"Don't ask me anything! I'm a moron!"
When Charles Thomson interviewed gonzo legend Ralph Steadman, their encounter was almost as surreal as one of the artist's twisted drawings.
Weds 10th Oct 2012, Yellow Advertiser
IN A surreal moment – not unlike one of his deranged paintings – gonzo artist Ralph Steadman is looming over me, grinning maniacally.
It is 3.30pm on Friday, October 5, at London’s National Film Theatre.
I arrived almost two hours ago for a 2pm interview, which has been delayed several times now.
Ralph, 76, is the subject of a new documentary – ‘For No Good Reason’ – which debuts at the London Film Festival next week.
In the film Ralph, most famous for his collaborations with Hunter S Thompson, is interviewed by Johnny Depp.
In the last 90 minutes I have been approached by PR reps, the film's executive producer and it's director, all of whom have explained that Ralph tends to wander off on tangents, hence all of his interviews overrunning.
Now, his face contorted, he yelps: “Don’t ask me anything! I’m a moron!”
Then he breaks into a wide grin and introduces himself. We decide to look for a free table in the theatre bar. He holds up a glass of wine as we set off.
"I've only had two of these!" he declares. "Really!"
My next clue that this will be an unconventional interview comes moments later when Ralph begins singing and dancing his way down the corridor.
"Walk along," he croons, as I hold up my dictaphone. "I am talking now as you turn that thing on."
"It's already on," I say.
"I sing a song," he continues, "Duddle-ah-dah!"
Once seated, I ask him about the film – a 15-year project by director Charlie Paul, who first visited Ralph as a star-struck art student.
“He just came down one day,” says Ralph, looking slightly bemused. “He bugged the life out of me to make a film. He kept appearing at the studio door and then… grimacing in!”
He pulls a face to illustrate.
“I let him keep coming, month after month. It was absolutely relentless in a way. Month after month. He became a part of my life.”
Seeing the result selected for the London Film Festival has been an unexpected surprise.
“I really didn’t think it would be coming here,” he adds. “I thought we’d end up in, I don’t know – some Godforsaken place. You know. How about, um… Cheam.”
Mr Paul was determined not to let the spectre of Hunter S Thompson, for whom Ralph illustrated several books including Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas, dominate the film. Instead he attempted to document Ralph’s own creative process by installing a camera above his desk and filming him at work. He has also explored the artist's work with other collaborators such as William Burroughs.
When I ask Ralph about the attempt to sever the chord between himself and Thompson, he launches into a story about the writer’s 2005 suicide.
“I got rung up in the middle of the night and told to take my phone off the hook because Hunter had committed suicide. He rang me the day before he did it. I didn’t know what he was going to do. We were talking about doing something [together] again.”
Thompson had already relearned to walk twice in his later years after suffering broken bones. Ralph says he had just been given more bad news.
“They told him he would never walk again. He’d have to sit in a wheelchair. He said, ‘Death of fun, Ralph’. He told me once, ‘I’d feel trapped in this life if I did not know that I could commit suicide at any moment’. I didn’t think he would do it. I always had this hope in my mind that he wouldn’t do it.”
But is he pleased that the film focuses on his other work?
“All I wanted to do was change the world,” comes his bemusing reply. “And it has changed, hasn’t it? But for the worse.”
“But that’s not your fault,” I say.
“No!” he perks up. “It’s not my fault necessarily! I was trying to do things for the better but it didn’t turn out that way and I suddenly thought it’s like… that’s exactly how life works.”
“Expect far more than you’re actually expecting,” he announces. “But maybe settle for even far less.”
From here, Ralph embarks on a tangent that takes in the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein and the birth of impressionism.
“Just let your thoughts take you somewhere,” he concludes several minutes later. “If somebody gives you a thought to think about, let the thought do the flying.”
With that, my 15 minutes are up and a PR lady arrives to escort Ralph to his next appointment.
After a few steps, he turns back to me.
“Remember!” he implores. “I only wanted to change the world. But, as I said, I did – but for the worse!”
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