Russell Brand is a wild card. If you’ve paid any attention to his career or even spend a couple of minutes researching you may find yourself shocked, appalled or rolling on the floor laughing at what he’s done for a laugh. Before he came to Seattle for interviews while promoting his upcoming film Get Him to the Greek I started digging into his personal autobiography “My Booky Wook” and listening to and reading previous interviews he’d given. Here was a guy whose entire life was pretty much a part of the public realm, so what was left to ask?
He was bulimic at the age of 14. He’s a one-time drug and sex addict. He’s been arrested 11 times. He’s a vegetarian. He called President George Bush “that retarded cowboy fella” while hosting MTV’s Video Music Awards and also insulted Robert Pattinson and the Jonas Brothers, all three instances resulted in varying levels of backlash. The Bush incident prompted death threats.
He was fired from his job as a VJ at MTV in the UK for coming to work dressed as Osama bin Laden the day after September 11th. In an interview with Reelz prior to the release of Forgetting Sarah Marshall he said of the incident, “‘Too soon,’ people said. I was a bit high and daft and I don’t think I understood the intricacies of global politics.” What didn’t he understand when he then moved to his own comedy show “RE:Brand” shortly thereafter? In seven short episodes he managed to challenge his father to a boxing match, take a bath with a homeless man and masturbate a gay man in a bathroom. That final stunt was part of the show’s seventh and final episode and if you’re interested, you don’t even have to look hard to find them online.
In a recent interview with Playboy Brand called the show a “cry for help” and “a mental breakdown on film”. He was in rehab shortly thereafter and ended up beating the addiction.
As a person with an addictive personality, did Brand just have to focus that addiction on positive things and leave the likes of heroin out of the picture? “The nature of addiction, the way I see it, is that it’s a compulsive, repeated behavior that you’re unable to relinquish in spite of how it’s obviously having negative consequences. So yeah, the energy does still exist and a lot of aspects of that energy is quite positive, like I’m gonna get it! I’m havin’ it! I’m havin’ it!” Brand said. “You have to remove the harmful and destructive elements and try to reroute yourself away from, like, not wanting to live and not loving yourself. So I think once you start to deal with that, that energy can be managed, but I think always, to a lesser degree, there will be that sort of compulsion.”
He then entered into a rant of possible, albeit comedic, subsitutes, “Say for example now, I had dried mango once, and I really liked it. Oh my gosh! Dried mango! Isn’t this amazing! or that snap pea crisp, Mmm, oh God these are good! Or if I discover an Internet porn site — XXX Bunker — then it’s like, Argh, Triple… Oh this is really well made! This site! They’re geniuses! Basically, what they’ve done… is put people… having sex… on there! What a great idea! Brilliant! This is the new penicillin.”
You can feel Brand’s energy with every word. He’s a blast to spend even a few minutes with and thankfully he’s been off drugs since 2002, is now a sponsor at the Focus12 program and has personally sponsored others that suffered from drinking and drug addictions. He’s dating Katy Perry, hosted the MTV Video Music Awards twice, co-starred in Forgetting Sarah Marshall in 2008, is toplining Get Him to the Greek and, most important of all, took time out to spend 15 minutes with myself and RopeofSilicon cohort Laremy Legel in Seattle’s Hotel 1000 for an interview, perhaps the last place he expected to be, but then again could he have planned for any of this?
“To tell you the truth I think the whole thing has been mental,” Brand says when I asked him about him going from a fired MTV VJ position to starring opposite Jonah Hill and P. Diddy in his own film. “Even when it wasn’t successful it was mad then. So this is mad and there’s more money and that was mad and there was no money. The continuing thing is that it’s always been mental. What has been hard to anticipate, the Diddy and all the other stuff that’s been happening in your country, I guess I would not have anticipated it specifically, but I always wanted to try my hardest, even though I was a bit of a nut case. I’ve always wanted to work hard and be successful, just never really had the right chances and wasn’t in a position psychologically to get there. If you’re asking if I expected this… Not like this, this is mad.”
What I find “mad” is the amount of apologizing Brand has had to do to teenage fans such as the outrage over him cutting off Robert Pattinson at the 2008 MTV VMAs or his Jonas brothers purity rings joke at the 2009 VMAs. At the mentioning of the latter he stops me and says, “They edited that apology! The Jonas brothers apology was not quite right. If you were there live I said, ‘I’d like to take this opportunity to apologize to the Jonas brothers,’ and then I said something really funny.”
What was it he said? He searched the memory banks, “What was it? The promise rings, like another reference to the promise rings. Like wearing ’em like a serial killer wearing ’em like earlobe trinkets. Or like, ‘I’ve got the final promise ring! He cried when I took it, he didn’t mind me having the ring though.’ Something like that, it was a joke, and when I saw it [the playback] I was like Oh you bastards, they made it look like I’m apologizing.”
Madness seems to just find Brand and he couldn’t escape it on the set of Get Him to the Greek. Reprising the character of Aldous Snow, the British rock star he played in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, he caught on fire while filming one of the concert scenes conjuring up memories of Michael Jackson’s Pepsi commercial incident, “Oh hello, what’s going on here? The way you making me feel!” Brand added with emphasis.
“Everyone was so excited about the wall of sparks. The previous day we were in there watching the dailies in a little truck and the DP and all the more technical guys and the director. They’re watching the dailies and this was when the wall of sparks initially rained, on Day One. Everyone said, “Wall of sparks!” It was so impressive on camera and everyone was applauding and even went into a chant, ‘Wall of sparks!’ Like Four More Years!, ‘Wall of sparks! Wall of sparks!’ Right? And then the next day, I was situated incorrectly and the wall of sparks rained down on me and I was temporarily engulfed in sparks and all of the sparks were burning into me and I said to them, ‘That’s because you, yesterday, fated that wall of sparks and gave it too much belief in itself and now it thinks it can do what it wants.'”
Speaking of something doing whatever it wants, Brand recalls a similar comparison made of himself, “I remember when Jason Segel said, ‘Oh Russell is totally cool, he doesn’t give a fuck what people think,’ and I thought Fuckin’ hell! Pulled this off. Because I’m thinking how I do care.” Caring is a difference he sees between himself and the Aldous Snow character, while several other comparisons between Snow and Brand’s real life can easily be made. Snow’s addiction to heroin and sex is what causes most of the turbulence in the film as Jonah Hill has been assigned the task of getting the out-of-control rocker from the UK to the Greek Theatre in Los Angeles.
In comparing himself to Aldous Snow, Brand agrees the similarities are more behavorial than anything else, “Yeah, and I think that’s an important observation, because I also have feet and he has feet, but I’m a comedian and therefore very neurotic and questioning of myself and sort of aware of what’s funny and aware of what’s embarrassing, and that’s sort of the opposite of a rock star. They’re like, ‘Fuck you, I’m like this. Is that a problem?’ [*fart noise*] Like, in England, I know people are just thinking I’m playing myself because it’s a character with a drug habit and long hair, but I think it’s really distinct from me. I’m more cool, mellow, slower and not so silly.”
As a matter of fact, Brand’s portrayal of Snow is one of a dead breed in rock and roll. Brand even struggles to find a modern day comparison, “Who is there? What, The Libertines five, six years ago? MGMT? I’ve been thinking about this a lot. Because like in the ’60s and ’70s, guitar, rock and roll bands, they didn’t have any philanthropic pretense of like, ‘We’re doing this to actually save the world.’ It was more like, ‘Yeah! We get to fuck so many women! I’m out of my mind!’ Had the necessary social conscience that’s been projected into entertainment and culture in general been avoided, [Aldous Snow] is the kind of rock star we’d still have. Jimmy Paige, Bowie, Jagger, these were not people that were going, ‘Oh my god, have you been to Eritrea?’ I’m not criticizing, I think we have obligations, but some would argue there is a certain disingenuity to that, and rock and roll is about hedonism, enjoying yourself, selfishness and fucking.”
This “philanthropic pretense” is what sends Brand’s character into a downward spiral after his offensive and exploitative charity song “African Child” is dubbed the worst thing for Africa since apartheid. The backlash from the project sends a currently sober Aldous Snow back to drinks and drugs as we see a much fuller character in Aldous than we saw in Forgetting Sarah Marshall, which was one of the reasons Brand and director Nicholas Stoller decided to stick with using the same character rather than create an entirely new one.
“Initially Nick was actually going to make him another rock star and Jonah goes, ‘Don’t be stupid, you’ve already established this character, you might as well keep it.’ Just because Jonah was doing another character, because his character was for one joke [in Forgetting Sarah Marshall] it’s better for him to start fresh and with me we’d obviously created a character and there was something to keep. It’s not like I had a hunchback or was doing a voice and wearing an eye patch — unlike some of the people I work with — so I think there was room to explore that character further,” Brand said. “In order for it to be a movie there has to be an arc, it can’t just be a vague sketch of a person. I tried my hardest in Sarah Marshall to make Aldous Snow an authentic character that was believable and sympathetic as well as fulfilling the function of being antithetical to Jason Segel’s protagonist. With this movie you’ve got a chance for a lot more emotional heart. There’s a good, interesting core relationship.”
With Get Him to the Greek, Brand’s acting chops aren’t necessarily tested. It’s a comedic character doing crazy things and the performances have something of an immediacy to them where it feels like a group of friends having a good time rather than setting out to make an Oscar-worthy masterpiece. However, Brand is experiencing something of a brush with Oscar with his upcoming films. First there’s The Tempest for the Oscar-nominated Julie Taymor in which he plays Trinculo. Coincidentally he has a few scenes with Oscar-winner Helen Mirren as Prospera in The Tempest and it was revealed only one day before my interview he would be acting opposite Mirren once again in the remake of Arthur.
“I love Helen Mirren!” Brand said. “Yeah, we had a couple of days together [on The Tempest] and she’s amazing, I really love her. So yeah, I’m thrilled she’s doing Arthur. On The Tempest, she herself is a tempest — quiet and controlled — but she has this force of nature within her. So doing Arthur with her is a massive, massive privilege. I’m hugely excited to work with an Oscar-winning actress. I actually talk to her sometimes, she leaves messages on my answering machine saying, ‘Hello you naughty boy.’ And I’m like, Oh no, it’s happening again! I’ve got this confusing feeling in my pants!”
Brand also lends his voice to this summer’s animated feature Despicable Me from Universal and is attached to Tim Hill’s Hop in which he will play the Easter Bunny in a story where the Easter Bunny is accidentally hit by a car, and it’s up to the offending driver to save Easter.
Get Him to the Greek hits theaters this Friday, June 1. For more information on the film including a gallery of photos and a look at the trailers click here. Also, you can read my interview with Brand’s co-star Jonah Hill for the film right here.