By Nick Haramis
So often, interviews begin with the revelation that celebrities are “down-to-earth” and “genuine,” the journalistic equivalent of US Weekly‘s “Just Like Us!” section. What’s more, such praise is often without merit, knee-jerk fawning that belies a deeper truth: “She refused to talk about the abortion.” “He was drunk the entire time.” Such is not the case with Stuart Townsend, who, until now, was best known stateside for his performance as Lestat in Queen of the Damned, not to mention his high-profile relationship with Academy Award-winning actress Charlize Theron.
Townsend calls a few hours late, apologetic and in earnest. “I really have no excuse. I wasn’t doing anything else, I just forgot.” He’s forthcoming about his inconsistent film roles, gregarious even when discussing his failures and disappointments as an actor. He laughs when talking about Theron’s snotty nose, and, most refreshing of all, he cuts through platitudes to get to the heart of his latest project, Battle in Seattle (starring Theron, Woody Harrelson, Channing Tatum, Michelle Rodriguez, Martin Henderson, Connie Nielson, Andre Benjamin, Ray Liotta, Jennifer Carpenter, and Joshua Jackson) a breathtaking account of the riots incited by 1999’s World Trade Organization Ministerial Conference. Of course, he’s doing press because he’s banking on the success of his first outing as a director. But, more to the point, he’s candid and forthcoming about the experience because he cares. This is the story he’s been waiting to tell. Below, Townsend finally talks.
BLACKBOOK: When you return home to Ireland, now a successful Hollywood type, do you notice an obvious sense of national pride from the locals?
STUART TOWNSEND: Ireland used to be a getaway for celebrities because they could go there and be completely ignored. But I think celebrity culture has overtaken the whole world. You know, People and US Weekly are read just as much in Ireland as they are over here. That said, people tend to see you—whispering while looking out of the corner of their eyes—but they’ll completely ignore you.
Film still from Battle in Seattle.
BB: The exception to that rule might be Bono sightings. Apparently, he’s a big deal over there.
ST: Actually, I’ve been in many pubs in Dublin with Bono where no one bats an eyelid. I think you’d be surprised. That’s probably one of the reasons why he’s stayed there.
BB: Can you discuss your trajectory from stage to screen to directing?
ST: I got into acting because I loved movies, not because I loved acting. I could have done anything—editing, directing, whatever. But I grew up in a fishing village in Dublin, so movies were quite far removed from our reality. I was going out with a girl at the time—I was 16, 17—who was taking acting courses, and that was my way in. Of course, to get into movies took about five years of theater work. But I didn’t really want to do theater, and after about five years I managed to get a film. But I haven’t really enjoyed my career in America. I wasn’t playing the characters I wanted to or thought I could. So I started to write my own stories. It’s also kept my sanity the last few years, this project. It’s about what I want and what I care about, especially being in a career that didn’t really reflect who I was. But, you know, you’ve got to work—you’ve got to make a living. BB: How have previous films not been accurate reflections of who you are—or how you see yourself—as an artist?
ST: Four words: Queen of the Damned. But it was a 40 million dollar Warner Bros. movie—there was no way I was going to turn it down. But I didn’t think the script was great. I loved the character of Lestat, but I wanted to be Lestat in another type of movie. When they told me that Korn was going to do the music, well, that’s just not my thing. There were a lot of creative choices that I wasn’t able to make.
Michelle Rodriguez in Battle in Seattle.
BB: It’s become cliché for actors to have directorial aspirations. Were you taken less seriously given your background?
ST: [Laughs.] First of all, I don’t care what anyone else thinks. If I did, I probably wouldn’t be in this business, because you get trashed all the time. When I found this Battle in Seattle story, there was no way I was going to let it go. I didn’t really question myself. I certainly knew it was going to be difficult, as a first-time director—who was also an actor—trying to do a political ensemble movie. I knew the chances of even getting it made were pretty slim. But you just keep chipping away. I really don’t care about people’s perceptions of me.
BB: Does that logic work when inverted? When this film was screened in Toronto, it received a standing ovation that lasted long after the closing credits had finished.
ST: That was a really, really great feeling. This film has taken up five years of my life, and has had many struggles, so yeah, I felt really proud of what I had accomplished.
BB: What sort of struggles?
ST: Trying to get financed. Trying to get a cast like I did, when we weren’t paying any money—that was a nightmare. We were a day away from shutting the whole thing down, because we couldn’t find a cast. Nobody. Every single aspect of this film has been incredibly difficult. And I’m still dealing with it. As I said, there’s no release date yet. It’s like Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now. He made that film, and it was like a fucking apocalypse. I’m making Battle in Seattle and it’s like a constant battle. It’s become the running joke. When I email people now about the film, the subject’s always “BATTLE.” It’s been an exercise in never taking no for an answer.
Film still from Battle in Seattle.
BB: Charlize Theron is in this movie. Is it easier or more difficult to jump into this directing thing with your girlfriend?
ST: She was actually only there for two days. But she’s such a sport, and very easygoing. People find it strange, because there’s one particular scene [in which Theron plays a pregnant woman who loses her baby after being clubbed in the stomach by a police officer], and it would be like “Action!” and she’d go full on into this primal scream…
BB: …and the snot.
ST: And that’s not movie snot, that’s real snot. She’d go full on into that, and then they’d go “Cut!” And she’d get up and start telling jokes. I remember my editor was there, and he was in shock: “How can she do that? That’s so weird! How can she go from crazy to telling jokes?”
BB: It must be strange to wear two hats simultaneously—boyfriend and boss.
ST: The good thing is I’m not afraid of actors. Actors are like this separate universe on a film set. We have the crew and me, and the producers, and we’re the grunters. Then these actors come in, and they’re the magic. There are definitely two different worlds.
BB: That one scene with Charlize is really pivotal to the film, because it’s at that moment, as an audience, that we’re positioned on one side of the WTO debate. Did you have preconceived notions of who was to blame for the riots when you started making the film?
ST: Before I wrote anything, I researched globalization for a year and a half. And a year or two prior to that, I had taken an interest in politics, globalization, and the environment. The film does have an opinion and I’m not afraid of that. But the film was really informed by what I found in my research. I went through every bit of press from those five days—all the spins from Time and Newsweek to Jagdish Bhagwati, to Naomi Klein. I did my homework. I felt like the film was going to recreate a piece of history, a place in time, and I had better get it right. That’s why I gave the police a voice. I didn’t want to villainize them—they’ve already been villainized by the real footage. That hit in the stomach—I didn’t have the policeman hit her in the stomach because he was a bad guy. It’s just an incidental hit, and he’s gone. He doesn’t know that she’s pregnant. It’s chaos.
BB: You said that the film has an opinion—that you don’t shy away from—but it seems quite messy and ambivalent.
ST: I’m glad you think that. To me, gray areas are always most interesting. In my research, I read that the police didn’t get fed, that they slept in cots. They got four hours of sleep, no food, and they couldn’t go for a piss. And all this with their police uniforms on. These policemen are human beings. I mean, there were 20 thousand people and they were scared. That’s what was interesting about the event—it changed people’s lives, on all sides.
Channing Tatum in Battle in Seattle.
BB: Was it difficult to return to Seattle to film the riot scenes? 1999 wasn’t so long ago.
ST: I was worried. I thought, oh my god, what is going to happen? And we had 300 protestors show up one day, genuine protestors. It turned out to be fantastic. They brought all their original turtle costumes. They got out the old banners. For a lot of people, 1999 was a great progressive moment, when regular people were given a chance to have power. In a way, it was a very dangerous movement because it was decentralized, patriotic, and truly democratic—truly anti-corporate, which goes very much against the world we live in right now. September 11th killed it, killed the movement. We went into this negative spiral, and I think we’re now just coming out it.
Those issues haven’t gone away, and those people haven’t gone away. A lot of them were diverted by the war—became anti-war protestors—a lot of them are tracked by the FBI. My phone is probably bugged right now. Mainstream media no longer covers those issues—it’s all about Iraq, or it’s all about Iran. Mainstream media is a joke. BB: Was there any consideration given to making a documentary rather than a feature film?
ST: No, there had already been two documentaries made, one of which was excellent. Also, I wanted to see it on a big screen, in a film, as a feature, with movie stars. That was the hard part. I want people to see it. How do you make a mainstream political movie that’s got movie stars, and is also about trade—but not boring?
BB: A political popcorn movie.
ST: Exactly, that’s exactly it! I’m going to use that.
BB: You once mentioned that you have many activist friends. How have they reacted to the movie?
ST: The first screening was for about 80 people and a lot of them, 40 maybe, were activists. That was nerve-wracking, because this was their story, and who the fuck am I? One of them came up and was like, “You bastard! You made me cry three times!” Another turned around to me and said, “Man, you didn’t fuck it up!” That’s one of the best compliments you can get, because these guys don’t mess around. They’re not going to blow smoke up my ass. My friends who have seen it are in shock. They’re like, “Where the fuck did this come from, Stuey? Where did you come up with this?”
Connie Nielson in Battle in Seattle.
BB: Have you ever been involved in any sort of activism?
ST: A little bit, yeah, but I’ve never been in a full-scale riot. I was at the WTO Summit in Melbourne, and you couldn’t even get near the place, because there were so many cops. Seattle was the first and last time people could get near anything. Now, you’re five miles away from the nearest delegate.
BB: The world is focused on Iraq at the moment. Do you think other important issues have been pushed aside as a result?
ST: It’s really difficult, because I think it’s a disgrace when people say, “I’m Iraq-ed out!” I mean, how dare you! But at the same time, I feel like it’s a media tactic, to pound people over the head with the war on Iraq so we can forget about everything else that is going on in the world. All the food we eat has been genetically modified. The air we breathe is shit. These other issues have been sidelined.
BB: Do films—fictional or otherwise—have a responsibility to balance the scales?
ST: It’s tough, because most people go to movies to be entertained, to escape from the shitty lives they lead. In a way, maybe it’s better to show these films on the Discovery Channel, because when you watch TV, you don’t always have to be entertained. Some people want to be informed.
BB: At the beginning of the film, you show Michael Moore, the director of the WTO, on a TV screen. Does this also work as an allusion to the whistle-blowing filmmaker?
ST: Michael Moore, the filmmaker, was actually in Seattle and we have footage of him, actually talking. There were a lot of jokes about the two. I did consider putting his real footage in, and then I thought, he’s become such a polarizing figure that I didn’t want to reference him. I wanted to have a more even tone, instead of going, you know, Hey, look! This is a lefty! I wanted to stay away from that.
Charlize Theron in Battle in Seattle.
BB: You once said that you’ve taken on a number of projects that didn’t do anything for your soul. You needed money. What did this one do for your soul?
ST: It filled it, absolutely filled it. Pre-production was an absolute nightmare, but once we started filming—actually shooting—I had the best time of my life. I loved directing! And it was kind of easy. Then I got into the edit room. I was working with this fresh editor, and the two of us got locked in together for six months. And I’m telling you, it was the best six months of my life. Trying to find the story, the film—it really did fill me up way more than any role.
BB: Do you think you’ll go back to acting?
ST: I would love to do a great role, but it’s just not forthcoming. The reality is that acting is impossible unless you’re one of ten people.
BB: Do you have any other directorial projects on the horizon?
ST: Yes, but it’s still in the early stages. It’s about Paul Watson, the founder of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. He basically started Greenpeace. He goes out in his pirate ship—it’s painted black with a Jolly Roger flag—and he rams illegal Japanese whaling ships. He actually sinks them. He’s the most badass environmentalist on the planet.
BB: Good to hear that you’re steering away from political material.
ST: [Laughs.] What can I tell you? Maybe I’ll do a romantic comedy afterwards.