‘I’ve been Al Pacino’s son. I was Diana Dors son. I’ve been Kylie Minogue’s boyfriend. I’ve been the Pope’s boyfriend. I’ve been a woman. Yeah and I’ve played quite a few gangsters over the years.’
I’m sitting in a busy Soho sushi bar with Dexter Fletcher and people have been looking over: he was just imitating ‘Boy Bitten by a Lizard’ – one of several Caravaggio paintings Derek Jarman had him pose for in his film of the same name (and he proved to have perfect recollection of this 1986 National Gallery acquisition – the same year as Jarman’s film - the startled open mouth, the dainty fingers repulsed). We’re really here to talk about his latest film Stander, shortly out on DVD, where he plays the side-kick of a real-life cop turned bank robber in 1980’s South Africa. Like his character in Stander, or like the young Caravaggio for that matter (‘the pope’s boyfriend’ as he puts it), his life and career has been something a wild ride, full of vertiginous highs and real lows.
Raised in Muswell Hill, Dexter followed his aunt and two brothers into the Anna Scher acting school in Islington at a very early age. He was cast as Diana Dors son in the feature film version of Steptoe & Son (he remembers warm and bosomy cuddles) and at the age of nine found himself with Jodie Foster in Bugsy Malone (the female child star scooping up some his hair-clippings from an onset haircut and making a moustache of them on her upper lip). He’s the small boy who wanders round behind John Hurt’s poetically deformed character in David Lynch’s Elephant Man; at the age of 16 he was a member of the RSC during their first production at the Barbican.
A little later he played Al Pacino’s son in Revolution (‘because he’s a method actor he really did treat me like his son’). But by 1996 fifteen years of wild living and reckless partying caught up with him; he was declared bankrupt, lived for a while in his car, and through the help of friends like Alan Rickman kicked the cocaine habit that nearly finished him. Memorable comebacks don’t come much better than his knife-wielding chef character in Lock, Stock and Two Smoking Barrels. The gods of acting seem to treat him as a favoured son. He’s been on a roll ever since - Spielberg’s Band of Brothers amongst his recent credits.
He doesn’t seem to mind that he’s returned to gangster roles once more – indeed he tells me he is to direct his first feature this year, called The Bank Robber Diaries based on a book by Danny King. He was in The Long, Good Friday. He’s a gangster in a Kylie Minogue video where he also plays her boyfriend – toothpick in mouth, straight out of prison. ‘If you look at Stander it’s a gangster theme too,’ he says. Yes, I say, as Dexter orders more sashimi rolls. It must be the dream of every male actor to re-enact the shoot-out at the end of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, which is precisely what Dexter Fletcher does in Stander. Dexter smiles and nods. ‘Yeah, ever since I was a little boy’. His character Lee McCall, surrounded by the South African police in his big white mansion, decides to come out with all guns blazing. ‘It was actually me who suggested he just use the handguns, rather than anything bigger,’ he recalls. ‘You know they love their guns in South Africa’. There’s something oddly touching about his less-than-beefy character, clad in underpants, taking on a small army armed with machine guns. ‘He wanted to go out in a blaze of glory – he got the girl, the clothes, the lifestyle and he never wanted to go back to jail’.
Dexter tells me that the third member of the Stander gang, played by David O’Hara in the movie, moved to the UK in the 1980’s ‘and was the guy who invented robbing banks wearing a crash helmet’. This is a fact that seemed to escape Guy Ritchie when dreaming up Lock,Stock, a project in which Dexter was associated from a very early stage. ‘I got a call from my agent to go in for a table read in Wardour Street,’ he recalls. ‘ Matthew Vaughn was there and it was Matthew that called me the next day to come in again and read against all the people auditioning. I read every single part and everyone else was nervous – really I always wanted to play the Jason Flemyng role’ (Flemyng is a close friend and is producing Bank Robber Diaries). Matthew Vaughn was later to call him again for a role in Layer Cake.
Dexter Fletcher is unique on the London scene – a man who easily moves between leading man (or woman in the case of Raggedy Rawney) and reliable character actor - a natural and intuitive performer and a veteran of over thirty years in the business. He’s simultaneously modern and old-school – he wouldn’t have seemed out of place in an Ealing Comedy, yet is at the same time perfectly suited for the slick cinema of Lock, Stock and Layer Cake. He’s gone from Steptoe and Son to Doom – the cinema version of the computer game, out next year.
Yet we kept coming back to Caravaggio. His crumpled, youthful beauty was appreciated by Derek Jarman but really Jarman was the first director who perceived something unusual in his acting, something a little haunted, a properly urban sprite, rather than just casting him as a technically proficient child actor. Faintly appalled after seeing Sebastiane, Jarman’s gay love frolic from 1976 conducted in Latin, Dexter took his girlfriend to the meeting with Jarman. He left her outside in the rain of Charing Cross Road, expecting the talk to last ten minutes. Two hours later and he was still there. He still makes the effort to track down rare Caravaggios wherever he is in the world: ‘he had an interest in light and real people – and it’s great to see people with dirty feet, before that they were all so pristine weren’t they?’ That interest in people – and getting his feet dirty – is something you could say about Dexter Fletcher himself.