Phil Collins Interviews

PENTHOUSE 1993
GLENN A. BAKER

 

t is difficult to pin someone like Phil Collins down. That's not surprising, really. After all, he is the beat behind supergroup Genesis, a solo artist in his own right with a string of multi-platinum LPs, and a movie star to boot; he played the starring role in the movie, Buster. Hollywood and silver screen fame are things he obviously hankers after. Hence our appointment on the set of his new film, Frauds. When we meet I find him on a warehouse soundstage near Sydney airport, trying to be fierce... and not entirely succeeding. Phil Collins knows that he's not likely to come up with a more menacing snarl than Clint in Dirty Harry mode in the forseeable future, but, for the moment, he'd be happy if the mood of menace he's required to project would come just a little more readily.

"I'm having to find a lot of different emotions," he confides,"and I don't always find that easy. Like last night I had a sequence with a gun and, to be honest, for me to be threatening with a gun and not be comical is quite hard."

Of course it would be, for a nice guy like Phil. However, it is not prudent to make that point. Phil's nice guy status has become a bit of a bug bear. You know he is, he knows he is, the whole world knows he is, but the constant repetition of the fact may be wearing a bit thin. He recently made the point to a tabloid reporter that geniality can sometimes be misread as lack of substance, but by the time his words had been turned into a feature lead and banner headline, he had come to the conclusion that talking about it only made more people realise what a nice guy he is. That, and statements like, 'People only get one chance to meet you, and if you're not an arsehole, why give them the opportunity of thinking you are?'

Once described as marginally less famous than the Pope, rock's premier workaholic is hot on the heels of Il Papa. Although he insists that he is far less frantic than he was, say, in 1985, when he had four million-selling singles in America (he is reputed to have earned around $50 million to date), this 41-year-old's trotting pace is the equal of any peer's gallop. Someone once observed that he appears to be holding down some 15 careers of his own and, in the confusion, several belonging to other people.

Phil has drummed, Phil has sung, Phil has produced, written and conceptualised. Now Phil is acting, with the same level of gleeful energy and application that has marked everything he has done since he first recorded with a Moody Blues-type outfit called Flaming Youth in 1969.

"I'm just trying to do things that are interesting for me," he shrugs. "Just to keep the variety up, just to see if I can push myself into a direction and actually get somewhere with it. I'm not trying necessarily to become a movie star; that wouldn't be bad but that's not the aim. I'm just trying to do interesting things and go into areas where I've not been before. To be honest, producing records interests me less at the moment and I really don't want to get involved in album projects that are going to take up a lot of time. If Miles Davis hadn't died it would have been interesting to do an album with him, but there wasn't much else that would have got me into the studio... although Herbie Hancock has just been in touch about doing something and that would be an interesting combination."

Notwithstanding this desire to conserve time and energy, Phil was prepared to go to Australia for ten weeks to star in a quirky, low-budget film, even though his stated aim after Buster was to do a bigger American film. He was enticed by writer/director Stephen Elliot, who dangled before him a surreal black comedy about an insurance investigation which goes haywire. The role on offer in Frauds was that of blackmailing, mind-twisting con-man Roland Copping. Collins was sufficiently interested to put Hollywood on hold for a while and venture down under.

"Stephen wanted to make the film in Australia because it goes too much against the grain to work in an American studio. It's not an obvious film and Americans really wouldn't understand it. He wanted to direct it because he wrote a lot of it about himself; there's so much of Roland that's Stephen. He's a very special guy and very different to the sort of person I would normally come in contact with. He's much younger than me, but he knows exactly what he wants and the shots he's getting are very original. Apparently I'm the only person he considered for the lead and when 1 said I wasn't able to do it he said, "Well, we'll wait until you can."

Phil Collins was a professional actor long before he became a working musician. As a 13-year-old, back in 1964, he spent seven months playing the Artful Dodger in a long-running stage production of Oliver Twist. He'd landed a string of BBC plays and his father was apparently quietly shattered when he decided that he wanted to join a rock band rather than pursue an acting career that had got off to a healthy start.

Collins returned to acting playing the part of a spiv in an episode of Miami Vice. A positive response to this led to Collins' portrayal of a hoodlum-with-a-heart in Buster, a meaty, amusing production which allowed him to deftly project the image of a little boy caught with his hand in the cookie jar. There was no doubt at all, when the reviews were in, that Phil Collins' name would again be on cinema hoardings. Not that it was all joy on set.

With Buster, he recalls, "'I over-prepared myself so much that I knew everybody else's part as well as my own. But when I got out onto the set with the cameraman saying, "That's your mark there," I thought, "Oh f**k, I forgot about that! I've actually got to talk, move and hit the mark." That's when I suddenly realised, maybe I should have stayed a drummer! But after that I did slip very easily into it."

He still can't resist the temptation to get his hand in a little earlier, to psych himself up. The advance shooting script revealed that one of Roland Copping's idiosyncracies was the constant handling of dice. So, before he'd set foot in Sydney, he went out and bought a pair. 'I wanted to get used to the grating and develop a natural ease with handling them. In the film I knew I had to use them to annoy people and I found that the noise they make can be really annoying. I only had them at home for about ten minutes before my wife said, "Shh, what are you doing? Stop it. That's very irritating!" But now I've got used to it, I think I'm hooked."'

Buster Edwards and Roland Copping are both villains, but the similarities are minimal. Phil's nice guy image easily survived his first lead film role, but it may not totally survive the second.

"Basically, Roland enjoys other people's misfortunes," Phil reveals. "'In some respects he's a child who never grew up. He was the cause of his brother becoming a quadriplegic; Matthew fell over a waterfall in a game he was forced to play and when his mother found him she had a heart attack. Because Roland's development stopped at about the age of ten, he really enjoys games, his life is a game, everything he does revolves around them. Of course, he has grown older; but even as a freelance insurance investigator, he can't resist the urge to trap and to blackmail. He can be very charming but by the last third of the film he's become a vicious, vindictive person, just as a lot of children are quite cruel. It's that part that is most demanding for me - the stuff I'm looking forward to, to see if I can do it, but at the same time dreading that I've got to do it at all. That vicious streak is something I've never had to portray."

In Frauds, Roland Copping psychologically terrorises a seemingly defenceless young couple, portrayed by Hugo Weaving, who came to fame in the cult film Proof, and Josephine Byrnes, the award-laden star of the Australian mini-series Brides Of Christ. Considerable subtleties are involved so it was fortuitous that an almost instant bond developed on the set between Collins and Weaving, to the delight of director Elliott.

'We're both very physical people,' explains Phil. 'Every time we meet in the morning or when we say goodbye we give each other a big hug, which a lot of people can't do."

Weaving describes the rocker as "absolutely lovely and charming. I was impressed by what he brought to the first rehearsal, how much work he'd done and how funny he made the character. That was something I hadn't expected. I think he's probably very aware that people think of him as just a musician, so this is important to him."

Film is not just a fling for Collins. He recently declared that he wants to take at least a year off from Genesis obligations to give himself a serious shot at a career diversion that he obviously sees as more than a passing infatuation. '

"I am doing Frauds because it's a very original script and I think it will be a very special film, but I'm also doing it for the experience, just like I did a small role as a policeman in Spielberg's Hook. The one good thing is that, because it's not the way I really make my living, I can pick and choose. Anthony Hopkins didn't have to go to Melbourne to make Spotswood, it was something he wanted to do. When you're in control of your own destiny you can do that, go any way you want. But who knows what will happen? I get bored doing one thing so after I've done a couple of films I'll probably want to do an album because writing the music and doing the demos is so enjoyable."

Maybe, and then again maybe not. The man lives to work.

"I've had to learn to relax but it doesn't come naturally. Now I take one holiday a year, away in the sun with all my children. And after the ten-month Genesis tour of 1987 I started building a model railway in my cellar, which was completely different from anything else I've done in my life. I had a hobby for the first time. I muck around with it still - I build the models, I make the scenery and I get satisfaction from it. But most of the time I just work."

Indeed, the term workaholic could have been coined just for Phil. Nobody understands the downside of this intense degree of commitment better than the man who was the subject of a 1990 Q magazine cover story entitled Why Phil Collins Never Clocks Off.

"'I try to say "No" more than I used to and I try to spend more time with my second wife Jill. My first marriage broke up because Genesis was on the road for so long and my whole family wasn't there when I got back."'

Genesis tours are now structured a little more compassionately - of necessity. Tony Banks and Mike Rutherford have children of school age and the three aren't exactly in the bloom of youth.

"It came down to this: we can do ten months of arenas or three months of stadiums, and the latter option won. The bigger venues aren't as much fun - they're an event of a different kind - but we don't want to be like Dire Straits and Sting and go out on the road for two or three years. Although, having said that, my last solo tour was about nine months and I had a great time! Apart from British audiences, the only ones that you can talk to, like I'm talking to you now, are Australian audiences. At the end of a song they'll applaud as wildly and as enthusiastically as an American audience.

"Unfortunately, the ambient noise in America is..... well, you know, if you do a quiet song that's a cue for all the jerks in the audience to shout out how much they love you, which is great, and of course they're not all insensitive, but you only need a thousand out of 15,000 to really stuff it up. If you're doing a 3-4,000 seater the shows are fantastic. But it never ceases to amaze me, when you're playing a place like Dodger Stadium in L.A., how many people have to go to the toilet. They're either going to the bathroom, or getting a hot dog, or getting a drink, and it's an incredible distraction because it's like all these little ants walking up and down in the light. The subtlety starts being honed off a show when you take it to America; all those fine moments when you can have a little aside to the audience and suddenly somebody gets the joke and a ripple goes through, like it does in Britain and Australia. So if you play here or there first, it's great, whereas if you play in England or Australia after the States you tend to think you're dying. But you can at least bring back the subtleties. The worst tour I've done has probably been in Germany. There you get these squaddies, or GIs who go out and drink as much as they can before the show, down a couple of pills, smoke a couple of joints, OD, and are sick in front of you. We've had security guards slipping and falling in it and you've got to sing with all this going on and it actually stinks, you can smell it. I'm not anti-drugs or anti-alcohol but I am anti-abuse."

If all goes to plan, the vehicle that will keep Collins busy in 1993 is a film that he suggested as a joke but which took on a life of its own. It began in 1985 during the No Jacket Required tour when he read a review which called him 'a Danny DeVito lookalike' (in fact, Collins works out regularly and the singlet he wears on the Frauds set reveals impressive muscles).

"I thought, "F**k, I've heard it all now," but it really stayed in my mind. By the end of the tour I'd been called short, stocky, tubby, fat, cheerful, boisterous, all those kind of adjectives as well as "a Bob Hoskins look-alike". This was before I'd done any acting, but I thought that it would be really funny, the three of us - DeVito, Hoskins and myself - as the Three Bears. So when I did the Buster press thing, I said as a joke that I was making a Goldilocks And The Three Bears film with those guys. Then suddenly it was in print and they were putting pictures of the three of us together and the ball had started rolling. I actually got a telegram from Kim Basinger saying "I'd love to be Goldilocks." But the thing is I hadn't told the other guys. I knew Hoskins so I rang and said: "They've started to write this stuff, would you be interested?' And he said: "Well, it's a great idea, show me a script." I knew Danny because he had asked me to write a couple of songs for The War Of The Roses - neither of which he liked - and he said much the same thing, although he kept adding, "You think I'm a bear, huh?" Danny and Bob are well on board and I keep seeing Hoskins on TV shows being asked about it. So this word of mouth thing actually does work. The only change is that Goldilocks will be a child and the love interest, the blonde bombshell, will probably be her mother."

Remember, if Kim gets the part, you read it here first.

For Phil Collins, the buzz is still all important. Clearly his love of music is never going to desert him.

"'I still get a buzz out of making records and writing songs," he declares, "and now I'm getting a buzz out of acting."

His dedication to the things he loves can be quite overpowering. Take his long-running passion for the Beatles, which manifests itself in a vast collection of bootleg albums and CDs of outtakes.

"I think it must be the special period I grew up in. Bill Haley and Elvis never meant much to me and I really never understood their importance, but Beatles records still stand up and sound as great today as when they were made. I was very lucky to be interviewed by George Martin while he was re-mastering the original Beatles albums on CD. I went down to the studio while was he working on Yesterday and Ticket To Ride and I got to put one fader up at a time and listen to each of the four tracks. And I realised that it was probably the last time anybody would get to do that because they're all on digital now, there'll never be any need to re-master them again. There were coughs and splutters and lots of vocal tracks and the magic was what happened when George put it all together through the compressors. He has never gone without credit, but I don't believe he's ever got as much as he deserves. You know, they were a great group but they were better once they'd gone through the Martin hands."

 

 

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