“I enjoyed prison. I enjoyed living in the moment. I had my act down in jail. Friends in jail is ‘you don’t f**k with me and I don’t f**k with you’.
The notion that being banged up in prison could ever be perceived as a pleasurable experience is a staggering one. Particularly when it is a prison as grim as the one that Billy Hayes found himself trapped in following his brazen and ill-conceived attempt to fly out of Turkey with four pounds of hashish strapped under his armpits.
This wasn’t the comfy confinement of modern prisons where the privileged can enjoy gyms, TVs in their rooms and the freedom to protest if they feel their human rights are being violated.
This was a brutal place. Prisoners were kept cowed by actual beatings or the threat of them and a legal system so arbitrary that it saw Billy’s four year sentence suddenly changed to life only weeks before he was due to get out.
When a factionalised version of his experiences and eventual escape, written by Oliver Stone and directed by Alan Parker, was portrayed in the now infamous film Midnight Express, it so terrified the audiences that Turkey’s desirability as a tourist destination plummeted faster than Billy’s heart when security started frisking him at the airport.It may be nearly 40 years since he spent those five years in jail, but they have moulded the rest of Billy’s life.
They also led him onto a path to become an actor, director and writer, which in turn has led to our meeting today, in a living room in Hollywood (Birmingham). He is in the Midlands for a few days to shoot a small but meaningful part in The Truth, an independent movie being made by local producer/writer/director Tony Clarke – whose living room it is.
Although Tony is using mostly local talent in the film, he was introduced to Billy by a mutual friend in California. Billy and his wife were due to come to the UK for the premiere of Midnight Express The Ballet and Tony persuaded them to come up to Birmingham to take this pivotal role in his project, tweaking it so it could be played by an American.
“I read the script and loved it. It has so much heart. I said I’d love to get involved in this and next thing you know we’re here,” enthuses Billy. Now 66, he is a live wire of barely contained energy. The only thing that helps to keep him calm is yoga which he used to do every day when he was in prison.
“It kept me balanced. It still does. I’d be a basket case without it.”
It was this restlessness and thirst for new adventures that led to him throwing in his studies in order to travel. He embraced the pot smoking drug culture of the late 60s and 70s, recklessly concocting his plan to take some hashish back from Turkey to enjoy at home, his armour of youthful arrogance letting him believe he’d get away with it.
His incarceration was a lesson he felt he had to learn.“I needed prison to stop me. To force me to reassess to re-evaluate and to grow up, to take responsibility for what you do and deal with the consequences. So that was a good thing.”At first he thought of nothing but escaping – taking the Midnight Express.
However, after a friend who was going to help him was killed he “turned the escape switch off” and knuckled down to finishing his original sentence.“Escape was the driving thing but it doesn’t let you live in the moment.
Once I turned that switch off my perception of things changed and I discovered what was really important to me. It made all years of prison worth it to discover these little simple truths. I was rushing too fast.”
It was only when, with the end in sight, the sentence was suddenly changed to a 30 year life sentence that the switch flipped back on.“All these hard earned lessons about peace and learning to deal with things were sorely tested. I just knew one way or the other I was going to get out.”
He eventually rowed away from the island prison he was being kept on by boat, evading detection long enough to get to Greece.Back in America he found he was a celebrity as his case had been closely followed by the media.
Within days he had a book deal to write his story, which became Midnight Express. When he saw the film made of it he was stunned to discover some incidents had been significantly changed and it showed him killing a particularly sadistic guard before simply walking out of prison.(In fact that guard had been shot by another former prisoner some years before Billy escaped)
“I didn’t like that they had made me a killer, though strangely enough I did try to kill this one guy who had my friend arrested,” he admits. “I was trying to choke him to death and the guards came and broke it up.
“I said to Alan Parker ‘what happened to my row boat?’. He said ‘what 45 minutes of the film do you want to cut out to put your escape in? The audience have had enough, get them out of the theatre’.”
It was while promoting the film in Cannes that Billy met Wendy, his wife of 33 years.
“I tell her all the time ‘I had to go through all of that (prison) to get to you, dear’. She says ‘save that bullshit for your fans’. But it’s true.”
Once out Billy started dabbling with acting, however, the filmmakers wouldn’t entertain the idea that he might star in his own story, casting the late Brad Davis instead.“I sort of would have liked to think about it, but they never consider it,” muses Billy. “It would have been too much of a distraction. It was probably just as well because the box had not been opened. I was not ready to deal with the whole emotional swing.”
That box was the one where he kept all his feelings tightly locked down. Into which he had stuffed the trauma of those years.Acting classes eventually became his therapy as the lid was pried off the box so that he might tap into what lay there to feed his performances.
“The acting teacher made me realise all that stuff, that box I had a lid on was my gold as an actor. I would leave his class going ‘I am done with this bullshit. I don’t need this’. He would be screaming ‘You need this like you need the air’. I would have to pull over in my car because the tears were pouring down. The box was open and all this stuff was coming up.”
He now concentrates more on directing theatre and writing, though he still dabbles in acting.“I keep playing all these dark people. I want to send out love and light and have birds landing on my shoulder, maybe one day I’ll get to play that.”He also lectures in college.
“My life if nothing else is a cautionary tale. I say ‘If you are this stupid, look what could happen to you’. They get the message – ‘Know what you are doing and take responsibility because actions have consequences’.”**************Tony Clarke, the man behind The Truth, says he wrote the script when he was at his lowest ebb, left devastated after his wife Gail had died following a battle against cancer.
“My oldest son Ben sat me down and said ‘Dad, you write the best stuff you have ever written when you are on the floor. Go upstairs and write The Truth’,” says Tony, 60. The Truth is about a mysterious figure who is put into a mental hospital after he claims to be from space. While he is in there revelations start to unfold as the authorities try to discover if he is what he claims to be or something more earthbound and dangerous.“I got the idea probably as early as the mid-90s. I started to pitch the story in LA.
It was the year before K-Pax (starring Kevin Spacey) came out and someone said to me ‘here is a movie with a very similar premise’. I was really kind of choked up about it.” He is funding the film privately with stars pulled from round the Midlands including Yasmin Murphy, a former child actress who appeared in the movie Fragile alongside Calista Flockheart, Simon Marriott and Laurence Saunders, a popular villain from Doctors.
The three women who make up Black Country act the Fizzogs have also been given rare dramatic roles.It is currently being filmed around Earlswood Lakes and Wednesbury and Tony hopes to have it “in the can” by June with plans to take it to festivals. It is already attracting interest from distributors.“I wrote The Truth as something to help me get through the darkest period of my life,” he says.
“But I got such a fantastic response from people in the industry, it has taken on a life of its own.“I have written this script that everybody seems to love. It is their support of that which has made me feel worthy again.”