, and success has not significantly changed that. ‘Most people from my background end up incarcerated or killed, like my mom. There were things that happened in my life prior to my being able to make a decision that altered me. When my mom had me she was 15 years old. She didn’t see being on welfare as an option. She substitute finances for time, but every time I seen her it was like Christmas because she always bought something nice for me. So I associated every thing good in life with my mom and when she died everything became bad. I was angry with the world. It was fucked up for me. It wasn’t until my son came into my life that I realised I could accept the repercussion for that life style. He changed my direction from selling drugs to writing music.’

He has a close relationship with his 10 year old son? “Yeah he’s my partner. He’s my inspiration. It’s unfortunate that me and his mom don’t have a good relationship. We don’t communicate so well.’
But he loves his son? ‘Absolutely.’

I only ask because the theme of his autobiography is that love is dangerous because it will get you killed. ‘When you living in that lifestyle it can literally get you killed because the people who love you will hurt you and say “I’m sorry” afterwards. But someone who has fear of you won’t do those things to you. Whether it’s the physically repercussion they fear or just you, as a person.’
What about women; does he find it easy to fall in love with them? ‘That different. Loving a woman  is loving another person. With my son it’s like loving myself. He’s a purer version of me. He hasn’t been exposed to the things that altered my character.’ He pauses. He is now staring directly at his reflection. Past me. ‘No, that’s not exactly true. He saw me in the hospital after I was shot so he has that in his head but outside of that nothing bad. If you talk to my son I’m like a superhero to him because he can remember us having no finances, all being in the basement sleeping in a single room.’ His son now attends a private school. Is he a strict father? ‘You know, his mom runs his life right now. But I’ll allow him to listen to my music because he knows it is just entertainment. He knows what the difference between me and what is being said on my records is. If you were worried about my lyrics you should also be worried about what your kid watching on television. Same with magazines. I look in you magazines and I see women topless and it’s great. But in the States they consider it soft pornography. They have a whole  different vibe over there. The Bible belt.’

Which brings us neatly to the subject of feminism; you suspect The Female Eunuch is not in his top ten favourite books. ‘The guys who have more finances have better things around them, including better looking women,’ he explains. ‘He can be the ugliest guy but if he has a nice car he will have a nice woman by his side because away from his physical attributes financial security is attractive. The women they struggling like we struggling.’

So all woman are gold diggers? ‘Yeah. And not just from my perspective. I’ve generally experience it and this is why women say you gotta have a J-O-B if you wanna be with me. They want someone who can help them. The man career is the more important in the relationship. It’s a fact. The man gets promoted ahead of the women in the workplace, the statistics show that. And the most successful men have the most stable marriages.’

So is that where he will end up, is there a Mrs Cent in the wings? ‘Well hopefully I won’t have to be married more than one time.’
Is he in a relationship right now? ‘No, I’m as free as a bird.’

If his videos are anything to go — gyrating, semi naked women are a recurring theme — he must enjoy that freedom. He grins.

‘There a lot going on. A lot of temptation. With the videos it’s like this: when you want to sell a magazine to a woman who do you put on the cover? A woman. When you want to sell a magazine to a man who do you put on the cover? A woman, with less clothes on.’

I wonder if he is in touch with his feminine side. He says he doesn’t display emotions, that he has learned to suppress them, that anger is one of his most ‘comfortable feelings’. But is he able to cry. ‘Yeah.’ About? ‘Normal stuff. Don’t think I’m not human. I’ve been in tough situations but what I’ve experienced isn’t normal. A regular person might feel comfortable to start crying, I don’t. The times it does happen there might not be an obvious reason for it. It might be when I’m off a bit. Bit low.’
What makes him feel vulnerable? Anything? ‘Too much information out there ‘bout me. You know like not insecure exactly but I have things I wouldn’t want other people to know.’

Like he has a Barbie doll collection at home? ‘I don’t have a barby doll collection at home.’

Like what then? He is now addressing his reflection completely, trying his cap at different angles. ‘I don’t know, like seeing my mother kissing another woman when I was little boy. At six years old you don’t understand what is happening when you see you mommy with another woman. I didn’t see them in the sexual act. Just kissing. It only seemed confusing later.’

If he took his eyes off his own reflection for a second he would see my eyebrows are arching in surprise at his candour. Feeling oddly emboldened now by the prospect of some Freudian revelation, I find myself asking how old he was when he lost his virginity. ‘I was young.’ How young? ‘I can’t say.’ Oh come on. He looks at me and grins. ‘I was young. I was 12. It was with a  grown woman. A 29 year old.’

So at the age of 12 he was effectively a man, earning a living and having sex? ‘It wasn’t quite like that. I was at my friend’s house and my friend had his sister there and I was big for a kid — 150 lbs — like a small man, and it happened. Unfortunately it didn’t happen again for a long time so I had to use my hand a lot.’

His chubbiness as a child seems hard to believe when you see him now with his pumped up muscles. His is a bodybuilder’s torso composed of spheres and illustrated with a tapestry of tattoos, one of them spelling out his son’s name, Marquise. He never had a father figure himself, has he ever wondered what his father was like? ‘I never met my father and have no interest in where he is. He could have helped me. He could have influenced me before I made mistakes. I’m not curious to know what he looks like. I know I look like my mom. I got photos of my mom. Big teeth like me. She had a big smile like me.’
Useful weapon that smile, I suggest, more useful than a gun. ‘My smile has got me a long way in life. It disarms people. They have a threatening impression otherwise.’

And not without reason. ‘Well if someone puts me in a position where my back is against the wall they going to find out where I come from. My past is my shadow. Everywhere I go, it goes with me.’ And on that poetic note we part company and I am left thinking that the wait, the extraordinary wait to meet 50 Cent, was worth it.