It’s impossible to miss Russell Brand, even in a shadowy corner of the packed library lounge of the Greenwich Hotel. Not that he would want you to. The Captain Jack Sparrow look-alike is wearing black pointy fruit boots, more rings than a sultan, and an enormous, asymmetrical animal-skin coat that looks like something a caveman might carve off a mastodon. “Let’s make it a double!” Brand shouts at the waitress, flicking away tendrils of frizzy hair and batting mascara-splattered saucer eyes. “Let’s get wild! Doubles for both of us!”
You would be forgiven for assuming the doubles are Scotch or tequila. Brand has done little to soften the potent persona he unleashed doing British stand-up, followed by breakout supporting roles in the films Forgetting Sarah Marshall and Get Him to the Greek: a prancing, lascivious, drink-and-drugs-addled, motormouth monologuist. (Or, as he describes it, a “spiky, lacquered, Jack Frost sex sprite.”) And now he’s a movie star, voicing a randy rabbit in Hop, and playing film’s most beloved drunk in a remake of the 1981 romantic comedy Arthur (opening April 8). Thing is, Brand—who has just returned from visiting his pop-star wife, Katy Perry, on the German leg of her international tour—has been sober for eight years. The doubles are espresso.
He looks at a half-empty bottle of Pellegrino left on our table. “How about that bottle of water? Were you tempted to drink it?” He arches an eyebrow so high he could pitch a tent with it; it’s as if he’d suggested we snort the ground-up ashes of Mother Teresa. “Should we? Eh?”
Brand, you realize, is never not on. “You watch him do stand-up or in a film, and it’s like he’s reading words off a screen in his mind,” says his Arthur co-star Greta Gerwig. “He’s like that in real life, too. He can’t help it. It’s almost reflexive artistry.”
A few shocking revelations from Brand’s memoirs, 2007’s My Booky Wook and 2010’s Booky Wook 2: He was molested at age 7, and his mother had three bouts of cancer before he turned 21. When he was 16, his father took him to Bangkok and brought three prostitutes back to their hotel room: two girls for Pops, one for the kid. A self-described “bit of a chubby nitwit” from Essex, he worked his way through drama classes, bawdy radio shows, sleazy stand-up routines, and spectacularly risqué cable-TV specials. On his raw-nerved, short-lived TV show RE:Brand, he gave himself challenges like “Wank off a man in a toilet when you’re not gay” and followed through on them.
Brand has been fired multiple times, from radio and TV shows and a film, for doing too many drugs, for belligerence, for describing anal sex over the air on a Sunday afternoon, and, most famously, for calling up comic actor Andrew Sachs and leaving a message boasting that he’d buggered the 78-year-old man’s granddaughter. After he was dismissed from a TV show, a friend gave him a gift inscribed SORRY I TOLD YOUR BOSS THAT YOU’RE A HEROIN ADDICT.
Just as when Peter Parker was bitten by a radioactive spider, Brand says there was a blinding moment that changed everything. In 2006, after his breakthrough stint as commentator on Britain’s Big Brother, he slept with Kate Moss. Somehow that event emboldened him to develop “an organic construction sufficiently macabre to contend with the chemical warfare of modern fame.” In his memoir he wrote, “This monster bore my name [but] he did not resemble the delicate schoolboy that preceded him.”
Success swiftly followed. At first, Brand says, he thought fame had given him “a forum through which I could communicate spiritual truths to change the world!” Now he acknowledges that it can be “very, very difficult to overwhelm the preexisting narrative paradigm.” That paradigm being that he became known less for his improvisatory, lightning-fast comedy than for being a fop and a cad. “People say, ‘He’s a crack addict! He’s a bad boy who finally found love with pop sensation Katy Perry,’” says Brand. “Well, there’s more! I’ve been a vegetarian since I was 14, I was bulimic, I self-harmed as a teenager. I was an isolated, lonely boy.”
And yet he’s entirely aware that he is the creator of his own myth: “I am my own tabloid newspaper. I’ve recognized which bits are convenient, eliminated the others … No one wants to hear the sad man, crying into tinfoil, listening to the Verve. So I’d say, ‘Yeah, I was a junkie wild man always in trouble with the police,’ because I recognized, ‘Oh, that’s what they want.’ So now I suppose it’s ungracious and certainly disingenuous to go and take my ball back.”