No one outside the UK knew who Russell Brand was until he thundered on the big screen in the 2008 hit comedy Finding Sarah Marshall, playing a British rock star, Aldous Snow, which was specially tailored to him after he had marvelled Hollywood producer, Judd Apatow, in the audition for the character.
The phenomenal success of Finding Sarah Marshall, catapulted the British comedian, whose performance delighted audiences and impressed critics, to instant Hollywood stardom and international fame. The following year, he reprised the role in the comedy Get Him To The Greek.
Having not been a fan of Big Brother, MTV or the radio shows which had elevated the Essex-born comedian from anonymity to the spotlight in Britain, I arrived for my first interview with him last year, at Los Angeles’s Griffith Park, armed with a large cup of coffee to save me from a distracting boredom, which often accosts me in interviews with insipid stars. But boredom was the last thing on my mind, when Brand’s energy orbit collided with mine.
Wearing a sleeveless shirt, his head buried in a jungle of black hair, his fingers adorned in metal rings, looking like a wild beast who had just descended from one the pine trees that beset us, Brand arrived accompanied by an entourage of a personal assistant, make up artist, a manager and a scary big fella.
“Hello Mate,” the eccentric-actor shrilled jovially, before he effervescently pursued in pontificating about spirituality, women, sex, love, politics and Aldous Snow with sharp wit, eloquent words and comic verbosity, dropping philosophers’ names and referencing classic literature.
His finely attuned phrases were littered with profanity and salaciousness, nonetheless the perpetual smile on his face, his child-like demeanour, and the felicity of his expressions render him irresistibly charming and captivating.
Frankly, I was mystified by the 35-year-old’s vast erudition and impressive achievement, for he had been under the influence of drugs and alcohol for most of his 20s. And reportedly, chasing women was his other main preoccupation.
“Drink and drugs don’t necessarily prohibit creativity,” he asserted, flinging his hand in the air. “I think that great art can be created through substance abuse but a necessary component is also talent,” he added, laughing.
Born in Essex and raised by his mother, after his father had left home when he was only 6, Brand doubts his talent was acquired genetically or was developed in the comprehensive school that he attended. He insists that his source of knowledge stems from his capacity to listen to others. Friendless, he spent his childhood watching comedy shows and history programs on BBC.
“If you watch all of those then it’s going to furnish you with knowledge about history in a palatable format. If Fawlty Towers references Wittgenstein and stuff, then I say â€˜oh who’s Wittgenstein?’ So I just was curious and still to this day if I ever hear a word that I don’t understand, I learn that word, and ask the person what it means.”
Although he has trained as an actor at Italia Conti Academy in London, he started his career performing comedy shows in small venues around town and at the Edinburgh Fringe festival. His talent for comedy was discovered at an early age.
“People were laughing at me as long as I can remember. They laughed at the stuff I said, the stuff I did and things I thought, even when I weren’t trying to control it. That’s when it’s weird to be a comedian: you notice people laugh at you and you don’t even mean it.”
He was, and still is, obnoxious, absurd and unpredictable, but his rich vocabulary, sharp wit, eccentric personality, salacious anecdotes about his sexual conquests and explicit revelations about his troubled childhood and drug addiction hit a cord with his audience and eventually caught the eyes of the industry’s big players, landing him coveted presentation gigs at MTV, Channel 4 and BBC radio.
But the persona that had elevated him to the top of his game, has also got him into trouble with his employers, losing his first presenting job at MTV for drug abuse, and his job at BBC for foulmouthing. Undeterred and relentless in his pursuit of fame and international stardom, he departed England in 2008 and headed to LA, which would ultimately render his childhood dreams a reality.
Today, I meet a different Russell Brand from last year. He is meticulously spruced, his flesh fully covered, his long black hair coiffed, his beard shaved and the rings on his fingers vanished. Evidently, the wild beast inside him has been tamed, but he is still ebullient, loud and madly funny.
“I think love completely changed me. Falling in love meant that suddenly the most important thing to me is not my own happiness but the safety of my wife and her happiness. That was a massive transition for me.”
It’s massive because after years of enslavement to his insatiable desire for sexual conquests and infidelity to women, the master of seduction has been finally mastered by love for pop star Katy Perry, whom he married last year. The sex-crazed, infamous womaniser is now “a very happily married man.”
“I suppose all of us suspect as human beings that whilst material or carnal pleasures are temporarily exciting, love endures. I’ve only been married a short while but the longer I spend married the more I enjoy it. Of course, as a young single man, I enjoyed the former lifestyle and I feel that I did enough research to be able to contentedly move on,” he laughs.
Brand has recently portrayed the role of the eponymous “Arthur,” Â a remake of the classic 1981 Dudley Moore comedy that tells the story of a childish, boozy and womanising playboy, who is about the inherit the immense fortune of his father only if he marries his mother’s assistant (Jennifer Garner). However, he finds love and happiness with a tour guide (Greta Gerwig).
Sound familiar? The film is an insipid Hollywood clichÃ©d love story without much depth, but it’s evident that it has been tailored to fit Brand’s persona. “This is a story of Cervantes’ish man-child ends with him accepting the responsibilities of becoming a man.” Brand says.
“Obviously, that’s a journey I can identify with, having spent years in arrested development, arrested somewhat by excessive alcohol, drug use and indulgence in the pleasures of the flesh, not that I am suggesting that was in any way childish but that was conducted like a man,” he exclaims blithely, banging the table with his fist.
“To pursue these selfish objectives is not what it is to be a man. Completion can be achieved internally, not through any transient or material pleasures, treasures or acquisitions, so that’s why I think that there will be a spiritual element to the performance I gave as Arthur.
“Arthur was a fairy story, a story about a prince without a kingdom. By the end of it, he has a kingdom, he has a mandate, and he has a jurisdiction. It was important to me that the character had heart, that he is vindicated, that through love he becomes man.”
Amazingly, in spite of defying God’s moral codes and celebrating his prohibitions, Brand has always been deeply spiritual and a believer of God . Remarkably, spiritually, not worldly pleasures, have guided him through the trenches of life since childhood.
“It’s the only thing that matters. I happen not to be an atheist, I happen to believe in God. I think that spirituality is prevalent and is the answer to all questions. When atheists attack God they always elect rather simplistic faiths, dogmas, doctrines and ideologies.”
Godly or not, the only church Brand has always wanted to attend was the church of fame where everyday is Sunday. But having attained fame, the star, although grateful for it, has described it as a safari into the pointless.
“Oscar Wilde is considered to be in many ways the first modern celebrity, so fame once was an appendage to greatness but when fame itself become the commodity, when there are people where if you removed the fame, what would be there? Nothing. Nothing when it’s become distilled to its most basic element- it’s utterly futile.
“Now that I’ve experienced fame, it doesn’t answer any of the problems of the heart or the questions of the soul.”
Although grateful for his own fame, Brand is saddened by the omnipresence of fame and its worship by young people.
“It’s been elevated to this position when there are so many things that are much more important, be that on a personal level of looking for spiritual truths or personal duties or a cultural level of avoiding ecological and economic disasters.”
The man who once said “I was born to be famous” is now calling on the world to cease its obsession with fame. Inspired by Ghandi’s doctrine “Be the change you want to see in the world”, he is determined to curb his own obsessions with fame. Well, good luck with that, Russell!
Listening to Brand and reading his second Autobiography Booky Wook 2, which he mailed to me with a kind personal letter, I sensed a despair in him to break through the wall of meaningless noise that he had confined himself within in order to reach a nobler, unattainable truth, and hence the contradictions between his words and deeds as he continues to embrace frivolity and yet preach for substance.
In spite of his incandescent talent and vast knowledge, Â Brand is still too young to be wise and too superficial to be intellectual, but he is funny, sharp, witty and a hell of a company.