- PHOTO BY RAY BURMISTON
British comedian, author, and actor Russell Brand has made a career of making his private life public, from his history of drug use (he’s been clean for more than a decade) to the most humiliating moment of his life (waking up naked in a strange apartment full of Eastern European refugees, apparently). But there’s more to know about Brand, who brings his Messiah Complex Tour to San Luis Obispo’s Fremont Theatre on Friday, Aug. 16. Before we spoke, I knew the name of Brand’s cat (Morrissey!) and that he once found himself talking in an American accent during sex, much to his horror. But these fun facts hardly scratch the surface of the articulate and thoughtful human being I talked with via phone, who concluded our conversation, quite Britishly, by saying, “Thank you for the diligent way with which you have prepared for and conducted this interview.”
NEW TIMES How did you get the inspiration for your Messiah Complex Tour?
RUSSELL BRAND Well, it came to me that I could talk about anything I wanted, so I thought, why not talk about people that I’m actually genuinely interested in? Malcom X, Che Guevara, Jesus Christ, Ganhdi, Hitler, and me.
NT So how are you tackling these different characters?
RB I’m talking about how we live in a culture bereft of legitimate heroism, and how that has left us worshipping false idols, and how we can change that.
NT How does Hitler fit into the lineup?
RB He’s just a man. That’s what’s extraordinary: the mundanity of Hitler; the ordinariness of Hitler, the profanity, the sort of prosaic nature of Hitler. Because you can’t really think of him as Voldemort or Darth Vader, because he’s just a bloke from Austria.
NT Do you think we need to make him into a demon in some way?
RB Exactly, because we can’t deal with the reality. A Russian writer, Solzhenitsyn, said that the line between good and evil runs not through nations, creeds, or cultures, but through every human heart.
NT You were quoted as saying you intended to perform in prisons, nationalist organizations, drug rehab centers, etc. Are you still planning to do that?
NT So, where are you going?
RB Oh, some prisons in the UK. Various religious organizations across the world, some of which have to be kept secret to prevent death threats. There have already been some death threats.
NT That’s right, I know in the Middle East you had to cancel some dates because of death threats as well.
RB Yeah. Shame.
NT That actually reminds me of something you said about your first major appearance in America, that you didn’t know there would be so many death threats! I’m wasn’t sure if that was 100 percent serious, or what.
RB No, no! There were loads. We were really worried. There was a really serious one. At one point I had to have LAPD guards, round the clock. That was when I realized, wow, these people are serious.
NT A lot of your stand-up is sort of mining humiliating, awful, terrifying situations for their comedic value. Is there anything so humiliating that it cannot be salvaged through comedy? Or, perhaps, not quite humiliating enough?
RB Yeah, there are some things that are just bloody inconvenient. But nothing is too embarrassing. I think there must be a way—if I feel that, then other people will feel that, too.
NT I just saw a clip of your appearance on Morning Joe, which I thought was the most surreal thing I’ve ever seen. How did that go over on your side? Did you get any trouble for that later?
RB No, just, at the time I thought it was weird, those people were strange, and then people kept asking about it, and I thought, this is cool, loads of people are watching it. And it just sort of chimes with what I think about media generally, that we elevate redundant information and obfuscate important information, so I was happy that it really popularized an idea in which I believe.
NT Your persona in performance is very gregarious, very ridiculous, and very exaggerated—that’s what makes it funny—but I’m wondering, when you’re not before an audience, are you secretly a serious person? You seem to think about things very deeply.
RB I’m quite serious. But I also muck about. I listen a lot. So yeah. I’m very truthful onstage, but it’s obviously about context.
NT Do you ever forget that you’re famous?
RB Yeah, I do, because I spend a lot of time around people who I’ve known for a long while, and you forget, until someone’s looking at you strange, you know, when you’re riding around on a bicycle. But the majority of my life, I wasn’t famous, so that was annoying also.
NT I recently saw your BBC documentary about drug addiction and recovery, and there’s a scene in which you watch a video of your younger self doing heroin, and you actually admit in the documentary that you’re jealous of the younger version of you …
RB Isn’t that stupid?
NT It is, perhaps, but it’s also quite an achievement to move past that. Do you still think about drugs that way?
RB Yes. Drugs are amazing. As a drug addict, I accept that drugs are always going to occur to me as a solution to the problem of reality. But I now know that it’s not a solution. … In the end, it becomes a very great gift, because the very thing that was an impediment becomes a format for interacting with the sublime, the transcendent, which I believe we’re all craving, really.
NT Do you find that you’re able to access that now, through meditation and other things?
RB Yes, I do. Or else I would not be alive.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.