Stephen Fry: ‘The Conservatives are what we call in poker a busted flush’

<span>Stephen Fry.</span><span>Photograph: Dawn Bowery/Channel 4</span>
Stephen Fry.Photograph: Dawn Bowery/Channel 4

Stephen Fry, 66, is an actor, broadcaster, writer, presenter and director. As a teenager, he was expelled from school, went to prison for credit card fraud and failed his A-levels before retaking them, resulting in a scholarship to Cambridge University, where he joined the Footlights sketch troupe. He has since starred in more than 60 TV shows, at least 50 films and written 17 books. His latest film, Treasure, with Lena Dunham, is out now.

In Treasure, you play Edek, a Polish Holocaust survivor, reluctantly turning to his homeland with his journalist daughter (played by Dunham). It’s a long way from playing Jeeves and General Melchett in Blackadder.
It is! Casting directors, for all kinds of obvious reasons, think of me if they need a pompous lawyer or headmaster [laughs]. But just occasionally, roles come along that ask for something else, And to have someone like Lena to work with – I fell in love with her straight away.

Did you know her work?
Yes, because of Girls, which I think is such an amazing series to have created and performed in. We understood each other so instantly. She called me “daddy” a lot of the time, and although I’ve never been a father, I felt very protective of her. We also have shared ancestry, as we both had Jewish family that were lost at Auschwitz.

Almost every single institution I have belonged to has been all-male, and taken in women – my college, the MCC, the Garrick – and not one is regretting it

Did that influence the way you played your role?
My grandfather Martin, who moved to Britain in the late 1920s, was a character not unlike Edek. His parents, sisters, nieces, nephews, were Hungarian Jews, and as you probably know, in 1944, the sweeping out of Hungarian Jews was complete. You can’t imagine how someone would face life after that loss. Some hid away, got angry, had their view of humanity forever tainted, naturally, but others embraced life, like my grandfather, who gobbled up music and women and food. So I understood how, for Edek, going back home was a terrible thing.

In recent years, you’ve had small parts as a clinician in the Netflix anorexia drama Everything Now, an MP in Russell T Davies’s It’s a Sin and the voice of the headteacher on the intercom in teen gay romance Heartstopper. Are you actively seeking out these roles?
Amazingly, they are coming to me. I find it very hard to turn down small parts about big subjects because of their deliciousness. I like the thrill of being able to do different things all the time. In Treasure, I also had to sing, which was nerve-racking, but I sort of enjoyed it.

Why nerve-racking?
Because I’ve always wished to have the confidence to do it, and I can’t. If you can’t sing, you feel like a bird that’s stuck in the nest when all its siblings have fledged.

You’ve been vocal recently about sexism, racism and privilege – encouraging the Garrick Club’s admission of women and criticising the “public face” of the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) at the Hay festival (“stinking of privilege and ­classism). Do you mind your quotes being in the full glare of the media?
The MCC quote was rather misused and I didn’t mean to insult them. I love the MCC – it’s a great club, actually – but I was trying to talk about its image. One doesn’t want to bully people into feeling that they are uncaring, or that they deserve really tough words like “racist”, “misogynistic” and “homophobic”. The best way to change things is not alienate with an insult, but to include people who might disagree with you and show them, if possible, that things can be better and happier. I happen to be of that generation where almost every single institution I have belonged to has been all-male, and taken in women – my college at university, the MCC, the Garrick – and not one of them is regretting it. I mean, the Garrick is too soon to say, I suppose, but I’m confident that people will soon be rubbing their eyes, thinking: “What was that fuss about?”

You’ve become a fan of hip-hop in recent years through your husband, Elliott Spencer. What draws you to it?
One of the most interesting things about the best hip-hop is that language isn’t just being used in a poetic sense. It’s also about the fun of the teeth being hit by the back of the tongue – the sound and the glory of speaking. Language is like a musical instrument with so much range, depth and scope. It can be a rapier, a sabre, or it can be a soft feather to tickle people with. It has so many possibilities.

Any top hip-hop tips for 2024?
[laughs] I’m no expert! I’m very much looking forward to Eminem’s farewell to Slim Shady, though. You know, that character that looked as if he’d dipped his head in some Domestos.

What are your thoughts on AI and writing?
Any writing that is the equivalent of digging a canal in the 17th century – summations, precis of things, reports – will be done this way. We progressed from steam shovels to JCBs, and nobody would call for a second to abandon these machines that do these backbreaking, laborious, repetitive, meaningless jobs. What worries me is that it’s taken us hundreds of years, through the age of reason and the Enlightenment and modern times to come to grips with the fact that all human beings should be treated equally. That sense will be built into our AI frameworks. But China and Russia have completely different ethical frameworks, and the idea that these realms can be kept separate... well, it’s a bit like saying: “If I pee into the Channel, it’ll never get to the Pacific.” Yes, you can put up firewalls, a bit like waves and dams, but things always get through.

What are your thoughts on the election?
It won’t surprise anyone to know that I’ve never been a great supporter of the Conservatives. They’re what we call in poker a busted flush. I also like the fact that Keir Starmer is not this sparkling orator, this ruling charismatic figure. Maybe it’s time we had something slightly more ordinary and boring.

Pick one character you’ve played of whom you’re fondest.
It’s so impertinent to say that I connect with such a genius, but Oscar Wilde. There is much about him that is weak and foolish, as there is about me. People also wrongly think about him as some sort of a peacock, arch and camp, but he was warm, and he was kind. That’s a good thing to be.

Treasure is in UK and Irish cinemas now