Interview: Kelsey Grammer

Longer stuff
June 9, 2016

Frasier has always struck me as a sitcom about American masculinity. The title character is a rich, cultured psychiatrist, the archetypal alpha-male for the final years of the 20th century. His brother Niles Crane is the feminine Yin to Frasier’s Yang, and their father, retired cop Martin Crane, is the ageing ideal of manhood past.

As I relate this theory to Kelsey Grammer in a suite in Claridge’s  he nods approvingly. He says the most interesting roles are “men who aren’t men yet, but who become men”.

In real life, Grammer is more like the elder Crane, a self-described “traditional male”, with equally traditional views. He’s one of Hollywood’s best-known Republicans, a rare spark of red in a blue sea of Democrats. He has staunch, if rather predictable, views on everything from raising children – “my little girl likes dresses and I’m not going to apologise for that” – to small democracy and the “right to self-determination”. He was recently photographed wearing a pro-gun, anti-abortion T-shirt with the evocative if not entirely coherent slogan: “Would it bother us more if they used guns?”

In a way, he’s living out his own, very literal version of the American dream; overcoming adversity (loss, addiction), working the land (in his case a brewery in New York State), trying to keep the pesky government at arm’s length.

Tall, broad and tanned, he shares little of the clownish persona that’s defined most of his on-screen roles. He’s candid – only ex-wives are off-limits – and charming, but gives the impression that if you were to press the wrong buttons, he’d take your arm off.

“The worst thing anyone can do is to force their opinion on me. Don’t tell me how to think,” he says with a vulpine smile.

I hazard if he were a couple of decades older, he might have ended up playing swaggering cowboys instead of a neurotic shrink.

“I’d have loved to have done westerns,” he says. “I can do gun tricks… I learned for a play I did years ago where I had to spin some six-shooters. Some people think John Wayne was a bad actor but there were a couple of movies he was just soooo goood in.”

I tell him I heard a rumour that he’s a member of a secretive cabal of Hollywood Republicans who lobbied to save Ted Cruz’s Republican nomination bid before Donald Trump sealed his victory (other members were said to include Tom Selleck and Clint Eastwood). “Lies”, says Grammer: he supported Ben Carson until he was knocked out but says he will happily vote for Trump.

 Would he go a step further and play Trump in the inevitable biopic?

“Probably not. But he does have extraordinary hair. And it’s all his.”

How does he know, has he touched it?

“No, I never have and I never will. I’m not really a hair kind of guy.”

Anyway, Grammer’s ambitions run rather higher than playing a would-be President – he wants to be President. “It’s up there, certainly,” he says when I ask if he’d run one day. “Every boy who grew up when I grew up was told that they could be president if they wanted to be… I always wanted to try to do the world some good in a selfless way and facilitate government of the people, for the people, by the people; I’m a bit of a broken record on that. I don’t think we have a representative government anymore, we’re governed by people who aren’t elected and I don’t care for it. So I’d like to change it.”

Does he have a time-frame? “Well, it’s going to have to be soon-ish,” he says – he’s now 61 – “but there are a few roles I still need to play first…”

Were Grammer to run for President, he’d face some tough questions about his past. A period of alcohol and drug abuse played out across the American tabloids; in 1990 he was sentenced to 30 days in jail for drink driving, and was later given probation for possession of cocaine. His high-profile divorce from third wife Camille, a former Playboy model turned reality TV star, is rumoured to have cost him $30m. And then there’s the sex tape…

He’s also endured an astonishing amount of pain and loss: both his father and sister were brutally murdered (in separate incidents, years apart), and his two half-brothers died in a scuba-diving accident.

Throughout his life he’s courted stress and adrenaline, whether through surfing, singing, acting, drink or drugs. “There’s a part of me that’s always wanted to live life strong, as hard and as deeply as you can, to understand all things. But habitual excess is a dangerous place to end up. It takes away your choice, and if you don’t have choice then you lose the ability to determine your future, and that’s already a limited thing…” he fades into a rueful laugh.

He says his cravings for excess are now satisfied by his family-life, which he describes as “full steam ahead with marriage and babies and children”, parts of life he “didn’t explore as much” when he was in his 20s. In language befitting Frasier himself, he says he draws strength from the darker times: “In each life a little rain must fall but the human experience is what we hold the mirror up to – if we haven’t lived, we don’t have a lot to call on.”

His on-screen presence has steered clear of the reckless and tragic tendencies of his personal life, something he puts down to his Christian faith. “I’ve always tried to [play] a clean, straight shootin’, not too X-rated kind of guy. I like telling stories that are about good people who make mistakes, or decent behaviour in a world filled with indecency. I don’t proclaim to be an arbiter of good taste or conduct, I’m not a saint, but I like to tell stories that are clean and good, that your kids can see.”

His latest film, Breaking the Bank, falls firmly into this category. It’s a morality tale in which he plays Charles Bunbury, the dozy, emasculated chairman of his wife’s investment bank. A sleazy trader, played by Matthew Horne, tricks him into a deal that loses millions and paves the way for a take-over by a big American firm. Bunbury ends up destitute and living on the streets, where he plots to reclaim the business and win back his wife. It paints a bleak picture of the banking industry, but Grammer’s view is more nuanced.

“We portray bankers now as being deliberately evil and unsympathetic, but most of them just thought they could do something they couldn’t – they thought ‘everything’s going well’ and then they were like: ‘Oh lord, look what’s happened’. We obviously need banking, although I might not be for a central bank…”

Grammer says his approach to acting is no-nonsense: turn up, read the lines. His co-stars on Frasier were said to be amazed at his ability to go from slouched and glazed to sharp and erudite at the mention of the word “action!” He gives short shrift to actors like Jared Leto, who attracted ridicule this year for sending his co-stars a dead pig as part of his preparation for his role as the Joker.

“We’ve always had these clowns,” he sighs. “I know this is sacrilegious, but Stanislavski was a clown. You don’t need to walk around in character for eight or nine hours a day not speaking to anyone – it’s just boring. When you put down a paintbrush, you’re still a painter. Pick it up. Put it down. Put it on, take it off. Enjoy your life.”

Grammer still has a few more acting ambitions: “I have a Lear in me. I wish I’d played Hamlet but it’s too damn late. I did Laertes a few times and I just kept thinking ‘I should be playing the other guy’.

He may have missed out on playing the Prince of Denmark, but he’s certainly suffered the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and you’d better believe he’d take arms against a sea of troubles. And perhaps he could still end up as King, or at least President.