Published on February 7, 2013 | by Henrietta Hitchcock2
Russell Brand: Essex to LA
Russell Brand is a man of global fame these days; with Hollywood films, two books, his own TV show, and stand-up tours all over the world, it is a wonder he still has time to talk about how he got to where he is now.
Brand grew up in Essex with his mum, attending a comprehensive secondary school. This was where he discovered his love for acting, in a performance of Bugsy Malone.
“It was the only time in my life when I felt like I had a purpose, I just felt like everything about my personality that would have been detrimental suddenly, bizarrely became beneficial.”
After this discovery, he attended Italia Conti Academy of Theatre Arts, but was kicked out after his battle with drug addiction and, as he describes it, being “a right little arsehole.”
Brand then applied to the Royal Academy of Dramatic Arts and the Drama Centre, finally getting a place at the latter – which was paid for through an Essex council grant and “Friends of the Drama Centre.”
It was here that Brand discovered his abilities, and the education that shaped his sharp comic demeanour that we now see on stage.
When I call Brand in Los Angeles, he has just finished his morning yoga session and let his cat into the house. Luckily his accent is still as cockney as ever, and his trademark eloquent language is in full swing.
It is 15 years since Brand last set foot in the Drama Centre, famous for training actors such as Colin Firth and Michael Fassbender.
Although it is now under University of the Arts London at Central Saint Martins, it wasn’t always a part of such a huge institution: “It was a very tight little community. Obviously there was loads of conflict and backbiting, but everyone there were actors,” Brand recalls.
“Well, before I was just like a petty criminal. They taught me that what I really was, was an anarchist.” Russell Brand
“It was very, very exciting. The people that ran it – Christopher Fettes, Yat Malmgren and Reuven Adiv were incredible, brilliant. It was unconventional what went on there.”
For a man constantly in the limelight, and in the headlines, it seems strange to think of Brand as an unruly teenager, still to learn the quotes that are so built into his comedy.
Indeed, it could be said that it was during the start of his university education that his passion for politics was founded: “Well, before I was just like a petty criminal. They taught me that what I really was, was an anarchist,” he says.
When Brand started at the Drama Centre in 1995, it was an individual college, offering a stimulating environment.
“I was drinking a lot, and taking a lot of drugs at that point, and it was a good place to do that. It was a very indulgent and exciting atmosphere,” he remembers.
“To be honest, I was not educated before I went there. I just went to a normal comprehensive school, which I did not attend very much,” Brand admits.
“I watched a lot of TV and read a lot, I didn’t know nothing, and from that place [the Drama Centre] I learnt about Nietzsche, the Spanish Golden Age, Freud – all these references I’ve sort of built upon and clung to ever since.”
Although this was where Brand finally found himself in the perfect setting, it was not always easy: “Honest to God, I did 20 hour days. I couldn’t believe what was happening to me. You’d just be there all night building a set.
“No way was that safe. Now if I change a plug I do it with rubber gloves on.” Russell Brand
“I, me, Russell, ran a cable from one floor to another. I had to drill a hole through the ceiling and thread a cable through it and connect that to the mains. No way was that safe. Now if I change a plug I do it with rubber gloves on.
“It was absolutely berserk. It did give me a different respect for people that work on crews and now I know; make sure that you understand that everyone is required here,” he says.
When Brand left the Drama Centre, it wasn’t exactly on his own terms. “They used to jokingly call it the ‘trauma centre’, because people always used to cry and break down in there. I was eventually thrown out because of smashing stuff and crying and breaking down and going nuts.”
However, Brand still saw his education there as a substantial learning curve that helped to shape him into the actor he is today.
“Being 37 years old and quite a fair way into my career, I still hold it as such a significant component of my life as an actor, and my life in general. I think it’s an indication of how important it is and how unique it was,” he muses.
After leaving the Drama Centre it was difficult to escape the tearaway image that he had already inherited from being kicked out of two schools.
He had a bad reputation before he had even begun, but Brand still managed to turn it around for himself, getting clean and beginning his stint on Big Brother’s Little Brother.
Brand was all over the news, and his comedy was taking him to ever-greater places; comedy was a natural progression for Brand, as he says: “the thing is that you improvise a lot and those improvisations would always end up comedic for me. I’d always end up looking for an opportunity to be funny and silly.
“When I got thrown out of there [the Drama Centre], I started doing stand-up comedy – having gone from having a lot of interest from casting agents et cetera to having a bad reputation before even leaving school and – because of the drugs, and alcohol, and chaos – stand-up comedy seemed like the only realistic option,” he remembers.
Once Brand’s TV work on MTV and Channel 4 started to take off, it was easy to see that he was great on screen. “The Drama Centre stuff was significant because it fortified my natural ability to be truthful in the moment, and I learnt that any kind of performance is about the rendering of truth.“So when I was doing something like Big Brother – which is a dopey digital TV show – I know I have to be very responsive and spontaneous in the moment, I had to be much more confident. I also had a frame of reference. I’d be bringing up Lichtenstein. I’d talk about classical Spanish art or Danish philosophy. I had all this stuff in my head now, because I’d been in this crucible of intensive education.”
The natural next step for Brand was Hollywood, returning to the true roots of what he had studied for, starring in films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Get Him to the Greek, Arthur, Rock of Ages and many more.
But how did Brand make the transition from small-screen presenter to Hollywood big shot?
“It came via TV presenting: the Big Brother and MTV stuff. I sort of felt like I didn’t really want to do that stuff, but it was something that just came really easily to me,” he says.
“My intention was always to return to acting and even now I still feel like I’ve not explored some of the stuff that I’ve been taught. They gave me a really thorough and excellent education and it inspired me. I was a lunatic to be with.”
Flair and talent
Brand has indeed successfully stumbled his way into Hollywood for his distinctive flair and talent, but his career is far from over, as his ambitions lie in creating more films, more radio and more stand-up.
However, when asked what he is most proud of thus far, his answer is humbling: “I’ve done some good things but there’s still a lot more to do.
“The book I wrote was a really, really good book but I – somewhat in an act of inverted pomposity – named it My Booky Wook, meaning that I would never be able to take it seriously even if I some day wanted to,” he admits.
Brand is living in Los Angeles for now, with big ideas for the rest of the year. His TV show, BrandX, is hitting headlines and receiving incredible reviews, he’s just come back from his Australia/New Zealand tour, and he’s on his way to developing a couple of films.
“I meditate and do yoga… and sometimes I look at my cat…” Russell Brand
Comic Relief is also on his mind, as he’s raising money for some drug and alcohol charities – a thing that lies close to Brand’s heart, as he is forever thankful to the charities that helped him.
As we say goodbye from one side of the world to the other, I ask Brand what he does to escape his work. With all of the projects he seems to take on, there must be a trick to being able to cope with it?
He pauses and tells me, “I meditate and do yoga… and sometimes I look at my cat…” It doesn’t sound too complicated, for one of the most famous comedians of his generation.