Jane Mulkerrins The Independent
LONDON: “I don’t even know how you can shock people these days,” muses 30-year-old James Jagger. “You can only really be subversive if there’s something to fight against. Back in the day, the status quo was so much more buttoned up. Now, people are celebrated for being ‘shocking’ as entertainment, and it’s not really as much fun.”
One wonders how much “fun” it really would have been for his father, Rolling Stones frontman Mick, to find himself very publicly arrested, more than once in the 1960s, for possession of marijuana, but what’s definitely true is that, in 2016, Jagger Jnr would have to try harder to shock. However, it seems he is making an effort to live up to the Jagger name, at least; while his latest acting role, in new TV drama Vinyl, might not get him locked up, it will get people talking.
A typically lavish HBO series about New York’s music scene in the early 1970s, produced by Jagger Snr and Martin Scorsese, Vinyl brings back to life a wild, debauched and decaying version of the city that is now long gone, with Jagger playing the snarling, nihilistic young lead singer of an early punk band, Nasty Bits. In the show’s opening episode – directed by Scorsese himself – he is asked what he cares about by Juno Temple’s young A&R assistant, with whom he’s just had sex. “Fucking. Fighting. Nothing,” he declares, with a sneer formed from an unmistakably Jagger mouth.
Even the actor himself has few kind words to say about his alter ego, Kip Stevens. “I did not ‘fall in love with the character,” he says, with a wry smile. “Some days, I’d have to hug Juno after shouting at her for nine hours, and ask her to forgive me,” he sighs. “I know it’s acting, but still, you’ve got to put so much of yourself into a performance that I can’t really distance myself from the character.”
When Jagger and I meet in Manhattan, ahead of Vinyl’s premiere, he could not be further away from the misanthropic musician he is portraying. Bounding into the room at HBO headquarters, with a boyish eagerness, he quickly treats me to his spookily accurate Scorsese impersonation. His strong physical likeness to his famous father is exacerbated today by a retro, mod-esque outfit, of dark blue trousers and a polo-style T-shirt.
While Jagger and Stevens may differ enormously in their demeanours, the character is not a huge departure for Jagger in one crucial respect: he has his own punk band, Turbogeist, which is “on hiatus” while he concentrates more fully on acting. “Being in a band and hanging out with your best buddies is fantastic. But being a ham is even more fun,” he quips.
But he has, he admits a little shyly, contributed original songs to Vinyl’s score. “This era was before punk rock actually really happened, so it was interesting to go back and research these proto-bands that were doing it, in New York and Detroit and Cleveland,” he enthuses. “It was like reverse-engineering the song for the time.” His father lent a hand with some of the writing. “I’d never sat at the piano with him, playing music – we didn’t really have that growing up, so it was really nice,” he smiles.
Moreover, old snake hips was an invaluable oracle about the era. “My idea of the 1970s was so twisted and like fairy tale-esque, it might as well have been Lord of the Rings,” laughs the actor. “He was a great resource for me to get a sense of where things were at, politically, socially, economically - how a city felt.” Though one presumes he already knew where things were at, debauchery-wise? “Growing up I certainly wasn’t informed of his … hijinks … throughout the Seventies,” Jagger smiles. “You don’t want to know those things about your parents when you’re a kid. But I can ask him about those things now.”
James grew up in the family home, Downe House, in Richmond, south-west London, with his father, mother Jerry Hall, and siblings Lizzie, 31, Georgia May, 24, and Gabriel, 18. He has a sprawling span of half-siblings too; Mick has two older daughters, Karis, 45, and Jade, 44, by model Marsha Hunt, and his first wife, Bianca, respectively, and a younger son, 16-year-old Lucas, by Brazilian model, Luciana Morad. In 1999, after Lucas – the result of an affair - was born, Mick moved out of the family home, and his marriage to Hall was annulled. And if being part of one extremely famous and complex dynasty were not enough, a few days before we meet, James’s mother, the Texan model Hall, has announced her engagement to media magnate Rupert Murdoch.
In the past, James has referred to his surname as more of a blessing than a curse. He squirms a little when I mention this. “I absolutely adore my dad and am incredibly proud of all his achievements, and I’m very proud to be his son,” he assures me. “But at times you wish you had more anonymity. The British press want a working-class hero, a boy-done-good; they don’t want someone from a family of entertainers to be successful – it doesn’t fit with their schism.”
Like several of his siblings, James is dyslexic, and was educated at Stowe, in part due to its reputation for helping children with the learning difficulty. A life in the arts was not always on the cards, he says. “Did I always want to be an actor? No. I wanted to be a marine biologist at one point,” he laughs. “Swimming with dolphins really appealed for a couple of years.”
Was his rather traditional education balanced out by bohemianism at home, I wonder? Hall has previously said that her children with Mick were put off drugs for life because “they spent their life looking at Keith Richards passed out on the couch”. “I wasn’t exposed to lots of junkies,” Jagger smiles. “And I don’t think anything was a cautionary tale – when you’re growing up and you see all that stuff, it’s exciting. So, it was actually more an attractive proposition.”
He pauses. “Having said that, I did meet quite a few people that, as a kid, I just thought: what’s wrong with them?” he frowns. “You can’t quite work it out. Now, I know, exactly.”
He eschewed university in favour of starting a band, and in his early twenties was part of a wealthy west London social group that included Sam Branson, Camilla Fayed and model Alice Dellal, whom he dated for a time. But he harboured ambitions to act, and at 21, enrolled at the renowned Lee Strasberg Theatre and Film Institute in New York. On return to London, he made his debut in two fringe plays at Islington’s King’s Head theatre pub, before being cast in films Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll and Mr Nice.
Vinyl is, by some stretch, his most high-profile project yet. He might have grown up around fame, but is he prepared for the attention he is about to receive in his own right? “No, [not] in the slightest,” he declares, merrily. “I’ve always really valued anonymity, I don’t like attention and I’m quite nervous. I went on the subway yesterday, and realised it might be the last time I do it without getting strange looks... I’m going to get a great selection of hats.”
He will, I’d wager, be the subject of many a lustful internet search once the show hits the air. But Jagger is spoken for, having married his British wife, Anoushka, quietly in September last year, on the top of a hill in the Catskills in upstate New York, accompanied by their dog.
As we ready ourselves to say goodbye, there is still an obvious question I’m dying to ask but I worry might be impertinent; however, from nowhere, Jagger provides an answer to it. “When people ask me if I prefer the Rolling Stones or the Beatles, then I will always say the Rolling Stones,” he declares. “But if someone asks if I prefer the Rolling Stones or The Kinks, I’d choose The Kinks.” Maybe it’s not yet quite impossible to shock after all.