Russell Brand is a changed man – and he’s never been more content. Stylist meets him post-revival.
We’re meeting Russell Brand five days after his wedding – held nearby in leafy Henley-on-Thames, where guests took a mock-paddle steamer down the river (his wife Laura’s idea) and back to their home in the country. It looked idyllic. Fully reflective of Brand’s new life, which is now a calmer beast.
He has a wife, child (Mabel, 10 months old), chickens, 60,000 bees (which he doesn’t technically ‘keep’: “I’m just letting them get on with it. I’m no interventionist, Suse,” he tells me) and a morning ritual of yoga and meditation. He tells me he’s on the periphery of veganism. The fact he is to appear on Stylist’s cover is news to Brand. “F**k. Seriously?” he replies. We only do one man a year, we tell him – the last being Matt Damon. He seems flattered, then tells us he once met Damon in a lift and thought he looked kind.
We also learn that Brand takes his German shepherd, Bear, paddleboarding down the river. And that he used to live on the same road as our photography director, Tom. It’s easier getting to know Brand than you might think. Because if ever there was a man fully present and engaged, Brand is it. He isn’t on his phone, stewing on his schedule or bemoaning not being on his honeymoon (he leaves the next day). Instead he’s swigging Belu mineral water with a swagger usually reserved for spirits and asking everyone their names to use with familial regularity. “Is it Susan or Susanne? Am I saying your name right?” he enquires before nipping next door for a wee while still chatting through the wall. “I’ve washed my hands,” he informs me on returning. “Which I wouldn’t have done if I weren’t in this interview.”
Brand’s hyper-engagement is very likeable; a genuine desire for connection that’s stemmed from living a third of his life sober and conquering other addictive behaviours as he goes. But this search for serenity doesn’t make him less busy. He’s touring with his stand-up, doing an MA in religion in global politics, has a revolving schedule of radio shows and podcasts, and this week releases Recovery – a self-help manual-meets-memoir designed to help fellow addicts break their tormented cycle. If he were female, I tell him, he’d be asked how he’s possibly juggling it all.
So has anyone ever asked you that: how you ‘have it all’?
Not yet, and I’m sure you’re right, that is because of sexism. Also, someone told me once the baby is no longer breastfeeding, there’s no reason why the responsibility shouldn’t be 50-50, and that was resonant with me. I’m trying to be aware not only of gender prejudice, but any thought form preventing me being truthful and connected. It’s a difficult process to undo: familial and cultural conditioning.
Why is there still such focus on how women juggle families and careers when men have identical responsibilities?
I believe, Susan, that until recently there was a repression of women in very obvious ways that we can historically log, ie suffrage, which there are still forms of: inequality of pay and all those ongoing arguments. But more subtly, I believe there is an oppression of the feminine principle. There is a passion and power in the feminine that the patriarchal world needs to control to prevent the world from being ‘disorderly or chaotic’.
What are the main challenges of being a modern-day man?
If I’m told, as I was, this is what a man is and how a man should behave, when I don’t feel that way, I feel ashamed of myself. So I try to reject those categories, being fully aware there are things I’m unconscious of that I continually do. So as a modern man, or woman, or person, it’s important to be awake and conscious of where you are living on other people’s, or culture’s, downloads.
Who do you think men do
have as positive role models?
The role models I’ve chosen are mostly people devoted to spirituality and service. Muhammad Ali because he managed to straddle so many worlds; an incredibly macho male who lived by his principles, who gave up his belt because he refused to go to the Vietnam War, because he didn’t believe in it. People who live by their principles and prioritise them over selfishness is what I find appealing. James Baldwin, Malcolm X, Martin Luther King, Ghandi... I guess the last man doing that was Nelson Mandela.
You’ve said that when you became a father, part of yourself switched on, that you unlocked a femininity and love you hadn’t accessed previously. Can you explain?
I don’t know that I termed it as feminine – I feel like it was to do with love. I felt like, when I saw her [Mabel], I understood purpose in a very different way; like there is nothing I could ever want or be afraid of that is more important than what this person requires. [There was] this focus and I knew I would have to be very responsible for it… I want to be careful what kind of language I use around her: not language that limits her in life. It’s [about not just using] ‘clever’ and ‘strong’ to describe male children and ‘pretty’ and ‘sweet’ to describe female children. Mabel is really strong, in a very physical and obvious way, and I tell her this and remark on this, and cleverness, also. Using both these words for both genders doesn’t strike me as radical. Why wouldn’t we do that?
So that’s something you’ve become more conscious of?
That’s right, but I’m also... [exhales]. You don’t want to just impose another idea, because the idea of neutrality: what the f**k is it? There’s no such thing. But I buy her things like tools so that she can smash stuff about... she’s a bloody aggressive person. She keeps grabbing my face and twisting it. Her first word was “Oww” because she hears me say it all the time.
Do we need a new word for feminism? One that doesn’t indicate a shift towards the female, but implies equality?
Possibly. That’s a good way of looking at it and the power of language, because what happens is when you try and suggest ideas that challenge power, people attack it in a superficial way. You get people going, “Oh, feminists!” and you get ridiculous and jaded and reductive [reactions] that prevent the legitimacy of the argument. So somehow shifting and evolving language is a smart way to do it.
You’ve been honest about your past promiscuity. How will you marry that with raising a daughter?
Well, how I’m seeing it, I did sleep with lots of people, but it felt culturally like it was all right. My sexuality is quite a gentle thing. It’s always been more about longing than dominating – I’ve never believed women are inferior. I was famous and people wanted to have sex with me, and when I was young I felt inadequate and ashamed of my body and I couldn’t really believe what was happening. But I never wanted to go, ‘I’m better than you’ to women. I wanted to be like, ‘Oh my God, you’re amazing, and I can’t believe that I’m allowed to do this.’ So it doesn’t feel at odds with it. The reason I’m not like it now is because one, I’m in a committed monogamous relationship and two, because I’m an addict and I was doing those things to feel better. And three, I now retrospectively recognise that a number of the people I was having sex with were doing it because of their own problems – for their own sense of inadequacy – and I was therefore participating in their problems.
So how will you educate
Mabel about all of that?
I won’t be like: don’t go out with anyone like I was, because that’s very reductive, [although it’s] easier because it saves time. But this is my prayer – that I bring up someone who is aware of what they are doing and why they are doing it. Like are you eating that because you’re hungry or because you’re sad? Are you having sex with those people because it feels brilliant or because it makes you feel validated? What I’m planning to do, if my wife allows it, is to speak openly about that from the get go. When my girlfriend – er, wife – was pregnant, I said, “I might straight away go there’s no such thing as Father Christmas.” And my girlfriend cried, and I was like, “Why?” Because you’re teaching her there’s some sort of benevolent spirit; you’re training them to be a consumer...
But sometimes it’s nice to be held in disbelief…
I know, I don’t think I’m going to win the argument.
Do you think the reaction to your sexual admissions would have been the same had you been a woman?
I would have been condemned as a slut, and I am aware of that and that’s wrong. If you’re asking me are women judged by a different standard, then of course they are.
You say in Recovery about identifying your mum’s illness and your feelings toward her as a behavioural trigger. How has your relationship evolved?
In some surprising ways, I guess, because I have a particular dynamic with my mum. I’m an only child, she’s a single mum, and I’m a boy. If you’re going to get a bit Freudian about it, the fact I didn’t have committed relationships and slept with lots of people I didn’t know well was probably connected to the fact that I had a very intimate and encompassing relationship with my mother, so the way that my relationship has evolved is that she now has a relationship with me, her granddaughter and her daughter-in-law. It’s calmer. I felt responsible – for her having cancer, for her being alone, for her financially – and probably from quite a young age. And that’s not right. Now being a parent, I watch myself when I go, “Give us a kiss” and stuff like that, because I recognise she [Mabel] doesn’t owe me anything, but I owe everything. But I cross that because she’s such a darling thing, so I want her to kiss me and cuddle me and she smashes me in the face, reminding me what the relationship actually is.
In nearly every report of your wedding, you were referred to as ‘former lothario and wildman’. Does that bother you?
When I was 12 and fat and felt worthless, the idea I was going to be described as [that], I just thought such a thing couldn’t happen. But now I’m in my 40s and in a happy domestic relationship, those terms are ones I’ve embraced because [they’re] archetypes and the sort of things I’m bang into. You know how often they talk about my beard and hair? Look, I’m not particularly hairy. The reason they talk about my hair is because it symbolises sexuality, and what it also means is not conditioned, not conformist, not governed by social norms. So wildman, I like it.
You’ve been 14 years sober. Why write a book about recovery now?
Because I’m thinking I’m beginning to understand it. They say it takes five years to get your brains back, five years to learn how to use them and then five years to realise that you didn’t need them. Recovery is sort of amazing – it starts off with ‘don’t take drugs or drink’ but it ends with ‘become enlightened’. I was taking drugs and drinking because I couldn’t cope with feelings about who I was, so I didn’t feel good enough. It was a survival strategy, and I think that’s true of anyone doing anything to excess – they can’t cope with who they are and they can’t cope with the world.
In your book you call addiction a blessing. Why?
Because if you don’t have it bad, you can carry on forever. I know so many people who wait for the moment before they die to go, “This isn’t who I really was! Ahh, bye!” But me, because I’ve been smashed on my arse so many times, I’ve had to do that already. It’s a blessing as you have to get real.
We talk at length about addiction – addictive tendencies, a study by philosopher and psychiatrist RD Laing, documentaries by Alan Curtis, a quote by art historian and critic Bernard Smith. I tell him his references are impressive (he’s currently reading Moby Dick, Carl Jung’s essays on dream analysis, Patañjali yoga aphorisms and a Robert Johnson analysis of gender), at which he seems quite chuffed. “Are you impressed by me? Come on, say yes.” I tell him I think he might intimidate some people and that TV interviewers can seem not to know what to do with him. Do you think it’s your combination of intelligence and feeling, I ask? “I hope it’s that,” he replies, enthused. “I mustn’t indulge too much, because I’m already feeling a bit egotistical from that, but I try to hold in my mind that I speak for other people. And I feel lucky that I speak well.”
You admit you’re verbose. Do your friends only ever call on you for a deep and meaningful discussion?
The more I think about it, they don’t call at all [laughs]. I’m not like this all the time, I’m actually quite a quiet person, really.
Because it would be exhausting?
It would be unbearable. When I’m with my wife, I have bursts of being really annoying to her on purpose, but mostly I just want to sit still and watch a film, read something or look at the baby, or walk the dog.
What are you determined
to keep private?
The reality of my domesticity. I imagine Laura when I’m having these conversations, and I think, ‘Oh, she wouldn’t like that.’ When you’re famous, privacy becomes a commodity. I remember Jonathan Ross saying to me, after I’d been famous for about half an hour, that you lose something and never get it back. Privacy becomes something you’ve got to buy.
Have you ever said something in public that Laura thought was too much?
Thing is with Laura, we’ve known each other 11 years; we met when she was 19 and I was 30. She fully loves me for what I am. She’s not interested in the famous person at all. I’ve given up trying to make her interested. A lot of people I’ve been out with like the ‘wildman’ stuff, but she thinks I’m a sweet, spindly little twit in the house.
See Russell Brand at Stylist Live
We are thrilled to welcome Russell as a speaker at Stylist’s 2017 festival of inspiration. Fans of Russell’s unique wit and inimitable candour should make a beeline for one of the hottest tickets at Stylist Live on Friday 10 November, where he will take to our Thrive stage for a live interview. The multi-talented comedian, actor and writer – once voted fourth most influential thinker in the world – will be quizzed on his activism, spirituality, and, of course, how it feels to be a new dad. Always surprising, the UK’s most famous ‘dandy’ will also be sharing the inspiration behind his latest book: Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions. You can book your tickets now for Stylist Live by visiting live.stylist.co.uk
Recovery: Freedom From Our Addictions by Russell Brand (£20, Bluebird), out 21 September
Images: Daivd Titlow