PLAYBOY: You’ve starred in several standup comedy specials, you hosted the 2008 MTV Music Video Awards, and you’re appearing in your second Judd Apatow-produced movie this summer. Why aren’t you a household name yet?
RUSSELL BRAND: I haven’t been here long enough. Aside from the bits you just mentioned, I’ve spent most of the last few years in England. I’ve actually been focusing on becoming a household name in Russia or China. Because that’s the future. I hope you enjoy this innocent era before your empire collapses. Honestly though, my ambitions have changed. A few years ago, I was much more resolute and fixated. I was all about, “The world needs to know my name!” But now, it’s enough just to be continually offered movies that I enjoy making. The rest of it is irrelevant. I’m not looking for fame or celebrity to make me feel better about myself.
PLAYBOY: In your memoir, My Booky Wook, which was just released in paperback, you describe a childhood and early adulthood filled with heroin addiction, bulimia and sex with prostitutes. At the time, were you thinking, “Oh man, this is going to make great fodder for comedy someday?”
RUSSELL BRAND: I sort of did, yeah. I had enough foresight at the time to think, “This is pretty horrible, but it’ll make for a good story.” That was the only thing that made it tolerable, to have a bemused detachment about it. I think finding the humor in your life is sometimes the only thing that makes it bearable. You can contend with that sense of sadness by opposing it, by overwhelming it with comedy. It’s a useful method for navigating through sadness and misery.
PLAYBOY: My Booky Wook is very candid about your difficult relationship with your father. He apparently bought you a prostitute during a trip to Hong Kong when you were just 16-years-old. Was that experience terrifying or exhilarating?
RUSSELL BRAND: It wasn’t as irresponsible as it sounds. It was just the consequence of a night of drinking. I was in no way coerced. It was actually one of the most exciting things that ever happened to me in my life. I can still recall everything about that night; the women in their high heels, clincking across the floor, and the smell of perfume and booze. Ever since, I’ve had a strange attraction to prostitutes. I just liked hanging out with them and talking to them. There’s a comfort to be found there, I suppose in a sort of Jean Genet, Henry Miller way. Prostitutes are some of the most fascinating women I’ve met in the world.
PLAYBOY: At least until recently, you had a tremendous appetite for groupie sex. What are the reasons you wouldn’t sleep with a fan?
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s just aesthetics. When I was at my most promiscuous, I was like a charging locomotive. A libidinous locomotive roaring through my own sexual industrial age. [Pause, smiling at his own cleverness.] I quite like that. [Grows more dramatic.] My furnace burned with the coal of their availability! [Laughs.] It’s the opposite of a irresistible force meeting an immovable object. It’s an irresistible force meeting an object. My selection process was outsourced. I had a team of experts who took care of finding women for me. They had very specific instructions. It was as if I was talking to a wine steward. “I’m looking for something French, a bit fruity, smells of oak.” [Laughs.] I’ve reached a point in my life where I understand empirically that this is not the answer. When you sleep with loads of women, it becomes a bit pointless and futile.
PLAYBOY: You went to rehab for a sex addiction. That sounds like the plot of a porn movie. Aren’t you just surrounded by nymphomaniacs?
RUSSELL BRAND: Not at all! The majority of people at sex rehab are just disgusting men. There aren’t hot blondes ripping off their clothes and saying, “I’m gorgeous and I just can’t get enough cock!” It’s not filled with women like Gianna Michaels and Carmella Bing and Jenna Jameson. They’re not porn actresses. It’s just sleazy men wanking off in dark corners. Let’s not shy away from it: They’re pedophiles! Pedophiles and perverts! I’m sorry if I burst your bubble and took some of the magic out of it. But you only had to think about it for ten seconds, I was there for a month.
PLAYBOY: You’re engaged to pop singer Katy Perry, of “I Kissed a Girl” fame, and you’ve talked about your relationship with her in your standup comedy. Does that mean she has free license to write songs about you?
RUSSELL BRAND: I don’t like to speculate on her creative process. That’s not my jurisdiction. God knows what she gets up to in that laboratory. But I think it’d be flattering to have a song written about me, as opposed to a chant. (Long pause.) I don’t know, it’s a difficult question. I suppose if I talk about her a lot, it’s going to be odd if I decide at some point to go, “Listen, I changed my mind, this is private.” I’ll make jokes about it, but the rest of the time, I try to keep my relationship with her close to the chest. It’s the first time in my life I’ve had something I’ve cared about this much and wanted to protect.
PLAYBOY: You’re starring in a new movie called Get Him to the Greek, where you play a rock star who’s also a drug addict and sex fiend. Aside from the rock star part, how is this character not based on you?
RUSSELL BRAND: Admittedly, we do have some similar characteristics. We have the same face and voice and body, for instance. And we were both drug addicts. And as you pointed out, we both enjoy sex a great deal. But Aldous (Snow, my character) is actually markedly different from me. While we were shooting the film, the director was constantly stopping me and saying, “No, no, no, not like that. Stop playing yourself.” I’m very verbose and fast, while Aldous is much more cool and laconic.
PLAYBOY: While making this movie, you got to perform as a musician in front of 20,000 people in London. At any point did you think, “I’m in the wrong business?”
RUSSELL BRAND: I’ve always wanted to be a rock star, if just because of the sexiness of it. But I’m far too self-conscious. I’m much happier being a comedian who’s sexy and a bit rock n’ roll rather than the most gauche, awkwardly embarrassing rock star in history. You can’t be a rock star if you’re too aware of how ridiculous it is. You can’t be ironic about it. When we did that concert, I felt legitimately sexy in that moment. It was only later that I thought, “What was I thinking, thrusting my hips in that way and snarling?”
PLAYBOY: You first portrayed Aldous Snow in the 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, where he was just a minor character. Are you ready for the pressures of being a leading man?
RUSSELL BRAND: Absolutely. To tell you the truth, once you’re in a film, you have to be on the set an awful lot regardless of how much you’re in the script. I’d much rather be acting than sitting around my trailer, thinking of new ways to masturbate. Of which I’ve got to thank your publication, by the way. My initial masturbation experiences were all about Playboy. Curiously, though, it was mostly because of the cartoons. I remember reading Playboy when I was just seven or eight, and being fascinated by the drawings of women in knickers with massive tits. It was almost like a gateway drug for me. Those cartoons lead me to discover actual pornography. It was like chocolate leading to heroin. [Long pause.] I’m sorry, what was the question again?
PLAYBOY: This is your second movie playing the same character. Would you mind if Aldous Snow becomes more famous than you?
RUSSELL BRAND: If that happens… [narrows his eyes with sinister menace] I’ll destroy him. [Laughs.] Honestly, no, I’d be fine with that. My ego is big enough to compete with an alter-ego. I actually like the idea. I can just pin all my bad behavior and poor decisions on him. “Oh goodness no, that was Aldous who was caught drunk-driving. I never would have agreed to be in those terrible commercials. That was entirely Aldous’s idea. He must value money more than integrity.” I can remain in the Van Gogh school of tortured genius, and he can deal solely with the commerce and the tabloids.
PLAYBOY: There’s a scene in Get Him to the Greek where Aldous admits that being famous is essentially lonely and empty. Do you feel the same way?
RUSSELL BRAND: Yeah, I do. And I wish more people would understand that. It’s certainly not meant that fame is all about sitting atop your mansion and feeling sorry for yourself. Because obviously loads of it are really good. But fame is in no way a solution for being a bit sad or lonely. It’s mostly unfulfilling, unless you’re very careful about yourself. The courage and determination it takes to become famous can be a detriment if not balanced with some kind of spirituality or self-awareness. I’ve been lucky to be surrounded by people who’ve known me for quite some time, and they are resolutely, pigheadedly, obstinately determined not to let me lose myself in the illusion of fame. (Long pause.) I’m thinking about firing those people.
PLAYBOY: Many Americans have preconceived notions about British people. We think of them as overly polite and dreadfully afraid of embarrassment. You’re not any of those things. Are you the exception that makes the rule, or are we wrong about the British?
RUSSELL BRAND: I don’t know that you can define a people by a land mass. I suppose there are characteristics that all British people have in common, but you could say the same of Americans. I’m surprised when (Forgetting Sarah Marshall co-star) Jason Segel talks about me and says, “Oh, he’s just this wild, free-spirited person and he doesn’t give a fuck what anybody thinks.” I do care what people think. I care that you think British people are all repressed, for a start. So I guess in that way, I have constructed a comedy personality that’s partly a reaction to the very stereotypes you’ve mentioned. But it’s not like I’m deliberately trying to address this stereotype, or that I feel like English people are being unfairly judged. I just desperately don’t want to be one of those people who are awkward, embarrassed, and slightly repressed.
PLAYBOY: For most of the last decade, you dressed like a cross between a Victorian jester and Willa Wonka with a leather fetish. But lately, your fashion sense has become more conservative. Why the change?
RUSSELL BRAND: When I was just getting started as a comic in England, having a very recognizable look gave me a head start. Wearing that sort of Superhero bondage outfit probably made me a little more memorable. It gave me an identity that’s clear and identifiable and recognizable and also not me. You know what I mean? Now granted, this is all highfalutin retrospective analysis, because I didn’t think about it at the time. I wasn’t so aware of iconography and imagery that I could construct such an idea. I’m no Walt Disney. But I feel like I’ve reached a point where I don’t have to wear those clothes anymore and I don’t have to be that character. Now I’m thinking about the next step. What kind of identity do I want tomorrow? Avatar blue, maybe?
PLAYBOY: You’re appearing in an upcoming film adaptation of Shakespeare’s The Tempest with Dame Helen Mirren. We’ve heard rumors that you gave her your dirty underwear as a gift. What the hell were you thinking?
RUSSELL BRAND: My first reaction to that question was, “What a ridiculous rumor! I’d never do such a thing!” But now that I think about it, yeah, I’m afraid it is true. What happened was, I’d been filming all day, and there was this bit with me and Alfred Molina being chased by dogs, which I didn’t enjoy at all. It was never clear if the dogs were properly trained. They were telling us things like, “Don’t look them in the eyes! Don’t flail your limbs!” So basically, we weren’t acting; we were literally trying to avoid being mauled by dogs. I’d been sweating all day, and after the shoot, I was in a hurry to get to the airport, and I thought, “I can’t wear these underpants during my plane journey. They’re far too moist.” So I took them off, and as I’m rushing to leave the set, I had my underpants in my hand. And that’s when Dame Helen stepped in front of me. She was like, “Russell, Russell. Leaving so soon?” We exchanged some pleasantries—”I’m going to miss you,” “it’s been wonderful working with you”—and all of a sudden I realized I was still holding my underpants, and Helen had noticed them as well. I thought, okay, I’ve got to address it now. So I said to her, “Oh, do you want these?” It just seemed like the best way of dealing with it. And she was like, “Yes, yes I do.” It was all very polite and English. Let’s just hope she didn’t inspect them too closely.
PLAYBOY: When you hosted the Video Music Awards a few years ago, you called President George Bush “that retarded cowboy fella”. Were you surprised by the backlash?
RUSSELL BRAND: When I said it, I thought, “Well, this is a statement that nobody can possibly have a problem with.” I thought it was a very populist thing to do. It was meant as a compliment. I wasn’t remarking on Bush’s mental retardation, but the fact that Americans are so forward-thinking that they wouldn’t object to putting a man with his limited intellectual capabilities into political office. At the time, Obama was just starting to run for office, and some people were like, “I don’t think this country is ready for a black president.” Obviously that wasn’t true. It’s quite a compliment that you let Bush run things for as long as you did. In my country, he wouldn’t have been trusted with a pair of scissors.
PLAYBOY: Didn’t you get death threats because of the joke?
RUSSELL BRAND: I did, yeah. I was surprised that my agency forwarded them along to me. It was like, “Look at all these death threats you’ve been getting!” I was also getting sexy letters, with messages like, “Hello, Russell. Here are photos of my tits. I wish you’d come around and fuck me.” But they never passed those along to me. Those letters they just burned. All I got were the death threats. I never took any of it seriously. If you think about it, a death threat is really futile, given the nature of mortality. If you want somebody to die, just wait.
PLAYBOY: You also made some jokes at the VMAs about the Jonas Brothers and their vow of pre-marital abstinence. Is it safe to assume you’re not a big proponent of virginity under any circumstances?
RUSSELL BRAND: I’m not morally opposed to the idea of sexual abstinence. It’s just not practical for me, because I’ve got to have sex. I do think legitimate abstinence can be a good thing. I abstain from drugs and alcohol, so I understand the impulse. It’s the public nature of it that I find interesting. Michel Foucault, the post-structuralist French philosopher, said that in Victorian society, the preeminence and celebration of chastity was in fact the mirror of hedonism. In other words, if you’re constantly drawing attention to your abstinence from sex, you’re also drawing attention to sex. With somebody like Mick Jagger, it’s all about sex, sex, sex. But with the Jonas Brothers, it’s no sex, no sex, no sex. You see what I mean? The emphasis is still on sex. Even if your position is contrary, you’re still making the brain think about sex.
PLAYBOY: You had a short-lived cult TV show in England called RE:Brand, which featured some pretty outrageous stunts, like when you took a bath with a homeless man with an ulcerating leg and jerked off an older gay man in a bathroom. When did it stop being funny and became a cry for help?
RUSSELL BRAND: That entire show was probably a cry for help. I was a junkie when that show was on the air. Within two, three months of it ending, I was in rehab. That was the last dice throw of a desperate man. It was less a cry for help than a mental breakdown on film. I was just trying to prove that I was outrageous, that I’d do anything for a laugh. Jackass was a very popular TV show at the time, and I was trying to do a psychological version of Jackass. I wanted to explore social structures and ideas of sexuality. When I watch it now, I still can’t believe half of what I was doing. I’m like, “Oh my god, what’s happening?” I think some of it is articulate and funny and there are some fascinating ideas there, but it’s hard not to recognize that I was just crazy and on heroin.
PLAYBOY: You were fired from MTV in the U.K. after coming to work the day after 9/11 dressed as Osama bin Laden. Did you forget that comedy is all about timing?
RUSSELL BRAND: [Laughs.] I suppose I did. But that’s kinda the reason I thought it’d be funny. I’d been aware of bin Laden for ages. So when 9/11 happened, it was like I knew about Radiohead for five years before they got big. I was like, “You’re only hearing about him now? He’s been around for ages!” But as you point out, there was probably a better time for that sort of cultural satire. It was decision made through the veil of crack and heroin. I still felt incredible sympathy for the people who died on 9/11. It’s always sad and awful when innocent people are murdered, that’s a given. We don’t need to spend much time debating that as a society. What’s more interesting to me is the way we attribute evil to a certain individual while not looking at our joint culpability for the circumstances that lead to something like that happening.
PLAYBOY: At what point did you realize, “Aw crap, I picked the worst day ever to wear an Osama bin Laden costume?”
RUSSELL BRAND: I always knew it was wrong. That’s kinda why I did it. I never thought, “Well, this is no big deal.” [Laughs.] MTV gave me a cab account, which was the best part of the job. I lived in a very Muslim part of east London at the time, so I wasn’t eager to walk outside as Osama bin Laden. When you’re dressed like a terrorist, you probably don’t want to take the subway to work.
PLAYBOY: You got fired from your BBC radio show last year, after making a prank call to Fawlty Towers actor Andrew Sachs and claiming you’d slept with his granddaughter. It resulted in the biggest fine in BBC history. Care to defend yourself?
RUSSELL BRAND: It’s quite interesting what happened on a social level. Over in London, I’m seen as sort of a representative of hedonistic values. Andrew Sachs, on the other hand, is a respected actor known primarily for being on a wonderful, brilliant sitcom that represented a more gentile time in comedy. So put those two things together and it becomes the perfect storm. It was amazing to be in the center of it, and strangely comforting. Every day, I’d turn on the telly and I was the top story again. [With a TV announcer voice.] “Russell Brand, in a wave of obscenity, has resigned from the BBC!” It was very surreal. It almost felt like I was watching an avatar version of myself. I did my resignation speech, and within moments it was on the telly. I’d just sit in my bed and watch everything I did get repeated back to me.
PLAYBOY: You once stuck a Barbie up your ass during a show in London, claiming that it was a protest against consumerism. Is it possible there’s a less personally invasive and painful way to protest consumerism?
RUSSELL BRAND: If there is, I haven’t found it. [Laughs.] If I remember correctly, I chose the Barbie doll because it represents the oppression of women, the stereotype of femininity, the commercialization of sexuality, blah blah blah. But what I learned from the experience, at least in hindsight, is that if you’re going to make a satirical point involving putting things in your rectum, be selective. Don’t take requests from the audience. I ultimately went with a Barbie doll because of the shape. It goes in easier, if you know what I mean.
PLAYBOY: You once told David Letterman that you weren’t initially welcome in this country because of “youthful folly, jubilance, and hyjink.” Could you be a little more specific?
RUSSELL BRAND: That’s basically a nice way of saying “drug convictions.” It was about drugs and illegally travelling on a visa waiver. When you’re an English person and you travel to America, you have to fill out a form that asks questions like, “Have you ever been convicted for drug offenses?” To which I answered no, when the correct answer was quite obviously yes. The next question was “Do you intend to overthrow the U.S. government?” And I put no even though the genuine answer was yes. And the next question was “Are you a member of the Nazi party?” And I said yes, even though the legitimate answer is no. They’re really stringent about those sort of things. If I’ve learned nothing else, it’s that an airport is no place for subversive comedy.
PLAYBOY: You’ve been arrested eleven times thus far in your life. When you reach double digits, does getting arrested lose some of its magic?
RUSSELL BRAND: It definitely does. It becomes routine and a little humdrum. You start unthinkingly raising your wrists to be cuffed. And you bow your head automatically as they put you into the back of a police car. Occasionally you’ll encounter an overly vicious police man who perhaps gets a bit rough with you, and that’s when it gets exciting again. It’s quite similar to promiscuity. You take pleasure in the small details; the shape of an ankle or a distinctive eyebrow. Everyone has something magical. Every police officer has something unique about them, some part of their arresting technique that makes it special.
PLAYBOY: You’re a three-time winner of PETA’s Sexiest Vegetarian of the Year. Please explain how being a vegetarian is in any way sexy.
RUSSELL BRAND: Being the world’s sexiest vegetarian is akin to being the world’s most lovable pedophile. In a way, it’s as much a condemnation as it is an endorsement. But I’m proud to be considered sexy, let alone the world’s sexiest in any category. If I was nominated to be the sexiest man on this sofa, I would happily accept that title.
PLAYBOY: You collaborated on a documentary with Oliver Stone, about the pursuit of enlightenment and happiness. What’s the secret to happiness?
RUSSELL BRAND: If you want to be happy, stop thinking about making yourself happy. If it has to be boiled down to a single sentence, that’s it. Stop thinking about your own happiness. Stop being so self-obsessed and consider other people. We’ve lost touch with the idea that we’re all components of one functioning consciousness. We’re all on the same planet, we all breath the same air. These are seen as trite New Age ideas, but they’re also ancient Pagan ideas that have been around for centuries. This ignorance towards an understanding of a shared consciousness is what’s making us so profoundly unhappy.
PLAYBOY: Wow, that’s deep stuff. Given how much you’ve obviously thought about this, are you happy?
RUSSELL BRAND: [Long pause.] Happy might not be the right word. I’m happier. [Laughs.] Every day gets a little closer.
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the June 2010 issue of Playboy magazine.)