Sex, anarchy and Russell Brand

The British actor, comedian and professional troublemaker talks about political comedy, dressing up as Osama bin Laden, and his new "Booky Wook."

Published March 13, 2009 10:19AM (EDT)

Russell Brand calls himself "a semiprofessional cheeky monkey." That's a pretty tame description for a guy who's made a career of provocative comedy and wild-man behavior. An English actor and comedian, Brand veered onto American screens last year as rock star Aldous Snow in Judd Apatow's "Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and as host of MTV's Video Music Awards, on which he mocked the Jonas Brothers' purity rings and urged viewers to vote for Obama. "I know America to be a forward-thinking country, because otherwise why would you have let that retard and cowboy fella be president for eight years?" he riffed to a shocked audience.

Brand, who sports a kind of dissolute goth-pirate look, has joked that he needs to get more famous here because his "persona don't really work without fame. Without fame, this haircut could be mistaken for mental illness." That's likely to happen soon, since he's about to star in the new Apatow film, "Get Him to the Greek," reprising the role of Aldous Snow, as well as appearing with Helen Mirren in Julie Taymor's movie of "The Tempest" and playing lead drunkard in the remake of "Arthur." He also has a stand-up comedy special, "Russell Brand Live in New York," airing this Friday night on Comedy Central. He's a megastar in the U.K., notorious there for his TV series and comedy -- which has an unmistakably anarchic quality -- but also for his stints in drug and sex rehab and his reckless high jinks. He once stripped at a giant London anti-globalization rally (down to his Che Guevara undies), stuck a Barbie up his ass to protest consumerism, and got fired from his job as an MTV U.K. host after showing up on Sept. 12 dressed as Osama bin Laden. Most recently, he had to resign from his BBC radio show after public outrage over a prank phone call that got out of control.

Sprawled on the sofa of his New York hotel room after a day of high-profile TV interviews, Brand looks exhausted, though still awfully pretty, his chiseled face peeking out from beneath his black woolly hat. He is a guy who craves attention, and when he spots a camera (Salon's) or potential audience (me), he locks on and seeks to entertain by any means available to him -- silly faces, flirtation, yoga postures, wordplay. He is not just charming but also quick-witted, as evidenced by his entertaining memoir, "My Booky Wook," published this week in the U.S. Brand offers surprisingly sharp insight into his own excesses and frailties, vividly depicting his working-class childhood: a single mother struggling with cancer, a dad who introduced him to porn and prostitutes at an early age, various incidents of molestation, self-cutting and bulimia, and a general sense of isolation and eccentricity that led him to behave ostentatiously, "doing disgusting things just to get attention." An autodidact, he taught himself to brandish language as a weapon, inventing catchphrases and "mischievous phraseology" to throw off authority figures and entice girls. In "My Booky Wook," he writes, "By my twenties I would relish the challenge of chaste maids and the search for the correct combination of words required to decode their moral resistance … the nobstacle course, I call it" ("nob" being British slang for penis).

Watching Brand onstage and in the occasional semi-serious interview, it's hard not to register his melancholy. Even the book's wackiest anecdotes are freighted with a sense of disappointment, like the scene is which he shows up at a London orgy, only to find pasty, ordinary people grappling each other -- the place charged with a "tangible sadness" akin to a Mike Leigh movie. "People who are depressed are often funny in the same way that England is a seafaring nation because we're an island," Brand writes. "Because you adapt to your circumstances, and if you're miserable you've got to become funny to fucking keep afloat."

Of course, that's not strictly true -- lots of sad people are horribly unfunny -- but misery seems to work wonders for Russell Brand. He kept it at bay during this interview, however, which sometimes resembled an obstacle course (if not a nobstacle course) assembled by a very roguish boy. Although Brand has been known to work Noam Chomsky and Michel Foucault into conversation, he was more in the mood for playful quippery, leavening it all with frequent flashes of that sweet, goofy smile -- a smile that has undoubtedly gotten him out of many crazy jams.

Americans mostly know you from your appearances in two big movies--

Did you say my two big boobies?

I wish I had, but no. Your two big movies ["Forgetting Sarah Marshall" and "Bedtime Stories"]. But you've been involved in all kinds of high jinks, documentaries and TV series. How would you describe your career?

I'm a cheeky monkey. I'm a semiprofessional cheeky monkey.

Is that what it says on your passport?

Yeah. That's why I have such a lot of trouble with immigration, I think … I have to always go in a special room for the naughty boys. They try and have a look in my back pocket. My special inside pocket.

Well, as you describe in "My Booky Wook," there has been good reason for that in the past.

Yeah. In the past I was smuggling [drugs].

So they have quite a long list on you in the computer when you arrive?

It's "OK, sir. Step this way please." And then I have to go in a special little room for a bit, and all my friends have to get my bags. Anyway, to look on the bright side, I'd only be waiting for the bags, instead of which I'm having my prostate stimulated by a stranger. Which is what I'll do when I get to the hotel anyway.

Your book opens with a scene at a sex addiction clinic. So I guess I have to ask: Did the sex rehab work?

I only went because I was made to go. You know that the first rule of addiction is to admit you have a problem? I didn't admit I had a problem. Some guy would go, "Do you have a problem?" "No!" "No?" "Why?" And then I'd say, "How lovely you look!"

A lot of Americans don't even believe that there is such a thing as sex addiction. Like when David Duchovny came out recently as a sex addict, people thought it was a cover for being creepy.

Because it’s a fundamental part of our nature. It's difficult to ascertain at what point compulsive behavior starts, given that we are inherently biologically compelled to have sex. Well, I'll tell you, it's when it starts to be detrimental to the rest of your life. Taking heroin wouldn't matter if you could just get on with your life. Chocolate only matters if you gorge on it so radically and in such a loopy fashion that you crash your car. At the same time, sex isn't a problem unless it starts to get in the way of your work -- if you have to sneak off away from your desk and have a bit of [whistles] monkey business.

Your chosen occupation is pretty flexible, so you could probably get away with it.

My occupation's flexible! I've got a flexible occu-pa-tion. [Moves into a bendy yoga pose.]

Is everything that I say going to be a double entendre?

I don't know because it's you what's talking.

So your occupation is very...


And your reputation's quite … sexy. So isn't that a bad combination for someone's who's got a sex addiction?

I don't think I have a sex addiction. I just think I like it. It's just a hobby. I'm an enthusiast. And, yes, I've got a sexy reputation. Sometimes I'll see my reputation walk down a promenade, and I'll think, "Oooh, you dirty bugger."

The role you play in "Forgetting Sarah Marshall," the rock star Aldous Snow, he's a sweet character.

I'm playing that character again, in the film, "Get Him to the Greek." It's starring me and Jonah Hill and other really exciting actors. Aldous Snow has gone back on drugs and Jonah Hill has to ferry him from London to Los Angeles.

Was this a collaborative effort?

Nicholas Stoller wrote it and he's directing it. He does ask you loads of questions about your character. But it's not like the actors get to say, "Hey, shouldn't there be a scene where we all ride around on dinosaurs?"

You obviously have a lot of fun with language. In your book, you write, "It's anarchic to lay dirty lingo-eggs that people are going to have to say and then watch like a voyeuristic cuckoo as they hatch"…

It's good, isn't it?

You remember that line?

No, I don't remember because I wrote it in a Benzedrine- and caffeine-induced haze like Kerouac on a single scroll of paper.

Not toilet paper?

Not toilet paper, because semantically and semiotically that's suggestive that one day people will wipe their bottom on it. If anyone does that with "My Booky Wook," I hope it will lead to a life of hemorrhoids.

But that bit about "cuckoo eggs" was a really suggestive way of describing the way that you use language.

Language is deeply emotive and manipulative. Witness still the potency of taboo. There are words and language that are unacceptable on account of their impact on you neurologically, the power to induce or hypnotize people through language, to conjure an image in their mind unwittingly. People do it all the time. Women are forever telling you, "Oh, I was thinking about you when I was the shower." They plant images of themselves in the shower. They do it all the time!

They do it to you.

They do do it to me. Unless they're just trying to mention showers. They're thinking, "He's gotta have a shower. He doesn't seem to want to have one." I have showers all the time.

I believe you.

I do. Come see -- you have a look at me naked. I'm clean as a whistle, sharp as a thistle.

That's good to know. You seem like you enjoy being disruptive.

Well, not of beautiful things. I only like to disrupt the mundane or the unquestioned, the tyranny of the ordinary. They're the only things I'm interested in disrupting. I don't want to disrupt things that are nice. I wouldn't go to a nursery where children are having a lovely day and go, "Get these idiots out of here!"

Although that would probably be kind of funny.

No, it wouldn't! Because the children would be worried.

So you do think that far in advance about consequences?

Well, I've never done that [to children]. And the reason is because it would be disruptive in an unnecessary way.

But I mean disruptiveness in terms of humor.

Humor is unnecessarily destructive and sacrilegious in some instances. And you can use that to very good effect sometimes. But occasionally you just get caught up and do daft things.

What you're saying is that a lot of the disruptive stuff that you do, whether it's stand-up comedy or your TV programs or your book, it's in the service of shaking up stupid conventions?

But not like, "Hey, I've an agenda. Just shake those bloody conventions up." It's more like I just can't help myself. I suppose because I'm a misfit. I'm more inclined to question things that fit in, and people that fit in, and what their value is. There are some protocols which are valuable and prevent us from carrying on like wild savage boors. But there are some that are turning us into passive consumers instead of active citizens. So them ones are the ones I'm up for larking about with.

In your book you write about a lot of interesting jobs you had, and then a lot of really funny (or awful) events that brought each of them to a conclusion. Like the time you came into work at MTV in London dressed as Osama…

That was very silly of me. I regret that now.

On Sept. 12.

Yes. That was bad timing. And of course when you're on crack and heroin, you do a lot of things that you regret. That's the nature of crack and heroin. At the time, everyone was so insane, and that was my way of trying to understand what was happening. But of course you never get, in popular culture, the opportunity to articulate and elaborate. And when you're on crack and heroin, neither do you have the ability to be articulate and elaborate.

Part of tyranny is the reduction, the removal of nuance, the simplification of things to make them manageable and pigeonhole-able. And while that was a really, really stupid thing to do, and I wouldn't seek to justify it, there are some facets to that occasion that are peculiar and worthy of question. Not by me, though. I'm a comedian.

In another setting it could have been seen as performance art.

Right. It could have been. But the problem was, I was on crack and heroin. And presenting a TV program, and it wasn't in a gallery. Just silly.

You say that you were really influenced by Bill Hicks and his politicized comedy. Do you see what you're doing as political?

I was deeply inspired by and admire Bill Hicks, and Richard Pryor and Lenny Bruce, the best practitioners of the art of stand-up comedy. Pryor was not deliberately or explicitly political, but through his subversiveness and his authenticity and truthfulness, he was necessarily conveying something that had a sort of political impact. Or cultural, at least.

I think it's funny, considering the rest of your career, that you've made your name in America with a sweet mainstream comedy like "Sarah Marshall."

I'm very proud to be in that film. I love it. I love [lead actor] Jason Segel. I love Nick Stoller. Judd Apatow is sort of like a big patriarchal brilliant comedy person. So, I'm glad the way things are going.

What other projects do you have on the go?

I'm making a documentary with Oliver Stone about enlightenment and happiness. We're going off to India, meeting all sorts of people, talking to people about happiness and enlightenment. What is the void we're trying to fulfill? Some swami said to me that all forms of desire are the inappropriate substitutes for the desire we feel to be at one with God, or truth, or whatever it is. And I think that's true.

Albert Maysles is filming it, the man who made "Gimme Shelter," "Grey Gardens" and all that. He's a really clever man. It's him that told me that thing that I just said, that the removal of nuance is a form of tyranny. I didn't credit him for it. Sometimes I don't. Sometimes I just say stuff. And then people will question me on it and I'll go, "Oh no! I have no more information on that subject!"

You're playing the lead role in the remake of "Arthur." Nowadays people don't think it's funny to be alcoholic…

Well, I was alcoholic and it was hilarious. Just because something's not funny, that don't mean you can't joke about it. Nothing's funny until the comedian steps in and has a little go at it.

When I watch you onstage, you seem a bit sad. And your book deals with a lot of very harrowing things. How do you transform that for your comedy?

[quietly] I'm just clever, is all.

That's all it takes?

Well, yeah. Because if you're clever, you see things, don't you? And some of it's sad, some of it's brilliant, some of it's funny. It gives you more perspective.

You see the humor in the really dark stuff?

That's the best place to see it, isn't it? To illuminate things that are terrifying. When people go, "Oh, don't make jokes about that" about certain topics … that's where you need jokes! This is horrible and depressing, so cheer it up with a little bit of glitter and magic.

Is it true that you're making a movie of your "Booky Wook" [allegedly to be directed by Michael Winterbottom]?

We were going to. But I've been planning for years and years, and I still can't do the accent. There's no point putting it on film.

So you are going to play yourself? That would be a mindfuck.

Howard Stern played himself in "Private Parts." But I'm not going to do it now. I'd like someone else to play me. Natalie Portman! In a little beard.

That's a really horrible image…. Natalie Portman with a beard, on crack?

Not necessarily on crack.

You’d whitewash that?

Well, that can be in the film. But we'd say, "Natalie, just pretend you're on crack." When she was making "Leon" ["The Professional"] as a little kid, she didn't kill those people. Oh, she did? I'd let her off. How could you stay mad at Natalie Portman, in that little beard?

And you’re already working on a second memoir?

Yes, it's exhausting. I'm having to live bits of life to have something to write about.

Do you have the expression "oversharing" in England? Your career really kind of took off at the same time as this idea of filming everything and telling everything. You clearly don't have any desire to hold back.

Well, you don't know. Because I could be ... you don't know what I'm thinking.

You're saying you're holding out on me?

I'm not saying that. I'm just saying there's no way of ascertaining that unless you were able to slice into my noggin and have a quick look around. In my brain box, picking through it like a cat litter. Are you trying to find a chocolate raisin? It's risky. It's all whiz-bangs and effervescent electric blur in there.

By Joy Press

Joy Press is a former culture editor at Salon.


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