Sunday Times: ‘Most of all, it felt like an act of love’

Having beauty treatments when seriously ill might sound flippant — but for our writer and thousands of other women, their healing power is not to be underestimated

It was one thing, then another: a pain, then an ambulance, a drip, then an x-ray, a blood test, an MRI scan, and then finally an operation. All in all, I was in hospital for more than a month with an illness. When I came home, my body wasn’t my own.

Bruises sprinkled my arms, climbing in blue splodges from my hands into the crook of my elbows, the trace of IV drips fed in and blood tests roughly done. My stomach was bruised black from injections. Across it, covered by fabric dressings, were new red scars from recently stitched skin. But I was home, and I was alive! One of the first things I did was book a pedicure and wax.

It surprised even me. Usually, I’m so hopeless around beauty, I rarely wear make-up. I’m a fan of a blow-dry and never turn down a manicure, but day to day it’s a success if I even brush my hair before going out. But this time felt different; it felt important. It was about reclaiming my body somehow.

The therapist came to my house. She helped me into an armchair, carefully, because it hurt when I moved, and soaked my feet, clipped my nails, then painted them glittery pink. I joked afterwards that it must have been the effects of the morphine, but it felt euphoric. Even the rip of strip wax felt good. And after, when I looked down at my unhairy legs and sparkling toes, for the first time in weeks I felt like myself.

It’s so easy to write off beauty, and fashion, as frivolous; a cliché to deride them as shallow, done for other people, not yourself. But I think that underestimates the impact that feeling you look good has. It is fun to doll up, but also it lifts your self-esteem, puts you in control of your body and lets you feel loved.

After I left hospital, booking beauty treatments felt like reclaiming a body I had lost control of; a two-fingered salute to the scars that, at first, I was too upset about to even look at. It felt defiant: I’ll choose how I look. It felt — for want of a less overused word — empowering, to take back control, to refuse to be a patient any more and let doctors discuss my body. Most of all, it felt like an act of love. Looking nice was something I gave myself.

Other people used it to show how they cared, too. Rushed into hospital, I hadn’t even had time to pack anything, so friends bought nightdresses in for me. They reflected our relationships. Rob arrived at midnight, quick on a sartorial emergency, with a nightie from a posh friend who had bought it to have plastic surgery in. Helen came at a sensible hour with a long cotton nightdress that made me look like a Victorian child. Tanya brought a towelling dress, soft as a hug. Martin turned up with a black negligée, far too revealing to wear on the ward. When he got out a can of hairspray, he was tackled by a doctor, complaining: “There are people on ventilators!”

It reminded me how, as a teenager, I’d visited my mum in hospital. Afraid of seeing how ill she was, and depressed at how little I could do, at the last moment I packed nail varnish. On the ward, we sat in silence, everything too difficult to say, as I painted her nails — all I could do to show how much I cared.

Lucy Patterson, who runs Milk, a mobile beauty service, has seen the way people use beauty to show others they care and what a difference it makes. She tells me about one client: an elderly lady, always glamorous, who is dying of cancer and has a weekly manicure booked for her by her daughter. It makes her feel like the woman she always was. Another man books a regular nail appointment for his mother in a care home. She has dementia, but the colours of the varnishes bring back memories. Patterson recalls another woman, pregnant with twins when she broke both her ankles, who booked a pedicure while she was housebound to cheer herself up. There are other wonderful services like this: blow-dries done in hospital and wigs and extensions created for cancer patients.


Sunday Times: Imaan Hammam: taking the floor

It is difficult to articulate exactly what makes a great model, but somehow you feel Imaan Hammam has “it”. Perhaps in part, “it” is sheer energy. On the Style photoshoot, she is moving non-stop: bopping to Dizzee Rascal, swirling in the Savoy ballroom under flashlights — she did ballet as a kid and it shows. When the photographer pauses, she drops to the floor, lies down on her back and starts cycling her feet like a dynamo whirring down. Earlier, she had walked a catwalk show for Next (she’s the face of its new campaign), equally effervescent: bouncing down the runway, all springing curls, crooked grin. Naomi Campbell once complimented her walk; Hammam told the supermodel that she learnt it from her. “Naomi was, like, ‘Good!’” she chuckles. “That was pretty dope.”

Just 20, Imaan (pronounced “Ee-men”) has been modelling more or less since puberty. She was scouted at 14, spotted outside a train station in her native Amsterdam. She remembers a woman running over to her: “I was, like, ‘Oh, God, what’s wrong?’” It was an agent desperate to sign her. A week later, she was doing her first test shoot; 18 months after that, she walked her first show — Jean Paul Gaultier at Paris couture.

“In the beginning, my friends thought I was just having a good time,” she grins, “but I work hard every day. You have to be in shape, you know. You really have to be ‘on’.” Her big break came at 17 when she opened the Givenchy show as an exclusive, a distinction that launched the careers of Lara Stone and Joan Smalls. “I did fittings, hair and make-up, then on the day of the show, I went to another refit and Riccardo [Tisci, the creative director] was putting on the clothes and said, ‘You know you’re opening the show?’ I said, ‘What?’ He said, ‘You’re opening the show and you better f****** kill it.’ I was, like, ‘OK!’”

It was all the more surreal because Hammam was at school sitting exams the following week. Since then, she’s walked in 116 shows, including Victoria’s Secret in 2014. She says she trained every day, kickboxing, running, skipping, consuming “vegetables, smoothies and plenty of water” in the run-up to the show, which she watched obsessively growing up. Even now, the juxtaposition of watching television and starring on it shocks her. She is ambivalent about having started so young, travelling alone and becoming alienated from her teenage friends at home. But, she says, she enjoyed the independence. “You’re so young, you’re near puberty, trying to figure out what you’re like. For me, modelling really helped.”

Now she says she gets support from having a boyfriend in the industry, fellow model Naleye Junior. The pair were photographed together for Vogue by Mert & Marcus earlier this year; they live together in Williamsburg, New York, with their toy-poodle puppy, Jazzy.

Hammam was born on the edgy east side of Amsterdam, one of six siblings; her parents were immigrants, her mother from Morocco and her father from Egypt. “Our house was always full with family, my cousins, my sisters — there was always someone at home,” she says. She was studying fashion at high school when she was scouted, an interest inherited from her mother, who makes traditional Moroccan clothes. Her dream is to design a range of trainers. She owns 60 pairs. “When I studied fashion, I had to do presentations about stylists and the industry, so working with them now is just so sick,” she says, her Dutch accent softened by an American twang from years spent living in the States. “I was scared in the beginning: I’m going to meet Anna Wintour! What do I do? Do I kiss her? But she was so cool and really interested in knowing where I was from.”

At home in Amsterdam, Hammam was influenced by her parents’ cultures, cooking traditional food and speaking Arabic (she also speaks Dutch, English, Moroccan and Egyptian), though as she told Teen Vogue, “Sometimes people call me Middle Eastern, and I’m, like, ‘No, I’m black.’” As a child, she was teased for her naturally afro hair and, initially, it was always straightened by stylists. It wasn’t until a shoot with American Vogue in January 2014 that it was kept natural. Now stylists leave it big. “Something about that just feels really good,” she says, “like the real me.”

She has heard stories of racism in the fashion industry, but hasn’t experienced it personally. “I have friends who couldn’t get jobs or on magazine covers because they were black or Asian, but I’ve never been in that situation,” she says. In fact, last August, she and two other black models, Aya Jones and Lineisy Montero, featured on Teen Vogue’s cover under the strapline “The new faces of fashion”. “When I started to really work, diversity became more of a thing and it wasn’t all white girls,” Hammam says now. “Everybody is embracing different cultures now. Ten — or even five — years ago, it wasn’t like that.”



Sunday Times: No means no to sex consent classes, say students

Once, university was a place of dreaming spires, £1 shots and drunkenly hooking up on sticky dancefloors. But, as freshers flocked to their campuses last week, many found themselves, in between initiation rites such as buying their first toaster and throwing an illegal party in halls, more prosaically obliged to attend talks about sexual consent.

Oxford, LSE, Warwick, Cardiff, Leeds, Queen Mary University of London, Sussex and Bradford have all trailed “anti-lad-culture” schemes. Many Cambridge colleges are running compulsory consent workshops, and at Bristol teenagers rocking up to campus have found themselves having to sit through sexual-consent quizzes before they can move into halls.

The debate is littered with “A dress is not a yes” badges, “I love consent” T-shirts and a pervasive and simplistic analogy between sex and a cup of tea. (Someone might offer you a cup of tea, but at any point, even after they have boiled the kettle, you can change your mind about wanting it. You may not have vocally turned the tea down, but still no one can force you to drink it. Get it?)

One student who has just started at a university in London found herself having to sit for two hours through a discussion on consent, which was “a bit excessive”. On the other hand, she saw the point, as sexually “people can feel pressured do something they don’t want to do”.

But as concern over sexual behaviour has gone into overdrive, a backlash has begun. At York University last week students staged a walkout.

Aghast at the thought of a compulsory “gender-neutral discussion” led by student union women’s officers on “microaggression” and the “theory of consent”, one in four freshers left the hall before the session even started. “We don’t consent to consent talks!” shouted one.

Intrigued, I attempted to attend York’s next consent talk to see how patronising, or helpful, it was. But the talk scheduled on the university’s timetable for Friday was no more. Organisers said there had been “an administrative error”.

So I turned to Ben Froughi, 23, a third-year accounting student at York, who handed out flyers urging the boycott, and Mia Chaudhuri-Julyan and Lucy Robinson, the student union women’s officers who led the university’s controversial consent workshops.

Both sides agree that sexual violence on campus is a serious issue. As Froughi says: “It’s very important to do everything necessary to prevent incidents of rape, harassment, assault and abuse. I doubt consent talks have ever prevented an incident like that from occurring.”

But “if students really need lessons in how to say yes or no, then they should not be at university,” Froughi told me. “No student arrives at a university not knowing if forcing someone to have sex is acceptable or not.

“I think the talks are inherently patronising of both genders. There is no ‘correct’ way to negotiate getting someone into bed. Suggesting there is encourages women to interpret sexual experiences that have not been preceded by a lengthy, formal and sober contractual discussion as rape. Consent classes propagate a backward message that all women are potential victims and all men potential rapists.”

Last year a softly spoken 19-year-old Warwick student, George Lawlor, was labelled a rapist after he refused to attend an I Love Consent workshop.

For Froughi this is also a freedom of speech issue. He notes that what the National Union of Students terms “unwelcome behaviour of a sexual nature” includes actions such as “someone asking you questions about your sexuality when it was clearly irrelevant or none of their business” and “someone making comments with a sexual overtone that made you feel uncomfortable”. He worries that consent courses suggest “the right for a woman to feel comfortable must overtake the right to free speech”.


Sunday Times: The Interview: Justin Theroux, Mr Jennifer Aniston

Mr Jennifer Aniston doesn’t care if you call him that. One of the few men in Hollywood, or indeed the world, to be defined by his wife on a regular basis, he is part of an elite club that includes Mr Scarlett Johansson, Mr Natalie Portman, Mr Theresa May and the soon-to-be Mr Kylie Minogue. If some men might find playing second fiddle to a famous female partner uncomfortable, Justin Theroux merely laughs when I call him by his wife’s surname: “It doesn’t really get under my skin. It’s just one of those things that’s a shorthand for describing who I am.”

Aniston, he says, is “a proper badass. She has lived through a lot of bullshit. Many people would have crumbled under some of the stresses that have been put on her. I’m very proud of her for that, for the way she handles herself. So in a weird way it’s an honour to stand behind her. Truly, in that sense, she’s amazing.” Who wouldn’t want a husband who talks about them like that?

No wonder “Jennstin” are adored by fans. Or that in the wake of Braxit (Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie’s divorce) some responded to the news that Aniston’s ex-husband’s marriage had failed by posting pictures of Jennifer with Justin, looking smug. As some fans put it: “Jen won.”

Jennifer and Justin married last year, at their Bel Air mansion in a secret wedding that was lavish yet casual. The ceremony was kept so hush-hush that some guests turned up wearing flip-flops, having been invited to what they thought was Justin’s birthday barbecue. A-list guests included Courteney Cox, Ellen DeGeneres, Sandra Bullock and Tobey Maguire.

In a way, the ceremony signified the conclusion to the real-life drama that tabloids had made out of Aniston’s life. A saga that started more than a decade ago when her then-husband left their marriage after co-starring in the film Mr & Mrs Smith with Jolie. Later, Jolie revealed she and Pitt had fallen in love on set, which, Aniston told Vogue, was “uncool”. The subsequent craze for “Team Aniston” and “Team Jolie” T-shirts split the public into rival camps. It was no surprise that Team Aniston T-shirts sold fastest; there weren’t many who failed to identify with the agonies of “Poor Jen”, as she would henceforth be universally known.

In the decade that followed, Aniston was cast as some kind of unmarriable spinster as she ricocheted from John Mayer to Vince Vaughn in relationships that didn’t work out. Then Justin came along. Now they are married, speculation is mostly confined to whether Aniston is pregnant or simply had too many burgers for lunch. Since the Jolie-Pitt break-up, there has, inevitably, been a wave of speculation about the state of their own marriage, with the couple forced to deny rumours they are on the verge of splitting after a US gossip magazine claimed Jen had caught Justin fooling around with an ex. He says sardonically: “There are definitely times when I don’t like walking past the newsstand in the US.” Meanwhile, fan conjecture about Jen shows no sign of stopping — since “Braxit”, a rash of memes showing her laughing in delight has swept the internet.

Theroux says Aniston is sanguine about this kind of stuff. His wife, he explains, “understands that she is someone who has attracted, for whatever reason, a level of attention where she’s become this sort of fable, I guess, in some sort of bizarre morality play of what a woman should be”.

It is an unusually thoughtful response to being in the eye of a tabloid storm and revealing of Theroux’s real talent — as a writer. He co-writes with the brilliant comic actor Ben Stiller; together they did the 2008 movie Tropic Thunder, coming up with the film’s infamous “never go full retard” scene. I watched it again before we spoke and was reminded what an acute and hilarious takedown of Hollywood egos it is. It was on that set that Stiller introduced him to Aniston, although they wouldn’t start dating for another three years. She has said that she found him “very sweet”, “but I remember thinking he was very dark. At first you think he could be like a serial killer, but he is actually the nicest person in the world.” For the record, I don’t get the “serial killer” vibe off him today at all — but then I don’t live in sunny LA, where the expectation of how friendly you have to be is absurd.

In red-carpet pictures, Justin had always struck me as looking somewhat waxworky. Today, with messy hair and grinning playfully, he is relaxed and looks cheeky and boyish. Especially when he laughs, which he does a lot. He is cool in a very New York way: a cultured edginess. A former skateboarder who stays fit by biking around the city, he collects old medical equipment, keeping a dish full of teeth in his office. His usual leather jacket isn’t just for effect: he owns a Ducati and a BMW Roadster and once belonged to a motorbike gang called Die Fast.

After Tropic Thunder, he hit his stride as a screenwriter: writing Iron Man 2 (2010), co-writing Rock of Ages (2012) and teaming up with Stiller again for Zoolander 2 (2016), in which they triumphantly murdered Justin Bieber in the first scene and then persuaded the likes of Sting, Valentino and Alexander Wang to make cameos poking fun at themselves.

Theroux sums up his writing method with Stiller as “we get together and we crack jokes”. He’s too self-deprecating to dwell on the fact that his success has been hard-won. Dyslexic with ADHD, he struggled academically, moving school several times. Eventually he graduated in drama and visual arts from Vermont’s Bennington College. Then he moved to New York, becoming a struggling artist. He painted murals in trendy Manhattan clubs (the Palladium, the Limelight). He still posts animé-style sketches on Instagram.

He says he pinches himself at how things have worked out. “A couple of days ago on set, where I was covered in blood and holding a gun, I turned to the director and said, ‘If someone could have told me at 13 that this is what I’d be doing, I would have just got down on my knees and thanked them.’ It never doesn’t dawn on me that I’m having a blast.”

He ignores fame, mostly. He prefers not to read his own press, especially the online comments. “You start to feel like the crazy person they’re portraying you as if you follow that shit. When it first started happening I’d sort of casually pay attention to it, and then I’d realise I was eating poison. Now I just avert my gaze.” Still, he is “constantly surprised” by strangers “congratulating you on the birth of a child. It’s really insane.”

As an actor, Justin’s charms are subtler. His varied career is mainly defined by character roles. He won critical praise playing a director in Mulholland Drive, David Lynch’s neo-noir masterpiece, and starred with Aniston in the comedy Wanderlust in 2012 — they began dating after filming it in 2011 — but he’s only recently started to land serious lead roles. For the past two years he’s played the police chief Kevin Garvey, carrying HBO’s eerie drama The Leftovers. But it is because of his role in the hot thriller of the autumn, The Girl on the Train, that we’re talking today.

The film is an adaptation of the British writer Paula Hawkins’s hit novel, which spent 13 weeks at No 1 on the New York Times bestseller list, and is set to be this year’s Gone Girl. It’s a thriller that uses psychological manipulation and messed-up timescales to keep audiences gripped. Shot from three characters’ perspectives, it draws you into a dark triptych where you’re never sure who to believe. The main story follows the descent of Rachel (Emily Blunt) into alcoholism and her obsession with the new life of her ex-husband (Theroux). An unnervingly real portrayal of alcohol dependence, it also explores the stories we project about other people’s “perfect” lives. Although the book was set in London, the film moves it to upstate New York; the gloss of Westchester works well in unpicking the white-picket-fence American dream.


Sunday Times: Mr & Mrs Split

Why should we care that Brad Pitt and Angelina Jolie are divorcing? Because if a couple with global fame, talent, beauty and £300m can’t make it last, who can?

When did love die? According to Vogue, it was five days ago, with news that Hollywood’s golden couple, Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt, have filed for divorce. Brangelina — perhaps the world’s clunkiest portmanteau — is no more. Fans flooded Twitter in a deep state of mourning. “Today has been cancelled,” one sorrowfully wrote.

After 12 years as half of Hollywood’s hottest pairing, and just two years after tying the knot, Jolie, we learnt, had filed for divorce, citing “irreconcilable differences”. She is asking for custody of the six children, granting Pitt visitation rights, and is reportedly being comforted by Johnny Depp. For a couple once considered romantic idols, it didn’t sound good.

No wonder fans were in turmoil: at ­Madison Square Garden, Adele, the high priestess of heartbreak, led a “group Brangelina break-up therapy session” (as one tweeter described it). Pausing her concert to collect her thoughts, she de­clared: “It feels like the end of an era, so I’m ­dedicating this show to them.” While half the internet mourned #Brangelexit, others (#teamJen) wryly speculated about how Pitt’s former wife, Jennifer Aniston, might be responding.

We had plenty of questions. Did they split because, at 52, Brad is still a stoner? He has spoken before about his taste for weed. The gossip website TMZ claimed Jolie ended the marriage because she was “fed up” with Pitt’s habit as well as his drinking and how it affected their kids.

Was it because, despite looking incredible at 41, Jolie was jealous of either a nanny or the actress Selena Gomez, who looked smitten in a photograph with Pitt?

Did Brad cheat with Marion Cotillard, the leading lady from his new film, Allied, as one publication suggested? The rumour was strongly denied by Cotillard, who — in what could have been a plot twist from Bridget Jones’s Baby — revealed she was pregnant by her partner, Guillaume Canet.

Or was it the other way round? Was Pitt consumed with jealousy by the thought of Jolie snuggling up to the former foreign secretary William Hague’s shiny pate? Jolie met Hague through her work as a goodwill ambassador for the UN after being introduced by his former special adviser, Lady Arminka Helic.

Perhaps it’s even Helic that Pitt resents? Earning £300,000 a year heading Jolie’s charity, she has allegedly grown so close to the star that she was with her when news of the divorce broke.

While some obsessed over the details, others wondered why anyone would care that a couple they didn’t know were breaking up. As with the hashtags that trend on Twitter when celebrities die, some questioned the sincerity of the grief.

FOR many people, the Jolie-Pitt break-up matters because they invested in the couple from the start. From the moment the two met filming the action romcom Mr & Mrs Smith, it was a Burton-Taylor romance, ghostwritten by Jackie Collins, featuring sex, scandals, Hollywood and spurned wives.

Pitt later claimed it was his favourite film “because I fell in love”, while Jolie confessed that after they met on set she couldn’t “wait to get to work”. It was a revelation that Aniston suggested was pretty “uncool”, given that at the time she was still married to Pitt.

Just months after meeting and before Pitt and Aniston’s divorce was even finalised, Jolie and Pitt shot a now-infamous W magazine spread in which they posed as the perfect American family playing with blond children in a paddling pool on the lawn. A shocked Aniston later remarked that the shoot suggested her ex lacked “a sensitivity chip”.

For the next 12 years Pitt and Jolie appeared on red carpets together and cooed adoringly over each other in interviews. They created a wine together at Château Miraval, their south of France estate, and flogged it at £19 a bottle in M&S. When they married in 2014 they sold their wedding pictures jointly to People and Hello! for a reported $5m. (Although they also reportedly donated the money to charity.)

Having bought into this idyllic public love story for more than a decade, fans now want to know how it ends. And so they should. If Hollywood is going to sell us fairytale romances, it also has an obligation to tell us the truth when they flop.

For some people Brangelina’s break-up offers a prism through which to understand their own lives. The suggestion Pitt cheated, that Jolie got jealous of a woman her husband worked with, and the claim that Brad and Angie were seen fighting in Legoland are so pedestrian that they seem indicative of our ­desperation to believe celebrities are just like us.

This, however, is a couple worth £300m, facing unique pressures we’ll never know. One report suggests that Jolie filed for divorce after Pitt got into a row with their Cambodian son Maddox mid-air on their private jet. Not a situation many of us will face.

This is a couple with three biological and three adopted children, born on different continents, flying between multimillion-pound homes as they juggle filming schedules, charity work and Oscar wins. Not problems most couples I know have.

A family who jet their kids to Cambodia so they can hang out with their mum while she’s shooting a film; who visit war zones and refugee camps for fun. A family who some sources claim have six minders — one per child — and take a dozen nannies on holidays. And who, one former nanny claims, run their home like a hippie commune, with no rules and no formal schooling but a therapist for each child.

Jolie has enlisted a celebrity divorce lawyer, Laura Wasser, who charges $850 an hour, requires a $25,000 retainer and whose clients include Kim Kardashian and Johnny Depp. Meanwhile, some sources accuse Pitt of child and substance abuse.

As part of the PR war, two unnamed staff have already told The Sun that Pitt “is distraught, pacing, nervous — totally terrified . . . He is scared of losing his kids over something that he hasn’t done and him being made out to look like a bad father. He is far from a bad father”. Now Pitt is apparently holed up in the couple’s 5,228 sq ft Hollywood Hills compound while Jolie and the children stay in a Malibu rented home. This is not divorce on a scale any normal couple knows.


Sunday Times: Alexander Skarsgard: brains, brawn and biceps

The True Blood and Tarzan star has just turned 40. He tells us why he’s looking forward to marriage and babies. Any takers, ladies?

Alexander Skarsgard is gorgeous. This is the first thing everyone says when I tell them that I am going to interview the Swedish actor. Several follow up by sending me pictures of him topless: of his sweat-slicked six-pack lumbering through the jungle in The Legend of Tarzan; of his blood-spattered torso on the cover of Rolling Stone as the world’s hottest vampire in True Blood (even undead, Skarsgard looks good). I read interviews cooing over his blue eyes — “deep as a glacial fjord” — and “Viking physique”. Still, I insist, he’s not really my type.

Now he is in front of me, a hulking 6ft 4in of blond hair, tan and biceps, wearing a green shirt that makes him look like the hottest scoutmaster on earth. He smells so sweetly of expensive cologne that I gush out loud, “Who smells so amazing?” and he looks away sheepishly. When I catch sight of his chest, still chiselled as it was when he played Tarzan, I realise I was wrong — Alexander Skarsgard is absolutely gorgeous and incredibly hot.

I worry he will disapprove of all this perving. I read a quote from him, proclaiming rather haughtily: “I am an actor, not a sex symbol.” When I mention it, he laughs. “I never said that. If I said that, I’m too far gone.” Does he feel objectified? “No.” Rather like all incredibly good-looking people, he just wishes people wouldn’t go on about it. He doesn’t read reviews as they make him self-conscious. He feels the same about his looks. “I’ve seen actors that get a bit too vain,” he says, “a bit too worried they can’t play some roles. I would hate that to happen. When you read a script, you don’t want vanity in the mix. I would be doing myself a disservice if I got like, ‘Maybe I should go to the tanning salon, I don’t want to be too pale for this.’” I suspect he also has a case of ugly duckling syndrome: a geek who grew up to be a beauty, but still doesn’t know how hot he is.

Either way, he is certainly not obsessed with his image. He seems frustrated that actors, especially in superhero films, are now expected to do crazy chicken breast diets: “It didn’t used to be that way. Leading men didn’t have to be crazy fit,” he says. When he played Tarzan, the strict protein-only regime drove him mad. Usually he’s not one for diets or the gym grind. Today he’s happily munching a cheese sandwich and talking about wild swimming.

We meet in Stockholm, where Alexander Johan Hjalmar Skarsgard grew up. I half expected he’d speak Swenglish: harsh “Ja”s and ostentatious Vs. But he’s so fluent in English, he dreams in it. He sounds like he’s from the American South — a smooth drawl — but then, he’s lived in the US for 12 years, first in LA, now in New York. He hasn’t been seen with his supposed girlfriend, Alexa Chung, since the Tarzan premiere two months ago, and rumours from the front row at New York Fashion Week are that they have split. He doesn’t confirm or deny it, but they’re currently living what seem to be rather separate lives.

Skarsgard is back in Sweden on holiday, but after three weeks at home he’s already looking for a place to buy. Later we drive back to the flat where he grew up in Sodermalm, a working-class area that’s since been gentrified, and he talks about how much he misses it. His childhood was “very bohemian”. His home swung with actors, poets, writers. “We never locked the door, so people would just wander in. I would come home and there would be some artist in the kitchen drinking wine.” If looking back is wonderful, at the time he really just wanted to be normal. He remembers one friend’s dad had a briefcase, Saab and an office job: “I was like ‘F***, I want a dad like that.’” Instead, Skarsgard’s father, Stellan, was a “hippie” theatre actor, and now he’s Hollywood famous (see Mamma Mia!, Pirates of the Caribbean, Good Will Hunting). “It was very important to find my own path,” Skarsgard says. So he joined the army, serving for 18 months. He then studied political science, before eventually returning to acting. “I was shit at everything else.”

He may not sound very Swedish now, but he is. He says the longer he lives in the US, the more Swedish he feels. He has a dark northern European sensibility that contrasts with LA’s sunny style. “Swedes are a lot like Brits. You might only tell your mum you love her once in your life. In the States, the woman working in the grocery store will be, like, ‘I love you.’”

He likes “a certain modesty” Swedes have that Americans lack. He tells me that the owner of Ikea drives an old Volvo, while America has “a presidential candidate living in a gold tower with his name in gold letters, giving interviews from a golden throne”. He laughs: “It’s the making of a Monty Python sketch.”

It seems very Swedish that when I ask him if he’s a feminist, he is shocked. “If it’s about equality, then of course. We should all be,” he says. He thinks the Hollywood equal-pay debate is ridiculous. “It’s 2016. It’s absolutely crazy it’s taken so long.” And, of course, Sweden’s nude sauna culture is why he’s so comfortable getting his kit off. “It’s a less puritanical society, for sure.”

Perhaps it’s Skarsgard’s otherness that has helped him win such interesting roles in Hollywood. Having appeared as Ben Stiller’s Swedish male-model flatmate in Zoolander, careering down Broadway in a Jeep, singing Wham!; he then made the True Blood vampire Eric Northman oddly irresistible. He appeared in the thoughtful Melancholia, the no-budget Diary of a Teenage Girl and as the unusual hero Tarzan. In his latest film, the dark comedy War on Everyone, he plays detective Terry Monroe, a hard-drinking, nihilist, bent cop. “It’s fun to play a guy that’s so crazy,” he says. He just doesn’t give a f***.”

American actors might have been wary of a film some see as a critique of US law enforcement. Variety magazine suggested police unions might boycott it. Skarsgard knows it tackles important issues such as police brutality: “We have a police force in America that doesn’t really represent the community. You create a huge gap between your community and the police when they militarise and drive around in armoured Humvees. They don’t look like the people or communities they police.”

Skarsgard also thinks the film speaks to a wider distrust of government in the US. “Growing up in Sweden, you feel like the government really is for the people, by the people, of the people.People don’t feel that in America. They don’t trust politicians. That’s why Donald Trump is doing so well.” Yet ultimately, he points out, the film is a satire. “It’s more about making fun of people’s political correctness.”


Sunday Times: Clubbed to death

For one London nightclubber it was the exotic taps in the lavatory — there was a secret to making them work that instantly identified regulars. Another recalled asking a man for the time and his watch glowed the letters “NOW”. For yet another it was “dancin’ on a sofa upstairs”.

The closure last week of the Fabric nightclub in central London prompted a remarkable outpouring of nostalgia, grief and anger at the death of a dance music institution.

“R.I.P. Fabric”, read one note left outside the club near the Smithfield meat market in Farringdon. “You’ve gone to join the big club in the sky.”

Nearby, as if at a wake, kids sat crossed-legged beside candles, drinking beers. People in Fabric T-shirts wandered up to take photographs of the club that closed for ever on Tuesday after its licence was ­permanently revoked.

On social media, thousands of fans used the hashtag #fabricmoments to share memories of “cracking parties”, “the night that changed my life” and “the night the light tech made the room go purple”.

It was, for many, a shocking moment in the history of British nightlife, a crushing defeat for the forces of youth, happiness and dancing. Just as London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan, was celebrating his new night-time Tube service and launching his search for a “night tsar” to shape the ­capital’s future as a “24-hour city,” the club that had done more than any other to keep London’s thrill-seekers awake all night was forced to close its doors and turn off its pulsing laser lights.

In one sense there was nothing surprising about Fabric’s demise. The recent deaths of two teenagers who had taken drugs at the club presented London’s authorities with a health and safety challenge they could not afford to ignore.

Yet many of Fabric’s fans were convinced there was more to the club’s closure than drug use and security. What could have been dismissed as the routine demise of yet another drug-addled disco was instead provoking a passionate debate about cultural diversity, urban development and national identity.

“Fabric wasn’t just any old club, playing ’80s pop hits for a drunk post-pub crowd,” said Carl Loben, editor of DJ Magazine. “It was the No 1 most culturally important club for cutting-edge electronic music.”

Loben added: “The UK’s club scene is a vitally rich part of our cultural landscape. The UK’s music industry is worth billions in exports. Some UK clubs have been a Petri dish for the creation of new dance music scenes. Fabric was hugely influential in nurturing dubstep, drum & base, techno, grime and breakbeat.”

Fabric also helped establish popular DJs such as Groove Armada, Chase and Status, Skrillex and Annie Mac. These names may not mean much to anyone over 40, but they wield enormous influence over the musical tastes of a 21st-century nightclubbing generation.

Perhaps that is why the Albert Hall ­publicly championed Fabric on Twitter last week, writing: “From one London icon to another, we support you.” The English National Opera sent Fabric a letter of ­support. So did the Tate. “To a generation of people who listen to electronic music,” said Cameron Leslie, Fabric’s owner, “this venue holds that level of cultural importance.”

It certainly hasn’t been easy surviving as a cutting-edge dance club. In 2005, the UK had 3,144 clubs; by 2015 there were just 1,733. In the past eight years more than half of London’s nightclubs have closed, among them such dancehall delights as The End, Turnmills, Cable, Bagley’s and Plastic People. The Arches, one of Glasgow’s best-loved venues, where Daft Punk played their first UK show, went into administration in June last year. Meanwhile, three of Birmingham’s biggest clubs, Electric, Gatecrasher and Rainbow, shut last month after police demanded a review of their licences.

Some suggest millennial apathy is to blame for the UK’s dying club scene. With Netflix, UberEats and even Tinder providing fun on demand, there’s less need than ever to leave the house. The New York Post has cruelly claimed that Millennials are “the greatest generation — of couch potatoes.” Rising university fees have also taken a toll on dance club student nights, once a cut-price staple but now too much for many budgets.

A clean-living generation of young fogeys has also had an effect. Among 16 to 44-year-olds, frequent drinking has fallen by as much as two-thirds since 2005. Luke Johnson, chairman of Brighton Pier Group, which owns about 20 late-night bars, has noticed the change. “The typical 21-year-old is much more health conscious than even a decade ago”, he said.

Johnson believes smartphones and social media have also fundamentally changed how young people socialise. “Dating has changed — nightclubs used to be all about boy-meets-girl, but dating sites and social media have transformed the way people get together,” he said.

Yet plenty of people disagree. “The club scene isn’t dying because people aren’t wanting to go out,” said DJ Andy C, a drum & bass pioneer. He cited the “huge upsurge in dance music in the last 5-10 years” and increased attendance at festivals.

Dominic Madden, co-owner of Electric Brixton, argues that the statistics mis­represent the real position: old-fashioned nightclubs have suffered but electronic music venues thrive. “In London, especially in Brixton, I see a massive demand for edgy, exciting and musically diverse events. In cities like Bristol, Brighton, Manchester, too”.

Andy C believes gentrification is the real reason behind Fabric’s closure. “Drugs are used as an excuse to claw back valuable real estate and turn it into flats. Vital, inspirational clubs are being lost . . . [Clubs] don’t get turned into youth clubs or places for people in the community to go.”

The trend started in Manchester in 2002 when the superclub Hacienda was turned into luxury flats, the Hacienda Apartments. Since then, club after club has closed for property development. Bagley’s, Canvas and the Cross were all sacrificed to the regeneration of King’s Cross. The Astoria was demolished for London’s Crossrail development. Turnmills’ site has been developed into offices and flats. Meanwhile, extension works to Manchester’s Piccadilly station threatens The Star and Garter in Manchester, a music venue for 150 years.

“People move into areas near clubs and then complain about noise,” noted Loben of DJ Magazine. “This is what happened in Brixton and Hackney. Venues opened when those neighbourhoods were cultural wastelands have since come under more pressure by police and local authorities now those areas have gentrified.” The Ministry of Sound in London’s Elephant and Castle has faced noise complaints as that area has developed. Likewise, this year’s Notting Hill Carnival was beset by complaints from residents who arrived long after the carnival was established.

Loben believes it is unfair the way clubs have been blamed for drug-related incidents. Fabric regulars argued last week that security on its door was “really strict”. Drugs found on site were confiscated and handed to authorities. Suspected drug-dealers were interviewed in CCTV-monitored rooms and turned over to police.

Leslie, Fabric’s owner, claims the club had “the highest annual security bill and the highest ratio of security guards to ­patrons of any venue in the UK”.

Alan Miller, chairman of the Night Time Industries Association, said that if Fabric’s anti-drug measures could not satisfy a licensing committee, no club could. “On the basis of what they’ve done in Fabric, they can close every single bar, club and licensed premises in the UK,” he said.

Leslie compared the UK to New York, where a once-vibrant night-time eco­nomy and progressive club scene were “wiped out” by what he described as over-sterilisation. He pointed to Berlin, where huge all-night dance clubs thrive, recognised by authorities as cultural institutions. And he rubbished the idea that people in Britain no longer go out. Fabric was welcoming 250,000 people a year — 3,000 people a weekend night. More than 150,000 people signed the petition to save the club.