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Interview with Stephen Fry

Aired February 23, 2011 - 06:30:00   ET



ANJALI RAO, CNN INTERNATIONAL HOST: --he charmed the public playing a hero of his own, Oscar Wilde. But these days, he's delighting and educating viewers with his popular game show, QI. And he's even taken his banter online. This week on "Talk Asia", we meet with the very funny and the very genteel Stephen Fry.

Stephen, welcome to "Talk Asia". Now, you're in Hong Kong for the book fair. I hear that you're quite excited to be in Hong Kong.


RAO: Really?

FRY: Yes. Shouldn't one be excited? It's a place I always wanted to visit. You can almost smell its energy from Britain, thousands of miles away.

RAO: That you can.

FRY: And I've only ever been here for stop-offs. You know, in flights and things. And in the airport. So, it's really something to spend a few days here.

RAO: Your new book, "Fry, a Memoir" --

FRY: Yes.

RAO: -- is the second part of your autobiography. When you've had a life as full as yours, how do you even know where to begin and what to put in it?

FRY: Well, you don't, actually. My first volume of autobiography was really a childhood memoir. It took me up to the age of about 18. I went to Cambridge and thought I would stay there. I thought I would quietly grow tweed in a corner somewhere and become a Don or something.

I got a scholarship and I felt that I was going to be academic and that was my destiny. But instead, I got bitten by the acting bug. And, in my second year, I wrote a comedy -- a play -- that went on in the Edinburgh Festival and won a few prizes and things like that.

My good friend, with whom I'd been in several plays, Emma Thompson, who was in the same year as me, reading English -- a different college within Cambridge -- but we were close friends. She said I want you to meet the President of Footlights because he's become the president and he's got no one to write with. He has to write sketches and things like that and he thinks, maybe, you'd be the one to write with him.

I said, "Well, who is he?" And she said, "Well, he's called Hugh Laurie". And we met and started writing straight away. I mean, almost literally before we've even said, you know, "Hello, would you like a cup of coffee?" from him and "Oh, yes, I'd love one from me". We were writing a script. It was a kind of collaborative love at first sight.

His girlfriend was in the room, Emma was in the room, but essentially, we only had eyes for each other -- comic eyes, I hasten to add. Nothing untoward. But it was just extraordinary. It was one of those life changing moments. Though, at the time, you can't be sure it's life changing, you just know you've met someone with whom you instantly mesh on an odd level. You couldn't quite call it an intellectual level, couldn't quite call it a social level. It was a level of, sort of, comic apprehension of the world.

We both looked at the world in the same way. We both found the same things funny. And the same things unfunny, rather crucially. And fortunately, we became incredibly good friends. But that, you know, really, as I say, steered the course of my life.

RAO: How often do you see him now? Because, you know, with "House" and everything, he's a busy bloke.

FRY: Oh, he's a very busy fellow, doing his doctor. And that's nine months of the year for him in LA. Fortunately, I visit LA a lot and I see him and stay at his house, which is very -- he's got a pool house, which I can stay in, which is very nice. But, no, I do see him a lot. Because I'm immensely fond of him and I'm godfather to his children. So, it's a family level as much as anything rather than working there.

RAO: You both really started getting your names out there in the 80s and things seemed to be going swimmingly. And then the two of you were given your first TV show by the BBC, The Crystal Cube, which lasted one show.

FRY: Yes, it was a pilot. A pilot that was not taken up. These things happen. It's out there somewhere, The Crystal Cube, on YouTube, as almost everything is. And, if you look at it now, it does seem fabulously old fashioned, but it also seems like an idea that had potential. But the BBC were not interested.

This was, let me see, we'd left university, we did a show for Granada Television -- an independent television company in the North of England -- with Robbie Coltrane and Ben Elton. And that was called Alfresco. And we did two series of that. And then the BBC said to Hugh and me, "Do you want to do your own show?" And we wrote this pilot called "The Crystal Cube".

It was like a sort of mock documentary -- a "mockumentary", as they're now called. And it was me, Hugh, and Emma. And we would go into a subject every week. And the first one was genetics, which was quite ahead of its time. And, yes, the BBC said, "We're not going to pick that up, thank you very much".


EMMA THOMPSON: Would it be true to say that, if Mendel and Hosenbaum (ph) were the fathers of modern genetics, then Wode (ph) was the midwife?

FRY: No. No, I think it would be nearer the mark, Jackie, to say that Mendel was, if you like, the district nurse of genetics. Hosenbaum (ph) was clean fluffy towels and plenty of hot water, and Wode (ph) was, therefore, the organist at the Christening.


FRY: So, then we did a series for Channel 4, which was a relatively new, youth-oriented station in those days. And that was a live thing. We would do live sketches ever week. And we did two series of that. And then the BBC again said, "Would you like to do a series this time?"

And we said, "OK", and we thought, well, we're not going to bother with any high concept idea. We'll just basically do a show of what we know we do best, which is sketch comedy, essentially. So, it was called "A Bit of Fry and Laurie". And we did that.

RAO: And it broke out.

FRY: Yes, and it seemed to go well. And, at the same time, ITV asked if we would do a series of drama based on the P.G. Wodehouse Jeeves and Wooster stories. And that was an unbelievable pleasure. We did a lot of those.

RAO: So, when things did, sort of, start to take off for you and, you know, you got all this success in the, what was it, mid '80s or something - - did life change markedly for you away from the set?

FRY: Yes, it did. I mean, I'll be perfectly honest. I think it all went to my head, rather. I don't mean -- I'm glad to say, I don't think I mean in any sense that I became overbearing or pleased with myself. Quite the reverse. It was as much a reaction to the childhood of leading to prison - - you know, I'd gone to prison for credit card fraud as a 17-year-old.

RAO: It's very hard to imagine you in prison.

FRY: I know. People say that, but -- And so, once I'd sort of made it in the world, I think I -- in order to convince myself that it was true, I went on a blaze of conspicuous consumption. I had, like, sort of three American Expresses, and four Diners' Clubs, and seven Master Cards, and -- you know, I mean, it was just -- and every store card you could possibly imagine.

It was as if I was proving to myself that I really had arrived and that it was OK. Plus, I had 11 cars -- classic cars -- an Aston Martin, Austin Healey, and all those sort of things. So, it was really as if I just needed to remind myself that this had happened.

This was not all on the basis of Fry and Laurie. It was an ordinary TV show, it doesn't pay that well. I lucked out very early on after leaving university. I was asked to write the book, as it's called, of a musical called "Me and My Girl". The book being the stories, the plot, rather than the lyrics or the music, obviously. It's the dialogue and the structure.

And it went on the West End, and then it went on on Broadway, and then it went on all around the rest of the world in many different places. And checks just started flying in in the most embarrassing and obscene manner imaginable. As they do, if you have anything to do with a successful musical. You know, it's really bizarre.

Hence the cars, hence the credit cards, and I bought a house in the country, and you know, I just went pretty potty for a fairly long time.

RAO: So, if somebody would have said to you when you were, what, a 17- year-old jailbird, "You're going to be a fabulously successful actor, much beloved" what would you have thought?

FRY: I wouldn't have believed them for a minute. I think I would have almost exploded with hope and distrust. You know, it's like a child being told they're going to go and see Willy Wonka. You kind of think, "If it's not true, I will actually die, it'd better be true". And I don't think I would have believed it. I mean, really, I do have to hug myself at how lucky I've been.

RAO: You have come close to taking your own life twice. What would lead a teenager to go "I just don't want this anymore"?


RAO: At the beginning of the documentary, "The Secret Life of the Manic Depressive", you talk about how, even when you're doing QI and, you know, you're in full sail, there's this voice in your head that's just tearing you apart and saying how worthless you are.

FRY: Yes.

RAO: Has it always been like that?

FRY: Yes. I mean, it's not always like that. The point about manic depression or bipolar disorder, as it's now more commonly called, is that it's about mood swings. So, you have an elevated mood. When people think of manic depression, they only hear the word depression. They think one's a depressive. The point is, one's a manic-depressive.

Now, bipolar disorder, it goes on a spectrum. There's very severe conditions of it and there are milder ones. I'm lucky enough that it's reasonably mild in my case. But it does mean that I swing from a hyper state, in which I'm -- in which, quite far from feeling self-disgust and self-hatred, you are grandiose -- is one of the words they tend to use as a diagnostic word, you have feelings of grandiosity and creative power and connection to the world, and an absolute empathy with all living and, indeed, even inanimate things.

And then -- then you swing. And in some people, it's a big crash. Some, it's a slightly slower crash down. And it's the exact opposite point. So, where before everything seemed possible, now everything seems impossible.

RAO: Well, then there must be times when, you know, you don't know that the black mood --

FRY: No, you don't.

RAO: -- is ever going to lift.

FRY: No.

RAO: I mean, you, yourself, have come close to taking your own life twice. The first one was when you were just no more than a boy, really. 17.

FRY: Yes. 17, yes.

RAO: What would lead a teenager to go, "I just don't want this anymore"?

FRY: It's very hard to explain rationally why a 17-year-old would want to end his own life, but to the 17-year-old who wants to end their own life, it's even harder to explain rationally why they shouldn't. To explain rationally what the point of life is -- a life that you seem to be alienated from and seems to be constructed for other people. And from which you seem to be somehow excluded. And that's a very common feeling for adolescents to have.

RAO: I remember when it was this huge story, when you walked out of the play "Cell Mates".

FRY: Yes, that's right.

RAO: And you went AWOL. And, during that time, I believe, is when the second suicide attempt came about. But you eventually resurfaced in Belgium. There was so much worry at the time as well, I remember. What was going through your head at that point?

FRY: It's hard to reconstruct. It was a complete misery. A complete sense that everything I had worked for, everything I had done, everything I had so-called achieved, was a -- to use the cheap self-dramatizing language -- was a hollow sham. It was a meaningless nothing. And that my life was valueless.

And, having attempted to end it and then realized, I think happily -- I know happily -- that pictures of, you know, my parents, my sister, my brother, my nephews -- you know came into my head and I just couldn't -- couldn't do that to them. I really couldn't. Much as I wanted to.

So, I thought, instead, I'll make a clean break from England. And I had this fantastic notion that I'd travel up through Europe into Denmark. And I would find some wild and rocky coast on the main part of Jutland, and, you know, get a little shed and a pipe and some tobacco and write poetry or something. And maybe teach English if I could, you know, earn some money doing that. And change my name to Stig or something.


And grow a beard and have a big white pullover like a sort of German U-Boat commander or something. I don't know why this occurred to me. I've always liked Northern Europe. And it was in Hamburg that I was in the station and I saw the newspapers. I had so tragically imagined that I -- it would, you know, attract very little attention.

I mean, to back up, what I'd done is I was in a play -- it had just opened in the West End -- and on the Sunday, I left England. And wrote a note saying, "I'm really sorry". So, I walked out on the play and I walked out on my whole life.

RAO: Because the reviews weren't --

FRY: The reviews had been pretty bad, but not terrible, actually. Some of them were rather good. I didn't see them all anyway. But I just -- I just felt everything was wrong. Anyway, it was a whole thing and I felt like a complete tit.


FRY: But, maybe it was the best thing that happened, because it made me face the fact that I had -- my life had gone this far and that I'd been running on empty for some time and I needed to, you know, reassess.

RAO: How far away, do you think that we are from really understanding manic depression?

FRY: I think we're a long way from understanding manic depression. A long way. Because when I made this documentary, it became apparent to me that this was a huge area of -- in which so much had been unspoken and had been covered up. And I don't think anything I've done, in fact, I'd go further -- I think all the things I've ever done in the past on television, drama, comedy, other documentaries, combined have not had the same impact as that.

Because if it has stopped one person from committing suicide. If it stopped one family from disintegrating in, you know, in despair because of their lack of understanding of another -- then I can genuinely feel -- and all of us who made this film can feel -- immensely proud.

RAO: You did another documentary afterwards, "HIV and Me", which was also very powerful in its nature. You are openly gay yourself, but you know, for many years, tried desperately to keep it a secret. What was that time like? And eventually, when you did come out, what did your family think? Were they accepting?

FRY: Well, I wouldn't say I tried desperately to keep it a secret for many years. I mean, when I was 12, 13, 14, I certainly didn't want to share it with anybody because that was at a period when it was extremely difficult.

You know, it was illegal until you were 21. There was no internet. There was no youth television. There were no magazines except, you know, pornography. There was nothing to tell you that you weren't a shameful, you know -- a shameful, perverse, you know, waste of humanity. That you were "god's mistake". That it was a disease or a perversion or an inversion or some other, you know, horrific phrase.

All I had to make me feel secure, and it's a thing I am very grateful to my sexuality for, is literature. And we're here in a library, and I -- all I found was that there were people who'd been there before me.

So -- but I was out at university. You know, my friends and my brother knew and so on, I think, pretty early on. I mean, my mother said she knew since I was seven, so when I eventually came out to her, it was hardly a big surprise.

RAO: Oh, yes?

FRY: Yes.


RAO: Coming up: Stephen Fry makes a splash on American TV.



FRY: Well, hello and welcome to "QI". The quiz show where the answers are much more interesting than the questions.


RAO: These days, you're a quiz show host of "QI", which has been running since 2003, I think, until now?

FRY: That could be right, yes.

RAO: A pretty impressive run, you know, nevertheless.

FRY: Well, it's -- as a quiz show, it rather set up its stall to go for an impressive run, because, unnoticed by much of the audience, the first series was -- all the questions were to do with subjects that began with the letter "A" and the second series was all the letter "B". And we just finished filming "H" series. So, I will be in my 70s by the time we get to "Z", but we have, at the moment, you know, clearly set ourselves up for a 26-season show.

But it's an interesting quiz show because it's not -- it doesn't involve members of the public and there are no prizes -- it's a celebrity quiz show, in a sense. And I ask them questions which are phenomenally difficult. And you're not expected to know the answers, exactly, but they are to do with the arcane interesting subjects such as science and nature and people and history. And often fallacies that people think are true turn out not to be.

And it's really just a way of getting people to be interesting and funny on subjects that are not connected to sport, royalty, celebrity, popular culture, soap operas, pop music -- the absolute 90 percent diet of television. And it's not that I'm objecting to them in any massive way, it's just that I think it would be nice to have a little corner on television --

RAO: Yes.

FRY: -- that was, you know, free of that. You know, that was actually about, you know, the oddity of the compositions of the planet or the genital structure of an insect. Because there are interesting things in the world that are worth talking about that are left out of so much of television. And, just for a second, it's quite good not to be talking about Beyonce.

RAO: It seems very improvised, as well. Is it?

FRY: Yes, entirely improvised. I mean, there's no script. There's only - - I know what questions are coming because they're related to video slides in the background and they're related to the questions. And, obviously, they have to be in the right order so that the vision mixer has a chance of getting it right and the angles are right for the cameras and everything.

But there's absolutely no script at all. The others don't know what the questions are going to be and I don't prepare anything other than being fully briefed on the subjects I'm asking questions about. So I bone up on the subject so that I can, you know, answer questions fast and so on.

RAO: Are there any shows that have happened where you just completely lost control and just can't get it together? I mean, it's very funny.

FRY: Oh, yes. I mean, sometimes I just can't get a sentence out. I mean, there's a clip somewhere, which does very well on YouTube, I believe, in which I'm trying to express something about the Acropolis. And I just can't get it out.

And the more I try, the more impossible it becomes. And it just got more and more absurd, and they kept it all in. And it just is about five minutes of me trying to say "Parthenon".

It was very silly, but that wasn't, you know, running out of facts. But it was certainly running out of control. Because, of course, I'm dealing with comedians who are, as it were, anarchic and are not going to play ball.


FRY: Now, my last official task as an FBI shrink is to declare you fit for duty.

DAVID BOREANAZ, ACTOR: The gun, under the table.

FRY: I'm sorry, sorry.


RAO: You've also been a regular on the TV series "Bones".

FRY: That's right, yes.

RAO: In the U.S. Tell me about the experience of doing that. You know, being in a hit American TV show.

FRY: It's really good fun. I mean, when I was asked to be in "Bones" -- I have to protest, I hadn't seen it. It was, I think, the very beginning of the second season and my agent sent around some DVDs. And I watched it and I thought it was charming.

I liked the fact that it had a sort of CSI forensic base, but it was much more character led, much less procedural. And I thought that the two leads in it, David Boreanaz and Emily Deschanel, were just phenomenal. Really charming and sweet and, indeed, it turned out when I got on to the set, that they are exactly that. They're very welcoming. It was a very good atmosphere. So, it's been a real pleasure and I really enjoyed it.

RAO: Now, you filmed "Stephen Fry in America" as well. Some of the bits in that are absolutely hilarious. It was 50 states in six episodes.

FRY: Yes.

RAO: What were the standout bits for you?

FRY: Well, it's an amazing thing, America. It's both as a geographical and as a human landscape, there is almost -- well, there is nowhere else like it on earth, of course. And its richness, complexity, oddity, its paradoxical nature -- that, you know, you go -- it's like a mirror and like many places -- you go looking for a certain thing, you will see it reflected back.

If you go looking for loonies and religious fanatics and dropouts and freaks, I dare say you'll find it. I didn't go looking for that. I went, you know, with a positive frame of mind. I think it's an extraordinary country and I was, you know, there's plenty of room for others to make critical essays about America if they wanted. I wanted to make a celebration of both the physical and the human place. It's just amazing. It's an incredible country, America.

RAO: I mean, you're also a devoted tech geek and, God knows how, but you find time to Twitter, just, you know, all the time.

FRY: Yes.

RAO: So, with that, with the books, with films -- because you've just played the Cheshire Cat in "Alice in Wonderland" --

FRY: Yes.

RAO: With all the TV -- what on earth is next?

FRY: I'm doing a pilot for HBO about which I can't really speak -- a sort of secret -- and that's exciting. That's next year in America, so you'll watch this, please. And a couple of film projects, again, which are a bit secret. And some more writing as well, and some directing -- I mean, I keep myself jolly busy.

RAO: Indeed.


FRY: I'm a very lucky soul to be able to do all these things.

RAO: Stephen, this is great. Thank you so much for spending time with us.

FRY: Thank you, it's been a real pleasure.