Quincy Jones

He produced the biggest album ever, befriending movie stars as well as presidents. At 77, Quincy Jones is in no danger of running out of stories.

After a few minutes in Quincy Jones’s engaging company I begin to see why his PR people are so jittery. The man has an easy charm and is a natural raconteur. But he is also a loose cannon. Over the next hour or so, I find myself nodding and laughing as he tells me of his passion for Nazi cinema, how he lost his virginity at 12 and how he experimented with every drug going.

In a career that spans six decades, Quincy Jones has worked with Michael Jackson, Miles Davis, Aretha Franklin, Dizzie Gillespie, Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye, Billie Holiday, Count Basie, Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Ray Charles, and P Diddy, to name but a few. Most notably, he was the producer of choice for Frank Sinatra for years. Indeed, it was his arrangement of Fly Me to the Moon that became the first music played in space (Buzz Aldrin took a recording of it with him for the first moon landing).

At the age of 77, Q, as he is known to his friends, is still considered one of the leading producers in the world, with a record 79 Grammy nominations and 27 Grammy awards to his name. And he is still writing film scores, still conducting, still arranging. And still making records, his latest Q: Soul Bossa Nostra is released this month.

It features contemporary versions of songs from Jones’s extensive catalogue, with singers such as LL Cool J, Mary J Blige, Usher, Snoop Dogg and Amy Winehouse ‘paying tribute’ to the producer. ‘Each artist picked a song that resonated with them for different reasons,’ Jones says. ‘They all made them their own and knocked them out of the park.’

He can also still claim, 28 years after Jackson’s Thriller first went on sale, to have produced the most successful album of all time. Not only that, but the most successful single, too, with We Are the World. On that occasion he pinned up a notice in the studio that the assembled stars could not miss: ‘Check your egos at the door.’

Today, as he sits in a suite at the Dorchester, he’s not in bad shape for his age. A bit of a paunch maybe, but he dresses with the brio of a younger man, like an extra from a Seventies television show: safari suit, colourful scarf, orange shirt, dog tags, earrings. He has a thin ’tache shading his top lip and although he talks in a jazz musician patois, he is articulate and his recall is excellent.

Next to him is a box with one of the expensive Quincy Jones signature brand AKG headphones in it, strategically placed there by the PR from the manufacturers, Harman International Industries (who has insisted on sitting in on the interview, at the other end of the room and we won’t even know he’s there, honestly). You can understand why they would want his name associated with their product.

Jones tells me that he does actually use this brand in the studio, and has done so for years. But, amusingly, he also mentions a rival brand to me by mistake, and when he does I sense the PR on the other side of the room burying his head in his hands.

Before coming to London to launch the headphones, Jones has been in Paris and Berlin. Sounds like they’re working him hard, I say. ‘Yeah, but as long as there are hot ladies around I don’t mind. I was married for 36 years but now I’m free. I’ve done my duty. Seven children, six grandchildren, five mothers, three wives. My oldest grandson is 36. I might be a great grandfather soon.’

Blimey. What must Christmas be like? ‘The most beautiful thing you’ve ever seen, man. One of my children just came over.’ He shows me a photograph of a young woman sitting on his knee. ‘Her mother is Nastassja Kinski. She’s 17. So sweet now. Smart, too.’

In a documentary a few years ago Jones’s children talked about how their father neglected them when they were younger. They also said they felt like surrogates to the famous performers in their father’s life. According to Jolie Jones, the eldest of his seven children: ‘Everything else was second, which wasn’t so right for us. But that’s how it was.’ When I remind him of this quote he says: ‘That might have been true one time, yeah, but not now, man. Like this little thing.’ He holds up the photograph again. ‘We’re friends. We tell each other bad jokes. She rubs my back for me.’

He had lunch yesterday with Stella McCartney and she reminded him of this daughter. ‘Stella has had a crush on me since she was little. So sweet!’ It has been a busy trip socially because he also met up with his old friend Sir Michael Caine. ‘I’ve known Michael since I did the music for The Italian Job. We’re exactly the same age, born the same hour. He said to me: “Q, God’s bowling in our alley.” We have a lot of friends in common, you see. And a lot of them have died recently. I’ve lost 174 friends in five years. That’s a lot of people, man.’

But is the death of a friend who is in old age easier to accept than that of someone middle-aged, like Michael Jackson? ‘No, not really. I’ve lost two brothers as well, from cancer. It’s never easier to accept just because they are older. I was in London when Michael died, which was hard for me. Not that I wanted to go to the funeral. I don’t go to them any more because I find them too depressing.’

The last one he went to, he says, was Marlon Brando’s in 2004. ‘I’d known Marlon since 1951. He gave my son acting lessons. Funniest s— you’ve ever heard. He was paying me back for getting his son a job with Michael Jackson. He gave my son advice on how to creep in the house when you are late back at 4am. You turn off the engine and push your car into the garage, then you take off your shoes so as your wife don’t hear you.’

He met most of his film-star friends while working on film scores. His approach to writing them, he says, was sometimes more calculating than instinctive. ‘Music in movies is all about dissonance and consonance, tension and release. Star Wars was all victorious consonance, what Spielberg and I called emotion lotion. With The Color Purple the music invades your soul. It was the first film I produced.’

And that was the film in which Oprah Winfrey, another of his old friends, got her first break. He was quite hands-on for that one, insisting that Spielberg be the director. He even managed to persuade Spielberg to recreate a scene from German cinema in which the rain symbolises tears.

‘I was a fan of Leni Riefenstahl, you see, one of the greatest black-and-white film-makers who ever lived. I had lunch with her before she died. She was Goebbels’s girlfriend, you know. Looked like Hedy Lamarr. Very beautiful. She told me she had 211 cameras for Triumph of the Will. I asked her why so many and she said: “Do you think I am going to say to Adolf, ‘Lets do another take’?”’

Riefenstahl also told him that the Third Reich was gathering pace at the same time Freud was doing his research into cocaine as anaesthesia, looking at how it shuts off the emotions and encourages you to be violent. ‘And she told me the whole Third Reich was on cocaine. That makes so much sense.’

Was he ever drawn into that world? ‘Damn right I was. Drugs in the world of the bebop musician? Are you kidding? Ray Charles was taking heroin in front of me when I was 13. I got tired of being left out so I would have a sniff, then two months later you are shooting up. That’s how you start. The body needs more and more. Ray was on heroin for 30 years. Charlie Parker, Miles Davis they were all stoned.

‘Marijuana was part of the culture. And a little toke now and then never hurt anyone. It enhances the senses. But as Bird himself said, if you can’t play it’s not going to help you.’ Does he still have a toke? ‘Sure man. Course.’ Any other drugs? ‘Back then I did, Benzedrine, and what are those things you pop?’

‘Amyl nitrate?’ He punches fists with me. ‘Yeah that’s it. You bin there, man. But I always had the will power to say that’s enough.’ After five days without sleep in the studio, presumably? ‘Tell me about it. For Thriller, you mean? But that was just smoking, man.’ And presumably Michael Jackson didn’t partake? ‘No way.’

When he was deprived of sleep like that for a week, how did he manage to think straight? Didn’t he feel he was going mad? ‘Yeah, but that’s where the creative stuff comes in, the unconscious mind. You do it because you have a deadline. You have to go five days and nights without sleep. The engineers who didn’t smoke couldn’t take it. They were being carried out on stretchers. It’s not the drugs that get the results though.’

When Jackson asked Jones to recommend a producer for his first solo album, Jones told him he would like to take a shot at it himself. The record company was ‘scared to death’ because ‘they said I was too jazzy’ but Off the Wall became a huge hit. They did Thriller after that, in two months. But the 1987 follow up, Bad, took 14 months too long in Jones’s view and the pair never worked on an album together again after that.

‘We did Thriller quickly and when you take too long, as we did with the next Michael Jackson album, you lose spontaneity. But I will always do one more take until you get it in the pocket, which is the right key and right tempo, the tempo God wants it in. That’s when you don’t notice anything standing out because everything is exactly where it should be in the arrangement, not too dense, not too airy. I learnt that from Basie when I was very young. It can be quite subjective though. I hear it in my head.’

If he was like Beethoven and went deaf could he still hear it? ‘Yes, because it’s all inside. Absolutely. If architecture is frozen music then music must be liquid architecture. You can almost see it; you don’t necessarily need to hear it to work out the orchestration. You’re hearing it inside.’

We talk about how Paul McCartney, another friend, composed Yesterday. He woke up with the tune fully formed in his head. ‘Tunes sometimes come to me like that, too, like Soul Bossa Nova [the 1962 track best known these days as the theme tune for Austin Powers]. Music is the only thing that engages the left and right brain simultaneously, it means the intellect is always tied to the emotion; the words are second to the melody, that is where the power of a song lies. Think of some of the great lyrics, they don’t mean s—: “Waiting round the bend, my Huckleberry friend”.

‘I’m a great believer in letting lyrics just flow out, wherever they come from. Get out of the way of yourself. The conscious mind is so full of s—. You have to use the subconscious mind. Don’t become a victim of paralysis by analysis. I like to hit it, and just go with the gut. Do something that gives you goose bumps.’

Bet there were plenty of those with Sinatra. ‘There sure were.’ What was he like to work with? Intimidating? ‘It takes a lot of guts to tell Sinatra what to do, man. You better have your s— together because he takes no prisoners and if you ask him to jump without a net you better have got it right. There is so much trust involved. He would love you, or roll over you with a truck and then reverse.’

He holds his hand and taps one of the rings on it. ‘This ring he gave me 40 years ago and I’ve never taken it off. It’s his family crest from Sicily. We would do all sorts of crazy s— in Hawaii. He used to love to fight, though he couldn’t fight for s—.’ He acted fighting well enough in his films. ‘Couldn’t for real though. His spirit was willing but…’ He shrugs.

What did they fight over? ‘Anything. You might say the wrong thing. Didn’t take much. Depended on the mood he was in.’ Presumably he treated someone as robust as Sinatra differently to someone more fragile, such as Michael Jackson? ‘Yeah, Michael was a baby. One way in which I did treat the two the same was that I realised early on you don’t tell a superstar in public they are getting it wrong. You have that conversation one-to-one, in private. If you push them up against the wall in front of other people they will want to defend their reputation. As they should. They work for their success. They know what they are doing, most of the time.’

Like Michael Jackson, Jones was a child prodigy. Does he feel he missed out on a childhood? ‘I didn’t have a mother so I was out there from the age of 11 working, running a clothes-cleaning service. Working for a pimp.’ Sounds like he had to grow up quickly. How old was he when he lost his virginity? ‘I must have been 12. When I was 15 I was with a 35-year-old girl. She was accused of rape but I said that ain’t no goddam rape, 35 is when a woman reaches her sexual peak. Men reach it much younger.’

At this point the PR from Harman International Industries interrupts and asks Jones if he would like to reconsider his answers to the questions about drugs and losing his virginity. To his credit, Jones just laughs and says: ‘Oh, we just doing free-form here, man. Don’t worry about all that.’

It takes a lot to make Quincy Jones worried, it seems, a perspective that perhaps comes from the hardships of his formative years. His mother was a multilingual Boston University graduate who became a bank executive before succumbing to schizophrenia. ‘She was a brilliant lady, but back then when a black woman had a mental illness they didn’t give a s—. Now they could cure what she had with vitamin B. Back then they just took her away in a straitjacket. I was seven years old. It was pretty traumatic. My stepmother beat the s— out of me and my brother, so when I was 12 I fought back and knocked the hell out of her. But you can’t sit and whine about that s—.

‘The statute of limitation has expired on all childhood traumas. Get it fixed and get on with your life. Some people waste a lifetime blaming all their woes on their childhood.’

His father was a carpenter to the two most notorious gangsters in black history, the Jones boys. ‘Capone ran them out of town when he found how much money they were making from the numbers racket. Seeing dead bodies and machine guns, that is what I remember most from my childhood in the South Side of Chicago. Drive-by shootings. It was the biggest black ghetto in the worst depression. There was nothing but gangsters around us and I wanted to be one, too.’

So what happened? ‘Then I came across a piano when I was 10. We had broken into an armoury and I saw it sitting there in the dark. When I touched the keys every cell of my body said: “This is what you’re going to do for the rest of your life.” That day I stopped wanting to be a gangster and started wanting to be a musician. That’s why I can identify with all those rappers I’ve worked with.

‘One of my daughters was engaged to Tupac, you know. He died in her arms. She almost got murdered, too. I became very close to Tupac, after a few confrontations when we first met. Him and Snoop Dog. The trouble with a lot of the rap fans today is they sacrifice their intellect to be cool. Dumb is not cool. Smart is sexy.’

Jones moved from the piano to the tuba, then the saxophone and finally the trumpet. At 14, he formed a band with the 16-year-old Ray Charles, playing throughout Washington state. ‘Ray and I were friends until the day he died. We held each other in our arms when he was in the hospital.’ Then, at 15, Jones won a scholarship to a music college in Boston, and later in the Fifties he played and studied in Paris (where he met Picasso, whose studio was across the street).

His trumpet playing came to an end in 1974 when he suffered two brain aneurysms and was close to death. Did that experience change him? He points to two long scars on his forehead, the result of surgery. ‘This scar is from my operation. I’ve got a metal plate in my head. I was paralysed on my left side for a while and had to stop playing the trumpet. It changed my personality to the extent that it opened me up a lot, because before that I used to hold things in. I’m more on the surface emotionally now.’

After giving up the trumpet he concentrated on his conducting and arranging and became the first black man to be a senior record executive at a major label. ‘In the America I grew up in there was apartheid, but I went to Paris and it taught me there could be a balance between black and white. When Ray Charles and I were kids in Seattle we didn’t have the black role models that young black people have today, like P Diddy and Oprah and Barack.’

Did he ever imagine back then in Seattle that it would be possible for a black man to become president of the United States in his lifetime? ‘No, never. I remember sitting at home in my kitchen in March 2005 with Oprah and Michelle and Barack and even then we couldn’t imagine it ever happening. I told Michelle I was going with Hilary because I thought she had a real chance. I wanted to remain loyal to Hilary and Bill, who is a big music fan, but my heart was with Barack. At the Iowa primary when Barack won the nomination, he came to see me in my suite and we hugged.’

Not only a friend to the stars but to presidents too, and a role model to black Americans everywhere, though you’d never guess it from his unassuming manner. It is time for Jones to end his ‘free-form’ and fly back to his home in LA. And I am happy to report that when he says goodbye it is with another gentle fist punch rather than a handshake.


Alfred Molina

There is something about Alfred Molina’s body language today which suggests sheepishness. But what? The defensive way he draws in his shoulders, perhaps. Or the way he folds his arms as he grins. He’s a solidly built 6ft 3in, so these may be examples of a big man’s natural self-consciousness. And it might be that his look of slight vulnerability is more to do with his eyes, which are soft and dark, like those of a cow. Or his clothes. He is wearing white socks with jeans and what looks like one of those shirts you go bowling in. Perhaps this sartorial geekiness is what makes him look a little awkward.
On the other hand, if he is not entirely comfortable with the idea that he is here in London to plug The Sorcerer’s Apprentice, an all-action family movie in which he co-stars with Nicolas Cage, that would be understandable. It is meant to be the blockbuster of the summer, not least because it cost $150 million to make and is produced by Jerry Bruckheimer, the most commercially successful filmmaker in Hollywood history. From Top Gun and Beverly Hills Cop to the Pirates of the Caribbean and National Treasure (one of six previous collaborations with Cage) Bruckheimer has had the Midas touch, prompting the Washington Post to call him ‘the man with the golden gut’.
But The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in the States a few weeks ago to a ‘disappointing’ box office. And this follows another Bruckheimer ‘disappointment’, Prince of Persia, also starring Molina. So, I ask the 57-year-old actor, how does it feel to be part of Bruckheimer’s first losing streak? He’s given this one some thought. ‘The weekend The Sorcerer’s Apprentice opened in America it was number 3 at the box office,’ he says, leaning forward in his chair. ‘And Disney executives were quoted as saying they were “disappointed”. I thought, how can that be disappointing? It made 17 million dollars in its first weekend. It will carry on making money and by the end of the year the film will have paid for itself several times over. The whole accounting ethic is very confused.’
Fair enough. What about working with Nicolas Cage, then? As much a loon as his reputation allows? ‘I am aware of his reputation for eccentricity, but I don’t quite know where it comes from.’
Saying things like he won’t eat animals that don’t have ‘dignified sex’, perhaps? ‘I don’t know about that, but he did tell me he had a gluten allergy so he doesn’t eat wheat. He goes to great lengths to find bread made from corn or rice. He has a strict diet.’ Molina leans back in his chair now, hands behind his head, the awkward questions apparently out of the way. ‘I liked him. The Nicolas Cage I met and worked with was incredibly polite and very serious about the work. Very collaborative. He loves stories such as The Sorcerer’s Apprentice. Fascinated by Arthurian legend. A Merlinian buff. He was the engine of enthusiasm for the film. But yes, I’ve heard all the stories, too.’
Molina seems to be a tactful man generally. He is currently in Roger And Val Have Just Got In, a BBC2 sitcom in which he co-stars with Dawn French. It is shot without an audience, in real time, with each episode being the first 30 minutes of the evening, when the couple come home from their jobs — he is a botanist, she a domestic science teacher. During the filming French was in the middle of her separation from Lenny Henry, not that Molina noticed. ‘I had no idea about the split, that must have all been going on at the time but she didn’t bring it along. I read it in the papers along with everyone else. The series was great fun to work on. Just the two of us.’
Although television has always been something of a sideline for Molina, it wasn’t for his wife Jill Gascoine, who made her name with the 1980s series The Gentle Touch. They met in 1982 when they were working together at the Donmar in the musical Destry Rides Again and they married four years later. Though she is 72 now, 16 years older than him, the age gap has never been an issue for either of them, he says, though he can understand why people might be intrigued by it. They’re very happy together and their marriage has survived some tough times — Gascoigne has suffered severe depression, on and off, and kidney cancer (from which she made a full recovery). The couple have three children between them, she has two sons from an earlier marriage and he has a daughter from an earlier relationship. Tellingly, when I ask Molina why he hasn’t always excerised quality control in his choice of film roles, signing up for lowbrow blockbusters instead of the highbrow arthouse film with which he made his name, it is the children he makes reference to. ‘It’s put two of my kids through college.’
Could this be the real reason why Molina is looking sheepish? Here, after all, is a man who trained at the prestigious Guildhall School of Music and Drama, began his career at the Royal Shakespeare Company and has been in some of the best arthouse movies ever made, from Stephen Frears’s 1987 film Prick Up Your Ears, in which he portrayed a menacing Kenneth Halliwell (Joe Orton’s lover and killer), to An Education in which he played the buttoned up father of Lynn Barber, whose memoir inspired the film. Barber has written that she found Molina’s Oscar-nominated performance ‘positively heart-rending’, which is quite an accolade, coming from her. On stage, meanwhile, Molina has won acclaim (as well as various Tony and Bafta nominations) for his performances in intelligent, powerful plays such as Red, about the life of the abstract expressionist painter Mark Rothko. With his dark, beetling eyebrows, Molina does fierce intensity well. He can be a thoughtful and subtle actor. So what, apart from the children, is he doing it slumming it in all these blockbusters? Are they worthy of his talents? Does he find them artistically rewarding?
‘Well, Michael Caine once said that in order to sustain a high standard of living you have to be in a low standard of film. But actually the acting pleasure is the same in the two types of film. Different parts make different demands on you. A completely fictitious character gives you freedom to use your imagination, but when you are playing a character from recent history, then you have to be more careful about accuracy.’
His method, he explains, is to absorb as much information as he can about a subject then to throw it away ‘because the last thing the audience want is for you to show off your homework. Acting isn’t an intellectual exercise. It’s visceral.’
His portrayal of Rothko was a case in point. He became fascinated by the subject, learned how to prepare convases and even found himself empathising with the artist. ’His life was very well documented. There were loads of photographs of him because for a man who claimed to hate the commercialisation of art, he always posed for photographs. He was very aware of his image. He was, in a sense, always performing. Even his suicide was a sort of performance.’ But the thing Molina wanted to convey most was that Rothko always felt an outsider in New York. He was an immigrant from Russia. ‘His nose was up against the glass.’
Not unlike the young Alfred, or Alfredo as he was growing up the eldest child of immigrants in North West London. He was multilingual, because his father was a waiter from Spain, his mother a cleaner from Italy. His parents met in London while working at the same hotel. ‘My father arrived in England just before the outbreak of war,’ Molina says. ‘And he worked very hard to assimilate. He became a naturalised Britain after serving in the Pioneer Corps. Though both my parents left school at 15 they spoke four languages: English, Italian, Spanish and French. They spoke French when they wanted to be private, so I wouldn’t know what they were talking about. I’ve always considered French a romantic and mysterious language for that reason.’
But as hard as they tried to assimilate, his parents always felt like outsiders here. ‘I remember getting into an argument with my father,’ Molina says. ‘I said to him in quite a condescending way: “I was born here. I’m English. I feel English.” And he looked at me and laughed and said: “It doesn’t matter how English you feel, an Englishman will always remind you are not.” He was right. The English have the subtlest ways of reminding you you are not English.’ He adopts an upper class voice. ‘“Alfredo? That’s European isn’t it? How nice.” My father once cooked a meal for the friends of his boss. Traditional paella. And someone said to him: “So do you have this every day in your country? No wonder you chaps are always playing your castanets and looking happy.” Casual racial stereotypes…’ He shakes his head. ‘You know, I based the father in An Education, Lynn Barber’s father, on all the twats my father worked for.’
Alfred Molina dropped the ‘o’ from Alfredo soon after graduating and because he wasn’t ‘lens fodder’, as he puts it, he became a character actor, as oppose to a leading man, and has remained one ever since. ‘My agent told me to change Alfredo to Alfred, otherwise “You’ll be playing Greek waiters all your career.” He didn’t even bother to get my nationality right.’
Blimey. But I suppose this was the 1970s, the heyday, if that’s the right word, of racial stereotyping. I mean, he must have loved Fawlty Towers. ‘Yeah, I remember being called Manuel. That was the last great stereotype.’
But isn’t he now trading in stereotypes himself? He does an American accent very well, which is not surprising given that he has lived in Los Angeles for 12 years and has become a US citizen (because, as he puts it, over there they accept that everyone comes from somewhere else). But in this new movie he plays the English villain, a staple of Hollywood casting. And he has form in this, having played among others Dr Otto Octavius, the half-man, half-octopus villain in Spiderman 2. (That movie, by the way, cost $ 200m and grossed more than that in its first eight days of US release, breaking all records, so Molina knows the world of the blockbuster from both sides.)
So. Hollywood and English villains. What’s that all about? ‘It’s an honourable tradition and long may it continue. It even goes back to the silent era. So that couldn’t have been about the accent. But they were often English in the 50s. And when Alan Rickman went to Hollywood to do Die Hard I did think the standard had been passed on.’
Has he noticed an English backlash lately? ‘With Obama you mean? I haven’t been aware of it. Though I have noticed Americans emphasising the British in BP… Perhaps there is a future role for me as Tony Hayward.’
Well, a villain is a villain, is a villain. Molina might be a bit on the tall side though. And that reminds me of something I wanted to ask him. What’s it like being tall in Hollywood? I mean Tom Cruise is a more typical size for a film star, isn’t he? ‘Well, there’s Clint Eastwood and Tim Robbins and actually there is a younger generation of Hollywood actors who are all big strapping lads. I was doing some work with some students recently and I was average height among them. When I was a kid at school I was always the tallest. When I was 12 I was 5ft 10in, tall enough to be a policeman.’
Big feet? ‘Oh yeah, size 13. And by the time I was 17 I’d reached my height of 6ft 3in.’
How did being tall affect his personality, does he suppose? Did it make him placid? Did it mean he avoided fights because everyone backed off? ‘No, because I was a fat kid and I was physically uncoordinated. I was the kid who bumped into things, so I was a prime target at school. I couldn’t handle myself at all. I got picked on a lot, but now I get my revenge.’
How? ‘Because I live well. All the bullies have now disappeared in to obscurity. So fuck ‘em.’
It is an uncharacteristically aggressive comment for Molina, who seems mild mannered in person, and it makes me wonder whether he was an angry child. ‘Yes I was. Well, frustrated. Because I never stood up to them. I was a coward. It’s almost impossible to stand up to bullies unless you are prepared to be a bully yourself. It must have turned into anger somewhere and the anger must have got directed into acting. I know as an actor I’m good at rage.’
He sure is. His suppressed anger in Prick Up Your Ears was chilling, mainly because it was combined with a savage wit. ‘Yes I always get the feeling that whatever that period in my teenage years produced psychologically, I’m glad I was able to turn it into something positive through acting, so that it didn’t become a festering bitterness. It wasn’t some kind of impotence.’
One of the jibes at school, he now recalls, was that the Italians had been cowardly during the war, and he was half Italian. That stung, because he felt like a coward not standing up to them. He knew very early on that drama was his therapy and salvation. ‘I joined the drama club at 14 and very quickly I found I was living there emotionally.’
Yet he says he was clumsy and self-conscious because of his height; how did he square that with putting himself up on a stage to be stared at? ‘I think it’s why it happened. I was drawn to the idea of escaping by inhabiting other people. It was also a matter of getting the first punch in. If you are prepared to mock yourself first, it deflates the capacity of others to mock you. I knew I could do comedy and make people laugh. And I looked funny.’
In what way? ‘This is my natural nose.’ He points at it with his index finger, his thumb cocked ironically, like a pistol. ‘It’s never been broken. It was this way when I was born. And I knew I was funny and was a good mimic. I had lots of material because my parents were immigrants and they had strong accents. I could imitate them. I had ways of being funny and comic. And I knew what I was doing, I didn’t know quite what, but I knew drama and comedy deflated any bullying. I remember someone saying “You’re mad you are!” and I thought “Yeah but I’m going to make a living from this, from being mad. I knew I was going to turn it in to something worthwhile.’
Did his parents know he was having a hard time with the bullies? ‘I think they must have known because they got divorced when I was 12 and their situation was part of it. It wasn’t their fault but they must have been aware of it.’
I get a sense that he wishes his father had been more protective of him. When I ask whether he was also a big strapping man, Molina shakes his head. ‘My father was also tall, but thin, having had a duodenum ulcer that was cut out — he had a tiny stomach so he couldn’t eat a full meal.’ His mother died at 56 but his father lived to 81, so he saw some of his son’s success. ‘He saw Prick Up Your Ears,’ Molina says. ‘He was a bit confused by that one. I asked him if it was weird seeing me kiss a man on screen and he said: “You do what you have to do.” It was chosen as the opening film of the Barcelona Festival and because Barcelona had a vibrant gay community they came out on mass. Afterwards, at the party, two very camp gentleman from a gay magazine interviewed my father, who was back living in Barcelona at the time. He came over to me later that night and said: “Alfredo, I just been talking to this man and he say to me he think you are fabulous. What does that mean? This word ‘fabulous’?”
The accent is funny. He’s still doing it. Still making people laugh with his range of comedy voices, this time to charm an interviewer rather than a school bully. His other motivations for becoming an actor are intriguing. They are partly frivolous — he says that this way of life beats holding down a real job ‘any day of the week’ and that he would ‘rather be an unemployed actor than an employed anything else’. And they are partly serious. He reckons that people don’t become actors because they have something extra to offer but because they’ve ‘got something missing’. Hmm. And the whole notion of pretending to be someone else, he notes, has a great deal in common with the immigrant experience.
But there is also a materialistic side. He was raised in relative poverty. Now he is thought to earn around three million dollars a movie. What is it like being the star of a Hollywood blockbuster, I ask. How is he treated over there? Is it all stretch limos, sycophancy and chilled champagne? ‘It’s actually not like that, the big stars get treated incredibly well because there is such a huge investment in them, but most of the time on a big movie like The Sorcerer’s Apprentice the acting is only a small, eight-week chunk of a two-year project.’
A lot of the energy goes on the marketing strategies these days, he reckons. They are incredibly sophisticated now because there is so much money involved. ‘You have to make it something the adults will enjoy as well as the children. It’s a very interesting formula that Jerry Bruckheimer has developed because there has to be action and adventure in his movies, but also comedy. He really understands how family entertainment works. He also really understands television. I mean look at CSI. That’s a huge worldwide franchise. You get CSI Shanghai. CSI Deli. CSI Bournemouth, probably.’
And in this connection it should perhaps be added that The Sorcerer’s Apprentice isn’t all that bad. I took my children to the preview and they loved it: laughed in all the right places; sat on the edges of their seats. But I suppose the problem is that the success of a film such as this is measured purely in revenue terms rather than artistic. ‘Yes,’ Molina says, nodding earnestly. ‘That’s an odd thing with the reviews. The critics are almost superfluous to the result of the film and how it works with the audience. These films are almost critic proof, or at least the critics don’t have the same impact. It is not like an arthouse movie.’
They’re working him hard for this movie, I note. Is it all hands to the pump? ‘It’s all in the contract these days — interviews, international premieres, because there’s so much riding on it. When I started out in this business, the publicity side of things was always discretionary. You’d get a casual call asking if you fancy doing a couple of interviews on Wednesday.’ He grins. ‘But hey, I’m not complaining. This is a great life.’
And acting did mean he got to meet the love of his life. Apart from his wife, the other loves of his life are his daughter Rachel (from an early relationship) and her two young children, his grandchildren. One of them is named Alfred, ‘but he’s Alfie and I’m Fred, to avoid confusion’. Pointedly, he is not Alfredo. That ship has sailed.


Nigel Farage

He’s compared a fellow politician to a ‘damp rag’, had an extra-marital fling – and survived a plane crash. How facing death has softened the UKIP leader – a little…

Even Nigel Farage’s enemies, of which he has an impressive collection, would have to admit that he has the recognition factor. Whether he is appearing on Have I Got News For You or becoming a YouTube hit after abusing the President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, telling him that he has ‘the charisma of a damp rag’, among other ripe comments, the 46-year-old UK Independence Party MEP knows how to get noticed.

Sometimes it’s for the wrong reasons, such as when he had an extramarital fling, or claimed £2million worth of EU expenses over 10 years ‘to prove a point’, but he seems to take the Wildean view that, for a politician at least, there is only one thing worse than being talked about…

Today he stands out because he is the only man in this country pub in Kent, his local, wearing a silk-lined suit and tie and, generally, looking like a commodity broker, which is what he used to be. (Tin and cocoa.) He has lived here, not far from the Battle of Britain airfield Biggin Hill, all his life.

‘I was christened in that church,’ he says gesturing at the spire outside. ‘You can be rooted, have a sense of where you come from and what your values are, without being parochial.’

His recognisability is one of the reasons why, when Lord Pearson resigned as leader of Ukip in August, all eyes turned to Farage. He had done the job before, resigning last year so that he could concentrate on trying to win a seat in Westminster. Ignoring the convention that the Speaker is normally returned unopposed, Farage stood against John Bercow and lost.

‘The one thing I couldn’t know was whether Cameron would endorse him,’ he says with elongated vowels that are a little like those of Frankie Howerd. ‘I thought he wouldn’t. I was wrong. I take chances. I rush into things. But I don’t regret things.’

Last week Farage was re-elected as leader of Ukip. His message to his troops, he says, is that they need to be more disciplined and better funded. Intriguingly, he compares Ukip to the Tea Party. ‘We’re not religious like they are and we’re not affiliated to the equivalent of the Republican Party, but in terms of the howls we hear from people who feel outraged that their voice is not being heard in Westminster, there is a comparison.’

Though Farage can rarely be accused of avoiding confrontation, he did brood long and hard over whether or not to stand as leader. ‘The internal squabbling can be very tiresome,’ he says. ‘But so many young people have told me I was the reason they joined the party that I feel it is my duty. But the main consideration, the reason I hesitated, was that I am still recovering from a pretty major accident.’

The qualifying ‘pretty’ doesn’t give quite the whole picture. On the day of the General Election in May, Farage even managed to upstage David Cameron when the two-seater plane he was flying in got tangled in the Ukip banner it was trailing and crashed shortly after take-off from an airfield in Northamptonshire.

Does he get flashbacks? ‘Sometimes.’ Trouble sleeping? ‘Never slept before, so that’s OK. It does come back to me occasionally. It wasn’t a good position to be in.’ He had a relatively long time to contemplate his fate that day. ‘I had about four or five minutes of staring death in the face. You almost adopt the 1916 subaltern mentality: if it’s going to happen, let’s get it over with quickly.

‘When the pilot said to me: “Nigel, this is an emergency”, I knew exactly what that meant. I could see the sweat on his temples and I could see him fighting to keep control. He said to me a couple of weeks afterwards that I had been very calm, but what else was I supposed to do? I reasoned that he didn’t want to die any more than I did, so if I was panicking or making calls on my mobile that would just make the difficult job the pilot had harder.’

If he had called someone it would have been his wife presumably? ‘Presumably, yes,’ he says with a laugh.

For all his epic rudeness on the political stage, Farage, in person, is a cheerful soul who laughs a lot and has a toothy cartoonish smile. He has something that he claims Van Rompuy lacks: charisma. But he seems to have no self-pity.

He remembers tightening his seat belt as the plane went into a dive. ‘The slowest bit was the time between the nose hitting and the plane rolling over, it must have taken three quarters of a second, yet I remember it vividly, that feeling of time slowing down. I can still hear that noise.

‘Bang! And as we were going over there was a flash of light and I remember thinking with shock: “My God! I’m still alive!”’ Then he realised he was trapped upside down in the wreckage. ‘Horribly disorientating. I could feel my chest was smashed in.’ (Later it emerged that his sternum and ribs were broken, and his lung punctured.) ‘Then I thought, I’m going to burn to death because I was covered in petrol, in my hair, everywhere and that was pretty scary I tell you. When the rescuers came and asked me calmly if I was all right they got an earful of Anglo Saxon!’

A photograph of Farage trapped in the wreckage, and another of him looking bloodied and dazed as he stood up for the first time soon swept the internet. Simon Pegg, star of the spoof zombie movie Shaun of the Dead, was joking, within hours, that there had been a swing to the Zombie Party.

Did that upset Farage? ‘No. I wasn’t bothered about it. Those photos capture the feeling of being smashed. They were quite intrusive though and if I had died there would have been a hell of a row. If I’d snuffed it in the ambulance. But I didn’t die, so there you are.’

Does he feel almost invincible now? ‘Well, I’ve had testicular cancer and been in a big car crash before but that was when I was younger. Look.’ He rolls up his trousers and points to a bulge of bone under the skin on his leg. ‘It was easier to bounce back from that.’ As for the cancer, which led to one of his testicles being removed, he says he doesn’t find it uncomfortable to talk about.

‘In fact, I think the more men avoid talking about it the more dangerous it is. But this plane crash was different. I have to be realistic. The back is really not good. It is hard getting through a long day. I look all right. I’ve lost weight. Got a bit of a suntan, but when I wake up in the morning and try and put my socks on, I am quickly reminded of what happened.’

He says his approach, now that he has been re-elected as leader of Ukip, will be that of the older boxer. ‘I won’t be as fast but I will be able to box cleverer. Mentally, I feel fine, though I dare say there are those who would question what my mental health was like before the accident!’ The raucous laugh again.

One way in which the accident changed him, he says, is that he thinks he is less impulsive now, less bullish. ‘And less ebullient. That has been tempered. I have been thinking about that because I have always been the most ridiculous optimist. When I was in the City I always thought the next trade would be the big one.’

Did he take stock of his life in those four minutes? He nods thoughtfully. ‘I did think, why is this happening to me? Have I been that awful?’

And did he conclude that he has led a good life? He thinks long and hard before answering, which is not typical. He is never normally lost for words, as those who have been on the receiving end of his articulate and often amusing tirades in Brussels know well.

‘I’ve never really set out to hurt anybody either physically or mentally,’ he says eventually. ‘Not really. Never stolen anything. I think I’ve been reasonably honest. Is that leading a good life? You can regret you didn’t do more for your children but, on balance, I think I’ve tried to do what I thought was right. I don’t feel ashamed of the life I have led.’

Broadsheet readers may have missed reading about it, but in 2006, Farage, who has been married twice and has four children, became the target of a tabloid kiss-and-tell when a woman from Latvia claimed she met him in a pub in Biggin Hill and then ended up back at her place having sex ‘at least seven times’.

The revelation led to the joke ‘Ukip if you want to’. So. The extramarital affair?

‘Well, we’re all human. There is a big difference between that sort of thing and being really bad.’ And the expenses scandal? ‘Well, that was nonsense. I was trying to make a point about the Brussels gravy train, but it didn’t work. None of it went to me. Most of it went on my staff, on administration.’

And the accusations of racism? I remind him of David Cameron’s dismissal of Ukip as ‘fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists’. ‘Yeah we constantly have to fight against that prejudice. It was a bloody stupid thing for him to say and he’s never repeated it.

‘What he was doing was insulting his own party because most of his members broadly agree with what we are saying about Europe, people like Norman Tebbit, who is very popular within the Tory Party.’

Has Farage ever used the N-word? ‘Not since I was 15, a kid in the playground at school when you were all roundly abusing one another. No, that was a myth put about by Dr Sked [disenchanted Ukip founder Alan Sked].’

The mainstream parties may unite in their attacks on Ukip, ‘the BNP in Blazers’ is one of the insults, but, as Farage notes, much of the abuse directed at the party comes from within. The most spectacular bit of in-fighting was started by Robert Kilroy-Silk after he attempted a coup and then left Ukip in a huff to set up his own party, Veritas.

Kilroy-Silk described Ukip as ‘Right-wing fascist nutters’. Farage, in turn, dismissed Kilroy-Silk as a vain, orange buffoon and a ‘monster’.

At this point in the interview, Farage asks me: ‘We are the same age, how did you find growing up in the Seventies with the initials NF?’ It is my turn to laugh. Yes, I agree, they were unfortunate initials, but growing up in rural Yorkshire they probably didn’t hold as much significance as they would have done for him growing up in south London.

‘Yes, I was very aware of them because I was at school not far from Brixton. [At Dulwich.] During the Brixton Riots the police used our school as their headquarters.’

But let us return to the question about his leading a good life. He has an unusually laddish reputation for a politician. Does he feel this compromises him politically? What, for example, about his professed penchant for lap dancing clubs?

‘Lap dancing? Don’t have the time these days, but I used to go to them. Like it or not, they are a fact of life. You are talking about normal behaviour there. Everyone does it.’

Do they? I never have. ‘Why not?’ Because it’s exploitative, demeaning for both parties and tantamount to prostitution.

‘Prostitution and lap dancing are not the same thing, they can be but not usually.’ But aren’t conservative-minded politicians like him supposed to believe in family values?

‘Yes, but I am also a libertarian. I think prostitution, for instance, should be decriminalised and regulated. I feel that about drugs, too. I don’t do them myself but I think the war on drugs does more harm than the drugs themselves. I am opposed to the hunting ban and the smoking ban, too. What have they got to do with government? The one thing I cannot be accused of is hypocrisy.’

Even though his extreme libertarianism must have frightened the Tory horses, he was, nevertheless, once offered a safe Tory seat. ‘It wouldn’t have worked though, would it? I wouldn’t have lasted a fortnight before having the Tory whip removed. Besides, I think I’ve managed to do more outside the Tory Party than in.’

He did start out as a Tory though. Indeed, being an aspiring Thatcherite he chose not to go down the university route, preferring instead to follow his father into the City and make his fortune. He worked there for almost 20 years before having a political epiphany the night Britain joined the ERM in 1990.

‘I was convinced it was the wrong thing to do.’ Then came the overthrow of Margaret Thatcher. ‘The way those gutless, spineless people got rid of the woman they owed everything to made me so angry. I was a monster fan of Mrs Thatcher. Monster. Hers was the age of aspiration, it wasn’t about class.’

The final straw for him was Maastricht. ‘I really worried. And I realised the views I heard in here, in this pub, weren’t being represented in Westminster. That was when I thought it was time I should enter politics and try to do something about it.’

He insists, though, that he is not a little Englander who is against foreigners per se, not least because his second wife, Kirsten, is German and their two young children are, or will be, bilingual.

But for all that, he does represent a party in the European Parliament whose sole desire is to get Britain out of the EU. And they have had some modest success. In the last Euro elections they did take nine seats in Brussels, which meant they beat Labour and the Lib Dems.

But now that the single currency has come unstuck, I ask, isn’t the war over? ‘Well, thank God it has collapsed,’ he says. ‘I used to wear the pound sign in my lapel every day but now I don’t. But this isn’t about the single currency anymore. The debate has moved on. It’s about taking back control over your working lives from Brussels.

‘Every day ordinary life in this country is affected by our EU membership, ordinary trades, not just farmers and fishermen. Nearly all our laws and regulations are now made for us in Brussels. And not only that, our membership of the EU costs us £40million a day.’

It is time to reload, his expression for a refill. How much does he drink? ‘That’s been diminishing for 20 years. Attitudes have changed. Because I like a couple of drinks with my lunch I am considered strange.’ Has he ever worried about alcoholism? His father, after all, had a drinking problem. ‘I’m lucky. I’m one of those people who can take it or leave it,’ he says.

In the pub, the locals all seem to know him. We talk about the recognition factor again and note that, such is the level of public ignorance or indifference about politics and politicians in this country, surveys show that there are even some voters who cannot say who the prime minister is.

Farage says this does not surprise him. ‘I mean, who is Cameron? What does he stand for? He’s so bland.’ He’s laughing as he says it.

‘Actually, he and I get on OK. We joined parliament at the same time and were on the same South East news programmes circuit. He was always nicking cigarettes off me. And he was the first person to send me a note after my accident. Same day. I really appreciated that.’

This makes you wonder whether Farage’s accident has mellowed him. After all, calling Cameron bland hardly counts as an insult by his standards. Ask van Rompuy. He probably still wakes up in a cold sweat at three in the morning thinking about the abuse he received from Farage on the floor of the European Council.

Rumpy, as Farage calls him, looked stunned at the time. ‘I just wanted to ask him who he was?’ Farage now recalls. ‘Who voted for him? I don’t use a script and the line about him having the appearance of a low-grade bank clerk came to me while I was listening to his speech.’

He used to think he was wasting his time there, doing those speeches in a parliament no one covers. ‘But then the YouTube thing has given me a new lease of life. It reaches big audiences.’

It sure does. One of the sites showing that clip has received around half a million hits and a clip of Farage putting the boot into Gordon Brown, also at the European Parliament, has had a quarter of a million visits.

‘Oh yes, well, Brown,’ he says. ‘Good God. He has no social graces. A non-person.’ So if Cameron goes to speak at Brussels as Brown did, should he expect a Farage barrage? ‘Bloody right. That’s what I’m there for. That’s what they vote for me for, to provide some entertainment. With the European Parliament stuff, I have tried to make it entertaining.’

Intriguingly, if you look on European versions of YouTube you will see Farage is always given the title ‘Oppositionführer’. ‘I know, I know,’ he says. ‘Great fun. It just means leader of the opposition.’ Would the Oppositionführer say he is now more recognisable in Brussels than the Führer, van Rompuy? ‘I don’t know about that, but if I am recognisable it is only because the others are so bloody awful, not because I’m good.’

He can still dish it out, it seems, post accident, and when I ask whether he can still take it he laughs again. ‘Whatever Mickey-taking you get on programmes like Have I Got News For You it is as nothing compared to leaving public school and going to work on the London Metal Exchange. There it was vicious, all day every day.’

He doesn’t want to go back to that old life, he adds, even if his new life does sometimes bring him unwanted attention. ‘The recognition is great until you are on the last train home on a Friday night,’ he says. ‘It’s the classic ‘‘I know you” moment. And there’s nowhere to hide! Generally when people do the ‘‘good on ya mate’’ it’s from people you are happy to have it from, cab drivers and so on.

But on that train when people have had a few drinks…’ He drains his glass, slams it down on the table and laughs again. Bloodied but unbowed.