January 8th-14th 2007
Addressing the tribulations of senior citizens in recent films The Mother and the new Peter O’Toole starrer Venus is a way for writer Hanif Kureishi to work through his own issues with aging, he tells Leigh Singer.
Several scenes in Venus, the new film written by Hanif Kureishi, take place in a downmarket greasy spoon where seventy-something actor Maurice (Peter O’Toole) and his fellow aging “luvvies” meet to trade affectionate insults and swap medication. Apparently Kureishi based these on his own regular coffee house get-togethers with a group of contemporaries, including filmmaker Stephen Frears (director of Kureishi’s My Beautiful Launderette and Sammy and Rosie Get Laid). Assigned to meet Kureishi in a Hammersmith café, mid-morning time, there’s a frisson of the life-imitating-art-imitating-life variety: is this the actual haunt Kureishi and co use for their version of Grumpy Old Men?
“No, we do it in Notting Hill,” Kureishi reveals, rather disappointingly. “It’s kind of broken up for Christmas now. We just sit around – like you and me now - except there’s more moaning and groaning and glasses-losing.” I observe that the silver-haired yet surprisingly smooth-skinned Kureishi has a good twenty years on Maurice and chums. “I don’t really think of myself as old,” he eventually allows. “But when you turn fifty as I have done, you become aware that it’s… downhill.”
The inequities of aging are evidently a prime concern in Kureishi’s work of late. Once seen as the half-Pakistani-half-English young firebrand tossing off multicultural, working-class missives at Thatcher’s Britain, his last film script, The Mother, examined a white, middle-class grandmother’s sexual relationship with a much younger man; and in Venus, the old thesps’ club is gatecrashed by a teenage girl, Jessie (newcomer Jodie Whitaker), straight from the “am-I-bovvered?” alcopop generation.
On paper it might read like an intentional May-to-December counterpoint to The Mother (both directed by Roger Michell, who also helmed Kureishi’s TV adaptation of his acclaimed debut novel The Buddha of Suburbia) but convenient parallels are dismissed. “It wasn’t deliberate in the sense that we’ve done an old woman, now we should do an old bloke,” Kureishi explains. “I really wanted to do a story about a guy going to have a prostate operation - an exciting idea for the movies, I know – and thinking about his life, the women he’d slept with, lost, the whole thing. Then it occurred to me that you couldn’t really do a film set in the past, you’d have nothing to show, so I decided to bring the girl in now.”
Though being hyped as a (final?) Oscar showcase for the visibly fragile O’Toole, there’s more to Venus than just a star vehicle, notably a transgressive sexuality that Kureishi’s writings have often flirted with. “I always say about a piece of work, it needs a crackle,” he assesses. “Originally in My Beautiful Launderette they weren’t gay, they were two mates running a launderette together. But as soon as they kiss, you get a crackle in the film and I guess you need that.”
“In Venus I didn’t want a 74-year old bloke to be fucking an 18-year old girl – there’s still a line you shouldn’t cross – but you need a bit of drama to keep it going. As you need it in your life, actually.”
Where, then, does Kureishi find that crackle for himself? In an essay on his chosen profession, Kureishi once wrote: “One of the conditions of being a writer is the ability to bear and enjoy solitude.” Does this get easier or more difficult over time?
“It gets worse, actually,” he considers. “It’s pretty boring being a writer, I find. You start thinking, ‘Shall I spend the day out with my mates or shall I sit in a room and write?’ And you think, I’d rather hang out with my mates. Also, I’ve done quite a lot of work. It certainly doesn’t make any difference to me whether there’s another Hanif Kureishi project.”
Doom-mongers might want to call for a hearse at this point, though is it so strange for a successful, middle-aged man to question his priorities? Moreover, it’s equally clear just how much Kureishi values the social, collaborative aspect of work.
“I grew up at the Royal Court [Theatre] and part of the paradigm there was the writer and director working together,” he maintains. “You need to be writing for somebody and you need to feel that person is responding to the work - not by saying how good it is, but more ‘you need to change that or that.’ A real interchange.”
In many ways it’s a refreshingly egoless take on screenwriting, where scribes often turn director to “protect” their work. “I want to protect my work by giving it to other people,” Kureishi smiles. “If you give it to the right people it’s more interesting. If Stephen Frears or Patrice Chereau is directing your movie, why would you do it yourself? They’re better directors than me.”
Even in a brief encounter like this, Kureishi’s fascinating contrasts abound. “I was watching Pirates of the Caribbean 2 on a plane,” he recounts, “and apart from Johnny Depp, they’re all British actors. We’re like the software for Hollywood’s [hard drive].” Yet he’s envious of Hollywood script doctors, earning $250,000 a week for a screenplay “polish” - but acknowledges, “my stuff’s a bit too quirky… and you can’t just write anything.” Hardly the attitude of someone genuinely jaded by his craft.
He’ll decry the “naivety” of journalists who call him up for a quote at the drop of an Islamic fundamentalist atrocity – “I’m no more an expert on it than you…I just read the Guardian like everyone else” – even though it’s a subject he dealt with at length in his novel The Black Album and screenplay My Son The Fanatic; and long before 9/11 too.
And yet he’ll admit “More and more people now tell me they were affected by, say, My Beautiful Launderette. They were a twelve-year old Paki kid sitting in a cinema in Northampton and they’d never seen a Pakistani kissing a skinhead before, it meant a lot to them.”
“So I am moved by that,” Hanif Kureishi, fifty-odd-years young, sighs. “You should be very grateful. You feel like you haven’t wasted your life.”
Venus opens on January 26th