This is only interesting, well a bit interesting, because the poor man died last Thursday and for a few short days almost anything with the word Prince in it stands a chance of getting some traction. So forgive me if this feels a bit rushed. And opportunist. And exploitative. And attention-seeking. It’s all of those things because I’m cashing in. Obviously. If you want nothing more to do it with it, I can only applaud you. But for those of you who want to know more about the incredible untold story of my time with Prince, read on.
I met him six years ago. Downstairs in his house in Los Angeles. A woman I was hopelessly in love with said, ‘Tom, come and say hi.’ I stepped forward. Prince shook my hand and said, ‘Hello Tom.’
Before going any further, I should tell you that I also met Keith Richards once at the premiere of a pirate movie we were both in, and spookily he used exactly the same words: ‘Hello Tom.’ I’ll never forget it. I was too awestruck to reply. When I met Yoko Ono, it was quite different: I spoke for about 15 minutes while she didn’t say one word in return. Not one word. I’d been sat next to her at dinner because the person doing the placement was drunk. There was nowhere for her to turn. Except to her neighbour, which she did eventually, after I’d been reduced to, ‘That’s a really nice shirt you’re wearing, where did you get it?’ Admittedly my chat had become a bit stilted, because in my head a voice was screaming ‘Why won’t you talk to me you fucking snotty cow you think you’re so special when the only reason anyone’s even heard of you is because you broke up not only the greatest band the world has ever known but also one of the few things this country has had to be proud of since we defeated the Nazis.’
But you can’t say that sort of thing, so instead I went quiet.
The most satisfying conversation I have had with a music legend was with Lou Reed. I was once wasting an afternoon in a hot tub in New York when, bizarrely, he got into it. Flabbergasted but undaunted (I was younger then) I said, ‘Hello. Sorry, I know this is ridiculous, but you’re Lou Reed, aren’t you?’ Looking a bit panicky and trapped, he replied, ‘Err, yeah.’
To put him at his ease I deftly drew his attention to the only thing we had in common:
‘This hot tub, um, haha, it’s not really hot is it?’
‘Huh yeah. You’re right.’
There’s something so levelling about sitting pointlessly in lukewarm water of uncertain provenance. I felt very happy. Lou Reed was, for that moment at least, living the same bleakly disappointing life that I was. And I’d forced him to admit it.
Keen to preserve the feeling of shared humanity, I slithered away without saying another word.
I tell you now, with A-listers, if you can get their attention at all, quit while you’re ahead. They’ll only respect you for it.
‘Hello, Prince.’ I said. ‘Thank you for having me. I mean us.’
I could have just left it there but I went on.
‘Um…’ I said.
Then there was a slightly awkward pause, in which he did a sort of raised-eyebrow smile at me. Yes! The Legendary Enigmatic Smile of the Purple Prince. Everyone says he was enigmatic and I am thrilled to say that I too experienced him, in that moment, as enigmatic. He may also just have been a bit bored. I wasn’t on sparkling form, it’s true, but to be honest I was distracted: a) it was 1 a.m. and I was confused b) I had an incredibly painful crush on the woman standing next to him c) the motorbike that he sits on on the album cover of Purple Rain was just behind him in a sort of open sarcophagus. The actual motorbike, actually there, in the room with us. And weirdly it looked older than he did. It looked all 1980s whereas he, the man in front of me, looked completely contemporary. Youthful. Exceptionally fit. In his prime. In a flowing flared orange number. This was 2008. It was bizarre. Even more so now, given his sudden demise.
Correctly judging that my ‘Um…’ didn’t really have any follow-up, he skipped off, guitar in hand, and preceded to entertain about 20 of us in a room the size of a large suburban kitchen. He played for about an hour and half. With a full band. All female. I particularly remember the drummer. She was astoundingly gifted and about 14 years old. I say ‘entertain us’. He was really entertaining himself, and had only rustled up his audience that afternoon. An audience comprised of the sort of beautiful familiar-looking people that LA is full of. Many of whom are apparently available to turn up at short notice to fill other people’s mansions and their own sense of emptiness. I myself had spent that very day lying on my hotel bed studying the patterns in the ceiling, literally waiting for the phone to ring. At about 8 p.m. I received a text from the incredibly beautiful actress that I had the really painful crush on. ‘Wanna come to Prince’s house this evening? He wants to give a concert but doesn’t want to leave his house. We have to be there at midnight.’ Galvanised, I masturbated furiously, leapt into the shower and prepared to live fabulously.
Eventually I found myself alone with her in Prince’s basement cinema. The cinema was about the size of the Odeon Leicester Square and on the screen was film of Prince in concert, with the sound down. We sat in the front row lit by the enormity of his talent and went though her lines for an audition she had the next day.
‘That was great, you’re going to be great. I’m sure you’ll get it.’
‘Do you think so?’ she said.
‘Yes. Just one thing. Do they definitely need the American accent?’
‘Yes. Why?’ She looked crestfallen. I hated myself.
‘No, no reason, that’s good, it’s great. Er, shall we go and dance? It sounds like he’s started playing.’
We went and danced. Separately. Not three feet away from Prince and his band playing ‘Let’s Go Crazy’. I looked over at her several times but she kept turning her head away.
So I went outside and stood in Prince’s deserted garden and had a fag. There was a long thin pool with a sculpture of Prince’s Symbol standing firm at one end. I stood facing the symbol and tried to make sense of it all. I couldn’t really. But great moments are often served with a good dollop of melancholy.
Tom Hollander plays the Revd Adam Smallbone in Rev, Lance Corkoran in The Night Manager and the Prime Minister in Mission Impossible: Rogue Nation.