Stephen Fry is probably the most eminently quotable man on the planet today. His work as a performer, writer, and general intellectual-about-town has been seen in just about every forum, from the stage and screen to the pages of a book, newspaper, or computer screen. His wit, sexuality, and talent have earned him comparisons to Oscar Wilde even before he portrayed the author in the 1997 film Wilde. His one-liners and pithy statements are devoured and repeated ad nauseam by others. So who does Fry like to quote? None other than Dirty Harry. "As Clint says in Magnum Force, 'A man's got to know his limitations, Briggs,'" Fry says in his thick British accent, sounding nothing like Eastwood's slow drawl.
Fry is talking about his position as the go-to guy for erudite Englishmen, a role he's played to perfection in films such as Peter's Friends and I.Q. Though his early sketch comedy days in the Cambridge University Footlights troupe or on the acclaimed BBC series A Bit of Fry and Laurie allowed him to play a wide variety of characters, he's most associated with the uptight intellectuals he's played. "I don't know what it is; they'll never give me the part of the blue-collar welder or something. I don't get the Tim Allen parts, but maybe that's as well," Fry observes. "It's a big enough field to gallop in without wishing for the pastures outside as well."
Still, Fry is up for trying new things, which is why he decided to make his feature directorial debut with the period drama Bright Young Things, which he adapted from Evelyn Waugh's novel Vile Bodies. Starring Emily Mortimer and Stephen Campbell Moore as a pair of star-crossed lovers in 1930s London whose lives seem to consist of nothing but shallow parties and casual encounters, Fry's first entry as a director is precisely what one would expect from the artist: sharp, satirical, and wickedly funny.
Fry says he wasn't looking to direct a film. But, after being hired to write the adaptation, the opportunity was presented to him. "I wish I could say that there was a kind of logical consistency and a plan of attack in my life. There never has been and I don't suppose there ever will be. I kind of amble through the orchard of life, and if there's a tree with a particularly interesting fruit on it, I'll go and try it. Sometimes they're delicious, and sometimes they make you throw up, and sometimes you get addicted to them and can't stop and have to persuade yourself to move on to the next tree, as it were." This all comes out in one breath, and Fry takes a moment to pause. "Strange metaphor, I don't quite know why I began it. But there you are."
Fry has penned adaptations before—his rewrite of the musical Me and My Girl snagged him a Tony nomination in 1987—and he wasn't daunted by the task. "I think you have to be true to the reason you wanted to adapt it in the first place. You have to think to yourself, 'What are the qualities of this original source material that I so like and so want to translate into this new medium? What are the qualities of tone, character, or narrative?' If you lose those, why not make up your own story? On the other hand, you certainly don't have to be faithful in terms of the order of which things happen, and you can do things like take four characters and make them one character. Because, in a novel, a character's free. In a film, you have to pay them a salary." His respect for Waugh's book also caused him to change the title of the film; Bright Young Things was Waugh's working title for Vile Bodies. "I like the idea that, until the crack of doom, when people say, 'What do you think of Vile Bodies?' they'll say, 'Oh, I read it twice, I loved it.' They're talking about the book and nothing else," says Fry. "I think more adapters should do that, really."
Fry was also very involved in the casting process, and cast two major roles with first-time film actors: Fenella Woolgar, who plays socialite Agatha, had attended the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art, and leading man Moore was performing with the Royal Shakespeare Company. "The casting director, Wendy Brazington, like all good young casting directors, is constantly spending her life in the theatre and had marked [Moore] down as someone to look out for and suggested I see him," recalls Fry. "So he came and read a little bit, and I wasn't too sure, partly because he was in the middle of doing his stage work so he was being a little bit big, like someone who's not done film before. Which is very understandable." After a test with Mortimer, Fry knew he had his leading man and only had to convince the producers. Fortunately, the director had rounded out the smaller roles in the cast with personal friends such as Peter O'Toole and Jim Broadbent, which helped to assuage any concerns about star power.
With his ideal cast in place, Fry felt he was more than prepared when it came time to step behind the camera. "In a sense, you could argue that the thing the director does least is during the principal photography," he says. "Yes, you talk to actors, and you want them to be in the right mood and doing the right thing, but it almost runs itself if you've prepared properly. That's what all the greats say. Fred Zimmerman and Sidney Lumet, if you've read their books, they always say that by the first day of principal photography it was going to work if the preparation was right."
Having added film director to his lengthy resumé, is there a medium Fry now favors? "My cheap answer to this, but it's kind of true, is, I always love the one I'm not working in," he says with a laugh. "If I'm onstage, I think, 'Oh, God, every day it's the same thing and the same lines and the same audience with the same routine sitting in the same chair and wearing the same costume. I could be on a film set, being called Sir and given all the food I want, and every day is different.' Then when I'm on a film set I'm thinking, 'I'm cold and everything's boring and takes a long time and I have to get up so early and stare in a mirror when I could be home writing in my pajamas with a cup of coffee at my side just tapping away.' The other existence always seems ideal."
Aware that he might sound a bit curmudgeonly, Fry quickly adds how grateful he is for the many different jobs he's been able to do. "I'm very happy that I have all these opportunities, because the great thing about writing and performing is, writing satisfies that part of one that wants to be in control of one's own universe. You're utterly alone. You are God with your little universe, and you create, and it's just you, nobody else. But a whole lifetime of that can drive you kind of crazy, and there are some writers who do go kind of crazy not relating to other people. So to be able to do something like film or television or stage work, which is so much a collaborative, family feel, it's nice to have both, because it satisfies two sides of what it is to be human: the side that likes to be alone, and the side that likes to be a part of the tribe."
Fry is about to return to his native England after a whirlwind press tour to promote Bright Young Things, yet he still manages to sound energetic and toss off bon mots with ease. It's been four years since he played Oscar Wilde, and while he still adores and reads the author, he admits it's time to say goodbye to the man for a while. One can't help but wonder if being a wit can take its toll on someone, if Fry feels the pressure to always be a sparkling conversationalist. "I suppose there is a part of me that would love to be able to do the equivalent of taking off the makeup and hunching behind little round pebble glasses in the way that beautiful actresses try to hide their beauty," he says. "But I'm not sure that I'm expected to be particularly witty all the time. If I am and I disappoint people, that's a shame. It's not a thing you either turn on or turn off. I don't allow myself to feel pressure or the conceit to feel that I am particularly witty, because it would be a great mistake; I'd go around saying everything in inverted comments, like, 'It's not so much that I'm expected to be witty … as that my wit is to be expected!' I'd say things like that, which is utterly meaningless." BSW