Billy refuses to act his age
Billy Connolly relished his role as Wilf in Dustin Hoffman's star studded directorial debut, Quartet.PT3M23S http://www.canberratimes.com.au/action/externalEmbeddedPlayer?id=d-2bkdv 620 349 December 18, 2012
Interviewing Billy Connolly, aka ''the Big Yin'' (as he's known in Britain), is a surreal proposition these days. Bespectacled, bearded and sporting long, flowing white locks, he looks more like a mischievous wizard than a famous - and wealthy - comedian.
Yet Connolly has also, somehow, remained quintessentially Scottish, with that knack for connecting with his fellow human still very much intact.
I don't see myself as part of [the film star] world, you know, but they let me in.Billy Connolly
When we meet, the setting is somewhat closer to his native Glasgow than his adopted home of New York. His new film, Quartet, has just premiered to great acclaim in nearby Leicester Square as part of the London Film Festival. Our scheduled interview, at a modestly plush local hotel, lies in the heart of Soho, once known as London's notorious red-light district.
Great Scot ... Billy Connolly stars in Dustin Hoffman's directorial debut, Quartet. Photo: Getty Images
''I've never found anything bothersome about that number,'' he says when I point out the obvious parallel between his latest milestone (he turned 70 last month) and the new film, which tells of a group of dementia-riddled opera stars in a retirement home, and marks the directorial debut of Hollywood legend and Anglophile Dustin Hoffman.
''I look at these rock'n'roll veterans like the Stones, you know - they all look great,'' Connolly says. ''I don't believe in acting your number, it's just a number. I feel great, you know.''
As if to emphasise the point, he launches into a typically sprawling - and amusing - series of anecdotes taking in several suburbs of Sydney (including Palm Beach and Paddington) before revisiting the idea that he is, technically at least, getting on a bit.
''I learnt Buddhist meditation; Pamela [Stephenson, his wife] got me into it when I first met her,'' he says. ''When you're driving along on your bike, if you look at a carcass, at a corpse of an animal on the road, that is the way of all things. Religion makes it scary, with this fear of the big, bad fire, you know. But it's not. It's just life.''
Connolly's disdain for institutionalised religion - particularly the Catholic Church - is well known. He has unashamedly tarred and feathered it in performance. Had his father been allowed to remarry, Connolly once said, he might even have escaped the abuse he suffered between the ages of 10 and 15. (His father, ironically, suffered from dementia.)
While the London Film Festival is on, the papers are full of the Jimmy Savile paedophile scandal. Everybody is talking about it - so what does Connolly make of it? Did he ever get a sense that the eccentric DJ and television presenter might be a sexual predator?
''He wasn't one of my heroes,'' Connolly says, cautiously, as if sensing an unpleasant headline looming. ''That photo of him with Led Zeppelin [in 1972], I gave them that award. I remember him placing two hands on my shoulders when I sat down, and it felt very creepy, you know.''
Moving on. With seven decades on the planet behind Connolly, there's almost too much to discuss. His musical capabilities and love of the banjo are subjects worthy of note. There are the profanities, the more recent controversies (he was booed off stage earlier this year, accused of reusing old material). Then there's the matter of his turning to acting.
An acclaimed film called Mrs Brown helped put him on the cinematic map in 1997, after nearly three decades as a stand-up comedy star. I wonder if he finally feels as if he's arrived as an actor, that he belongs in a troupe that, in Hoffman's heart-warming Quartet, boasts Michael Gambon, Pauline Collins and Dame Maggie Smith.
''Not really, no,'' he confides. ''But actors are always very accepting of celebrities, singers or what have you.'' Blissfully unaware of the Scottish BAFTA award that would be bestowed upon him just weeks after our meeting, he chimes: ''I don't see myself as part of that world, you know, but they let me in.''
As our time is nearly up, I wonder what else he might like to do? Having travelled the world with television series, films and comedy tours, the father of five has achieved a lot.
As a young man, did he have any idea he might become as well known as that other mighty Scot, Sean Connery, and even be awarded a Laird of Aberdeenshire (he owns a sprawling country pile not far from the royal estate of Balmoral)?
''Well, maybe not that, but I always knew I'd be good at something,'' he says, thinking back to his formative years in the working-class suburb of Anderston, in Glasgow's north-west.
''I was a propeller welder. I always saw myself digging myself out of that hole, you know. I was designing my album sleeve, thinking one day I'd be a musician, be famous. I don't know why.''
And with seemingly little fanfare to mark his birthday milestone, what next, I quickly ask, for the Big Yin? ''I don't have aims and goals,'' he says, matter-of-factly. ''I'm just surrounded by ambitious agents.''
Look who's watching now ...
Billy Connolly's new film, Quartet, is a prime example of the type of comedy that just five years ago would not have been made. Like its cousin The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel, the film is aimed at an older demographic: one that's only now been recognised by Hollywood.
''Apparently, the demographic has shifted,'' says its director, acting legend Dustin Hoffman, sounding surprised. ''It was always the kids, and the studios were making movies for them. Now, the kids don't go to the movies, they go to a movie. They'll stand around the block for three days to see Batman. Otherwise, they're on their iPhones, their video games; [going to the movies is] not a tradition for them.''
Hoffman's audience grew up watching the Oscar winner's career develop.
It's entirely appropriate, then, that they share his fine directorial debut as well. ''I loved it, I can't wait to do it again,'' Hoffman, a boyish 75, says of the experience, which he likens to bungy jumping.
And does he have a favourite film, of any he has either made or seen? ''Yes, I have: 8½,'' he says. ''What's remarkable about that movie was, he [Fellini] couldn't get it right. He couldn't get the script right, the science fiction, the spaceships. And he wasn't ready, and they said, 'You have to start.' And so he said, 'OK, it's called 8½, or Otto e Mezzo. It's my eight-and-a-half film.' And he just made it up as he went along, about a director who can't get a film right in time to shoot it. And it's brilliant, I think.''
Quartet opens on Boxing Day