How Hollywood enabled Russell Brand – by paying him millions to play himself

Kristen Bell and Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall
Kristen Bell and Russell Brand in Forgetting Sarah Marshall - Alamy

The role was originally meant to be for a young Hugh Grant type: bookish, well-spoken and dashing in loafers and tweed. When writing the screenplay for his 2008 comedy Forgetting Sarah Marshall, Jason Segel had wanted to put his luckless hero through the ultimate romantic humiliation – and having his girlfriend stolen by a debonair bestselling English author was the worst scenario he could come up with.

But who to play him? Segel, director Nicholas Stoller and producer Judd Apatow auditioned a number of new British arrivals in Hollywood for the part. (Charlie Hunnam, then 26 and on the brink of his breakthrough role in the biker gang series Sons of Anarchy, was an early favourite.) But then at a casting session, something strange happened. An applicant who didn’t remotely fit –he was a dishevelled Byronic type, who spoke in a thick regional accent – slunk into the room and took the three men aback.

“That was fantastic,” Stoller raved, the rest of the room applauding, after the 32-year-old improvised a monologue in which he tried to persuade a reluctant lover to join him on a horse-riding trip. Apatow contacted the auditionee’s agent to make the necessary arrangements, while Segel ran home to rewrite the screenplay around this performer overnight.

After the film’s release, Segel reflected in a radio interview on what had prompted this creative volte-face. “I couldn’t imagine anyone to be more jealous of or intimidated by if they were dating your new girlfriend,” he explained, “than Russell Brand.”

In the Dispatches, Times and Sunday Times investigation into Brand’s alleged serious sexual misconduct over a seven-year period, much was made of allegations of the complicity of his employers at the BBC and Channel 4, who were said to be all too happy at the height of his fame to turn a blind eye to his misdeeds. Both broadcasters are launching inquiries in order to find “if a blind eye was turned to” any complaints from Brand’s alleged victims. (Brand has denied the allegations in a video, describing them as a “co-ordinated attack” involving “some very serious allegations that I absolutely refute”.)

But Hollywood played every bit as crucial a role in cementing Brand’s star persona as a swashbuckling Lothario whose behaviour was beyond reproach – and notably, the abuse described in the investigation all reportedly took place during this Hollywood golden period.

By the mid-noughties, Brand’s enchanting rogue act had been cleverly tailored to multiple home market demographics. He was the host of Big Brother’s Big Mouth, compered his own anarchic MTV chat show, and wrote a weekly football column for the Guardian.

But aside from playing the Essex spiv Flash Harry in the 2007 St Trinian’s remake – the role originated by George Cole in the 1950s and 1960s films – landing prominent acting roles at home was going to be tricky. As his stand-up comedy and presenting had proven, Brand was only really capable of playing versions of himself. What’s more, those around him grew concerned that Brand’s behaviour with women was about to derail his career before it could achieve its fullest, most lucrative form. So after a stint in a sex addiction clinic under the strict instruction of his agent John Noel, off to Hollywood he went.

Brand’s success there aligned with the template set by other British comedians – extraordinary talents like Peter Sellers, Billy Connolly and Dudley Moore – who, a generation earlier, had also suddenly found themselves to be the film establishment’s flavour of the month. What’s more, he understood how to cash in on that cultural heritage.

Russell Brand and Jonah Hill launching Get Him To The Greek in London
Russell Brand and Jonah Hill launching Get Him To The Greek in London - Alamy

“Americans: what are their assumptions about people from the United Kingdom?” he pondered in a 2008 Guardian interview. “Probably they’re informed by Monty Python, rock ‘n’ roll and Victorian England. If you have those things about your character, they’ll go, all right, I know what this is.”

Unlike Sellers, however, he didn’t have the range for a Dr Strangelove or the sensitivity for a Being There. And unlike Moore, his established comic persona meant you wouldn’t trust him as a Bedazzled-style romantic failure, let alone as an elf in Santa’s workshop. (Though you could just about picture him as an Arthur, on which more in a moment.) As for Connolly: well, perish the thought of him in Mrs Brown. So instead, the studios ended up paying him millions to essentially play himself.

Who is this, for instance? “I was watching the news one day and I saw footage about, uh, war, and I think it was Darfur, or Zimbabwe, or Rwanda, or one of ‘em, and I thought, ‘this isn’t right, is it?’ And I made some phone calls and it turns out, it isn’t.”

Or this: “I would rather have my testicles spread out like a wafer and then have them covered in a layer of honey and then have wasps come and sting me and then have them covered in another layer of vinegar and then have it worn as a swimming cap by a Nazi – I’d rather have that than spend another second with her.”

They sound like passage from Brand’s own stand-up. But in fact both are Aldous Snow, his character from Forgetting Sarah Marshall and its 2010 semi-sequel, Get Him to the Greek. Snow was a rock star rather than a comic, but otherwise he was Brand through and through: a newly sober compulsive Casanova with an orotund speaking style and intellectual affectations (the name of his band, Infant Sorrow, came from Blake). In the second film, his pop star girlfriend Jackie Q, played by Rose Byrne, bore a more-than-passing resemblance to Katy Perry – who at the time of the film’s release, though not much longer, was Brand’s own spouse.

When Stoller wrote Get Him to the Greek, in which Aldous relapses, he used Brand’s 2007 memoir, My Booky Wook, as a reference manual – while in both films, he was allowed to rework his dialogue as he saw fit. “It was like being a spoiled, precocious and indulged child,” he told Australia’s Female magazine about the Forgetting Sarah Marshall shoot. “Everything I said was applauded and celebrated.”

Generously recompensed, too. In 2009, he bought himself a £2.2 million Los Angeles home in the hipster neighbourhood of Los Feliz, then two years later moved into a £4m Hollywood Hills estate with Perry. And his post-divorce bachelor pad, purchased the year after that, was a £1.8m modernist bunker just down the road.

Russell Brand as Aldous Snow in Get Him To The Greek
Russell Brand as Aldous Snow in Get Him To The Greek

A battery of animated vocal gigs helped to bolster his income at this time. He was, inexplicably, cast as an ancient mad scientist in three of the Minions films, a hippyish turncoat in Trolls, and as the voice of the Easter Bunny in the diabolical Hop. And there was a major supporting role in the juke-box musical Rock of Ages, too, in which he appeared opposite Tom Cruise But the film that was meant to transform him in the world’s eyes from louche comic foil to romantic leading man only ended up bringing his Hollywood glory years to an abrupt close.

That film was Arthur: Warner Bros’ ill-fated 2011 remake of their 1981 comedy which had turned “cuddly” Dudley Moore from a national to international treasure, and secured him a Best Actor nomination to boot. Brand’s much-trumpeted history of addiction made him sound like a credible pick to play a loveable playboy who learns the error of his drunken ways. But Brand had built his entire shtick on being incorrigible, and simply lacked the acting chops to play anything else.

Russell Brand with Helen Mirren in Arthur
Russell Brand with Helen Mirren in Arthur

This bloody-minded push to ‘make Brand happen’ was a classic case of Hollywood overreach: audiences and critics balked, and the project blew up in almost everyone’s faces. (Just one person escaped with their dignity intact, and that was the actress who played Brand’s love interest: step forward then-indie starlet, and now billion-dollar-grossing Barbie director, Greta Gerwig.)

In a typical pan, New York magazine’s David Edelstein flatly described Brand’s performance as “career-killing” – and so it proved, though its death throes went on until 2019, when he was cast as a suspect in Kenneth Branagh’s adaptation of Death on the Nile. By the time the film was actually released in 2022, Brand had made his latest career pivot to flailing YouTube conspiracist, and his presence – especially in such a muted role – looked flatly absurd.

Yet like his YouTube channel, Brand had always viewed Hollywood as a machine to launder and sanitise his public image. This new stage, he told US radio in an interview following the 2008 Sachsgate scandal, would give him “the reptilian opportunity to shed parts of [his] skin” that he no longer liked, adding that “this particularly quaint part of my English eccentricity” would now be the central plank of brand Brand. And the studios – while it paid them to do so – were only too happy to play along.