Dexter Fletcher began acting at six years old and in 1976, aged just nine, he starred as Baby Face in ‘Bugsy Malone’, beginning a relationship with the big screen that has endured throughout his life.
Acting roles in movies including Derek Jarmon’s ‘Caravaggio’, David Lynch’s ‘The Elephant Man’ and ‘The Bounty’, alongside Anthony Hopkins and Laurence Olivier, granted him the opportunity to learn his craft from some of cinema’s greatest talents, all this while still in his teens.
He became a mainstay of British television and film for the decades that followed — earning unofficial national treasure status — as he amassed one of the busiest acting resumés in the business.
And now, almost five decades into his illustrious career, he has established himself once again, this time as one of the most sought-after filmmakers in the world. In 2011, he directed his first feature, the crime comedy ‘Wild Bill’, and since then has helmed the feel good musical ‘Sunshine on Leith’, ski-jumping flick ‘Eddie the Eagle’, and Elton John’s life story ‘Rocketman’ — as well as stepping in as director for the final weeks of filming Queen’s biopic ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’. The second act of his career is proving as exciting as the first.
Here, Dexter answers the 20 questions that get to the heart of who we are, as latest subject of our ‘Who the F*** Are You?’ profile. He tells us how his time as a child actor, and subsequent life in the business, has shaped his life and work, including his thoughts on directing youngsters today. And he discusses the influence of the other long-standing love of his life, his wife opera director Dalia Ibelhauptaitė, on achieving his very best work.
Who the f*** are you?
I’m Dexter. I’m a film director for the last 10 years, after being an actor for 40 years. I’m a husband. I’m a bloke who lives in London, has done all of his life, who loves to travel with his wife [Dalia Ibelhauptaitė], who’s from Lithuania originally. I’m someone who’s trying to keep pushing my boundaries and challenge myself as much as life allows me to.
Yeah, I’m Dexter. I’ve been around forever. A lot of people know me, some people don’t. When people recognize me, I usually lie and say they went to school with me, and they don’t remember. Because I just have one of those faces now, after 50-plus years of being around in people’s consciousness. Not that I’m famous or anything, but there’s mild recognition. When you hang around long enough, that’s what happens.
How are you feeling right now?
I’m feeling good in myself. I’ve got, generally, a positive demeanor. I’m slightly frustrated because I’ve been working on a project for a long time, and I’m trying to get that going. And that has hit a lot of stops and starts and bumps in the road, which is naturally part of the process.
Where did you grow up and what was it like?
I grew up in a place called Bounds Green, in London, and Hoxton on the weekends, where I’d go and stay with my grandmother, who is still alive, down there, at 97. It was pretty good growing up. I had two older brothers and my mum and dad worked hard as teachers. They weren’t home very often when we’d get home from school, but that was how it was.
It was good, but then I started acting as a child and that, I think, slightly spun out the world of normalcy. I was still a kid and I started getting lots of work and I had all of these adult responsibilities. Because, even as a child actor, you have the same responsibilities as an adult actor. You’re just nine years old, but you still have to learn your lines and turn up.
I didn’t earn millions, but I earned good money. And that affects family dynamics, when you’re suddenly earning more than your parents. It is an unusual position for a child to be in. And then comes success, which changes family interactions once more. Being the youngest of three brothers is a very competitive environment anyway. That’s the way it’s designed by nature I think. So, these two big things — money and success — skewed the natural order. But on the whole it was good.
If I think about my childhood, I think I was a bit lonely but, at the same time, I had a very exciting time. It still plays into what I do now, and how I am at work. Because I think that’s when I understand who I am best in the world, when I’m at work, because that’s what I grew up doing since the age of six.
All [actors] need a little bit of coaxing one way or another. But with the kids it is tricky because there’s a lot of natural ability, that’s what it all comes down to, and as soon as you start trying to make them think about it, it derails it. So it’s a really precarious thing. And I worry about them sometimes, and I might see a very stagey parent and that really gets my hackles up, but it’s not my business, so I’ll go and bite my thumb. Of course, people do what they think is right for their kids. I’m sure it’s the same with anything if you have a kid, and you put them in something and they excel at it. That thing takes over, and that’s hard for me to witness sometimes, but I get it.
What excites you?
Getting down to work, or sitting down and pushing the boundaries of what I think a script can be, and an idea that I think could be really amazing. Collaborating with Dalia, my wife. She suffers all the insecurities that I throw out and then pushes me, and I find that stuff comes out that I maybe never give myself credit for. And someone helping to unlock something that you’d only let yourself see through insecurity, that’s exciting to me.
What scares you?
I don’t know… the things that [used to] scare me don’t scare me as much anymore. When I was young and acting, people not liking me used to scare me. But the more I direct, the more I find that if I’m concerned with those things, that stops me from being honest about who I am, what I think, and what I really want. You can’t be nice just for the sake of being liked. And I suppose that scares me. That I potentially could let myself down if I’m not honest about who I am and what I want to achieve. So I think that, if that makes sense – a lack of authenticity. When you direct, you can’t be likable or nice all the time. Sometimes you have to say things, even if they cause offense or are tough, “I don’t like that idea and it doesn’t work for me, and we’ve got to do better.”
As an actor you can afford to have emotions, the desire to be loved and adored, to have insecurities. But as a director, that doesn’t apply. You have to be authentic, decisive, honest and strong. Sometimes whatever the price or the consequences.
What is your proudest achievement?
Well, certainly, the film stuff is great. The first film I made, I’m very proud of, and ‘Rocket Man’, I suppose, is a huge, proud achievement.
I’m very proud of the person that I’m married to. That’s a very personal thing I suppose. It’s our anniversary this weekend, 24 years! We met 27 years ago. We were just discussing it. I’m very proud that I’ve got such an amazing woman as my wife. Everyday feels new. It feels the same but it all feels new. Which is great.
What is the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
I suppose it comes back to playing lead roles in movies when I was young and unequipped, that was hard.
I did a lot of Shakespeare, back in the day, when I was 18. I had never read any and I didn’t know any. That was hard. No one really spoke to me about what was going on. From a very early age everyone expected me to come on stage and deliver. I did not go to drama school, and I had no formal training. My university was a film set, I’ve learned from observing the greatest artists at work, but that was hard — do it yourself.
And one would assume me to say that directing films is hard, but it’s not! I seem to find something that really ignites me when I’m on set! But then when you are wrestling through those long nights of the soul and doubt, ‘Why the f*** do I do this and no one cares!’ It is hard because you’ve just got to get up the next morning and get on with it. You have to conquer yourself.
Who was your greatest mentor and what did they teach you?
[Director] Alan Parker was one of the first people, because of ‘Bugsy Malone’, and even just watching and seeing the films that he made. Although I never worked with him again as a director, and I was very young at the time and probably didn’t fully appreciate it like I would now. But even then he taught me a lot. There’s a line in the film that I look at the camera and say, “I’m a big movie star now.” And I’ve spoken about it before, but the truth of what happened there is that he just told me to say and do that in that moment, and I think that it unlocked for me that there’s an immediacy of what’s happening on the set that you can capture. That not everything has to be what’s written down. There is space in and around and on the sides of it, and you can be in that moment and inspired by it. He watched what I did and had this idea, and it broke the fourth wall. As a kid, you’re told never to look at a camera, “Don’t look at the camera! Don’t look at the camera! Don’t look at the camera!” It’s the terrible thing that kids do. So I think that’s why it stuck in my memory so much. Because it was the thing I’d had drilled into me never to do.
Similarly, when I worked with David Lynch when I was a kid, he did the same thing. He just grabbed a guy off the street that had a dog, that was old and arthritic, and stuck him in a costume and opened the shot with him walking up the street in Wapping. And it’s amazing and it’s in the film [The Elephant Man]. It’s just about being open and aware to what’s happening in the immediate and how you go, “Oh, that’s good!” And how you use that.
When you’ve been around a lot of great people, but you don’t always necessarily know at the time, especially when you’re very young like that, it’s acknowledging where you come from and what you have in your armory. Because it’s really easy to forget, especially if you’re getting lost in the nervousness or the lack of self-belief and you go, “No, hang on a minute. There’s something I can take stock of.” It’s good to take that stock because you carry that weight of those people with you and that’s a brilliant thing.
So, if you look at Parker’s films, they’re all different. ‘Fame’ is different from ‘Bugsy Malone’, is different from ‘Midnight Express’, which is different from ‘Angel Heart’, ‘The Road to Welville’, ‘The Commitments’. They’re all so different and I think that’s really exciting.
Who are your fictional and real-life heroes?
I don’t know who my fictional heroes are. That’s quite difficult. I quite like Bottom from ‘A Midsummer Night’s Dream’. Because he’s just so prepossessed with himself and everything is exciting and brilliant and worthy of performance. And I know it’s not a very serious, weighty answer, but I kind of love Bottom.
And [Alan] Rickman was a personal hero. I knew him, and not only what he did for me but what he did for all of those people around him who he just loved for whatever reason he loved them for. It was completely inconsistent why, but he was the most generous, kind, giving and supportive person you could meet. He was my best man.
What is your favorite item of clothing in your wardrobe?
I’ve got this 45RPM wool jacket. Blue wool jacket. And this bandana. I have lots of these bandanas. 45RPM is really good. There’s a shop in New York, there’s a shop in Paris, they’ve just opened one in London, but the main place is in Tokyo.
We love Dover Street Market as well. You’ll often find us in there rummaging around.
And Andrew Driftwood as well. He uses incredible fabrics. It’s actually a Japanese guy but he’s adopted this British name, Andrew Driftwood.
What music did you love at age 13 — and do you still love it now?
I remember hearing ‘Gangsters’ by The Specials when I was about 11. That was a seminal moment and I still love that now. At 13, I was getting into X-Ray Spex, with Poly Styrene as the lead singer. And then I was listening to a group called New York Citi Peech Boys. They’re a little bit obscure – funkadelic and stuff.
What is the most inspiring book you’ve ever read?
It is a tough one. I don’t know if I want to say ‘Any Human Heart’ by William Boyd. Reading ‘Any Human Heart’ from the perspective of an old man and running through that incredible life. That was always super-inspiring. That’s a beautiful book. The other one I love is ‘Crime and Punishment’. I didn’t read that until I was in my 30s. I didn’t really read anything until I met Dalia, and she was like, “You should read some books!” Because I’d never really done that and she gave me ‘One Hundred Years of Solitude’, ‘The Brothers Karamozov’ and ‘Crime and Punishment’ – things that I never would have picked up, otherwise.
What is a movie that left a lasting impression on you?
‘Black Cat, White Cat’ by Emir Kusturica is one I really love. That’s a good old film, a great film that’s so beautiful. He did another film called ‘Underground’ which is very beautiful as well. They go underground when the war starts, and they come up 34 years later and it’s the Serbian War and they think it’s the same war going on. ‘Time of Gypsies’ is another one of his films.
Also, I remember going to see ‘Terminator’ when I was 17. It was a matinee and I was moving into the digs at the theater in Newcastle which weren’t ready, so the theater said, “We got a deal with the local cinema, you can go see any matinee for free.” So I went there and I had no idea what it was, and I was the only one in there. It just blew my mind. It was amazing.
And ‘Aliens’. I’m not sure why.
But the film [question] is the most difficult one, because we absorb so many and they take us at different times. ‘Singing in the Rain’ is my great, go-to film. I watched that with my Dad. And ‘Abigail’s Party’, which is Mike Lee’s first film.
What is your favorite word or saying?
My favorite word is Dalia.
My favorite saying, one which I’ve developed on my own, is, “I know what I don’t know.” Which if you’re on set is a very good thing, because you’ve got to be so collaborative, and you’ve got to be able to let ideas in from other places. And I know that I don’t know about visual effects, tell me what you can do.
I don’t pretend that I know every lens. Tell me. I haven’t got time to pretend, and I haven’t got time to have to be the be-all and end-all of it. I want other people to thrive and deliver their poetry, their best, their brilliant thing. I know what I don’t know, and I sort of say it half in jest, but it empowers people and me in a way as well, because it means that I’m not like,
No, this is the way it’s going to be!” I have those moments as well, but I like people thriving.
What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?
“He owed me money.” No, no, that’s a joke. I don’t know. That’s a hard one, really difficult… “I wish he was still here…”
It is difficult because it’s such a self-centered thing to be contemplating in a way. Do you know what I mean?
All right, I’ll stick with, “He owes me money.” I want to owe a lot of people a lot of money. A ridiculous amount like $200 million. I want to go seriously in debt to some seriously wealthy people!
And finally, a quickfire five favorites…
I think a Mark II Jag. The old 35 Coup Mark II Jag.
Mike Tyson. He’s my favorite team.
Again, that’s a real mud stirrer, that is! Jeez. Okay, I’ve got it. A fish stew that I make. It’s a fish thing that I made out of the Palomar cookbook. It’s got cod cheeks in it and peppers and tomatoes and I do it with black rice. It’s just very simple.
Be Curly by Aveda. That’s about the only thing. I put Be Curly in my hair because as it gets whiter and grayer it gets straighter and I like a little bit of curl. So a little bit of Be Curly from Aveda goes in there.
Back to 45RPM and Andrew Driftwood, plus Yohji Yamamoto, and Commes des Garcons.
Grooming by Tyler Johnston