Return to the big screen

Ann Hornaday

THE WASHINGTON POST – A funny thing happens when you interview Mick Jagger. He’ll be talking about all manner of subjects – the vagaries of art collecting, the similarities between live performance and screen acting, the ambiguities embedded in the latest film he’s in – and he could be any cultured, well-educated 76-year-old Brit who knows his way around the world. Then, he’ll say something – something brief, inconsequential, off-handed – that reminds you that the man on the other end of the line is Mick Freakin’ Jagger.

That moment occurred during a brief conversation last week, when Jagger phoned from Paris to talk about the role he plays in The Burnt Orange Heresy, a twisty little thriller – part Hitchcock, part Highsmith – set amid the art world at its most scheming and hyper-commodified. Jagger plays Joseph Cassidy, a collector living in palatial isolation on the shores of Lake Como, who invites a cynical art critic (Claes Bang) to visit for a weekend; Cassidy, it turns out, harbours a hidden agenda, which becomes all the more treacherous when it affects the young woman – played by Elizabeth Debicki – who comes along as the writer’s last-minute date.

The plot thickens when Donald Sutherland shows up as a famous, and famously reclusive, painter.

Like most of the dramatis personae in The Burnt Orange Heresy, Cassidy is prone to deception, dissembling and perhaps something even more dangerous; Jagger leans into his part with the relaxed, playful relish that suggests a man having the time of his life.

“One of my character’s roles is to kick off the action,” Jagger explains, noting that until he shows up, the audience might think they’re in for a steamy romance set against a fabulously romantic backdrop.

“I was very aware that I had to do that properly, to put the game in play,” he says. “Up to that point, you’re following these two people having an affair, you know, and you’re thinking ‘That’s kind of hot’. They’re kind of hot, and they’re having this wild affair in Europe, you know, and then what? You don’t know what they’re doing, really. They’re not doing anything. They just seem to be hanging out in Italy. And then (Cassidy) puts them into the narrative, which carries on for the rest of the film and makes her life rather difficult.”

This image released by Sony Pictures Classics shows Mick Jagger in a scene from the film, ‘The Burnt Orange Heresy’. PHOTOS: AP/THE WASHINGTON POST
Mick Jagger (C) stars alongside Claes Bang (L) and Elizabeth Debicki in The Burnt Orange Heresy
Mick Jagger plays an art collector who cunningly convinces an art journalist to use a rare interview with a reclusive artist as an opportunity to steal one of his paintings

It’s those kind-of-hots, uttered in Jagger’s distinctive, Cockney-adjacent cadence, that make one snap to and remember that, oh yeah, the actor on the line promoting his latest project also happens to be one of rock ‘n’ roll’s most enduring and iconic figures. And, in a way, it’s precisely because Jagger is such a legendary frontman that he was a natural choice for a part meant to, ahem, start it up.

The kind of projection and outsize physicality it takes to be a rock star might seem to be diametrically opposed to the kind of restraint and transparency that define a great screen performance. But Jagger sees more similarities than differences.

“If the part requires it, which they quite often do, you have to exude a certain amount of energy and life,” he explains.

“If you’re watching a movie and in the scene one of the actors seems a bit dead… the scene becomes a bit lifeless. So without overdoing it, you’ve got to be vital, so to speak, on the screen to make the scene keep the audience’s attention.”

It’s been almost 20 years since Jagger had a major role in a movie (“Ages,” he says).

Giuseppe Capotondi, who directed The Burnt Orange Heresy, says he hadn’t considered Jagger for the role of Cassidy until he got word that the musician was interested in doing a film.

Capotondi sent Jagger the script, “and obviously he must have liked it, because he said, ‘Come and meet me.’ We went to see him in his office and he said yes. It was very straightforward.”

For Jagger, The Burnt Orange Heresy is less a comeback than the result of a number of salutary forces aligning, including being offered a script to read in the first place.

“To be honest, there are so many actors out there who are very good, and they’re all hustling like crazy,” he explains.

“And I’m kind of really not, because I’ve got, like, other interests.” (Those interests include a band called the Rolling Stones; Jagger filmed The Burnt Orange Heresy a few months after wrapping up the European leg of the No Filter tour in 2018.)

He adds that even though he has only a small amount of screen time, “It wasn’t just a walk-on (where they) use your name. It was enough to be able to make a character out of, I thought. And to be able to create something.”

At first, the film was set in Florida during the 1970s; Capotondi and screenwriter Scott B Smith changed the time frame and the setting, which was all to the good, as far as Jagger was concerned.

He’ll consider anything that “piques my interest, especially if it’s not six months of my life that I have to spend in the Canadian Rockies in the winter or something.”

In the case of The Burnt Orange Heresy, he notes, his role entailed only four or five days’ shooting in mid-autumn at Lake Como, “a place where I’d actually never been, which was very beautiful, with very nice people. I thought it was quite a fun idea to do, and that if I could bring it off, I would”.

Frank Sinatra was famous for telling directors his first take was his best; he didn’t improve with repetition. Jagger, Capotondi insists, was the opposite. “He’s not ‘Mick Jagger’ when he’s on set,” the filmmaker said. “He’s very professional. He wants to do more and more and more. The poor guy, he had dialogues (that were) 10 pages long. It wasn’t the easiest part for any actor.”

Jagger even went so far as to suggest that Cassidy speak in a Chelsea accent from when it was scruffily bohemian rather than posh. “He’s an actor at the end of the day. He’s not just a singer trying his skills at acting,” Capotondi says, adding that Jagger reminded him of the great stars of Hollywood’s Golden Age, the ones “who sort of glided into a room rather than walked.”

The role of Cassidy is one of just a handful of movie roles Jagger has done since 1970, when he made his feature debut in the Australian outlaw drama Ned Kelly and Performance, in which he played a darker, more louche version of himself.

If there are comparisons to be made between the latter film and The Burnt Orange Heresy – both of which traffic in themes of art, fraudulence, reclusiveness and doppelgängers – Jagger is chary of seeing too tidy a fit.

“I suppose I’ve done so few films you’ve got very little to reference!” he says with a laugh. Although he has his share of forgettables on his résumé (RIP Freejack), his turn as a bespoke pimp in 2002’s The Man From Elysian Fields evinced sly Mephistophelean craftiness; the outtakes from his scuppered turn opposite Jason Robards in Werner Herzog’s Fitzcarraldo leave tantalising clues as to what might have been.

Jagger admits wishing he could have done more. “It’s hard to remember what it was like in the old days, because there was so much prejudice against people who were from, say, the rock world – people who did casting wouldn’t even consider that you could do that,” he recalled. “As far as Hollywood was concerned, it was a bit of a no-no.”

And of course, he had to battle a formidable competitor that has dogged him throughout his movie career, the character he spent years creating and refining that we now know as the Dionysian, alluringly androgynous, sexily strutting persona Mick Jagger. He concedes that his larger-than-life stage presence has sometimes proved an obstacle. “You have to overcome that and make people believe you’re not that character,” he says. “But that’s acting.”

Jagger is pleased that the character of Cassidy in The Burnt Orange Heresy doesn’t resemble off-screen Mick Jagger in the slightest (he doesn’t collect art, which is “rather disappointing,” he says. “I could have had a wonderful art collection for relatively little investment, back in the day”). In fact, he observes, the role of Cassidy was originally written for a woman. “I think it was going to be played by Judi Dench,” he says, and suddenly he’s sent into a fit of giggles at the mental image he just conjured. “Maybe she’ll get one of my parts,” Jagger says, still laughing. “Who knows? Who knows?”

Whatever the answer, you’ve got to admit: It’s kind of hot.