Writers & Company

The unbridled brilliance of Stephen Fry: the versatile English performer chronicles his own life

In this 2011 conversation, the English actor, comedian and writer spoke with Eleanor Wachtel about his life and three autobiographies: Moab Is My Washpot, The Fry Chronicles and More Fool Me.
Stephen Fry is a British comedian, writer, actor and broadcaster. (Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images)

This interview originally aired on April 10, 2011.

Stephen Fry isn't one to hold back. For decades, the acclaimed English actor, author and comedian has dazzled audiences in the wildly popular television series Jeeves and Wooster, with friend Hugh Laurie, and Blackadder with Rowan Atkinson. He also starred as his hero Oscar Wilde in the 1997 film Wilde. Off-camera, Fry is known for helping to break down stigmas, speaking openly about his struggles with bipolar disorder and coming to terms with his sexuality as a young gay man. 

Fry has explored these experiences, as well as his early days at Cambridge and the beginnings of his swift and sensational rise to stardom, in three autobiographies: Moab Is My Washpot, The Fry Chronicles and More Fool Me. Though widely known as an actor and performer, Fry says writing is something he could never give up. In addition to his autobiographies, he's written novels, journalism and, most recently, a trilogy on Greek myths.

Stephen Fry spoke to Eleanor Wachtel in 2011 in Toronto. 

It's not as easy as it looks

"People say, 'Oh, you're so confident. Oh, you know everything. Oh, you seem so connected to everything and so in charge of yourself.' People tell me this and actually have told me since I was a teenager.

"I remember it was said to me my first year at university. There was almost a deputation of fellow first years reading the same subject as me — it was English — basically asking me what my secret was. I was absolutely astonished. They didn't know, but I was still on probation. I'd been in prison not 18 months earlier, absolutely the lowest of the low. And here I was, being told that it was unfair that I found life so easy.

"I'm not saying that I wept into my pillow every night, but I didn't find life easy. And yet, I mean, even as I speak to you now, I'm aware that I come across as reasonably articulate and fluent and well-modulated and all the other things that people set much store by, and I myself set much store by, and that leads people to believe that everything must be okay."

The importance of being Stephen Fry

"When I was ten or 11, I was watching a broadcast of Anthony Asquith's film version of The Importance of Being Earnest, Oscar Wilde's great masterpiece. I watched it with my mouth open and saliva drooling down and tapping the carpet beneath me as I knelt on the floor, gazing up at this extraordinary thing.

"I'd never heard language used like that. I remember the scene where Algernon comes to visit Cecily and he says, 'Would you be offended if I said that you seem to me to be in every way the visible personification of absolute perfection?'

I hadn't been aware that [language] could be an art as great as dance or music.

"It was as if my heart melted and got into my bloodstream and it sang in my ears. It was like first love. It was the most extraordinary thing.

"It was an absolute epiphany. I had known that language was something you used in order to try and get your way, in order to try and bully and coerce or seduce and charm.

"But I'd never known that it could really dance like that — that it could be so beautiful, that the very sound of the tongue hitting the back of the teeth, that the vowels and syllables themselves had a beauty that was akin to marble statues and canvas paintings and sunsets and spring days.

"It really was a marvellous moment for me because language was something I had. I mean, I had a body and I'd seen dancers, but I knew I couldn't dance. I had a voice and I'd heard singing, but I knew I couldn't sing. But I did know I could speak, and I hadn't been aware that it could be an art as great as dance or music."

WATCH | The trailer of 1952's The Importance of Being Earnest

First acting gigs

"Cambridge University had a famed theatrical background. I expected everyone to be brilliant. The first play I went to see was a production of Travesties by Tom Stoppard.

"It was very good, but I felt I could have been in it and I would not have disgraced it, except for one performance. There was this girl in it, and the moment she came onstage, I remember thinking, 'Oh, my goodness.'

"I mean, almost before she spoke, it was apparent she just had it — that thing, that extraordinary mixture of talents that makes a great star. I remember in the interval saying to someone, 'My goodness, who is that girl?' I looked at the programme — 'Emma Thompson' — and we actually became very close friends.

"She persuaded me to go to auditions and things, so I started to go to auditions and started to do more and more plays. I did dozens and dozens and dozens. I was not doing any work at all.

"I was rushing between auditions and rehearsals, and I was often doing three plays a day and rehearsing as well. It was a fantastic life."

The self-conscious artist

"I do feel deeply inadequate. You might argue it's vanity. Does he think that he's really capable of such greatness, that what he's achieved already is nothing like what he could achieve?

"Well, yes, in a way I do. I think I could have been a much better writer. I could have been a much better actor. I could have been a much better person, if it weren't for the fact that I was so lazy and I went for such shortcuts and I was so quick about things.

I have observed that the greatest people, the people I most respect and admire, don't have self-consciousness in that way.

"I was a jack of so many trades and a master of so few. And also, I hate the fact that I seem to be so pleased with myself when I'm not.

"I look at any photo of me, it makes me look smug. I'm sure people listening to me say, 'Well, what a smug-sounding git,' and there's nothing I can do about that either.

"I guess the problem is self-consciousness. I have observed that the greatest people, the people I most respect and admire, don't have self-consciousness in that way. It's one of the things that defines a great artist."

Stephen Fry's comments have been edited for length and clarity.

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