Tuesday, June 19, 2012
MIDNIGHT EXPRESS 2: INTERVIEWS
This is the first reprint of a piece that ran in the NME on August 19th 1978 under the headline ‘The Long Road From Turkey to Hollywood’ for which I interviewed Billy Hayes and the actor Brad Davis who played him in the film. Present on that day were the director Alan Parker, the co-producer David Puttnam, the film critic Dilys Powell and other luminaries.
TTS A STORMY Monday at the almost deserted Cafe Royal. Lunch is delayed by three waiters getting stuck between floors in a lift. Throughout the meal a kind of musical chairs takes place as the producers, director and stars of Midnight Express get shuffled between tables to meet the newshounds.
Brad Davis, the movie's star, is small, dressed bohemian with striped prison shirt, black cords with braces, and a lucky red rag around his neck which he hasn't taken off since he left LA. He's also jet-lagged, twitchy and doesn't really want to be here at all.
He had eight years' New York stage experience, doing a lot of "off off Broadway showcases", before moving to TV roles like Old George in Roots. Midnight Express—in which Davis plays Billie Hayes, whose real-life experiences in a Turkish jail for possession of marijuana inspired the movie — is his first theatrical movie. He auditioned for six weeks, before landing the part on condition he signed a three-picture deal for Columbia. Hollywood doesn't change.
There are flashes of James Dean's sideways smile in Brad's gutsy portrayal of Billy Hayes. Did he feel an affinity with the character?
"Yes, I thought it was incredible. I don't know what would have happened to me in a situation like that ... I can't stand pain, emotional or physical, at all."
In the movie Brad has his feet beaten, his face punched, his head shaved, his bum felt, and has to bite a guy's tongue out. Wasn't that heavy going?
"It was the easiest job I've ever done because I wanted to do it so much.”
At this point he fixes me intently, staring out of eyes like tiny green marbles. No challenge, Brad, but how did you prepare? Stanislavsky? The Method ?
“ I do things in my head, get myself, get myself in some state and then I stand on my hands a lot. People found that very amusing. But it warms up my body, turns everything upside down and gets everything going. Scenes really just happen by themselves a lot."
Tell me Brad, has this success changed your life?
"I'm getting fatter — that's one thing. Yes, it's changing. Already it's changing in one way that I can see I'm not going to like at all, and that's having people leave me. Friends, people that I love. Some people cannot cope with my... success... so they have to leave. I can't say, 'Listen, I'll go out and be a flop, I'll fuck up, be my friend.'"
Influences and ambitions as an actor? Hr
"At this point (28), I'm a combination of probably ever good actor I ever saw. I'm probably 50 people... I want to do things that are important, valid, that count for something aside from money."
EVERYONE changes partners. Publicists bustle urgently from room to room, and Brad is hurried away to the dubious delights of the caramel-voiced photographer from Screen International.
Suddenly I'm facing Billy Hayes himself, wired up and ready to go. He looks sharp, fit and tanned, with tight
blond curls and a racy moustache. He's pure California crossed with the edginess that only prison time can
impart. Doesn't he find this carnival a little strange?
"It's a long way from Turkey to Hollywood, that's for sure!"
So was the decision to become a media star a conscious one?
"I didn't really formulate it, because when I arrived home at the airport, I stepped off the plane into the middle of a press conference — like a hundred reporters with lights, cameras, microphones all set... and the response to that conference was sc great that the telephone literally rang off the hook.
"That's when the realisation came to me that I have a notoriety here. I also have $25,000 worth of debts and no job. So what am I going to do?"
He wrote a book is what, working with veteran journalist William Hoffer. Time was tight, with monetary penalties attached to delivery dates, and Billie admits that, in taming his writing style ("very much babbling stream of consciousness") and writing the story fast and hard, he had to cut out what he calls the "metaphysical asides".
"I would have dissipated a lot of the force of the book by doing that but, in a way, I now feel like I've sacrificed some of my own personality.**
He claims to be happy with the finished book but not with the film. In translating from print to film, discrepancies arose. The fight scene with Rifki didn't actually happen ("I think the tongue is a bit much") and, while admiring Alan Parker's film, Billie says :
"Within that harsh world there is beauty, there is life, there is & hope, there is love. It's just that it's very difficult to find — which means when you do find it, it's that much more precious. I would have tried to emphasise that a bit more."
Putting the movie in a wider context, surely you and other dope prisoners were, in reality, political pawns in a much larger game?
"To a degree. In actuality the Turks have laws, they're on the books, we broke the laws and we received a just sentence under their laws. .
"The point is, is the law correct? The hypocritical nature of the laws in Turkey is that the people who should be affected — the opium and heroin smugglers — don't get caught. Fools like me and kids with a little bit of grass are the people who bear the brunt of the crackdown."
Billy admits that many foreigners were set up and that, following recent discussions with people at the American State Department, he has discovered that one of his fellow-prisoners — the American, Tex—was in reality an agent for the Drugs Enforcement Administration of the USA.
Rumours had already reached Thrills direct from Sagmalcilar Prison that Billie's escape was an elaborate set-up. Confronted with this, he is not phased. Since his return from Turkey, High Times has suggested that he was either a CIA agent or an FBI informer, while others have said that he wasn't in jail at all. He tells me another variation on this theme:
"Printed in the leading Turkish newspaper Huriet(which, ironically, means Freedom) was a picture of me when I was arrested, a map of the island I escaped from, and a photo of a woman I had never seen before called Jane Lee.
"The story was that Jane Lee was a famous American actress, my girlfriend the whole time I was inside, who came with a speedboat and took me off the island, financed by my millionaire businessman father. There isn't a shred of credibility to that. It was a made-up story from the word go.”
So was the notion of escaping always with you?
"It took months to get it through my head that I was really there. Slowly, slowly, the reality of the place, the bars and the steel, became much stronger than my own foolish imaginings and images of who I was and what was going to happen to me. And I suddenly became aware that I could be here for ever... But I never thought I would stay there, someway or other I’ll get out."
Billy discovered a lot about himself in the process, it seems. His advice is: "Do what you like but know what you're doing." He waxes cosmic on occasions — he's a diehard Hatha Yoga devotee — but tempers this with gritty realism. He is also a strong supporter of marijuana decriminalisation. So does lie believe that drug prisoners are political prisoners, our generation's dissidents?
"Drug laws are ideological as much -as legal, because the people who are associated with drugs are ideologically opposed to the people who were, or are, in power creating the laws."
Billy Hayes is now trying to make it as a full-time writer, and is currently penning a novel-turned-screenplay.
"It's the story of a guy who comes out of prison into a very strange world based obviously on my own situation, because it's been very weird out here. Very strange."
at 8:39 am