Michele Hewitson Interview: Richard O'Brien

Richard O'Brien will play the Narrator in his own timeless creation. Photo / Steven McNicholl
Richard O'Brien will play the Narrator in his own timeless creation. Photo / Steven McNicholl

Richard O'Brien, creator of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, wanted to do the interview over lunch. I thought we should go somewhere nice, and, hopefully, quiet. We went to O'Connell Street Bistro, which is very nice, and usually quiet. I hadn't thought that through, had I? The first thing he said was: "I hear you're trouble." He was really talking about himself.

No place you take him is going to be quiet for long. I apologised, as we left, for the language, but the staff didn't seem to have minded a bit. They had been charmed. I suspect most people who meet him are charmed - as opposed to the horrible louts who see him on the street and make rude comments and kissing noises at him. If he's riding his motorbike, he gets off and wraps the bike chain around his hand and tell them he's going to "kill every f***ing one of you". But, how horrible to have to do it. "It's a pain in the bum." But it must be dreadfully upsetting. The thing that annoys him is that he would like to "be like Buddha and Gandhi and let it just wash over me".

Anyway (as he is wont to say when he's had enough of the direction I'm trying, and failing, to steer our conversation in) the louts are all "under-educated ... no f***ing future, no girlfriends and they look at me and can tell from my age [he's 68 and, as he says, has no right to look as good as he does - all I'll say is that he can chuck down a glass of good wine, and he likes menthol fag] and my size and my weight that they can have a go at me ... And they don't realise, you know, that this person they're having a go at ... has slept with over 300 of the most beautiful women in the f***ing world, at least 20 good-looking men ..."

"Hang on," I shrieked, "300! Is that a lot?" He let that wash over him, although you wouldn't say quite Buddha-ishly, and carried on, "... and a few very charming trans-sexuals as well." Is that a lot? "Well, probably."

We'd been at the now not quiet restaurant for all of 10 minutes. Even without opening his mouth, he attracts attention. He was wearing very tight white trousers and little satin flats and just a smidgeon of mascara which I probably wouldn't have noticed, except it ran a bit when he cried a bit (talking about his three children and how much they love and support him.) He was wearing flats, he said, because he is staying with his great friend Mark Sainsbury at "his bachelor pad" and it wouldn't do to fall down the stairs. He wouldn't be the first. "No, or - ha, ha - the last." I was trying to imagine Sainsbury and O'Brien together. They could star in a remake of The Odd Couple, he says. "A lot of my male friends are very laddy, for some reason or other. I'm a very unlikely associate in some ways, I can see that, but I have very dear, dear friends who want to talk about cars." He likes classic cars, but he doesn't, thank goodness, want to talk about them. "No, but I like them. They're fashion statements ... It's like pulling on a nice hat or dress, you see."

I really should have pulled across the curtain dividing our table from the rest of the room. By the time I thought of this, it was too late. Fortunately he had his back to the room. He decided, for no discernible reason, to give me a flash of what I will call his chest area. He said I wasn't to go on about the flashing, but, honestly, I hardly made him do it, did I? I managed to stutter something about him having had his breasts done. He said: "All men have tits, Michele. You must have led a very sheltered life." I was pleased to say that I had. He said, "No. You have not. You just wish you'd been a bit more racy." He has been quite racy enough for both of us.

I should say here that he is back in his home country - he grew up in Hamilton - to play the narrator in the show (at the Civic from November 9, then Wellington and Christchurch) he created. We didn't quite get to that except I did ask what he'll be wearing: Jean Paul Gaultier denim tails, probably. He has been talking about Rocky Horror for over 30 years, after all, and I was more interested in a story I'd read that Frank-N-Furter was based on his mother. Frank is a fishnet-wearing, bisexual monster. His mother was, according to me, awful. He is more charitable than that, now. "Well, what my mother was, was misguided by her own inadequacies. She was an under-educated working-class woman who was ashamed of her parents. That makes me angry because they were good people." His mother was also "a snob, and anti-semitic and racist". And, he has said, mad. "Well, she was crazy. I think most of us are. I think sanity is a kind of tacit agreement that everything is okay."

Yes, yes, but what did he mean by making Frank his mother? "I didn't actually. That is silly." Or quite funny? "Yes, it is quite funny." He says he was talking about Frank, to a journalist, and said, "'I think he's a bit of an exploitative drama queen, a bit like my mother." It was, he says, the journalist, who extended the analogy. In other words, he's changed his mind. He said no, he hadn't, but I wonder. He says things and then seems to realise he's talking to a journalist. We had been getting along swimmingly, I thought, until I asked a direct question. Had he made enough money?

He said, amiably, "You're a cheeky cow, aren't you?" Then, testily, "You're not going to make me look like a c***, are you? I'm not going to go any further with this if you're going to make me look like a ..." Why would I? I might have an agenda, he said. What agenda? "I don't know. To make me look like a ..." This was making me cross. So, all right then: Was he one? "You answer my question. Don't pose another one." So I said, okay, I did have an agenda (a hastily invented one): that Frank was his mother. Whew. He calmed down immediately and said, "Ha! My mother was the saddest person on the planet ..." and talked happily about the lot of women of her generation.

Perhaps he is so used to louts making kissing noises at him that he suspects all strangers of harbouring ill will. He didn't, after that, seem to harbour any ill will towards me, unless you count the very rude limerick he left on my recorder when I left the table. I would have liked to have seen that: a man with a well- known face sitting alone at a table in a nice restaurant reciting rude things into a small dictaphone.

I wasn't sure how much of a celebrity he is, so I asked. "By default," he said. What does that mean? "It means by default. I don't consider myself to be but you wouldn't be talking to me if I wasn't. So by default: why are you here?"

Oh, I said, I'll talk to anyone. That was a reasonable test of how much of a celeb he thinks he is. That he didn't get the huff proves he doesn't take his famous person status too seriously. He does like being a celebrity, of course, because there are upsides. "It gets you a good table at a restaurant and it gets you lots of casual sex". I said, "Still?", meaning, "at your age!" He is, mostly, remarkably good natured. He said, "ha, ha! I want to clear this up with you ..." I handed over the recorder and told him to give it a go; I'd get on with my lunch. I thought he was going to have a go at explaining the casual sex stuff.

Instead he made a moving bid for the idea of celebrity enabling people like him to help raise money for, in his case, better treatment facilities for children with cancer. Usually this sort of stuff makes me roll my eyes but he's so sincere about trying to be a good person and living a kind life that you have to admire him for it. As for the casual sex, he says he used to be "absolutely priapic and I hated it".

He's been unhappy about his sexuality and not fitting in for most of his life and went "completely crackers" when he was 62. "I didn't want to be marginalised. Now I don't care. I'll never be a woman and I don't want to be. I should have been, but I wouldn't want to be a parody." He wouldn't want to have a sex change: "No man is going to love me in the same way he's going to love a woman and I can't have babies, so what's the point?" But would he want a man to love him the way he might a woman? "I'd love to have been loved. I've never been loved; I've never been in love."

So why did he marry twice? "That's a very good question." He thinks the marriages were an attempt to "allay my fears".

These ought to be sad answers. But he is pretty tough, or resilient, really, because he's had to be. As he says about the louts: "You're f***ing with the wrong tranny."

He is matter-of-fact about elusive love. He'd have liked someone to teach him about new writers and to do the cryptic crossword with. But he shrugged and, somehow, he was soon telling me that everyone in the entire world, apparently, looks at porn on the internet, and about how people now have conversations about such things. He said: "Twenty years ago, you would never have had that conversation". I said that I have most certainly never had that conversation, and that I didn't know who he mixed with. "I mix with the same people you do. They just don't talk to you the same way. I can open them up, Michele. I've got the gift!"

I wouldn't want to open him up any further than I managed, thank you very much. He said, triumphantly, "You thought you were the clever journo bringing up the subject and it was me all the time!"

Oh, all right. It was him, almost all the time, and I am more than happy to let him take all the credit for this interview, particularly the language. But if I might just add a few words, beginning with C, at the end, they would be that he is complicated, and charming. I'd take him out to lunch again anytime - although perhaps not back to O'Connell Street.

- NZ Herald

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