Dweller on the threshold of acting

16:00, Jan 05 2013
Billy Connolly seeks inspiration during a press conference launching his latest film, Quartet.

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.

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.

"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 year) 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 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.)

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.

The acclaimed film 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."

Quartet is in cinemas now.

Sunday Star Times